SO, HERE COMES Salisbury Cathedral School, where I spent five more or less years of indentured servitude on scholarship, from 1952 to 1957. We choristers sang eight services and seven rehearsals a week in the Cathedral choir. While I was busily singing my way through my scholarship, the school and its occupants became an unwitting model for William Golding, who wrote his novel Lord of the Flies (1955) about inmates of a choir school.
I weathered the many experiences (which, in my case, were more spiritually, than physically, toughening). However, one was aware that parents did withdraw some boys from the school. Let’s just say: the general environment included elements from Tom Brown’s School Days, but the collegial climate was surely no more bestial than any other school of its type. It just wasn’t the right sort of place for some gentle souls.
‘Lord of the Flies’
Golding was teaching at Bishop Wordsworth’s School, which was separated from us by a low brick wall. Wikipedia states: “Lord of the Flies is a novel by Nobel Prizewinning English author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves, with disastrous results.” Wikipedia cites another passage describing the book as dealing “with an unsuccessful struggle against barbarism and war, thus showing the moral ambiguity and fragility of civilization.” Good heavens! Really? That was us. My friend Eric Koch reminds me that, “Lord of the Flies is a metaphor for a larger, troubled society.” I’m sure Eric is correct. I accepted my existence there as standard British prep school fare.
However, Golding surely knew whereof he wrote: As a naval officer he had commanded a landing ship on D-Day. I wrote that I gained much experience at Salisbury. That included having time to observe the cathedral inside and out during its many weathers and moods. Most of my internal observations came unbidden during sermons, lessons or the more tedious passages from modern oratorios. Valuable stuff, these recollections. Twenty-five years later, in Toronto, I wrote this passage into the draft of a novel:
“The bride comes on, steadily, a white wraith against grey limestone and the polished black of Purbeck marble columns. The cathedral’s elegance is one of proportion, of subtleties in masonry, of contrast between light and shade, its austerity at this moment serving to focus all attention on the person of its bride. Even without the white satin of her dress the building’s interior generates the black and grey of a harlequin playing at chiaroscuro, the sun imposing long shadows and reflections in the transept-crossing through which [she] soon will pass. This effect fascinated J.M.W. Turner, who rendered Salisbury Cathedral’s internal moods even as John Constable, working in the bishop’s garden, managed to capture its weather-temperament. Now, in the afternoon, the sun at [the bride’s] back dashes shadow before her from the lancet windows in the great west front.” [Copyright Robert Fripp 2013]
My poor heroine takes perhaps three pages to reach the altar rail, from the great west door via the nave and the chancel. Meanwhile, those pages record the guts of the nave, from floor to pillars to triforium to clerestory, all down pat.
Those threads twine into a causative strand that started me channeling the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine decades later in order to write her memoirs. Part of that strand was this: Salisbury Cathedral School was founded in 1091 and its first known graduate (Class of 1129) was John of Salisbury, a leading twelfth century theologian and a presence at Henry II’s and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s courts. John disapproved of Eleanor. Later, John of Salisbury would witness Thomas Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.
Ghosts. Many ghosts. But, in the south of England, where eight thousand years of settlement are graven into the land, the deeds and misdeeds of Henry II, Thomas Becket, King John, Richard Lionheart and their mother Eleanor almost call for the present tense. They are close, even intimate. Novelist John Fowles, who wrote the foreword for my book “Let There Be Life” (Amazon.com), remarked in his novel “Daniel Martin” that a man writes best who is not afraid to restrain the feminine part of his brain (yin), but aspires to park his gender beside his name on the title page. Hence my take on Eleanor of Aquitaine. Reader Lani Lila of Chico, California, writes of “Power of a Woman” that, “[It is] so vividly expressed from the mouth of a wise and passionate woman. Reading Fripp’s words, and a man’s at that, I am amazed at his stunning ability to bring to life this woman.”
Ah, but what is the minor chasm of gender when set against the great gorge of time and events that separates us: eight lost centuries and a wholly different mindset divide us from the anxieties, terrors and joys inflicting the life-span and life-space of our magnificent Eleanor.
But I digress, again.
Getting locked into Salisbury Cathedral one night may have moved me to write “Power of a Woman” decades later. The experience was freezing, dark, vast, medieval, and animated by slight sounds amplified by echoes reflected off four hundred and forty-two running feet of high-vaulted stone. Then came morning, when the sun burst through the (former) eastern windows in the Lady Chapel, bringing mental relief before someone unlocked the vault to bring me a sense of release and return to the 1950s.