DEL Island Discs Episode Nine: Robinson Crusoe

This week’s castaway is Robinson Crusoe from the proto novel of the same name by Daniel Defoe, introduced by Professor Peter Robinson, whose own contribution to the Robinsonade genre is a tercentennial publication called The Constitutionals: A Fiction (2019), in which a character obsessed with Defoe’s hero takes a series of walks around Reading to recover from a vicious virus.

The title page to the first edition (published on 25 April 1719) of The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone on a un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. WITH An Account how he was at last as strangely delivered by Pyrates. Written by Himself must be one of the great spoiler titles in the history of fiction. The book was an immediate success, and Robinson has had a long afterlife as the inspiration of many other adaptations, imitations, and related offshoots – including numerous poems and various pieces of music. There is a large holding of the book’s many editions in Special Collections at the University of Reading. It’s particularly fitting that he is our castaway this week, because he almost certainly helped give Roy Plumley his original idea for the radio show Desert Island Discs, first broadcast on the BBC Forces Programme on 29 January 1942, and still going. His choice of music wasn’t at all easy, not least because, being immortal, he has three centuries of compositions to choose from, but his first piece of music has to be the theme tune to this much-loved radio programme.

1. ‘By the Sleepy Lagoon’ by Eric Coates:

Robinson’s first name is his mother’s maiden name. His surname is an English corruption of his immigrant German father’s name Kreutznaer, and there is a Robinson Crusoe Haus in Bremen. Our castaway’s first big mistake was to run away to sea, going expressly against his father’s advice and wishes. That’s why his second disc, though it could have been Debussy’s much longer composition called ‘La Mer’, or Charles Trenet’s song of the same name that Esther Greenwood chose last week, is instead ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac, and, as it happens, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, was a great admirer of Defoe’s use of the semi-colon.

2. ‘Albatross’ by Fleetwood Mac:

Nowadays the book is widely criticised for its implicit and often explicit ideology, having been published at the height of the slave trade in Britain, for its providentialism, its fear of others, such as the cannibals later encountered, and its attitudes towards Man Friday who Robinson rescues only to make him a kind of servant – and thus of sexism, too, as in the phrase ‘Girl Friday’, used until recently for a female office assistant. J. M. Cotzee’s 1986 novel Foe encapsulates and explores many of the negative themes now attributed to Defoe’s book. Before Robinson is ship-wrecked he has run a plantation using slave labour in the Americas. Slavery is something he knows about first-hand, too, for earlier in the book he is himself enslaved by Barbary pirates from whom he manages to escape. That’s why his third record is this evocative version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Chain Gang’.

3. ‘Chain Gang’ by Bobby King and Ry Cooder:

Most of the adaptations of Robinson Crusoe for young readers exclude the majority of the book, his early voyages, his being enslaved, and the entire final part, which tells of Robinson’s journey home with Friday across the Pyrenees, where they must fight off an attack of wolves. Concentrating on the central period of twenty-eight years spent on the desert island, these redactions emphasise how he copes with the solitude and makes himself a home – setting up, in effect, a little colony, for which the book has also been criticised in recent decades. At the heart of the short versions for the young is a homage to self-sufficiency and the capacity to survive acute loneliness. Crusoe’s choice of record to represent this part of his life was a difficult one, for there is a lot to choose from, and after hesitating over Roy Orbison’s ‘Only the Lonely’, he decided on this version of the 1934 jazz standard by Duke Ellington with lyric by Eddie DeLange and Irving Mills.

4. ‘In my Solitude’ by Billy Holiday

After many challenges and difficulties including the famous episode in which he hollows out a tree-trunk to make a boat only to discover that it is too heavy to move and launch into the sea, Robinson eventually finds that the island is not as deserted as he had thought, for it is used by local cannibals as a place to roast their captives. His fifth piece of music is this song which can’t help but remind him both of how anxious he was about the possibility that he was himself in danger, and how desirous he could be for a way back home.

5. ‘Johnny Come Home’ by Fine Young Cannibals

Defoe’s book has also inspired a comic operetta with a plot very different to the novel’s, and a great many other characters including, necessarily, some sopranos for love interest (the original books is almost female-free). There are a surprisingly large number of tunes that come up if you type Robinson Crusoe in YouTube, so, once again, he is spoiled for choice for his next piece of music, but he opts for this song from Offenbach’s 1867 opéra comique, which, as customarily happens on the show, the producer fades down after a couple of verses so we can get back to the interview with our protagonist.

6. ‘Valsa Jadwiga’ from Robinson Crusoé by Jacques Offenbach

Towards the end of his twenty-eight years on the desert island, this supposedly solitary place becomes positively crowded with pirates who, with the help of Friday, Robinson manages to trick, as well as some Spaniards with whom he magically finds ink to make a contract with them over the future use of his island. The latter stages of the book are then about how he manages to return to England where a widow has invested some of his money from earlier voyages, which has unexpectedly made him a wealthy man – and we can only hope he doesn’t invest it in the South Sea Bubble, which would happen the year after Robinson Crusoe was published. His seventh piece of music is a version of the theme tune from his 1964 French TV series, played by Art of Noise, a British avant-garde synth-pop band from the 1980s.

7. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ by Art of Noise

The most famous scene in the entire book is when Robinson finds a solitary footprint in the sand and discovers that it is a different size from his own. The central human story is then the evolving relationship with his companion, rescued from the cannibals’ feast, who is famously named after the day of the week when Robinson’s prayers are answered, and he is no longer alone. That’s why this 1966 hit about the days of the week by the Easybeats in a cheerfully recent cover just had to be his eighth and final piece of music.

8. ‘Friday on my Mind’ by MonaLisa Twins

When asked how he will cope with being cast away on a desert island, Robinson replies that he is an expert, though he does say that after twenty-eight years already survived he would like to arrange to be rescued, as his model Alexander Selkirk was, after a mere four years. As he tells us in his book, he did have ‘three very good Bibles’ with him, rescued from the shipwreck, but he looks forward to reading the Complete Works of Shakespeare, especially a play he’s heard of called The Tempest, which he thinks might be of great value during his next stint in the Caribbean.

Robinson’s luxury is a Kindle loaded up with all the works which have been spawned by his creator’s original, and which he has not had the time or inclination to check out yet; but he thinks the solitude will provide a perfect opportunity to review them, and perhaps write a critical response to all the fake news that has been spread about him down the centuries.

The one piece of music he would save from the wreck has to be ‘Friday on my Mind’ because it will remind him of his dear companion who, most unfortunately, was murdered by other native peoples when attempting to negotiate with them in Defoe’s second of three volumes, also published in 1719, thus in effect creating the first franchise, a book called The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.

About English Literature at Reading

The Department of English Literature at Reading has been an internationally recognised centre for research and teaching in English Studies for over a hundred years. Our teaching system, with its emphasis on seminars and tutorial work, encourages our students to discuss ideas with tutors and other students in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. All of our students have access to dedicated study advisors; our academic placement scheme and 'professional track' programme provide invaluable preparation for subsequent careers.
This entry was posted in Department of English Literature news and events. Bookmark the permalink.