Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Finding a Classic Classic

I have never tried to rewrite or adapt a classic book, but characters from classic stories and nursery rhymes have certainly made many a guest appearance in my picture book work. Little Red Riding Hood, the three bears, the big bad wolf, the three little pigs and others, have all had walk-on parts. Their presence has leant these stories a certain familiarity and made it seem as if all these nursery characters, whether mine or somebody else’s creation, inhabit their own, real world where new stories may be happening, unrecorded, all the time; much as the cartoon characters in Toon Town in the film Roger Rabbit. I find that idea quite reassuring. One only has to enter that world to discover a completely new adventure.

It sometimes takes a long time for a book to worm its way into my heart. I have to re-read it and flick through its pages again and again, savouring sentences and studying illustrations, seeing how the ink sits on the page. Then it becomes like an old and trusted friend.
One of my favourite classic books is Treasure Island, but I didn’t fully appreciate its brilliance until the right edition came along and everything clicked. I first became familiar with Treasure Island through the film starring Robert Newton who, with his greasy beard and rheumy eye, created the archetypal screen pirate. ‘Arrr, Jim lad!’
 When I did eventually turn to the book, I was a bit disappointed. I have the same problem with music – it takes me years, sometimes, to appreciate what many people seem to get straight away! Anyway, the book didn’t quite work for me, until I found an edition that I fell in love with.

This was illustrated by one of my heroes, Mervyn Peake, where everything seemed to be right – the design and layout, the quality of the paper and, of course, Peake’s wonderful illustrations. Here was a pirate that enhanced the character on the page, and surpassed the screen version, which now began to look rather cartoony. Peake’s Long John Silver is so real you can almost smell the salt and sweat on his clothes.

All of a sudden the story came alive and I appreciated Stevenson’s wonderful and economic writing for the first time. Could there be a better opening passage to an adventure book:

"I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty livid white. I remember him looking round the cove and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:-

‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest-

Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum!’"

Treasure Island still has a hold on me, and I find pirates popping up in my stories all the time. Each has something of either Robert Newton, Robert Louis Stevenson, or Mervyn Peake in them, whether it’s Captain Cut-throat, leader of the band of lady pirates in my Charlie Small adventures, or Captain Bonedust in Alfie Small’s first journal. But to create a character as real, as devious, but as appealing as Long John Silver, now that would be something!

I don’t know if anyone else has to find the right edition of a classic to really connect with it, but it happens to me quite a lot. With this 1976 edition of Treasure Island, I found a book that felt absolutely right as a physical, functional object. Any other edition is not quite the same somehow, and I certainly think Ebooks will have a hard job replicating the qualities of classics like this, that make them such a pleasure to hold and own and love. Don’t you?

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