An extract from a forthcoming anthology of essays in praise of Robert Louis Stevenson.
Stevenson took me hostage half a century ago when life was full of possibility and I was young and easy under the apple boughs (he hates it when I quote other writers), and I was clearly destined to become a famous writer. Teaching English was only a temporary aberration. All I had to do was read the Great Works of world literature and, by a process of literary osmosis, absorb their talent through my pores. I started with the Russians, then the French, then the Japanese for some odd reason, then the English and finally, I am ashamed to admit, the Scots. Stevenson was last on my list. He forgave me but the price he extracted was my soul. I recently spoke to someone who remembered me from that time and he, to my acute embarrassment, reminded me that I went through a period of dressing like Stevenson.
A parallel obsession from that bygone era was second hand books. It was not enough to have read every word RLS wrote, I had to physically possess every volume that bore his name. Only during the years spent working with a mental health charity did I realise that I could be sectioned under the terms of The Mental Health (Care and Treatment) (Scotland) Act 2003. Yes, dear reader, I am a hoarder. That is why I own sixty-two different editions of Treasure Island (available for exhibitions or purchase), eight complete sets of his collected works, every UK and American first edition, most critical works, bibliographies and anything else written by his wife, step children, uncles, grandfather and family pet minder (RLS and his Sine Qua Non by Adelaide Boodle). I mustn’t forget the drawing executed by RLS, purchased with a small legacy, a letter he wrote inviting pals to join him and Fanny for a Christmas meal, and several volumes inscribed by him, and by others including Princess Kailani, WE Henley and Katherine de Mattos. I also own Lloyd Osbornes’ spectacles, but that is a sadness too far.
I foolishly thought that Stevenson might release me from this bondage if I were to make him some small sacrifice, a peace offering if you will. An opportunity presented itself some twenty years ago when I was English Adviser for Lothian Region. I was approached by the BBC who wanted someone to help them produce a teaching pack aimed at making Stevenson’s work accessible to a wide range of school kids. After a surreal discussion with the BBC’s own ‘paper engineer’, it was decided to house the resource in a DIY cardboard treasure chest. The pupil materials would be contained in a marbled slip case, and the whole was to be accompanied by an edited version of the Omnibus programme about his life
difficult afternoon in the office, I received a welcome phone call from an English teacher in Hull who wanted to thank me personally for the materials that had rendered his class comatose. For me that was enough. But Stevenson obviously felt the ransom was insufficient.
The next opportunity to placate him was also heralded by a phone call. A representative from a worthy philanthropic literary society in London was seeking advice on how best to honour the anniversary of Stevenson’s death. By chance I had been reading In the South Seas and was struck by Stevenson’s wish to reassure the young students drinking in Rutherford’s bar in Edinburgh that everything would work out for the best. It seemed such a kind thought to have from thousands of miles away. Accordingly, I suggested that they may want to nail his thoughts to the wall by erecting a plague outside of the bar. I heard nothing more but in due course the plaque appeared.
There was nothing visible but the southern stars, and the steersman out there by the binnacle lamp… The night was as warm as milk; and all of a sudden, I had a vision of Drummond Street. It came to me in a flash of lightning; I simply returned …and into the past. And when I remembered all that I hoped and feared as I pickled about Rutherford’s in the rain and the east wind; how I feared I should make a mere ship wreck and yet timidly hoped not; how I feared I should never have a friend, far less a wife, and yet passionately hoped I might; how I hoped (if I did not take to drink) I should possibly write one little book…I should like the incident set upon a brass plate at the corner of that dreary thoroughfare, for all students to read, poor devils, when their hearts are down.
There was never any acknowledgement of my contribution, but it still pleases me whenever I walk past the corner of Drummond Street
But still he wouldn’t let me go. Family holidays were skewed to include detours to various Stevenson haunts. We may not otherwise have chosen to visit Monterey, Grez-sur-Loing, or indeed the sea caves outside of Wick where he met with some local savages (consistently poor reports on Trip Adviser).
By way of a final attempt at exorcism, I produced an anthology of his love poetry, RLS in Love. The idea emerged after I read several unfinished poetic vignettes in Unpublished Manuscripts. These, often bleak, verses led me to look more closely at the poems Stevenson wrote to the various women in his life, and ultimately to the conclusion that he was indeed a love poet of substance. Surely, he would get off my back. But no.
More recently I thought he would be pleased to see the two novels and two travelogues that I have written nestling on the shelf beneath his first editions.
‘Look!’ I shouted when he put in an unexpected appearance the other day. ‘I’m a writer as well. Isn’t that what you wanted? Will you release me? You’ve made your point. I’ve paid my debt.’
‘Look at your titles,’ he said toying with a cigarette as he did when posing for the Sargent portrait.
‘Boswell’s Buspass, and Daniel Defoe’s Railway Journey. You must be joking!’
‘Yes, but my last novel featured a shipwreck. What more can you want? Now, will you please let me go?’
‘No,’ he said.