His earliest memory was of a colour, ‘red mostly, but everywhere, and a sense of wind blowing, buffeting, and there was much light’. Together with this was an awareness, an ‘unadulterated sense of self’, which ‘saw as you might with the lens of your eyes removed’. Whether this was actually a memory of his own birth, he is not sure. If so, it was remarkably trouble-free compared to his mother’s experience of the same event. As soon as she had given birth to William Gerald Golding on 19 September 1911 she said to his father, ‘That’ll be all.’
In his next memory he is eighteen months old, maybe less. He is in a cot with a railing round. It has been pulled next to his parents’ brass-framed double bed because he is sick with some childish ailment, and feels a little feverish. It is evening. Thick curtains hang over the window, attached by large rings to a bamboo pole. A gas jet on the wall gives a dim light. He is alone in the room. Suddenly something appears above the right-hand end of the curtain pole. It is like a small cockerel, and its colour is an indistinct and indescribable white. It struts along the pole, its head moving backwards and forwards. It knows he is in the cot, and it radiates ‘utter friendliness’ towards him. He feels happy and unafraid. Just near the mid-point of the pole it vanishes and the friendliness goes with it.
He hopes for it to return, but it does not. When his parents come to bed he tries to tell them about it, using the few words he knows. ‘Thing’, he says, or rather ‘Fing’, and ‘Come back?’ His father laughs, and assures him kindly that the thing won’t come back, he’s been dreaming. But he knows it was not a dream. Seeing it was not like dreaming, nor like waking. Its friendliness was ‘like a whole atmosphere of natural love’. It seemed to come from ‘the centre of all rightness’.
Struggling to tell his parents about it brings him for the first time up against ‘the brute impossibility of communicating’. When he grew up he came to wonder quite what he had seen: ‘Was it an exercise of clairvoyance before growing up into a rationalist world stifled it?’ But he remembered it as one of the most powerful experiences of his life, a glimpse of ‘the spiritual, the miraculous’ that he hoarded in his memory as a refuge from ‘the bloody cold daylight I’ve spent my life in, except when drunk’.
His first certainly dateable memory was his second birthday. He had been given a pair of white kid boots, and felt proud as he looked down and saw them projecting beyond the lace of his pinafore. The pride seems odd to him in retrospect, because it sorts ill with his lifelong antipathy to being tidy or smart or even clean. As an adult, he reflects, he washes or bathes only when the dirt starts to make him feel uncomfortable. But at two he was still, he thinks, ‘half male and half female’, so he took pride in adornment. He remembers, at about the same time, being pushed down the pavement at Marlborough, where they lived, by his nursemaid Lily. He is in a pushchair, not a pram, and dressed in a white silk frock. He is happy and excited because Lily has given him one of her hair-grips, a ring of tortoiseshell with a simple brass-wire clip across it, to pin back his shoulder-length blond curls. It makes him feel ‘one of the right sort of people’, that is, females. He thinks of girls as superior, beautiful beings, and understands their delight in being smooth, round, decorative and pretty. The hair-grip goes some way towards satisfying his deep desire to be one of them.
The little boy who saw the white cockerel, and the little boy wearing Lily’s hair-grip, both remained part of William Golding. The spiritual and the miraculous, and their collision with science and rationality, were at the centre of his creative life. That was the white cockerel’s legacy. The hair-grip boy came to see that what is admired as manliness is often synonymous with destruction and stupidity, and he developed a sympathy with men whose sexual natures took them across conventional gender boundaries.
© 2009 John Carey