At 42, William Golding was known to his students merely as “Scruff”, the schoolmaster who scribbled stories in exercise books during lessons. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, had been rejected by publishers and dismissed as “rubbish and dull”. Feelings of growing insecurity drew him into a battle with alcoholism, whilst at night he was tormented by vividly disturbing dreams. Humble and perhaps unlikely beginnings for a man who would later go on to win the 1983 Nobel Prize for Literature, and is now revered by critics and readers alike as one of the most influential British writers of the late 20th century.
This Saturday’s edition of BBC 2’s Arena will delve into Golding’s turbulent life, examining his writing process as he sought to expose the darkest depths of the human condition. Featuring exclusive interviews with Golding’s family, as well as the schoolboys he used to teach (the same youths who inspired Lord of the Flies), the documentary promises to offer a frank depiction of the novelist through times of both artistic success and personal despair. The filmmakers gained first-time access to Golding’s journals and letters, piecing them together with a rich archive of video footage to reveal the man behind the works. Here, Golding’s daughter Judy reads from her father’s dream diary:
It’s difficult to measure the influence of Golding – not only has his work been an important touchstone for bestselling novelists Stephen King and Ian McEwan, but the now infamous conceits of his most widely read works continue to permeate popular culture, from the strange tribal tensions in HBO’s Lost to U2’s track Shadows and Tall Trees. Many will remember Lord of the Flies from their schooldays, an experience shared with readers across the Atlantic – the novel recently overtook The Catcher in the Rye as the book most read by young people in the United States.
Golding’s biographer, John Carey, also contributes to Saturday’s programme. Writing last year for the New Statesman, Carey expresses the staying power of The Inheritors, the protagonist of which is a Neanderthal man: “Half a century later and however many times you have read it, it is still alarming, eye-opening, desolating, mind-invading and unique”.
In this vein, the filmmakers suggest that Golding’s unflinching take on the savage within is still just as relevant today as it was when he penned Lord of the Flies, a novel born from his reaction to the atrocities of the Holocaust. One only needs to recall the images of last summer’s angry young rioters and re-imagine Golding’s desert island boys, driven into alarmingly violent acts by a senseless rage. His novels are a lasting reminder that the lines between civility and savagery, it seems, are much closer than we like to believe. In the clip below, boys from Golding’s old school discuss his seminal novel:
“Arena: The Dreams of William Golding” airs on Saturday 17 March at 9:30pm on BBC 2.