Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson/Silver by Andrew Motion

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In Ben Wheatley’s extraordinary English Civil War film A Field In England several men dig for treasure and instead, of course, find only death in a large hole. That same rule applies, more or less, to Treasure Island. The comparison may seem awry since the former is a violent, disturbing cinematic journey while the latter is thought of as a boy’s own adventure tale. But it is easy to overlook (and I had) what a brutal book Treasure Island itself is. Quite apart from the mutineers and crew killing each other with staggering regularity once they reach the island (spoiler alert: some men are prepared to commit murder when there is money involved), teenage narrator Jim Hawkins himself is forced to shoot Israel Hands in the rigging (ooh!) at close quarters in self-defence. Death is everywhere. What larks! Treasure Island was published in 1882: its sequel – Silver by Andrew Motion – took another 130 years to arrive. Motion recounts the plot of the first book, wisely keeping it to about a page and a half: Billy Bones, Blind Pew, Black Spot, map, Hispaniola, betrayal, death, bravery, Captain Flint’s treasure, home, etc. By the time we leave Long John Silver at the end of the first book, he has stolen away to avoid the gallows. (A word about Silver: his enduring popularity has always been baffling – he is a cold-blooded murderer who changes allegiance with the wind). By the start of the second, set a generation later in 1802, Silver is a very old man and close to death. But he is rich and is bankrolling another expedition to the island in order to find something even more fabulous. (Shades here of Peter Weyland, the near-corpse in Prometheus, who funds a spaceship jaunt to a distant moon to meet the architect of humanity, stowing along for the ride to ask for the secret of life. It was a bit silly. Long John only sets the wheels in motion in Silver. Nice to catch up with the old boy in London though). Both stories are first-person narratives: as we have seen, Treasure Island was written from the point of view of Jim Hawkins, publican’s son and cabin boy, who saves the day with his verve and impetuosity – and a bit of murder. Silver is narrated by his son (also called Jim: confusing and convenient in equal measure). Silver’s daughter Natty is part of the crew. (Quick note: with all this family business going on, could a descendant of Israel Hands also possibly pop up? Be prepared). Stevenson wrote his book for lads, and borrowed liberally from a variety of sources: Motion is more than happy to do the same. Again, he starts with an old document – yes, a treasure map. You see, Captain Flint didn’t just hide £700,000 of gold on the island (you can pause here to take a calculator and find out what the process of compound interest would have done to that figure in the intervening centuries) but he also hid some silver. Silver, you see? The title has a double meaning to it. In truth, this is not Motion’s cleverest moment. But he’s a former Poet Laureate and really can write: there’s swashbuckling, breezes in the rigging, and (naturally) violent death, and that’s what you want from an adventure at sea. His depiction of a catastrophic storm – where the horizon becomes ‘a bar of darkness that one moment plunged underwater, and the next launched into the heavens’ – is queasily superb. Remember that three crew members were left marooned at the end of the first book. They’ve been busy in the 40 years that have passed, and events have allowed them to create a hellish kingdom, complete with subjects who live in fear. The discovery by Silver‘s new crew of exactly what is going on creates a very modern, creeping sense of dread. Stevenson hadn’t seen the Holocaust: but we have. The compassionate attitudes of the crew towards the slaves they encounter have a suspiciously liberal, 21st century feel to them. I doubt that black people would have been viewed so tolerantly by most Englishmen in 1972, let alone 1802 when the novel is set. But Motion is an optimist. He has a nice line in literary gratitude too, managing to get Robert Louis Stevenson into his homage in the shape of Mr Stevenson, the Scotsman in the crow’s nest. ‘Twas the least he could do.

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