There were old tea chests in a spare room we called the “sleep-out” at my grandparents’ house. In the tea chests, my younger brother and I found 78 RPM records that played scratchy tunes on a wind-up gramophone until we overwound it and broke the spring. And there were Film Fun Annuals from the 1940s, with comic-book style stories about Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and someone called Old Mother Riley. And there were Biggles books by W. E. Johns, which had belonged to my father and his brother when they were boys. But for me, the greatest treasure we unearthed was a mint condition copy of The Gorilla Hunters by R.M. Ballantyne.
Inside the cover was the inscription, “To Brian from Nan, Xmas 1949”. My great-grandmother had given my father the book when he was a similar age to me back then. It must have seemed like a boys’ own classic to my father, but the book’s opening sentences make it sound stilted and dated nowadays:
I was seated in an arm-chair in my private study in a small town on the west coast of England. It was a splendid afternoon, and it was exactly five o’clock. I was ruminating, as I frequently do, on the pleasant memories of bygone days, when a tap at the door aroused me.
(My Grammarly Editor also complains about “arm-chair”, warning “the word may seem dated to modern readers” and recommending “armchair”.)
As for the subject matter, when published in 1861 and even in 1949 when my father read The Gorilla Hunters, travelling to Africa to shoot gorillas and other game would have been considered a brave and decent adventure. I loathe the idea now, but as a boy, I didn’t know better. I loved reading my father’s old book, in the same way as I as loved Tarzan movies and Phantom comics, all set in Deepest Darkest Africa.
Around the same time that I found my father’s book, I spotted another of R.M. Ballantyne’s titles in a “cheap classics” bin at a local bookshop. Published before The Gorilla Hunters in 1858, The Coral Island proved to be a rollicking sea tale, with shipwrecks and pirates:
It was a wild, black night of howling storm, the night in which I was born on the foaming bosom of the broad Atlantic Ocean. My father was a sea-captain; my grandfather was a sea-captain; my great-grandfather had been a marine. Nobody could tell positively what occupation his father had followed; by my dear mother used to assert that he had been a midshipman, whose grandfather, on the mother’s side, had been an admiral in the royal navy.
I recognised the names of the teenage boys in the book, Jack, Ralph and Peterkin, from The Gorilla Hunters. These were the days well before computers, the internet and Wikipedia, so like another of my favourite childhood literary figures, Sherlock Holmes, I deduced [spoiler alert] the shipwrecked boys were rescued and grew up to be the men who sailed off to Africa to shoot game. (Good luck for the boys, bad luck for the gorillas!)
Even though I was only a boy (who broke my grandparents’ gramophone player), I realised these were a unique pair of books and needed protecting. And so I covered them in plastic. For some reason, I chose pink for The Coral Island and blue for The Gorilla Hunters. Contrasting colours aside, the covering worked, and my 45-year-old book and my father’s almost 70-year-old treasure are in good, if not mint, condition.
The writing and themes of R.M. Ballantyne’s classics are dated – I’ll never reread them. Perhaps I should put the books in a packing box in a spare room with my old LPs, for my grandchildren to find one day?
© 2018 Robert Fairhead
PS. You might also be interested in this blog post from September 2017, My First Book – it’s already stored safely in a packing box, … along with the 1940s Film Fun Annuals!