Those spies/innocent businessmen raise thoughts of William Golding

Those Russian spies/poisoners/hapless tourists with their desire to see Salisbury Cathedral’s 123-metre spire have me wanting to pull an old paperback from the shelf in the spare room. But the Airbnb guest is still snoring, a distant rumble through the floorboards.

Google and the threadbare grain of memory will have to do instead.

The two suspects, identified as Alexandra Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, gave an interview to RT – not the Radio Times, as I momentarily misunderstood, but Russia Today.

“Our friends had been suggesting for a long time that we visit this wonderful town,” said one of the men, who identified himself as Petrov.

This absurd dialogue has been mocked by everyone from Theresa May downwards; and who can blame them, for it is almost comically ridiculous.

The height of the spire is mentioned twice, as if that’s the sort of information innocent businessmen/possible poisoners always carry around in their heads. Such precise knowledge sounds suspiciously as if it has been gleaned from Wikipedia. Heaven knows, we all do that – although not when appearing on Russian TV while trying to clear up any confusion about your apparent role in bringing a deadly nerve agent into Britain.

British police investigating the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy who passed information to the British, want to talk to the two men.

Boshirov said he and his entirely unsuspicious friend had gone to visit Salisbury Cathedral – “famous not just in Europe, but in the whole world”, he said. In case that didn’t sound convincing enough, he buttered his story further: “It’s famous for its 123-metre spire, it’s famous for its clock, the first one ever created in the world, which is still working.”

He means the first clock of its kind, but it’s easy to get confused when you are trying to explain to the whole of Russia that the dog ate your homework.

Away from the grim absurdity of this interview, all this talk of the famous spire stirred the silt of university days. That’s the trouble with having studied English literature; the dusty pages stay in your mind.

William Golding is mostly remembered for Lord Of The Flies, but he wrote many memorable novels, including The Spire. Written in 1964, The Spire is a medieval tale of one man’s obsession with adding a pinnacle to a cathedral without the necessary foundations.

Golding is thought to have based the cathedral on Salisbury, which is something those spies missed in their cut-and-paste Wikipedia dip. What has always stayed with me is the astonishingly visual language, and the fact that the narrator, Jocelin, the Dean of the cathedral, is haunted by a pain in his spine. He sees the pain as angelic inspiration or punishment, depending on the moment. And a spine is also a sort of spire hidden inside the body of a man.

The spire in Golding’s novel is never finished and speaks of instability and the possibility of disaster. The spire in Salisbury still stands – and right now it stands as the unlikeliest excuse you’ve ever heard.

Still, at least those men purporting to be Alexandra Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov have reminded me that it is time to start reading William Golding again. For that, if nothing else, I am grateful.

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