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Monday, 17th December 2007

I magine living on an island

The appearance of more zero's than have appeared in a date for the last 1000 odd years has had some strange effects on people, less so on computers but what did you expect? The prophets of doom might change their tune, we might not go up to the mountain top anymore (although give me a mountain top anyday in preference to a bunker surrounded by tins of baked beans and bottled water) but the result is the same. The day after the end of the world the prophets explain they averted the apocolypse and the rest of us feel a bit foolish.

The British TV networks have mixed the alternative lifestyle, downshifting, free range eggs type ethos with a bit of millenium tension and the docu-soap concept and come up with the idea of setting up an alternative community manned by a group of volunteers stuck on an island.

Not a new idea by any means and so far the networks have managed to avoid some of the gameshow elements that are employed in other countries.

If you hold the story up to a strong light you can see some pretty thin areas

The participants are pretty much a self-selecting bunch with unknown reason for escaping their present realities and an ability to do it. Far more fun, and perhaps killing two birds with one stone, would have been to just ship the entire contents of the House of Lords off to a deserted island and see how they got on, now that would be worth the TV licence fee.

I reckon the most famous of all the desert island inhabitants was Robinson Crusoe. Written by Daniel Defoe a fellow whose known life history can only be described as nearly beyond belief, plots, imprisonment, business failure, spying, political agitator, journalist and writer, all before teatime usually. The book was published when Defoe (he added the De himself) was nearly 60 years old.

Crusoe is a very old friend of mine even the odd economic lecture was enlivened by the appearance of the fellow and his primitive economic system.

I still have the childhood copy of the tale, big book, big words, bigger pictures, fond memories. Then there was the foreign language serial of Crusoe that always came on the television during the school holidays and appeared to last forever. It does not take much to recall that dreadful opening music which seemed to have been a badly scratched and warped gramaphone record. Truly something from another age.

Someone at Gallaher also shared a liking for the character or just thought it would sell more cigarettes. Over 70 years later the creative motives are less important than the cards existence

So now we have Gallaher, Robinson Crusoe [1928] issued as 100 cards. A nice round number with more zeros than most sets of cards.

The style of the card, as can be seen from the illustration, goes with the idea of the story being one of the childrens classics. As you would imagine 100 cards on the subject of Crusoe is going to be pretty definitive. In fact it is basically the entire text of the tale strapped onto the back of the cards.

So faithful to the original they even happily include and illustrate one of the great continuity errors in literature. Card 21, 'A little after noon, the tide ebbed so far out that I could come within quarter of a mile of the ship, so I resolved if possible to get to it. I pulled off my clothes and took the water...'

All well and sensible. The follwing card Crusoe is aboard ship, 'I filled my pockets with biscuits, which I ate as I went about things.' The illustrator is mighty pleased to have this error in the text as it made illustration less tricky.

Lucky for the fellow all the provisions were dry and secure. If only the crew had secured themselves to the ship's buscuits the story would have been so different.

Actually as the cards progress Crusoe reveals a considerable wardrobe. Potentially rescued from the wreck you could certainly make an analysis of the illustrations as there is a consistency of outfit. The white calf length trousers he is wearing as he leaves the stricken vessel are not seen for some time and then appear as firm favourites but ragged later on etc etc.

I am not going to go through the whole darn tale as we all know it. Crusoe heads out to sea has adventures, gets ship-wrecked, washes up on island, has adventures, saves and befriends savage type, basically civilizes him in a very white European way (first word taught, "Master" (card 67), has adventures, gets saved.

One surprise along the way was card 82, the appearance of Friday's father. Friday was pleased to see him, although had trouble recognising him at first for some reason.

If you hold the story up to a strong light you can see some pretty thin areas in the plot but it just about holds together. One thing you note on the cards is a rather determined effort at numbers. The shipwreck floated for 12 days on the 13th it sank, Crusoe had visited 11 times before this happened.

Robinson C knows a length of wood when he sees it

On card 40 he fells a cedar tree which we are informed is 5 feet 10 inches at the lower part, next the stump and 4 feet 11 inches at the end of 22 feet where it parted into branches. He spent 20 days hacking at this trunk and 14 more cutting the branches. All very commendable but only the card earlier he had been making earthenware vessels but could not remember if he made 2 or 3 pots.

Later on he spies 9 savages, he finds 5 canoes, he ends up with three prisoners and so it goes on a mixture of strange observation and accuracy along with memory lapses.

Cruose is a resourceful fellow, no getting away from it but every so often he slips up. He spies upon a she-goat and a kid. Up until this point there was no real evidence of creatures on his island so the first thing he does is kill the she goat. There was a hope to raise the kid but surprisingly it failed to eat so he killed that too and into the pot it went.

Crusoe was fortunate in there being a somewhat unexpected supply of goats and his previously un-mentioned dog had an unsuccesful attempt at hunting them.

The dog is explained later as it had jumped ship the day after Crusoe had stepped onboard stark naked and began filling pockets with biscuits. He also informs us of the rescue of 2 cats that day.

The passage of time was important to Crusoe and after about 10 or 12 days he determines a calander is needed. He fears there is a possibility he would even forget which was the Sabbath day. At this point you wonder when he wrote up his tale. As clearly if he did not know from what day he started his calender it was already too late to know when the Sabbath day was. If he was writing from memory then he had a strange fixation with the size of trees.

It is also something of a mystery as to where Crusoe ended up, he finds a turtle on card 35, he already has goats, there is an earthquake on card 34 and grapes and melons are plentiful on card 36. Certainly no problem in the location of trees, cedar trees. The barley and rice he grows himself. There is also a cave system to explore, along with plentiful excursions by 'savages' who must have been living fairly locally.

Crusoe is not the only one with hidden talents though as the savage (later to become Man Friday) managed to decapitate a savage opponent with one swipe of a sword borrowed from Crusoe. Impressive and rather trusting of our hero to lend it to him. Later Crusoe is content to leave Friday with his gun.

Not surprisingly Crusoe and Friday made a formidable duo and buried both the savages they killed within 15 minutes. Subsequently Friday reveals himself to be partial to a bit of human flesh a habit Crusoe was keen to break him of.

Now that is what a makeshift boat should look like

Crusoe's island frequently has visits from savages in canoes and you can presume Friday has a pretty good idea of how he got there. This was not Crusoe's guess and he spent a good long time constructing a boat. Mind you when you see the thing on card 75 it is barely surprising. The illustrator has gone mad, Crusoe was not going to see in anything as crude as a canoe which you have to assume is all that is needed. Having proved himself something of a shipwright Crusoe then teaches Friday navigation. More likely Friday could teach our hero a thing or two.

Eventually rescue came but Crusoe knew this was too good to be true and indeed it was. Turns out the small landing party was the Captain and a couple of faithful crew that had been set ashore after a mutiny.

Suffice to say our hero gets aboard the vessel quells the mutiny and restores the Captain to his rightful place. Crusoe is an English fellow and 28 years 2 months and 19 days (card 100) has not softened him on bit with regard rules and regulations, the mutineers are given the simple choice, execution or to be left stranded on the island.

They decide to be stranded with some provision Crusoe gives them.

Now that is a good yarn, if you have kids of a certain age, get out your copy of Robinson Crusoe and get reading. If they are of another age get them of that Sega Dreamcast and give 'em a book and if all else fails, read the tale yourself.

Me, I am off to read that favourite copy from my childhood. Along with A Christmas Carol it is a tale which I can read again and again just for the sake of it.