No map needed to discover this city's treasures

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Shiver me timbers, Bristol goes in search of 'Treasure Island' to celebrate World Book Day. Christina Zaba reports

After Seattle, Chicago and Leeds, it's Bristol's turn. The education, business and civic communities of a single city have united to create a joint reading experience. The Treasure Island project, devised by the team running Bristol's bid to become European Capital of Culture 2008, is designed to cut across social divides to get everyone reading and talking about the same book - in this case a book with a particular resonance for the city.

Robert Louis Stevenson's adventure story is everywhere in the run-up to World Book Day next Thursday. There are lectures, film screenings, a puppet show in libraries, poetry and short story competitions, free teachers' packs and readers' guides. The Bristol Evening Post is serialising the entire text starting on World Book Day; Penguin (which sponsored the citywide promotion for Patrick Suskind's novel Perfume in Leeds last year) is giving away 8,000 copies; Wallace and Gromit, Bristol's favourite animated characters, are promoting the project; and schools, libraries, arts centres and public spaces are hosting activities, events and readings that will bring into focus Bristol's maritime heritage, its legacy of adventure and discovery, and the harsh realities of seafaring life of long ago (not least the pirates).

This potent mixture is especially appealing to children - boys and girls.

After pupils in Years 5 and 6 at St George's CE primary school took part in the project launch in January with the Lord Mayor, their teacher, Marion Derham, read them the story through three weeks of literacy hours, comparing abridged and unabridged versions.

Tucked away in an ancient cobbled alleyway above Bristol's harbour, the 150-year-old school is a stone's throw from the docks. Along the road is the Georgian House museum, built with profits from the 18th-century slave trade; down the hill is the vast and mysterious underground warren of Redcliffe Caves, locked up now, where smugglers used to hide their booty.

Despite the cheerful atmosphere of the school, these streets are crowded with ghosts; all it takes is a good story to bring them to life.

"The past is very real here," says Ms Derham. "I'd love to follow up all the book's links with local history. Treasure Island isn't just for children: parents, older siblings and grandparents are reading it as well.

It's certainly got me going."

Helen Glynn, a history teacher at St Ursula's school in Bristol, an independent for three to 16-year-olds, says the project has touched her personal as well as her professional life. "It's a brilliant idea to do something like this - something that builds up the wider city community."

Ms Glynn's children are 11 and nine and she's planning to take full advantage of the family events on offer, as well as reading the book with staff and pupils at school, and leading field trips to the docks.

"The descriptions of Bristol in the book are beautiful," she points out.

"I've taken my own children down to the Llandoger Trow, the pub where Stevenson is meant to have stayed and which he describes in the book. We've walked along the cobbled streets and the waterside, and talked about what it would have been like when the old ships were there." It's easy to imagine the busy quaysides of 200 years ago, thick with masts and sails, filled with shouts and curses, song and colour. "Bristol's waterside is so important," she says. "It's the key to everything about the city."

Accessibility, Ms Glynn believes, is what will get the whole city reading this long and sometimes archaic book by next week. "Because the Bristol Evening Post is serialising it, everyone's going to have a copy," she points out. "It's all right saying, let's have a city literacy project, but unless people can get hold of the book it isn't going to happen. But once everyone's reading, you can do things - like the paper asking people to give their views by email. We're definitely going to take part in that."

Though she teaches history, Helen Glynn is used to literary debate. She is part of a reading group in which eight friends gather regularly at a member's home to discuss an agreed title. Next on their reading list is Treasure Island.

"In the group, people read through their own experiences; that in itself teaches you sympathy," she explains. "It's a kind of therapy, I suppose.

It's about a lot more than just reading; it's also having the chance to look at different lives." Reading groups have been popular for 200 years (and are now more popular than ever) but to have groups across the city reading the same book is something new, a Capital of Culture overview of an old activity.

For Helen Glynn, the book offers a sense of place, the present and the past bound together. "Treasure Island is an appropriate book for Bristol," she declares. "That's what will make this project work."

For details of programme and resources, tel: 0117 988 1569, or see www.bristol2008.comtreasure island to download the education pack. The story of Treasure Island - Stevenson's book and Treasure Planet, the new futuristic Disney film based on it - is at the centre of the Bedtime Reading Week promotion, March 17-23. See Booktrust's site www.bedtime reading.net to vote for your favourite adventure and enter a competition for free copies of Treasure Island

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