You’ll find scurvy dogs a’plenty down at the Museum of London.
Their Pirates exhibition opened this week.
Even Captain Jack’s at it again. Ask any kid or ask any adult, for that matter, and they’ll tell you that pirates are cool (the sole exception being John Galliano). Once they were forgotten on a desert island far, far away.
Now they are back jigging in the rigging.
They’re reborn in the popular imagination every fifty years and they always come back in a different guise.
Nowadays, pirates are Johnny Depp playing Cap’n Jack Sparrow with black eye liner and pigtails, going down with the ship in the first Pirates of the Caribbean film of 2003, the long overdue spin off from the Audio-Animatronic adventure ride unveiled at Disneyland in 1967. The film has given rise to a huge franchise with its fourth sequel filmed partly in Greenwich during 2010 and on the screen now as this year’s blockbuster movie.
Yet there is something bonkers and anarchic about Depp’s portrayal. It includes something of the ‘mockney’ of early David Bowie (exemplified in the surname of Sparrow), something of the brain-addled sex, drugs and rock and roller that still is Keith Richards and a little of the fay metrosexual that is Depp himself. The Somalis might be real pirates but they have no charm or cachet, unlike Cap’n Jack who has come to exemplify the new face of piratanical adventure in an age of corporate nobodies, overweight bankers and dreary politicians. In an age of grey austerity, he is pure Technicolor. No wonder we love Cap’n Jack. He is the spirit of the sixties revived in the melded guise of Adam Ant and a new age traveller, but with the sensibility of contemporary culture. His continual wonderment at what is actually happening around him is a perfect analogue of our own cultural bewilderment.
There is something deeply daft about fictional pirates, something that’s got a lot to do with their way of expressing themselves, I suspect. For who could keep a straight face whilst being ordered by a gimpy pirate with a wooden leg to walk the plank as his parrot repeats ‘pieces of eight’ and ‘yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum’. I’d even change my name to Jim Lad for the privilege of hearing, a pirate exclaim oo’ argh’, ‘avast there, me hearties’, or some such piratical twaddle before sinking to my doom in Davy Jones’s locker! Facebook even has a facility to turn ordinary speech into ‘ol ‘pirate dialect’ with a whole vocabulary of phrases such as ‘bewitched portrait’ for video and ‘livery bilge raps be sendin’ ye news’ which is pirate talk for updates and even ‘shots o’ rum’ for company minutes.
This penchant for ludicrous speech patterns originated in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island of 1883, but really found its voice in the accent of Robert Newton, who readers of a certain age will recall as Long John Silver in the Disney film of Treasure Island made in 1950 and the television series that followed. Captain ‘Charles Johnson’ started the taste for pirates in 1724 with his General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates in which he immortalised Blackbeard (William Teach) and the illustrations of Howard Pyle gave them their modern look.
Comical Cornish pirates took centre stage in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Pirates of Penzance( a modern pie company even has a logo featuring a pirate munching a pasty) and pirates appeared in films such as the first Treasure Island of 1934 which starred Lionel Barrymore; F Tennyson Jesse introduced us to the first female fictional pirate in Moonraker in 1927 (both Mary Read and Anne Bonny were real pirates) , whilst Jeffrey Farnol had a buccaneer called Adam Penfeather talk the same salt-soaked nonsense in a novel of 1940, and, of course there’s always Captain Hook to scare the kids at panto season, or Captain Pugwash from Blue Peter. Nevertheless, Newton remains the patron saint of pirates.
It’s with the sound of Robert Newton ringing in their ears that John Baur (Ol’Chumbucket) and Mark Summers (Cap’n Slappy) of Albany, Oregon declared in 1995, that from then on September 19 was to be ‘Talk Like a Pirate Day’. The nutty idea followed a raquetball injury when one of them cried ‘aaarrr!’ in pain. The two kept their new found ‘holiday’ to themselves until it was picked up by a columnist and syndicated, but it was the wilful lack of trademarking, freedom of access to the idea and international ‘viral’ growth that opened the concept to all and made the products of its holiday atmosphere shareable and communal.
Baur and Summers made pirating fun for adults and Johnny Depp made buccaneers cool and very sexy, so no wonder that a group of Scandinavians soon cottoned on and created a new politics based, not on the old party system but on the designer chic of piratical ways. The Piratpartiet or Pirate Party was founded in 2006 by Swede Rick Falkvinge with a manifesto that argued for the reform of laws which restricted freedom of information, that upheld rights to privacy and argued for the transparency of government.
It is the first political party that comes from, and speaks to, the Internet generation. It is also a party of the disenchanted, but technically savvy young, who now seemed to have made alliance between green politics and the information led post-modernism their lifestyles are meant to exemplify. Indeed, in Sweden the Pirate Party actually surpassed the green vote in 2008, making it the third largest party in the country and gaining it two members of the European Parliament in 2009. There are Pirate Parties in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Spain, Germany, Morocco, as well as Tunisia (where the recent revolution has seen members of the party persecuted) and even Britain.
The Pirate Party UK boasts a membership of 3000, not many perhaps, but made up of motivated and active young people, especially students involved with the recent demonstrations, interested in libertarian, social justice or information politics. There is talk amongst students of this being something new and refreshing in politics; something for their generation in the twenty- first century.
‘In recent years’ the Pirates argue ‘we have seen an unprecedented onslaught on the rights of the individual. We are treated like criminals when we share entertainment digitally, even though this is just the modern equivalent of lending a book or a DVD to a friend. We look on helpless as our culture and heritage, so important for binding our society together, is eroded and privatised. Now there is a democratic alternative… we, the people, can overturn the fat cats and the corrupt MPs who hold our nation's cultural treasures to ransom, ignore our democratic wishes and undermine our civil liberties’.
The movement, however, is based on a certain naïve idealism: a party that ‘admits it doesn't always have all the answers, is willing to listen and that wants to give voters more rights not burden them with any more taxes’, suggests the moral high ground but little else besides.
Yes it’s thin gruel , but who would be so mealy mouthed as to argue with such fine sentiments especially now that no one trusts mainstream politicians?
Succinctness is a virtue in politics and a necessity for the Twitter generation and the Pirates are nothing if not succinct. Even the description of the party is short and sweet. Their main plank is that the ‘world is changing’ and the Internet has turned everything into a ‘global village’, an expression borrowed and revived from the sayings of Marshall McLuhan, the sixties media guru who predicted the ‘medium is the massage’ long ago, now not only reborn as a reality, but also as an ideological sensibility, something he could not have predicted.
This is a new politics of tweeting, texts and blogs, of P2P streaming and ‘Pirate Bay’, of communities that simply exist in virtual space or that come together in temporary communities at festivals, demos or flash mobs. It is no less serious for all that. This is also, at least in part, a life style movement nether aligned to the old right nor left of the political spectrum; a party of moral outrage for the emotionally important sensibilities of a generation in waiting, advocates of Black Bloc and UK Uncut.
There are currently 50 pirate parties in existence across the world. There is no funding, just good wishes and occasional donations. The PPI (the international congess of the movement) allegedly has all of 600 Euros in its account, but much of its effort has gone towards supporting Wikileaks. This is their most timely coup, with the older political hegemony discredited by its constant threat to gag alternative political beliefs. The United States is again cast as the bad guy, its borders guarded by satellites and lawyers attempting to patrol the briny ocean of cyber information against piratical libertarians.
Indeed, the moral support the PPI lends to Julian Assange is probably the greatest recruiter to individual Pirate parties. The wars of the twenty-first century, so worrying to British generals, will not be fought, we are told, with tanks or aircraft carriers, but with intelligence, passwords and encryption. The new enemy may not be Al Qaeda at all, but the pirates of the communications highway. Shiver me timbers, is that a skull and crossbones on the horizon, cap’n?