Archive for April 25th, 2011

“Treasure Island” and childhood memories

It was 1968. I was then eight years old, and, at that time, we did not have a television set. The BBC was serialising Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island on Sunday afternoons (with Peter Vaughan, as I remember, as Long John Silver), and I used to go to my friend’s house (Kevin, I remember his name was) to watch it. And afterwards, we used to play at being pirates. And I remember taking out the book from the children’s section of the library in Kirkcaldy (where we were living at the time), and thrilling both to the story, and also to the vivid illustrations that brought to life an imaginative world that has stayed with me since.

My apologies for boring you all with a bit of autobiography: I do try to avoid childhood reminiscences on this blog, since one’s nostalgia is generally of no interest but to anyone but one’s self. But if it is true that experiences of one’s childhood shape what one becomes as an adult, then I have no doubt that my childhood immersion in the imaginative world of Treasure Island has shaped me. Not that I’ve become a pirate, of course, nor yet that I have led an adventurous life: I have always been physically timid, and turn away in trepidation even from some of the more adventurous rides in Thorpe Park. But the imagination does, after all, exist to fill the gaps in one’s personal experience, and no story looms larger in my imagination, even now, than does Treasure Island.

There is many a book I enjoyed as a child, but which are impossible to enjoy as an adult, not even with all the mitigating factors afforded by nostalgia. Treasure Island, however, needs no mitigating factor at all: quite simply, there has not been a better adventure story written – not by Rider Haggard, not by Anthony Hope, nor even by the great Alexandre Dumas. From the very opening paragraph, where Captain Billy Bones knocks on the door of the inn run by Jim’s father, I am hooked. And after that, it is one adventure after another. Even before we encounter the treasure map, we hear of the one-legged buccaneer of whom even Billy Bones seems to be frightened; we see the appearance and disappearance of Black Dog; and, most strikingly, we see Blind Pew, who, to anyone who has experienced this story at a suitably impressionable age, remains the most terrifying creation in all literature.

It is Blind Pew who slips Billy Bones the dreaded black spot, and Billy Bones is so frightened by this that he dies on the spot. And on the reverse side of the black spot is the ominous message: “You have till ten tonight”. Even as I write this, I feel an involuntary shiver of excitement run down my spine.

There is no point my summarising the story: it has no longueurs – it’s just one thrilling adventure after another. It contains just about everything we associate with the sea except the White Whale: there are bloodthirsty pirates, the Jolly Roger, the black spot, buried treasure, parrots perched on the shoulder squawking “Pieces of eight!”, the castaway on the desert island dreaming of toasted cheese … and, of course, the one-legged buccaneer of whom even Billy Bones had been frightened: Long John Silver. Except that when he first appears, he is so warm and genial that it’s hard to associate him with anything nasty. Jim instantly takes to him – and, indeed, who wouldn’t? But Stevenson knows better than to present his greatest villain merely as a lovable rogue:

“… If I die like a dog, I’ll die in my dooty. You’ve killed Alan, have you? Kill me too, if you can. But I defies you.”

And with that, this brave fellow turned his back directly on the cook and set off walking for the beach. But he was not destined to go far. With a cry John seized the branch of a tree, whipped the crutch out of his armpit, and sent that uncouth missile hurtling through the air. It struck poor Tom, point foremost, and with stunning violence, right between the shoulders in the middle of his back. His hands flew up, he gave a sort of gasp, and fell.

Whether he were injured much or little, none could ever tell. Like enough, to judge from the sound, his back was broken on the spot. But he had no time given him to recover. Silver, agile as a monkey even without leg or crutch, was on the top of him next moment and had twice buried his knife up to the hilt in that defenceless body. From my place of ambush, I could hear him pant aloud as he struck the blows.

After this, one doesn’t doubt Silver’s words of warning to Jim and his friends: “Them that dies will be the lucky ones.”

And yet, somehow, one can’t help continuing to like Silver. In the final section of the novel (after that quite thrilling scene where Jim is atop the ship’s rigging desperately trying to load his pistol while a pirate carrying a dagger in his mouth – quite literally armed to the teeth – is climbing up after him), Silver actually protects Jim from the other buccaneers. This is partly because Silver needs to: he knows that if he cannot find the treasure, the other pirates will turn against him, and he may need to turn to Jim’s friends for his own protection. But it is also because, despite everything, Silver rather likes Jim. Of course, if he had to, he’d kill Jim without any hesitation at all; but on the whole, he’d rather not.

Cold-blooded and bloodthirsty killer he may be, it’s difficult for Jim – and, consequently, for us – not to like him. Certainly, when the other pirates give him the black spot (on a page ripped out of a Bible!) we are on Silver’s side, even though we know full well what kind of person he is. And this gives what is but a boys’ own adventure story a certain edge of moral ambiguity: there is something surely not quite right about finding so attractive a figure who is so obviously evil, and yet, to our discomfort, that is precisely what we find ourselves doing.

After all that had gone before, it would have been easy for the finale to have been a bit of an anti-climax. But there’s no danger of that. Captain Flint had taken a group of men to the island to bury the treasure, but had emerged alone: he had killed all his companions, and had laid their bodies out at various places on the island, each pointing towards where the treasure is buried. So Silver and the pirates, with Jim as their hostage, encounter grinning skeletons with their bony arms stretched out towards the long longed-for treasure – surely among the finest and most gruesome of images in any adventure story. But the pirates aren’t the kind of people to be scared merely by a few skeletons of murdered men: what does scare them, though, is the voice ofFlint’s ghost. And then … no, sorry, that would be telling: if you are in the fortunate position of yet to experience this wonderful book for the first time, let me not ruin it for you.

So, here I am, over forty years since I first thrilled to this book. And it is a sunny Easter weekend. And what better way of spending it than to sit in the back garden, a cold drink to one side, and to relive once again the adventures of Jim Hawkins onTreasure Island! All I’m missing now is my mate Kevin with whom I used to play at being pirates.