I’ve never been a big fan of pirates. Treasure Island and all that, it bores me. The plank, the buried treasure, the ‘me-harties’, the cabin boy, the bloody parrots – yawn.
You’d’ve thought that would have put me off writing a book about pirates. You’d be wrong. There are a few great big exceptions to my rule that have provided me with plenty of inspiration.
Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor published in 1939 is the first book written and illustrated by Mervyn Peake, who went on to write Gormenghast. I’ve always been a bit in awe of Gormenghast, having started it several times and been defeated by it. It’s the sort of book best read when locked in a tall tower waiting for your hair to grow.
No such problems with Captain Slaughterboard. It’s a picture book for a start, so perfectly suited to someone with my pathetic attention span. Although it contains recognisably piratey characters, doing piratey things in a piratey setting, Peake fills it witn warmth, humour and great depth. The central journey in the book is not the one round tropical waters, but one that takes us deep into the heart of the Captain’s existential crisis.
Picture book spoiler alert!
It all begins when the Black Tiger moors off a pink island (‘That’s just the sort I like’), home to a bestiary of preposterous purple creatures with names like the Guggaflop, the Hunchablil and the Saggerdroop (his ear for a great name is already fully tuned in).
The Captain’s eye is caught by a hairy yellow goblin. ‘Just the sort I’ve been wanting.’ he says.
He orders his kidnap then quickly falls in love with his strange new companion, abandoning piracy for eating, drinking and dancing. It’s Stockholm syndrome on the seven seas, though we’re never really sure who’s abducted who – my money’s on the Yellow Creature.
The rest of the crew come to a sticky end, and as we never see any of the violence it’s quite easy to imagine that the Yellow Creature may have had something to do with it. They eventually return to the pink island where the Captain retires, choosing domestic bliss and fishing over his old life.
‘If only he knew it, the Captain has found Utopia’ writes Mervyn Peake’s son Fabian in his introduction. The underlying message of pacifism and platonic love isn’t what you’d expect from a book published as the world went to war, ‘But on the contrary he offers hope for a better future’.
Although it’s over 70 years old now, Captain Slaughterbord remains incredibly fresh. The quirky story combines beautifully with Peake’s gorgeously detailed illustrations, which have been beautifully coloured for the new edition, in a muted palette of browns, blues, purples and a splash of vibrant yellow.
The book must have been passed around Aardman Animations when they made their brilliant adaptation of Gideon Defoe’s Pirates, in and Adventure with Scientists. Peake’s Peter Poop, the cook with a cork for a nose, clearly provides the model for one of the Pirate Captain’s hopeless crew.
And while I’m on the subject of not liking pirates much, let’s further undermine my argument with one of my favourite pirate songs. The Hook, by that unlikely shanty singer Stephen Malkmus, is undoubtedly the best pirate song since Yo Ho Ho and a Bottle of Rum.
We had no wooden legs
Or steel hooks
We had no black eye patches
Or a starving cook
We were just killers with the cold eyes of a sailor
Yeah we were killers with the cold eyes of a sailor
As I slagged off Treasure Island earlier, here’s a much better version; Animal Treasure Island, by Hayao ‘Spirited Away’ Miyazake.