The Evocation of Place – Sherlock Holmes & London

It’s been a while since I last wrote. A thousand tiny things have intervened since I read and reviewed the second of my ‘Berlin Books’ a while ago. I have still been reading quite regularly, since my last reviewed book I have apparently read four more books (thanks Goodreads), two fiction and two non-fiction. What’s more, these were some amazing books. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, despite its controversial subject matter, was one of the best-written books I have ever read. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler… (another bargain buy from Camden Lock Books) was a love-letter to bibliophiles everywhere, even if it did peter out a bit towards the end. Then I read two fascinating books about the history of imperialism. C.P. Champion’s The Strange Demise of British Canada was interesting if a bit dry and polemical whereas Nicholas Thomas and Richard Eves very cleverly made use of letters to mothers as a tool for exploring the fragilities of colonists in the ‘South Seas’ in the short but powerful Bad Colonists. I would recommend at least 75% of those (guess which three) to any discerning reader.

But, as I said, I’m not going to talk about any of those books today. I’m talking about a book I have literally just finished, Anthony Horowitz’s The House of Silk. A book that I began to read a week or so ago when I first moved down to London where, pending being able to actually get a job, I am now going to be located for the foreseeable future. What struck me whilst reading The House of Silk was the way in which Sherlock Holmes and London are imbricated.

Firstly, the book itself. The House of Silk is unusual for a Sherlock Holmes story in that it is so long. I have only read one collection of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – the Penguin English Library’s The Five Orange Pips and Other Cases– and that was quite recently, but I thoroughly enjoyed them. One of the virtues of that collection was that the stories were short enough not to outstay their welcome, and so it is a testament to Horowitz’s skill that he manages to maintain the quality and pace in what must be the longest Sherlock Holmes adventure. The tale itself rattles along at a fair pace, and is told as a brilliant homage to Conan Doyle’s original style.  I can’t really talk about the plot, because it’s Sherlock Holmes and that would spoil it, but suffice to say it was pretty solid. I had already read Moriarty, the sort-of-but-not-really follow-up to this, and been impressed, but I enjoyed this book even more so. I would give it four symbolic digital pounds (which, like everything else, is more valuable than actual pounds right now): ££££

Sherlock Holmes biffing someone on the chops.

The House of Silk is a great book, and I would highly recommend it, but I wonder if I have enjoyed it because its London setting has combined with my relocation. As I touched upon in my Berlin blogs – I seem to feel that place has an effect on the books I read. This is not necessarily consistent – I remember reading Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express – a book in which Theroux’s journey begins from Boston. I began reading that book as I left Boston and traveled down the East Coast of the USA and I felt my experience was enhanced because of it. By contrast I remember reading Theroux’s Dark Star Safari whilst in Africa and feeling little connection to the events on the pages. With London though, I think there is something special at work.

It is only really in the past twelve months that I have begun to come to London regularly. Before then, as a dyed-in-the-wool Northerner (perhaps even more so when in Oxford), London was just a place that took all the money away from our infrastructure projects and had a lot of problems with crime. Visiting regularly, though, I began to see a romance to it – its filthy brick walls, the truly bizarre street names (“Lamb Conduit Street” anyone?), the palpable sense of history that pervades any big city. I began to notice the city of London as a ‘character’ in media, perhaps for the first time in the excellent Penny Dreadful (still haven’t seen Season Three yet though), then in Peter Ackroyd’s Hawkesmoor, and also in Sherlock Holmes. Far from just being the setting of a story I read, living in London makes me feel part of these stories, even if my own story is far less gripping than a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Colliers Wood represent! (Not sure why it is missing the possessive comma)

London has changed almost beyond recognition from the late nineteenth-century metropolis that Holmes inhabited. East London has moved from a den of semi-industralised iniquity to house artisans of a different kind – coffee grinders and bakers. Yet there still exist parallel worlds in London – like the gentility of Holmes and Mycroft alongside the Baker Street Irregulars. I’ve seen it in the past week working agency jobs, sat with kitchen staff and cleaners outside the swanky hotel’s loading bay or rubbing shoulders with sweat-tinged grafters in dirty vests and pinstriped City-types on that great social leveller – the London transport network. Whenever I used to visit I remember sitting on the Tube and wondering what it was like to do that every day, to be one of the cells pumping constantly through the great veins and arteries of a huge, sprawling, city like London. As someone from a semi-rural commuter town of about 50,000 people where efficient public transport, investment opportunities, and decent jobs in roles I would enjoy are a distant dream, I viewed the workings of the city with a sort of detached academic fascination, like a social scientist conducting a great experiment.

I dream of this sort of space.

Well I’m there now. Even after a week or so I am starting to get a sense of what it feels like – hot and sweaty, mainly – to be a tiny part of that gargantuan, infernal organism. I can’t say whether London is somewhere I preferred visiting at the weekends or living in yet. There are still parts of it I don’t like and never will. My heart and sympathies will always be in the North, which feels so far away now even if it isn’t. But it’s interesting and exciting that relocating is already making me think about reading in new ways. I am going to have to check out Down and Out in Paris and London next and see how it compares with my current experiences…



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