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 friend, 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?”