Order in the Sheepfold

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Nobody memorable but, the team….

In most movies, the star is often an attention-seeking  glory-hound. Following the trail of the award-winning Mea Maxima Culpa, Silence in the House of God (2012), Spotlight has a supremely talented cast who subsume individual ego to tell a story of group achievement. And despite a lack of conspicuous melodrama or cinematic trickery, this film feels authentic, where the police and the priests are as thick as thieves and entire communities become complicit behind the dogged silence of religious omertá.

About half of the priesthood in the Catholic Church, it is said, are celibate. Those who are not discreetly bend the rules with housekeepers, congregants and others sworn to absolute secrecy. A very small minority break the law by self-gratification with minors, so much so that it has become a caricature. The film tells the story of how such activities were covered up behind smoke and mirrors by the Church hierarchy, whose duplicity extended right to the top of the organization and its appalling extent uncovered by a team of investigators from the Boston Globe. The very ordinariness of the cast, the tedium of the legwork and the deep conservatism of the Catholic hierarchy is hardly Oscar-fodder. It was like All The President’s Men, but the target was an infinitely more powerful organization. It’s a grown up, serious film, leaving us with the uncomfortable realization that some suspicions are not better off being dismissed. The Vatican’s policy of “deny, minimise and blame” was systematic, endemic and ubiquitous.

The church – in the lower-case sense – has acted as the bedrock of European and American jurisprudence for centuries, whether or not we like it much. We owe our culture, our morality to her, despite her manifold, often deeply embarrassing lapses and her authoritarian dominance. Or, we have until now. Perhaps Spengler was right a hundred years ago in prophesying that Europe was moving inexorably towards its end as the blooming Renaissance must ultimately give way to ossified, bureaucratic regulation and the twenty-first century religion of human rights inexorably supersedes belief. The philosopher Roger Scruton quite properly calls it a religion because ‘it is designed expressly to fill the hole in people’s worldview that is left when religion is taken away or, better, declines in popularity. The notion of a ‘human right’ purports to offer a template for moral opinions, for legal precepts, for policies designed to establish order in places where people are in competition and conflict.’ However, in itself, it is without foundations, a house built on sand. If you ask what religion commands or forbids, you usually get a clear answer in terms of God’s revealed law or the magisterium of the church. If you ask what rights are human or natural or fundamental, you get a different answer depending on whom you ask, and nobody seems to agree about how conflicts can be resolved; argument, however well-reasoned, is no substitute for a certainty upon which one can build. Furthermore, we no longer dare ask, since in so doing, somebody, whether a Muslim, pro-choice, or LGBT, howls in protest. We are no longer allowed to ‘discriminate’ when all human reason cries out that we do. Imagine a Muslim shopkeeper living in Brussels employing a Jew because he recognizes the man’s accounting skills. No, he employs his nephew because he wants to keep it in the family. But the idea of meaningless human rights leaves the Muslim no alternative but to dismiss the secular law and its cultural imperatives as an impertinent attempt by mankind to usurp a privilege which is God’s alone: the privilege of guiding us to our salvation. As secularism continues to grow, there will be fewer and fewer who will push back against it since the behemoth of political correctness that it has become is simply too large to topple. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is unassailable, applying equally to both energy and political systems. Entropy, or degree of disorder, always increases but can be made to decrease within a closed system; order in the sheepfold is maintained. The policy of the EU, and indeed the US under Obama, has been to dissolve borders and renounce the use of force. This has created an open system without the resources to counter the increase in entropy pouring in from outside its borders. The Catholic Church contained its internal chaos by creating a closed, impenetrable system. Its principles were enshrined behind walls of silent, sacramental immutability. Europe has no such luxury.

Belabouring Orwell

Two bylines caught my attention recently. The resignation of the co-chairman of Oxford University Labour Club, Alex Chalmers, and the announcement that Town Halls and other public bodies are to be stopped from exercising a local version of foreign policy by boycotting ‘unethical firms’ – read ‘Israeli’.  The first was in response to the thinly disguised support many OULC members have for Hamas, prompting Mr Chalmers to remark that a large proportion of them have ‘some kind of problem’ with Jews. Coincidentally, the usual suspects at the University support  Israeli Apartheid Week where historians and political scientists who, beginning with a myopically distorted narrative, treat a new generation of political lambs to the slaughter to a dose of radicalism. This is clothed in political doublethink in the hope of raising up a few more flag wavers.  BDS campaigns are built on the completely false premiss that Israel is an apartheid state. Political naïveté is a characteristic of the young, but to rally behind complete untruth is fatuous, inane and pointless and many Labour MP’s are rightly appalled.

The second prompted this Guardian cartoon which has been widely shared.

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The UK (read the Conservatives) are basically planning to enact an anti-boycott law and the pro-boycott cartoon suggests it will run contrary to George Orwell’s warnings about what happens when you erode free speech.

So, in the interests of clarity, here’s what Orwell wrote:

At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to state this or that or the other, but it is “not done”.  Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing.

In his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism he explores the erosion of the capacity on reasoned political discourse on the intelligentsia when they attach themselves to a narrow and myopic ideology, much as the Left has attached itself to a default pro-Palestinian narrative, so Jean-Paul Sartre’s support for Maoism, Michel Foucault’s soft spot for Ayatollah Khomeini, and so on.

It has been argued that support for Palestinian nationalism amongst the opinion elite depends on what has been described as ‘Palestinians’ nobility as a people’ or what Bertrand Russell termed a belief in the “superior virtue of the oppressed”. This moral paradigm refuses to accept Israel’s obvious progressive advantages, and that the ideas actually animating “oppressed” Palestinians are completely “antithetical to the values that Western intellectuals offer as evidence of their own moral standards.”  Put simply, until the public face of the PA, Hamas, Hezbollah and all the others can find a way to admit to the incontrovertible truth of Israeli existence, democracy and manifest success, an ideology of victimhood will continue to drive their public announcements and justify the maintenance and support of such a narrative to their people. If there is a solution, apart from an extremist, totalitarian one, I fail to see it.

Orwell commented on the intellectual obstinacy of the Left who so often not only fail to condemn atrocities committed by the side they support, but have “a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Blag Ladies

Screen Shot 2016-02-15 at 11.04.18 PMI do like the movies. It’s nice to see little gongs being given out at the annual British prizegiving by that national treasure, Mr Stephen Fry. He’s such a wag, isn’t he? That little gag about bag ladies in reference to Jenny Beavan’s evening wear…? She, of course, gurgled sycophantically – after all, they are friends, it seems – but wasn’t overly enamoured with the comparison.  But even the resultant twitterstorm failed to identify the locus of the problem.

He thought that a bag lady was a funny thing to compare somebody with.

When you’re as rich as Croesus, drive a Bentley and are matey with the Royals, you don’t get to meet many bag ladies. Bag ladies are homeless women who carry their belongings around with them in plastic bags. They sleep where they can, sometimes in church porches – at risk from cold, hunger, passers-by, thugs and male homeless people. Often, they are people with mental health issues and sleeping outside doesn’t exactly qualify as a healthy lifestyle.  All of which makes Stephen Fry’s use of them for a  tweedy little joke entirely unsuitable. The victims of our society shouldn’t be used as comedic cannon fodder.
If you are living on the street, the views of Britain’s resident clever-trousers are unlikely to matter much. But the disparagement in his usage of the term is not going to help his viewers and acolytes to see you as a human being next time they pass you, eyes averted, on the street.

The best thing to do in these circumstances would be for the gentleman to apologise without using too many long words, then make a suitable and quite large donation to a charity working with homeless people.

Mr Fry’s defensive little hissy fit compared Twitter to a “stagnant pool” and he has closed his account, not for the first time. However shall we bear it and how he will be missed, ever so briefly. His penultimate entry read: “Will all you sanctimonious f*****s f*** the f*** off Jenny Beavan is a friend and joshing is legitimate. Christ I want to leave the planet” One hundred and forty characters containing three rude words. Impressive.

Off you go, then.

Now that’s all cleared up and the pride of Cambridge Eng Lit has been so elegiacally salvaged, everyone can get on with their lives.

Scary Prophets

It was interesting the other day to find out a bit more about Ted Cruz, who, it seems, is a man of prayer whom very few seem to like very much. The Israeli press have given him a hard time because he’s been endorsed by a pastor called Mike Bickle. I came across this guy years ago when he was one of the so-called Kansas City Prophets, and founder of the Kansas City International House of Prayer (IHOP).  Mr Bickle caught people’s attention because he is on the record as saying things about the future of the Jewish people that seriously offend, hurt and probably frighten many Jews unfortunate enough to stumble across his teachings. Amongst other things, he’s preached in time past about the Holocaust being God’s judgement on the Jews for rejecting Jesus and  Hitler’s persecution of Jews being an expression of God’s will which really goes down well at Shabbat dinner, I imagine. Some are screaming ‘antisemite’ at him, which, surprisingly enough, isn’t true. His is a literalist, premillenial doctrine where the scary bits in Zechariah 14 are taken as written and at face value. His cherry-picking and lopsided interpretation can do a great deal of damage, especially to many well-meaning but credulous voters who sit at his feet.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 2.17.46 PMI make a point of not being offensive, directly critical, invoking ridicule, ad hominem or straw man arguments against people with whom I disagree, since the facts are usually enough to speak for themselves, but I have to confess to having to bite my tongue a little bit on this occasion. Pastors of megachurches might preach to thousands of people at a time. Consequently, just like politicians, they have a delusional sense of their own popularity, and, by implication, doctrinal rectitude, especially when they carry an additional, prophetic label which is often laughable but oftener than not, scary. Who in their right mind self-proclaims as a ‘prophet’?

Endorsing politicians is always a double edged sword, since you may say something that will enrage those who plan to vote for them and they on the other hand say something which runs counter to everything you stand for and why you endorsed them in the first place.

Best plan, Ted. Read the small print. A Mike Bickle endorsement mightn’t be such a smart move after all.



Exalting Curiosity

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 10.38.41Whatever happens somewhere, happens to us all, sooner or later. Whether it was the near-miss Grexit or the Iranian nuclear deal, their consequences mean that we’re all tied together by threads of different colours and stripes. So, I’m writing this just after the weird and wonderful Donald Trump and the wonderfully weird Bernie Sanders won in New Hampshire. So many opinions. So many words. So much…money. And videos, tweets and everything.

Why am I interested in the presidential race in a country I don’t live in? Because America is a huge rolling axis of influence in the world and what happens there eventually impacts, for good or ill, what happens elsewhere. We wish that this were not the case sometimes, especially when we don’t agree, but, it’s a fact.

In a number of Western democracies, the clamour for ‘change’ has become increasingly more strident. People seem not to fear the consequences of extreme and radical shift in the same way that they used to, perhaps because they don’t understand them. In an age of brevity, complex thinking is reduced to 140 characters, believably brief mantras that people take as their own and rally round.

In the UK, a radical left-wing opposition leader has harnessed the emotional energies and idealistic fervour of the young, pulling many towards what he sees as a more egalitarian form of democracy. I’d be interested to hear him speak. Similarly, in the US, a septuagenarian with a forty year old political agenda has been leading the charge for a new kind of government where Washington’s bureaucrats and Wall Street cannot use their power to determine outcomes and the kids are behind him. On the other side, a billionaire businessman with almost zero political experience has suggested a quite different agenda, the only thing that they have in common is the fact that both of them are advocating radical, seismic change whose consequences are cloudy at best.

An American actor was criticised with undeserved venom the other day for attending a Ted Cruz rally. His critics mistook curiosity for support which is precisely the kind of knee-jerk foolishness that ensures the wrong people end up in positions of power. He said:

If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.

American university campuses who seek to ban Zionist speakers might do well to consider this. Ruffling intellectual feathers are what universities are for.

Not all ideas need to be validated, or even respected. There are some beliefs fuelled by bigotry, intolerance and antisemitism for example that simply deserve to be tarred and feathered, thrown under buses or otherwise never given the time of day. But when some ideas are so ubiquitous that they are persuading large numbers of people it’s only an idiot who hums with his fingers in his ears. The world changes when enough people decide that it should.

If we shame curiosity,  we’ll always be afraid of the battle lines we draw to ward off the loony toons on one side or the batshit crazies on the other. Uphold curiosity. Exalt the ability to hold someone else’s belief in your mind for a moment. It’s liberating. Einstein once said ‘Curiosity has its own reason for existing’.

Words of Wisdom

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“I should never have left Tom” thought Bruce

People ‘hang out’. They don’t ‘date’ any more. Dating is passé, which is a shame.  It’s a diverting pastime, practised by those terrified of dying alone surrounded by empty bottles of cheap whisky. Cupid’s arrow can strike when one least expects and if his aim is good, you won’t risk losing an eye. ‘The one’ is out there somewhere. People often wait half a lifetime when in fact (s)he can be surprisingly close and very drunk.

Men’s brains and women’s are differently wired. Annabel Shitehouse-d’Or has a date on Saturday with John. On Wednesday, she invites her friends round to help her do her hair. They spend a lot of time experimenting with protein enhancers and colorant. On Saturday afternoon, all her hair has fallen out except for a single purple stripe. John smooths his hair back with saliva but forgets to button his shirt, thus exposing a neo-Nazi tattoo he got while off his face in Bangkok. They go to a club and John resists the temptation to spike Annabel’s guava juice with Rohypnol, instead becoming intimate over a shared bottle of alcohol-free Guinness. The date goes well and he suggests they move into his caravan near the building site. Annabel is unfriended by all her Facebook friends and John loses his smartphone in a concrete mixer.

James is alone a lot, working in the ceramics factory checking pots for flaws. He hopes to meet a princess, and is obsessed with Star Wars, thus finds ordinary fat girls unappealing. Jane is fat and unappealing but their shared love of futuristic fantasy and chocolate Hobnobs brings them together in the corner shop on a rainy Saturday morning. There is indeed a lid for every pot.

William is forty-seven and lives with his mother. He holds down a steady job as a companion in a nursing home for those suffering from dementia. He has a girlfriend, Jane, who likes maths and English. William is a registered sex offender and Jane is fourteen but since they are both expert at Candy Crush they have a good deal in common.

On their fifth date, Cindy and Phil decide to carve their names on a tree trunk. Strangely, both of them are carrying knives. Cindy was attracted to Phil because of the way he stroked the stem of his wine glass up and down; Phil was attracted to Cindy because she could text with one hand. Cindy is ambidextrous. Their favourite pastime is walking in the city and drawing hearts with equations inside on the pavements.

This little resource I found invaluable. I do hope my young friends experiencing difficulty will borrow a copy from the library or steal it from the bookshop. Or, vice-versa.



Determined Disengagement

Came across this the other day. “There’s something troubling about Facebook. If you didn’t post it, it didn’t happen.”  Facebook becomes an unconscious mental basecamp of what real life is.” Of course, this could apply equally to any one of a number of online social media applications, so Facebook isn’t necessarily being singled out, except perhaps for its ubiquity.

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I want people to like the fact that I’ve bought a new bicycle. How strange is that?

I go to a dinner party and the hostess has a really cute little kitten which I spend a few moments playing with. I then feel a subconscious desire to post the encounter on Facebook, since, if I don’t, it didn’t really happen. How bizarre. Friends ‘like’ it, and I am validated emotionally, I suppose. Such validation is completely meaningless, because experience can never be archived, preserved, or duplicated and a complex emotional thread cannot be conveyed digitally, except in static binary terms. A Facebook ‘like’ is hideously reductive in consequence.

Social media gives us a window, often opened wide, into our friends’ political beliefs and value systems, the home-turf of mob psychology. Online, most people don’t think, they simply react. If I disagree publicly, I get ‘unfriended’. So, if I wish to enjoy the company of other people, I have found it necessary to enjoy others for who they are, not what they believe or are passionate about, finding other points of common interest upon which to form an equitable relationship, regardless of political or religious persuasion. Since many of my online friends hold radically different views to my own, I thus make a conscious effort not to be drawn into unwinnable online sniping or troll baiting. Interactions can be managed by categorising people as “family” for whom a different set of social criteria applies, to “close friends”, geeky Facebook addicts like me, to “friends” whose opinions matter less to me. Perhaps Orwell was wrong about one thing. It is not that “Big Brother” is watching us, but perhaps the bigger danger is the collectivist mob that are now empowered by technology and play the part of “Big Brother” on a communal basis, by calling-out and blackballing anybody that offends their tastes or whose political colour differs from their own.

We are currently living in a period that might be called addictive digital fetishism. This basically means that we are pleased with ourselves by discovering new ways that digital gadgetry can infiltrate our lives for the sake of convenience and the pleasure receptors so engaged can only be satisfied by more of the same. A technophobe would say that, “technology is always bad.” The Orwellian technophile asserts that “technology is always good.”  Their opponents see technology as too engrossing and dangerous, while ADFs are dismissive of danger and gorge themselves on the latest digital sweeties without questioning the technology’s intrinsic value or intrusiveness. People like me need to learn the skill of determined disengagement, so the next time I’m out with friends or family, my smartphone really ought to stay in my pocket, so I can emotionally connect with other people. I should taste the food instead of photographing it to show off to people who aren’t there. Disengagement from The Matrix is remarkably liberating.



Peregrine Spode

It’s possible that my alter ego, Peregrine Spode, a mixed breed of sad, lonely Englishman and perennially optimistic Walter Mitty, with a persistent dental problem and a rather retrograde worldview, might be shuffling off his dirty raincoat and heading instead for greener pastures. He arrived in my life some years ago and has provided entertainment to a few Anglophiles who liked Mr Bean and P G Wodehouse. He has a dragon for a mother and an inoffensively mischievous grandmother who raids the drinks cabinet, using dementia as an excuse. He’d quite like to find himself a lady frienScreen Shot 2016-02-01 at 13.31.56d, but this presents more than a little local difficulty.

Peregrine has been a fan of Sherlock H for decades, and was delighted when the latest series returned him at least in part to his rightful time, smog-laden Victorian London, with hansom cabs and gentlemen’s clubs.

This is his take on the Great Man.

“Came across this the other day and thought it absolutely spiffing. Can’t really claim to be much of a screenwriter, but, I’ll have a bash and hope you get the idea. So, possibly some scene setting,  subdued yellow lighting, dark , vibrant ‘cello music, that sort of thing. Cue to fogbound street, lit by a single, weak gas lamp.  Nobody about. A hansom cab, its horse weary from a long day clops forlornly in and out of scene,  hooves gently clacking on cobbled stone. A shifty-looking man with a cap pulled down over his forehead scuttles, almost runs, head down, glancing left, right and occasionally behind as if pursued by some foul fiend that ‘doth close behind him tread’.  Cut to first floor window. A tall, languidly elegant man in a beautifully tailored black frock coat parts the curtain with a violin bow, and takes in the entire scene, his eyes unblinking and heavy-lidded. He sees absolutely everything, cocks his head, listens for a moment, one eyebrow raised until the inevitable single pistol shot rings out from unseen assailant and the man in the street falls. And then, an opening line: “You see, Watson, but you do not observe”, the great detective’s famous maxim. Sherlock Holmes, the fictional character created by Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, still enthralls, fascinates and inspires. Got that last bit from one of the books, actually, so, have to admit that I didn’t actually write it. But look, old Perry isn’t just a pretty face, if I’m allowed a little laughingly hysterical untruth.  I used to quite often imagine myself as the Man himself – how easy it is to baffle those of weaker intellect – my own little Walter Mitty moment. No tricks, sleight of hand or miracles here, just cold, lightning fast logic and a dazzlingly rapid display of neural connectivity and systematic common sense.  You see, even I am capable of the odd fifty-dollar sentence. It comes from having been quite a lonely and, let’s be honest, quite friendless child who read a lot. Holmes became my joiner of dots par excellence, my personal Alan Turing of detection. I used to slip easily between being either Holmes or Watson, depending on mood.

Everybody knows this and, since I read it somewhere, I’ll copy it down so that you can read it too. “It was really elementary, gentlemen” was the phrase ascribed to Conan Doyle’s mentor and inspiration, the Edinburgh doctor Joseph Bell with diagnostic powers verging on the magical and under whom Conan Doyle had studied.  He is described as remarking  ‘I always impressed upon my students the vast importance of little distinctions, the endless significance of trifles.’ When I first came across this, I thought it had something to do with those rather jolly things with sponge-cake, jelly and cream that Grandmother used to make on Sunday afternoons… Oh, never mind.

When at that spotty, unpleasant age of perhaps about eleven, when the nastiness of one’s classmates is most keenly felt, I had a maths master at school who loved his trifles and little distinctions. I suppose he was utterly fed up with having to deal with dimwits who didn’t quite get the notion of a quadratic equation. “…the endless significance of trifles” was his way of saying “you’re a bunch of useless halfwits who can’t count your change for the bus.’

Whether it’s solving a crime or a maths problem, the process of deduction, according to Sherlock, remains the same – ‘you take all of your observations … you put them in order, starting from the beginning and leaving nothing out – the chain of reasoning and the test of possibilities – and you determine what feasible answer remains.’ I suppose he and I diverge a bit on a few of the more salient matters since I don’t really have that ever-ready attention to detail, being, as it were, a bit of a duffer, and I’m afraid I’m really not awfully adaptable as I go all wobbly in a crisis. The idea of Holmes’ constant habitual vigilance is, I regret to say, often a bit more than the old Spode grey cells could comfortably manage, drifting off, as they rather tended to do into what some poet or other described quite neatly as “endless flights of fancy”. By this, he meant that the old intellectual balloon slipped its moorings once in a while and floated away into the wide blue yonder. Although, I do have to say that old Sherlock and I do share a number of features. Not facially or anything, you understand, but, well, er… features. For want of a better word.

Under the bedclothes with my torch, hidden from Mother’s prying eyes, Spode Minor learned a lot about Sherlock’s methods. “You know my methods, Spode” I used to imagine him saying. One thing we did seem to have in common was the fact that when he was working on a problem, he worked alone.   “This is quite the three-pipe problem, Spode”, I imagined him saying “and I beg that you will not speak to me for fifty minutes.” Which, coincidentally, was exactly the length of the Lone Ranger episodes on the television, so I had no difficulty leaving him to his own devices, and felt sure that when we returned, he’d have everything sorted. I used to imagine that Sherlock and I made up a proper double act. John Watson was really no match for the Spode/Holmes combo; I used to think of him lagging behind because he’d forgotten his old Service revolver, while S and I were sleuthing for real, the game afoot. It was always so very gratifying when we had to tell Watson afterwards how it was done which left him open-mouthed with astonishment and our trifling efforts seemed to him to be nothing less than sheer genius.

The television can be such a disappointment, don’t you find? Especially American television. Nothing against our transatlantic cousins, of course, apart from the mangling of language, but, they do like to take a good idea and, well, ruin it. Take Sherlock, for example. Whoever could have imagined that an enthusiastic somebody would come up with the idea of an American version? Transplanting SH to New York City is as foreign as marmalade in Madagascar. To make matters worse, they not only called it “Elementary” but they came up with a Joan Watson! Delicious as Lucy Liu undoubtedly is, my breakfast curdled in my stomach as she and Jonny Lee Miller solved their way across New York for three whole series. Had I, like Watson, suffered from an old war wound, a Jezail bullet in the shoulder, to be precise,  it would have given me sharp, disapproving cramps every time the theme music was played.  OK, OK, call me Mister Old-Fashioned, but Sherlock and Victorian London are as inseparable as holes and  Emmental.

Finally, just to reassure everyone, old Perry isn’t exactly a Mickey No-Mates, much as I may have led you to believe to the contrary. I have hundreds of friends, mostly on Facebook and I’ve actually met a few, some more than once. I was reminded of a disastrous TV ad campaign for a brand of cigarette called ‘Strand’, whose catchphrase was “You’re never alone with a Strand.”  A wet London street and a reflective individual puffing away in the rain meant that people associated smoking the things with being lonely and were put off from buying them.  Which is my way of saying that, if you don’t go for wet Victorian London, don’t be put off reading the Sherlock stories, which, coincidentally enough were first published in ‘The Strand Magazine.’ I do love a neat ending, don’t you?”