Uncovering The Sherlockian Atlas

“Let’s see if he can figure out which way to go”, chuckled Steve behind me, as I emerged from the stairwell and tried to walk into a cupboard. He was addressing his friend and fellow Sherlockian Ray but he was talking about my efforts to find my way around the labyrinthine basement of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop, in New York. Nestled among the historic industrial buildings and modern lofts of Tribeca, on Warren Street, the Mysterious Bookshop claims to be “one of the oldest mystery specialist bookstores in America”. 

The Mysterious Bookshop (photo credit: The Mysterious Bookshop website)

Every year Otto, a long-standing member of the Baker Street Irregulars, the world’s oldest and most famous Sherlockian fan society, puts on a special Sherlockian-only viewing of his wares as part of the BSI’s annual Weekend celebrating Holmes’s birthday. I actually hadn’t planned to visit the bookstore this year; there are only so many hours in the day and mine were already full of Sherlock-related things. Yet, after brunch with Ray (Betzner, Pennsylvanian and BSI member) and Steve (Rothman, fellow Pennsylvanian, BSI member and editor of the Baker Street Journal), I was happy to tag along and see what I might find.

‘Find’ is perhaps too strong a word to use in a place like the Mysterious Bookshop, where the books almost jump out at you. At the back of the store, one whole wall is dedicated to Sherlockian fan writing, fiction and criticism. I know this is true because within five minutes of walking into the shop Steve, Ray and Otto were each on ladders or scrabbling around on the lower shelves plucking off books which seemed, to them, pertinent to my PhD research. In no time my arms were full of relevant reading. Either I did a good job of explaining myself or these men were very intuitive. (Or, most likely, Otto keeps a very well stocked shop).

After I had discreetly placed most of the books back (for lack of money, not interest!) I followed Steve’s suggestion that we head down to the basement. After my detour into the broom cupboard, I got on the right path and found myself in a room filled with rare and interesting Holmes-related books. Most lined the wall-mounted bookcases while still more filled the tables in the middle of the room. 

Found in the basement of Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan
Figure 1: Found in the basement of Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan

Rooting around the piles of material on one of the tables I found a pamphlet memorably titled, You Bastard Moriarty (fig.1) and a manila folder labelled, without comment, ‘Sherlockian Florida Citrus Labels’ (fig.2). Rather than delve any deeper into these mysteries (sadly we will never know why Sherlockian-specific fruit labels exist), I turned instead to a find what would prove to be very interesting indeed to the student of Sherlock Holmes and literary geography. Sitting in an unmarked envelope, priced inauspiciously at $1, was an artefact that has led me down a research path, fruitful in its own way. [Complaints about puns can be addressed to the author – Ed.]

It was a Christmas card from 1964; unwritten and unsent. The card was printed, so I discovered from the inside page, by Edward Chichester, 6th Marquis of Donegal, long-time member of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London and former editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. This was interesting in itself, for why would Don (as he liked to be called) keep only one card from a presumably larger run? Yet, if it came to the bookshop via a recipient, wouldn’t it have been written and signed? 

In any case, I let these questions sit and turned instead to what had caught my eye in the first place. On the front of the card was a reprint of Julian Wolff’s Sherlockian Map of England, with colour added onto what I later found out was a black and white original. (fig. 3) The map depicted sites from Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, the fifty-six shorts and four novels that make up what Sherlockians, that is, fans term ‘the Canon’. Also marked, alongside country and county lines, were locations that even non-Sherlockian fans can agree to, such as Coventry, Exeter and Frinton (the latter a seaside town in Essex where I spent many a happy summer’s day as a child).

What intrigued me about this map is the relationship between literature and geography that it suggested. By including fictional, Sherlockian settings such as King’s Pyland, purportedly in Devon alongside real-world locations with no Sherlock Holmes connections, such as Waterbeach (which I can attest is a short bike ride along the river from Cambridge; though be careful as the path gets muddy in the winter), Wolff and by extension Donegal were making a particular claim about the value of literary locations in relation to geographical imaginations. Wolff appears to be saying not only that these fictional locations might exist but that they might as well exist – and, in fact, to the Sherlockian fan they are as real as any non-fictional place as yet unvisited.

I have no idea why or to what end these exist
Figure 2: I have no idea why or to what end these exist

However, Wolff’s apparent claim about the geographical truth value of fictional, Sherlockian places is more complicated than it first seems. The map used by Donegal on his 1963 Christmas Card was copied from a map drawn by Wolff to accompany a book called Baker Street and Beyond. Written by leading Sherlockian Edgar W. Smith, with forewords by Christopher Morley and Vincent Starrett, this 1940 gazetteer was the first attempt by fans to record the various locations that feature in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. In this context, Wolff’s simple line-drawn maps, plotting bald locations with rough geographical accuracy serve to liven up what is in essence a rather long alphabetical listing. 

Yet the maps actually do more than provide diverting illustrations; they form a link between the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes and real-world geographies. Smith’s gazetteer deliberately draws no geographical distinctions between real-world places represented in the stories, fictionalised versions of probable real-world locations or locations wholly invented by Doyle. This is because his list is related entirely to Doyle’s stories: Smith sought not to tie Doylean locations to their likely real-world counterparts but rather simply to list those locations as they appear in the text. Thus what results is a motley assortment of real-world geographical statements combined with descriptions of events in the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. For example, under ‘Kensington’ we read: “A metropolitan borough: somewhere in which lay the ostensible destination of Mr Melas – The Greek Interpreter”.

Smith’s gazetteer on its own doesn’t really engage with issues of geographical fact or fiction. This seems counterintuitive for two reasons. First, the sentence above clearly posits fictional actions in a real place – the London borough of Kensington. Secondly, Smith sets out his philosophy on the question of fact and fiction in Sherlockian geography in his introduction, justifying his jumbling of real-world and fictional places into one alphabetised list. However, it is apparent because Smith’s gazetteer doesn’t actually step outside of the bounds of Doyle’s text. So while Kensington is indeed a metropolitan borough in London (or was, at least, before the 1980s), it is also a metropolitan borough in the London of the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes. 

Figure 3 Wolff's Sherlockian Map of England, from his 1952 Sherlockian Atlas. Only 100 copies of this pamphlet were made.
Figure 3 Wolff’s Sherlockian Map of England, from his 1952 Sherlockian Atlas. Only 100 copies of this pamphlet were made.

However, reading Smith’s descriptions of Sherlock Holmes’s London – including Kensington – alongside Wolff’s illustrative maps constitutes a very different literary geographical experience. Remember that Wolff’s map makes little distinction between real-world and fictional, Sherlockian locations. [I should note that Smith, in his introduction to Baker Street and Beyond claims that Wolff does in fact distinguish between these categories. Looking again at Wolff’s map as printed in Smith’s book and the later Sherlockian Atlas, it is true – Wolff does italicise Sherlockian place names. Yet his attempt to distinguish between real and fictional places is in part undone by his plotting fictional locations onto a map that represents real-world England and Wales in the late nineteenth century and which includes many places that are not mentioned in the Sherlock Holmes stories. No doubt Wolff intended these as geographical ‘standard candles’. Still, the blending of factual and fictional geographies serves, in this instance, to reinforce the apparent reality of the latter.] 

By presenting Sherlockian and non-Sherlockian place names on the same representation of a recognisably real-world England, Wolff’s map begins to bridge the divide between Smith’s exploration of the fictional world of Sherlock Holmes, including the activities which occur in each location, like Mr. Melas travelling to his destination in Kensington and the world outside of the text. In this way, Wolff’s map, read in the context of Smith gazetteer, presented not only an interesting new way to view the geography of the Sherlock Holmes stories: it presents an argument through geography for the historical occurrence of the events of the Sherlock Holmes stories, as quoted in Smith’s gazetteer.

Published as they were in the 1940s, at the height of Sherlockian’s first golden age in America, by some of the world’s leading Sherlockians, it is fair to say that Smith’s gazetteer and Wolff’s maps had a profound influence on they ways in which future Sherlockians imagined the world of Sherlock Holmes and its relationship to real-world geographies and readers’ geographical imaginations. Indeed, Donegal’s Christmas card, printed twenty years after Wolff’s map first appeared in print and more than a decade after his Sherlockian Atlas is testament to that influence. 

So, really what I’m saying is, if you scratch a Sherlockian you’ll probably find a geographer in there somewhere, with some interesting things to say on the relation between real-world and fictional places. It’s probably polite to explain why you’re scratching them first. 

Dead Authors

In October, before I left the UK for my fellowship at the Kluge Center, my supervisor and I were discussing the idea of character afterlives. This topic of conversation came about from our reading of a study by David Brewer called, appropriately, The Afterlife of Character. This book has framed much of my thinking in the past months and has influenced to a degree how I am approaching my archival research into Sherlockian fans writing about travel and mobility. In his exploration of eighteenth-century reading practices and reader-led extensions of the fictional adventures of popular characters such as Lemule Gulliver, Brewer has done what I would like to do, in part, with my thesis. He presents a literary history of the period combined with a social history of contemporary readers and their more-than-textual reading practices. What I find most interesting about the book is that so much of what Brewer has discovered about eighteenth century ‘fan’ reading looks remarkably similar to nineteenth and twentieth century fan readings of Sherlock Holmes; yet Brewer explicitly draws a line under his findings as being unlikely in the modern era of authorial ownership of character and robust copyright laws. He even uses a quote from Doyle about Holmes’s apparent non-afterlife to illustrate this. This line of research, however, will be the subject of a later post (and paper).

For the time being, my supervisor and I were chatting about the examples we could think of from literature after Brewer’s period that would count as character afterlives, including of course the many times Sherlock Holmes has appeared in tales written by people other than Doyle (like JM Barrie and Mark Twain, for instance). In the midst of this, my supervisor threw out a question about author afterlives. Were there any examples of authors living outside and beyond their own work (and their own lives)? Some authors and writers make cameos in other people’s works or adaptations. Stan Lee is famous for doing this in the Marvel films adaptations of comics that he has written, including the Avengers, X-Men and Spiderman. Paul Auster has written himself  into his own fiction as a supporting character, most notably in The New York Trilogy. Still, I couldn’t think of an instance of the top of my head where a writer had given life after death (or after publication) to an author by making them a character in his or her fiction.

That evening, looking for some non-academic reading but not wanting to stray too far off topic (once I go down the route of Frozen watching there’s no escape from that back hole) I picked up a collection of Doyle’s lesser known stories that I had recently got my hands on in trusty Heffers and found just what had eluded me earlier in the day – an example of the afterlife of authors in print. Called Tales of Twilight and the Unseen this volume collected a few short stories written by Doyle in his later years and dealing mainly with mysticism, the occult and spiritualism. Though not very convincing in terms of plot and content, the stories are still marked by Doyle’s ability to turn a pithy line and draw the reader in with a compelling narrative.

Among these lesser-known tales (and Lot No. 249 which I really recommend) I found Cyprian Overbeck Wells, a short story with the curious subtitle: A Literary Mosaic. Writing from the point of view of our unidentified narrator, a struggling writer who has moved to the countryside to finish his book yet can’t seem to find any inspiration, Doyle presents a classic example of the afterlife of authors. Desperately seeking inspiration, the writer named only as ‘Smith’ sinks into a dream sitting at his kitchen table. In his sleep, he hears a tumult of voices and raising his head discovers that he has been visited by the ghosts of a host of famous, long-dead literary figures. He teases the reader with the identities of his illustrious literary company, identifying a few on sight but waiting for others to speak before making the big reveal. In this way, Doyle allowed himself free rein to imitate his literary heroes’ prose style and focus.

Intent on helping the hapless Smith to construct a workable narrative, the literary luminaries agree to go around the table one-by-one and, “make a start to his story which”, as Dickens says, “is I believe the reason why we were assembled”. With each author, “contributing a little as the fancy seizes him”, the narrative moves from the sea narrative of Defoe, to the romance of Smollett and the mediaeval meanderings of Walter Scott before landing in a curious fashion in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s lap. After Lytton has recited a paragraph of two of prose that neatly brings together the stylistic strands of the preceding authors, he gets chastised by Scott for doing so. As Scott says, “We want a touch of your own style, man… The animal-magnetico-hysterical-biological-mysterious sort of story is all your own but at present you are just a poor copy of myself”.

Doyle’s depiction of these authors, all from different times and as different literary traditions, presents a distinct departure from his opinion, quoted by Brewer, that characters don’t have these kinds of post-publication, post-author existences precisely because they are the property of the author. In writing of these historical authors as if they have come from some kind of lively spirit world, instead of the ‘kind of limbo’ which he proposes for characters, Doyle is of course channelling the Christian idea of an afterlife for people, where it might be plausible that these authors would meet and know about each other’s work, even if they died many centuries apart. Yet he is also negating his ‘kind of limbo’ in favour of an afterlife of authorial ‘voice’ which, as he demonstrates by his free adoption and adaption of each of his authors’ signature styles, he apparently believes if fair game for satirical copying, and migrating to other settings, locations and media.

Doyle’s short story raises two interesting questions that I want to leave here. First, is there a different between characters, locations and other ‘tangible’ or perhaps ‘phenomenal’ properties of narrative and an author’s style or voice? Brewer’s eighteenth-century readers seemed to think that the two were entirely bound up, that one was a part of the other, and that characters were ‘fair game’ for textual appropriation, creating ‘afterlives’. Doyle’s contradictory words and practice, however, seems to suggest that they are separate entities, one (character) a type of ‘production’ legally protected, the other ripe for the writerly picking. Second, Is there a difference between ‘character afterlives’ which appear to extend the ‘existence’ of a literary character by the adding of new text, new words to their corpus and which appear to be predicated on the idea that no single text can hold them, and ‘author afterlives’ which, as they bind living (or once-lived) humans into paper appear to reduce these people from their full complexity into textual ciphers, mere authorial voices? I am not so sure that the ‘expansion’ on one hand and ‘reduction’ on the other is as clear cut as that nor as opposed as they seem. I think this needs more research.

Clueless in the Kluge (that’s ‘Kloo-gee’ to you, sunshine)

Usually I hate working in an office. The feeling of having to be somewhere each and every day, having to start work at a certain time and stop (or ‘stop’) working at a certain time fills me with dread. One of the joys of doing a PhD is that I have the freedom to plan my own work week. For now at least. Yet, every day for the past three weeks I have cheerfully left the house at a reasonable time in the morning, walked two miles across town and settled down in my cubicle to study. So what’s changed?

Two words: archival research. Having passed through the fire and torment of the First Year Upgrade (“No, please, no more edits. I’ll do anything: clean the gutters, hoover the cat, pretend to enjoy someone else’s paper! Please…”) I now find myself poised to strike out into manuscripts unknown. I’m not just in any old archives, either. I am among twenty or so lucky people to have been awarded this year’s slew of AHRC/ESRC International Placement Scheme grants to research at the Library of Congress. The IPS is a scheme for PhD students and Early Career Researchers, providing funding on top of the AHRC/ESRC stipends for a research visit of two to six months at one of seven institutions around the world, including the Yale Center for British Art, the Huntingdon Library in California and the Library of Congress here in Washington DC.

It’s a pretty good deal too. Research Councils UK (the umbrella organisation for the AHRC, ESRC and NERC) won’t send it’s stipendees just anywhere. For instance, the IPS used to fund placements in India, until RCUK got fed up with the lack of support provided by the institution in question and pulled the plug on that partnership. I can’t speak for researchers on other IPS placements but at the Library of Congress things are pretty well set up to make sure you have a good (research-filled) time.

The Kluge Fellows and staff 2014-15


It was a relatively long road from my first encounter with the IPS at the AHRC’s showcase in London last November to sitting here in my cubicle in the Library’s Kluge Center with shelves of books and stacks of research papers taunting me to read them. (“I’ll get to you, wait your turn!”) When I first heard about the scheme my own PhD project was still a hazy concept to me. I was caught between the halcyon days before my course started, when I thought I had a grasp on what I was doing because I hadn’t read anything yet, and the darker days of my second full term, when the true size of a PhD really smacked me in the face. Though I was holding on to the basic shape of my project, outlined in my original application, I had no real idea of where I was going or what ‘there’ looked like.

Looking back, it would have been tempting to argue that I knew too little to make a convincing case for an IPS grant; that I should wait until I knew more; that I didn’t stand a chance against second years, thirds years and postdocs. Little did I know then that the feeling of ignorance never really goes away, it just gets applied to new and different things. (The Thesis Whisperer has a great guest post on the levels of academic knowing – I’ll put it here when I rediscover the link.) With a great deal of positive encouragement from my supervisor, I set my cheek to the wind (or something) and tried to sort out a decent archive research proposal. Throughout my career I have seemed to do better when a display of potential is called for: university admissions, applications for entry-level jobs with advancement possibilities, grant applications and so on.

The IPS falls squarely into the ‘potential’ category. Not only are research grants made before the research is ever done, the IPS institutions have collections so vast and custodians so knowledgeable that a measure of flexibility and potential in your application is probably a key to success. You can’t come to the Library of Congress, with its thousands of uncatalogued items, reems of uncharted research territory and Librarians who know more than the ‘Finding Aids’ could ever tell, with a day-to-day schedule of pre-planned research. You’d never find the really juicy stuff that makes the research truly worthwhile.

At the moment, three weeks in to my research, I am finding it difficult not to wallow in the Library’s collections. IPS fellows at the Library of Congress are hosted by the Library’s Office of Scholarly Programmes, in the John W. Kluge Center. This is a huge two-level wooden structure built inside one of the four massive rooms originally designed to hold the Library’s book collection, before it was all moved into closed stacks. The Center hosts and funds it’s own Chairs – senior researchers in particular fields – who get proper, closed-door offices on the ‘lower deck’. The ‘upper deck’ is given over to seemingly endless cubicles for Fellows. Cubicle doesn’t really do the space justice – it’s a office in all but ceiling and door.

cake club
Kluge Fellows scoffing cake in my cubicle   

Kluge Fellows have the privilege of ordering books from the main reading room collections to their cubicles, up to 350 in all. This often leads to ‘reservation overload’ as it’s all to easy to fill a break in reading or writing by logging on to the catalogue to have a poke around and before you know it another cart-load of books is heading your way. Thus is the researchers’ guilt kept freely flowing.

Surprisingly, however, research at the Kluge isn’t all about reading books. One of the Library’s greatest assets is its people, from the researchers it attracts to the Librarians it employs. IPS Fellows in the Kluge have unparalleled access to both. As a research centre the Kluge brings together academics from across the world. Through working and socialising together it’s hard not to learn about each other’s projects. It’s hard to overstate how useful it can be to talk about your own work to group of scholars with diverse interests, especially when you get so many different questions and suggestions in return. The Librarians are key to really understanding the collections, for IPS applicants and for those who make it to the Kluge.

So a year after I first wrote my IPS application, and almost a month after I landed in DC, my period of being ‘clueless in the Kluge’ is probably turning a corner. I’ve started writing a very generalised plan for the next five months, which includes three additional fieldwork or archive visits, drafting three articles and one chapter and tracking down as many relevant books as I can find. I’ve also come to really feel a part of the Kluge community. For those of you who are now in the midst of the application process, I can only hope that this time next year (or whenever you chose to go), you get the thrill of being clueless on another continent – all at the taxpayers expense, of course.

“It’s all the same stuff as before, isn’t it?” – Conference Season: Part 4

A few months ago I began a series on being a fresh PhDer at academic conferences. In this, the fourth post, I want to talk about my experience of turning my MA Thesis – a study into Australian perceptions of Britain as a tourist destination – into a conference paper and ultimately a publishable article.

As part of the new grad student training programme provided by the Geography Department at Cambridge, students are required to produce a ‘dream CV’. The point of the exercise is to make new grads, who spend much of their first term buzzing from the thrill of starting a PhD and eating way too many formal dinners, think seriously about their plans for the future. My own Dream CV, as well as prophesying a future Cambridge Junior Research Fellowship straight after finishing my PhD in three years (!), demanded from me two things in the first year: 1) get AHRC funding for a research visit to the Library of Congress; and 2) write-up my MA thesis into a publishable article. I did the first; the second was (and still is) a bit harder.

In fact, ‘write MA thesis into article’ was probably the most well-grounded ambition I had when I first started my PhD, right behind ‘don’t fuck up the PhD’. My MA thesis, while not perfect, is the closest thing I have to an academic article right now – in word count and in substance. Also, although it may dismay many Sherlockians, I came into the PhD vowing to be more than ‘the Sherlock guy’. My main academic interest is in travel, mobilities and the way we use literature to talk about the world. My MA thesis handily combines two of my long-standing interests: Australian history and travel writing. So it seems like a good thing to get this out first, to make my mark as ‘the travel writing guy’. Not a great tag but a good first step.

So how did I go from the vague, Dream CV command to ‘write an article’, to actually being on that road? If it had been up to me alone I would probably still be sitting on that nice pipe dream. I got lucky, really, when two things happened in my first year to kickstart the process. The first was finding a paper called ‘Time Travel’, published the year before by Richard White, an eminent Australian academic (one who, surely, doesn’t need another publication as badly as I do). The paper appeared, at first sight, to cover exactly the same ground as my MA thesis. It definitely used the same or similar sources. I kicked myself when I first saw it. “Why didn’t I write up my thesis as an article six years ago?!” I asked anyone within earshot. I would have had the jump on this guy!

The second, more fortuitous event happened shortly afterwards. I learned through a friend about a conference she was organising at my old university on migration and public history. My MA thesis, which used Australian travel writing and guidebooks about Britain to explore the ways in which Australians’ perceptions of the old imperial metropole changed over the twentieth century, covered to some extent the idea of a changing sense of ‘Britishness’ at the root of Australians’ identity. This was very much connected to the idea of Australia as founded by Anglo-Celtic migrants. So there my thesis had a link to the conference. This conference was perhaps the more motivating ‘event’ because it provided my rewriting with focus, direction and a timeframe. Knowing about White’s paper and that the debate is still alive was interesting, yet without something towards which I could direct my energies, it’s unlikely I would have started looking for ways to improve my writing. Like most pieces of humanities academia, the research story can be told in many different ways. A focus on the Angl0-Celtic migration aspects of my research provided a point around which to organise, and reorganise my ideas.

Encouraged by this thought, I took a second look at the terrifying ‘other paper’. Of course, I should have known that the Eminent Australian Academic hadn’t covered exactly the same, even nearly the same, questions as I had. His focus was more on tourist experiences of Britain; mine was on how literature written for tourists framed their expectations. A subtle but important distinction. Reading it again I also realised that I disagreed with his argument. I disagreed because my interpretation of my sources told a different story. White argues, in essence, that personal accounts of travel indicate that Australians valued Britain as a travel destination for the idea of history it conveyed. They weren’t interested in the content of that history, just the fact that Britain could boast barns, say, that were many times older than the oldest houses in Sydney. My contention, however, is that for many Australians, particularly younger travellers, where they were interested in Britain’s history at all it was precisely because of its content: they either saw it as a grounding of their own Australian heritage or they rebelled against it in interesting ways.

I should say here that MA thesis was perhaps the hardest piece of academic writing I ever attempted. Coming up with the idea was relatively straightforward, though over the course of my MA year I’d struggled to hit the nail on what exactly I was interested in, academically speaking. The idea to look at Australian travel writing and guidebooks came out of my already-existing interest in travel writing as a reader. From there, through the Cambridge Companion to Travel Writing and the piece by Peter Hulme on his first arrival in the UK, which revealed how at once loaded with significance and yet entirely unexpected the experience of first arriving in Britain could be for an Australian, I arrived at my thesis idea: to explore, using Australian travel writing and guidebooks, what images of Britain Australians were taking with them when they travelled and to ask what role this literature played in their crafting. In the end my argument was (quel surprise!) that Australian travellers approached Britain less as ‘British’ people ‘going home’ and more as independent Australian tourists as the decades of the twentieth century wore on.

Thinking about the process of writing my MA thesis whilst rewriting it as a conference paper was useful. We all know, and read all the time, about the alternate pains and joys of academic writing. For me, an awareness of where the writing was painful, where it was fun and what relationship that had to my interpretation, was a good guide to how I should approach the rewriting. It turns out that chapter 1, which dealt with travel writers of the 1940s and 1950s was painful to research, painful to interpret and painful to write. Chapter 2, however, on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s was a breeze in comparison. Chapter 3, concerned with the modern period, was an anomaly. I don’t think I got the interpretation right then and I’m still working it out now.

This process wasn’t just an exercise in dredging up the writing pains of the past. As well as being a good learning moment for writing my First Year Report (rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, ever dissatisfied), thinking about how and why I enjoyed writing a particular argument (or didn’t) was key to discovering where my new material was. In this case, an idea I am still working on, I enjoyed writing the section on youthful travels of the 1960s and 1970s because it was, and is, new. My argument is that Australians and to a lesser extent New Zealanders in this period took with them and honed what I am calling an ‘Australasian Gaze’. It was a particular type of Urry’s and McCannell’s tourist gaze; a way of looking at Britain not just as ‘another tourist destination’, though that packaging was a part of it, nor simply as a repository for a detatched ‘sense of history’; the Australasian Gaze was formulated specifically against earlier forms of Australian gazing, themselves developed within the context of the British Empire and with the inherent subtext of British superiority. The Australasian Gaze subverted this, belittling core aspects of British history and Australia’s own Anglo-Celtic migrant history and asserting a new Australia (and New Zealand) on a cultural par with Britain.

Interestingly, this concept really challenges the ideas behind the third part of my original MA thesis. In that piece I had argued that the historical focus on many British guidebooks written for Australians betokened an archetypal Australian tourist who wanted to indulge in fantasies of her country’s British heritage, at once alive in Britain and yet maintained outside of time, through monuments and historical sites. Thinking about the belligerent rise of the Australasian Gaze in the 1960s and 1970s alters this reading. In fact, it now seems, that Australian tourists in the 1980s and 1990s (generally speaking) really did want a version of White’s ‘time travel’. While the recognised the importance of certain British historical sites to Australia’s own heritage, this wasn’t at the core of their tourist experiences. They wanted history, any history, for the sake of history. And Britain, repackaged by the likes of Rough Guide, Australia’s own Lonely Planet and all the other guidebook empires, was made into ‘just another tourist site’ which would deliver what they wanted. The tourists were seeking an authentic experience of medieval castles, Norman churches and old hay barns, but it was one a mile away from the ‘authenticity’ of the 1940s and 1950s, when Australians still clung on, by the skin of their teeth, to ideas of Empire, Queen and country.

To get from popular 1950s Australian travel writer Frank Clune’s idea of Britain as the Grandmotherland, with all the ideas of Imperial loyalty, history and shared culture that it entailed, to the 1990s Australian tourist, hungry for some more historical camera fodder, intent on ‘doing’ England in a few days, before moving on to ‘do’ France, Italy and the rest of Europe, required a big shift. That shift was the intense rise of the Australasian gaze, which shredded the Australian tourist imagination of any sense of Anglo-Australian context for Britain’s history and tourist sites. This Gaze, written in two specific guidebooks, is what my article will focus on.

Sometimes, the length of the road and the pain caused in walking it can seem worthless, if the traveller ends up back where she started. In my case, my article draft bears many resemblances to my original thesis. Much the same is true of my PhD thesis, one year on from the start, whose basic ideas haven’t changed. I’m hoping that’s a sign of their academic strength. Really, the truth is I won’t know until I test them. That, after all, is what conference season is for.


China Miéville’s novel The City and The City explores the idea that to live in an urban space is to live in a land made up of borders. His does this through the conceit of two cities occupying the same geographical space. His tale follows the efforts of Tyador Borlu, a homicide detective from Beszel, in his efforts to discover the killer of a woman whose body is found in a park in the early hours, one morning. The story is filled with the idea of borders and transgressions. The two cities in which the story is set, Beszel and Ul Qoma, exist uneasily side-by-side in what is essentially the same city. Certain geographical areas are wholly in one city or wholly in the other: in the novel’s terms, they are ‘total’ or ‘alter’. Of greater interest to the reader (and, ultimately, to Borlu) are those areas which are at once in both cities and neither, the ‘crosshatched’ areas. In Miéville’s book, crosshatching evolves from being an everyday inconvenience (for drivers on shared roads, for instance, who must look the other way while avoiding incidents in the other city) to an uncomfortable fact of life, to his very way of living. The cities, though possessing their own jurisdictions, are ultimately answerable to a shadowy, ‘alien’ power known only as Breach, which possesses the ability to freely cross borders and impose its authority.

When I first read the book I found absurd the notion of two cities, with different social codes and expectations, occupying the same space, or rubbing shoulders with each other while people tried (or pretended) to ‘unsee’ each other. Now that I have lived a few years in a large city, the set up seems less absurd and more an accurate reflection of city life. In fact, a few hundred yards from my old front door in Dalston, there was a junction that could be described entirely in Miéville’s terms. The main road was apparently a total area of low-income, mostly BME renters, with flats above take-away shops, where people walked with a harried air. At the junction, the road off to the left was alter to the main road: it was a total area of middle-class white residents, who lived in houses or blocks of flats, ate at upmarket ‘asian fusion’ restaurants, played with their children in the park and bought nicknacks from the quaint shop across the street. The feeling of ‘Miévilleization’ came from the odd experience that often I would be the only person turning from one road into the other, the only pedestrian who failed to obey the unwritten, unspoken, barely acknowledged but wholly socialised rule that one did not cross the secret border. Of course, it seems absurd that I would have been the only one to cross the ‘border’ but that’s what it often felt like.

Almost a year ago I moved out of London and into Cambridge, to start my PhD. Cambridge is, in many respects, an altogether different place. For instance, on the crowded, narrow streets of the city centre, people are more likely to avoid eye contact with other pedestrians, looking down at the ground or away into the distance, in a way that reminds me of walkers in the small town in which I grew up. Pedestrians in London, by contrast and in my experience, are more likely to be looking alertly at others as they walk. This makes navigating the pavements easier, but can seem overly confrontational. Yet, there is one way in which Cambridge is perhaps even more ‘city-like’ than London: the more time I spend here, the more I notice the applicability of Miéville’s ideas of space.

Perhaps it’s too easy to find echoes of Miéville’s total and alter geographies in a university town such as Cambridge. The traditional student/resident divide (the colloquial ‘town and gown’) is particularly prominent in a town so dominated by the university. The university is the town’s principle claim to fame; it’s main tourist attraction; takes up most of the centre and large swathes of land elsewhere; and students are particularly noticeable on the streets, given the great socio-economic divide between most of the locals and most of the students. On top of this, the university’s buildings seem to have been designed to foster a sense of ‘us and them’: ancient stone walls and high wooden gates, set into high gatehouses, guarded by college officials and myriad (unspoken) regulations, work to reinforce the idea that certain lands are ‘total’ to the university, meaning that certain lands are, by extension, ‘alter’ to the town’s other residents. (Google Maps even recognises the colloquial name for the large light-fitting on Parker’s Piece – Reality Checkpoint – so called because it marks the end of the university’s influence and the beginning of the ‘real world’ of city residents.)

This noticeable division of space into ‘total’ and ‘alter’ areas is clearest at the colleges’ gates. Take King’s College, for instance. Unlike other touristy colleges along the river, the main entrance of King’s is reserved for college members and university people; tourists enter around the side. So the gate itself is a border space par excellence. Tourists and locals may gather around it, usually on the no-man’s land that stretches from the street to the gate itself, but they may not cross the threshold. University members, however, can freely cross into the restricted ground beyond.

Yet, this picture of the physical and social division between the college and the town outside its gates is misleading. Cambridge as ‘borderland’ is far messier than it first appears. Like most lived spaces, and unlike Miéville’s Beszel and Ul Qoma, Cambridge is a space where ‘crosshatching’ is the norm, not the exception. For instance, the university is a composite of thirty-one colleges, spread out across the town, frequented by students, locals and tourists alike. Each college has its own terms of access based on self-administered rules and regulations. Thinking back to my earlier experience at the crossroads in Dalston, where two microcosms of culture and class gazed at each other (or not) across an unmentioned border line, it’s apparent that the exclusivity within exclusivity which pervades any encounter with a Cambridge college (“Access for Members of Trinity College Only”/”Private – Members of Magdalene College Only Beyond This Point”) is not unique to Cambridge.

Clearly, as powerful as Miéville’s depiction of two cities relations over shared space and shared lives is, his book greatly limits the number of potential social and cultural divides across which unmentioned boarders might be erected. ‘Crosshatching’, Miéville’s term for the spaces that Beszel and Ul Qoma openly share, is surely the best term to describe the messy, complicated, multi-scalar social geographies of any urban space. It certainly describes most of Cambridge very well. Often, I find tourists who stop me in the street to ask where the university is are confused when I reply, “it’s all over the town”. Perhaps they expected, like other university towns, to find one, ‘total’ university space, from which the town would seem alter. In fact, a map of Cambridge shows this ‘crosshatch’ idea nicely.

It’s with those same tourists that I’d like to end this (apparently random) set of musings on unmentioned borders. In Miéville’s The City and the City, where children are the ones who give lie to the political straightjacketing of people’s lives, by their repeated failing to ‘unsee’ the other city, its inhabitants, its uniqeness. In Cambridge, this role is played by the tourists. Though they may not be able to cross certain borders, or to venture into certain areas, they always take the opportunity to look across, and to take note of what they see.



Our Instant Gratification Problem


Our march from one level of gratification to the next has imposed huge costs—most recently in a credit binge that nearly sank the global economy. But the issue here isn’t only one of overindulgence or a wayward consumer culture. Even as the economy slowly recovers, many people still feel out of balance and unsteady. It’s as if the quest for constant, seamless self-expression has become so deeply embedded that, according to social scientists like Robert Putnam, it is undermining the essential structures of everyday life. In everything from relationships to politics to business, the emerging norms and expectations of our self-centered culture are making it steadily harder to behave in thoughtful, civic, social ways. We struggle to make lasting commitments. We’re uncomfortable with people or ideas that don’t relate directly and immediately to us. Empathy weakens, and with it, our confidence in the idea, essential to a working democracy, that…

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The English Common Reader

Inspired by History Womble’s recent blog post, providing a brief glimpse into his reasons for choosing his own top 10 books, having been nominated I thought I should do the same. I can’t say my list will be as learned or as spiritual as his, but it’s mine and at least says something about me.


1. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

Not the most uplifting of reads, nevertheless, this book always fills me with a certain awe. Telling the now-famous story of the Clutter murders, in sleepy rural Kansas, Capote’s book seems to me a really good example of the ways fictional and non-fictional writing can be blended, to reveal the poetry to be found even in our responses to the darkest of deeds.


2. The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco

I once had dinner with Umberto Eco’s son. It had no bearing on my enjoyment of this book but I wanted to brag about it anyway. Like In Cold Blood, this is a book to which I can return again and again and again. Knowledge of the ending doesn’t diminish the power of Eco’s riddle, nor my appreciation of its execution. It’s a book that provides something new with each reading – not least my last read-through, where I read everything Baskerville said in Sean Connery’s voice. Or my second read, where I actually tried to understand the theology and philosophy rather than skipping past!


3. The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories – Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m cheating a bit by including 60 stories, from four novels and four short story collections, in one entry. Yet, it would be hard to find a book that has influenced me more in recent years than this (and thanks to my girlfriend, Karolina, for beating me over the head until I read the thing!). The stories took me from light entertainment on my tube commute to serious analysis at a library desk; and from a life of office drudgery in London to the swelter of a PhD in Cambridge.


4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

I realise I’m courting some slight ridicule by the fact that these first books in my list all pertain in some way to my research: intellectual puzzles in 1 and 2; ‘Baskerville’ in 2; the blend of fact and fiction in 1; and now the rise of serious fandom in 4. Still, I loved all these books (bar Holmes, actually) long before my PhD. This one in particular. I love returning to its grand scope, it’s artistic dreaming and its evocation of a world that is on the brink – and knows it.


5. Coming Up for Air – George Orwell

Since this list is ‘off-the-cuff’, my last remark about a society on the brink and fully aware of it made me think of this classic by Britain’s greatest mid-century writer. I could cheat by including here all his titles I enjoyed (and will: Nineteenth Eighty-Four, Animal Farm, Burmese Days, Down and Out in Paris and London, Shooting an Elephant, The Lion and the Unicorn, My Country Right or Left). Writing in the late 1930s, Orwell presents a lively world of looming doom and a resulting retreat into memory and fantasy.


6. Suite Francaise – Irene Nemirovsky

Clearly the power of associative thinking has grabbed me, for this book fits in the same mental compartment as Coming Up for Air. Like Orwell’s book, this is not looking back at the occupied France in the 1940s but was written, as it were, in real time. Nemirovsky, herself a former refugee from the Russian revolution, evokes the sense that no-one knows what is coming, nor what the world to come will look like.


7. Dark Star Safari – Paul Theroux

It would be remiss of me to leave off any travel writing from this list, given my )life’s) work’s focus on travel and literature, yet as with Orwell, there are far too many to do justice to those I’ve read (and still want to read) here. This one sticks out for Theroux’s wavering authorial voice – at home in Africa yet seeing with new eyes, claiming a new sensitive Western vision whilst being neo-colonialist all the same. Also, it was the first really literary travel writing I read.


8. Life: An Unauthorised Biography – Richard Fortey

Though Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything has stuck with me more, this book was really the first to open my eyes to the grandeur of prehistory and the power of telling stories where people don’t always have to be at the forefront.


9. The Call of the Wild – Jack London

Speaking of which (and here goes the associative thinking again), London’s stunning tale of one pack dog’s turn from hound to wolf in the Canadian north took me back to The Animals of Farthing Wood all over again. London’s ‘dog’s-eye view’ tackles the issue of regression in wilderness, whilst suggesting that ‘going wild’ might not always be as bad as it was commonly made out to be. You should read this book, if you haven’t already. My copy came bound with White Fang and To Build a Fire, in a Modern Classics Edition.


10. Outliers – Malcolm Gladwell

As a fan of the New Yorker I was bound to like this but his basic message that leaders come not from some random ‘gift’ or specialness, but from hard work and 10,000 of it, inspires me. He makes very good arguments, too, supported by data, for the power that school can work in children’s lives.


A Modern Folk Hero?

Yesterday, August 31st 2014, as I have been informed by a stream of posts on my facebook newsfeed, 443 people gathered in Temple Newsom, in Leeds, in an attempt to break the world record for the largest number of people dressed as Sherlock Holmes. As the cover picture shows most of the participants opted just to wear the ‘deerstalker’, with pipe and magnifying glass, provided by the organisers. I’m not criticising the efforts of this latter group. Goodness knows I don’t keep a deerstalker and inverness cape in my wardrobe. What I do find interesting is just how little it takes to transform a person from Joe Bloggs into a passing resemblance of the Great Detective.

Now, it’s hardly news to point out that the character of Sherlock Holmes has been distilled in the public imagination to a very few material items. The deerstalker hat, with or without the inverness cape (which the Canonical character donned only once, in a Paget illustration accompanying The Adventure of the Copper Beeches), the pipe, the magnifying glass. Cosplayers and fans nowadays might embellish this with simple trio with some random assortment of steampunk Victoriana.

What’s really interesting, however, is the possibility that this streamlining of Sherlock Holmes as a character into a few items with instant recognition factor might reflect a deeper evolution in the stories since their first appearances in late-Victorian London. Just as anyone can pick up a deerstalker hat, a pipe and a magnifying glass and pull off a credible impression of Sherlock Holmes, so the thousands of adaptations of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, as fan fictions, pastiches and authorised re-incarnations, as stage plays, films and television series, and through pseudo-scholarship, conventions and dressing up, by combining a select few elements, can appear at once original and yet intimately connected to the ‘source material’.

It would seem that Sherlock Holmes might be the modern era’s best known folk hero. Yet, the idea of Holmes as a folk hero is complicated. On the one hand many of the adaptations, new creations and fan-led inventions, such as BBC’s Sherlock co-written by self-confessed fanboys, live up to what Davies has claimed are the key criteria of folk tales: they are examples of communal co-production, in which the audience plays a role in their creation or, as Davies says, the stories are, “part of the collective social fabric”[1]. In this case, the social fabric is perhaps more elastic than it was in the heyday of folk tales, covering fans, readers and the general public to greater and lesser depths. Further, Walter Benjamin has likened the folktale to craftmanship or communal work[2], something that is possible to see in the social nature of the Sherlockians’ approach to integrating new scholarship or adaptations into the broader ‘archive’.

At the same time, many have argued that detective stories in general and the Sherlock Holmes stories in particular are the antithesis of earlier folk tales. Davies cites detective fiction as a the clearest example of what he calls the teleogenic plot – a narrative arc whereby later events, such as the revelation of the detective’s solution, significantly alter the reader’s perception of events earlier in the story. This is an important point, as for Davies, teleogenic plots represent the highest development of the novel as a form. In the nineteenth century teleogenic plots tended to make the reader rethink what they had read about characters or events. In the twentieth, modernists began using their plots to make the reader think again about the form and artistry of what they had read. Still, Davies argues that both examples of teleogenic plots reinforce the basic ideological function of the novel: to make the reader believe they have a say in the plot, while in fact reinforcing the novel’s core, bourgeois message of personal change at the expense of political upheaval.[3] As such, detective fiction, as an example of a univocal, individually produced, undemocratic story (created by the author alone, with no real room for reader engagement) represents the antithesis of the folktale.

Other scholars, including Miller and Schneer, while taking different tracks from Davies and from each other, support the basic idea that detective fiction is far from the communal, collective productive effort represented by folktales. Miller argues that the Victorian, amateur detective novel, of which Sherlock Holmes is the most famous example, reinforces bourgeois standards on its readers by representing a world in which the middle classes can take care of their own issues, without police involvement, if only they abstain from the kinds of transgressions – fraud mostly – which are admonished by fictional detectives.[4] Schneer, writing about turn-of-the-century London, includes the Sherlock Holmes stories in his examples of Empire-oriented popular culture, arguing that they represent a kind of one-way relationship between the author, who painted a particular image of the British Empire, and the reader, who accepted it without question.[5]

Of course, the clearest difference between these two arguments is the source material on which they are based. While Davies, Miller and Schneer turn their arguments on Doyle’s original 56 short stories and four novels, my suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories might be folk tales rests on a broader corpus, which includes all subsequent adaptations, homages and so on alongside Doyle’s writings. But even if we concentrate only on Doyle’s stories, folktales are not very far away. The tale of the spectral hound at the centre of The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance was based on a local Devon folktale about a ghostly hound stalking Dartmoor, recounted to Doyle by a friend and journalist, Bertram Fletcher Robinson, on a sea voyage. Robinson, went on to write a piece of reportage about the longevity of the legend, while Doyle set about turning one legend into another. Further, as Nils Clausson has argued, The Hound of the Baskervilles questions the supremacy of Holmes’s scientific detection and the stories’ teleogenic plots through Doyle’s inclusion of two genres – a modern detective story represented by Holmes and a classic gothic tale represented by Watson – whose struggles for explanatory power throughout the text result in a story-long battle between science and folktale, detective fiction and gothic, progress and degeneration which is never fully resolved.[6]

In Vladimir Propp’s original schemata of folktales, in Morphology of the Folktale (1928/1958), he outlines a number of elements or functions which are common to folktales. These elements are easily interchangeable between tales but also, given the usual reliance on oral delivery, between tellings of the same tale, too. It is well known by now that details of folktales were commonly altered in the telling, so long as the overall structure and salient features remained the same. When compiling their first collection of fairytales, for instance, the Brothers Grimm relied on a variety of written sources and oral traditions, distilling from these similar-but-different tales the narrative and details of the stories as we know them today.

Its possible to see echoes of Propp’s functions in examples from the Sherlockian archive. Take, for instance, the storyline concerning Sherlock Holmes’s supposed demise and his triumphant return which spanned the last episode of season two and the first episode of season three of the BBC’s Sherlock. This television show is, as I’ve said, a great example of the collective craft of Sherlockian adaptation, as it is a successful new media adaptation, written by two self-confessed fans, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, which ended up drawing heavily on wider fan engagement in its production. The episodes in question, which span cliff-hanger style the break between seasons two and three, loosely follow the events of Doyle’s The Final Problem and The Adventure of the Empty House. In the first, Holmes’s relationships with the police, the law and his sanity are called into question following a tortuous scheme by Moriarty to break him. The episode ends with Holmes, under pain of his friends’ deaths, apparently choosing to take his own life in their stead. Moriarty, the only person who could have stopped his henchmen killing Watson, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson, has proven himself as crazy as well all thought by committing suicide, depriving Holmes of his only alternative. The next series opens with the same scene, though shot from a different perspective, purporting to show how Holmes, with the help of his homeless network (and Molly), faked his own death for the benefit of Moriarty’s men. Holmes eventually returns to London and to crime solving after being tracked to Serbia by his brother, and MI6 official, Mycroft.

Moffatt and Gatiss’s scripts contain a number of elements recognisable from Propp’s schema, including: ‘delivery’, in which the villain gains information about the victim, seen in Mycroft’s mistaken attempts to deal with Moriarty by supplying him with information about Sherlock; ‘trickery’ and ‘complicity’, where the villain attempts to deceive the victim and when the victim is taken in by treachery, seen in the course of the first episode where Moriarty leads Holmes and the police on a merry goose-chase in search of a ‘keycode’ of some kind, which ultimately turns out to be a ruse, and where Moriarty fools journalist Kitty Reilly into corroborating his alter-ego’s story; ‘struggle’, where the hero and villain engage in direct combat, although this time it is face-to-face mental combat atop Bart’s Hospital, the culmination of two series’ worth of mental combat played out in games and riddles; and finally, ‘pursuit’, ‘rescue’ and ‘unrecognised arrival’, seen in Holmes’s flight from Britain, his pursuit by Moriarty and his appearance (at first) unrecognisable, in a Serbian gaol.

Given, of course, the tendency of television and film productions to streamline stories’ complexity for their own medium, it is possible that the appearance of many of these folktale elements, or of elements which may be likened to them, is due to the constraints of storytelling in this format. The idea of Moriarty as an arch-nemesis, for instance, while featured by Doyle and popularised by early fan work, gained its greatest traction in the film and television era. Sherlock follows other television conventions, too, such as limiting its core cast to a handful of repeating, important characters.

Even if it is too difficult to make a direct comparison between Propp’s morphology and Sherlock, the show and these episodes in particular highlight an important objection to Davies’s suggestion that the Sherlock Holmes stories represent the purest form of the novelistic, teleogenic plot. If folktales were traditionally noticeable as communal efforts at co-production, part of the collective social fabric, then the Sherlock Holmes stories surely fall within that group. If we don’t needlessly limit ourselves to Doyle’s canonical writings and admit that the popular understanding of Sherlock Holmes is based on a broader corpus of stories, adaptations and so on, what we can see is that communal co-production, collective engagement and the interchangeability of certain standard elements in  new stories is at the heart of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon.

In fact, Moffatt and Gatiss’s writing showcases this nicely. A part of the storyline of The Empty Hearse is devoted to different fans’ interpretations of what happened to Sherlock after he jumped from Bart’s rooftop. Moffatt and Gatiss drew inspiration from the myriad explanations and guesses posted across the internet after the end of season two. Each new sequence contains the same – already known – elements: Sherlock’s phone call to Watson; Molly’s involvement; the intervention of the homeless network; and takes place in the same locations. Yet the details change each time, depending on who is telling the story.

This storytelling aspect also highlights one of the aspects I am keen to emphasise in my study of Sherlock as a reader co-produced phenomenon: the element of fun involved in making and telling the stories. One of the dramatised stories of Holmes’s cheating death is from a fan who injects a homoerotic element between Holmes and Moriarty. This reflects the acres and acres of Holmesian homoeroticism on the internet (Tumblr, it seems, is nothing but fantasies about Holmes and Moriarty or Holmes and Watson). The storyteller clearly injects some of her own desire and imagination, and humour, into her tale. Yet, we know from watching an earlier scene between Lestrade and Robinson that the matter of Holmes’s death (or escaping it) is a harrowing reality that has taken its psychological toll on most of the characters; hardly different from the psychological depths that the original stories, with their tales of crime and imperial intrusions are supposed to have conjured – before Holmes banishes them to the darkness whence they came. Moffatt and Gatiss recognise, unlike many Sherlockian scholars, that readers and fans of the Holmes stories can and do integrate fear, suspense and relief at its proper resolution alongside and interwoven with fun, hilarity and exhilaration.

The Sherlock Holmes stories, those written by Doyle, co-written by his readers and launched into the community by fans, might not read much like folktales of old. Nevertheless, as Moffatt and Gatiss have so memorably shown, that doesn’t mean that Sherlock Holmes doesn’t stand today in their stead, as a modern folk hero for our times.

[1] Lennard Davies, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, (London: Methuen, 1987), p.200.

[2] ibid. p.201.

[3] ibid. pp.206-210.

[4] D.A. Miller, The Novel and the Police, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

[5] Jonathan Schneer, London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).

[6] Nils Clausson, ‘Degeneration, Fin-de-Siecle Gothic and the Science of Detection: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and the Emergence of the Modern Detective Story’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 35(2005), pp.60-87.

‘Walking the Walk’ – Conference Season: Part Three

This is Part Three in a series on being presenting at conferences as a first-year PhD student. You can read the other sections, Part One on finding a conference (and finding a topic) and Part Two with an extract from one of my papers, here. In Part Three, I discuss the experience of actually attending and speaking at a conference.

Given my research interests in travel and in literary responses to border crossings (this blog is called travelling histories, after all) it may seem odd that my first conference presentation happened in Cambridge, not a mile from my own front door. Yet again, perhaps it wasn’t so odd, after all. I was lucky enough to be selected as a speaker at a conference on ‘Thinking with Things’, put on as part of Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH). In keeping with CRASSH’s aims, the conference was avowedly interdisciplinary. The keynote speaker talked about the hidden depths of art history and what an appreciation of materials, of things, can bring to the understanding of works of art. Other presentations ranged across subjects from seventeenth-century didactic geographical board games, to the historical significance of Irish episcopal palaces and the histories of collecting cultures. My work’s own interdisciplinary approach, moving across the boundaries of geography, history and literature, meant that I felt quite at home in this apparent academic hodge-podge.

Even the walk from my flat to the conference venue, a journey of about 15 or 20 minutes, depending on how rushed I am, involved the (legal) transgression of a variety of geographical and social borders. For instance, the fastest way across the river Cam to the Sidgewick site, home of the Alison Richards Building and of CRASSH, is through the grounds of King’s College. As a member of the university I have the right to walk up to the imposing, be-gowned porters standing outside the college’s famous main gate, on King’s Parade, wave my card and pass through to the relative calm of the front court on the gate’s other side. Yet, as a member of Emmanuel College, not King’s, there’s always a slight chance that that privilege could be revoked. So, my walk past the throngs of indignant tourists (“why can he go in?!”) to the gates is often (as it was on this day) tinged with a small sense of excitement. Of course, on that day, as on most days in term time, I was allowed through.

But today’s post shouldn’t really begin with the morning of my first academic conference itself. As I’m sure is the case for many people, when I came to read my paper to the room of expectant faces that afternoon, it was not for the first time. Over the course of the previous four or five days I had read and re-read my paper, out-loud to myself and to others, around ten times. This was the real bridge between the draft text with which I ended Part Two of this series, and the paper I read out at CRASSH. Reading my words aloud was key to the redrafting process. It enabled me to actually hear where certain words would cause me to stumble, or where certain sentences  ran on for far too long. Given that I will, if left to my own devices, write in a more personal and confessional style (much like the tone of this blog), I have to work hard in academic writing to polish up my prose to a less bloggy, more professional standard. I still strive to maintain a sense of myself in what I write. I am a firm believer that the reader must know it is me writing those sentences, reading those words, framing those ideas. They did not arrive, fully formed on their own. They do not stand for some abstract, academic truth. Sadly, achieving the balance between these two outliers is not always easy and I often fall back on my tried-and-tested, undergraduate writing style: informative, clear but bland and repetitive. Reading my prose aloud helps me to correct for that, too.

One of the things I enjoy most about giving academic presentations is that, at least in my fields, it is very acceptable to ‘read’ a paper. That is, to prepare a word-for-word text and to read it out across the podium. Good presenters will work, in their text and their delivery, to put a lively and interesting voice to their words and will strive not to simply drone on in monotone for 20, eternal minutes. This practice saved me from the greatest issue I have as a presenter: my habit of forgetting most of what I want to say and the nervous tics, stumbles and ‘ums’ that accompanying this forgetting. By reading a prepared script, I could fully impart every bit of my in-depth arguments while sounding (I hope) confident and clear. Some may argue, as did the woman sitting next to my during the keynote speech, that reading a paper rather than talking extemporaneously, kills any interest the audience has. I would counter, as I did then, that the point of academic conferences is to listen to, and discuss the ideas. If reading from a paper helps the presenter to argue for all their ideas and not to leave half of them, forgotten, on the cutting floor of their mind, I am all for it.

Another great benefit of reading a written paper is that I was able to listen to and enjoy the speakers whose turn it was to speak before mine. In the past, following the ‘speak to a powerpoint, don’t use notes’ format loved by my old teachers, lecturers and bosses, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on anything other than the looming fear that I would forget something. That was not a problem at CRASSH. One anxiety that still remains is that I might go over time. Thus I am prone, on a first attempt, to cut deeply into my paper and actually go under time. I was a full four minutes under time at CRASSH.

Happily, this meant that I could restore a lot of material and add more things for my paper’s second outing, at Portsmouth University’s Centre for Studies in Literature‘s annual symposium, which this year was on ‘Material Objects in Detective Fiction’. As at CRASSH, having written out my words and having practiced them out-loud again and again, I was free to listen to the other presentations and contribute to the lively discussion. I was very lucky to attend that conference for three reasons. First, it was organised by the wonderful Christopher Pittard, whose work on Strand Magazine readership and the ‘moral community’ they constituted has been of great help to my own thesis. Secondly, I was able to meet the interesting Kate Brombley, who is Chris’s PhD student and whose work on Doyle and Sherlockian fandom nicely overlaps with my own work.

Thirdly, unlike the horror stories PhDs and ERCs hear of senior academics who use conferences as an opportunity to tear young researchers a new one, I was approached after my paper by the keynote speaker, Janice Allan, senior lecturer at Salford and editor of the journal Clues: A Journal of Detection. Janice simply noted that her paper, which I had unfortunately missed that morning, disagreed in parts with my own analysis. She offered to email me a copy and suggested we discuss our disagreements. Janice certainly provided a lesson on how to handle academic disagreement in a way that doesn’t demand a 30-minute ‘question’ in the Q&A session and which doesn’t lead to the humiliation of the inexperienced (and often nervous) speaker.


‘I Can’t Think of a Better Title Right Now’ – Conference Season: Part Two

This is the second part in what will probably be a long-ish series on my recent experiences as a first-year PhD student in the world of academic conferences. In the last post I wrote about looking for a conference to present at, looking for an idea to write about and the writing process itself. This post is an edited version of the paper I presented at Cambridge CRASSH’s Thinking with Things: Material Cultures 1400-1940 graduate symposium and Portsmouth University’s Detecting Objects: Materials and Detective Fiction symposium. As you can see, in comparison with the ‘initial ideas’ I briefly covered in the last post, my paper changed shape dramatically between initial proposal and presentation version.

Sherlock Holmes’s Things

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, the line between people and their environments is indistinct; bodies are not bounded entities but intimately connected to the world around them. Things can be understood, for instance, by both definitions of the term ‘property’: as something possessed by a person but also as a distinguishing mark or feature. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Dr. Mortimer’s cane is not just his possession, it is an item that marks him out as a rural inhabitant, a medical man and a keen walker. Neither is it a mere accessory, for he tells us that he, “would not lose that stick for the world”.[1] It is not just things close to the body which distinguish their possessors. At the beginning of The Cardboard Box Holmes is able to break into Watson’s train of thought, much to Watson’s surprise, by following Watson’s gaze around the room and noting which objects his eyes rest on.[2] Holmes’s feat of deduction is made possible by recognising the interactive, affective relationship that occurs between Watson and these particular things.

The blurred line between persons and things indicates that these characters are what Carl Knappett has termed, ‘extended organisms’.[3] These ‘props’ emphasise the performative nature of identity, its materiality, and through its dependence on recognition by an observer or observers, its social rather than innate nature. Sherlock Holmes is the best example of this phenomenon of ‘fuzzy boundaries’ between the human body and its physical environment. As Watson explains in a famous passage from The Cardboard Box, “He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour and suspicion of unsolved crime.”[4]

There is a duality at work in this metaphor. Firstly, the imagery is both organic and technological. Undoing the idea that bodies are bounded by their skin, we are presented with a figurative coupling of a man and his environment, where words and messages replace nervous signals, and where people are imagined to be at once individual and yet combined into a system. The term ‘filaments’ suggests a particular organic and inorganic hybridity. Though it conjures up an image of living nerves, those little rumours and suspicions of crime more often come to Holmes by mechanical means: through telegraph wires, postal services and transport networks. Although Holmes is described at various times in the stories as being akin to a ‘calculating machine’, he is in fact closer to what Donna Haraway has described as a ‘cyborg’.[5] His mental and physical capacities are augmented by materials. These range from the encyclopedia of crime and the communications networks he relies on for information, to the Hansom cabs that speed him around the city and the magnifying glass he uses to discern what his eye alone cannot.

Secondly, the quotation suggests a tension between stillness and mobility at the heart of Holmes’s character. The organic and inorganic hybridity of Holmes’s filaments reflects the late-Victorian imagery of the ‘All Red Routes’: the imperial communications network. This was made of postal steamer ships as well as the telegraph wires that spanned the globe (known as the All-Red Line) and connected the various colonial outposts with Britain’s heartlands. Although they gained their nickname from the red colouring by which they were marked on maps, these ‘All Red Routes’ were also metaphorically described as the Empire’s arteries and veins; carrying material messages of love, friendship and trade that were the lifeblood of imperial connections.[6]

Yet, as the filaments quotation illustrates, Holmes is not just aware of the power of the communications network; he is a part of its power. This does not just reflect his position as a servant of the law. Though there is an element of the panoptic about his ability to ‘lie in the very centre’, being, ‘responsive to every little rumour and suspicion’, Holmes doesn’t actually lie in wait, like a Victorian NSA agent. He actively makes use of the network, becoming a part of the great, democratic access to communications, first made possible by the universal penny post.

Following Thrift, the nineteenth-century telegraph system should be regarded as a ‘machine complex’, one kind of technology – others include stagecoaches, railways and, more recently, the internet – whose operation relies on synergy between humans and machines. The stagecoach and the telegraph are well known for their contributions to the ‘annihilation of time and space’. Yet, by enhancing the motility – the potential for movement – in people, they also turn places into “stages of intensity…Traces of movement, speed and circulation”.[7] So while Holmes appears to be lying still, in the centre of London, through his connections to the communications networks his stillness is no more than an illusion.


[1] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.181.

[2] Ibid. p.1113.

[3] Carl Knappett, Thinking Through Material Culture: An Interdisciplinary Perspective, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005), p.16.

[4] Doyle, Complete Stories, p.1113.

[5] Adey, Mobility, p.201.

[6] Kate Thomas, Postal Pleasures: Sex, Scandal and Victorian Letters, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p.162.

[7] Cresswell, On the move, p.47