It’s not so long ago – that is, if you insist upon seeing Time as a linear system of aggregating years. I don’t. For me it's the working of personal history – sensation, remembrance, the feeling on that day, at that time. In the matter in hand, I was eight years old, no more; and an adoring godmother, a spinster of blazing intelligence who rode a bicycle through the Irish countryside and gave the best birthday presents, handed me a copy of Treasure Island.
Yes, as she said, it was “a book for boys.” And yes, I devoured it, read it at one sitting, and retained so much of it, especially the terror of Jim Hawkins the cabin-boy as he overheard the mutineers making their dreadful plots around the apple-barrel on board the Hispaniola. It became, however, much more than a book for boys – it stimulated a lifetime of affection and enquiry, because the said godmother, who always had the cunning foresight and emotional smarts to attach bars of Cadburys chocolate to “improving” gifts, added, this time, a remark.
“As you read,” she said, “think of the man who was making up this story. Where was he sitting, what kind of pen was he writing with?” She was, as you’ll have divined, a teacher.
Now we drift forward several decades, and I’m sitting in a television studio taping what was perhaps the last – certainly one of the last – interviews ever granted by the blind little giant of the Argentine, Jorge Luis Borges. As the Times in London reported next day, “It was like watching an interview with Homer.”
Question: “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?”
Borges: “At the age of eleven when I read Treasure Island and found myself more interested in the writer than in the characters he created.”
Although I cannot claim to have self-started the same impulse in me I yet felt the shiver of recognition. And then the delight as Mr. Borges went on to say, “And all my life since I have felt an unusual affection for its author, Robert Louis Stevenson.”
I’ll drink to that. He liked his name pronounced “Lewis,” and he was to my mind a delight back then, and became even more so as the years wound along. With his straggling mustache, his unstoppable curiosity and his heart of fire he has always been one of the very few authors with whom I’d ever have wanted to hang out. Writers, when they meet, don't talk about “literature” much – they talk about money and agents and publishers and contracts and bookstores. RLS would have talked about anything. This is a man who, tired of seeing his girlfriends vamped by his father, brought home a hooker to dinner one night. This is a man who looked though a long window in a French house, saw people dining, opened the window, climbed through it, sat beside the woman at the table, then married her and took her to the South Seas. This is a man who fought the British government on behalf of the Samoans, and when he won their battle they built a street from the center of town to his house and called it “The Road of the Loving Heart.”
Treasure Island has always been for me his most perfect book, and I’ve read all his work. I’ve even done a little tracing of his French wanderings in the Cevennes on his Travels with a Donkey – and in a sense I’ve followed him to the South Seas too. To test changing patterns in language for the BBC language program, Word of Mouth, I wrote a faithful sequel to Treasure Island, chapter by chapter, and as far as I could manage it, word count by word count. I even went and looked at the ornamental pond in Edinburgh’s Heriot Gardens, which has a little rocky islet that Stevenson saw every day of his boy’s life through the bedroom window of his overlooking house and which is believed by some to have given him the shape of the book’s actual island .
The writing of Jim Hawkins and the Curse of Treasure Island interested me as much as – and perhaps even more than – any book I’ve done. I took Jim forward in life by a decade or so, made him the treasure-rich young landlord of the expanded Admiral Benbow inn on the coast of Somerset (near where I lived at the time), and stood him there, behind the bar, regaling travelers with his tales of adventure. His neighbors, Squire Trelawney and Dr. Livesey appear, older now, and less keen on adventure, though still helpful and enabling. And Ben Gunn, penniless again, hedge-cutting for a local manor is still addicted to cheese.
Re-creating them all had warmth in it, and pause for thought, and renewed admiration for how completely Stevenson had made them. Into their peaceful English milieu I then introduced a glamorous and mysterious stranger, and her young son, the same age as Jim when he boarded the Hispaniola. And a benign rich uncle, the kind of man everybody should have in their lives: he, however, still irks me on behalf of Jim. So far, so good, so enjoyable – this was a rich and cheering experience, and it took me closer to my lovely RLS.
Then the high octane flooded in – Long John Silver appeared. I had known that he should, that he must – but I hadn't known how. So I did what I’ve often done, I left it to the book – and the book did the rest, leading even to a final swordfight on board the Hispaniola, a tussle that made me regret, not for the first time, that Errol Flynn is no longer alive. In short, I too wrote a book for boys, even if, like me, they’ve all grown up.
Now, by the magic of the Internet, the eBook brings Jim and Silver and Ben Gunn and some new others to the widest world. There’s always been a magic to Treasure Island, not just in the original text, and not just acknowledged in the homage I’ve tried to pay – it’s a magic of sharing. Its title alone gave the world a universal concept: do an internet search, entering no more than the two words, and see what shows up: holiday resorts, real estate, souvenir places, building developments, flea markets, and of course film, television and Muppets – all because Stevenson’s book advanced a great idea: the adventurous will be rewarded.
One day I may write another kind of sequel. I may go down to Venezuela and find out whether a convent of nuns was indeed helped to safety with all their precious belongings by a rascally sea-captain, who then threw them overboard and buried their treasure on an island “offe Carraccas,” as the original map says. And establish whether Long John Silver was based on John Lloyd, a one-legged rascal from Wales who wrecked ships off the Carolinas.
I still favor W.E. Henley, Stevenson’s gregarious 19th century acquaintance, described by RLS’s stepson, Lloyd Osbourne, as "a great, glowing, massive-shouldered fellow with a big red beard and a crutch; jovial, astoundingly clever, and with a laugh that rolled like music. In a letter to Henley after the publication of Treasure Island, Stevenson wrote, "I will now make a confession: It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver." Now that would make an interesting eBook, the tussle between two one-legged men, each with claims to fame in the South Seas.