When I chose Gideon Defoe’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists (a book written by a recent anthropology graduate "as a laugh" and to “impress” a girl) as the second book in my Summer Reading Challenge, I knew it wouldn’t take me very long. Or indeed, be very challenging. It’s one of the smallest books I own and always promised to be very silly. Set in an anachronistic 1837, replete with Coco-Pops and gaming arcades but with “authentic” orphans covered in soot, it re-imagines Charles Darwin’s ideological showdown with the Bishop of Oxford as an adventure, with Pirates. Put very simply: Pirates raid the Beagle just off the Galapagos Islands believing it be carrying gold from the Bank of England (false information from a scoundrel of a rival pirate) and, having scuppered the ship, are shamed into giving Darwin and friends a ride back to England; under pressure they also agree to investigate mysterious events surrounding the Bishop of Oxford’s Freak Circus, the shrivelling of young ladies and the kidnapping of Darwin’s brother Erasmus. A London Pirate convention, plus cross-dressing and an attack of scurvy (too much ham, not enough limes), ensues and a ridiculous escapade - part Blackadder, part Sherlock Holmes, part Pirates of the Carribean - is had by all. The day is saved.
In the spirit of an adventuring pirate I’ve decided to construct my Serious Critical post around the “Discussion Topics for Reading Groups” provided at the back of my copy…in which Defoe exhorts his readers to answer “all questions to the best of [their] abilities”.
- What do you think the themes of the book were? Several commentators have described the main theme as “pirates”. Another theme might be said to be “ham”. Would you agree?
It’s difficult. Clearly the book is about pirates, since it stars the Pirate Captain, the Pirate with the scarf, the Pirate with the accordion and the Pirate in the green jumper and features a good number of other pirates as well (including the balding archaeologist Pirate called Stan, a boring Pirate from Oxford called Adam and a stupid Pirate who got in the Pirate Captain’s way when he was eating pancakes). Also piratical doings, such as drinking grog, singing shanties and walking the plank, are integral to plot and character and the Pirate Captain takes roaring “You Scurvy Knaves!” very seriously. (No doubt dastardly pirate fashions are also important to the book’s ambience.) But of course we shouldn’t overlook the theme of Science: Darwin, a duo of meteorologists and the Royal Society are also essential. And if not for the Natural History Museum the Pirate Captain and the evil evolution-opposed Bishop of Oxford couldn’t have had their final fossil-throwing show-down; nor could the Pirate Captain have escaped certain death by tribolite by sliding down the head of a brontosaurus skeleton. Still, in the end, it has to be ham. The pirates depend on ham; they must have ham. When they go on adventures they absolutely have to make sure they have enough to last the duration, plus extra to impress other pirates. In Defoe’s universe ham is the great equaliser, uniting Captain and crew, right down to the little cabin boy, in purpose and harmony. Whether it’s boiled or roasted or smoked (the pirates discuss the best way to cook it at length in the opening scene), ham is a force for good.
- Which do you think is more important to the Pirate Captain – ham or his luxuriant beard? Which is most important to you?
Again, a hard one…but because my analysis thus far encodes ham as the greater unifier, common to all Pirates (and, indeed, human beings), I’m inclined to say that the Captain’s sense of individual selfhood is based on his luxuriant beard. His is the most flourishing and impressive of all pirate beards and his fearsome reputation is a direct result. The Pirate Captain without his beard would surely be like Sampson without his hair? (I’m ham all the way myself. I have a moral objection to beards.)
- On The Late Show, one of the critics, who has a face that looks like it’s made of mallow, said to Germaine Greer, “I wish there were more of Black Bellamy, he was the best character ever.” Would you agree with that assessment?
No (and I’m sure Germaine Greer would agree with me. She always does). Black Bellamy is not a character but a fine plot device. Without the misinformation dealt out by Black Bellamy to the Pirate Captain during a card game (against Pirate rules!) the crew would never have thought the Beagle was a Bank of England ship, would never have met Darwin and thus never had an adventure with Scientists. That would have been a great shame. Still, we could read Black Bellamy (who has 40 pigs on board his ship) as the Pirate Captain’s reputational nemesis, a man whom he measures himself against. One could say he was the pirate Other whereby our own Pirate Captain creates his own identity.
- Apart from Brian Blessed, who do you think should play the Pirate Captain in a movie adaptation?
It’s difficult not to see Johnny Depp as the Pirate Captain, although assuredly his beard isn’t luxuriant enough. And, of course, Russell Crow does a great line in captaining in Master and Commander, but he’s more suited to Napoleonic heroics and is hardly the stuff Pirates are made from. I’m sure, however and after hours of thought, that Viggo Mortensen could both grow a beard luxurious enough and slide down brontosaurus skeletons with the requisite dignified aplomb. That man can do anything.
5. Choose a word that best represents your feelings on finishing The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists:
Hungry (though not, treacherously, for ham).
- Scientifically speaking, who do you think is the tallest pirate in the world?
I have to admit I didn’t know…so I googled “world’s tallest pirate” and discovered that it is Harry Potter. Yes, that little wizard has his fingers in all the pies.
- To whom would you recommend this classic of Pirate comic fiction?
To students, current and former, plus Eddie Izzard fans the world over and anyone who’s just finished a 1500 page long literary novel. It’s just that kind of funny, the kind in which non-sequiturs, malapropisms and food products out of context are key.
Finally, three nautical “huzzahs” for adventures in ham!