Welcome honorary Hibernauts to the first blog of 2014, the year it all begins, with the upcoming publication of Beyond the Gloaming, Sebastian’s first adventure! Today, I’ll be discussing another fantastic literary figure who helped mould Sebastian.
As you will have guessed, the hero is Jim Hawkins, protagonist of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, Treasure Island. I devoured the illustrated copy I had as a child; dove headfirst into the swashbuckling adventure, brimming with action and jam-packed with buccaneers, treasure maps, tropical islands, doubloons, guineas and pieces of eight. I loved the atmosphere it created, an intoxicating blend of adventure and peril, the thin line between loyalty and betrayal evident to me even as a seven year old, no better displayed than in the complicated psyche of Long John Silver, one of the greatest literary characters of my boyhood. Before Silver, the characters in the books I read had been strictly polarised along the good-evil diathesis, but here was a man who glided back and forth with alacrity. Here he is coaxing Jim with tales of derring do:
‘Now, that bird, I would say, is, maybe, two hundred years old, Hawkins – they live forever mostly; and if anybody’s seen more wickedness, it must be the devil himself. She’s sailed with England, the great Cap’n England, the pirate. She’s been at Madagascar, and at Malabar, and Surinam, and Providence, and Portobello. She was at the fishing up of the wrecked plate ships. It’s there she learned ‘Pieces of eight,’ and little wonder; three hundred and fifty thousand of ’em, Hawkins! She was at the boarding of the viceroy of the Indies out of Goa, she was; and to look at her you would think she was a babby. But you smelt powder–didn’t you, cap’n?’
What child could fail to be mesmerised? I loved him and feared him in equal measure – just as Jim did – and was truly horrified when he attacked and killed Tom, a loyal crew member.
The book aroused my imagination in a way no other had done before, with the possible exception of James Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks and The Wonderful O. The crucial difference was that the latter gems were located in a dream haze of unambiguous morals, whereas Treasure Island was well and truly planted in the real world with all its shiny cruelties. I also fell in love with the fabulous names Stevenson crafted, something I have tried hard to emulate in Sebastian and the Hibernauts. His names were simultaneously playfully gorgeous and stunningly realistic, with none of the lumpy overkill prevalent in so many Dickensian names (not that I didn’t admire them too): Billy Bones, Captain Flint, Blind Pew, Dr Livesey, Squire Trelawney, Captain Smollett… Israel Hands. And his genius for naming was not confined to characters, as evidenced by The Admiral Benbow and that most romantically named of ships, the Hispaniola.
Jim was a hero to me principally because he was one lucky sod. Sat in the poky little bedroom I shared with my brother, I longed to be in Jim’s shoes; I envied his lot and imagined there was no reason I couldn’t be in his place, if only I had been born at the same time, in the same inn, and somehow pushed ‘Jim lad’ out of the way. He was an unremarkable boy in exceptional circumstances, surrounded by colourful characters and could have been me or any other little boy, and Stevenson no doubt wrote him this way to entice us into the story. Yet for all that, this plain boy rises to heroic status by his actions, showing every boy and girl what they, too, could be capable of if faced with similar strife. From trembling in the apple barrel as he overhears mutinous mumblings, he reaches inwards and somehow finds his courage. Nowhere is this better illustrated than when he returns to the Hispaniola (having previously cut her adrift) and is confronted by a murderous Hands. Chased up the mizzenmast with Hands hot on his heels – knife wedged between pirate fangs – Jim turns and challenges his assailant, ‘One More Step, Mr. Hands, And I’ll Blow Your Brains Out’. Where did he find such cool reserve? Sure, he was trembling like a leaf, but his combination of genteel manners and deadly resolve was just so utterly dashing. Of course, Hands assumes he’s bluffing, only to be blasted from the rigging and into Davy Jones’ Locker.
I read Treasure Island repeatedly as a boy, its magic reinforced by Disney’s titular romp, though the film paled in comparison, its saving (possibly only) grace being Robert Newton’s Silver, the template for all future pirates. (Having loved Newton ever since, I found him at his best as the irrepressible Frank Gibbons in Lean’s adaptation of Coward’s This Happy Breed)
Here is a link to the full film on YouTube:
There is a Disney-vented sequel Long John Silver also starring Newton knocking about on there too:
So there you have it. Even today, I thrill at the words Treasure Island, my mind conjuring up a storm of piratical imagery. And who can fail to be delighted by the marooned Ben Gunn’s wistful words: ‘Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese – toasted, mostly.’
Of Stevenson’s other works, I only read Kidnapped and as enjoyable as I found it, it failed to grab me in the same way. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on the other hand, grabbed me by the jugular when I saw it as a child, Spencer Tracey’s transformation frightening the bejeezsus out of me, lame by today’s standards:
While the Strange Case remains a master study in psychopathic dualism and contributed to my lifelong interest in psychology, I believe that Silver’s nuanced, more complex character says far more about the human condition and the moral dilemmas we all face. Sad to know that both Roberts died tragically young; Newton, at my age, losing his terrible struggle with alcohol, Stevenson even younger, at 44, sixty-nine years to the day I was born. Stevenson wrote his own requiem:
‘Under the wide and starry sky,
dig the grave and let me lie’,
though I think his other verse far more appropriate to bid adieu to these two greats:
‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum!’
On a lighter note, there is another film adaptation of a Stevenson novel worthy of note, The Wrong Box. It is a marvellous swinging sixties caper, filmed in 1966 and starring a cavalcade of actors: the chronically underrated Michael Caine (fresh from breaking out in Alfie), John Mills (who once played my uncle, but more of that another time), the utterly gorgeous Ralph Richardson, the equally fabulous Irene Handl, Nanette Newman in a rare leading role (well, she was married to the director, the late, great Bryan Forbes), a young Nicholas Parsons (who I can attest has had an amazing career having just listened to his biography) , Peter ‘have you ever seen a grown man naked’ Graves, the ever dependable James Villiers, possibly the world’s only comic genius, Peter Cook, and comic legends Dudley Moore, John Le Mesurier, Peter Sellers (and future sidekick, Graham Stark), John Junkin, Leonard Rossiter AND Tony Hancock! And with a score by John Barry!! Up there with The Great Race, Monte Carlo or Bust and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines it zips along, no prisoners taken as the characters fight over a tontine (such a delicious word). I am afraid that only excerpts are available on the internet (this is by far the best, from TCM.com – click to view) so go buy it:
Well, that’s all for this blog. Can you guess who the boy hero of literature will be in my next fortnightly digest? Leave a Comment if you think you can. Winners will be posted on the Honorary Hibernauts Page of the dazzling Hibernauts.com website, coming soon to a digital device near you.