A renaissance man

15th November 2002 at 00:00
John Bird, a pupil of William Golding's at Bishop Wordsworth school in Salisbury in the late Forties and early Fifties, remembers his mentor

"William Golding was my form master and tutor in 1948, my first year at the school, and taught me English. He was one of about four people who had a profound influence on me.

"The head of Bishop Wordsworth, Frederick Happold, was an educational philosopher who ran the sixth form on almost university lines: you had to take responsibility for attending lessons and were not punished if you missed them. Whatever your chosen subjects, you had to do two others for cultural reasons, not for exams. Everyone in the sixth form went through the philosophy programme. Golding was heavily involved in that.

"English was his main subject, but he was a renaissance man, a great sailor - he went on sailing into his sixties- he helped run the combined cadet force, played hockey, sang bass in the choir and played the oboe. He had taught himself Greek in the Navy and translated Greek plays.

"One day, he brought sheaves of paper into class and said, 'I want each of you to take six sheets and count the words, then I'll read you some of it.'

It was a book about his exploits on a whaling ship, but it was never published. Then, in my second year in sixth form, 1954, he handed out handwritten sheets of Lord of the Flies and read us a section - about Piggy. It was published shortly afterwards.

"I don't think any of the characters in the book related directly to anyone at school. Golding took a crude view of the behaviour of children to throw light on adult society.

"A lot of what he said stuck. He said that if you are going to give a novelist true credit, you must read a book at one sitting. Years later I talked to him about Pincher Martin. I told him I hadn't realised what was going on until the last page. He wrote it in three and a half days, in one sitting. It took him a week to recover.

"Golding was an inspirational teacher, and we kept in touch. I wrote to him in my forties saying I was feeling lost and needed guidance. He wrote back saying, 'You've been more successful than me except for my one talent' - he was very modest - 'I can only suggest what I talked to you about in the sixth form, that you practise self-analysis at the end of every day, weigh up what you've done well, what not.'

"He was a quiet man, but larger than life. The most important thing for me, a child of parents with few ambitions, was that he made me realise life is a rich pattern of alternatives and I have maintained my interest in music, art, French, history and philosophy as a result."

John Bird joined the Michelin Tyre Company after national service and worked in financial services and commerce until 1993 when he resigned to become a full-time painter. He was talking to Heather Neill. William Golding died in 1993

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