Sunday, 25 November 2012

The lost world of Sherlock Holmes

I’m almost through the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. I’ve been reading them off and on for a while now, mostly because I took my time, preferring to insert a few stories between my other reading rather than plough through them from start to finish.

After all, the tales are rather similar in many respects. So why do I enjoy them? I think there are three reasons.

I find the atmosphere of the stories hugely appealing. Thick London fogs, clattering cobbles streets full of horse-drawn carriages, narrow alleys, fetid docks, dark and stormy nights, bleak moorland, old houses with a sinister history, proper villains with wooden legs, livid scars or evil leers.

When we returned to Mrs. Warren’s rooms, the gloom of a London winter evening had thickened into one grey curtain, a dead monotone of colour, broken only by the sharp yellow squares of the windows and the blurred haloes of the gas-lamps. As we peered from the darkened sitting-room of the lodginghouse, one more dim light glimmered high up through the obscurity.

On the land side our surroundings were as sombre as on the sea. It was a country of rolling moors, lonely and dun-coloured, with an occasional church tower to mark the site of some oldworld village. In every direction upon these moors there were traces of some vanished race which had passed utterly away, and left as its sole record strange monuments of stone, irregular mounds which contained the burned ashes of the dead, and curious earthworks which hinted at prehistoric strife. The glamour and mystery of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations, appealed to the imagination of my friend, and he spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditations upon the moor.

For me, the relationship between Holmes and Dr Watson adds immensely to the atmosphere of Conan Doyle’s famous tales. There is something profoundly manly about it. Manly in an old-fashioned sense where intellectual sparks mingle with a genuine warm regard. It's the manliness of a sincere handshake and a slap on the back.

When we share our thoughts and ideas, and do so honestly and with due regard for the other person’s intellect, then we create a strong and lasting bond. There is no doubt that Holmes held Watson in high regard, not so much for his analytical strengths, as his feel for the emotional side of human nature, something Holmes knew he lacked.

Maybe the home comforts of 22a Baker Street play their part here too – the blazing fire, pipe-smoking chats and Mrs Hudson always on hand to mother them.

Sherlock Holmes’ world has barely sailed beyond living memory, yet in some respects it is so far from our time that we barely understand it. Yes, we know it as costume drama and we are told how little boys were always being shoved up chimneys and upper middle class white men ruled the world with an iron rod. The naughty bits our narrow, prissy world so abhors – we know about those.

We know all that but we’ve forgotten the freedom. People were more free in the nineteenth century than they are today, more reliant on themselves, their family and friends. Yes they needed money to be free, but those who had it certainly were. A world where one travelled abroad without a passport and dealings with the state were few and far between.

“Bring you revolver, Watson,” couldn’t be said today - couldn’t be done. There is a whole world of lost freedoms in that single sentence, a loss we are barely able to comprehend because most of us would rather not.

It’s not just the guns and self-reliance, but the way prohibitions of vast complexity have descended on us to such a spirit-sapping extent that we hardly realise what we have lost. We have our own fogs - but not half so atmospheric.

We are not even free to tell ourselves what Holmes and Watson had but we don't. We could of course but we don't. It's not part of the narrative - what we threw away in a whole series of careless, wanton imbecilities.

I think that’s the real appeal of the stories – the nostalgia. Not the silly nostalgia of costume drama, but the nostalgia of a genuine loss we'll never repair.


Demetrius said...

Did you have permission from English Heritage to refer to ancient monuments and were you mindful of EU regulations regarding carbon emissions in the discussion on fog?

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - I slipped up there, but I'm hoping they'll take my previous good conduct into consideration.

James Higham said...

Still put Naval Treaty up the top for its immediacy and variation.

A K Haart said...

James - yes, it's a good one.