Posts Tagged ‘Sherlock Holmes’

Holmes’ final problems

As is well known, Conan Doyle killed off his creation Sherlock Holmes in the story “The Final Problem” in 1893, but, due, it is claimed, to public pressure, but more, I suspect, because he missed writing these stories, brought him back to life again ten years later in “The Empty House”. The resurrection isn’t s ingenious as is often claimed: there was, after all, no body recovered from the Reichenbach Falls, into which Holmes was supposed to have fallen, locked in deadly combat with Professor Moriarty; and this makes me wonder whether Conan Doyle wanted all along to keep up his sleeve the option of bringing Holmes back at some later date. He tested out the waters, as it were, two years before “The Empty House” with The Hound of the Baskervilles – a story that had presumably taken place before the incident at the Reichenbach Falls – and its spectacular success indicated there was still a strong public appetite for Holmes & Watson. And so, in 1903, back to life Holmes came – not in stories that had taken place before his presumed death, but in the here-and-now. And to the delight of Holmesians both then and now, “The Empty House” was followed in the Strand magazine by twelve others, and afterwards published together in The Return of Sherlock Holmes.

There are those, it must be said, who feel that Holmes wasn’t quite the same after the resurrection – that the earlier stories are superior to what followed. I think this is palpable nonsense. The best stories in this collection are among the finest in the entire canon – “The Priory School”, “The Six Napoleons”, “The Abbey Grange”, etc.; and, looking through the thirteen titles, there doesn’t seem to me to be a single weak link – certainly nothing as weak as, say “A Case of Identity” (in the first collection The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), or “The Stockbroker’s Clerk” (which is effectively an inferior re-run of “The Red-Headed League”) in the second collection, The Memoirs. Indeed, The Return of Sherlock Holmes may well be the finest and most consistently inspired of the five collections.

However, it is much harder, it seems to me, to defend the fifth ad final collection, The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. After The Return, instead of publishing planned sets, Conan Doyle wrote and published these stories more sporadically – much as fancy took him. His Last Bow, published in 1917, is a collection of seven of these stories, along with the earlier story “The Cardboard Box”, one of the very finest of the entire canon. (This story had been published in the Strand magazine as early as January 1893, but Conan Doyle had omitted it from the collection The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, deeming it unsuitable for younger readers.) With the possible exception of “The Dying Detective”, every single story in His Last Bow seems to me a masterpiece, and two of them – “The Devil’s Foot” and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – seem to me quite exceptional. The collection wraps up with the title story, “His Last Bow”, a tale of Holmes, now approaching old age, lending his talents to the British secret services, and foiling an espionage attempt on the eve of the First World War.

But despite the title of the last story, Conan Doyle, it seems, couldn’t stop writing about Holmes and Watson. Between 1921 and 1927, twelve more stories were published in Strand, and these, collected together in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, gave us, most finally and most definitively, his last last bow. And this final collection, it must be admitted, is harder to defend than the earlier collections had been. However, when you’re a fan, you’re a fan, and even the least of these stories is of interest. And, reading them over recently, I found them far more interesting than I had remembered.

Let us admit first of all – and get it over with – that there are a number of weak stories here. There are two stories here narrated by Holmes himself (“The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”), and neither of these can be counted great successes. Holmes being the narrator isn’t really new: in two of the stories in The Memoirs (“The Gloria Scott” and “The Musgrave Ritual”), while Watson had provided the narrative framework, it was Holmes who had narrated the bulk of the story, and his storytelling there was certainly better than it is here. Furthermore, the two cases here are solved not by detection, but by Holmes having retained some esoteric facts at the back of his encyclopaedic mind.

“The Mazarin Stone” too, is weak. Conan Doyle was, it seems, attempting to emulate stage productions, so the whole thing emerges as a conversation piece, with the entire exposition, development and denouement all taking place in the same set (Holmes’ front room in 221b Baker Street), and in the time it takes to read the story. It doesn’t really come off, I’m afraid.

“The Three Garridebs” is an inferior re-hash of “The Stockbroker’s Clerk”, which is itself an inferior re-hash of “The Red-Headed League”; but it’s hard to regret this story, especially given the rare moment of tenderness Holmes displays for Watson when his friend is wounded by a gunshot. And while “The Veiled Lodger” doesn’t really display any detection work, it is redeemed by a genuinely interesting and thrilling backstory. And also by this delicious passage:

The discretion and high sense of professional honour which have always distinguished my friend are still at work in the choice of these memoirs, and no confidence will be abused. I deprecate, however, in the strongest way the attempts which have been made lately to get at and to destroy these papers. The source of these outrages is known, and if they are repeated, I have Mr Holmes’s authority for saying that the whole story concerning the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant will be given to the public. There is at least one reader who will understand.

Throughout this collection, there are tantalising references to other cases – most memorably near the start of “The Sussex Vampire”, where we are told of the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”. Heard melodies are sweet, as the poet said, but those unheard are sweeter.

The one story in this collection I find hard to defend is “The Three Gables”. The story itself is pretty thin; and while we are accustomed to Holmes taking the law into his hands and letting the criminal off, it is hard to see why he does so in this case. And it is harder still to defend some of the comments made by Holmes to Steve Dixie – comments which, certainly by modern standards, can only be regarded as racist. (And the fact that Steve Dixie is a vicious thug hardly excuses Holmes’ comments.) Of course, they were different times, and the standards of what is acceptable have changed, but it’s nonetheless disappointing, especially given how warmly appreciative both Holmes and Watson had been of racial tolerance and of racial integration in the earlier (and rather touching) story “The Yellow Face”. If I had to lose just one story in the canon, this, I fear, would be it.

But the other stories in this collection I would strongly defend. “The Retired Colourman” and “Shoscombe Old Place” may not be Holmes and Watson at their best, but they are fine stories nonetheless. (In “Shoscombe Old Place”, Conan Doyle leads Holmes and Watson, quite successfully, I think, into the regions of Gothic horror.) And the much reviled “The Creeping Man” seems to me a splendid science fiction story: it is quite clearly a nod towards Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and, while the science in the story may not exactly be watertight (any more than in Stevenson’s story), it is worth it if only for Holmes’ rather melancholy observation “When one tries to rise above Nature, one is liable to fall beneath it”.

But I’ve kept the three best ones till the last. If “The Creeping Man” is Conan Doyle’s riff on Jekyll and Hyde, “The Sussex Vampire” is clearly a response to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And it’s a superb story. As in some other stories that hint at the supernatural (The Hound of the Baskervilles, “The Devil’s Foot”), the truth is entirely rational: Holmes (unlike his creator) will not have it any other way:

“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”

But even without the supernatural, Conan Doyle communicates powerfully an atmosphere of fear and of mystery, and this story would not have been out of place in any of the earlier collections. Neither would “The Illustrious Client”, in which Holmes is up against a truly formidable opponent, and which has one of the most thrilling denouements in the entire canon. But best of all, probably, is “Thor Bridge”: reading this intriguing story, with its ingenious solution, it’s like being back in old times again. Place this story in any of the earlier collections, and it would still stand out as one of the best.

So a mixed bag, all in all, and even though, overall, it doesn’t quite match up to the earlier collections, no self-respecting Holmesian would be without it.

There were no more comebacks after this one: this was, most definitely, the final curtain. We needn’t repine: this was the right place to stop. With the possible exception of “The Three Gables” – and even that I think I’d be sorry to lose – there’s not a single one of these fifty-six short stories (and four novels) that I would want to be without. Why? Oh, I don’t know … There are certain things that defy explanation.

Sherlock Holmes and the deerstalker

This post is really only for Sherlock Holmes fans. (That is, fans of the Conan Doyle stories: I have to add this rider as there seem nowadays to be many who describe themselves as Sherlock Holmes fans, but who appear neither to have read nor are interested in reading the stories.)  It’s not that you can’t read this post if you’re not a fan – we like to think we’re inclusive on this blog – but I’ll be delving here into Holmesian matters so esoteric and arcane, that those less than obsessed with these stories may well be thinking to themselves “What a sad git!”

Now the preliminaries are over with, let us begin.

Dear fellow anoraks,

Whose invention was the deerstalker? Conan Doyle never mentions the deerstalker explicitly, but near the start of the story “Silver Blaze” (Dec, 1892) we do get this:

“… Sherlock Holmes, with his sharp, eager face framed in his ear-flapped travelling-cap …”

Although not explicitly mentioned, it’s obvious what Conan Doyle meant. And Sidney Paget obliged, illustrating “Silver Blaze” with the now iconic picture of Holmes and Watson sitting in a railway carriage, with Holmes dressed in an Inverness cape and deerstalker hat.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “Silver Blaze”

However, there is more to it than that. Just over a year earlier, Paget had drawn a very similar picture, again showing Holmes in his deerstalker (though not, I think, the Inverness cape), for “The Boscombe Valley Mystery” (Oct, 1891). And, as far as I am aware, the deerstalker is not mentioned, directly or indirectly, either in “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, or in any of the earlier stories.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “the Boscombe Valley Mystery”

So, the absence of any evidence to the contrary leads me to deduce that the deerstalker was indeed Sidney Paget’s invention, and that, rather than the illustrator following the author, as is usually the case, here, it was Conan Doyle following his illustrator by giving Holmes the deerstalker in “Silver Blaze”.

And also, as far as I can remember, Conan Doyle never mentions, nor even describes anything that could resemble, the Inverness cape. That too, it appears, was Sidney Paget’s invention.

Of course, there was nothing particularly unusual about a deerstalker in those days. Gentlemen often wore it, especially when out hunting. (Which, in effect, is what Sherlock Holmes was doing.) The deerstalker was one of several items of headwear that Paget had drawn for Holmes. But, curiously, those other items of headgear (including, once, a top hat) haven’t remained in the popular imagination: it is the image of the deerstalker that has stuck – to such an extent that one cannot even think of such a hat without picturing Sherlock Holmes.

For this, I think we have primarily to thank William Gillette, the American actor who, in 1899, adapted Holmes for the stage, and played the character over 1000 times. (He also played Holmes in a silent film in 1916.) It was he who popularised the Inverness cape and the deerstalker that Paget had introduced, and had added to it the curly pipe, which appears nowhere either in Conan Doyle’s text nor in Paget’s illustrations. Indeed, in “The Red-Headed League”, the pipe is described as “black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird”; and whenever Paget drew Holmes with a pipe (as in the picture below illustrating “The Man with the Twisted Lip”), he invariably drew it as a straight pipe.


Sidney Paget’s illustration for “The Man with the Twisted Lip”

Later, of course, came the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce films, and the deerstalker, Inverness cape, and curly pipe became synonymous with Holmes. And that image remains. Even Jeremy Brett – perhaps now the most widely seen Sherlock Holmes on screen – donning various items of headgear other than the deerstalker has failed to dent this popular image.


Now, those of you who aren’t Holmes fans but who have, despite my advice, read this far, may well be thinking to themselves “So what?” Well, so nothing, really. It’s just that I’m something of an anorak in these matters, and, as I sit on my patio this sunny Sunday afternoon, a drink in one hand and a book of Sherlock Holmes stories in the other, these, rather than more profound questions concerning the nature of our lives, are matters I find myself musing upon. Perhaps, if I put a bit of effort into it, I could develop this stub of a post into something more of general interest, and reflect upon how myths develop in the popular imagination, and upon how creations of the imagination, once created, assume a life independent of the creator; and so on. Well, yes, maybe. But I am enjoying this summer afternoon on my patio too much right now to go into all that. Some other time, maybe.

Now back to “The Red Circle”…

Holmes, Watson, and the Hound from Hell

What this blog needs is a bit of controversy. We haven’t had any for quite some time now. So here goes:

The Hound of the Baskervilles would have been better had it not been a Sherlock Holmes story.

There, I’ve said it. If, by tomorrow, the below-the-line comments section isn’t full of “disgusted-from-Tunbridge-Wells” messages, I shall be…

Well, I don’t know what I shall be, to be honest. Disappointed, I suppose. But to have finished that sentence with “disappointed” seemed terribly anti-climactic, and, as any guide to effective writing should tell you, when you don’t know what to write next, stick in an ellipsis. Never fails.

But, shocking or not, it is true: Conan Doyle should have kept Holmes out of The Hound of the Baskervilles. The novel was serialised between 1901 and 1902 – that is, some eight years after he had killed Holmes off in “The Final Problem” in 1893, and shortly before he brought Holmes back to life again in “The Empty House” (which was published only a few months after the last  instalment of The Hound of  the Baskervilles). Perhaps Conan Doyle brought Holmes and Watson into the Baskervilles story as a sort of trial run, as it were, to get himself into practice for the stories he knew were to come. But, I can’t help feeling, it was a wrong decision, and rather spoils what could otherwise have been one of the very finest of supernatural stories.

There are at least a couple of other stories in the canon that seem to promise the supernatural, without delivering on it: “The Devil’s Foot”, and “The Sussex Vampire” readily come to mind. (Although, in fairness, it has to be said that the rational explanation in “The Devil’s Foot” – one of the very finest entries in the canon – is as terrifying as anything the supernatural genre might have to offer.) Holmes himself is, as is to be expected from the possessor of so rational a mind, scathing about the very concept of the supernatural. As he says in “The Sussex Vampire”:

“Rubbish, Watson, rubbish! What have we to do with walking corpses who can only be held in their grave by stakes driven through their hearts? It’s pure lunacy.”

For Holmes to have been forced to concede that the supernatural is indeed a real force would have been to concede defeat. That, in itself, is not a problem: there are many stories in which Holmes is actually wrong, and is defeated. But this particular defeat would have taken the stories into a different direction: it would have pulled them towards the genre of the supernatural story, rather than the tale of detection. And while Conan Doyle was certainly no slouch with supernatural stories, he obviously preferred to keep the Sherlock Homes stories very much on the this-worldly side rather than the other-worldly. Which meant that the apparently supernatural elements had to be explained away at the end with rational explanations. And in the case of The Hound of the Baskervilles, these rational explanations, while eliminating the supernatural, do, I’m afraid, lend the ending of the novel a certain unfortunate resemblance to Scooby Doo.

There’s also a problem with the villain. When it comes to enemies and antagonists, Conan Doyle had created some of the finest and more memorable, but the villain in The Hound of the Baskervilles (I won’t name him, in case anyone reading this has not yet had the pleasure of reading the novel) is not amongst them: he is utterly unremarkable. It’s almost as if Conan Doyle had put in so much in creating an aura of supernatural evil, he didn’t seem to have much imagination to spare in creating a comparable picture of mere human evil. To find compelling pictures of human evil it is to the other Sherlock Holmes stories we must go.

And, it seems to me, all the many adaptations of this story, even the best of them, suffer from these shortcomings of the novel. Never have I seen an adaptation with a memorable villain; and the ending, with all those rational explanations, has always seemed to me disappointing. I am still awaiting an adaptation that changes Conan Doyle’s ending, and actually makes the Hound  from Hell a diabolic manifestation of evil rather than merely a big dog with a mask; and where, at the end, Holmes is forced to concede that a rational mind such as his could only take one so far, and that there are certain domains of experience that are beyond his ken. Why no adaptation has yet tried this, I really am not sure.

That the novel so effortlessly (and so deservedly) holds its place as a classic despite all this is a testament to just how damn good it is. My first reading of this remains one of my happiest memories: I was 11 years old, and had checked this book out of the children’s section of Bishopbriggs public  library, not really knowing  what to expect, and oh! – the hours I spent avidly reading and re-reading that book up in my room while my parents thought I was profitably employed doing my homework! Nowadays, in the midst of all the various everyday stresses and pressures – the very existence of which I hadn’t even suspected at that age – I find that memories of reading those stories for the first time, as well, of course, as the stories themselves, help sustain and nourish. Odd, I know, but there it is.

The book splits itself into three parts. In the first part, set in London, we are unmistakably in the world of detective fiction: there are those marvellous deductions Holmes makes in the first chapter merely from observing a walking stick (all those years away from writing Holmes and Watson stories had  not diminished Conan Doyle’s mastery of this kind of thing); there’s that anonymous warning note made from newspaper cuttings, the mysterious missing boot, the strange man with the beard trailing them in the hansom cab … it’s all gripping stuff. And, of course, there’s that old document narrating the tale of Sir Hugo Baskerville, who brings the curse down on the family: here, Conan Doyle goes into the realms of folklore, and conjures up a splendid ripping yarn that could stand as an independent short story in its own right. But then, the scene changes, and we find ourselves in a very different fictional world. We’re in Dartmoor now: the thick mist swirls outside, over the moors, and over the deadly Grimpen Mire, as the Hound howls dementedly like a creature hot from Hell itself … It held me spellbound as a boy, and it doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief on my part to be held spellbound by it all over again, even in my now advancing years. The tone changes again in the final section of the book back towards the detective story it always set out to be – rather unfortunately, in my opinion – but no matter: it’s still good stuff, and nothing, absolutely nothing, could spoil what had come before.

Last week, I was in the Bracknell branch of Waterstones during lunchtime, and I got into a conversation with a lady who was looking at the Sherlock Holmes books. She was looking for an edition of these stories as a tenth birthday present for her granddaughter. I am not sure why, but it fair gladdened my heart, so it did, and a broad grin spread involuntarily across my face. We chatted a bit about the stories, I made a few recommendations about the various editions available, and I felt unaccountably happy for the rest of the day. How wonderful, I felt, to be that age, and to be reading those stories for the first time!

Well, now that this post, which I had started off intending to be controversial, has descended into yet another affectionate and nostalgic wallow, I suppose I had better stop. I suppose John le Carré was right when he observed “Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love”. I guess my edgy and controversial post had best wait till another time

My Ideal Bookshelf

It’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit.

There is a book, and, inevitably, a website, called “My Ideal Bookshelf”. In this book, various celebrities are asked to list up to twelve books that are particularly important to them for various reasons. Now, as I like to think I am something of a celebrity myself, I was a bit miffed at not being asked to contribute to this. Sure, we lesser mortals are invited to contribute our ideal bookshelves to the website mentioned above, but I am loftily ignoring this: it’s celebrity or nothing for me!

Fair enough, nothing it is…

If you are thinking that this is an excuse for yet another dreary list, you’d be perfectly correct. But as I say, it’s nearly Christmas. Let’s indulge ourselves a bit!

Here’s my ideal bookshelf:


The reasoning behind the choices of most of the titles is self-explanatory. First of all – going from left to right – comes the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I was eleven when my parents took me to see King Lear at the Edinburgh Festival: Timothy West, then only in his 40s, played Lear on the bare stage of the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. Obviously, at that age, I took in but a fraction of it, but I was so excited by what I had seen, that I remember I could not get to sleep that night. That Christmas, I asked my parents for the Complete Works. There are at least a dozen or so of these plays that remain a constant presence in my mind. To celebrate – if “celebrate” is indeed the word I am looking for – my 50th year, I read through all these plays, in the order (as far as can be ascertained) in which they had been written. And I try to read at least one play each month. Life without these works would be unimaginable.

Then comes Rabindranath Tagore. Someone asked me once whether, given my obviously Bengali name, I knew the works of Tagore. Some of it, I replied: he wrote prolifically for decades, and I certainly haven’t ploughed through it all. Did I like his work? Well, I replied, as an educated Bengali, I don’t really have an option. His songs were probably the first music I ever heard; that extravagantly bearded visage was as familiar to me in my earliest childhood years as were pictures of my own family. Later in life, it did, I admit, come as a surprise to discover that, despite all the idolatry – which for many years put me off – his works actually are rather good. Extraordinarily good, indeed. Despite translations (which I am not qualified to judge, as they are not intended for me), the true extent of his literary greatness will be accessible only to native speakers. And for those native speakers who have come under his spell (and it is hard not to), a volume of Tagore’s poems is virtually a mandatory choice on the Ideal Bookshelf. But which volume? Even restricting oneself to poetry, his vast output cannot be contained in a single volume. After much thought, I chose Geetbitan, a collection of all his song lyrics. Literally thousands of them, covering just about every shade and nuance of human feeling imaginable. Tagore was among the greatest of songwriters (he composed the melodies as well as writing the words), and even when you don’t have the tune running round your head when reading them, these exquisite lyrics stand up perfectly well as poetry. There aren’t many song lyrics that do that.

Then comes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which I won’t write about here as there is already a fairly long and recent series of posts in this blog about this extraordinary novel. And speaking of extraordinary novels, there’s also Dickens’ Bleak House: I won’t write about this either, as I have done so only quite recently. Tolstoy and Dickens are the two novelists whose works mean most to me personally.

Next, I have chosen the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. I have always wondered why it is I so dislike fantasy literature, find myself bored by science fiction, and yet enjoy the unreality of a creepy ghost story. Not any type of ghost story, though: the ones I like are the ones in which the solidity of the real world is very strongly projected, so that that the intrusion of the irrational, when it appears, is transgressive. The sort of story, indeed, of which M. R. James was the master. Why do I enjoy these stories so much? Well, let’s not go too deeply into self-psychoanalysis: that sort of thing is bound to be a load of simplistic tripe anyway. But the Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James remains a constantly on my bedside table.

Piled on top of these books in my picture are six paperback volumes of the major plays of Ibsen, in the translations by Michael Meyer. Yes, I know, it’s cheating: they’re six volumes. But each volume is so indispensible that I couldn’t leave any of them out. And in any case, these volumes could easily be stitched up together into a single large volume.

I came to Ibsen in my twenties, and was fascinated by the strange world he created. He is known primarily as a “social dramatist” – i.e. as a dramatist who dealt mainly with social issues. That is indeed how I used to think of him myself. But reading his plays, I found myself transported into the deepest and most mysterious regions of the mind itself: worlds opened up that were new to me, and which fascinated me. I still probably don’t understand what many of them are about, but, perhaps for that very reason, they continue to fascinate.

Then come two more novels – Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I read again some two years ago, and on which I have written a series of posts on this blog) and Joyce’s Ulysses. The latter is widely considered a sort of High Altar of Modernism, and has a reputation of being excessively difficult: that’s rather unfortunate, since, quite apart from anything else, it’s about as fun as any book I have read. I can still dip into it and read passages purely for enjoyment. Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, I have rather a difficult relationship with. I first encountered his works as a teenager, and was overwhelmed: the impact these novels had on me was almost visceral. But as I became older, doubts started to creep in: Are these novels not merely hysterical? Aren’t they unstructured, rambling, undisciplined? Was not my love of these novels merely a consequence of my teenage immaturity? And yet … and yet, scenes and themes and characters and images from these novels remained seared into my mind when other novels, apparently much better-written, had vanished without much trace. These novels, in other words, left behind the strongest of aftertastes. So I started, rather guiltily I suppose, to re-enter Dostoyevsky’s world. And I realised that these novels have to be taken on their own terms, and that there is no other novel that is even remotely comparable. Yes, I still frequently find myself wondering what the hell certain passages are about; I still find myself shaking my head at other times and thinking this won’t do. But that excitement I had experienced as a teenager remains. And I’m not sure why,

I suppose if I love Tolstoy because his vision of the world I find enriching; if I like Dickens because I love entering into that idiosyncratic fictional world of his; then I love Dostoyevsky because I enjoy having a fight with him. And I have had some good fights with him, and have come away from them bloodied but invigorated. Dostoyevsky’s novels are exploratory rather than declamatory, and, as with the plays of Ibsen, they explore regions that, had it not been for these works, would have been completely closed to me.

Now, the Sherlock Holmes stories. In the picture above, these appear in a lavish three-volume set (a birthday present from my wife on my 50th birthday); but since they can also be found contained in a single volume, I’m claiming this as one choice. I still have vivid memories of checking out The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes from Bishopbriggs Public Library when I was about 12 or so, and it was love at first sight; and this love hasn’t flagged since. These stories have been a constant companion to me for many, many years now, and, as with the ghost stories of M. R. James, have become the best of old friends, and lifelong companions. I tried in this post to explain why I love these stories, but I think I gave up after a while: there are certain things that resist explanation.

I finish with two volumes of poetry – by Yeats, and by Wordsworth – sandwiching Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey Into Night. It strikes me writing this post that a great many of the books that mean most to me reach back into my late childhood, and my teenage years: I suppose those are the years during which my literary taste was formed. And I certainly remember watching on television, aged twelve, the National Theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier in one of his legendary roles. I was mesmerised. That play has a hold on me still that I cannot explain: even other plays by Eugene O’Neill don’t resonate with me the way this one does. Once again, I am not sure I understand why.

And, of course, I want some poetry on by ideal shelf. I already have the song lyrics of Tagore, and the plays and poems of Shakespeare; add to these Wordsworth and Yeats, and I think that would keep me happy. As I explained in an earlier post, I like Wordsworth’s tone of voice – civilised and eloquent, the voice of someone conversing with me rather than of someone declaiming to me. But with that conversational tone, he can depict emotions and states of mind that seem transcendent, and contain intimations of immortality. Yes, we all know that we wrote much, especially in his advanced years, that was mediocre and worse; but we should judge each writer by their best, and the best of Wordworth – “Tintern Abbey”, “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”, “The Solitary Reaper”, the 1805 text of The Prelude, some of the finest sonnets since Shakespeare, etc. etc. – would quite easily fill a good-sized volume. And despite their apparent plainness of diction, they affect me more than I think I can explain.

I do not write much about poetry on this blog, and that is mainly because I am not sure how to write about it. Poetry tends to affect me like music: I know what it makes me feel, but am not sure why. I suppose the only way to write about poetry is to provide close analysis of the rhythms, the sounds, the imagery, etc. – but there are many who can do that sort of thing far better than I possibly could. I did try to write about some poems by Yeats once on this blog, but I’ll not provide a link to it: it wasn’t, shall we say, among my best posts on here. So I will restrict myself here to giving some rough impressions of what Yeats’ poetry makes me feel. There’s the early stuff, of course – the “Celtic twilight” poem: these are products of the fag-end of Romanticism, with their alluring sensuality and the infectious folk rhythms. But even here, those rhythms aren’t always what one would expect from folk poetry: they are considerably knottier; and the themes became increasingly complex and ambiguous, the mythology more arcane. And it is fascinating tracing the development of Yeats’ poetic style as it moves almost seamlessly from a youthful Romanticism into a personal and very passionate form of modernism. For the older Yeats got, the more passionate he became. “Give me an old man’s frenzy,” he says at one point; and there is indeed a sort of frenzy in his poetry, a passionate striving and longing for he knows not what. Perhaps he remained a Romantic after all.


Well, that’s it folks – that’s my pre-Christmas indulgence done with. Now, the real indulgence starts: I already have bottles of malt whisky and Armagnac lined up for a most convivial and alcoholic festive season, and am looking forward to two idyllic weeks with the family.

And with my books, of course!

The mysterious appeal of Holmes & Watson

Even to a fellow aficionado of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, it is difficult to explain the attraction of the Sherlock Holmes stories. To others, it is virtually impossible. Just what is the attraction? It’s clearly not the plotting: if it were, there is no reason why readers should return to these stores repeatedly, even when they know what happens next. And neither do these stories explore the intricacies of human relationships, or profundities of human existence. The characters are certainly memorable, but why? They have neither the complexity of the creations of Tolstoy, nor the archetypal resonances of a Don Quixote or a Sancho Panza. They are clearly not real characters; and yet, Abbey National, the building society whose offices used to be located on the very spot where Doyle’s Holmes and Watson were supposed to have lived, received every year hundreds of letters addressed to Holmes. Some of the correspondents even appeared to believe that Holmes and Watson were not only real, but were alive. Indeed, such was the quantity of mail received by Abbey National, that they used to employ someone specifically to answer them: Sherlock Holmes may well be the only fictional character to have had his own private secretary.

It defies analysis. So it is best, perhaps, not even to attempt to analyse. So let us transport ourselves back to Victorian London, with its hansom cabs and its dark, gaslit streets and its swirling fogs. This is not, of course, the London that any modern resident of that city will recognize, but since myth is more potent than reality, let us stick with it.

It is early morning in mid-winter. Watson, still in bed, is woken by Holmes. “Come Watson,” he says in urgent tones, “the game’s afoot”. It would take a reader of uncompromisingly austere tastes to resist reading on.

Holmes and Watson made their first appearance in the novel A Study in Scarlet, published in 1887. Neither character was properly developed. Holmes, especially, is given certain characteristics that Doyle, in his later stories, had to alter. He is made out to be an eccentric who keeps in his mind only that which is of use to him in his vocation: anything else – even the rudimentary knowledge that the earth revolves around the sun – he neither knows, nor cares to know. This is a far cry from the Holmes who appears in later stories who can quote from the Persian poet Hafiz off the top of his head; who takes Watson to a violin recital given by Sarasate; and who has written a monograph on the motets of the composer Lassus.

But the principal characteristics are established. We already have, for instance, the machine-like logic of the mind, which allows Holmes to make the most extraordinary deductions from detailed observations. When Holmes first sets eyes on Watson, for instance, he knows immediately that he had served in Afghanistan. Later, Holmes explains how he had deduced this. Watson is impressed, but remains sceptical. But then, he witnesses Holmes apply his methods to a particularly intriguing murder case.

To be frank, Holmes’ deductions are not always so logical, nor always so brilliant. In “The Blue Carbuncle”, Holmes makes a number of deductions by observing a hat – most of them brilliant, but also the very dodgy one that, since the hat is large, the owner must have a big brain, and hence, must be intelligent. Hmmm. There are other deductions scattered through the stories that are, perhaps, less than watertight. But it doesn’t really matter: these stories were, after all, written as entertainments, and not as demonstrations of scientific theory. Each unfolds a drama of some type. Often, as in A Study in Scarlet, the murder is a consequence of a character’s past misdeeds catching up with them. And sometimes, the perpetrator can even appear a sympathetic figure. At other times, as in the second novel – The Sign of Four – it is an innocent who is caught up in the consequences of past misdeeds.

The Sign of Four is the second Sherlock Holmes novel, and is generally agreed to be an improvement on the first. It is influenced greatly by Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: here, too, we follow through the foggy London streets a trail of treasure looted from India, and involving greed and murder. All fine stuff, but I think most aficionados will claim that it is in the short stories that we see the best of Holmes and Watson. The first short story appeared in the Strand Magazine, in June 1891: “A Scandal in Bohemia”. Over the next months, eleven more short stories were published: these were then published together as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – possibly the most significant publication in the entire history of the detective fiction genre.

And what stories they are! The very first story actually tells of a failure on Holmes’ part: he is charged by the King of Bohemia, no less, to recover incriminating pictures from a former lover of his – Irene Adler. And although Holmes does everything correctly, she outwits him. But in the process, Holmes falls in love. Not that he would admit this to anyone, not even to Watson, but, as that famous opening line tells us, for Sherlock Holmes, Irene Adler was always the woman.

The other stories in the collection are a varied lot in terms of mood and content. “The Red-Headed League” is comic and grotesque, and Holmes’ client is a somewhat down-market and seedy pawnbroker; while the extremely sinister “The Five Orange Pips” features a young landowner, who is convinced that both his uncle and his father had been murdered by some secret organization, and that his own life is now similarly threatened. The clients range from the rather pathetic lower-middle class typist in “A Case of Identity” to the pompous and stuffy – and, perhaps, equally pathetic – aristocrat in “The Noble Bachelor”. Holmes pops up unexpectedly in an opium den in “The Man With the Twisted Lip” (he is following up a case, and is posing here as an opium addict); and “The Blue Carbuncle” is a Christmas story: a precious, stolen jewel pops up in the neck of a Christmas goose, and Holmes has to find out how it got there. In “The Speckled Band”, Holmes solves, in extremely spectacular fashion, a particularly nasty murder committed in a locked room; and the last story in the collection, “The Copper Beeches”, takes us into Jane Eyre territory, as a young governess finds herself in a mysterious mansion with a shuttered tower into which she is forbidden to set foot. God only knows how frequently I have read these stories since I first encountered them some forty or so years ago. And I read them still, and I wish I knew why.

And there was one very significant contribution to the Adventures: these stories were illustrated in the Strand magazine by a Sidney Paget. In “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”, Doyle described Holmes as wearing a long coat, and a flat cloth cap. Paget drew the long coat, but instead of the cloth cap, he drew a deerstalker hat. Paget later drew Holmes wearing different hats, but the deerstalker – which Doyle had nothing to do with – stuck; and so did the curly pipe. When we try to picture Holmes, it is Sidney Paget’s visualization that comes most readily to mind.

The next year, twelve more stories appeared, of which eleven were printed in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes: the twelfth, which Doyle appeared to have some doubts about, was “The Cardboard Box”, and was published in book form only years later. In this story, a retiring landlady receives a parcel containing two severed human ears. Holmes then unravels a very dark story of lust, betrayal, adultery and murder, and, having done so, muses on what the point can be of so grotesque a sequence of events. It’s one of the best of the Sherlock Holmes stories, but perhaps Doyle had felt at the time that the tone had become a bit too serious.

The other stories in the collection are a sheer delight. Among the more memorable ones is “Silver Blaze”, where Holmes investigates the theft of a racehorse, and the killing of its trainer. It is this story that features the superb exchange with the local police inspector, whom Holmes alerts to the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. And when the inspector protests that the dog did nothing in the night-time, Holmes responds: “that was the curious incident.”

There’s also “The Musgrave Ritual”, where Holmes tells Watson of a case he had solved in his younger days; and there’s “The Naval Treaty”, where Holmes recovers a stolen secret document upon which the very security of the country depends. But the greatest surprise came in “The Final Problem”: at the end of this story, Holmes, in deadly struggle with his enemy Professor Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls, is killed. The public was shocked and outraged. How could Doyle bring himself to do this?

But Holmes was dead, and for some nine years, remained that way. Then, in 1902, Doyle partly appeased his disappointed fans with the novel The Hound of the Baskervilles. This is, perhaps, the most famous of the Holmes & Watson stories, though not among the most characteristic. Holmes himself is absent for much of the time, and when he does appear, he doesn’t seem to have much to do. The atmosphere of the Devon moors is thrilling, and the hound itself is a terrific creation; but the plot is a bit on the thin side and the villain distinctly unmemorable. Indeed, I get the distinct impression, blasphemous though it may be even to think so, that this novel would have been better without Holmes. The splendid image of the ghostly hound terrorizing the bleak moors called for a supernatural story, but Holmes and the supernatural didn’t really mix, and the rational explanation provided at the end seems not merely too prosaic given the Legend of the Hound, but also, to modern readers, unfortunately reminiscent of the endings of Scooby Doo cartoons. Nonetheless, the novel remains, rightly, a legend, and a new Holmes story was more than welcome after the shock of “The Final Problem”.

But there was an even greater delight awaiting Holmesians the following year: in October of 1903, the Strand magazine published “The Empty House”, which ingeniously explains how Holmes had actually escaped death at the hands of Moriarty, but had been in hiding to wipe out the remnants of Moriarty’s gang. But now Holmes was back in 221B Baker Street; Watson, his marriage now conveniently forgotten (although it is more than hinted that he has become a widower), was back at his friend’s side. God was in His Heaven, and all was well with the world. Except for the bits that weren’t, of course, but Holmes was, at long last, at hand to investigate.

In the stories that followed – collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes – Doyle appeared to have lost none of his touch. Once again, the cases and the characters range far and wide. There are such intriguing cases as “The Six Napoleons”, where some maniac appears to be breaking into houses merely to smash busts of Napoleon; there’s “Black Peter”, in which a tyrannical retired sea captain is found harpooned to his own wall; there’s “The Golden Pince-Nez”, involving betrayal amongst Russian revolutionaries; “The Priory School”, which finds Holmes in the North of England investigating the kidnapping of an aristocratic child from a school, and the murder of one of the masters; and so on. At long last, here was vintage Holmes & Watson stuff, and it was almost as if they’d never been away.

The stories still continued to appear, but not so thick and fast. In 1917, Doyle published in book form His Last Bow, containing seven stories that had appeared at irregular intervals over the last eight or so years, as well as the earlier masterpiece “The Cardboard Box”. Other stories in this collection include “Wisteria Lodge”, about the attempted killing of a former Latin American dictator, now living in the English countryside off the proceeds of his terrible crimes; and “The Bruce-Partington Plans” – one of the very best of the Holmes & Watson stories, where the body of a junior official of a government department is found next to an underground train line, with a brief-case containing top secret government papers.

And in the 1920s, there appeared twelve more stories, collected together in a collection published in 1927 entitled The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes. In the midst of this, in 1916, there appeared the final novel, The Valley of Fear: this was an ingenious story with an unexpected denouement, but, as with A Study in Scarlet , Holmes and Watson appears only in the first part: the second part is given over to an account of the events leading up to the murder. This second part seems to me remarkably successful, and is, in many ways, an early forerunner of the more hard-boiled detective stories written later by the likes of Chandler and Hammett. The Valley of Fear may well be a novel of two halves that don’t quite fit, but each half is so exquisite in itself, that it’s tempting to see this a sthe finest of thefour Holmes & Watson novels.

The series came to a stop with The Case-Book , and perhaps that was for the best: Doyle seemed to be getting bored with it all by this stage. There are still a few good stories in the final collection: “Thor Bridge” is among the best, and “The Retired Colourman” or the rather gruesome “Shoscombe Old Place” are fine works. But most of the rest was, it must be admitted, inferior stuff.

Perhaps it’s best not to dwell on the later failures: there is enough among the many successes to keep fans engrossed for an entire lifetime. No other fictional detective has become such a legend, and has commanded so devoted or diverse a following. So this brings us back to the original question: just what is it about these stories that generate such veneration? Sure, there is a wide range of stories and of characters; the ease of the storytelling is frequently an object lesson in the art; there is that atmosphere of Victorian Britain, with its swirling fogs and its gas lit streets – elements that always seem to enhance any detective story. And, as well as the stories we have, there are various ones just mentioned in passing, merely hinted at: there’s the case that Holmes apparently solved by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter on a hot summer’s day; or the is the case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra – a story, Watson informs us, for which “the world is not yet prepared”; or, perhaps most tantalizing of all, the tale of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant.

And there are the characters of Holmes and Watson which, though clearly artificial, seem more vivid and more real than many real people.

Holmes’ range of tastes and interests is wide, and often takes one by surprise. He has written a monograph on identification of types of cigars and tobacco from examination of the ashes; and as noted before, another on the motets of Lassus, which, Watson informs us, is the last word on the matter. He is a first-rate swordsman and pugilist, and a master of disguise who can convincingly melt unobtrusively into any social background. He treats each problem on its own merits, without any prejudice: you never hear him speak of such matters as “the criminal gene”, even though such pseudo-science was very popular at the time; he is careless of social distinctions, never standing in awe of – and, indeed, sometimes taking sides against – the aristocrat; and he appears to have about him little of the xenophobia which allowed Victorian gentlemen to consider themselves superior to a mere foreigner.

Watson, as Orwell once observed, is possibly the subtler piece of characterization. He is certainly no fool, despite certain cinematic depictions: Holmes trusts him, and takes him along on dangerous or on sensitive cases. Watson is the soul of discretion – always knowing better than to ask Holmes anything that his friend does not feel ready to reveal. There is also a general sense of decency about Watson: he recognizes the importance of utter detachment when working on a case, but his heart is always in the right place. One thinks, in particular, of the ending to “The Yellow Face” : this is a case where Holmes is wrong, and the denouement, far from being sinister, is unexpectedly touching. And Holmes’ client resolves matters by behaving in a morally admirable and kind-hearted manner. Watson, describing this, tells us simply that it is something that he still likes to think about. It is a fine complement to Holmes’ agonized questionings at the end of “The Cardboard Box” on the meaning of all this endless wickedness and misery.

Perhaps one of the greatest attractions of these stories is its believable and unsentimental depiction of a not entirely untroubled, yet nonetheless deep, friendship. Holmes is one who feels that the world can be viewed and interpreted in strictly logical and empirical terms, although, perhaps he is not quite the completely detached thinking machine he likes to imagine himself; Watson, while acknowledging in theory the accuracy of the principle that once the impossible is eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth, is nonetheless prepared to acknowledge those aspects of humanity that don’t conform to such clockwork precision. While Holmes, towards the end of “The Cardboard Box”, confesses himself puzzled by destructive human passions, Watson, at the end of “The Yellow Face”, is happy simply to observe what he can of human goodness and decency. Somehow, these two very different characters complement each other perfectly.

But we are not, admittedly, on any such quest here as seeking the meaning of life; many writers have done that sort of thing, but there isn’t anyone else who has created so evergreen a source of delight as the Holmes and Watson stories. So let us leave behind for the moment more the moment the metaphysical and psychological probings of a Dostoyevsky, the sober contemplation of life of a Flaubert, the epic panoramic vision of a Tolstoy or the existentialist nightmares of a Kafka, and return to Holmes awakening Watson on a cold, winter’s dawn with the words “Come Watson – the game’s afoot”. The story is “The Abbey Grange“, and may be found in the collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes. I’m off now to read it again.

These are a few of my favourite things…

Who hasn’t wanted to appear on Desert Island Discs? Or on Private Passions? Who hasn’t wanted to fill in a questionnaire all about one’s own self? Well, when one has one’s own blog, one can. Can’t one? So, without any apology or preamble, I shall take a leaf out of the blog Somewhere Boy, and press ahead. (And I would encourage anyone else out in Blogland to put up something similar: it’s fascinating finding out about other peoples’ tastes!) 

1. A few works of classical music that you adore:

One’s taste is always evolving, but even so, there are some constants. Mozart is my desert island composer: those three da Ponte operas, the wind serenades (I particularly love that very dark C minor serenade), the late symphonies, the piano concertos (especially the slow movement of the 17th), the divertimento for string trio, the clarinet quintet, the sinfonia concertante, etc. etc. – I adore them all.

As for other works I adore – the ones that immediately come to mind, in no particular order, are Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the 4th symphony of Brahms, Bartók’s 4th string quartet (with that haunting nocturnal movement at its centre), Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations,  Verdi’s Requiem Mass, Schubert’s G major string quartet, Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov… I suppose I could go on and on, but that’s enough to be going on with, I think.

“What about Bach?” I hear you ask. Well, frankly, much of the time, he intimidates me. But when I do get his music, there’s nothing quite like it, and I wouldn’t think of leaving for Roy Plomley’s desert island without a recording of those wonderful Brandenburg Concertos.

2. Classical music recordings that you treasure:

Perhaps I love good singing more than anything else – there’s nothing quite to match a beautiful voice, combined with imaginative phrasing and colouring. And when all this is in the service of music that I love, that’s just heaven. Just listen to that ethereally beautiful voice of Gundula Janowitz singing the role of the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro: is there really anything better than that? (Indeed, that whole recording is pretty damn good!) Or to Stuart Burrows singing Don Ottavio in Colin Davis’ recording of Don Giovanni. Or Lucia Popp singing the title role in Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen. Or Janet Baker singing the finale of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in that live recording conducted by Rafael Kubelik, Or, if you want emotional intensity, try Jon Vickers as Tristan, or Plácido Domingo as Otello, or Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert’s Winterreise. And for sheer unmitigated pleasure, Jussi Björling and Victoria de los Angeles in Thomas Beecham’s recording of La Bohème. Yes, these are all famous recordings – and they’re all famous for good reason.

Even in instrumental music, it is often the singing quality of the playing I enjoy most – Yehudi Menuhin’s fiddle singing ecstatically in the recording of Beethoven’s violin concerto conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler; or Evelyn Rothwell on the oboe and Adolf Busch on the violin making their instruments sing like angels in the slow movement of the first Brandenburg Concerto; or Pablo Casals phrasing that melody at the start of the slow movement of Schubert’s B flat trio; and so on.

I suppose I should mention a few much loved recordings of a different type: Mravinsky’s searingly intense recordings of the last three symphonies of Tchaikovsky are high on most people’s lists of greatest classical recordings, and one can see why; the Hungarian Quartet’s recordings of Schubert’s late quartets and the string quintet aren’t quite that famous, but surely deserve to be; and finally – the most jaw-droppingly beautiful orchestral sound I’ve ever heard is in that wonderful recording of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, with the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan.

I think I’d best stop there.

3. Favourite non-classical musicians and/or recordings:

As I was growing up, my parents played Bengali music at home. And mostly, this meant Rabinrasangeet – i.e. songs by Rabindranath Tagore, which constitute, in effect, the national music of Bengal. Of course, it is mandatory for teenagers to reject their parent’s values, and I rebelled by conforming to this pattern. But the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as they say, and I now find myself moved by the same songs I had once rejected. And I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia for childhood: these songs really are quite wonderful.

Another record I remember from childhood is a collection of Bengali folk songs sung by Nirmalendu Choudhury, who is little-known outside Bengal, and, from what I gather, seems now to have been largely forgotten in Bengal also. That is inexplicable, as he was an extraordinary singer: his intonation was immaculate in even the most complex of passages, his breath control and  dynamics things to wonder at, and he could put a smile in his voice, or express the most profound melancholy, with apparently the greatest of ease. I am fortunate enough to have got hold of a few CDs of his recordings (they’re not easy to get hold of), and they are very dear to me. Particularly remarkable, I think, is his singing of bhaitali – which are traditional boatmen’s songs (Bengal is situated on the Ganges delta, and the river is a significant presence): the adjective “soulful” could almost have been invented specially for these.

As for Indian classical music – the term is a bit of a misnomer: the very concept of “classical music” is Western, and its application to the music of India is approximate at best. What is usually referred to as “Indian classical music” is the system of ragas, and although I love listening to them, I do wish I understood them a bit better. As it is, I can’t tell one raga from another, and have difficulty distinguishing even between types of raga. But for all that, I treasure the recordings I have of the likes of Bhimsen Joshi, Bismillah Khan, Vilayat Khan, etc etc. And if I had to choose the most exhilarating piece of music-making I have ever heard, I would unhesitatingly choose a live recording from New York, 1972 of Ravi Shankar (sitar), Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) and Alla Rakha (tabla) playing Raga Sindhi Bhairavi.

4. Music that makes you cry – any genre:

I don’t think I cry physically, but I do often find myself very moved by music. I find this increasingly the case as I become older. And also, when I go through emotionally difficult times, it is in music that I tend to find a focal point for what I feel. Just about all the music I have mentioned so far moves me in some way or the other.

5. Definitely underrated work(s) or composer (s):

There are certain major works by major composers that seem surprisingly little known. Mozart’s divertimento for string trio, say. Or, for that matterm anything by Handel except Messiah. (How many recordings are there of Samson, say, or of Belshazzar? How frequently are they performed? And yet, they’re supreme masterpieces!) As for lesser-known composers, I don’t know that I know the works well enough to comment, although, after watching the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, I’ve developed a great affection for Miklós Rózsa’s violin concerto (the music from this concerto was recycled for the soundtrack of that film). But I wouldn’t make any claim for it other than that I personally enjoy it.

6. Possibly overrated work(s) or composer (s):

I have not had a musical education, and am happy to defer to those whose understanding of music exceeds mine. There is much that is highly rated that has little effect on me, or which I find myself disliking, but if musicians of the calibre of Lenny Bernstein, Yevgeny Mravinsky, Rostropovich, Haitink, etc. admire, say, the symphonies of Shostakovich, then who the hell am I to say they were wrong? I’m happy to put it down as a blind-spot. Other musical blind-spots include Berlioz, French baroque (Rameau, Couperin, Lully), Liszt, minimalist composers, etc.

7. Live music performance(s) you attended – any genre – that you’ll never forget:

Goodness!- where do I start? There’s Pierre Boulez conducting the LSO in Mahler’s 6th symphony; the concert performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Edinburgh Festival featuring Robert Holl as Hans Sachs and a then relatively unknown young tenor called Jonas Kaufmann as Walther; Le Nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden with Carol Vaness and Thomas Allen, and with Jeffrey Tate conducting; an equally good Figaro at Covent Garden a couple pf decades later, this time featuring Barbara Frittoli and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo, and with Charles Mackerras conducting; a phenomenal sarod recital by Ali Akbar Khan at Queen Elizabeth Hall; Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO in Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique symphony; Tatiana Nikolayeva playing Bach’s preludes and fugues at the Wigmore Hall; the Belcea Quartet playing all six Bartok quartets over three concerts spread out on a single day; Maurizio Pollini playing the Hammerklavier Sonata; Claudio Abbado conducting Die Zauberflöte …  

8. A few relatively recent films you love:

I’m very much out of sympathy – and, consequently, out of touch – with modern films. That is not to say there aren’t any good modern films: just that there is too much that is mediocre or worse that is highly acclaimed, and I don’t really have the time or the patience to wade through them all to dig out the few good ones. Every now and then I’ll see something that has been highly acclaimed, and wonder why I bothered. So I think I’ll pass on this one.

9. A few films you consider classics:

For me, Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar) – based on two quite wonderful Bengali novels by Bibhuthibhushan Banerji – is among cinema’s finest artistic achievements: they move me possibly more than I think I could explain. These three films do, however, overshadow other films by Ray of comparable artistry – most notably Charulata, Aranyer Din Ratri (aka Days and Nights in the Forest) and Ashani Sanket (aka Distant Thunder).

But my greatest love is Laurel and Hardy. With a couple of exceptions (Way Out West and Sons of the Desert), they were at their best in the two-reelers. When we first acquired a DVD player, my first priority was to get myself those classic Stan & Ollie pictures, and when I finally am invited on to Desert Island Discs and Kirsty Young asks me what my luxury is, I won’t hesitate.

Other than that, I think I love classic Hollywood best. Of course, there are many European and Japanese films I love dearly – from La Grande Illusion to Bicycle Thieves, Fanny and Alexander to Ran, Fitzcarraldo to Stalker – but ultimately, the films I tend to love best are film noir, the Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, screwball comedies, Marx Brothers, the films of Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, Sunset Boulevard) and of John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, They Were Expendable, My Darling Clementine), and so on. And yes – Citizen Kane, which is wonderful despite everyone saying it is.

I am also a great fan of Chaplin. People queue up to say he isn’t funny, but if that’s the case, I really don’t know why I’m laughing. City Lights and Modern Times, especially, are wonderfully moving films.

I’m not sure why I enjoy being scared, but I do. I grew up with Hammer horror films, and love them still. But the film that unsettles me most, even after multiple viewings, is The Innocents, Jack Clayton’s superb adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

The 70s were really my era. British cinema was in decline by then after a peak in the 60s and early 70s (films like This Sporting Life, Kes, Sunday Bloody Sunday etc.) but outside Britain, directors of the calibre of Ray, Kurasawa, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Buñuel, Herzog, Fellini, etc. were still active (and often at their best) in the 70s. Meanwhile, from the US, we had films of the quality of The Godfather & The Godfather Part 2, Chinatown, Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Last Detail, etc. But it all went downhill from the late 70s onwards: the phenomenal success of the Star Wars films, and of the big-budget kiddies’ movies from Spielberg, heralded a juvenilisation of cinema, and we still haven’t recovered. Clint Eastwood continued to make films of distinction, but he was something of an exception: even directors who had done good work in the past seemed to go off the boil (Coppola is a conspicuous example of this). But I’m glad that my teenage years coincided with what, in retrospect, may be seen as a golden era.

 10. A book (or two) that is important to you (and why):

It’s a good job that I’m restricted to “a book (or two)”, otherwise, I’d be here all day. But I’ll take the liberty of extending ithe one or two books to four. The first is The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, for reasons that really are too obvious to be stated, and too difficult to articulate; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, because, as Someone-or-other once put it, it’s about everything that is important in life; The Poems of Rabindranath Tagore because, as a Bengali, I don’t have a choice on the matter; and, finally, The Complete Sherlock Holmes Stories, for what would I read at bedtime otherwise?

 11. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re most proud of:

My extraordinary ability to fold my tongue simultaneously along two perpendicular axes.

 12. Thing(s) about yourself that you’re embarrassed by:

My utter lack of physical co-ordination, which manifests itself spectacularly when, at weddings or at similar functions, I am persuaded against my better judgement to take to the dance floor.

 13. Three things you can’t live without:

Should I embarrass my family by nominating them in this category? Will they be pleased by the nomination, or will they feel insulted that they are nominated alongside my collection of malt whiskies? All right, let’s leave family members out of it. I nominate my library, my CD collection, and my malt whiskies.

 14. “When I want to get away from it all I…”

Get into my dressing gown and slippers, curl up in my armchair with a glass of deep, satisfying malt whisky, and put on a Hammer horror film – something classy, like Taste the Blood of Dracula – on my DVD player. Or I read a Sherlock Holmes story.

 15. “People are surprised to find out that I…”

…genuinely enjoy watching football. I don’t know why that should surprise anyone: maybe I don’t look like a footie-loving person. But I am. (Note: If there’s any transatlantic reader out there, please read “soccer” instead of ”football”.)

 16. “My favorite cities are…”

Having grown up in Glasgow, I shouldn’t really mention Edinburgh here, but I will, as it’s a spectacularly lovely and characterful city. I have also developed an attachment to my adopted city, London. And, having come back from a holiday there, Venice must be high on any list.

17. “I have a secret crush on…”

Doesn’t Kirsty Young have a really sexy voice? The way she says “Time for your fourth record …”  Damn! – it isn’t a secret anymore!

18. “My most obvious guilty pleasure is…”

Malt whisky and Hammer horror films. But I don’t really feel very guilty about either.

 19. “I’d really love to meet – or to have met…”

Kirsty Young, with that sexy voice of hers, interviewing me as guest on Desert Island Discs. Come on Kirsty – what are you waiting for?

 20. “I never understood why…”

… why there is anything at all instead of nothing.


21. Question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer to that question):

Q: Why do you think Tolstoy is the greatest of all novelists?

A: Now, I’m very glad you asked me that … [cont. P 873]