Friday, July 30, 2010

Friday with Sherlock

When Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote the first Sherlock Holmes detective story in 1886, he was creating a character who would not only give pleasure to millions of readers but also provide hundreds of writers with inspiration for decades to come. From Professor Henry Higgins to Dr Gregory House, from CSI Miami to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, popular fiction owns a huge debt to Sir Arthur and his creation. I myself adapted two Sherlock Holmes mystery stories for a couple of the mini-mysteries in my latest volume of Roman Mysteries short stories, The Legionary from Londinium. I made the middle-aged British detective a pre-teen Roman detectrix, transferred it from Victorian London to the ancient port of Rome, and voila!

In addition to riffs on the theme of Holmes, there are dozens of more or less direct adaptations on stage and screen. Some of the great actors who have played Sherlock Holmes include Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett (left), Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Rupert Everett and, in last year's hit film Sherlock Holmes, Robert Downey Jr.

Last Sunday saw yet another incarnation of Sherlock Holmes and his famous sidekick Dr Watson. The new BBC TV series Sherlock imagines what would happen if you rewrote Holmes and Watson into 21st century London. Some things have to change: Holmes deduces facts about Watson’s relative by examining a mobile phone rather than a pocket watch. Some things don’t change. For example, Watson now is a veteran of conflict in Afghanistan, as was John Watson in 1887's Study in Scarlet. The series is extemely clever and huge fun, epecially if you’re familiar with the original stories. There is even a faux Sherlock website online: The Science of Deduction. Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson are both great, and I take off my deerstalker to the writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. I am already a huge fan of Sherlock.

I am also a fan of London Walks, a company which puts on a walking tour called 'In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes' every Friday at 2.00pm. In honour of the Beeb’s new series, I decided to make last Friday a ‘Sherlock Holmes Day’. My plan was to visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum, make a pilgrimage to the filming location for the exteriors of 221b in the new series, and finish up with the walking tour.

Many years ago, when I first arrived in England to study at Cambridge, I wandered up and down Baker Street, looking for 221b and hoping for a museum or at least a blue plaque. At that time there was nothing, not even a number 221 let alone ‘b’. But now you can find the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b, located slightly out of sequence next door to 237 Baker Street, but with a convincing appearance and even a blue plaque, something usually reserved for real historical figures. Tickets are a reasonable £6 for adults and £4 for children. You can book tickets online and print them out. I did so and got there as early as London transport allowed, about 9.50. (The museum is open from 9.30 to 6.00 every day except Christmas)

A ‘policeman’ is waiting outside to welcome visitors and to plonk a deerstalker hat on you for a photo op. Inside I find a bright conservatory gift-shop filled with expensive but fun souvenirs. The house itself is suitably dark and filled with Victorian clutter. The first flight of stairs takes me up to Sherlock Holmes’ famous parlour. It is satisfyingly full of suitable artefacts and paraphernalia. I discover Mrs Hudson sitting at the breakfast table near a pot of anchovy paste, making origami birds out of information sheets. Charlotte is the youngest prettiest Mrs Hudson I’ve ever seen. She says lunchtime is usually the best time to come, but it’s just after 10.00 and I have the house pretty much to myself.

Dr Watson arrives, somewhat flustered, and asks tourists if they want to sit in Sherlock's chair and try on his deerstalker for size. A pair of Japanese tourists are thrilled to do so. Upstairs are more rooms, some of them look as if Holmes or Watson had just stepped out for a moment. Others contain impressive wax figures of characters from the stories. Tourists have lots of fun posing with these. I find the head of the Hound of the Baskervilles in one room and a hand emerging from an attic in another. A happy hour is spent wandering around and taking photos. There are at least half a dozen rooms and all of them filled with goodies.

When I leave - just after 11.00 - I notice a line of tourist waiting to get in. But the policeman is entertaining them and they seem cheerful. I cross the street and go back into Baker Street tube for the next leg of my Sherlock Holmes day. There are some great Sherlock Holmes illustrations on the walls of the Jubilee Line. It was one of these - The Lion’s Mane - that inspired my short story ‘Death By Medusa’. But today I'm standing on the outdoor platform for the eastbound Metropolitan line. I'm hoping to find one of the shooting sites for the new BBC series. The tube train comes and I travel two stops to Euston Square. Then I exit: right out of the ticket barriers, right out of the tube entrance, right onto North Gower Street. Up ahead I see the awning for Speedy’s Sandwich Bar.

When I watched episode one of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, I thought they'd filmed it at the Sherlock Holmes Museum with an apparently false awning marked 'Speedy's Sandwich Bar' placed over the museum's distinctive green sign. But closer inspection showed me the railings weren't quite right. It looks very much like the Sherlock Holmes' dwelling on Baker Street, but it isn’t. On the off-chance that there was a real Speedy's I did quick search via Google, Google maps and Google street view. And I found it on 187 North Gower Street. “Elementary, my dear Watson!” (What did Holmes do before Google?)

Speedy's serve a great cappuccino for only £1.50 and you can have lunch there, too. They do fish and chips, jacket potatoes and chicken escalope with spaghetti. And sandwiches, of course. The staff are charming and remember when the film crew set up to film the scene where Holmes emerges from a taxi to join Watson at the door of 221b. Most of Sherlock is filmed in Cardiff, but if you want to make a pilgrimage to an iconic London site, this is the place to come.

Outside the impressive St Pancras church not far from Sherlock's digs, I catch a number 58 'omnibus' down to Aldwych, then walk along the river to Embankment tube station to meet the walking tour. London Walks are great. You just show up and pay the guide: £8 for adults, £6 for students or concessions. The tours last two hours. Today, Richard IV is our guide, so called because there are four guides called Richard employed by London Walks. I’ve been on two London Film Walks with him and he’s very knowledgable. On my last walk - 'The West End on Film' - there were only half a dozen of us. Today there are more than forty: of all nationalities and ranging from kids to greybeards: surely a testimony to the enduring popularity of Sherlock Holmes.

Richard starts us out at Victoria Embankment Gardens then walks us up Buckingham Street, where Conan-Doyle had a pied-a-terre. Then along the back of the Alelphi, up the Strand past Simpsons, left on Southampton Street to see the Lyceum Theatre and the original offices of the famous Strand Magazine. We move on to Covent Garden, through a warren of hidden alleys with working gas lamps and the smell of urine (not much has changed there) towards St Martin-in-the-Fields church and Trafalgar Square.

Along the way Richard shares facts and anecdotes about how Conan-Doyle went from being a struggling doctor to become the fabulously famous and successful "J.K. Rowling of a hundred years past". My favourite quote of Richard's is when he tells us that "Sherlock Holmes stories are not meant to be analysed; they were written to entertain."

Finally, we end up a the picturesque Sherlock Holmes pub near Craven Street. Here you can see another replica of Sherlock Holmes' study on the first floor. Their menu offers delightful dishes like Hounds of the Baskervilles (i.e. toad-in-the-hole) and Mrs Hudson's Steak and Mushroom Ale Pie. For dessert you can try a traditional pudding like Spotted Dick with Custard or Treacle Sponge. Or you can just sit outside and sip a half of bitter or a soft drink beneath a frosted portrait of Holmes, Watson and their genius creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Long may his detective hero endure!

Friday with Sherlock Itinerary:
Morning: Sherlock Holmes Museum 221 Baker Street NW1 6XE
Coffee: Speedy’s Sandwich Bar 187 North Gower Street NW1 2NJ
Lunch: Sherlock Holmes Restaurant 10 Northumberland St WC2N 5DB
Afternoon: In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes walk, Embankment Tube
Evening: The Secret of Sherlock Holmes, Duchess Theatre, WC2B 5LA
or a night in with a Sherlock DVD of your choice:
Richard IV recommends Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes TV series
And of course BBC's fab Sherlock!

"Elementary, my dear Watson!"

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Inspiring Kidslit

Just back from Premier Christian Radio where I was invited to talk about children's books on their Inspirational Breakfast show. Here are seven of my favourite inspirational children's books, (though I discovered all but one as an adult.) Also, three of my favourite quotes about spirituality and writing.

‘Writing is not an occupation; it is a way of life, in a sense not altogether unlike that of a religious devotion. It is a means of discerning what one feels and believes about life…’ Walter van Tilburg Clark, author

‘Why did God create mankind? Because God likes stories.’ Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi

'Jesus was not a theologian, he was God who told stories.' Madeleine L'Engle, author

MY FAMILY & OTHER ANIMALS by Gerald Durrell (1956)
Gerald Durrell was ten when his family moved to Corfu in 1935. Thanks to a photographic memory, he remembers every detail of each glorious day spent on the colour-saturated, sun-soaked island. His older brother Lawrence is the one who claims literary greatness, but for my money Gerald beats him hands down. Full of the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and animals of a Greek island, this book alternates between being uproariously funny and deliciously descriptive. An early scene with the Durrell family's hilarious entry into Corfu town still leaves me helpless with laughter. A pure delight.

This is the story of Karana, a twelve year old Native American whom tragedy abandons on an island off the coast of California. Alone except for a pack of wild dogs, Karana shows astonishing bravery and resourcefulness. Scott O'Dell shows us a world of great beauty: otters eating abalone in their kelp beds, a skirt made of shimmering cormorant feathers, a white dog howling in a grotto, a tidal wave: blood red in the setting sun. And dolphins, of course. When O'Dell died his family scattered his ashes over the glittering blue Pacific and as they turned for home, a dozen leaping dolphins escorted the boat back to shore. A fitting end for the masterful storyteller of this children's classic.

A WRINKLE IN TIME by Madeleine L’Engle (1962)
Fantasy sci-fi for kids which deals with themes of evil, self-sacrifice and the power of love. L’Engle was a theologian with a great passion for physics and science. My fourth grade teacher read us this book in the lazy after lunch period and that is my happiest memory from primary school. The Christian message runs under the surface but is all the more powerful for being veiled.

I AM DAVID by Ann Holm (1963)
A boy escapes from a nameless camp in a nameless country. With nothing but a map and a compass he crosses Europe to find the mother he has never known. He is wary, distrustful, older than his years. And yet in many ways he is an infant. His journey across Europe is a kind of rebirth; he discovers new colours, like the colour of the sea under a summer sun; new tastes, like the taste of an orange; he learns to trust: people, a dog, God. This is a timeless story of the triumph of persistence and courage over a truly evil opponent. There is one scene of self-sacrifice which is unforgettable. And the ending is deeply moving.

TRUE GRIT by Charles Portis (1968)
'People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood…' So starts one of the best Western novels ever written. Mattie is looking for a man with 'true grit' who will help her hunt down her father's killer. She settles on Rooster Cogburn, a hard-drinking, walrus-moustached cowboy. But really Mattie is the one with 'true grit'. Roald Dahl said it was the best novel to come his way in a long time and Donna Tartt writes 'I cannot think of a novel - any novel - which is so delightful to so many disparate age groups and literary tastes.' Probably my favourite book of the moment.

KENSUKE’S KINGDOM by Michael Morpurgo (1999)
I once met Michael Morpurgo and he was so polite. He is also gracious and compassionate. Those qualities shine out in this moving story of a boy's survival on a desert island. It's got all the best ingredients: a faithful dog, a strange but magical world, growth through hardship. Sol Stein's definition of how a writer should be polite to his readers is this: Never take the reader where they want to go. If that is true, then Morpurgo is the best kind of author, one who is polite in his life and in his writing.

PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger (2001)
Echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and True Grit in this best-selling book. The novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Reuben, an asthma-sufferer who lives with his single father, his older brother Davy and his precocious younger sister Swede. (She is only eight but writes epic poetry.) After Davy commits a crime and breaks out of jail the family goes on the run into the Badlands of North Dakota. You could call this a modern western. With miracles.