Lord of the Flies : Books in the Blood # 12

Image: Pixabay

Image: Pixabay

The Romans believed that human beings were not born properly formed, that they need shaping to enable them to grow into decent citizens. This is why they beat their children as a matter of course – how on earth were you supposed to breed effective conquerors and Empire builders if you didn’t punch all the softness out during the formative years?

In the Middle Ages, people thought bear cubs were born as a formless lump and the reason their parents licked them so much was that they had to be pushed into the right shape – imagine a blob of furry modelling clay and you’ve got the idea. Hence the expression ‘licked into shape’.

‘Where are you going with this?’ I hear you cry, and by the way I do wish you wouldn’t do that – it’s like having a virtual Greek Chorus following me across the webby-sphere. Stick with me – a point will be made.

I can see where these ancient thinkers were coming from. Maybe not with the bears, but to be fair they probably just made that up – I’m sure you could count the number of Medieval thinkers who got close to a bear cub and lived on one hand. Not one of their hands, of course, because presumably they’d come away without digits to do any counting on. But I digress.

But the Romans had a point, because human’s are born only partly formed. We lack in experience and knowledge, of course, as anyone who’s ever watched a toddler try and do almost anything can testify. They fall over,  bump into furniture, burst into tears seemingly without reason, burble nonsense then start throwing things when you can’t understand them … They are my Uncle Stan after a Payday Friday visit to the Squint and Spyglass pub.

And emotionally, small children are bit … Odd. This may be controversial (and completely unproven), but it seems  to me children are born without empathy – it’s something they learn with experience. Ever seen a toddler fall and hurt itself whilst surrounded by other toddlers? The rest of the crowd carry on pushing building bricks up their noses and eating the contents of the sandpit.  I’m not really suggesting that we’re all born sociopaths and that it’s only with experience and example that we learn to care for others … Or am I?

Which brings me onto today’s Books in the Blood,

Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Now, this is another Secondary School set book that many of you will have read. I already know from previous conversations online that some of you  REALLY didn’t like this book. And who can blame you? To be honest, I’d be a little worried for anyone who read this book time and time again. If this is your go-to book when you’re feeling low, when you want to snuggle up in your onesy, a big mug of Horlicks in hand … You should be wearing that rather fetching jacket with the fastenings at the back – you know the one with the long sleeves and the buckle motif.

This is a book to admire, but is it one to love?

It’s very well written – remember the scene on the beach at night, the description of the light on the waves, of the bright fish swimming around a body?

But the bodies, of course are one of the problems. Because Golding creates a world devoid of adults, stuffed with young boys and once they’ve shrugged of any semblance of civilisation, they revert to that primal state the Romans were so worried about. The world the boys create is nasty and brutish, where there’s no room for the soft, the sensitive or the weak. It’s an unjust world where those with a sense of decency won’t survive long. (I can hear you students of history shouting ‘But that’s what Roman society was all about.’ A discussion for another time, friends).

I suppose it’s many people’s first introduction to dystopian fiction and there’s little out there that’s more dystopian. Have you heard anyone criticise the plots of The Hunger Games and other YA books for being too violent for the young, as if this is a recent phenomenon, a symptom of the modern era’s degradation? Just remind them of this book and the fact it was school that made us read it.

I remember finding it creepy, disturbing, genuinely depressing, making me want to flee back to the reassuring comforts of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. If this was what ‘adult reading’ was all about, give me the Beano.

I’ve said this before on Word Shamble, remember Golding taught at a boys’ school – if anyone knew about how heartless children can be, it was him.

A sobering thought.

Books in the Blood #5: The Owl Service by Alan Garner

owl-50267_1280

As an adult, I’ve revisited a chunk of books I first read when I was a child and I’m not sure why.

Maybe as I draw further away from childhood and I can only now experience my younger self through the rear view mirror of memory, I’m desperate to find something I’ve lost.

I don’t think it’s about recapturing my youth – the mirror and the bathroom scales plot together to remind me that that would be an exercise in pointlessness. I have to work hard to keep this wreck of a body functional. From my feet to my back, to my internal workings, it all needs keeping an eye on, whereas once everything seemed to run smoothly with little attention from me. Those corns won’t buff themselves, people.

I really wouldn’t want to be a kid again anyway.

I remember having a conversation with a friend who waxed lyrical about how wonderful his childhood was. According to him it was such a perfect, joyous time, you’d think he grew up in a Famous Five book, filled with exciting adventures catching foreign spies – and lashings of ginger beer for tea. He even used the cliché ‘best years of my life.’

I actually found listening to him a bit irritating. Because, I remember childhood quite differently.

Fear seemed an constant companion, forever holding my clammy hand: fear of the dark and the monsters that splashed about in the loo, ready to take a bite out of the unwary backside. Fear of insanity (yes, at around the age of ten I had a morbid fear of going mad, though worrying about going mad probably took me closer than any actual mental instability).

I worried about school, maths and P.E being regularly terrifying and humiliating ordeals for the humanity-minded plumpster I was. I worried about the bully that spat in my hair whenever she was given the opportunity.

And there was the overriding sensation of being painfully self-conscious, of feeling out of place in my own body, amongst other teens and in the world. I would’ve gladly been bewitched Sleeping Beauty-like by a bad fairy, happy for the most thorny of roses to clamber and tangle around my room, trapping me until I was old enough to not care about how lumpy I looked in drainpipe jeans.

Safe to say, I didn’t recognise childhood as my friend described it. Though, he’s a very confident, easy-going guy, so maybe that carried him over his own bumps and troughs with little damage.

Rereading a once loved book is, though, an exercise in self-assessment.

This week’s Book in the Blood is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. I had a copy bought for me a few years ago after dropping some very heavy and specific hints to my in-laws around the time of my birthday. I read the book eagerly, remembering how much I’d loved it as an adolescent, how I’d adored the mystical elements, the young love, the spine-tingling chills.

The story centres on a trio of young people in a farmhouse in Wales. Unexplained scratching and knocking from the attic draws two of them to discover a china dinner service with an abstract design that could just depict the faces of owls.

There’s a lot to love about this book. Garner is a genius at slow, creeping shudders. He blends violent Welsh myth with modern life, until the characters are compelled to re-enact the past, as if they’re possessed by dead spirits. It’s otherworldly, with a distinctly trippy element – it was first published in 1967 and you feel that sixties ethic through the book.

But what struck me – and here’s where the self-assessment came in – was how much more disturbing I found it as an adult than as a kid. The ending is vague to say the least and how much children’s fiction today doesn’t have a nicely tidied up last act? As the characters lose their grip on their own identities, the tone becomes increasingly unsettling. I remember nothing of this from the first time I read it. I took it all at face value then, accepting its odd qualities as part of the adventure.

Maybe the problem is I’ve had so many more years of conventional story telling rammed into in my head now – beginning, middle, end, story and character arcs – that I find it hard to accept anything different.

I’m glad I read this book as a child – it’s way too grown up for me to appreciate as an adult.