June 5

TODAY I have a drowning man on my mind. Pincher Martin is his name. “His mind inside his dark skull made swimming movements long after the body lay motionless in the water.” The phrase is repeated in the paragraph below: “His mind made swimming motions.”

This is what you get for hanging around with dusty old English Literature students. Pincher Martin was the third novel by William Golding, following Lord Of The Flies (the one everyone knows) and The Inheritors. In the book, Christopher Martin, the sole survivor of a torpedoed boat, is clinging to a rock and fighting for dear life.

I won’t spoil the story by repeating the two words a young man I once knew wrote on the opening page. Many and detailed are the notes inscribed in my old paperback copy (Faber, 95p). In red ink my student self writes of Prometheus being bound with indestructible chains and other things I no longer recall. How much we once knew and now much we forget.

My own chains have been broken. I am not drowning but standing on a ledge. This ledge exists in my mind but feels real enough. The wind blows and it’s a long way down. But you do at least get a view from a ledge. And sometimes there is company.

Years ago, Richard Thompson wrote a song called Meet On The Ledge:

“We’re gonna meet on the ledge
When my time is up I’m gonna see all my friends
Meet on the ledge…”

Being made redundant is strange and somewhat bewildering, but you have to get on with things. Any organisation/newspaper will survive the departure of a staff member or even a whole bunch of them. I have always known that much. No one is indispensable. Life will carry on without you, possibly in a diminished way, but it will continue. So dust yourself off and try to make a plan.

All this is what brought Pincher Martin to mind. Faber still publishes this classic (now it costs £8.99), and its website says: “This shocking, unusual bullet of a book is the definitive survival novel and has an ending that is guaranteed to leave you reeling.”

What I recall from long ago earnest discussions in seminar debates was that Golding’s novel addressed the idea that some people cannot imagine the world continuing after their deaths, while others have no problem in picturing this inevitable scenario, and might even be comforted by the thought of life going on without them.

That is what an eager young man learned many years ago, no doubt before going for a lunchtime pint in the union bar, spouting pretentious nonsense and falling in love with the third girl of the day. That’s what too many years in a boys’ grammar school did to you back then.

As for Pincher Martin, it must be time to read that scrawled on copy again. I might even learn something from myself.


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