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Bill Golding: A Personal Reminiscence

Peter Green is a writer and an historian who was friends with William (Bill) Golding for much of his life. Here, writing in 2003, he remembers the author.                          

By Peter Green

It is always his voice that I remember most clearly: light, elegant, beautifully modulated and audible—not for nothing had he done a lot of acting pre-war—and, above all, young. This remained true, and thus became more striking, even in his eighties. I visited him and Ann in Cornwall in 1993, just before his death, and if I shut my eyes— visually he seemed hell-bent on presenting himself as a cross between Blake‟s Ancient of Days and the famous self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci—I could imagine that we were back in Delphi in the mid-Sixties, arguing about mantic possession over a Greek taverna lunch, or earlier still, as members of the Book Society Committee, debating the merits of the latest fashionable novel. The voice was an index of the mind, and the mind was ageless.

In my end is my beginning: when I told him that he and Mary Queen of Scots had at least one thing in common, he grinned and said: ‘Let’s hope it’s the motto and not the exit line.’ People who only knew him from his novels often asked me what he was like to be around, their clear assumption being that he’d spend his time agonising about the Fall of Man or the problem of evil. When I told them he was excellent, and often uproarious, company, with a superbly stocked mind and a wicked sense of humour, they tended to look either incredulous or disappointed. This, to my amusement, was particularly true of literary critics, who, having early imbibed all the stuff about keeping the person separate from the persona, really should have known better. Besides, exactly the same was true of Graham Greene.

Literary London

When I first knew Bill, in the literary London of the Fifties, he reminded me a little, with his fair hair and beard and energetically stocky build, of that then very popular screen actor James Robertson Justice. Best known to the public for his portrait of Sir Lancelot Spratt, the monumentally egomaniac surgeon of Doctor in the House and its popular sequels, Robertson Justice also, surprisingly, held a doctorate from a German university and had trained the young Prince Charles in falconry. Bill in his own way was a similar mixture of improbably coexisting elements: science and deism, poetic vision and the heart of darkness, solitude and outgoing companionability. So much I didn’t know about him then, above all his dangerous and crucial experience as a naval officer, including command of a rocket-ship during the D-Day landings. But I had read Lord of the Flies; I was reviewing The Inheritors (perhaps not his best, but still my favourite, as it was his, among his novels): all the clues were there had I been more perceptive. Even so, what became clear to me, very early on, during our Book Society committee sessions and as the result of several lunches together, was that here was a man with – for whatever reason – a perilously volcanic temperament. The French scholar Jeanne Delbaere-Garant found the same thing. As she wrote in Fingering Netsukes (1995, 206-7), conversation with Bill ‘was, as it were, vertical, not horizontal’, with the effect of notional instability; you could, without warning, slip from the ordinary small change of life into a metaphysical abyss, where normal rules didn’t apply: ‘You never knew what to expect, as though, beneath the civilised surface and the incredibly kind, smiling eyes, there lurked powerful forces that he could barely control, a “fire down below” that threatened, at any moment, to cause an explosion.’ Precisely. Volcanic soil is rich and creative – the novels stand as ample proof of that – but when pressure builds up, watch out. In London Bill was on his best behaviour. On a Greek island the subterranean magma became restive.

Greece

How well, I wonder, would I ever have got to know this prickly, off-beat, infinitely rewarding character had I not decided, in the spring of 1963, to say goodbye to literary London, sell up, and move, with my family, to a small coastal village on Lesbos, from where we cheerfully invited the Goldings to come visit? Certainly not to the point where there was formed and developed one of the few great and enduring friendships of my life. There were walls of English reticence on both sides that perhaps only the relentless clarity of the Aegean, plus the suspension of those equally relentless British social pressures against which we both kept up a kind of odi et amo running battle, could have combined to bring down. Even so, both Bill and Ann were far more rooted in England than I ever was. When we tried to tempt them into the expatriate’s life, they firmly took themselves and their car back to Wiltshire (and, later, Cornwall). From there they sent us a Flanders & Swann LP as a Christmas present. This came with a note explaining that they hoped a number called ‘On the Slow Train’  – a wonderful threnody on the closing of endless small British branch line railway stations, a litany of romanticexotic names – might tempt us to forsake Greece and return to our roots. It didn’t.

But the long visits by Bill and Ann to Molyvos, ancient Methymna (where, as Bill duly reminded me, Arion’s singing head fetched up), and later, when the children’s education had forced our abandonment of island life, to Athens, allowed, indeed encouraged, the development of our relationship at an uninterrupted level, and intensity, that would have been inconceivable in England. The buzz of artistic creativity going on in the village didn’t hurt either. When they stayed with us in the summer of 1963, Ann was the only adult in the house not working on a novel (Bill was finishing The Spire), and Molyvos had an interesting small foreign colony of English, American, French and German painters, sculptors, and poets. We all worked mornings (the climate encouraged early rising), and lunched, like the Greeks, late. Bill very soon set up a kind of midday taverna colloquium, over beer and mezé (those delectable Greek tit-bits so much more interesting than mere vulgar hors d’oeuvres) that shaded imperceptibly into a regular meal as the sun shifted from the vertical overhead and moved comfortably towards siestatime. He had, obviously, been an inspired teacher in England, and here, with Socratic vigour, he got everyone wonderfully articulate and confrontational. Greek Fix beer (‘time for a Fix’, joked the beach-bums) didn’t hurt either.

All the resident aliens had nicknames bestowed on them by the villagers. Bill very soon became known as ‘King Fix’ and in ways he did exert an oddly regnal authority. The Greeks had his number: they loved him, admired his unique gifts, and were just a little scared of his wild prophetic demeanour. Ideas, too, were planted then that germinated years later. Jeanne Delbaere-Garant records how she wrote to him about her dismay inKensington Gardens when suddenly confronted by a boy with ‘one half of his face … completely ruined, distorted and black’, and long afterwards understood, after reading Darkness Visible, how this incident had triggered the idea for Matty. Similarly I remember one March when we visited Delphi in a snowstorm (which made the place look like an 18th century steel engraving) and Bill and I engaged in a riveting over-the-retina argument about the nature of the Python‟s utterances. It was only when I came to read that extraordinary posthumous novel The Double Tongue that I realised how deeply our discussion had lodged itself in his creative psyche.

Last meeting

Which brings me back, by way of closure, to our last meeting in the June of 1993. Bill was on cracking form: he drove me around Cornwall in his new Jag (including a visit to A.L. Rowse, sitting up in bed full of witty malice, and correcting the proofs of a tell-all in discretionary memoir about All Souls), and was full of bubbling enthusiasm for all the ploys he was engaged on. But when I asked him about the novel he was writing, he gave me an old-fashioned look and said: ‘You know the rule, Peter: never talk it away.’ The rule went back to Molyvos days, and we‟d seen too many hopeful writers talking it away for comfort. But if only I’d known it was Delphic possession that he was into; if only I’d known I would never have another chance to discuss it with him! He put me on my London train after our weekend, and five days later, in Athens, I saw his picture on the front page of Kathemerini. What, I wondered, had he been up to now? I read the Greek, and my first thought was: He can’t be dead, he drove me into Truro station last Monday. But it was also because he was so alive, so eternally young, and that had been as true on this last meeting as on any. In 1965 I dedicated my Sappho novel, The Laughter of Aphrodite, to him. It had a Greek epigraph, a couple of lines from a famous Hellenistic epigram, meaning ‘how often we’ve seen the sun down in our discussions.’ He liked this, but also remembered that the epigram was in fact an in memoriam piece for a deceased friend. ‘Just as long as you don’t think I’m dead,’ he wrote. And now he was. How did the epigram continue? ‘Your nightingale voice lives on, upon which death, ravisher of all though it is, will never lay its hand.’ So the poem was fulfilled in the end. That wonderful creative voice, as wise as it was witty, still lives on for me, comforting and inspiring by turns, with the accent and enthusiasm of eternal youth.

Copyright © Peter Green 2003. All rights reserved.