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Robinson Crusoe

from Robinson Crusoe

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By Neil

A photo of Neil Baker lying on the sand at the beach

My favourite literary character from childhood was Robinson Crusoe. I knew him not from the Daniel Defoe book but from television. Specifically, I’m talking about the black and white Franco German production that the BBC screened every morning in the summer holidays of 1974 and 1975; the one with the eerily hypnotic theme tune that – I would bet – anyone aged 37 to 45 who grew up in Britain can hum in its entirety.

The truth is, I didn’t like fiction. I was good at writing stories. My teachers told Mum and Dad a regular diet of ‘good literature’ would help my talents to flourish. But I refused to take any interest.

I think if anyone had given me a book that featured a character I could relate to, I might have felt differently. But all the stories I saw were about posh boys drinking ginger beer, going on picnics or having adventures in rowing boats. These are all things I enjoy very much now, but they were alien to my early life in south London. I didn’t even like Roald Dahl.

My hunger was for facts. I would sit in front of the gas fire in my polyester pyjamas studying maps and atlases, trying to find the most remote, uninhabited places on earth. When I wanted to read, I turned to my collection of thick books called How? and Why? and When? and Who?

These were the books I treasured, and I wish I still had them. Each page answered one pressing question: Why did the Vikings invade England? What was the Treaty of Constantinople? Who was Charlemagne? Fascinating stuff.

So that was the child who every morning for two summers avidly watched Robinson Crusoe. There was something about the shipwrecked sailor’s simple, self-sufficient lifestyle, and his endless curiosity, that I found fascinating, and hugely appealing. Here at last was a character I could relate to.

This project has been an excuse for me to watch some of the series again. Every episode is on YouTube, of course. The scriptwriter, it turns out, was something of an intellectual. Jean-Claude Carriere went on to write screenplays for Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

When he arrives on the island, Carriere’s young Crusoe talks wistfully about his longing to get away from home and see the world. 27 years later, when it is time to leave, he reflects: “I arrived a rash young man full of arrogance, I leave with a sense of peace and fulfilment.”

What effect did encountering Robinson Crusoe have on me? This much I know: I left home as soon as I could, became an arrogant young journalist, got made redundant twice (the modern equivalent of a shipwreck?), and spent 18 years learning to survive on my own, as a self-employed writer. Along the way I learned to love fiction. I’m sure the sense of peace and fulfilment will arrive shortly – in about nine years, if my maths is correct.

The 26 writing group has worked with The Story Museum as part of its 26 Characters exhibition. The group have produced a collection of poems, and couldn’t resist being part of the gallery of favourite characters.

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