Castaways a century apart

Boys shipwrecked on a deserted island in the 19th century
Boys cast away on a deserted island in the 20th century

The subjects of two tales of boys surviving on a desert island are almost 100 years apart.

One tells the story of three boys shipwrecked and cast up on a desert island in the Victorian era. This was written in 1857 by a Scottish author, RM Ballantyne, who wrote almost 100 adventure stories for boys.

The other, written in 1954, is the story of a larger group of schoolboys who survive a plane crash and are washed up on a desert island in the new Elizabethan age. This was written by William Golding, who acknowledges the influence Ballantyne had on him.

But what else links them?

Well, both books were written when a queen sat on the British throne.

Both were written by men.

Also both ended up in my library. I say library but I actually mean a collection of books I have accumulated over the decades. Some end up on shelves, some end up in boxes. Then some change places.

What is more important is that one I eventually inherited from my father, the other I bought because I needed to study it.

Growing up in the 50s and 60s books were always a part of my life. I don’t remember when I first became aware of them or even when I first read a book.

It seems they have been there all of my life. All 70 years.

I do know that when we moved to Rhyl in the mid-50s we had a three-shelved oak bookcase in the hall. It was in between the front door and the door which led into Dad’s shop.

Next to it was a hall chair with a tall back which widened from its leathern-inset seat to the top, which would have been up to the shoulders of a seated man.

Opposite was an old oak sideboard with three drawers above three cupboards. On the top was a three branch candelabra, which I always believed was silver, and a wooden bowl with a foot which had a silver rim and held wooden-handled salad servers.

Next to the sideboard, between it and the front door, was another slender shaped chair but this one had a chintz-covered seat and slender arms.

The chairs were there for people who came to get urgent prescriptions made up after the shop had closed – I think I have told you all before that Dad was a dispensing chemist.

For now, however, it is the bookcase that counted.

On top of it stood a pewter tray with a pewter teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl on it. When I learned to read I read the inscription on the teapot.

It was a gift from my mother’s work colleagues when she got married in 1939.

All three of the shelves were filled with books. Books of every size and binding you could imagine.

Some of them were obviously very, very old and had leather bindings with gilded titling.

Others were large and hard-backed but not of the type that would have had dust covers.

Then again there were a number of books the size of a modern paperback only with hard covers again.

I remember one of these had the title “Coral Island” by RM Ballantyne and I remember being about eight when I took it off the shelf to read.

The rule on books in our house appeared to be that if you could reach it off the shelf without standing on anything then you could take it to read.

The only other unwritten rule was: Treat it with Respect.

I know there was a label stuck on the inside first blank page but I didn’t bother reading it. I was more interested in the story and the illustrations.

I became immersed in it and had to be told not to bring it to the table when we had our dinner.

I became a fast eater.

The protagonists were three boys, all in their teens, the oldest being 18. The ship they sailed on was wrecked in the South Seas and they were the only survivors, washed ashore on a deserted island.

The early parts of the book were about how they survived and managed to build a shelter, find food and, with the use of a few tools found in a box which was washed ashore, even build a small boat to go fishing a bit further offshore than they could wade or swim.

The really exciting part was when a group of “natives” came ashore and they had to hide.

To a young boy the events that then occurred seemed quite normal because at the time we were taught to believe that this was how the world was in the 19th century.

One group of natives had captured another, including women and children, and on the first night the boys watched them kill, cook and eat one of the captives.

The boys being brave and English hatched a plan to rescue the captives. The “cannibals” left and their prisoners were free and their own tribe sent a boat to collect them.

Their next adventure came when the island was invaded by pirates. One of the boys was captured and taken to their ship.

Being brave and English he escaped with a pirate who had repented. The pirate ship was attacked by the “friendly” natives and the pirates were all killed. The repentant pirate died and the “brave” boy managed to get back to his friends and they all escaped to a trading village where there were missionaries.

The boys told their story and were praised for fighting evil and being “truly British”.

Years later I read Lord of the Flies. The similarities were few and the differences many but it all came down to Victorian values compared to 20th century lack of values.

Ballantyne’s boys fought evil.

Golding boys found evil within.

On the same shelf as Coral Island I found another book by a Scottish author which fell in between the Ballantyne and the Golding.

It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, of course.

Written between the times of the other two books but set well before either.

That bookcase held many more treasures and held more family information than I realised at that time.

Published by Robin

I'm a retired journalist who still has stories to tell. This seems to be a good place to tell them.

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