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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

William Golding's Character Jack Goes to Washington, D.C.

During William Golding's evening reception, he described the January 1988 gathering of 76 Nobel laureates in Paris, brought together to cast "new light on the 21st century." Of the five areas of study, Golding's was 'culture and society'. That evening in Malaysia, he quipped that the arts, as determiners of culture, could not compete with McDonald's. His comment hit me. Why? A common journal entry from my Malay students expressed their desire to take a bus to Kuala Lumpur, visit the huge new shopping mall, languish in its air conditioning, and eat at McDonald's.

"You've been wanting to visit KL," I said in my Indiana composition classes the day after the reception. "Join me Saturday morning at the British Council to hear William Golding." I hoped a few might show up. None did. But three of my Petaling Jaya students were there. I also taught at a private college, one instituted because Chinese and East Indians did not have the advantage of the government's scholarships, despite their high scores on national exams. Malaysia's affirmative action was unique, a program designed to benefit the two-third majority Malays. My PJ students were male and female in equal numbers: bright, cheeky, and eager to engage topics that Malay students shunned, such as the fatwa against the British writer Salman Rushdie, or the epidemic of hysteria among Malay females in residential schools and factories. One PJ student who showed up that morning at the British Council aspired to be a 'grade one thinker'; and Chang had with him his marked mimeographed copy of Golding's essay! The large room in the white colonial building (now no more) filled quickly; and I and my students were lucky to get seats together.

In 1989, I did not have an impression of Golding, which a cursory read of the internet might give today: of an "abnormally, thin-skinned" writer, whose personal literary preoccupation was an "inherently evil world." This was not the writer who addressed his audience that morning. His deep concern was "our" impoverishment of the only planet we have; and he spoke freely and passionately about his ecological beliefs. When he finished speaking, the audience was asked to submit written questions. The trio with me looked pleased when I waved at the fellow passing out cards. Then a British Council spokesperson on the dais silently read the submitted cards before handing a few to Golding. He read them, drew one, and laughed. What question had I asked the famous writer? How he envisioned engaging McDonald's in promoting the arts. He explained that 'this' question required backstory about a meeting in Paris of Nobel laureates. Yet why not a poem on every McDonald's tray, or in every bag and box?

The 'grade one thinker' beside me applauded Golding's idea, and the audience joined in. Buoyed by this response, Chang asked if I thought Golding would sign his essay. And that morning, Sir William did sign it with a bemused smile. While greeting his admirers, he appeared vital and healthy. Then four years later, in 1993, William Golding died from a heart attack.

For so many years from 1967 until 1978, I taught Lord of the Flies. At the time I did not know about the novel's countless rejections, that an editor at Faber and Faber called it "dull rubbish." But Golding was fortunate. A new editor at Faber, Charles Monteith, saw promise in the novel; and through eleven novels he remained William Golding's editor until the author's death.

Four summers ago, when my grandson was ten, I read Lord of the Flies aloud to him. He "got" the characters quickly: Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon. He had met all of them on playgrounds in several schools, especially the demonic bully, Jack. Now in real life Jack is no longer on William Golding's imaginary island. Jack eats McDonald burgers in D.C. and plays golf on his courses in the USA, the UK, and Ireland. What would Sir William say about the President who gutted the Environmental Protection Agency, as if the EPA were a pig in Lord of the Flies?

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