July 01, 2010

AWRF 2010 - John Carey on William Golding



John Carey. John Carey made me want to be enrolled at University again, for the first time ever -- but only to be in one of his classes. I would happily go to hear him speak every week. Unfortunately, I think he doesn’t actually teach classes anymore, having become an Emeritus Professor in 2001 after fifty years at Oxford, where he started as a student and ended up the Merton Professor of English Literature, considered the top “English lit job" in the country, which I suppose might be equivalent to saying top "English lit job", period. Fifty years at Oxford makes me think of what someone once told Anais Nin: "Be like the Spanish dancer, who can dance her entire dance upon a table”.

I went to hear Prof. Carey deliver the Michael King Memorial Lecture at AWRF 2010, in which he spoke about William Golding, or, as the title of his new biography of William Golding has it, William Golding, the Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. He did not choose this title to explain to you who William Golding is, as some in  the literary world fretted. He gave his biography this title as a way of winking at the fact that this is the phrase which always identifies William Golding for people who hadn’t thought about him since their school days, when they were givenThe Lord of the Flies to read (and why? I reread it after the Festival, and all I could think was, what was the point of reading it back then? Why do they think adolescents should appreciate this book?  Because the characters are adolescents? "A book for grownups" Golding called it firmly in a letter to a prospective publisher).

William Golding book coverThe book bears a cover portrait of an old guy with a beard, piercing blue eyes, crow’s feet of the kind you get from squinting into the sun, cigarette and giant blue cable knit sweater – you know, a bluff old guy. “Affable old seadog” is the phrase John Carey uses, which you immediately realise is even better, and then while you’re still appreciating that, he lays down the rest of his hand:  the “affable old seadog disguise which hid the real William Golding.”

It was a brilliant talk, beautifully cadenced, informative and insightful, lifted here by irony, pinioned there by tragedy. Emphasis was given not by waving hands (Prof. Carey talks with one hand in his suit jacket pocket, like my favourite English teacher) but by a pause & sniff , like a character in a Thackeray novel or – another thought which hit me -  Bill Nighy in The boat that rocked, whom he resembles except in the way Bill Nighy always seems right on the edge of not being in command.

Best of all is the slight eccentricity of speech by which he pronounces his  “r”s as “v”s. Not “w”s! I actually read something in The Guardian or similar which said he says his "r"s like “w”s. This may seem like a small difference but it is quite definitely not.  One makes you sound like  Elmer Fudd talking about the wabbit; the other lends your speech an air of bemused detachment.  It is an idiosyncracy Carey shares with Kerry Baillie, noted Antipodean computer and technology businessman and yachtsman, and the famous Italian playboy, fashionplate, yachtsman and Fiat chairman, Gianni Agnelli (yes, he’s dead, but when he was alive).

So that’s Prof. Carey (oh yes, one last thing, he keeps bees). And the real William Golding, who was that? The son of an intellectual, atheist, theory-of-evolution-worshipping school teacher, the only grammar school boy among his year’s entrants at Oxford, who named as his chosen reading Voltaire’s Dictionnaire Philosophique – he said it made him feel “cheerful”.  An enemy of the class system, who was happy to become a "Sir". An appreciator of myth, who provided the name "Gaia" for the new hypothesis of his friend James Lovelock.

Also, a man who drank too much, a man who saw and disliked a sadistic streak in himself, and who so was afraid of the night all his life, even with a light on, that when entering a room at night he would throw the door open loudly to alert any unseen presences.

John Carey: “Another thing his parents gave him would have been questioning and being unafraid of being different. All his novels disagree with something. What I connect with this disagreement is Golding’s freedom from conventional ideas about art and literature.”

And “He read Ulysses three times and finally got through it (sniff) in March 1977. He almost didn’t. He wrote in his journal ‘I can’t. I must go on.’”

In the ‘30s as Golding was going down from Oxford he appeared before the University’s Appointments Committee which advised undergraduates about careers. The index card on which his interviewers jotted down their impressions survives in the archives. “Not quite" it says, standing for "Not quite a gentleman” in their classist parlance.

During World War II Golding captained a “Rocket ship”. These incredible vessels were landing craft modified to do nothing but fire rockets onto a beach -  a fire power equivalent to 200 destroyers. The crew had to stay below not to be incinerated. He took part in D-day and then in the terrible Walcheren operation aimed at opening up the port of Antwerp. Ships blowing up, ships burning, sinking. The sea full of broken and drowning men. “These are memories that dim the sunlight” he wrote.

After the war it was back to being a school master, a new interest in the spiritual, the supernatural, vying with the old morbid atheism of his father. He scribbled away during school hours at Lord of the Flies.  Prof. Carey: “He sent the manuscript  to eight publishers, all of whom (pause, lifts his eyes to ours) vejected it.”

I was so carried away, as John Carey talked about Lord of the Flies, by the stream of suggestive words going by to the sound of his wonderful “r”, betvayal, visionary expevience,  ignovance , tevvified, that I’m not sure I caught the last phrase exactly right. But I think it was this:   “Lord of the Flies speaks to all of us, of any faith… or love.”

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 02:30
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