Chitra Ramaswamy introduces Silver, a new sequel to Treasure Island, and interviews its author, the former poet laureate Andrew Motion.
It’s the archetypal island in literature. The one that writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers have been returning to for more than a century. Peter Pan, The Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Flies, Swallows and Amazons, The Muppets … all of these have been influenced by a children’s book that began in a Braemar cottage one rainy summer in 1881. A book that would make its Scottish author amongst the most translated in the world. It is, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
Almost every single convention of adventures on high seas originates from Treasure Island: parrots on pirate’s shoulders, bottles of rum, pieces of eight, buried treasure. It truly is the ‘X marks the spot’ of its genre. Perhaps it’s because of the sense of unfinished business. The novel ends, remember, with three angry sailors marooned on the island and Jim Hawkins reminding us that “the bar silver and the arms still lie … where Flint buried them”. Rumour has it that Stevenson himself intended to write a sequel to his compulsive tale of “buccaneers and buried gold”.
The latest to set sail for the island is Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate, novelist, biographer, and professor of creative writing at Royal Holloway. He didn’t read Treasure Island as a child but “like a lot of boys of my generation, absorbed it by osmosis”. Now 60, he first considered writing a sequel when he was studying at Oxford. “I remember noticing that there were a lot of unresolved things in it. All the silver is left behind. Long John Silver escapes at the end. And, most interestingly, the three maroons are left on the island. What happened to them?”
In Silver we find out. Motion’s sequel is a fast-paced, lyrical, and altogether very satisfying sequel to the original, set in July 1802 and led by Jim Hawkins’ son and the daughter of Long John Silver (disguised – as convention dictates – as a boy). After a fabulously creepy cameo from Long John Silver himself, the duo set sail from the eastern marshes of the Thames and encounter all sorts of adventures and morally dubious swashbucklers along the way. In a neat intertextual nod, one of the crew members who keeps look out in the crow’s nest is “a Scotsman and a wisp of a fellow” called Mr Stevenson.
Resurrecting the world of Treasure Island has been the most rewarding writing experience of Motion’s life. “Stevenson was a raving genius,” he says. “He is extraordinary and so is Treasure Island. It will always blow people away.”
Chitra Ramaswamy is an arts and magazines writer for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday.
Portrait of Andrew Motion by Stuart Leech.