‘Silver: Return to Treasure Island’ by Andrew Motion

'Silver: Return to Treasure Island' by Andrew MotionRobert Louis Stevenson mischievously maintained that up in ‘the late Miss McGregor’s cottage’ at Braemar he had conceived Treasure Island simply as a ripping boys’ action yarn, with no psychology and no girls. His tale has of course turned out to be far less simple than that, and over the years writers, as well as critics, have repeatedly been lured back to its richly ambivalent possibilities. After all, Long John is still out there somewhere; a few of his piratical crew remain marooned on their unlikely Caribbean cum Californian island, and the silver trove awaits salvaging.

Andrew Motion, poet, laureate and campaigner for vulnerable landscapes, has taken opportunities at this year’s round of book festivals and launches to explain what he was trying to achieve in Silver, his own distinguished homage to Stevenson’s novel. One of the most revealing of these commentaries was his fine discussion with Chris Ramaswamy in the Scotsman. He has been insistent that his ‘Return’ was not designed to be a strict sequel to Treasure Island: he saw himself as engaged in a looser process of ‘serious play’ at various levels with Stevenson’s text; presumably its structure and narrative, its themes, characters, settings, language and imagery.

Sequel or not, at a basic level the plot of Silver parallels Treasure Island very closely; so much so that the following brief summary can serve both texts. In both novels the narrator is an adult Jim Hawkins who recalls events that occurred when he was a teenager:

Jim is working in the family inn when a stranger arrives seeking a map. As a result Jim meets Silver and a treasure expedition is organised. Despite mishaps the ship reaches Treasure Island. Although violent treachery then erupts, some of the hoard is retrieved and the survivors attempt to set sail for home.

In Silver the year is 1802, some four decades since young Jim Hawkins set sail on the Hispaniola. He has now declined into a morose, disappointed innkeeper on the Thames who bores his customers with his recollections, and bullies his teenage son, also Jim. When we first encounter Jim fils we see signs that Motion has no intention of excluding psychological and philosophical complexities in his protagonists. In pace and tone therefore he will not be sedulously aping Stevenson. Destroying a wasp’s byke on his father’s orders, Jim hesitantly realises that he has actually been enjoying the possessive, sadistic pleasure of incinerating the colony. Thereafter, meandering in the Essex marshlands, ‘in the deepest solitude of green and blue, I fell to thinking about my life.’ Moreover, shortly after this epiphany a strange girl rows into his life through the mists and moonlight of the Thames. She serves to trigger the action of the novel and also, it seems, Jim’s first sexual awakening:

More certainly, I knew it was a face with the power to lead me on, and to give me instructions I could not easily ignore.

An androgynous, Barrie-esque, slightly feral creature with small white teeth and a cat’s smile, she turns out to be Natty (Natalie) the daughter of Long John who now keeps an inn upriver at Wapping. Jim is beguiled into meeting the aged Silver who persuades him to steal Flint’s map from his father. Silver has been organizing a second voyage to the Caribbean; ‘it is his dying wish’. He is too ill to return in person, but the girl seems willing to join the crew disguised as the ship’s boy, Master Nat. This first phase of the novel, flowing to and fro along the Thames, is a singular tour de force. Essential recapitulations linking to the events of Treasure Island are not obtrusive.

The presence of the river from the busy Wapping jetties to the borderlands of the marshes is delicately and lyrically conveyed, imagery of water becoming one of the dominant motifs of the novel. Silver, enthroned in a grotesque cockpit in his inn, the Spyglass, overlooking the river, is a fearsome decaying Gothic presence; blind and emaciated but still powerfully determined. Downstairs in the taproom his parrot Cap’n Flint has pride of perch, but he is stuffed … definitely an ex-parrot. His replacement is Natty’s petulant Minah bird, Spot, who has the dangerous habit of storing and repeating everything he hears. Silver’s wife, a large black woman, ‘the woman of colour’ referred to by Stevenson, makes a brief but startling appearance as the hostess of the inn. She is flamboyantly religious, mixing Gospel singing with a spice of Voodoo ritual. Like Jim, the reader is left speculating on lurking relationships within the strange family trio of Silver, Natty and her mother. Why does Spot keep shrieking ‘Leave me alone, Leave me alone’?

Returning downstream with Natty to the Hispaniola inn Jim succeeds in removing a key from his sleeping father in order to steal the map from Bones’s sea chest. Motion conveys the tension and sense of guilt in this bizarre episode very effectively.

Silver had bought and crewed a clipper, the Nightingale, which he re-christens the Silver Nightingale, to transport his projected expedition to Treasure Island. Once this voyage gets successfully under way the tempo of Motion’s narrative modulates as Jim’s mind meanders, contemplating the marvels of the ocean and brooding on evidence for mankind’s unchanging appetite for savagery. He also finds himself perturbed by the near presence of Natty cross-dressed among the crew. The prose describing the passage to the Caribbean is marked in places by unusual rhythms:

Our prow broke through the waves with a grace that was wonderful but knew nothing of wonder. The moon which was now beginning to climb between the clouds, timed our progress but knew nothing of time. The waves produced a most delicate mingling of cream and brown, and blue and black, but knew nothing of delicacy.

The genial temper of the voyage deteriorates when the ship is becalmed for a time. Although the crew and captain of the Nightingale are a thoroughly honest if droll group of seamen, there is one exception, Jordan Hands, the shifty nephew of the late Israel whom Jim’s father had killed. When Jordan viciously knifes a shipmate and is arrested by the captain, he leaps overboard, cursing Jim with his last drowning breath. Thereafter they make pleasant, untroubled sailing, until ‘Land Ahoy’ is called.

It has to be said that in the later stages of the novel, when Motion comes to present the happenings that unfold once the island has been reached, it is hard to follow the complications and improbabilities of the situation. (Surely it’s high time there was a decent Ordnance Survey map of Treasure Island!) These difficulties are compounded by the fact that at one point the author chooses to switch narrators and report events rather laboriously from Natty’s point of view; but only indirectly, not allowing her to speak in her own voice.

The expedition encounters no Prospero or Ariel on this isle, but there are unregenerate Calibans aplenty. Forty years on, the three marooned pirates have mutated into psychotic killers. Abetted by a drunken rabble of surviving crew from a wrecked slaving ship, they have in effect established their own nauseating colonial venture exploiting the dehumanised cargo of African slaves.

In the running battle between the crew of the clipper and the maroons there is a liberal supply of what Stevenson called ‘brute incidents’. Good of an equivocal sort eventually prevails; the demented villains perish, the slaves are set free and their concentration camp goes up in flames, along with all traces of the stockade of forty years earlier. In one typically playful invention Motion saves the life of Jim and points to the location of the silver treasure. When Jim seems about to drown accidentally, he is rescued, Arion-like, by a friendly sea lion who carries him pick-a-back to the White Rock where the silver hoard is later to be discovered.

In the aftermath of the fighting Jim is left with much to ponder. In particular he finds himself troubled by analysis of his feelings for Silver’s enigmatic daughter who had endured so much mentally and physically at the hands of the maroons, ‘Did Natty feel the same? The time for such a question would come later, I told myself, if it came at all … when we were safely home.’

But will they get safely home? Motion’s novel ends as powerfully as it began. With its depleted crew and a freight of freed slaves the Nightingale is heading homewards when it is snatched up in a tornado, which proves to be a perfect storm, a magnificently imagined elemental Tempest. Is this ‘the wreck of all our hopes’? You must read to find out.

In the texture of Silver there lurk whimsical embroiderings of various kinds which may, or may not, be appreciated by readers. These include intertextual allusions and echoes of many writers such as Conrad, Coleridge, Dickens, Keats, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Wordsworth; and of other works by Stevenson. There is also a scattering of folk song, presumably Motion’s own pastiches of hymns, shanties, and love ditties. Related to these is his use of ‘The Handsome Cabin Boy’ dilemma in Master Nat’s cross-dressing. Quiet fun seems to be had with alien fauna and flora (doo-dah birds, giant red squirrels, sea lions, an upright badger, Scots pines, rhododendrons and azaleas); and the author and origins of Treasure Island are slyly acknowledged through the presence of an assiduous crewman called Mr Stevenson, ‘our angular Scotsman’ and a heroic black slave with a Scots accent, known only as Scotland. Motion has indicated that the writing of this novel had for him a particular personal significance. It is worth therefore looking into his moving memoir of childhood, In the Blood (2006), focusing on the loss of his mother when he was a sixteen-year-old in Essex.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island is a sophisticated lyrical and moral tale of a rite of passage which is deeply rooted in one of the world’s supreme works of fiction for children. It is a measure of Motion’s achievement that from now on these two texts are likely be seen as mutually enriching. But what of Silver‘s target audience? If it is a ‘crossover’ book, what is the direction of crossing? Motion has made it clear that he does not wish to pigeonhole it as children’s fiction. While he hopes that children will enjoy it, he stresses that it is a serious book with serious themes. But these aspirations are not exclusive; Waterstones is currently classifying it as both ‘contemporary fiction’ and ‘children’s fiction’. Silver certainly makes demands, but it should be readily accessible and rewarding to confident young readers such as those who have been enjoying the novels of Philip Pullman.

Finally, a most welcome feature of the first hardback edition of this novel is that it is not ‘penny plain’: it carries a set of eight stylish woodcuts by Joe McLaren. These illustrations help to recall the tradition of fine graphics associated with Stevenson’s fiction, and particularly the contributions of N. C. Wyeth and Mervyn Peake. Peake’s grotesquely eery drawings for Treasure Island (and also for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner) may well lie behind Motion’s nightmarish visions of Silver and the maroons. Sadly it is very rare nowadays that publishers other than the Folio Society commission such artwork for contemporary adult novels.

Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion is published by Jonathan Cape, 2012.

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Jim Alison

Jim Alison† was a former teacher of English and a distinguished and supportive member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. A member of the Scottish Central Committee on English sub-committee which in 1976 published the watershed report Scottish Literature in the Secondary School, that same year he published his valuable anthology The Poetry of North-East Scotland. He was responsible for the successful design of the Standard Grade, Revised Higher and Sixth-Year Studies examinations in English, giving a more prominent place to Scottish literature and language than before – as did the excellent 1992 HMI report on which he led, Effective Learning and Teaching in Scottish Secondary Schools: English. In 2003 he applied his expert knowledge to editing Treasure Islands: A Guide to Scottish Fiction for Young Readers Aged 10–14. Besides all this, he was an unfailing ASLS Council member for over 30 years, highly active on its Schools Committee, and serving as ASLS Secretary from 1996 to 2003.

More articles by Jim Alison

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