‘Many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese – toasted, mostly – and woke up again, and here I were…’ (Treasure Island, R.L.Stevenson)

Jan.11 2012

Posted by Readers in Residence

I did my first schools session of the Residency today. Jo Anderson, the Whalsay School’s librarian, suggested we work together with a group of P4s and P5s on their Treasure Island topic. Appropriate that I should undertake a voyage to get there, and that I should while away the 20-odd miles to the ferry terminal at Laxo listening to Melville’s Moby Dick on audiobook. Audiobooks, like my electric blanket, have changed my life. I’m one of those who finds it hard to sit still to read, something that Jeanette Winterson, in this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, would have something to say about…

I try not to indulge the impulse to multi-task too much (I’m not sure the ability to do so is such a virtue after all – more a grim necessity or an unfortunate habit, depending on your lifestyle), so if I can keep it to two things at once I’m quite pleased. So while I drive, knit, cook, clean and work on my porcelain limpets, I’m catching up on the classics I’ve been afraid to tackle all these years: Moby Dick, Great Expectations and Ulysses (Joyce).

It was an early start for the 8.25 ferry and I got there earlier than I meant to, struggling to keep my eyes open, while the harpoonist cannibal Queequeg, and Ishmael fought over a blanket. Still dark; I could just make out the two crows that passed over the car. The ferry curved in past the pier, the crescent of yellow light from the rising hull fattened on the dark water. I stayed in the car for the half-hour crossing, which more or less took care of the sermon on Jonah. Was disgorged less violently than Jonah at Symbister Pier and drove up the steep hill to the school, blinking and yawning.

I’d had a bit of a debate with myself about which edition of Treasure Island to work from. I knew the class were working with the ladybird version, but scanning through it, I missed the descriptive power and lush vocabulary of the unabridged; its ‘doubloons and double guineas’; Bones as the ‘tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man’. So I put together a very slightly composite portrait of Billy Bones and of Poor Ben Gunn; and tried it out on Jo, who thought the pupils could handle the harder vocab if the passage was read it to them. I did the voices as best I could – that woke us all up – invited them to draw portraits of Bones or Gunn as I read (some excellent scars; peglegs and ragged trews), and asked them if they knew the meanings of the more difficult words. Sabre? Check. Cove? Check. Rum? Obviously. Doubloons and double guineas? Check. Weevils? Check. Tarry gaskin? Well, none of us are quite sure about that one.

A bit of a quiz on some of the details then, and I was educated in many matters: the dire consequences of receiving the Black Spot, the consequences of alcoholic poisoning, (they said it, not me) and then I set each group a writing task. The P4s were to imagine that Billy Bones had given up pirating, and had come to retire in their kitchen. What did he want for his tea? How was such a stew – of weevils and eyeballs – to be concocted? How did he spend his days?

The P5s had to pretend that like ‘Poor Ben Gunn’, they were marooned on a desert island. They’d to write about how they had survived, describe their island and their treasure. Such conditions they survived: one boy was deposited on his island by a tornado; another’s island was ‘as hot as a vindaloo.’ Most of them managed to avoid having to drink their own pea (sic), subsisting on coconut milk, prunes (prunes?!), haddocks and scallops; one boy asked how to cook a pineapple. I told them to think hard about how Ben Gunn spoke, or what Billy Bones song was like, and to try and recreate that style in their poems, something they did to hilarious effect…

We’re going to make posters of the poems and pictures to stick up in the classrooms; and voted favourites may go on the back of the loo-doors (Bards in the Bog and the captive-audience principle). This raised the stakes a bit. Several P5s were compelled to start another page for their rapidly lengthening island-based dramas. Many thanks to Jo for her ideas for reading/writing sessions and her insights on the age-group. She’s going to run another session with the students to help them tidy up their poems and finish off their pictures. I’m really looking forward to seeing the result, and may post our favourites here..

PS did you know the map in Treasure Island is based on the Shetland island of Unst? I didn’t. Apparently so!

Written by Jen Hadfield