Sir Andrew Motion is able to switch from poetry to fiction 'just like that...'
Writing a sequel to a much loved classic is often a bad idea. Simple “what happened next” books like Scarlett (the ill-received sequel to Gone With The Wind) make their slow way along the conveyor belt towards the sharpened knives of reviewers everywhere, ripe for slaughter and unkind comparisons to their noble forbear. It is no doubt with this in mind that Andrew Motion wrote Silver, a sequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of pirates and buried bounty, Treasure Island. As he himself admitted while reading from his new book in the Playhouse Auditorium, if one must write a sequel to a classic it’s usually a far better idea to come at it from an oblique angle. Wide Sargasso Sea or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead succeed in part because they don’t take on their ancestor directly; they pick up a loose thread and use that, creating a new tapestry that compliments but does not try and match the original. And so it is with Silver.
Jim Hawkins has turned into a bore, happy running a pub and telling all who will listen about the time he went off to look for buried treasure. His son, a solitary boy imaginatively named Jim, mooches about until a strange encounter with a stranger in a rowboat, who turns out to be Natty, the daughter of the now decrepit, half-blind John Silver. His parrot has long since joined the choir invisible, and Silver is now attended by a mynah bird named Spot. His dying wish is to see the treasure they left behind on the island, the ‘bar silver’, recovered, and the story, as it were, finished. Jim, being his father’s son, promptly steals the only map that shows the X from his father’s pub and boards a ship with Natty to go dig up what Silver left behind. When they reach the island, the three pirates marooned in Stevenson’s original story have becomes far more debased and malevolent, joining forces with the guards of a slave ship that has crashed nearby, keeping their human cargo under lock and key in makeshift pens on the island. Things soon descend into territory more reminiscent of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness than the original story about pirates and exciting searches for buried treasure.
An adventure story that has seen a film adaptation by the Muppets seems an unlikely avenue for a former Poet Laureate to stroll down for creative inspiration. Such things are rarely much valued in the academic circles within which Motion has spent most of his life. Motion admitted that he came to it late, reading it only at university in an effort to fill in some blanks on his literary education, and found himself amazed at how good it was. He’s not the first literary writer to find value in its pages. Writing about Treasure Island at the time of its publication, Henry James said that although it had many fine qualities, it failed to operate within the boundaries of realism which he felt was so important to observe in fiction. “I have been a child,” James wrote, “but I have never been on the quest for buried treasure.” Stevenson disagreed, and claimed that “If Mr James has never been on a quest for buried treasure, it can be demonstrated that he has never been a child.” A firm friendship and mutual admiration between the two developed after this exchange.
After introducing and reading from the new book Motion read a selection of his other poems, about the death of Harry Patch and, movingly, the poem about the last moments of his father’s life. Motion’s father died while he was mulling over taking on Silver, unhappily chiming with the fact that many of Stevenson’s books deal with the need for or the search for a father figure. The early death of his mother was, he said, possibly his “secret engine”, the thing that impelled his creative urges forward all the time. Motion confessed that a great deal of his work involves trying to make those who are gone live a little longer, to perform a resurrection of sorts. Admitting that the final two years of his tenure of Poet Laureate seemed to kill his poetic muse stone dead, Silver may mark the resuscitation of his own writing.
Andrew Motion read at the Nottingham Playhouse, 7 June. His next book will be a collection of poems published in October, on his birthday.
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