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Nigel Planer and John Sessions on why Robert Louis Stevenson is so special

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent from 1887

A portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson by John Singer Sargent from 1887

THE undisputed master of the adventure yarn, Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary achievements will be marked on a special day of celebration in Edinburgh tomorrow. Here, Nigel Planer and John Sessions reveal why they think he is so special

Tomorrow is the birthday of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the occasion will be marked with the hosting of RLSDay in the famous author’s home city of Edinburgh. Stevenson-inspired events will be taking place across the city, from exhibitions and talks to chalking and flash mobs, to celebrate the life and writings of the man of letters who brought us classic texts such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, among many others.

Inspired by Dublin’s Bloomsday, where James Joyce’s Ulysses is commemorated in an annual pilgrimage, RLSDay has a rousing beginning with a ‘Tache mob’. At 1pm in Parliament Square fans are invited to don a Stevenson-style moustache and velvet jacket and create a cacophony for Stevenson by reading their favourite of his works – essays, novels, poetry, or stories.

The Velveteen Cad and other tales of Robert Louis Stevenson’s youth will delve deeper into Robert Louis Stevenson’s time at the University of Edinburgh, while Louis, Libbelism and the Land of Bohemia offers the rare opportunity to enter his former Edinburgh home at 17 Heriot Row. And for the finale, actors and writers Nigel Planer and John Sessions discuss their lifelong fascination with the man, from moustaches to memoirs, tall tales to world travel, at the Reid Concert Hall. They will also give guest readings of Treasure Island at the National Portrait Gallery.

Here, the two guests of honour pay tribute to Stevenson in appreciations written for The Scotsman.

• For further details of RLSDay log on to www.cityofliterature.com

Nigel Planer: ‘RLS is more than just a rollicking yarn spinner’

SAILORS and explorers have always written exciting accounts of their journeys – or had them ghost-written for them. Cooke, Bligh, Dampier and the rest, were men who had reasons to travel other than producing a book. For them publication was an often lucrative afterthought. More recently though, travel-writing has become a genre in itself; the book becoming the reason for the journey rather than a simple record of it. Nowadays we expect the journey to be a metaphor for a more personal journey that, perhaps, the writer is undergoing. This new way of writing about travel owes its existence, as far as I can see, to Robert Louis Stevenson. Paul Theroux, Michael Jacobs, Eric Newby, have all trodden the path that Stevenson pioneered.

It has become a cliché to observe that Stevenson’s life was an adventure which equals and sometimes surpasses the adventures of his swashbuckling characters. There were pistol fights and tribal wars in which he became involved. There was the smuggling of an exotic princess behind enemy lines, there were years of long sea voyages, tropical islands where he was the guest of palm-tree kings. There were deserted silver mines, cowboys, crooks, bohemians, cannibals and of course his on-off love affair with Modestine, the stubbornest of donkeys. Throughout all of this Stevenson kept writing, commenting on what he saw, on what he found out from his searching conversations with all he met, and most interestingly for us, what effect it was having on him. In this respect he is the most modern of writers.

There is a scene when he first sights land at Atuona bay in the Marquesa Islands – which incidentally, he tries unsuccessfully to compare to the Scottish Highlands – when some 50 or so half- naked tribal people swim up to and board his boat, invading the cabin where he is trying to write. In this sequence Stevenson memorably describes the delight of one of the women as she makes a squeaky noise on the leather bench seat with her bare bum under her grass skirt. He and all of the tribal people laugh, but, he tells us, he was careful to hang on to his gun as these people were well known to be cannibals and their behaviour unpredictable. His lightness of touch in this passage is admirable, and his respect for the customs and mores of other races is, as always, exemplary. In fact, in his book The Amateur Emigrant, about his train journey across the centre of America, he describes with passionate indignation the prejudice encountered by the immigrant Chinese, packed into an adjoining carriage, and holds forth at some length about racism. This passage was cut from the book by his interfering father and his editor, Sidney Colvin, the book only appearing in its full form after Stevenson’s death.

It is these somewhat undiscovered aspects of the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson that first stirred my interest in him as more than just a rollicking yarn spinner, and it is these aspects that I believe are important in the current reassessment of him as a great figure of nineteenth century literature.

John Sessions: ‘I’d hide behind the sofa when Blind Pugh came on, frightening me more than Jim Hawkins’

POOR Walter Scott. He died from a surfeit of writing in an attempt to clear punishing debt, but he also looked like being the leading historical fiction writer of the early 19th century. His Waverley novels stood shoulder to shoulder with Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. He was not only read widely but read by those intent upon making their own literary mark. Henry James devoured him as a young man.

Scott was the éminence grise, his immortality assured. However, it failed to turn out like that. For a start, there was the hydra-headed prodigiousness of Dickens who had the pulse of his readers’ tastes from the very outset. The gothic monolithism of Scott simply couldn’t compete with this new young cub from Portsmouth. Surely, though, he would retain his ascendancy north of the border?

No such luck. At the end of the 1870s along came this spindle-thin yarn spinner from Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson. His tales were told at speed, they were sleek sloops cutting through the receptive waters of his readers’ imaginations. His fiction was indeed built for speed. No time-consuming descriptions of bedrooms or castles or what folk ate for breakfast. Every stroke of the pen was there to drive the narrative ever onward. Graham Greene said that the fight in the foc’sle in Kidnapped was 
one of the best pieces of narrative action he had ever read.

When I was small, I took to Stevenson at once. Back in those pre-managerial days when the BBC did literary adaptations in Children’s Hour, I lapped up both Kidnapped and Treasure Island and of course there was the wonderful Disney film of Treasure Island with Robert Newton as Long John Silver.

I remember hiding behind the sofa when Blind Pugh came on, frightening me more than he did Jim Hawkins. Jim was, of course, made of stern stuff, from his spying in the apple barrel to his shooting of Israel Hands for which he received a knife wound for his pains.

I remember finding David Balfour a bit of a Jessie. He always seemed to be stopping Alan Breck from really letting his Jacobite mojo do its full thing.

I also read the books and felt as if the great RLS was speaking to me and to me alone. Those photographs of Stevenson made me love him even more. It wasn’t until I was quite grown up that I saw the two wonderful portraits by Sargent, particularly the one where he’s about to stride out of the frame of the picture on those long lanky grasshopper legs.

The other one is marvellous, too, with those lustrous, dancing eyes. The beauty of those eyes is corroborated in the photographs. They seem to say, ‘come and play with me! Let’s find treasure, let’s run from the redcoats and hide laughing’.

It was only a lot later that I read Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This was a very different Stevenson, plumbing the stygian depths of the human soul. It’s pretty well agreed that the story is deeply ‘indebted’ to Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but I don’t care. Somehow the essential Stevenson still gleams through.

It’s a funny thing to say, but whenever I think of RLS I feel happier. I’m feeling happier now.

 

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