I already have a paperback edition, signed by Golding just after he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature and published his penultimate novel The Paper Men. He rarely did signings, and I had to queue for a fair while in Blackwells (on Broad Street, Oxford, just around the corner where I worked in those days) before I got my turn with him. A novice to book signings, having already bought The Paper Men in hardback, I purchased a couple of paperbacks at the till beforehand as the price of admission, and also had him sign my first of The Scorpion God, one of the first hardback books I ever bought, (at a much reduced price, in Bristol, a couple of years after it was published). I’ve been a fan of his work since school. Unlike many schoolchildren of my generation - I did the sciences instead of English Literature - I wasn’t taught The Lord of the Flies as a set book, but I read it anyway, and then read everything else of his that I could find. But despite his early popularity, and the Nobel Prize, he seems to have fallen out of fashion after his death; this and his early and enormous success with his first novel means that first editions of his novels (apart from The Lord of the Flies) are fairly plentiful and therefore fairly affordable.
One reason for his unfashionability may be that he never wrote the same book twice, thus resisting easy academic explication. And he is also, it has to be said, something of an old-fashioned writer, not only in his thorough grounding in the classics, but in his assumption of a God-like but detached, forensic point of view. Thus, he never explains or enters the minds or emotional states of his characters, except when the novel is narrated in the first person (and even though his ‘Tarpaulin’ trilogy is written in the first-person, it is in the form of a journal kept to flatter and impress the narrator’s rich and powerful uncle, so we’re kept at one remove from his real thoughts and feelings). Instead, emotion is conveyed only by its physical manifestation; yet this forensic detachment, married with limpid yet incredibly precise prose, conveys very clearly great emotions in a manner that’s both ironic and sympathetic, and on occasion tremendously moving: in The Inheritors, the discovery by the Neanderthal Lok of the bones of his murdered child is, for me, one of the most heartbreaking passages in English literature. It’s the evocative power of his extraordinarily concise, clear-eyed and accurate descriptive prose that first hooked me, and still enthralls me. All of which is a small part of the explanation of why the epigraph of The Quiet War is from Golding’s Free Fall: ‘The Herr Doctor does not know about peoples.’ For the rest, you’ll have to read the book.