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John Drake, Flint and Silver
I have never read a pirate story before, but somehow I have always known that the high sea would be for me (despite my crippling seasickness and fear of deep water). I wonder if I would have taken to piracy quite so well had the tales I chose to read not been half so beautifully written as Flint and Silver and Pieces of Eight by John Drake.
I have three young sons, and piracy is in our blood. We have eye patches, hats made of bandanas with skulls and crossed bones/skulls and crossed cutlasses/skulls and crossed muskets on them, swords aplenty in varying styles and lengths, and a proper pirate's hat the like of Captain Jack Sparrow's, all in our dressing up box. We also have some hooks, some doubloons, some treasure maps, and some planks to walk on in the garden (incidentally, the earliest recorded instance of plank walking was apparently in 1769, did you know? For the purposes of the story in Pieces of Eight, Drake credited Captain Flint with the invention of the cruel and usually fatal punishment (most seamen could not swim)1). Our garden can be whatever we want it to be: a jungle, a stormy sea, a scorpion-infested desert island, a busy port with gallows and a hangman's noose (not actually an actual noose - I do not actually allow my children to actually hang each other!) So we know about pirates, we know that they say 'arrrrrr!' and 'shiver me timbers', and call each other 'me hearty' or 'rapscallion' and so on. We know that a pirate's day is not complete if he has not had a sword fight and killed a few of the King's Men. We know there is treasure, but we're damned if we can remember where we buried it. We knows that X marks the spot, and that the X is always beside a strangely shaped palm tree. We knows that we have to add Ss to the ends of some words what we needn't add 'em to, and omit the beginnings of some of our words, and that like as not we'll 'ave to talk in bad imitation Cornish accents even though we knows that pirates comes from all over. We knows that we 'as to 'ave gravelly voices and squinting eyes, and we 'as to scrunch our faces up into 'ideous gurns and limp around to show off our grotesquely disfigured bodies. Then it all gets a bit tiring and we have to have a little rest.
John Drake knows all these things about pirates too, and when I read the first few pages of Flint and Silver, the first of the prequels to Treasure Island, it was such a comfort to me to know that we had not got our pirate role playing too far wrong. I mean, I know that John Drake's books are - mostly - fictional, but he is also an historian. His books are a testament to his incredible hard work, and his research skills. It is obvious from the first page that he loves writing this stuff, and that he loves the fine detail.
1Pieces of Eight, Drake, J., p.418.
Firstly, you might be struck by the language he uses. From the off we are thrown in at the deep end, as it were. Chapter One begins thus:
Ria de Ponteverde carried guns; most merchantmen did: carriage guns, with powder and shot, rammers and sponges, trucks and tackles.
And you had better get used to this, the reading and visualising of unfamiliar items without much of an explanation as to what they are, where they belong and what they look like, at first, because it does not stop. Now, I don't doubt that Drake has been easy on his reader to a small extent, that he could have taken the use of nautical terminology up a few notches and had us lubbers scratching our heads in bewilderment. I am under no illusion that after having read Drake's wonderful books I can now speak Pirate or Sailor. Of course not. But what is clever about Drake's work is that he can make us think that we can! He makes us think that we are knowledgeable about ships and sailing. And the way he does this is through showing. You may have heard of tips that encourage writers to show and not tell, that tell us that pictures speak louder than words and so on? Well, that is what Drake is master of. You might not know what a nine pounder is when you first hear mention of it; but soon enough you will know its physical size, its dimensions, how it is loaded and primed, what alternative shot could be used in a different scenario, how it is fired, and what damage it can do to a five hundred ton sloop when it is fired on target - and all through pictures that are painted onto the mind's eye.
But here's the thing: reading Drake's nauticalisms is not hard work; on the contrary, it is a pleasure. Never once did I feel as though I was reading something that was beyond my understanding to enjoy. But neither did I have to endure the feeling that I was being patronised or lectured. Drake welcomes us into the world of eighteenth century seafaring and exploration, and shares with us all that is wonderful there. There is a constant trembling thrill of adventure in the air, the reader can practically smell the salty air and feel the fresh ocean breezes. It is not strictly necessary to know what a mainsail is, or a fo'c's'le (it possibly helps if you know how to pronounce the words - a dictionary will help with this: see hub on The Importance of a Good Dictionary), because Drake makes you think that you know. Indeed, Drake makes you think you could be a member of the crew, sign articles forthwith, and be First Mate by next week, such is his ability to make his reader feel comfortable and right at home on the high seas.
Now, I'll warn you, there's some gore! I'll not mince my words now; it's gruesome, vile, putrescent, it's graphic, but it's hilarious, wonderful, real, unapologetic, it's necessary and it is natural. A few paragraphs into Chapter One of Flint and Silver will bring you this:
José Carmo Costa took the flash and thunder of a blunderbuss at close range, blowing large parts of his heart, lungs and breastbone clear out through the back of his shirt.
The heavy blade clove to the teeth, slicing bone, brains, meat and gristle. Number one dropped twitching and shivering,and the blade jerked free with a digusting schlik!
And that's just the beginning! Alright, by today's standards the violence is not really shocking at all, but it is not intended to be. It is exciting, and pacey, and is often what helps to make the book such a page turner: is Long John Silver about to have his head exploded, or will he escape only slightly scathed once again?!
And truly this is a page turner. I am a fairly fast reader, by necessity, having so many books to read and relatively small chunks of time in which to read them. If I did not have the compulsion to write I could read a lot more! But the pace of Pieces of Eight was actually quite breathtaking, and I had to read it when I should have been doing other things. Half way through the book the pace picks up, when it had already been flying along, and suddenly, for both of the principal characters, everything is at stake. I tell you, from this point on I could not put the book down. Drake demonstrates his wisdom and talent beautifully towards the end of the book, when an exquisitely choreographed battle takes place in shallow waters, necessitating the reader's need to be in several places at once. Drake executes the delivery perfectly, switching perspective over and over again very cleverly and at exactly the right moments. Flawless.
But the books are not only about the ships, and about blood and innards; they revolve around some very nicely drawn characters. Of course, we know that the characters are of Robert Louis Stevenson's inventing, but I forget this fact time and again because Drake has made them so wholly his own. He knows Long John Silver and Joseph Flint inside out, as well as hosts and hosts of other characters, many familiar from Treasure Island, and many more imagined up by Drake. And we feel his sadness when he has to shoot one in the gullet, or leave a couple of them stranded, or get one in the face at close range.
The only character I ever had trouble visualising was Selena, pretty much the only female character worth mentioning. There are some other ladies, who are excellently grotesque, but we don't stay with them for long. I do not think that my trouble with Selena is the fault of Drake: I admit that it took me a long time to like her, and I am sure that it is because she is a woman, and I had a somewhat sexist attitude towards her, strangely: she's a woman, what's she doing in a pirate adventure? Perhaps if she had been more piratey, more masculine, more fun actually, I might have liked her more. But I will own that that would have made her wholly unrealistic, and even anachronistic. There you have it though, I am a tomboy, and I cannot abide an indecisive heroine.
Mind you, who could blame a girl for dithering? Joseph Flint is one roguishly handsome devil, and I have never even seen a picture of him; I'd sell my own granny to go off to the tropics with Captain Flint. But possibly I would sell my children to follow John Silver to the Caribbean, so I think he would win by a whisker. (Now understand that I am debating the respective attractivenesses of these pirates as they are portrayed by Drake, not Stevenson! You would not catch me selling any member of my family to run away with Robert Newton!)
Flint and Silver and Pieces of Eight afforded me some of the most fun reading I have ever had. My only sorrow is that you can only read a book for the first time once.
But belay that snivelling, for swiftly follows the next and final installment! Skull and Bones is already published, and I have just this very evening placed an order.
And then on to Treasure Island itself, which I have never read, surprisingly. I am intrigued to know how different it will be to Drake's work.