Conan Doyle – A Study in Scarlet

“I might not have gone but for you, and so have missed the finest study I came across – a study in scarlet, eh? … There’s the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and our duty is to unravel it, and isolate it, and expose every inch of it.” (p. 41)

So, here we are, the very first meeting of the Reading Public with the great consulting detective, Mr Sherlock Holmes. And, if you would pardon the football analogy (Match of the Day is on in the background), but this really is a book of two halves. In fact, apart from the final two chapters, you could probably skip the bulk of the second half of the book; Utah in the late 19th century may have been a wild and lawless place, but I do think a lot of what takes place is a little far-fetched. Good motivation for a couple of murders though, it has to be said.

It has to be remembered that when this story was published, back in 1890, there was very little in the way of detective fiction, and the conventions that have been established over the years simply didn’t exist. Essentially, Conan Doyle could have done what he wanted with his detective and nobody would have minded. As it stands, we have a layman with an interest in forensic science, keen observation skills and a cold, objective outlook on everything he comes across.

It’s in his sidekicks where I have an issue. Almost to a man – and they are all men – they appear bungling, dim witted and too keen to chase the obvious, and I am including Watson in that statement. The star of the show was always Holmes, and Holmes would always have to come out on top, no matter how bad everyone else had to look. Which is a shame, because Holmes himself considers Lestrade and Gregory to be “the keenest of a rum lot” which for him is praise indeed.

Despite his experiences as a military doctor, Watson comes across as strangely innocent, naïve almost, in his outlook. He seems to find it nonsensical that by the application of careful observation, a considerable amount of information may be ascertained about a person without them having to tell you anything. Even when Holmes shows Watson carefully how his method can be applied, Watson treats it with a certain amount of scorn – yet is quickly astonished when Holmes is unfailingly proved correct.

For the hardened Sherlockian, all the essentials are here – Mrs Hudson, the Baker Street Irregulars, Lestrade, a cunning villain – indeed, all that’s missing is Moriarty although it’s possible he’s lurking in the background. I can see why the stories have remained popular over the years; they are easy to read, fun and educational, even if sometimes factually wrong or with gaping great plot holes. Who cares?


The Real Exotic Marigold Hotel

Occasionally, the BBC come up with an idea which sounds like fun, but turns into something enlightening, interesting and most of all, thought provoking. This was one such idea. Eight celebrities – and I loathe this kind of reality television usually – all of State retirement age are flown out to India to see if they could be tempted to spend their retirements there. I have to say now that of the celebrities, I don’t think there were any I particularly cared for (although I was very depressed to note that I had actually heard of all of them) and whilst there were a couple I could quite happily have slapped, equally a couple raised themselves in my estimations no end.

So – what are the merits of retiring to India? The weather is certainly the main factor. For two thirds of the year it is hot and dry (although monsoon season is usually wet, it’s the kind of wet that dries out very quickly in the heat) and if you suffer from arthritis, Reynard’s syndrome and such things, it is quite beneficial. However, almost all of the celebrities on the show complained that the heat was too much for them initially, although they did acclimatise.

Secondly, the cost of living is appallingly cheap. No, seriously – the mansion used by the celebrities on the show would cost each of them £20 per week to staff, plus £10 per week to feed. That is for eight people; where else would you be able to run a household for £30 per week? If you are able to do your own shopping or housework, or cooking (or all of the foregoing) then it’s even cheaper, but if you had the opportunity to get out of the chores… sorry, employ knowledgeable and helpful locals, wouldn’t you?

In relation to the healthcare, well quite honestly, if you can afford it, you can get excellent healthcare, but that’s true of anywhere really. Indian doctors almost all speak excellent (if heavily accented) English and modern drugs are available. It’s not all ground worms and tree blossoms you know, although Ayurvedic and homeopathic remedies are all available if the patient prefers.

Safety is an unpredictable factor; recent reports about sexual violence against women have not included women of retirement age, so without ruling it out entirely, it is possible that ladies of a certain age may well be safer than otherwise. This is not to say, of course, that one must not take care to be responsible for your own safety; vigilance is always a good quality to keep, wherever you live and however old you are.

I have to say that, having watched the show, I am finding the idea of retiring to India sorely tempting and if I didn’t have such strong family ties to this country, I would go like a shot. Perhaps it’s something to consider in the future, after I’ve won the lottery – because that’s all I’m waiting for…

Wells – War of the Worlds

One of HG Wells’ earliest – and probably most successful – stories, this short novel has captured the imagination since its first publication in 1897 and has been adapted for film and radio broadcast on a number of occasions, most famously by Orson Welles in the mid-1930s. It’s written in a dry, journalistic, non-sensationalist style from the point of view of an unnamed narrator, who finds himself separated from his family and in the path of the invading Martians. It’s a quietly thrilling read, if you can imagine such a thing – it’s really very exciting, but the excitement is tempered by the feeling that the narrator really is putting his life on the line.
Of course, science now tells us that “the chances of anything coming from Mars are a million to one” – or less, although NASA have not yet ruled out the possibility of residual microbial life in the Martian soil. So why is the story still so popular?
Quite aside from being very well written – I can’t pick holes in it like I did with the Conan Doyle recently, and I’ve tried – there are certain themes in the story which still seem to resonate. Firstly, it was long held as a criticism of Britain’s imperialist tendencies, and its treatment of the original inhabitants of new colonies was something held up for particular discussion. Indeed, Wells himself likens it to the fate of the dodo at the end of Chapter 1 – and we all know how that ended up.
Secondly, it is also read as a thinly disguised attack on the arrogance of humanity as a species; the assertion that we are “higher” than the animals because we are made in God’s image is shown to be fallacious, as the Martians – in spite of the obstructions of gravity and lack of an opposable thumb – take no time at all to devastate huge swathes of Surrey and Sussex. Indeed, it is a virus or bacteria to which they have no immunity which takes its toll against the invaders, but by the time they succumb to that, England is ruined. I find this haunting, as it reminds me of the devastating effects of smallpox in the Americas when the Conquistadors brought it over with them from Europe.
For me, the best adaptation of the book will always be Jeff Wayne’s concept album, featuring Richard Burton as the narrator (as well as David Essex as the artilleryman and Phil Lynott as the curate – huge stars at the time it was recorded). In fact, I find it difficult to read the first couple of paragraphs without hearing Burton’s voice and singing the opening chords in my head. It really works – and I’m both surprised and secretly pleased that it was not successfully repeated for any other novels. War of the Worlds gets away with it.

We Have A New Planet!

Some time ago, I read a series of books by a chap called Zecharia Sitchin – now no longer with us, sadly, because I expect he’d be very excited right now – which claimed that the ancient Babylonian gods were really aliens from a planet in an erratic orbit that took thousands of years and spent most of its time outside the Kuiper Belt (the extreme edge of the Solar System). Having now carried out a number of computer models to explain the strange orbits of some of the dwarf planets and other bodies in that area, such as Pluto, scientists at Caltech have said that this can only be explained by the existence of a large planet with a highly eccentric orbit.
In other words, Sitchin may well have been right on this point. Just as well for us that he named the planet, so we don’t have to spend too much time thinking what to call it; it’s Nibiru, which some people may recognise from Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Of course, the question of whether Sitchin was right about his other theories of the formation of the Solar System are anybody’s guess, but occasionally a little story comes up that makes you think – hang on… His books (of which there are seven main books and a series of companion volumes) are easy to read with plenty of pictures to “support” his hypothesis; however, many archaeologists do take his ideas with a considerable pinch of salt, saying that he has either misread or misunderstood Babylonian cuneiform. Whatever… just remember what he said when Nibiru comes passing in a couple of thousand years’ time.
While I’m on this subject, I would like to state for the record that despite Caltech insisting this is “Planet Nine” – I was always told that Pluto was a planet, it has a moon (it has four, but when I was smaller, we only had Charon to play with), and it had an unusual orbit. A handful of scientists a decade ago decided that it was from then on to be called a dwarf planet – it’s still a planet, just a very small one, it seems. So calling this new discovery “Planet Nine” indicates poor maths, as surely it should be Planet Ten – or, if you prefer Roman numerals, Planet X? And that will lead us to a whole new set of conspiracy theories. Don’t you just love these self-fuelling ideas?

It Seems Being A Bad Writer Is Okay

Having successfully depressed myself in conducting a close reading of my favourite Sherlock Holmes short story and realising how badly written it was, it occurred to me that the quality of one’s writing is clearly no barrier to literary success. Basically, if you can spin a good yarn and the reading public like the stories you tell, you’ll make a very good living indeed.

For example, I went through A Scandal in Bohemia – possibly my favourite of all the Holmes stories – with a fine toothed comb and found some fairly startling mistakes that, frankly, Conan Doyle should never have made but do not seem to have stood in the way of his success one jolt. For example, as a doctor, Conan Doyle should have known that cocaine is not sedative – quite the opposite, in fact, although it was used as a local anaesthetic at the time he was writing. It is a stimulant, so Holmes taking it and then drifting off to sleep for a few hours is not possible. He would have been agitated, pacing and possibly exceedingly irritating.

Secondly, Irene Adler’s wedding in the second part of the story is so nonsensical as to border on farce. It is apparent that she and Norton are marrying under a special licence; but no marriage licence in the land (now or in 1888, when the story was set) would have expired at noon. Moreover, no marriage was legal unless it was conducted in the presence of at least two witnesses – even under a special licence. So Adler and Norton marrying with only Holmes in disguise as a witness is not a valid marriage.

I also don’t understand why the King of Bohemia – who is a boorish, arrogant barbarian if ever Conan Doyle wrote one – swears Holmes and Watson to secrecy for two years, as “after that it will not matter”. Why not? What’s going to happen in two years that will render the threat of blackmail pointless? He’s already inherited his title, he will have married well before then (and probably produced an heir) – I don’t understand. I’ll gloss over the fact that the King seems to think Irene should have been grateful to have known him, in whatever capacity. Such a charmer.

Anyway, back to the point. Now that I’ve read through the story very carefully indeed, I find it difficult to call Conan Doyle a GOOD writer. However, it is undeniable that he was an extremely successful writer, which I suppose is more important. The same also applies to Dan Brown and EL James, both of whom have written shockingly bad novels that sold by the truckload and made their fortunes.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve read “A Scandal in Bohemia” a good dozen times and I’ve only just got round to doing this. I’ll probably never be able to read it again, now. Serves me right.

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi)

Spikenard is one of those essential oils with a lengthy traditional usage, and is mentioned in the Bible almost as much as frankincense and myrrh (about which another day). It is a variety of valerian which grows extensively in the Himalayan regions, and the oil is derived from steam distillation of the crushed rhizomes. It is an intensely thick and musky oil, which is rarely used in perfumery, as the same effects can be provided with cheaper ingredients.

It was costly even in Biblical times which was why the disciples complained about Mary Magdalen using it to wash Jesus Christ’s feet (Matthew 20:2). Aside from its perfume and incense qualities, it is also used as a sedative and relaxant, and has been used to treat insomnia. However, since ancient times it has been used to anoint the dead prior to funerals; Achilles uses it to anoint the body of Patroclus in the Iliad and it is an essential ingredient in the Tabernacle incense used in Orthodox Judaism.

Why You Should Never Upset A Librarian

I wish, if I may, to dispel a number of rumours about librarians; believe me when I tell you that they are not always what they seem. And certainly, they should never be provoked, as one never truly knows what one is dealing with.

Firstly, a librarian may seem demure and harmless, but these people are strong. Well, you would be if you lifted weights for eight hours a day, five days a week. What is deceptive is that they are not all built like Arnold Schwartzenegger, so caution must always be exercised, lest they politely show you to the required shelving – head first. They are also exceedingly fit from walking around shelving all day, and have the patience of saints. However, even a saint’s patience can be tried a little too often, so don’t push your luck.

Secondly, a librarian is always armed. For even the Doctor acknowledged that books are the most powerful weapons in the world, and with a book, the world can be changed. There are few things more dangerous than someone with an education (admittedly, someone with a gun would be one). A librarian has at their disposal a bottomless fount of wit, wisdom and instruction manuals enough to survive almost any situation. Tread carefully.

Thirdly, a librarian will always have better grammar than you. So don’t argue – unless you are their former English teacher, in which case, good luck. Chances are they will also have a greater command of a number of other languages, alive or dead, so don’t be tempted to lapse into the vernacular. They will still defeat you.

And finally, librarians have a thankless task in trying to keep the Great British Public reading, for free, in a time when the Not So Great British Government is hell-bent on closing them down and condemning poorer families, students, the elderly and young children to a lifetime of illiteracy. Theirs is a lonely fight for a noble cause and, much like the chivalrous knights of old, they risk becoming a part of myth and legend instead of reality.

For the record, the author always wanted to be a librarian. I still do. I hold them in the highest esteem, the greatest respect and deepest envy. Best wishes to librarians everywhere.

Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara)

Neroli is one of three essential oils produced by various parts of the bitter orange tree and is one of the costliest oils to produce (along with jasmine, rose and sandalwood). This oil is produced by steam distillation of the orange blossom flowers. Please note that orange blossom oil is produced from the same flowers but by a different method, and the scent is therefore slightly different. Neroli oil is sweet yet green and slightly spicy and very refreshing. It is extensively used in perfumery. It is said to be the essence of innocence, and this is one of the reasons why orange blossoms were frequently seen in traditional bridal bouquets; as neroli oil has relaxant properties, I suspect it was also rather helpful for a nervous bride! It is extensively used in skin creams and has been since the end of the 17th century. So it’s been around a while!

On Childhood Icons

Yesterday the death of yet another of my childhood heroes was announced; David Bowie, so soon after Lemmy from Motorhead and even Ed Stewart has finally left the building. I used to look forward to Crackerjack on a Friday afternoons, and that is not a euphemism. But as was pointed out to me very recently, I am now at an age where my childhood heroes, being at least twenty years older, will be disappearing all too soon.

Even so, I have never been someone who gave a public display of grief, and whilst I appreciate that many people feel it a necessary thing to do, I simply don’t understand it. I respect the right of others to visit significant sites or lay flowers, but I feel very awkward when faced with it, because I just do not feel the same way. It’s not that I don’t miss people – I do, often very deeply – but even where family members are concerned, grief is something I keep behind a closed door.

There may also be a certain amount of jadedness creeping in, as quite a few of my childhood heroes now have blackened reputations – yes, Messrs Glitter and Harris, I’m talking about you – so I find it very hard now to feel anything other than relief that they’ve gone. I’m not sure how I will feel when Rolf Harris finally leaves us; I always used to watch his art programmes when I was growing up, but it doesn’t feel right now to grieve over a convicted sex offender. But he was a key part of my childhood and I shall miss him.

This is very hard for me to write, because I don’t want to trample on other people’s grief – I know it is very real for them, and I do respect it – but I simply don’t feel the same way any more. Perhaps I’m just getting old, and the loss of my heroes is something I’m now becoming much more used to. One thing is for certain – they may have left us in body, but in their work they will live on.

A Headache For A Librarian

Can you imagine, just for a moment, being the curator of the Antiquities Collection at a large university library and taking into your possession the original diaries from a very famous person of the mid 1600s – and then discover that the whole lot are written in a combination of French, Dutch and English – and all of it in shorthand. Somehow, this has to be translated into a legible script before the historians can put it to any use whatsoever… wouldn’t that be a headache?

Such was the conundrum facing the Chief Librarian at Magdalen College Cambridge after taking possession of Pepys’ library of volumes, which included his diary. Fortunately, a key was provided allowing the translation of most of the shorthand passages, and over the years a number of scholars patiently transcribed the entries covering the most tumultuous decade the country ever witnessed – the 1660s. Indeed, so important is Pepys’ eyewitness accounts of both the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London that it is considered the primary text for any scholar to consult before embarking on larger works.

Rumour has it that Pepys wrote his diary in this way to put off prying eyes – presumably those of his wife, given that he gave intricate details of his sexual encounters with a number of famous actresses of the day, but also because he worked for the Government and was privy to a number of very important meetings, including those arranging the return of Charles II to London from his exile in France. I do wonder though if anyone would now be that concerned with his meticulous recording of his bowel habits and his wife’s menstrual cycle but just in case they are, it’s all there, written down for one’s reading leisure.

He only stopped writing the diary when his eyesight started failing, his wife had died and he was given a more responsible government position, which would have taken up the time that he would otherwise have spent writing. Pepys himself went on to become an MP and President of the Royal Society before dying in 1703.

Strangely, I’ve never fancied reading Pepys’ diary before, but since this September will be 350 years since the Great Fire of London, perhaps I ought to make a bit more of an effort. We shall see. If I only bother reading the entries for that year, I will consider it a good effort on my part!