Friday, 17 January 2014

The big day for Sherlock fans

A Sidney Paget illustration of Sherlock
Holmes in his deerstalker cap from The
Boscombe Valley Mystery,  1891.
This Sunday marks the start of the third season of the TV series Sherlock where Sherlock Holmes will (apparently) come back from the dead after the modern adaptation of Holmes' dive over the Reichenbach Falls. Much harder to solve than the original resolution, quite a number of words have been spilled (here and there) about the possible solution. Just in case one of them is right, and if you don't like spoilers, perhaps check after the show to see if anyone nailed it!

I rewatched the last episode last night, and I don't have an answer but I saw a few things that I think were intended to be clues or perhaps that we are supposed to think are clues. A friend wondered if it might all have been a dream. I seriously doubt that such a hackneyed solution would be used -- the scripts have all been far too clever for that and have captured the essence of the Conan Doyle stories brilliantly. The closest to anything like a dream in the original stories was the poisonous fumes from the lamp in the The Adventure of the Devil's Foot where hallucinations preceded death. Besides, if the solution does not have the cleverness of the original stories, the ratings will plummet faster than Holmes did in the last episode.

So lets abandon the show now and get postmodern about everything. What is it about Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories that capture people? There has to be at least two types of answers: Why just about everybody likes them, and what drew anyone to the stories in the first place? I have given some thought to the first one. Detective stories are sometimes called "whodunits" but, having read most of the stories many times, I find that I often do not remember the perpetrator. What I remember most is how Holmes solves the problem. So I can reread some of them and still get the effect of the "whodunit". As to the second answer, it will always be personal, of course, so I can only tell you how I became a fan. I will recount that story at the end of this post.

For now, though, let's engage in a little very easy detective work about the Holmes stories. One of Holmes' hallmarks is his deerstalker hat. Why does he have such a thing? None of the stories actually mention it, but it is implied (by talk of ear flaps) in Silver Blaze, and some people have thought this might be its origin. That is not so, however, as the in the lead picture, above, Holmes is wearing a deerstalker. That story was published in 1891, and Silver Blaze was published in 1892. The latter is one of the most popular stories for the following:
Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident."
This is very clever and true to life. My own dog barks when anyone approaches my place. Now, if one of my neighbors hears someone walking across my back garden path in the middle of the night, and my dog is not barking, then he or she -- if they had some powers of deduction, would not phone the police; they would know it was me. Tristan knows the sound of my feet on the path and never barks when I approach.

The Holmes stories illustrator, Sidney Paget,
wearing his deerstalker cap
The photo on the left depicts the illustrator Sidney Paget in his deerstalker cap, so it seems likely that Conan Doyle mentioned ear flaps after Paget had Holmes wearing such a cap in the publication of the previous year. While Conan Doyle modelled the Holmes character, to a degree, after Dr Joseph Bell, it would seem that the image of Sherlock Holmes was modelled somewhat after that of the artist, himself. Perhaps it was the illustrations that had inspired the mention of the ear flaps. I doubt that Conan Doyle had told Paget to depict Holmes in a deerstalker, and then Paget had thought "I should get one of those". Certainly, the artist's daughter did not think so.

Kettlebrook Cottages near Steep, Hampshire
 © Copyright Martyn Pattison and licensed for
reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The first Sherlock Holmes story I remember reading, as a boy, was The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was behind the right-side gable window in the photograph to the right where I read it -- by gaslight at night just before I drifted off to sleep listening to the Ashford Stream gurgling past the cottage. The stream had once been called "the noisy stream", but each night it lulled me to sleep. I would awake more refreshed by sleep than I have experienced since then. The house had settled over the centuries and was absolutely silent. The beams, I was told, were taken from captured Spanish galleons and you could still see the shipwright's numbers cut into them. It was called Kettlebrook Cottage back then. Nowadays, the name has been pluralized. Would you like a quick tour? The house has been modernized since but when I was there the last renovations were in Queen Victoria's time. Gone is the hand pump above the sink and the gas lighting. Things with which Holmes would have been familiar (if he had existed).

I went there for a week's holiday with David, my best friend at that time. It was his grandmother who owned the house. We brought our bikes as the buses did not go there -- transporting them on the train from London. We also brought our fishing tackle -- nothing tasted better than the pink-fleshed trout we caught outside and had for breakfast one day. Although a ham that Mrs. Dale had got from a nearby farm came very close. She also had a netted berry garden at the side of the house and her elderberry wine was sublime. David and I also found a large, and old, bottle of cider in the cellar -- the rest of the evening is a blur. One morning, I was standing on the bank to the left of the photo with my fishing rod. A couple of young girls were standing by the fence laughing at me. I think they believed that such a narrow stream could have no fish in it -- at least big enough for breakfast. But most of them were just of perfect size. They hid in holes near the bank by tree roots and not far away was a deeper and wider pool just past the Georgian house next door. I was told that the stream was a tributary of the River Test, and we could not afford to fish there! I like to think that our trout were native, and not restocked like the Test. There was one really big trout that went by at about 10.30 every morning, we called him "Burlington Bertie" and we never managed to get him interested at all.

Shadows on the Kettlebrook Path (
photo: Basher Eyre
One morning, I explored the path that went past the cottage alone. I think that David had wanted to sleep in that morning (it might have been the cider). After I had passed the back of Sir Alec Guinness' house, I came across what appeared to be a small disused quarry and I decided to climb up its face. The loose stones made it hard going and just before I got to the top I felt the ground give way beneath my feet. I decided to run to the edge. I almost made it. I came sliding down the face and landed near a large rock, relatively uninjured. As I lay there, I saw a fragment of an old and dried-out hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) inches from my face. I took it. It was the perfect thing to dry trout flies. I used it for quite a while afterward. Squeeze such around a trout fly for a second and the fly becomes bone-dry.

I wanted something to read in bed, and looking through Mrs. Dale's library I came across the second edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles. "That book might give you nightmares!" she said, but it didn't. Instead, reading it by gaslight each night in that old house put me right back in Conan Doyle's time.  I have loved the Sherlock Holmes stories ever since and they have greatly affected the way that I think about things.


  1. These are wonderful books and the BBC series (by the same writers who work on Dr. Who) do a wonderful job of updating the stories. The CBS show is surprisingly good too, but the BBC show really is superior. Just a personal note, Conan Doyle was evidently an ancient coin collector! It would be neat to be able to add one of his coins to our collections.

  2. Hi Peter,

    I completely agree with you about both series. I did not know that Conan Doyle collected ancient coins! One of my favorite "unexpected" ancient coin collectors, was Sir William Flinders Petrie. He was also a bit of a "wheeler dealer", buying coins in London junk shops with the goal of selling the best to the British Museum. This, of course, was before he became one of the originators of modern archaeology for his work in Egypt. Another collector -- my favorite of all, was Sir John Evans. He virtually created the subject of Celtic numismatics in Britain. He was the first to develop archaeological seriation -- another aspect of modern archaeology. He was also president of the Society of Antiquaries, and one of the giants upon whose shoulders I stand.

    It would seem that the best archaeologists have been ancient collectors -- not too surprising considering all of the subsidiary subjects one must become familiar with. I always tell people that modern archaeology originated with a marriage of numismatics and geology.



  3. last year i took my 10 year old son theodosios to see the sir john soanes musem and of course the petrie musem [ ] is just 3 min walk from the soanes museum.the petrie museum in ucl is fantastic. petrie was a big collector of egyption antiquities, soanes was also a collector ,though soanes collection was a bit of everything especially was free to get in to,nothing can beat london.

  4. Hi Kyri,

    I remember so much being there in the mid sixties, so many of the shops seemed to have vanished when I was back in '99, and antiquities appeared to be much sparser than back when I was young.

    Petrie often gave a few interesting gifts of things he had excavated to his friends and contacts. I think that I came across one of them a few years back. It was sold by a British dealer. It was an Amarna style red glass paste inlay. I found it for someone. The seller did not realize that it was a Royal portrait. Just the head, it was recessed for a crown. The ear was not pierced for an earring, but the Amarna style can be so "stylistic" that even the sex is sometimes difficult to make out. When it got to Canada it was authenticated by an Egyptologist. I'll ask the owner if a can do a blog post on it. My gut feeling it is that is Smenkhkare.

    Here's London legend for you, I knew Louis Meier, a very strange old Swiss dealer who had a shop in Cecil Court. The shop was dark, messy and untidy. He had an assistant I knew as Miss Gray, a woman who bore some resemblance to Margaret Rutherford. His previous assistant had been Elsie May Batten, who was murdered in the shop in 1961. The killer was found through Britain's first use of the Identikit.

    But that's not the legend -- It was said that Louis Meier had a warehouse full of Egyptian antiquities somewhere in London. The story went that he had been a buyer for the British Museum, but had a falling out with them and kept the last shipment. He had quite a bit of mostly cheaper antiquities in the shop, including a three drawer chest crammed so full of ancient bronzes (mostly Roman and Egyptian) that you could barely pull out the drawers. I must have bought more than dozen Osiris figures from him over a couple of years. Once, I found a mummy's foot rattling round in a ushabti box. I paid 2 pound for the foot. He had a rolled funerary papyrus and what little you could see of the hieroglyphs at the edge of it, you could tell it was really fine style. He wouldn't sell it until he had it unrolled. So there's a fun project for you -- hunting down Louis Meier's lost treasure! The first prize would be the discovery of the treasure, the second, the discovery of the legend of it ;-) Was it real?

  5. very interesting john,to be honest i know next to nothing about egyption antiquities.a few have passed through my hands but i allways traded them or sold them on.i once bought a nice mummy mask from lots road chelsea from the estate of a deceased german archaeologist for £200 and sold it at bonhams for over £800,i was expecting £2000 + i never have luck when selling or trading up.i do know a few people that can read hieroglyphs very easily and they are doctor i know just wrote a book on egyption funerary cones,all very interesting but way over my head.

  6. Hi Kyri,

    At least, the ₤800 showed a good profit -- even after the commission! In that price range, a coin-dealer friend mostly makes about 20% profit -- sometimes only 10% if it is a quick sale, and he has his shop overheads to think about! It was always the encaustic masks that got the big money.

    I didn't collect Egyptian antiquities for very long -- they creeped out my mother and when I came home with the mummy foot, it was the last straw for her and she made me keep it in the garage that night! I sold it in Portobello Road for ₤7/10/- the next Saturday.

    Most of the mummy parts in London at that time were the remains of those brought out of Egypt in the nineteenth century that were ground up to make the painters pigment called "mummy". The fad did not last long as the bitumen was destructive to the ground. All very weird!

    My most exciting deal, as a kid, was when I found a buyer for an elderly friend's British Bronze Age collection of weapons and tools. He had inherited it from H. G. Wells brother. He gave me a little Etruscan bronze statuette as a commission. It's amazing what things fetch these days. One Portobello road dealer back then had a life-size reclining matron in marble that he regretted buying in the first place. He said that he couldn't even sell it as a garden ornament. Most often, antiquities and coins that would get a sold as a single illustrated lot in an auction catalogue today. were sold unillustrated in larger lots. Greek painted pottery, especially Attic, always did quite well though.

    I never even saw a single Celtic antiquity, though. My interest in those dates only from the mid-eighties -- but nearly thirty years of (slowly) collecting and studying them has given me a good "eye". Vincent has thought that I did very well on a couple of pieces -- especially the two bigger strap junctions on this blog -- better than anything the British Museum has in that category! Of course, the Plastic style sword pommel is the find of a lifetime as it is a "missing link" in the story of British Celtic art. Jody Joy, at the British Museum, was rather embarrassed to have authorized its export permit. You can't blame him, though, even the style has no British precedent and the study of continental styles is often lacking in British institutions. Ian Stead would have recognized it of course and he said that he would certainly never have given it an export permit!

    My best to your family, (and the dog!)