Between the Canon and the Commons

My time at the Library of Congress’s Kluge Center is coming to an end. This is sad news. It might also come as a surprise to many (any?) of you reading this blog, given the little time I have devoted to chronicling the relatively rare experience of being a British Research Councils Fellow at the Library of Congress. (I would recommend anyone interested in finding out what it is like to study at the Library’s Kluge Center, or to be a part of the AHRC’s IPS programme, to read the fascinating blogs by Sibylle Machat and Natalie Cox, respectively.

Sighting the beginning of the end of my Kluge time has brought with it the honour of presenting to the distinguished crowd of researchers that make up the Center’s Fellows and staff. To that end, last week I gave a talk on the ways in which fans of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlockians) have used and framed representations of geographical mobility in their fan fictions. I called my paper, ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ in reference to the work of David Brewer and his notion of fan fictions as a ‘textual commons’, and to suggest that fans’ representations of Holmes and his world have always brought with them elements of Doylean originalism and fan evolution.

Like many academics before me, I made life considerably easier on myself by presenting a paper that I had already given: in this case, I wrote ‘Between the Canon and the Commons’ to be delivered at the Association of American Geographers’ (AAG) annual meeting in Chicago, the week before my Kluge talk.

In this post I will talk a bit about each presentation, show some photos and slides and talk a bit about how my work was received. If you want to read a full-length speaking text of my paper (as yet without footnotes – those will come in time), head over to my page on


AAG – Chicago 2015

Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago's Millennium Park
Millennium Gate, otherwise known as the Bean, in Chicago’s Millennium Park

The AAG Annual Meeting is perhaps the largest gathering of geographers (and some others) at any one time. This year, in Chicago, the conference stretched over three venues and six days, involving thousands of attendees, hundreds of panellists and tens of rooms. Yet, the way the conference was set up, with multiple panels at any one time, meant that I only got a sense of the its size and scale at certain moments – in the lobby of the main hotel venue, for instance, or in the nearby bars and restaurants where nearly every customer was wearing the tell-tale green lanyard. Given the small size of each room and the many choices available, the panels themselves were relatively intimate affairs.

Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer
Me and my friend and fellow geographer Edward-John eating Chicago deep dish pizza. Almost everyone in this restaurant was a geographer

There were around thirty people in the room when I spoke. My paper was part of a panel organised by myself and my supervisor, partly to give us both space in which to contextualise our work and partly to ensure that, at a conference where literary geographers are a rare breed, we would’t get lost on panels with little or no relevance to what we are doing. Phil chaired the first panel, in which I spoke, which was about mobility and circulation as they related to the relationship between literature and the world. Here is a photo of me speaking, and few slides from the presentation:



The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago's Hyatt hotel
The author presenting his paper in a windowless room in Chicago’s Hyatt hotel

Public Property



We had a good series of papers, with the first two (my own and Maddy Hamlin’s) considering the formal relationship between literary representations of mobility and meaning in quite different texts; and the latter two (by Perry Carter and Stephen Dreiver) looking at the ways circulation of books or their authors have affected their representations and their impact on the world.


Kluge Center Work-in-Progress

At the Kluge Center I was back on home turf, presenting to a group of academics and the center’s staff,with whom I had discussed my own topic many times. The paper as I gave it was essentially unchanged. Again, here is a photo of me giving the talk, along with a few slides:

The author speaking in the Library of Congress
The author speaking in the Library of Congress





What was really interesting was the difference, in depth and complexity, of the questions I received at the Kluge. Whereas in Chicago I was speaking to a room of geographers, many of whom presumably shared many of my underlying assumptions about the importance of representations of geography in narratives, at the Kluge I was in front of an interdisciplinary audience, whose members’ work differs greatly from my own.

While in Chicago questions focussed on my use of theory, in Washington the questions probed more deeply into my own orientation to the texts and to the ideas of readerly ‘borrowing’ and relationships to originary authors that I was exploring. The different angles from which each listener came gave fresh (and valuable) insights into my work which I will certainly build on.

Perhaps the message to take away here is, even if large, many-panelled conferences seem more prestigious and vital to one’s academic CV, it’s the small, intimate, interdisciplinary places where the real academic growing happens.


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.

‘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

‘The First Draft is Always Shit’ – Conference Season: Part One

Looking at the dateline of my last entry I realise with a larger-than-expected pang of guilt that it has been a long time since I last tended to this blog. Perhaps it would help my defence if I mentioned that the months since I hatched the idea to blog my PhD have been the busiest so far. Over and above writing my First Year Report (and feverishly preparing for my oral upgrade exam) I presented at three conferences in the summer term.

I had heard from many fellow students, from academics in my department and read on many blogs (including the excellent Patter and Thesis Whisperer) that writing is the best way to drive ideas forward. I was also aware that presenting papers is a great way to get feedback on work-in-progress. (In fact, my pastoral tutor said to me in the very first week of the academic year, “don’t go to conferences unless you are presenting”. Wise words, perhaps, for the PhD student looking to get noticed but also a guaranteed way to pile on the pressure.)

While inspiration to present work-in-progress is one thing, finding a suitable conference is another. Although I had signed up to the mildly useful Conference Alerts website, the most useful tips came from university mailing lists (word to the wise: get on as many of these as you can; although I am in the Geography Department I get notice of calls for papers in from the History and English faculties, too), as well as friends who kept an eye out on Twitter. Through a combination of these avenues I found three suitable conferences.

The first was aimed at postgrads and early career researchers and hosted by Cambridge’s own, wonderful CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. Thinking with Things, a one-day symposium, brought together presenters from a range of scholarly backgrounds and interests, and from all over the country, to share their research on materials culture thinking in the arts, social science and humanities. Among many excellent papers, on topics as diverse as Belgian shopping-culture and commercial business cards in the nineteenth century, Pierre Duval’s seventeenth-century geographical board games and the gendering of casket metaphors in Shakespeare’s works, I had the chance to present my own work-in-progress on material objects and Sherlock Holmes’s method.

Like all good papers, this one developed out an unexpected idea that had sparked in one of my supervisor’s ‘critical geography 101’ seminars. Reading into material geographies, the strand of human geography that looks at the way objects and materials move through the world and interact with humans, non-humans and each other, I was intrigued by the idea, noted by Jane Bennett, that materials might (in some way) ‘vibrate’ with an energy of their own, and that people are, to a greater or lesser degree, sensitive to these vibrations. At the furthest end of the sensitivity spectrum are those people Bennett terms ‘hoarders’: people who collect or are greatly attracted to a variety of objects.

Bennett’s aim, which she shares with many materially-oriented human geographers, though she is a political scientist herself, is to reinvest objects and materials with a sense of political participation, or at least to raise the possibility that human-material interactions have political (and social, environmental or emotional) significance in this more-than-human world.

Though her research is broad, her comments on hoarders and on people’s sensitivity to materials’ vibrations and the role they can play in political and social life got me thinking. As a fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes relies heavily on material objects, from paper and clothing, to footprints and settled dust, to build up his cases. In most instances, Holmes is able to see physical evidence that everyone else, including the official police detectives, his partner Watson and the perpetrators themselves, overlooks or ignores. He displays a heightened sensitivity to materials, objects or things. This is just one way of analysing Holmes’s particular relationship with things – Joan Copjec, for instance, reads the detective’s abilities from a semiotical point of view: he represents the argument that there are always other ways to view a situation; his habit of noticing the overlooked letter, or the unnoticed door, indicates that there is always “one signifier more”: the “potentially infinite extension of meaning”.

Yet, materials thinking seemed to offer another way to view the question: does Holmes’s highly sensitive relationship to materials reflect Doyle’s (and other Sherlockian writers’) awareness of the significance that things play in the more-than-human world? There seemed to me to be a number of instances within the stories and their context which make this idea at least plausible. Like Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue, Doyle often includes more-than-human agents into his stories, such as the snake in The Speckled Band, the atavistic, animal-like soldier in The Blanched Soldier or the poison-box in The Dying Detective. At the same time, Doyle’s Spritualist beliefs and his use of mediums indicates his understanding that some people have a greater sensitivity to objects and ‘vibrations’, to use Bennett’s word, outside of those places that people tend to look.

With these thoughts cascading out, I sat down to draft a paper. One of the real benefits of presenting at conferences in my first year has been the painful, yet necessary, confrontation with the understanding that, as historian Matt Houlbrook has warned, “the first draft is always shit”. Boy, is he right about that. In my case, given my return to academia after half a decade in policy-focussed jobs in Westminster, where lengthy, considered prose wasn’t always the aim, this was a tough barrier to face down. My touchstone for academic writing was my undergraduate and masters essays, which I would (sadly) bang out in one sitting and submit, with very little editing. As a doctoral researcher, there’s no such luxury. The submission is never final and there’s always room for improvement.

As I will demonstrate in the next post, with an extract from my paper, the piece’s final form was very, very different from the ideas I started with. I didn’t use any interpretation of the stories I mentioned above and avoided entirely any reference to Doyle’s life. With only 3,000-or-so words to reel off in 20 minutes, brevity, and simplicity, are the soul of conference presentations. Honestly, as this was my first paper and I was anxious to avoid a train-wreck situation, when my first notions that Sherlock’s relationship with objects might in some was puncture the detective’s traditional role as final arbiter of power became too knotty, I based my structure on the useful and informative work of archaeologist Carl Knappett, referencing a book he wrote while just up the road from here, in Christ’s, Cambridge. Without Carl’s excellent analytical framework to draw on (and ‘enchance’, of course) my paper would not have been in the shape it was.

Once I’d written the damn thing, my next move was to build up the courage to read it. Aloud. And not in my living room.