Boyd Tonkin: Pirate raids on the treasures of the past

The Week In Books

After his decade as a uniquely hard-working Poet Laureate, with a stack of other time-draining commitments, Andrew Motion deserves to have some fun – and to make a splash. He will soon do both. With a fanfare (or a raucous grog-breathed cheer) Cape has announced that Motion will in 2012 publish a sequel to one of the world's best-loved books: Return to Treasure Island.

Like every other classic of its time, Robert Louis Stevenson's pirate adventure has not lacked follow-ups. Around half a dozen variations and spin-offs appeared between Harold Calahan's in 1933 and Frank Delaney's in 2001. As for filmed hommages, I fondly imagine the day on which Johnny Depp (in Jack Sparrow rig) kneels in gratitude before a two-faced South Sea idol that bears the likenesses of both Keith Richards and RLS himself.

Here's a toast to Sir Andrew: good fortune to ye, squire (supply the accent yourself). But, without wishing to raise a black sail on the horizon, the project (like many of its kind) tells us something not entirely welcome about publishing today. Roughly between the date of Treasure Island (1883) and John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), writers in Britain produced an astonishing wealth of narratives which fast acquired the status and the staying-power of myth. From Stevenson's own The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray to HG Wells's The Time Machine, The Invisible Man or The Island of Dr Moreau, Henry James's The Turn of the Screw and Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, not to mention children's stalwarts such as Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books or JM Barrie's Peter Pan, tales from this three-decade span became part of the storytelling DNA of the planet as a whole. Indeed, one of the finest interpreters of these recurring dreams is the Argentinian-born, French-resident Canadian citizen Alberto Manguel. And this generation deeply marked Manguel's own mentor: Jorge-Luis Borges.

Often but not always at novella length, the yarns of this period still cast an unbreakable spell. I have tried for years to puzzle out just why this should be so. Discoverers of new worlds - within or without, in the outposts of empire or the depths of the psyche - these writers fused supreme narrative artistry with a certain innocence (yes, even in Wilde's or James's case) that fortified their works' unconscious power.

Or rather, even the most sophisticated author could via the devices of adventure or fantasy at this time manage to sidestep the censoring intellect and gain access to the treasures of fable. However challenging in terms of sex (Wilde) or politics (Conrad), these classics have a fairy-tale logic and momentum that binds them to our earliest experience of stories. One of the joys of AS Byatt's The Children's Book, set in this era and featuring a writer of darkly magical tales, is its exploration of the roots of this modern myth-kitty.

The Cape publisher Dan Franklin reports about Motion's sequel that "I don't think I have seen such enthusiasm for a book proposal from every department of the company". That should give us pause. Publishers should surely jump for joy when they unearth fresh successors to Stevenson, Conrad and Wells, rather than stake too much of their future on a repeat voyage to an already-blessed destination.

For more than a century, the literary world has pirated and plundered the pure narrative gold buried in this age. Just a fraction of the time now spent on digital blather should instead go into trying to understand why these tales struck so deep and endured so long. What accounts for their timeless and global grip? Where would such archetypal yarns take shape these days? Who would write them, and how? Otherwise we're left with many more than 15 book-biz men and women dancing on the dead men's chest: Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of Evian, please.

P.S.For all its platitudes and bromides, the government review of library modernisation issued this week as a pre-election parting shot by culture minister Margaret Hodge (left) does have some good news. In defiance of the trend among adults, book-borrowing by children has risen sharply over the past five years after hitting a low around 2003-4. The proportion of 11-15 year-olds using a library has also grown, from 70 to nearly 80 per cent. The review offers some sound ideas for keeping this cohort loyal to the library and (despite cheap headlines) it's not all about free net-surfing and chai lattes on site. But why, in that creepy corporate New Labour way, does the sensible section on online provision bow down to "the mass digitisation of content by Google" as if referring to the weather? This is a rights seizure contested in the courts, not some act of God.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test