The Scramble For Africa by Thomas Pakenham (1991)

In his short introduction to this long (700 pages) book, Pakenham says the Scramble for Africa bewildered contemporaries as much as it puzzles historians. Well, anyone reading Pakenham’s wonderfully readable and comprehensive chronicle of the shambolic and squalid land grab will be considerably less puzzled as a result.

This is a vast, authoritative, accessible and thrilling book. The story, or multiple interlinking stories, are told in a series of shortish chapters each of which focuses on a particular episode for a key year or so. These pieces interweave to form a mosaic which slowly covers all of Africa, all the key figures and incidents, throughout the period of the Scramble which Pakenham dates 1880-1912. Each chapter tends to start with a vivid scene or tableau depicting a key figure and then set them in their context and their challenge.

Because above all the scramble presented itself as a set of challenges and problems for statesmen, explorers and businessmen alike.

Egypt was a millstone round the British government’s neck from the moment the Suez Canal was opened in 1869. It immediately became the cheapest communication route with India and the East. Therefore any threat to the canal was a threat to the Empire. Therefore Britain must control the Egyptian government, at the risk of alienating her partner in the so-called Dual Power arrangement, France.

The Urabi revolt (1879-82) was a nationalist revolt against European rule and Turkish corruption. After the leader or Khedive, Isma’il Pasha, ran up vast debts, the French and British governments stepped in to protect the bondholders – the banks who had lent lavishly and unwisely – installed Isma’il’s son Tewfik Pasha as puppet leader, and ruled jointly. Quite apart from trying to manage Egyptian nationalist feeling, this made the British permanently worried about French actions in Egypt, a weakness Bismarck was quick to exploit.

In June 1882 unrest flared into anti-European rioting in Alexandria. The British fleet bombarded the city (destroying much of its historic seafront), Parliament voted to intervene and sent an army to the canal zone which was defeated in the battle of Kafr-el-Dawwar. On September 13, 1882 the British forces defeated ‘Urabi’s army at the Battle of Tel el-Kebir. This victory marked the de facto establishment of Egypt as a British colony (although Turkish sensibilities had to be respected) and guaranteed the enmity of the French who spent the next twenty years feeling they’d been cheated and trying to get their own back anywhere in Africa that they could.

Gladstone and the Liberals spent the next twenty years trying to extract us from Egypt while successive Conservative administrations tended to involve us deeper. This ambivalence helps explain why General Gordon, sent to relieve Khartoum and withdraw in the face of the Mahdi’s Islamic uprising, was so poorly supported that he was surrounded, starved and killed before the extremely slapdash expeditionary force could come to his aid.

South Africa was similarly a source of endless of trouble. As with Egypt it was felt the Cape colony was a vital part of the supply line to India and the East. Therefore we had to keep the Boers (the Dutch farmers who farmed the land before the British seized the colony from the Dutch in 1807) under control and this led to two disastrous wars, the small and stupid First Boer War (1880) and the big disastrous Second Boer War (1899-1902) during which we discovered just how badly organised and badly led the British Army was.

  • 1879 First Zulu War started with catastrophic defeat at Isandlwana before the British rallied and took the Zulu capital Ulundi and captured and exiled king Cetshwayo.
  • 1880-1 First Boer War With the defeat of the Zulus the Boers felt emboldened to rebel against the British annexation of the Transvaal which had been imposed in 1877. They rose from nowhere and besieged five small Brit forts. Major-General Sir George Pomeroy Colley gathered a force to relieve the sieges but was defeated at a number of small engagements and then crushed and killed at Majuba Hill 27 February 1881, a national humiliation. Gladstone insisted a peace treaty be agreed to end the war before it escalated. It lasted ten weeks with only three military engagements and only a few thousand participants.

How did we manage an Empire with such a shambles of an army, staggering from one national humiliation to the next?

Themes

It is a vast subject which Pakenham covers with wonderful confidence and authority, leading us by the hand from complex diplomatic negotiations in Berlin to explorers undertaking mind-boggling treks through the darkest Congo rainforest. Multiple themes run throughout the history, for example:

  • the mounting competition between the European powers
  • the sudden late entry into the Scramble by Germany
  • the variety and power of various kingdoms and empires within Africa, from the Zulus in the south-east, to the Ethiopian empire in the north across to the realms of Samori and Sultan Ahmadu on the upper Niger
  • and running beneath everything is France’s sulky inferiority complex to the British; forever seeking to restore the mythical gloire they fondly associated with Napoleon, and failing time after time, most glaringly at the Fashoda Crisis of 1898 when they rattled sabres and then were forced to ignominiously back down. Surrender monkeys indeed.

But if there is one big takehome it emerges in the last hundred pages which drastically change tone. For the first 500 pages or so we are sharing the adventures of the explorers who are penetrating unknown territory all over the continent, the first to name these mountains, this lake, discover this river. We share their boyish enthusiasm, at the same time as we watch the convoluted and often half-baked strategies of the politicians back in Europe. In a sense, this is all innocent enough, as all parties are getting to grips with new situations and challenges and the book is thrilling and entertaining in turn.

The disgusting reality of colonialism

But in the last hundred pages or so the tone darkens considerably as Pakenham shows how the now-discovered, mapped and settled colonies came to be exploited by their European masters. Almost without exception it is a story of the rankest greed enforced by disgusting levels of violence against the native Africans.

I knew about the notorious Belgian Congo where upwards of 8 million Africans were exterminated in vast and systematic forced labour to deliver the area’s rubber back to a greedy Europe.

I didn’t realise the French carried out pretty much the same forced labour-virulent punishment-murder, rape, mass killing and burning and shooting policy in French Congo, a policy exposed by the heart-broken French explorer Brazza (who gives his name to Brazzaville) who had opened up the area for his nation in the heroic 1880s and told the Africans they could trust to the civilisation and justice of the French. How his legacy was defiled.

I’d forgotten about the deliberate policies of extermination carried out by the German Reich in south west and east Africa. As many as 300,000 Africans died in the famine engineered by the Germans to bring them to heel in the east. In the south-west about three quarters of the original 80,000 inhabitants were killed.

And of course, despite what do appear to be generally higher standards and more humane intentions, we British went and ruined our reputation by creating concentration camps during the ruinous Second Boer War, the one in which some 28,000 Boer women and children died from preventable diseases, due entirely to our incompetence and the indifference of the military leadership, namely Kitchener.

Delusory El Dorados

For another theme which runs like a delusory thread of precious metal through the book is the way that, in the early years of exploration (1870s and 80s) explorer after explorer gouged money out of their nations’ exchequers or from commercial companies with visions of great El Dorados in the interior, lands larded with undreamt-of riches in diamonds, gold, copper, or natural resources of rubber and teak, or the richest farmland in the world.

The sorry reality was all too often barren drought-plagued veld, or impenetrable jungle home only to catastrophic diseases – or to natural resources so thinly spread (like the rubber in the Congo) that only systematic forced labour ie production with almost no overheads, could turn a profit. Most of the countries involved made a loss on their colonies. Only enforced slave labour stood a chance of ‘making money’ for a tiny white elite of colonists and their parent companies.

Given that their economic survival depended on keeping the natives in virtual slavery, and their cultural survival depended on enforcing the strongest possible punishments/reprisals against native populations which vastly outnumbered the white settlers, it is no surprise that in colony after colony, all the brave talk about white man’s civilisation and justice and religion turned out to hypocritical garbage.

Greater or lesser Kurtzes emerged everywhere, quick to take advantage of the all the forces which made it possible and even necessary to treat the natives like animals. It is a miracle the European colonies staggered on for the 50 or so years after the Scramble was more or less complete in 1912.

Some of the chaps involved in the Scramble for Africa

1 National leaders

Otto von Bismarck Prussian Chancellor, during the first part of his career he focused on uniting the Germanic states into the new nation of Germany (achieved in 1871) and despised colonial adventures. In 1884 he suddenly reversed his position partly due to changes in public opinion, pressure from merchants, and to undercut anti-colonial liberals allied with the the heir to the throne. Eventually Germany owned Togoland (now Togo and part of Ghana), German Kamerun (now Cameroon and part of Nigeria), German East Africa (now Rwanda, Burundi, and the mainland part of Tanzania), German South-West Africa (now Namibia).

Bismarck convened the Berlin Conference (1885) which established rules for the acquisition of African colonies, in particular, protecting free trade in certain parts of the Congo basin. He was suddenly dismissed in 1890 by the young Kaiser Wilhelm II who went on to rule the German Reich with increasingly unpredictably, but who gave fulsome support to his genocidal administrators.

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

Otto Eduard Leopold, Prince of Bismarck, Duke of Lauenburg (1815 – 1898)

William Ewart Gladstone, prime minister 1880-85, 1886, 1892-4, high-minded leader of the Liberal party, a fierce opponent of colonialism and empire who nonetheless kept finding himself dragged into imperial adventures or calamities and thus despised as a highminded hypocrite by his enemies. He ordered the First Boer War to be concluded with a peace treaty conceding the Boers the self-government they wanted, was blamed for failing to rescue Gordon in 1885, oversaw Britain’s exploration of East Africa inland of Zanzibar and West Africa up the Niger river.

Gladstone

Jules Ferry (1832-93) premiere of France 1880-1 and 1883-85. After France’s humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Ferry conceived the idea of acquiring a great colonial empire for economic exploitation. In a speech before the Chamber of Deputies on 28 July 1885, he declared that ‘it is a right for the superior races, because they have a duty. They have the duty to civilize the inferior races.’ Ferry supervised the conquest of Tunis in 1881 – a shameful fiasco whereby the native ruler was tricked into acquiescing in his own overthrow – he prepared the treaty of 17 December 1885 for the occupation of Madagascar; directed the exploration of the Congo and of the Niger region; and organized the conquest of Annam and Tonkin in what became Indochina. Algeria. Vietnam. Just two countries whose names testify to France’s excellent colonial skills.

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Jules Ferry, Prime Minister of France

Lord Salisbury Conservative Prime Minister during the defining era of high imperialism – 1885-6, 1886-92, 1895-1902. Prime Minister and his own Foreign Secretary, the relatively unknown Salisbury comes over as a cautious, sane and sensible guider of Britain’s destiny during a time of increasing international rivalry and tension who managed to defuse the Fashoda Crisis (1898) but was outflanked by Milner and the South African gold bugs who bear the responsibility for starting the ruinous Second Boer War (1899-1902).

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury

King Leopold of Belgium king from 1865 to 1909, his name is forever associated with what is now referred to as the genocide in the Belgian Congo where anything between 6 million and 10 million native Africans died in his system of merciless forced labour designed to extract as much rubber ( along with some ivory, teak etc) from a rainforest the size of Europe. All masquerading under a sham pretext of selfless philanthropy and civilisation. Possibly the greatest hypocrite in the entire history of European imperialism.

Leopold II of Belgium

Leopold II of Belgium

2 Soldiers and explorers

David Livingstone (1813-73) the Scottish missionary, despite his poor leadership and ultimate failure to estalish Christianity anywhere, through his writings and example of ceaseless exploration of the unknown centre of the continent, Livingstone created a swell of popular opinion against the slave trade in central Africa, and established the premise that slavery could only be abolished by a combination of the three Cs – Christian missionising and Commerce which would lead to Civilisation. He died a generation before it became clear, in the early 1900s, that it led to exactly the opposite.

David Livingstone (1813-73)

David Livingstone (1813-73)

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) an illegitimate child abandoned by his mother who spent most of his youth in workhouses where he was probably abused before making  his way to America where he was adopted by a wealthy trader named Stanley whose name he took, before getting embroiled in the American Civil War and taking to record keeping on a Union Navy ship which led to journalism. He undertook trips to Persia and India, on the basis of which he was retained by the New York Herald whose owner he persuaded to let him undertake an expedition to find the missionary Livingstone who hadn’t been heard of for some years and who he found in Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania in 1871. ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ 

The unlikely pair explored together before Stanley returned to publish articles then a book. On the back of this he was commissioned by the New York Herald in 1874 to solve one of the great geographic mysteries of the age, the route of the river Congo. It took 999 days to follow it from source to sea and he lost 240 bearers and natives along the way. He was employed from 1876 by Leopold of Belgium in building the road and railway and making treaties with natives along the Congo, before a series of further adventures climaxed in the epic and ultimately absurd expedition to rescue the last of Gordon’s emissaries in the Sudan, Emin Pasha. There’s been a recent, comprehensive biography by Tim Jeal: Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer

Henry Morton Stanley

Henry Morton Stanley

Major-General Charles George Gordon of Khartoum (1833-85) after service in the Crimean War, Gordon commanded a force of Chinese soldiers which helped to put down the Taipeng rebellion, earning the thanks of the Chinese emperor and the nickname ‘Chinese Gordon’. He entered the service of the Egyptian Khedive in 1873 and later became the Governor-General of the Sudan, where he did much to suppress revolts and the slave trade. Exhausted, he resigned and returned to Europe in 1880.

When the Mahdi’s Islamic revolt broke out in the Sudan Gordon was despatched to evacuate the 2,500 Europeans from Khartoum and return. He did the first part but stayed on in Khartoum with local troops, holding out against a sporadic siege for a year, earning fame back in Blighty. Reluctantly the Liberal government sent reinforcements which proceeded with criminal slowness up the Nile and arrived two days after Khartoum had fallen and Gordon been murdered. It was 13 years before a large British army returned under Herbert Kitchener, recaptured Khartoum and laid Gordon’s ghost.

Gordon of Khartoum

Gordon of Khartoum

Sir John Kirk (1832-1922) served as consul to the Sultan of Zanzibar for decades and managed to persuade him to ban slavery in his domains, a major achievement for which he is given much credit in a recent book about him: The Last Slave Market: Dr John Kirk and the Struggle to End the East African Slave Trade. While the Belgians and French employed enforced labour on a vast scale in the Congo, and the Germans actively sought ethnic extermination in Namibia and Tanzania, it really does seem that at least some elements of the British regime sought and achieved the liberation of the Africans under their rule.

Africans

King Cetshwayo (1826 – 1884) is remembered as the last king of an independent Zulu nation. In 1878, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, British Commissioner for South Africa, began to demand reparations for border infractions by traditionally independent Zululand into neighbouring colonial Natal. Cetshwayo kept his calm until Frere demanded the king effectively disband his army. His refusal led to the Zulu War in 1879. After initial victories, including the famous massacre at Isandlwana, the British recovered to defeat the Zulu armies before capturing and burning the Zulu capital of Ulundi 4 July 1879. Cetshwayo was deposed and exiled, first to Cape Town, then to London.

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Cetshwayo kaMpande (1826 – 1884) King of the Zulus

Emperor Menelik II (1844 – 1913) emperor of Ethiopia from 1889 to his death. The history of the Ethiopian empire is complex, involving power struggles with neighbouring tribes and rival kings, as well as the Mahdist forces in the Sudan and the encroaching European powers. In summary – Menelik gathered the forces which annihilated an Italian army at the Battle of Adowa (1 March 1896) and as a result the borders of Abyssinia/Ethiopia were guaranteed and the country continued as an independent state until the Italian invasion under Mussolini in the 1930s.

Emperor Menelik II

Emperor Menelik II

 Related links

Buy The Scramble for Africa on Amazon

The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle (1927-9)

Following in the footsteps of Jules Vernes, and of his own Professor Challenger science adventure stories, in this short, late novel Conan Doyle recounts the tale of eminent marine scientist Dr Maracot, sensible leading man Cyrus Headley, and gung-ho American engineer Bill Scanlan, as they ship out for the the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean and then descend to explore it in an ingenious diving bell (see illustration below).

But, no sooner have they arrived at the very edge of the deepest sea trench in the world and seen a few weird fish, than disaster strikes in the shape of a monster lobster which crawls all over the diving box and then – quelle horreur! – snips the hawser which connects it to the expedition boat. Down and down and down they plummet, into the bottomless abyss of the deepest trench in the seas. And what do they find there?

You’ll have to read it to find out 🙂

Science

Interestingly, the bathysphere or diving bell which is at the centre of the yarn, was only just being deployed in real life. The world pioneering one was designed by American engineer Otis Barton, to be used by the naturalist William Beebe in 1928/9, and first used 1930-34 (see the Wikipedia article). So Conan Doyle was bang up to dat with contemporary technology in this field.

Lineage

The Maracot Deep was serialised in The Strand magazine from October 1927 to February 1928, then continued as The Lord of the Dark Face in April and May 1929, ie right at the end of Conan Doyle’s long adventurous life. Jules Verne with Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea and certainly HG Wells and maybe Edgar Rice Burroughs had done this sort of thing before.

But reading it wakes numerous echoes of later films or TV shows where voyagers fall into the hands of an alien and more scientifically advanced race, where they are initially made to feel welcome until…

In fact it does feel like a late work in that Conan Doyle doesn’t really develop either story or characters. The five brief chapters of the part one barely get us to the underwater city, a scrape with a deep sea monster and the discovery of their own ship, wrecked in a hurricane shortly after they were set adrift – and our heroes have returned to civilisation and safety.

Spiritualism

The last two chapters (of seven) were written and published a year after the main body and are clearly and clumsily bolted onto the original story. In them the narrator hilariously say, ‘I forget if I have said before that the Professor was a world-famed specialist on Comparative Religions and ancient primitive beliefs.’ This comes in handy when the three adventurers meet none other than the Devil himself! who turns out to have had a personal hand in the destruction of Atlantis (which is what they’ve discovered).

This turn of events is ludicrous but, as always, in Doyle’s sensible lucid and clearly imagined prose, it has a strange persuasiveness. It has the same plausibility as a Hollywood movie. You know it’s rubbish but, for the hour or so that you watch it, you let yourself be impressed by the special affects, the acting, the directing.

Read The Maracot Deep

Front cover of the 1927 edition of the Strand magazine, containing the first chapter of the Maracot Deep

Front cover of the 1927 edition of the Strand magazine, containing the first chapter of the Maracot Deep

Martin Creed @ the Hayward Gallery

This is a brilliant, must-see show, full of laughter and delight.

Minimalist biography

Martin Creed was born in 1968 in Wakefield but moved to Glasgow where he grew up, before studying art at the Slade from 1986-90. He is reluctant to be called an artist or for his work to be called art. He prefers ‘interventions’ (rather as Richard Deacon prefers to be called a ‘fabricator’).

Martin Creed Self portrait smiling #299

Martin Creed Self portrait smiling #299

Numbering the works

Early in his career he abandoned naming works, instead giving them numbers. He’s well into the 2000s now. Both these gestures indicate a refusal to be dictated to by Art’s grand traditions. Creed wants to evade the rhetorical and meaningful and slip in the sly and unexpected and witty and disconcerting.

I literally jumped when the hidden loudspeaker outside the loo suddenly emitted a laugh (#412). I wasn’t expecting there to be a work in the lift, where a harmonica plays a simple descending scale as the lift goes down – or an ascending one as the lift goes up 🙂

The Turner Prize 2001

Creed won the Turner Prize in 2001 with an empty room in which a light switched on – then off – then on etc. (Work number 227 the lights going on and off). A version of that work was here at the Hayward, though the space in question was a big exhibition room filled with other works. I suspect a completely empty room would be best. Imagine standing in completely empty aircraft hangar, and the lights going on for 5 seconds – and then off into pitch black for 5 seconds. Then on again. Forever. As you stroll along the next room looking at acrylic paintings fixed to the wall, you come to a door which is just… opening and closing (work #129).

Some works

The on and off theme was echoed in #990, a pair of curtains opening and closing across one of the long wide observation windows at the top of the gallery. Being wide windows it took the curtains a fair few seconds to close and then immediately open and, if you stopped and focused, it became quite hypnotic, and also lent a new interest to the otherwise dull view across Waterloo Bridge to the grey National theatre.

On one of the three outdoor sculpture platforms was a complete Ford Focus in a work pithily titled Ford Focus (#1686). Every few seconds the doors, boot and bonnet opened, the lights went on and the radio went on (tuned, tellingly I thought, to Radio 4). For a few seconds. Then they all closed. As if the car came to life for a few moments… again and again…

  • #112 39 metronomes beating at every possible speed, permanently, lined up along the wall
  • #299 self-portrait smiling, in all his gawky art studentness (2003)
  • #293 sheet of paper crumpled into a ball (2003)
  • #1092 MOTHERS a vast fluorescent sign reading MOTHERS, as a hoarding 12 and a half metres long, which fills the first room in the Hayward and swings round on its axis like an advertising sign
  • in the toilet was a set of tiles stuck over one of the existing tiles until it made a cube of tiles
  • at the end of the second room was a loudspeaker with the repeated sound of someone blowing a raspberry #401
  • in the big room upstairs were a set of works all using I beams or steel girders piled on each other
  • and the piled on top of each other theme continued with office desks of diminishing size atop each other – a set of ever-smaller cardboard boxes piled on each other – wooden planks of diminishing thinness
  • #1812 out on the third sculpture platform was a wall about 20 foot high, made of bricks – but each course was made of one colour and the entire wall used every colour of brick which is available
  • the idea of testing out everything available also applies to #1000 which is a massive wall covered in prints of broccoli (touch of the Warhols) printed in every colour he could find (there must be more, but this is an impressive start!)

Paintings

For all the critics who accused Creed of helping kill off painting when he won the Turner prize with such a minimalist/conceptual work, there is ironic rebuttal in the form of scores and scores of paintings, from portraits and self-portraits, abstract works in oil and acrylic, to the enormous works where he has covered entire walls of the Hayward with orange lozenges or multi-coloured stripes.

At first I paid close attention to each one eg #1497 portrait of Luciana, an almost abstract portrait sized work decorated with brown tape. But quite quickly they became very samey – this page on Creed’s website shows a selection – crosses, squares of different shapes, parallel bars, or portraits of various degrees of realism or abstraction. They all lacked the crispness, the definition, of something like sheet of A4 paper crumpled up or the very simple Lego tower #792 or the 2.5cm squares of elastoplast stuck on top of each other until they make a 2.5cm cube (#78)!

Videos

There were four or five videos scattered through the show: #1090 Thinking/Not Thinking features a chihuahua and a wolfhound, the smallest and the largest breeds of dog, trotting across a white background to the accompaniment of Creed’s band.

A man sits on a pavement and pulls himself backwards across a road by his fists – You Return #1701 (2013). Outside on one of the three sculpture platforms was a large ad display screen such as you get in Piccadilly Circus showing in black and white, close-up profile, a man’s penis (#1094) very slowly rising and then just as slowly falling.

In a darkened room run three videos, two of people puking, one of a woman pooing. The puking I couldn’t watch, it was quite soon after breakfast. But the pooing I found enchanting. A young Chinese (?) woman walks on screen, squat, pulls down her pants and then… oh the suspense, nothing happens for a minute and then… a few premonitory drops of poo and then… a large and satisfying squidge of poo is very satisfyingly excreted onto the white studio floor, before the woman pulls up her pants, pats down her skirt, and strolls off happy. Leaving us to contemplate her work of art!

Is this all art is? Freud thought so. Everything we make originates in this primal ur-act, where we first learn to control the interaction between inside and outside. Creed’s works are dazzling, inventive and wonderfully funny variations on the act of creation.

Woman squatting to have a poo #660 © Martin Creed

Woman squatting to have a poo #660 © Martin Creed

Related links

Richard Deacon @ Tate Britain

Modern sculptures don’t just present the object itself in three dimensions, changing shape and perspective and emotional resonance as you walk around it; the works – whether they be curved and shapely or angular and sharp – also embroil the air around them, ramifying into the surrounding space, revealing potential angles and sightlines off in all directions, creating new shapes in the emptiness.

Although a number of other category systems suggest themselves, for me the works on display in this retrospective of Richard Deacon’s 40-year career could be easily divided into ones which opened up the surrounding space, creating a meta-sculpture beyond the sculpture, sculpting the emptiness – and ones which seemed tight, costive, self-contained and limiting. As my adjectives suggest, I preferred the former and didn’t like the latter.

Deacon has experimented widely with different materials – wood, metal, linoleum and fabrics. His pieces are big. One piece can easily fill a room. Three can just about be squeezed in.

The works

Untitled #1 (1977) (on the left in this photo) A trapezoid shape made from wooden fence posts to create a hollow box. In its use of a simple material – wood posts – and the simplicity of shape it reminded me of New York minimalism and Arte Povera, both of which have a room at Tate Modern.

Blind, Deaf and Dumb A (1985) The highlight of room two, a thirty foot long loop of wood laminated together to create a lovely long, low playful loop of wood, subtly joined and reinforced with metal staples. I wanted to jump through the loops. I wanted to run along it running my hands over the shapes and then flying off into the air.

By contrast Lock (1990) uses the same idea of strips of laminated wood, but here it has become rather baroque, the sculpture itself more complicated as it is now two pieces, looking rather like giant dog muzzles or horse bridles, which have become interlocked in an intricate way. To me this lacked all the freedom and generosity of the Blind, Deaf and Dumb. Also the clean Habitat/Ikea feel of the naked wood in the former piece has been overlaid with heavy metal plating lining the interior surfaces. Where Blind and Deaf felt free and liberated, this felt plated, locked down. A giant chastity belt.

Similarly Struck Dumb (1988) looked like an enormous metal curled-up woodlouse. I wanted to bang some drumsticks on it to make it creative, soft, emanate some life. Instead it squatted like an enormous metal blister lopsiding the room.

Big and entirely made out of metal was Mammoth (1989). Another visitor told me he thought it looked like a whale, with a big plashing tail at the back. I thought it looked like a tortured ventilation shaft, and ventilation shaft which had been taken for a made spin.

Room 4 was devoted to the Art For Other People series of smaller works designed to be bought and installed in a domestic setting. According to RD’s website there are currently 46 of these of which about eight were on display. Combinations of lino and stone, fabric and metal, wood and leather, quirky one-off creations, fabrications, which prompt and puzzle. The most obvious question is, Which of the eight here would you have in your house? Reluctantly, I think, none.

After 1998 is the poster boy of the show, a big room-filling sculpture that is basically a wooden flume that curves round in a long flowing loop, like a giant snake. Wood is good. It feels like the most accessible material on show. The piece has a primal, phallic, serpentine, animal power. Organic metaphors flood the mind as the shape itself dominates the space and creates sparks, offshoots, further invisible slinkinesses ramifying out in all directions.

Which was the exact opposite of Waiting For The Rain (2002), a sort of giant flint made from terracotta. Though the material ought to be warm and organic, the actual shape and its presence were cold, costive, constipated, unflowing, uptight.

The same was true, only more so, of Tropic (2007), an angular chunk of glazed ceramic which looked like a bit of set design from Star Trek. I usually like uncomfortable angular art, but I found something about the dripping dark glazed colours and the geometric shapes profoundly unsympa, unsettling, upsetting.

And even when the looping tumbling theme from earlier works was continued in something like Out Of Order (2003) – a kind of giant wood shaving gone mad – for me it lacked the warm smiling mood of the earlier works.

Conclusion

I wish there had been more. I’d have liked to have seen more pieces in the hope that I’d have felt positively and warmly about more of them. As it was, the warmth and openness of the large, expansive wood pieces was a bit too swamped by the cold, heartless baroque of the more metal and overelaborate pieces.

Fascinating and thought-provoking show.

Related links

The short stories of Arthur Conan Doyle

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) wrote some hundred and twenty short stories, excluding the 56 Sherlock Holmes stories and the 17 or so Brigadier Gerard stories. The excellent Société Sherlock Holmes de France website estimates the total number of all Conan Doyle’s fictions as 239, for he also wrote some 20 short novels. His first story was published when he was 20, the last when he was 70.

For  boys

The overall affect is rip-roaring adventures for boys. None of them are really for adults, none of them have much psychology, much interiority, and the plots – though superficially gripping – are all wound up in a brisk few final paras. They anticipate hundreds of adventure movies and comics and graphic novels. They are short and punchy and great fun.

Reassuring

Even the horror and science fiction stories, though they ostensibly deal with the bizarre and grotesque, are ultimately reassuring because there is never any doubt as to the good sense and decency of the narrator(s). It is always a man and he is always soundly for the Empire and the natural fair play of the British, innately superior to all other nations and divinely ordained to rule vast tracts of the world and over their occasionally troublesome natives (and, quite often, over the great unwashed back here in Blighty).

Many of the stories exemplify that specially British sense of justice and fairmindedness which, in the mind of Imperialists, justified, indeed demanded, our Imperial role and which, similarly, justified the existence of a landed aristocracy with its Justices of the Peace, Lord Lieutenants and whatnot.

GM Young, historian of the Victorian era, writes about ‘the most precious element in Victorian civilisation, its robust and masculine sanity’, and Conan Doyle is a kind of quintessence of this, a charmingly unreflective, unquestioning, untroubled supporter of everything British.

Conan Doyle comes over as everyone’s favourite uncle, full of rattling good stories and anecdotes – but nobody for a minute takes any of his opinions seriously. He is Mr Chips.

Magazines

The stories were written for money to be published in the impressively wide variety of magazines which flourished in the 1890s. They were reprinted in numerous subsequent collections. One of the collections was titled Round the Fire Stories and that perfectly captures the Boy Scout ambience of so many of them.

The 1880s and 90s were a golden age of little magazines, created to feed the appetite of the middle and lower classes who had been taught to read as a result of the 1870 Education Act and its sequels, who increasingly had the means to buy cheap titles. Conan Doyle’s most effective outlet was the Strand magazine (established 1891), packed with articles, news and stories by leading writers of the day, all for the bargain price of one shilling in which he continued to publish to the end of  his career.

These magazines demanded sensational storylines, glamorous protagonists, short, sharp doses of the mysterious, the macabre, the haunting or the humorous, and this well-defined format and sensation-seeking audience should be kept in mind when reading Conan Doyle’s stories.

Themes

  • Patriotism ‘I do not go so far as to say that the English are more honest than any other nation, but I have found them more expensive to buy.’ (The Lost Specia’l) “He was a villain, but he was a Briton!” said the captain, at last. “He lived like a dog, but, by God, he died like a man!”‘ (The Slapping Sal) ‘No more striking example could be given of the long arm and steel hand of the British law than that within a few months this mixed crew, Sclavonian, negro, Manila men, Norwegian, Turk and Frenchman, gathered on the shore of the distant Argentine, were all brought face to face at the Central Criminal Court in the heart of London town.’ (The Tragedy of Flowery Land)
  • The British Empire The colonies, especially Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, are the playground of white men – the existence of the Empire goes without saying ie that native peoples should have their land taken and their goods stolen doesn’t occur. Vide his goodhumoured and openhanded pamphlets justifying the Second Boer War which don’t consider the possibility that the British might have been motivated solely by power politics and greed. In The Green Flag even mutinous Irish republicans, when faced with the fuzzy wuzzies, turn out to be the stoutest defenders of the British Empire.
  • London ‘…now gradually overtaken and surrounded by the red brick tentacles of the London octopus.’ It is always growing, throwing out everexpanding avenues of redbrick terraces. The ones we live in, now.
  • Women Chivalry is the way the patriarchy, men, reassured themselves that they deserved to be in charge, that it was OK to keep women in powerless subjugation. Chivalry was men’s reply to women demanding the vote or control of their own lives: look, we defer to you in everything sweet ladies, why on earth would you need the vote? ‘Ladies are in danger of losing their privileges when they usurp the place of the other sex. They cannot claim both.’ (Doctors of Hoyland) Women in Conan Doyle are tall, stately, and the most beautiful woman in England. Defending their ‘honour’ is the motivation for quite a few of the stories.
  • Diamonds seem to be the treasure and currency of choice, the bigger the better, and feature in his very first story, The Mystery of Sasassa Valley as well as The Stone of Boxman’s Drift, Our Midnight Visitor,  The Club-Footed Grocer.
  • Comedy A constant throughout is Conan Doyle’s bluff good humour. Rising to overt comedy in the GP reminiscences and Brigadier Gerard stories, or just lying low, purring in the background. Constantly, pervasively there is his confidence and solidity, as ubiquitous as his splendid Edwardian moustache.
  • Crime of the most sensational and puzzling sort, of course eg The Story of the Lost Special or The Story of the Lost Watches.
  • Sensation The stories were published in popular magazines which often contained sensational news or features. The stories take this tone from their surroundings. Nothing is subtle or underplayed. Everything is the most sensational scandal in London or England or the world. ‘Stanniford, the banker! I remembered the name at once. His flight from the country some seven years before had been one of the scandals and sensations of the time.’ (The Sealed Room) ‘Such was the position of affairs when, upon the evening of Monday, June 21st, there came a fresh development which changed what had been a mere village scandal into a tragedy which arrested the attention of the whole nation.’ (The Black Doctor). The same breathless sensationalism which characterises the Holmes stories.
  • Scandal and the fear of scandal is a motivation in these and the Holmes stories to a degree which is hard for us to understand. The reputation of upper middle class people was so important that they were willing to kill or die to preserve it. Just the hint that some misbehaviour in a former life abroad might revisit someone in respectable England causes numerous Conan Doyle protagonists to drop dead of horror. The Jew’s Breastplate is a particularly preposterous example of a story driven by this ludicrous sentiment.
  • Secret societies flourished in the 1880s and 1890s. They merged in the public  mind with terrorist groups such as nihilists, anarchists, Fenians, even the violent suffragettes. They are routinely offered as explanations when some crime, especially a murder, goes unsolved and were so familiar a subject that Conan Doyle can make a comic story about a chemist who is mistakenly invited to give a lecture about dynamite to a group of nihilists.
  • Murder plenty of people get murdered and the murders are horrible and yet, in some difficult-to-define way, romantic and exciting. They upset the characters – but they don’t upset us, because they are so transparently the engines of a rattling good yarn.
  • Horror The great horror trope of the pale ghastly face at the window occurs in scores of the stories – Uncle Jeremy’s Household, A Pastoral Horror – and melodramatic horror is one of the commonest emotions: ‘… and she realized, with a thrill of horror, that what she had taken to be a glove was the hand of a man, who was prostrate upon the floor.’

And now I come to that portion of my story which fills me even now with a shuddering horror when I think of it (The Striped Chest)

could be the epigraph to many of the collected stories.

The 1880s

  • The Mystery of Sasassa Valley (September 1879) ‘Tell it? Oh, certainly; but it is a longish story and a very strange one; so fill up your glass again, and light another cigar, while I try to reel it off’ sets the tone for the entire oeuvre. Jack Turnbull as an old man recalls how he and Lucky Tom Donahue, two young lawyers who packed in study to emigrate to South Africa, took their cue from a native tale of a haunted valley and discovered the weird glowing was given off not by demons but by diamonds!
  • The American’s Tale (December 1880) “Deuced rum yarn!” said young Sinclair. Hard core Western redneck Jefferson Adams regales a posh English literary club with a tall tale about a feud in 1870s Arizona between cool Brit called Scott and short-fused Alabama Joe which ends with Joe being eaten alive by a giant Venus flytrap plant!
  • A Night Among the Nihilists (April 1881) ‘”By the way,” he remarked, as we smoked a cigar over our wine, “we should never have known you but for the English labels on your luggage.”‘ Robinson, a clerk in a corn merchant’s, is sent to Russia to open up trade with a major landowner. There is a mix-up and he is introduced into a secret society of Nihilists and saved just as he is rumbled, when the police burst in!
  • That Little Square Box (December 1881) ‘Dick was just the man I wanted; kindly and shrewd in his nature, and prompt in his actions, I should have no difficulty in telling him my suspicions, and could rely upon his sound sense to point out the best course to pursue. Since I was a little lad in the second form at Harrow, Dick had been my adviser and protector.’ The narrator is a nervous, solitary, literary type who, when he boards the ship from Boston to London, overhears two foreign men whispering about a secret box and when to set it off, thinks he is hearing anarchist/terrorists. In fact, they are releasing racing pigeons!
  • The Gully of Bluemansdyke: A True Colonial Story (December 1881) ‘The two men lapsed into silence for some time, moodily staring into the glow of the fire, and pulling at their short clays.’ New Zealand in the 1850s. A posse is formed to hunt down seven men who bushwhacked the young sons of two old-timers. A paean to the rugged spirit of the emigrant colonial trooper. Trooper Braxton and his capture of the Bluemansdyke murderers. The Australia stories are linked.
Cover of The Gully of Bluemansdyke

Cover of The Gully of Bluemansdyke

  • Bones, The April Fool of Harvey’s Sluice (April 1882) Comic tale. ‘Boss, with the keen power of calculation which had made him the finest cricketer at Rugby in his day, had caught the rein immediately below the bit, and clung to it with silent concentration.’ Another tale of derring-do in the New Zealand outback, but lightened with romance and humour, as two English miners, posh John ‘Boss’ Morgan and herculean Abe ‘Bones’ Durton save the life of pretty young Miss Carrie Sinclair who transforms the life of mining shanty Harvey’s Sluice. ‘With these few broken words the strangely assorted friends shook hands and looked lovingly into each other’s eyes.’ Reminiscent of Paint Your Wagon. Climaxes with a big shootout as the pals save Miss Sinclair from bushrangers.
  • Our Derby Sweepstakes (May 1882) Two men compete for the hand of the fair Miss Eleanor Montague and decide the winner of the Derby will win her hand. Told in 1st person by Eleanor in an impersonation of a Victorian airhead.
  • That Veteran (September 1882) Very amusing. A gentleman on a walking holiday in Wales pulls into an inn where he is regaled with stories of the Crimean War and a soldier’s career by one sergeant Turnbull until his head is swimming and he passes out. The soldier is a fake, a criminal, who has drugged him and stolen his watch.
  • My Friend the Murderer (December 1882) A further New Zealand story: the prison doctor narrator (Conan Doyle/Watson) hears the life story of Maloney, the Bluemansdyke murderer who escaped the rope by turning queen’s evidence and had sundry adventures trying to escape revengers as he fled to Australia, England, France and then back to Oz where he finally dies in a bar brawl.
  • The Captain of the Polestar (January 1883) ‘Being an extract from the singular journal of John McAlister Ray, student of medicine’. Doctor on the Polestar which travels unwisely far into the northern, Arctic ice fields, supposedly in search of whales, but in fact driven by the haunted captain Nicholas Craigie who is pursuing the phantom of his murdered sweetheart which flees across the ice. (Interesting article about the story’s origins in Conan Doyle’s actual Arctic voyage aboard the whaler Hope.)
Illustration to the Captain of the Polestar

Illustration to the Captain of the Polestar

  • Gentlemanly Joe (March 1883) The narrator is a young man working at a bank along with four other blue-bloods and the vulgar, jumped-up son of a bookie who they ironically name Gentlemanly Joe. They mercilessly rib him, especially when he falls in love with little Miss Cissy who is in fact engaged to one of them. Then comes the night of the great fire when the Newsome house burns down and it is big strong Gentlemanly Joe who breaks down the door and rescues Miss Cissy. Though she marries her fiancee she and the others will never forget Gentlemanly Joe!
  • The Winning Shot (July 1883) A genuinely eerie supernatural story. One Octavius Gaster arrives at a charming upper class household in Dartmoor where Lottie Underwood is due to marry her sweetheart. He casts clouds over the gathering, defends spiritualism, has a newspaper cutting implicating him in black magic, falls in love with Lottie, which leads to a fight with Charley and he is evicted. Then the great shooting match between soldiers at locals where Gaster turns up and, at the climax of the match, appears to make Charley shoot through a phantasm of himself, killing himself. The spookiest thing is that after weeks of delirium Lottie is seen getting into a train with him.
  • Selecting a Ghost (December 1883) Comic story told by a preposterously pretentious narrator Mr d’Odd, a successful grocer who has bought a big old house and now wants a ghost to go with it so he asks his brother-in-law in London to find one, resulting in a crook from London coming down and pretending to be a purveyor of ghosts who audition for him as he drinks some magic potion. When he awakes, he has of course been robbed.
  • The Silver Hatchet (December 1883) ‘On the 3rd of December 1861, Dr. Otto von Hopstein, Regius Professor of Comparative Anatomy of the University of Budapest, and Curator of the Academical Museum, was foully and brutally murdered within a stone-throw of the entrance to the college quadrangle.’ Then another victim is found. Then the friendship of two medical students who stumble across a silver-handled ax and, as he holds it, one goes homicidally mad. They are arrested it and the police inspector handling it also becomes homicidal. It is cursed: ‘Ever evil, never good, Reddened with a loved one’s blood.’ The inclusion of the students makes it seem like the short melodramatic plot of an opera.
  • An Exciting Christmas Eve or, My Lecture on Dynamite (December 1883) Odd tone of tale about a short bespectacled Herr Doctor Otto von Spee to whom lots of accidents occur, the final one being kidnapped on Christmas Eve to deliver a lecture on gunpowder to a secret, presumably revolutionary, society which climaxes with some sample guncotton being detonated and Dr von Spee escaping.
  • J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement (January 1884) Remarkably powerful fiction which claims to be a true account of what happened on the Marie Celeste (discovered drifting December 1873): the boat is slowly taken over by an evil half-caste – Mr. Septimius Goring – who along with two black sailors murders all the white crew and passengers, steering to a remote African settlement where he lords it over the natives instead of to Portugal. When the natives see the lucky charm an old slave gave him in America their superstitious reverence forces Goring to set Jephson adrift and so be picked up by a passing ship.
Martha the old slave gives Jephson the stone ear

Martha the old slave gives Jephson the stone ear

  • The Heiress of Glenmahowley (January 1884) 1st person. Bob Elliott and John Vereker are two unsuccessful lawyers marooned in a pub in the west of Ireland, passing the time being unpleasantly racist about the locals when the publican tells them of a local widow who is fabulously wealthy and her beautiful young daughter the heiress. Comedy as both men pretend not to be interested but next day climb over the big spiked wall, tumbling into the ditch and scrambling through briars to try to woo and win the beauty. It is made plain he English narrator is a pompous preening twerp.
  • The Blood-Stone Tragedy: A Druidical Story (February 1884) The narrator begins to discuss the recent case of Williams the druid when the other man in the railway carriage says, Hush, don’t mention the word, it might wake my sleeping wife. And then proceeds to tell the story of  how his then fiancee got lost in the mountains and fell into the clutches of a maniac who thinks he is a druid and plans to sacrifice her at midnight.
  • John Barrington Cowles (April 1884) Longer and more psychologically penetrating than usual: the narrator’s friend falls for an ice cold beauty who is associated with two men who went mad, with cruelty to her dog, with tyranny over her mother, the daughter of a soldier in India who indulged in black magic. She beats a mesmerist at a public lecture and then, at the height of their engagement, she reveals something hideous to John Barrington Cowles. He raves that she is a werewolf. He goes down with brain fever and then is taken by the narrator to the Isle of May to recover. One night with a storm approaching, JBC hears her calling and runs to his death over a cliff.
  • The Cabman’s Story: the Mysteries of a London ‘Growler’ (May 1884) A London cabbie tells a few of his colourful experiences like carrying a corpse, and carrying a forger. Nice ventriloquism of the cabbie, similar to My Friend The Murderer.
  • The Tragedians (August 1884) Young Mr Barker the narrator enters the happy life of the Latour family in Paris, the widowed Madame, young Rose and brother Henry the would-be actor. In another part of town the famous actor and seducer of women Lablas wins at cards and plans the abduction of Rose. Barker and the brothers are walking home late when they encounter Lablas and accomplices abducting Rose. Fight. Broken up with the promise of a duel. And, as Henry had just got the role of Laertes opposite Hamlet, the duel is fought for real onstage in a scene which rises to real intensity and power.
Poster for The Winning Shot and An Actor's Duel (1894)

Poster for The Winning Shot and An Actor’s Duel (1894)

  • Crabbe’s Practice (December 1884) Pure comedy as two medical students cook up a fake drowning and electrical resuscitation to boost Crabbe’s practice.
  • The Man from Archangel (January 1885) 1st person. Lonely young scientist John M’Vittie inherits money and a barren stretch of property in Scotland to which he moves to carry out his obscure experiments. One stormy night a schooner is shipwrecked on the shore and, out of character, he rows out and saves a beautiful young damsel who doesn’t speak English. Days later a tall, brown-faced, red-shirted, leather-booted pirate-type comes snooping claiming the woman is his bride. But she hates him. He and his crew kidnapped her from her wedding.
  • The Lonely Hampshire Cottage (May 1885) 3rd person. Very moody landlord John Ranter is advised by his doctor to retire and moves to a remote cottage where he beats his wife and is a byword. Then a strange sailor appears, walking to Southampton, in need of a bed for the night. Ranter offers it and slowly unravels that the stranger has struck it rich in California and bears dollars and gold. In the middle of the night he creeps up the stairs to murder him but is caught by the stranger who reveals himself as Ranter’s runaway son.
  • The Great Keinplatz Experiment (July 1885) Professor von Baumgarten is an expert on mesmerism and spiritualism and carries out an experiment with his daughter’s fiance and his student, Fritz von Hartmann, to see if souls leave the body during hypnosis. They do, but re-enter the wrong bodies, the professor’s soul entering the student’s body and vice versa, with hilarious consequences. Played for laughs, this reminded me of a Laurel and Hardy short.
  • The Parson of Jackman’s Gulch (December 1885) 1853 in this rough mining settlement 150 miles from Ballarat when a pastor arrives and wins over the miners by reading the Bible whenever they blaspheme. His campaign climaxes with the first ever sermon in the back of the pub where he proceeds to lock them in and reveal himself to be the noted bushranger Conky Jim while his partners rob the assay office of its entire haul of gold.
  • The Fate of the Evangeline (December 1885) 1st person. John Vincent Gibbs reveals the true story behind the loss of the ‘Evangeline’, namely that, rejected in love he had become an anchorite on a remote Scottish island when who should turn up but his erstwhile fiancee, mercenary father and calculating suitor, all of whom he overhears, before swimming out to the yacht Miss Lucy is sleeping aboard, cutting the painter and absconding with her. The schooner is run down in the Irish Sea by a freighter bound for Australia where they make a new life and, ultimately, write this ‘true account’. Quotes the Scotsman quoting Poe’s detective Dupin about eliminating the impossible etc.
  • Touch and Go: A Midshipman’s Story (April 1886) 1st person. It is 1868 and the narrator was a lad of 14 back on the banks of the river Clyde from his first journey as a seaman. He, his sister and cousin fool old Jock their minder and take a sailing boat out for a pleasure run alone and on impulse decide to sail to the mouth of the river where a storm pushes them out into the Irish Sea. Caught in heavy waters they are like to drown when they are rescued by a steam launch, dried and slept and dropped on the beach of the Isle of Man.
  • Cyprian Overbeck Wells : A Literary Mosaic (December 1886) 1st person. Humorous: the narrator Smith fancies himself a writer and after 10 years a clerk leaves his job to write a masterpiece, decides to read all English literature to give himself a boost: then one night hallucinates a tableful of the great novelists who proceed to tell a story in tag.
  • Uncle Jeremy’s Household (February 1887) 1st person. Long one. Student Hugh Lawrence goes to Dunklethwaite House in Yorkshire to stay with his friend John Thurston who is staying with old eccentric, poetry-obsessed Uncle Jeremy and the nanny, Miss Warrender, an attractive Indian young woman, orphan of a famous Indian chief, and Uncle J’s amanuensis, the tall creepy Copperthorne. Hugh becomes curious about the troubled relationship between secretary and nanny and puzzled by her sometimes savage demeanour until one night, he overhears their conversation in the greenhouse and discovers she is the daughter of a Thuggee leader, worships a goddess of murder, killed her adopted father’s daughter and the little girl Uncle J had adopted; and now they both plan to murder old Uncle J as the secretary has got himself named in the will. In the end a) Miss Warrender escapes having b) tasked a wandering Indian stranger in the village to murder Copperthorne.
  • The Stone of Boxman’s Drift  (December 1887) 3rd person. The early 1870s in the Vaal valley near Kimberley, South Africa, barren land except for the diamonds and therefore wild prospectors from all over the world. ‘Headley Dean, with his crisp, neatly-trimmed hair and beard, his quick, glancing eyes, and his nervous, impulsive ways, had something of the Celt, both in his appearance and in his manner. Eager, active, energetic, he gave the impression of a man who must succeed in the world, but who might be a little unscrupulous in his methods of doing so. Big Bill, on the other hand, quiet, unimpressionable, and easy-going, with a sweeping yellow beard and open Saxon countenance, may have had a stronger and deeper nature than his partner, but was inferior to him in fertility of resource, and in decision of character in all the minor matters of life. ‘ A morality tale whereby the Celt comes over selfish and greedy when they find a huge carbuncle. In their struggle it bounces into a bottomless pit. The dim Saxon reveals he had found it earlier and placed it for the Celt to discover, who is then covered in guilt and shame.
  • John Huxford’s Hiatus (June 1888) John works in a cork factory in Brisport which is forced to close down by competition from south America. He is offered a job in Canada and leaves his weeping fiancee, promising to write. Within days of arriving he is attacked and beaten over the head in a low dive. He recovers but has amnesia. He rises by hard work to be a rich man and, upon hearing Devon voices down at the docks, suddenly remembers everything. He sails over the sea and is reunited with his sweetheart who has stayed true to him these past seventy years.

The 1890s

  • The Ring of Thoth (January 1890) 3rd person. An Egyptologist in the Louvre stumbles upon a 4,000 year old Egyptian who discovered the secret of eternal life and now is going to end his life in the arms of his mummified love.
Illustration of The Ring of Thoth - audiobook read by Edward French

Illustration of The Ring of Thoth – audiobook read by Edward French

  • A Physiologist’s Wife (September 1890) 3rd person. Social comedy/satire in which cold-hearted rationalist and scientist Professor Ainslie Grey marries one Mrs. O’James. A younger colleague is due to marry his daughter, until he meets the new Mrs Grey and is stunned to realise she is his first wife from Australia who ran off and left him and was drowned in a shipwreck. In fact she didn’t take the boat but came to England to start a new life. Cold rationalist Professor tells them to go be happy and reunited. He dies of a broken heart.
  • A Pastoral Horror (December 1890) 1st person. Murder in a beautiful Alpine valley. An Englishman awaiting the outcome of a bankruptcy case in England has moved to the isolated village of Laden where he is witness to several gruesome murders of peasants in a small Alpine village. The one other educated man in the village is the curé Father VerhagenTurns so imagine everyone’s horror when it turns out to be him, going insane.
  • The Surgeon of Gaster Fell (December 1890) 1st person. 1885. James Upperton moves to an isolated cottage on the Yorkshire Moors to study but becomes embroiled with several mysterious people, Miss Cameron, the Italianate beautiful young woman staying in the boarding house he puts up in, and the self-styled surgeon of Gaster Fell who is the only neighbour, who warns him to bolt his door at night and who he sees cruelly mistreating a wizened old man. One stormy night his front door creaks open and a ghastly evil figure is revealed by lightning. Chased off by another man. In the cold light of day it turns out the old man is clinically and violently insane and being ‘cared’ for by his son and daughter, the surgeon and mysterious young lady.
  • Our Midnight Visitor (February 1891) 1st person. A long atmospheric story set on the small isle of Uffan near Arran. The scenery and mood painted very well a la Robert Louis Stevenson. A stranger appears, a wealthy American calling himself Digby, dropped by his yacht who comes to stay with young MacDonald and his bad-tempered father. The narrator’s suspicions mount until a newspaper cutting reveals that Digby is  Frenchman who has stolen a fabulous diamond and is on the run.
  • A Straggler of ’15 (March 1891) A patriotic portrait of Corporal Gregory Brewster, last survivor of the battle of Waterloo. Superpatriotic and vivid description of working class Chatham.
  • The Voice of Science (March 1891) 3rd person. Drawing room comedy as Mrs Esdaile’s son Rupert takes advantage of the new ‘phonograph’ to record a message listing the conquests and cheating of his sister Rose’s fiance Captain Beesley, who mysteriously runs out the french windows and down the drive never to be seen again.
Illustration for The Voice of Science

Illustration for The Voice of Science

  • The Colonel’s Choice (July 1891) Colonel Bolsover marries young Miss Hilda Thornton despite rumours and the attempt of friends to dissuade him. Several years of happiness follow but then Captain Tresillian appears from India and, in a confrontation scene, he reveals that he and Hilda were engaged but he was penniless. A fire breaks out at Melrose Lodge and the colonel saves his wife then nobly steps into the flames to give her a better life.
  • A Sordid Affair (November 1891) A hymn to honest working women. Mrs Raby is trying hard to support her ex-drunk husband by dressmaking. She makes a beauty for posh women but her husband steals it, panws it and gets blind drunk, forcing Mrs Raby to spend all her savings buying the original dress from its Bond Street shop in order to keep her promise to her client. Then she recovers her husband from the gutter and takes him home. ‘Oh, blind, angelic, foolish love of woman! Why should men demand a miracle while you remain upon earth?’
  • A False Start (December 1891) 3rd person. Comedy about young Dr Horace Wilkinson who has several false starts of first patients including the gas man and an impoverished gypsy before he called quite by mistake to the house of the local millionaire. Turns out to be a comedy case of mistaken identity in which Wilkinson shines nobly.
  • Out of the Running (January 1892) Pretty young Dolly, farmer’s daughter, has two suitors Adam and Elias and in a number of scenes we meet them and hear her mother’s opinion about which one to take. Dolly thinks it is Adam leaves a dog rose on her window sill every morning and so accepts him. There is an accident with the hayrick which crushes the orphan inarticulate farmhand Bill. Next morning, unable to walk, he crawls to her window to leave another rose sprig and is found there dead. Dolly distraught. Hardy territory.
  • The Great Brown-Pericord Motor (March 1892) 3rd person. Short, grotesque story of two inventors who fall out over a flying machine they’ve created. They fight and one is killed in the struggle. Pericord attaches Brown’s  body to the machine and sends it off out to sea, then goes mad. ‘He walked swiftly down the stair and was quickly reabsorbed into the flood of comfortless clammy humanity which ebbed and flowed along the Strand.’
  • De Profundis (March 1892) Strange and gruesome. Starts with a hymn to the British Empire and its insatiable need for British men. Then the tale of John Vansittart a planter from Ceylon who visits the narrator, goes staying with his friends, marries suddenly but just before departing comes down with smallpox. He sails early and is due to be met by his wife and friend at Falmouth; the ship goes on to Madeira and JV appears in a vision to the narrator out of the calm Atlantic waves…
  • A Regimental Scandal (May 1892) A tale of our fine men in the Army, specifically rich Major Errington who tries to help Colonel Lovell when his shares crash by cheating against himself at cards – until it is revealed. Far from being a scandal this is a hymn to how jolly decent the British Army is.
  • A Question of Diplomacy (summer 1892) Comedy. The Foreign Secretary, laid up with gout, is outwitted by his wife who arranges for his daughter’s fiance to get a position in Tangiers and for the daughter to accompany him and for them to get married asap, all against the FS’s wishes.
  • Lot No.249 (September 1892) At an old Oxford college a fat evil undergraduate has been conducting experiments, bringing a 4,000 year old mummy back to life, and increasingly using it to terrorise his enemies – before a steady young sporting chap steps in and stops it.
Illustration of Lot 249

Illustration of Lot 249

  • Jelland’s Voyage (November 1892) Henry Jelland and Willy McEvoy get into serious debt in a trading port in Japan, and steal the money from their employer who’s on a long trip. When he unexpectedly returns they steal more money to buy a yacht, which is then pursued by the irate employer until the men shoot themselves but their empty yacht is then carried by storm into the wastes of the Pacific.
  • The Los Amigos Fiasco (December 1892) A very short light-hearted comic-horror piece about a town which tries to execute a man with electricity by increasing the voltage, but only succeed in giving him superhuman life.
  • The Green Flag (June 1893) The Irish Question: ‘For Irish regiments have before now been disaffected, and have at a distance looked upon the foe as though he might, in truth, be the friend; but when they have been put face on to him, and when their officers have dashed to the front with a wave and halloo, those rebel hearts have softened and their gallant Celtic blood has boiled with the mad Joy of the fight, until the slower Britons have marvelled that they ever could have doubted the loyalty of their Irish comrades.’ In faraway Sudan a British force is overcome by attacking dervishes, the square collapses, things are going badly, when the Republican leader Dennis Connolly unexpectedly rallies the Irish contingent and dies saving the day. Propaganda how even dissidents within rally to the Empire when faced with opponents from without.
  • The Slapping Sal (August 1893) An 18th century yarn. ‘But the splendid discipline of the British service was at its best in such a crisis.’ ‘”He was a villain, but he was a Briton!” said the captain, at last. “He lived like a dog, but, by God, he died like a man!”‘ A British man o’war is struggling against a more powerful French ship but is saved by the mutineers of another British boat, the Slapping Sal and their fierce leader Hairy Hudson who turned out to be a true Brit.
  • The Case of Lady Sannox (November 1893) A dashing surgeon is having an affair with a high society lady, is called late at night to operate on the wife of a Turkish merchant; he horribly disfigures the woman, then it is revealed it is his high-born lover and the merchant her husband who has taken a horrific revenge.
  • The Lord of Château Noir (July 1894) During the Franco-Prussian War a French aristocrat terrorises a Prussian officer in vengeance for his dead son.
Illustration of the Lord of Chateau Noir

Illustration of the Lord of Chateau Noir

  • Round The Red Lamp (1894) COLLECTION of 15 stories themed around medicine, the red lamp being the sign of a GP
  • A Medical Document (October 1894) Three old doctors – a GP, a surgeon and an alienist – sit around discussing eerie cases. There’s passing reference to the way popular fiction uses very rare or vague conditions (‘brain fever’) but rarely actually common diseases (typhoid). And how fiction rarely uses those outbreaks of vice which are so common. I think he’s talking about sex.
  • Behind the Times (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of an old-fashioned doctor way behind modern scientific times, but with a magical healing touch and bedside manner.
  • His First Operation (October 1894) Comic, warm-hearted memoir of a young student attending his first operation and fainting.
  • The Third Generation (October 1894) Seasoned Dr Horace Selby is visited by Sir Francis Norton who, it quickly tanspires, is infected with syphilis. He explains the taint comes from his hard-living Regency grandfather. He is due to marry the following week. The doctor suggests creating a sudden reason to go abroad and cancel the nuptials. But next morning Dr Selby reads that the noble aristocrat has thrown himself under the wheels of a heavy dray and died, in order to spare the damsel and kill the hereditary taint. True Brit.
  • Sweethearts (October 1894) The doctor in a seaside town meets an old man on a bench who wastes and declines over three consecutive days. Finally he reveals it is because he is waiting for his wife, his childhood sweetheart, to return. I wonder whether Conan Doyle’s readers found this sickly sweet, or lapped it up.
  • The Curse of Eve (October 1894) The nondescript life of Robert Johnson, gentleman’s outfitter, is turned upside down when his wife begins her labour. He chase all over town for one doctor, and then again for a second opinion. After an all-night vigil, his son is delivered. ‘Lives had come and lives had gone, but the great machine was still working out its dim and tragic destiny.’
  • The Doctors of Hoyland (October 1894) Dr James Ripley of Hoyland in Hampshire is astonished when a lady doctor moves to the town. Quickly she establishes herself a practice and ends up treating Ripley himself after he fractures his leg falling from a carriage. His initial sexist resistance to a female doctor is completely overcome by close experience of her ability and he inevitably falls in love with her. Thankfully, Conan Doyle foresees the utter hopelessness of such a resolution and has her remaining devoted to Science, departing for further education in Paris, leaving the country doctor sadder and wiser.
  • The Surgeon Talks (October 1894) Like A Medical Document this consists of paragraph-long anecdotes: how they removed the ear from the wrong patient; how most people receive the diagnosis of impending death nobly etc. The woman who hides her cancer form her husband. ‘…Besides, [a doctor] is forced to be a good man. It is impossible for him to be anything else. How can a man spend his whole life in seeing suffering bravely borne and yet remain a hard or a vicious man? It is a noble, generous, kindly profession, and you youngsters have got to see that it remains so.”‘
  • The Parasite (December 1894) ‘He has to thank his phlegmatic Saxon temperament for it. I am black and Celtic, and this hag’s clutch is deep in my nerves.’
  • A Foreign Office Romance (December 1894) Introduces the figure of the comically garrulous old Frenchman who would mutate into Brigadier Gerard. Here he is named Alphonse Lacour, assistant to the French ambassador who is finalising a treaty with the English Foreign Secretary when a messenger arrives to say the French have handed over Egypt ie lost their bargaining power; at which Alphonse kidnaps the messenger and drives him up and down in a carriage reciting the Koran until it is too late, the treaty is signed, and Alphonse flees back to France a national hero.
  • The Recollections of Captain Wilkie (January 1895) On a train an experienced doctor carries out some Holmesian analysis of the man sitting opposite. He reveals himself to be a reformed professional thief and recounts a number of his adventures. The collection-of-anecdotes story.
  • The Three Correspondents (1896) Incredibly Kiplingey.  Three newspaper correspondents riding through the heat of Egypt to join the army. Racial stereotypes: ‘Mortimer was Saxon—slow, conscientious, and deliberate; Scott was Celtic—quick, happy-go-lucky, and brilliant. Mortimer was the more solid, Scott the more attractive. Mortimer was the deeper thinker, Scott the brighter talker.’ and Anerley the nube. They are attacked by four Arabs who they shoot, Anerley is wounded. But it is he who finds the Arabs’ camel and beats his colleagues back to the telegraph station to send a famous despatch to his paper.
  • Tales of the High Seas: I. The Governor of St. Kitt’s (January 1897) Set in the early 18th century, time of pirates in the Caribbean and among all the pirates the most feared and savage is Captain Sharkey. Captain Scarrow of the ship Morning Star is told a) Sharkey is captured and due to hang next morning b) ordered to take the governor of St Kitts back to London. The governor is duly rowed out the next morning and off they set and he proves a jovial guest who can hold his liquor and tell a good yarn. Having crossed the Atlantic to Beachy Head he rips off his disguise to realise that he is Captain Sharkey, who had cut the governor’s throat and stolen his clothes! With his loyal mate he departs on the only seaworthy boat left and Scarrow watches them commandeer a fishing barque and disappear.
The Governor of St Kitts

The Governor of St Kitts

  • Tales of the High Seas: II. The Two Barques (March 1897) Stephen Craddock, an American Puritan gone bad, volunteers to the governor of Kingston to lead an expedition to trap Sharkey when his boat is reported as drydocked on a remote island, with a similar boat painted to look the same. Doubles. Craddock and crew go hunting for him ashore for several days, then return to their own ship, only to find it is Sharkey’s own Happy Delivery. They imprison him and sail to Kingston where they are greeted as victorious heroes and are about to capture the governor and leading citizens, when heroic Craddock breaks free of his bonds, dives into the sea, and raises the alarm before being shot and drowned by Sharkey.
  • Tales of the High Seas: III. The Voyage of Copley Banks (May 1897) Captain Sharkey murdered Copley Banks’s wife and two children. He plans his revenge, hiring a crew of wrong ‘uns and himself becoming a pirate then fast friends with Sharkey before tricking him aboard his ship, tying him to the muzzle of a gun and booby trapping it all with gunpowder. Boom! End of Captain Sharkey.
  • The Striped Chest (July 1897) Captain Barclay and mate Allardyce go aboard a Portuguese barque which has foundered in a storm. It is abandoned except for a corpse they find. They carry to portable cargo aboard their ship, including an enormously heavy chest which has a note on saying, Don’t open. The second mate, overcome by greed, is discovered dead with his head cloven in like the corpse on the wreck. As the first mate goes to open it Captain Allardyce pulls him back just as a mechanism springs out to crush his head. This is a genuinely atmospheric and powerful story.
  • The Fiend of the Cooperage (October 1897) Mr Meldrum, skipper of the private yacht The Cooperage, puts into an island off Sierra Leone where two Brits are maintaining a trading outpost cf Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands. The nautical terms and atmosphere of the island very well described. But something evil is haunting the island, scaring the negro servants, and stealing away a man every third day… Meldrum and Dr Spelling stay up all night in a tropical thunderstorm to find out what…
  • The New Catacomb (1898) Two archaeologists in Rome, one of them a dashing bounder just returned from a failed elopement with an English girl. His colleague takes him at night to a new catacomb then traps him there; for he had loved the girl he had ‘ruined’.
  • The Confession (January 1898) ‘She looked down at the grating, and shrank in terror from the sight. A convulsed face was looking out at her, framed in that little square of oak. Two terrible eyes looked out of it—two eyes so full of hungry longing and hopeless despair that all the secret miseries of thirty years flashed into that one glance.’ Very short. A Jesuit priest accidentally reunited with his long-lost love who has herself taken the veil, and they bemoan the doomed love affair which separated them.
  • The Story of the Beetle-Hunter (June 1898) This and the following stories make a set in the Strand of longish, factual stories about mysterious crimes, Holmes stories without Holmes. An unemployed doctor answers an advert in the Standard and goes for an interview with Lord Linchfield who requires a strong man with a good knowledge of beetles. They go by train to Pangbourne to Delamere Court, home of tall eccentric beetle expert Sir Thomas Rossiter. In the middle of the night Rossiter sneaks into their bedroom and attacks the dummy figure in the bed. They are able to accost him and show that he is subject to mad fits, as his wife had claimed.
  • The Story of The Man with the Watches (July 1898) A long puzzle concerning that could almost be a Holmes mystery. A man and lady enter a train to Manchester, having refused to enter a carriage with a bearded man smoking. At Manchester all three are gone, and a young man no-one can account for is found shot dead. The article describes the various theories of police detectives before quoting a long letter form one of the protagonists which explains what happened. It is one of Doyle’s favourite tropes, the ‘revenge from overseas’. A Holmes story without Holmes.
Illustration of the Story of the Man with Watches by Frank Craig

Illustration of the Story of the Man with Watches by Frank Craig

  • The King of the Foxes (July 1898) The setting is a crew of old fox hunters telling yarns and one tells the story of Wat Danbury, whose doctor had told him to lay off alcohol before he began hallucinating, who goes an epic hunt, finally being the only rider left as he enters spooky woods to find himself confronted by a monster giant fox, the king of foxes, killing the hounds. He flees home and never touches a drop again.
  • The Story of The Lost Special (August 1898) ‘It is one of the elementary principles of practical reasoning, that when the impossible has been eliminated the residuum, however improbable, must contain the truth.’ A foreigner hires a special train from Liverpool to Manchester. it never arrives but vanishes into thin air. As in The Man with the Watches the story takes the form of an official report, collating the puzzling crime and then revealing the unriddling solution.
  • The Story of the Sealed Room (September 1898) ‘It was in the course of one of these aimless rambles that I first met Felix Stanniford, and so led up to what has been the most extraordinary adventure of my lifetime.’ Lawyer sees a young man nearly run over by a cab and helps him into his decayed big house. Discovers his father was the banker who ruined lots of people and disappeared. There is one room sealed shut which the absconded father wrote the son not to open till he was 21. A few months later the young man arrives at that age and the lawyer is present at the unsealing of the door where they find the father’s body, dead these seven years. He committed suicide in shame but didn’t want his poorly wife to know.
  • The Story of the Black Doctor (October 1898) Another very detailed and forensic crime mystery which the narrator examines in detail, weighing all the evidence in the mysterious murder of the dark-skinned doctor of Bishop’s Crossing near Liverpool. A Holmes story without Holmes.
  • The Story of The Club-Footed Grocer (November 1898) ‘With every fresh incident I felt that I was moving in an atmosphere of mystery and peril…’ Stephen is invited by letter to visit his disreputable uncle who used to be a ship’s chandler in Stepney but was attacked and beaten and, when the attacker was gaoled, moved to a remote cottage in the Lake District. Thence Stephen goes to discover the pirate has been released form gaol, gathered his crew and is besieging the uncle. There’s a showdown in which the uncle leaps to his death and the stolen diamonds are – cunningly – discovered to be hidden in his club foot boot heel.
  • The Brazilian Cat (December 1898) the protagonist visits his cousin, Everard King, at his country pile where he has housed his large collection of Brazilian flora and fauna, especially the prize exhibit, a huge black puma. Despite warnings from the collector’s wife, the protagonist allows himself to be locked in to the animal’s cage. He manages to survive and when evil Everard returns in the morning it is he and not the protagonist who is killed. And as a result, the protagonist inherits the land, house and title.
"It drew its claws along the wire meshes beneath me." by Sidney Paget

“It drew its claws along the wire meshes beneath me.” by Sidney Paget

  • The Retirement of Signor Lambert (December 1898) A grim and sadistic story in which, like The Case of Lady Sannox, a jealous husband arranges the disfigurement of a lover; in this case the strong-minded self-made man Sir William Sparter discovers a letter from his wife to a celebrated tenor, Signor Lambert. He teaches himself about neck anatomy, goes to the tenor’s house, chloroforms him and permanently damages his vocal cords.
  • A Shadow Before (December 1898) means before the Franco-Prussian War.  We are in Ireland, 1870, and City financier (ie gambler) John Worlington Doddshorse, ordered by his doctor to treat the stress of incipient bankruptcy, stumbles across the biggest horse fair in the land. He sees two different men in the hotel opening lengthy telegrams which appear to be in code. Then witnesses them paying way over the odds for the horses brought to sale. He telegrams his colleague in the City – sells all French and German stocks – there’s going to be a war.
  • The Story of The Japanned Box (January 1899) The old crumbling Thorpe Place in the Malverns in the heart of England, where the narrator goes as tutor to the children of old weathered Sir John Bollamore. He was a hellraiser in his youth but reformed by his sweet wife who died. But the narrator hears a woman’s voice coming form his rooms, and so do the servants. He thinks Sir John a reprobate and hypocrite until he falls asleep in an alcove of the room (ah, that old ruse, like the narrator of The Ring of Thoth) and accidentally sees Sir John open and play a phonograph of his dying wife’s voice.
  • The Story of The Jew’s Breastplate (February 1899) Preposterous chauvinist tosh in which a young curator is given responsibility for a museum of antiquities only to receive an anonymous letter warning that it might be burgled. Which it duly is the the urim and thurim breastplate of the ancient Hebrews tampered with. The narrator lies in wait with the young curator and they are astonished to discover it is the eminent archaeologist and former curator, Professor Andreas, who is damaging the breastplate. Why? Because his daughter is in love with a cad who had already stolen the jewels and the former curator is hamfistedly tying to replace them in order to prevent a ‘scandal’, shame and disgrace.
  • The Story of B.24 (March 1899) Cast entirely as a written submission to a court of appeal, it is from a burglar who is tempted to burgle the grand house of Lord Mannering but discovers Lady Mannering waiting to aid and abet him so furious is her hatred of her husband and she then proceeds to stab him to death and blame the burglar.
  • A True Story of the Tragedy of Flowery Land (March 1899) Grim unrelenting account of the mutiny of rebellious Malays aboard  a British barque, they murder the captain and captain’s brother and first mate and Chinaman, pilot the ship to South America, scuttle it and go ashore. Nonetheless they are betrayed and end up standing in a London court and are hanged.
  • The Story of the Latin Tutor aka The Usher of Lea House School (April 1899) The narrator gets a job at a dodgy sounding school in Hampstead and is astonished at the rudeness with which the only other master treats the Head. Things come to a head when he hears them fighting and intrudes, only to discover the repellent master is the Head’s son!
  • The Story of The Brown Hand (May 1899) After a successful career in India a surgeon retires to England where he is haunted by the ghost of an Indian whose hand he promised to keep safe after having to amputate it. the hand was lost in a fire. the ghostly Indian searches for it every night. The protagonist goes to a surgeon in the east End and obtains a hand recently amputated from an Indian sailor and returns with it to the country house where the ghostly Indian finds it, politely bows to the surgeon, and departs for ever. Which is why the protagonist is made the surgeon’s heir.
The Story of the Brown Hand

The Story of the Brown Hand

  • The Croxley Master (October-December 1899) A long and very persuasive account of a poor but educated doctor’s assistant, starved of funds, who is persuaded to take part in a boxing match against the local champion. If the plot is contrived the writing conveys real atmosphere. Depiction of the mining community reminds me of DH Lawrence whose first novel, The White Peacock, was published only 12 years later.

‘Work was struck at one o’clock at the coal-pits and the iron-works, and the fight was arranged for three. From the Croxley Furnaces, from Wilson’s Coal- pits, from the Heartsease Mine, from the Dodd Mills, from the Leverworth Smelters the workmen came trooping, each with his fox-terrier or his lurcher at his heels. Warped with labour and twisted by toil, bent double by week-long work in the cramped coal galleries or half-blinded with years spent in front of white-hot fluid metal, these men still gilded their harsh and hopeless lives by their devotion to sport. It was their one relief, the only thing which could distract their minds from sordid surroundings, and give them an interest beyond the blackened circle which enclosed them. Literature, art, science, all these things were beyond their horizon; but the race, the football match, the cricket, the fight, these were things which they could understand, which they could speculate upon in advance and comment upon afterwards. Sometimes brutal, sometimes grotesque, the love of sport is still one of the great agencies which make for the happiness of our people. It lies very deeply in the springs of our nature, and when it has been educated out, a higher, more refined nature may be left, but it will not be of that robust British type which has left its mark so deeply on the world. Every one of these raddled workers, slouching with his dog at his heels to see something of the fight, was a true unit of his race.’

The 1900s

  • The Debut of Bimbashi Joyce (January 1900) Sent out to command one of the front line garrisons in south Egypt against incursions by the Mahdists, young Joyce is taken in by a wandering Arab who they nearly torture to get him to speak and turns out to be the senior head of intelligence in disguise. They all joke about it over a fine meal then cigars. No irony when Doyle writes that, in riposte to the successes of fanatical Islam, ‘ten years of silent work in Cairo, and then all was ready, and it was time for civilisation to take a trip south once more, travelling as her wont is in an armoured train.’
  • Playing with Fire (March 1900) Account of a séance including an artist who had been painting a unicorn. At the height of the séance the ectoplasm forms a unicorn which goes rampaging through the house!
  • An Impression of the Regency (August 1900) A brief powerful vignette of the Prince Regent and his gross companions larking about when the mad George III bursts in, lowing like an animal, to appal them all.
  • The Leather Funnel (1902) the narrator visits a friend in Paris who suggests objects which have witnessed powerful scenes affect our dreams. As an experiment the narrator sleeps with a battered leather funnel by his bed and has a nightmare of a woman being tried and then beginning a course of water torture. Screaming himself awake, his friend shows the historical documents proving he has witnessed the torture of Marquise de Brinvilliers, a real historical woman, a poisoner and murder!

There’s a hiatus in my list of Conan Doyle’s short stories between 1902 and 1908, as this is a period when he wrote and published six Brigadier Gerard stories as well as 13 Holmes stories (which I’ve reviewed elsewhere) and two novels, Waterloo and Sir Nigel.

  • The Pot of Caviare (1908) Set during the Boxer Rebellion (overlapped with the Boer War 1899-1901) in the absurd little legation of Ichau where a handful of white men and woman hold out against the encroaching fanatics. The American professor tells the German colonel about the last time he survived a siege because he was a doctor but he was forced to witness rape and torture. Never again. They both realise the relief column is delayed three days. Almost certainly they will be overrun. The colonel bids the professor put arsenic in the prized caviar. The others think it is a celebration dinner. They all eat it and die but, in is dying moments the professor hears the shots of the relief column which does arrive to  save them!
  • The Silver Mirror (August 1908) Classic diary format. A boring accountant is set a demanding task of combing 20 big ledgers to find evidence against a forger but, as the work intensifies he begins to feel he is going mad because he starts to see visions in the big old mirror he keeps on his side table. Each night the same scene emerges from a mist, assuming steadily clearer shape and showing some atrocity from remote history…
  • The Home-Coming (December 1909) The first of the historical stories. 528 AD in Constantinople. 10 year old Leon is the daughter of the Empress Theodora, her love child who she abandoned at a monastery before rising to become consort to the great Emperor Justinian. When the old Abbot brings Leon to Constantinople the wicked eunuch sees his chance to control the Empress, and she must make a cruel choice…
  • The Lord of Falconbridge (August 1909) 1818. Tom Cribb has retired from prize fighting to become a publican but his son is in the fancy. A strange woman enters and offers the son £50 to train for a fight. Despite misgivings Tom Spring trains, then is instructed by the woman to catch a stagecoach to Tonbridge where he is taken to a remote country house. Here walks the brutish husband of the mystery woman and it is he she wishes Tom to fight, and so they fight, Tom eventually overcoming the brute. He is abandoned by the fair lady but rescued by the landlord of the pub he change coaches in, a devoted fan of the fancy.
Illustration to The Lord of Falconbridge by Arthur Twidle

Illustration to The Lord of Falconbridge by Arthur Twidle

The 1910s

  • The Terror of Blue John Gap (August 1910) Dr John Hardcastle is on a rest cure in Derbyshire, and finds out the hard way that local lore about a monster inhabiting a deep ancient cavern is in fact true.

In 1911 Conan Doyle published a collection bringing together a number of historical tales, The Last Galley: Impressions & Tales. His interest in history s is stimulating, even if he used the different settings for more or less the same tales of derring-do and romance. In the preface he wrote:

‘It has seemed to me that there is a region between actual story and actual history which has never been adequately exploited. I could imagine, for example, a work dealing with some great historical epoch, and finding its interest not in the happenings to particular individuals, their adventures and their loves, but in the fascination of the actual facts of history themselves. These facts might be coloured with the glamour which the writer of fiction can give, and fictitious characters and conversations might illustrate them; but none the less the actual drama of history and not the drama of invention should claim the attention of the reader. I have been tempted sometimes to try the effect upon a larger scale; but meanwhile these short sketches, portraying various crises in the story of the human race, are to be judged as experiments in that direction.’

Fine words, but what they mean in practice is Doyle selects tableaux from the past which form an improving picture, in which noble sentiments may be vapoured forth. His ‘history’ stories are the equivalent of the luxuriously smug, hyper-realistic paintings of the late Victorian Olympians such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir Frederick Leighton and Albert Moore. They are pre-Modern in that there is no threat to the narrator’s psyche, to his sturdy Edwardian values. No matter how gruesome or bloody the events described, they are profoundly unthreatening. This is their main selling point and appeal, as it is of the Holmes stories.

The link with contemporary art is also pointed by the way the stories are, mostly, illustrated by fine late-Victorian and Edwardian illustrators who depict a world of tall, manly men and lovely chaste Victorian women, threatened by stunted foreign or working class villains.

  • The Last Galley (November 1910) 146 BC. Boy scout tableau of the final Phoenician galley returning to Carthage after the fleet has been destroyed by Rome. Watched by Carthaginians from their terrace, one of them has met a strange prophetess in the Land of Tin (Cornwall) who predicted that the Romans would succeed Carthage as Queen of the Sea but that people form her own island would, in time, become rulers of a great empire. It ends with the Romans destroying and sowing salt into the ruins of Carthage, and with the same message as Kipling’s Islanders:

‘And they understood too late that it is the law of heaven that the world is given to the hardy and to the self- denying, whilst he who would escape the duties of manhood will soon be stripped of the pride, the wealth, and the power, which are the prizes which manhood brings.’

  • Through the Mists I: The Coming of the Huns (November 1910) Unusually detailed impression of the Christian heresies of the mid-fourth century, the Donatists, Arians and Trinitarians, is the backdrop to a Greek leaving his city to go be a hermit in the mountains beyond the river Dniester where, one day, he witnesses the arrival of the Huns. He kills a Hun who enters  his cave then rides in a frenzy to the nearest Roman outpost to warn them.
The Coming of The Huns

The Coming of The Huns

  • Through the Mists II: The First Cargo (1910) A Roman who’s remained behind in Britain writes to one who’s returned to Italy to describe his first meeting with the Saxons king Vortigern has invited to come and defend them. There is strong racial stereotyping as the narrator contrasts the strong, practical, democratic Saxons with the weak-minded, impetous, unwarlike Britons (who will go on to become the Welsh and Cornish).
  • The Last of the Legions (December 1910) The last Roman governor receives the order to leave (410) and then, ironically receives a deputation of Britons calling for independence. When they learn that they suddenly are going to become independent the beg the Romans to stay but it is too late. A parable on the various movements demanding independence from the British empire eg Ireland, India.
  • Through the Mists III: The Red Star (January 1911) 630 in Constantinople, three successful merchants reminisce, and one remembers being on a long caravan trail through Arabia when they meet the caravan of Mohammed and his followers and how he stays up all night listening to the charismatic leader. Interesting insight into how 1911 saw the Prophet.
  • The Contest (March 1911) A comic story of Nero who set sail to Greece with an army of supporters to compete in singing competitions and is bested by a peasant goatherd who, however, is hustled off by his friends. A canny courtier tells Nero it was none other than the great god Pan in disguise which pleases the megalomaniac.
  • An Iconoclast (March 1911) The year 92 in the reign of the Emperor Domitian in Rome. Senator Emilius Flaccus returns from boozing with the emperor to find his priceless statue has been damaged by a fanatical Christian. When the emperor arrives Flaccus decides to show him mercy and release Datus from his chains if he will only pray to the statue. But once again he attacks it, to the emperor’s amusement.
  • The Blighting of Sharkey (April 1911) 1720. Return to the antihero wicked pirate Jack Sharkey from the three Tales of the High Seas from 1897. The crew are mutinying when a rich merchantman is seen and boarded. They kill all the passengers except a fine Spanish maiden but back  in Sharkey’s cabin she strokes them all with her leprous hand. This clinches the crew’s decision to mutiny and they set Sharkey and the girl adrift in an open boat.
Captain Sharkey

Captain Sharkey

  • Through the Veil (April 1911) A decent married Scottish man and wife are shown round he recent excavations of a Roman fort and later that night they both dream powerfully that they are participants in the storming of the fort by Picts some 1800 years previously.
  • Giant Maximin (July 1911) 210 AD. The fate of the eight-foot giant Theckla told in three scenes: who sees the Roman Army marching by and runs down to join it, becoming the bodyguard of the Emperor; 25 years later who is there when the Army mutinies against the emperor Alexander and is unexpectedly proclaimed emperor himself; who fails to cultivate Rome and the politicians and loses the love of the army as it starves, and so is killed by the very legionaries who raised him to the purple.
  • One Crowded Hour (A Pirate Of The Land) (August 1911) A light dash of social history – on the Eastbourne-Tunbridge road one Sunday night a masked man holds up three cars, taking the slim pickings of a don’t-you-know posh young chap, of two screechy actresses, and then he assaults a rich man in a big Daimler beating him insensible before stealing everything of value. Next morning the dashed young chap walks into the morning room of Sir Henry Hailworthy, of Walcot Old Place, Deputy-Lieutenant of the county and accuses him of being the highway robber. He admits it. The first two robberies were to disguise the third one, of a loathsome City spiv who diddled him out of his savings. The dashed young chap shakes his hand and agrees to forget about it. The title refers to the poem and the usually staid, respectable Deputy Lord Lieutenant and JP quotes it to express his excitement at pretending to be a highway robber.

Most of 1912 was taken up with the serialisation in the Strand of the great adventure novel, The Lost World.

  • The Fall of Lord Barrymore (December 1912) Very entertaining story about London man about town Sir Charles Tregellis during the Regency. His sophisticated nephew appears and promises to do down his rival about town, the thuggish Lord Barrymore. And proceeds to do it. Told with great wit and gusto!

The spring of 1913 was taken up with the serialisation of the novella The Poison Belt.

  • How It Happened (September 1913) Haunting short account of a man who is in an early car crash, recalling the lead-up to it and then, in the final sentences, realising he is dead!
  • Borrowed Scenes (September 1913) A peculiar squib which seems to be satirising the style and the character of the contemporary author George Borrow.
  • The Horror of the Heights (November 1913) Brilliantly gripping account of Captain Joyce-Armstrong, an airman who flies higher than any man before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters.
The Horror of The Heights

The Horror of The Heights

  • Danger! being the Log of Captain Sirius (July 1914) A strange and disturbing story. The Captain Sirius works for a ‘small country’ which offends Britain which issues an ultimatum. He persuades his king to let him take his eight submarines and destroy British merchant navy, thus starving her. Predicts German tactics in both World Wars – but why was it published within days of the Great War breaking out?

As the Great War began, for September 1914 to May 1915, Conan Doyle was serialising the last of the four Sherlock Holmes novellas, the Valley of Fear.

  • The Prisoner’s Defence (January 1916) An intense melodrama set in the present day, during the War. An officer is charged with murdering a beautiful woman but refuses to defend himself. Only a month later does he read out a prepared statement. He was in love with tall French blonde. On leave she pushed him so hard, he was indiscreet and mentioned an Allied offensive. Later he discovers she has written it all up and is posting it to her control: she is a German spy! They lock her in a room and he goes to alert the cops but on his return she tears past him on her motorbike (!). He shoots his revolver and kills her. The prisoner’s defence rests.

In 1917 he published only one story, the Holmes spy tale His Last Bow.

  • Three of Them (April 1918) After 3 and a half years of war, Conan Doyle could only bring himself to write five ‘stories’ which are really just chats between a kindly middle aged dad and his three adorable middle class children, Laddie, Dimples and Baby. If you were i a cynical mood the tweeness of these little sketches might make you puke. They certainly capture a fantasy of professional upper middle class living. The titles sum  them up. I. A Chat About Children, Snakes and Zebus (April). II. About cricket (April)  III. Speculations [about God and the Devil] (July). IV. The Leatherskin Tribe (August). V. About Naughtiness and Frogs and Historical Pictures (December).

‘Oh, Daddy, come and talk about cricket!’ Daddy was pulled on the side of the bed, and the white figure dived between the sheets. ‘Yes; tell us about cwicket!’ came a cooing voice from the corner. Dimples was sitting up in his cot.

  • A Point of View (December 1918) An odd short squib wherein an American journalist, staying at an English country house, writes a piece wondering why any self-respecting man would be a servant. At a later stay the valet this was based on takes exception and makes it very plain that servants have self-respect and deserve respect: ‘I wish you would make them understand that an English servant can give good and proper service and yet that he’s a human bein’ after all.’

The 1920s

  • The Bully of Brocas Court (November 1921) 1878. Bareknuckle fighting has been outlawed but special rings and gloves not come in. Sir Fred Milburn is despatched to London to find someone who can stand up to Farrier-Sergeant Burton. He chooses the London fighter Alf Stevens. They are returning to Luton when their coach is stopped by an oddly-dressed pair of men in a dark dell who challenge them to a fight. So they fight and it’s honours even when they hear a howling from the woods and clear off. Later, at an inn, the landlord says they were fighting the ghosts of Tom Hickman and Joe Rowe, both killed in a carriage accident in the 1820s.
  • The Nightmare Room (December 1921) A room is all Victorian sumptuous rugs and curtains at one end, completely bare at the other, with a divan upon which a beautiful but immoral woman is lounging. In bursts her husband declaring he knows about her affair with young Douglas; she must choose one of them. In bursts Douglas and the husband produces poison: Let’s play cards for her, old man. All written in the highest pitch of melodrama with everyone gasping or turning white. In the final line the director steps forward and shouts, Cut! It was all a scene from a movie 🙂
  • The Lift (June 1922) Flight-Commander Stangate with his sweetheart has a premonition of evil. They ascend the big funfair lift with a motley crew of civilians. It jams 500 feet up. The wild-eyed bearded engineer reveals, from the girders, that he has arranged for it to plummet to their deaths as a sign to this wicked generation. At the last minute Stangate kicks down the wooden walls of the lift and helps the passengers onto the girders just as the madmen jumps into it and the cable snaps!
Illustration to The Lift (1922) by E.Verpilleux

Illustration to The Lift (1922) by E.Verpilleux

  • The Centurion (October 1922) [Being the fragment of a letter from Sulpicius Balbus, Legate of the Tenth Legion, to his uncle, Lucius Piso, in his villa near Baiæ, dated The Kalends of the month of Augustus in the year 824 of Rome.] wherein he witnesses the siege and fall of Jerusalem, 70AD, and then talks to a centurion who was there when Jesus was crucified.
  • A Point of Contact (October 1922) Tyre. 1100BC. In the noble stereotypes to which we are accustomed, Doyle paints a tableau, the moment when King David of the Israelites, come to buy building material for Jerusalem, meets Odysseus, refitting his ship before sailing on to Troy.

‘One of these men was clearly by his face and demeanour a great chieftain. His strongly-marked features were those of a man who had led an adventurous life, and were suggestive of every virile quality from brave resolve to desperate execution. His broad, high brow and contemplative eyes showed that he was a man of wisdom as well as of valour.’

  • Billy Bones (December 1922) One more in the twee three of Them series about Daddy and his three adorable children, Laddie, Dimples and Baby. Written as practical advice to daddies about how to create a Treasure Hunt.

The years 1923-28 were taken up with a reduced turnover of 11 Sherlock Holmes stories and a couple of Professor Challenger novellas.

  • Spedegue’s Dropper (October 1928)
  • The Death Voyage (September 1929) A long and detailed counterfactual in which Doyle envisions the Kaiser not abdicating but travelling to Kiel to inspire his Navy to set out for a final epic battle against the joint British and American fleets. What a strange story. And, like so many Great War fictions, it had to wait 11 years to be born.
  • The Last Resource (August 1930) Kid Wilson is an American gangster in hiding in Soho. Late on night he tells his English crook hosts about an American town whose citizens form a committee, tell the chief of police to go away for a few days, round up all the crooks in town and machine gun them to death in a dance hall. It was only a dream 🙂 Interesting though, that that’s the kind of solution which people invoked to the out-of-control gangster violence of the Prohibition era.
  • The End of Devil Hawker (August 1930) Back to the Regency period and another boxing story.

‘It was in these very rooms of Cribb that this little sketch of those days opens, where, as on a marionette stage, I would try to show you what manner of place it was and what manner of people walked London in those full-blooded, brutal and virile old days.’

  • The Parish Magazine (1930) Very funny light-hearted story set in the present day of a printer who is persuaded to publish an addendum to the parish magazine. Only when he receives letters from outraged local worthies and their lawyers does he actually read it and realise it is full of scandalous allegations and innuendoes about half the parish. After a sleepless night he is called to a mysterious meeting which turns out to be of the ‘Rotherheath Society of Bright Young People’ who have, in fact, not sent it out, fabricated the outraged letters to him, and did it all as a practical joke.

It is very that his last published story should be one which continues to show the jovial good-humour which makes Conan Doyle such a good companion.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

James Turrell @ Pace London

The Royal Academy building is a rabbit warren. On the front ground floor you have cloakroom, members room and, down the back corridor, the attractive cafe and restaurant; on the first floor the main exhibition space with some vast rooms and then, via the modern metal stairs or the shiny glass & steel lift, the second floor, a series of smaller rooms where they recently had the Daumier exhibition and the brilliant Gaudier-Brzeska/Gill exhibition a few years ago There’s always a queue, the shop is always packed.

To visit the Bill Woodrow, I had to go the Back Entrance in Burlington Gardens, round the back of the main building ( a three minute stroll through Burlington Arcade.) The RA have recently named this exhibition space – Burlington Gardens! The entrance gives on to a wide reception hall, part of which has been made into an informal cafe space by simply putting chairs and tables out; then stairs up to the exhibition space consisting of some small rooms, one Big Room, where most of the cutout and breakdown series were, then back to small rooms which wind round the stairwell. At 11am on a Saturday, I found both the shop and the exhibition completely empty. Either Mr Woodrow is not particularly popular or most visitors/tourists don’t know this space exists, or both. Shame.

Coming out of Bill Woodrow I noticed a sloping corridor leading up to a bright reception area and discovered Pace. Pace is a commercial gallery with locations in New York, London and Beijing and they appear to have leased out some of the rooms off to the side of the RA building, on both the ground floor and first floor.  Here they have installed some wonderful light works by American artist James Turrell b.1943. To quote the exhibition handout:

‘For over three decades, Turrell has used light and indeterminate space – not objects, nor images – to extend and enhance perception. Turrell’s inspiration draws from astronomy, physics, architecture and theology.’

There’s an upstairs room with a work in but it was the ground floor installation which I found really captivating, and was quite full of visitors. Imagine three long rooms like shooting galleries which are dark and unlit. You can stroll along the corridor formed by the open ends of each gallery, or walk into the gallery and approach the work. And at the end of each gallery is one work, a big rectangular screen on which is projected coloured light. Think of a Rothko painting made up of concentric squares of colour, with an outer rectangle of red blurring into an inner rectangle of green. That’s the effect.

The one on the left is titled Kermandec, the middle one Sojourn, the right hand one Pelée. Kermandec had, from outside to inside, rectangles of green, red and blue; Sojourn a centre of blue surrounded by soft green; Pelée white, black and red. The two outer ones had rounded corners; the inner one had square corners. I chatted to one of the curators who explained its a triptych, referring back to the medieval and renaissance arrangement of images behind an altar.

Maybe. But maybe it was just an arrangement of works in their own right, needing no justification or comparison. Each image was absorbing and became more absorbing the more you looked. I walked up to one and was surprised to find it wasn’t light projected onto the wall but a cutout. A false wall had been built which had a big rectangle cut out and the light was projected from behind the the false wall by LED lights hidden out of vision, to create the effect. And the false wall itself was curved gently, which added to the relaxing, absorbing atmosphere.

It was wonderful. Go see.

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Bill Woodrow @ the Royal Academy of Arts

As the promotional material says:

‘This exhibition presents the first comprehensive survey of work by the sculptor Bill Woodrow RA. Comprising around 50 works, the exhibition spans Woodrow’s entire career and explores the themes of his oeuvre from the early 1970s to the present day, highlighting his humour and inventiveness and underpinning his influential role in contemporary sculpture. The exhibition is held in Burlington Gardens, the Royal Academy’s new venue for contemporary art.’

This is not a sell-out exhibition which is a shame. When I got there at 11am it was empty, which meant it was lovely and peaceful to wonder around and let your imagination respond and be inspired by Woodrow’s wonderful creations.

A fairly simple story emerged: In the 50s and 60s there grew up an orthodox school of Modernist sculpture represented by Anthony Caro who made big sculptures in bronze or welded steel, although abstract and Modernist in design, they clearly came from the tradition that sculpture be big and impressive.

1. Early works Woodrow arrived at St Martin’s School of Art in 1968 just after Richard Long and Gilbert and George had graduated and begun to create a movement against the previous generation, invoking conceptual art to find material in the everyday world of the East End (G&G) or on epic walks through strange landscapes (Long). Initially Woodrow followed this line of thinking, in his earliest works such as Untitled 1971 and Corral which feature sticks and images of the countryside. I also liked Babylon, two rows of a dozen ancient bricks holding down a long scroll-like photo of, presumably, the ruins of Babylon.

2. Cutouts and Breakdowns The next and biggest room in the exhibition contained some dozen of the works for which he’s best known. Woodrow seems to be happy to group his works into series with thematic connections. So the cutouts series emerged as he took aviation shears (!) to household white goods and cut out of them strange shapes. Imagine an enormous artillery shell, as tall as a man, a beautifully designed industrial  artefact – and half way down the metal  has uncurled, has been cut away and the shards reworked to for a swallow, painted realistic colours, a natural lifeform emerging from a mass-produced industrial product (nature v man; peace v war) – The Swallow (1984). A kettle has had the bottom cut open an the strands of metal shaped into a giant scarab beetle – The Glass Jar (1983).  Hanging from the ceiling is the fabulous Twintub with Satellite (1982). An elaborate version has a series of wires running from a dismantled filing cabinet yards and yards across the floor to the detached drawers while a a metal monkey leans down to grasp a revolver attached to a hanging  bowling ball (!) – Red Monkey (1985).

Alongside this are examples of the Breakdown series in which he dismantled common white goods and arranged every component in a mat in front. Hence Tape Recorder (1979) and Hoover Breakdown (1979) which made me laugh out loud, and Spin Dryer with Bicycle Frame including Handlebars (1981). A florid example is TV Blind (1979) where the elements derived from smashing in the screens of seven televisions are arranged to spell out the words ‘TV Blind’. Ah the good old days when smashing up a TV was an act of rebellion against the culture industry, or something. A long time ago, a quaint gesture in these days of smartphones, ipads, laptops and desktops which stream TV live or recorded everywhere, to everyone, night and day.

This room put me in a brilliant mood: every artefact was funny, clever, shrewd, well-made, doing what I love most about modern art, showing the incalculable depths of beauty in the everyday. I stood in front of a vast wall-sized sculpture made of bicycle frames arranged into a cross between a family tree and a totem pole and felt glad to be alive and in a world so bursting with opportunities for beauty and invention – Bicycle Frames (1980).

3. Back to sculpture Apparently, his tremendous output during these years, and the inventiveness and originality of these series cemented his reputation, when he made a surprising career move. With success comes money and the ability to experiment in new media and Woodrow took the opportunity to learn more about bronze and steel, precisely the materials used by the previous generation of monumental sculptors and which his generation, born in the 40s and 50s had rebelled against. Along with the more ‘finished’ feel of these constructed works goes a move towards narrative: the pieces tend to be telling some kind of story.

Future Perfect (1988) For Queen and Country (1989) Regardless of History (1998) Cell (1997). The key element in the earlier work was their ‘foundness’ – the viewer shares the imaginative leap of seeing a swallow in a shell, a beetle in a teapot, a satellite in a spin dryer – and the roughness of finish, their punk ethos. Both elements disappear in the later work, which is designed, planned and ‘constructed’ not found – and has a high degree of finish, immaculate metalwork covered in immaculate paintwork which gives many of them an antiseptic, sterile feel.

The sterile feel is worst in the NavigatorEvaluatorRevelator series. Here the white skulls of large animals are placed on smooth blocks of woods, each painted a nice Farrow & Ball colour. Completely failed to engage me, it felt like walking around a  display room in John Lewis or Ikea. Revelator series (2006), Ultramarine Navigator (2005), Kimono Navigator (2005).

Also, in the earlier work the ‘political’ aspect, or the social comment, was implicit in the works: the mere act of dismantling consumer goods is a statement, but a statement implicit in the act. In the later works the social comment or author’s message becomes more obtrusive, and the more obvious it is, the more it risks appearing trite.

There is a beekeeper series, designed to show the delicate balance between nature and man or something – hence Beekeeper and Four Hives (1997). The images, the work, don’t justify the message. Something like Rack 14 (2007) is very well-made but, like the immaculate later Damien Hirst, who cares.

In the final room were a number of new series, the most striking of which were the Inuit series and the Anaconda series. Anyone who labours to tell us that the eskimo way of life is under threat from rapacious western oil companies is on a level with the people telling us the Amazon rainforest is under threat. It is not so much art as visual slogans, the art equivalent of a Guardian pullout or Channel 4 documentary. Far from filling me with a sense of wonder and surprise, as the cutouts did, these works gave me a heavy sense of thumping inevitability.

On this page of the BW website you can click to see the six works from the Black and white series which feature 3-inch high models of Inuit eskimo (made of bronze, painted white) going about their business thumping seals or building igloos or steering sleds, on layers of white ice based in pools of black. That’s the oil sitting under their habitat which wicked western companies want to tap. Geddit?

The Anaconda series from 2009-11 is more inspiring. These also use realistic human figures, these ones a foot or so in height, looking like native tribesmen and, in the various pieces, carrying either a very long anaconda or individual anacondas wrapped round their bodies – Anaconda (2009). For me these had real mystery and strangeness about them and one in particular, of figures carrying snakes waist-deep in water between big lilypads, seemed rather marvellous – Victoria Amazonicanaconda (2011).

Conclusion Bill Woodrow continues to create new works. Go see the show or any new shows you hear about. Check out his website. And make your own mind up.

Bill Woodrow talks to Studio International about his exhibition at The Royal Academy of Arts, London from studio international on Vimeo.

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Brigadier Gerard by Arthur Conan Doyle

Killing Holmes

Tired of making up clever puzzles for Sherlock Holmes to disentangle, at the end of the second dozen stories for the Strand magazine Conan Doyle introduced the completely new character of Professor  Moriarty. Hitherto unmentioned anywhere in the oeuvre, Moriarty was conjured out of thin air to provide Holmes with a worthy nemesis, with a fitting opponent who would drag him to his death over the Reichenbach Falls (in the The Adventure of the Final Problem, published December 1893). Moriarty is a pretext, a fictional function of fatigue.

Killing Holmes freed Conan Doyle to continue writing the wide range of other fiction he wanted to pursue, lots of other macabre, humorous, exotic short stories as well as a stream of short novels. For example, a lot of 1894 was taken up writing the stories of medical life which were collected in Round the Red Lamp (October 1894).

Enter the Brigadier

But one of Conan Doyle’s most enduring interests was history. He had already written novels set during the Monmouth rebellion of 1685 and the Hundred Years War. Now he set about fulfilling an ambition to write about the French Army during the time of Napoleon and the result was a series of stories about a completely different character from the supersober, hyper-rational Holmes – a bombastic old French soldier, a veteran of Napoleon’s Grande Armée, who we meet boozing in a Parisian café and who proceeds to tell a stream of farfetched yarns in which he is always the dashing hero.

Altogether Gerard appears in 17 short stories and one novel (Uncle Bernac).

The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard (1896)

The stories appeared monthly from December 1894 in Conan Doyle’s favourite and most profitable outlet, the Strand magazine, continuing throughout 1895 and were collected in The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard in 1896.

  • How Brigadier Gerard Won his Medal (December 1894) Napoleon gives BG and a fellow officer a letter and instructions to ride through enemy lines. BG is too stupid to realise the intention is that they get captured and give the false info to the enemy. Instead he fights his way through with a series of hair-raising adventures. ‘You will see,’ said he, turning to the Duke of Tarentum, ‘that Brigadier Gerard has the special medal of honour, for I believe that if he has the thickest head he has also the stoutest heart in my army.’
  • How the Brigadier Held the King (April 1895) Gerard is wounded and recovers in a little Spanish village. He tries to rejoin his troop but his companion in a carriage turns out to be a Spanish brigand who betrays him to bandits. Their leader composes poetry between torturing prisoners – genuinely gruesome tortures worthy of Goya’s Disasters of War. He’s about to be split in two when some English troopers ride up and rescue him, after a brief fight. Later, one on one with the the English captain, Gerard suggests they play cards for his freedom, and they’re in mid-game when the Duke of Wellington comes upon them and reprimands the English officer.
  • How the King Held the Brigadier (May 1895) Gerard escapes from Dartmoor prison but not before knocking out one of his comrades who was peaching on him. Steals a cloak from a delayed coach, to the disgust of the lady in it. Blunders about the moor ending up where he began. Is run into by a boxer in training who promptly knocks him out. Overhears the boxer and trainer’s conversation before bursting out of the cottage only to run straight into the governor and soldiers. And, to cap it all, discovers he has had in the pocket of the stolen cloak all along a letter authorising his release!
  • How the Brigadier Slew the Brothers of Ajaccio (June 1895) Napoleon himself requests a meeting and asks the Brigadier to accompany him the following night to a tree stump in the woods, but on no account speak to him or say anything. Gerard does as he’s told, rendezvous with the Emperor, and when they approach the stump is confronted with two evil-looking men. Quickly one makes a lunge and stabs the emperor before Gerard can strike him down; he chases the other and kills him, too. Returning to the Emperor, distraught, he finds the real Emperor! A servant impersonated him to meet two members of an old Corsican secret society to whom he owed allegiance. Ie the same ‘secret society tracks down former member’ which CD used liberally in his Holmes stories.
  • How the Brigadier Came to the Castle of Gloom (July 1895) At an inn in Poland Gerard meets dashing young Sub-Lieutenant Duroc who asks him to accompany him to the Castle of Gloom, home of Baron Straubenthal who was a revolutionary sansculotte responsible for the murder of Duroc’s father. As the revolution collapsed Straubenthal ravished a noblewoman and offered her her life if she agreed to marry him and give him her name. So here he is hidden in darkest Poland. Duroc and Gerard break into the castle where they are trapped into a locked room, but find a way out into the powder chamber where they set off a small explosion, win free and engage in a fierce sword fight with Straubenthal, before rescuing his pretty stepdaughter and fleeing the castle just as it blows up!
  • How the Brigadier Took the Field Against the Marshal Millefleurs (August 1895) Spain. Gerard is selected to lead half a cavalry squadron (50 men) against a freelance (English) brigand who has taken over a nearby Abbey. En route he falls in with a squadron of English hussars who have been tasked with the same mission and almost come to blows until he realises it is the same English captain who saved him from torture by bandits in How the Brigadier held the King. They agree the English squadron will pretend to be deserters, enter the castle, then open to doors to the French. Gerard catches some sleep at the inn but wakens to find the Abbot and innkeeper who told him all this are no other than the leader of the bandits, and have tied him up. One of his men, entering, frees him and they just about secure the fierce English bandit before taking him before the castle and threatening to hang him. The bandits release the English troops but refuse to surrender the Abbey and Gerard leaves, a failure.
  • How the Brigadier was Tempted by the Devil (September 1895) Near the end of Napoleon’s reign, in 1814, Gerard is called along with two other notables and tested by being asked to help turn the Emperor over to his enemies. He is indignant and so passes. Napoleon appears from behind curtains and wants the three of them to rendezvous with a lady in a carriage who is carrying the legal documents proving the right of his son, the King of Rome, to inherit. The three set off for the rendezvous but are appalled when the lady reveals she has already given them to three earlier soldiers! A cunning plan! They ride off in pursuit, the two others are killed by the two other soldiers, Gerard kills his man and recovers the letters, before the Emperor trots up and they bury the documents in a dovehouse in the forest and there they remain to this day!
  • How the Brigadier Played for a Kingdom (December 1895) Another ‘secret society’ story! After the retreat from Moscow Gerard is given some leave and trots through the Polish/German forest, wondering why the letter T is carved into so many trees, until startled by a dying French soldier who confides him a letter given by the Emperor to be delivered to the Prince of Saxe-Felstein, at his Castle of Hof. En route Gerard stops at an inn where a pretty girl kisses him and steals the letter! He rides on to the castle where he discovers a) the pretty girl is none other than the Princess of Saxe-Felstein b) she is leader of the Tugendbund, a secret society pledged to overthrow the French! Gerard pleads  his cause but fails to persuade the Prince to support Napoleon. Gerard had said Napoleon was like a star which they could all see through the window. But as he rides away disconsolate, he reflects on the waning of France’s power and the rise of Germany’s.

 But amid all the thoughts there came back to me always the proud, beautiful face of the German woman, and the voice of the soldier-poet as he sang from the chair. And I understood then that there was something terrible in this strong, patient Germany—this mother root of nations— and I saw that such a land, so old and so beloved, never could be conquered. And as I rode I saw that the dawn was breaking, and that the great star at which I had pointed through the palace window was dim and pale in the western sky.

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

Brigadier Gerard and his English rescuer discovered playing cards by the Duke of Wellington, by William B. Wollen

The Adventure of Gerard (1903)

There was a hiatus (as with Holmes) while Conan Doyle pursued other fictions (and went to the Boer War), and then a further suite of stories in 1902-3 which were collected in The Adventures of Gerard.

  • The Crime of the Brigadier (January 1900) [aka titled How the Brigadier Slew the Fox] Commissioned to go study the layout of Wellington’s defences, BG’s horse is wounded and died, and he hides in a hayloft. Turns out to be the headquarters of a general, and he sneaks down and steals the best horse, only to discover there is an imported fox hunt starting. His horse is wild to get involved so her dies to the front of the chase and then horrifies the English by chopping the fox in half with his sword, before riding back the French lines chased by outraged Englishmen the whole way.
  • How Brigadier Gerard Lost his Ear (August 1902) Doyle gives a persuasive account of how hated the French were in Venice, particularly after they stole the four horse statues above St Mark’s. A secret tribunal of Venetians kidnaps, tries and executes French soldiers, among them Gerard. He is charged with loving a local noblewoman who is herself sentenced to have half her ear removed for fraternising. In the dark of the cell BG wraps in her cloak and the ruffians cut off the top of his ear. Moments later the French soldiers burst in, arresting the tribunal.
  • How the Brigadier saved the Army (November 1902) BG is the third officer chosen to ride through country infested with Portuguese guerrillas to light a beacon atop a mountain which will alert the other French army in the region to retreat alongside them. BG is captured by the bandits but, luckily on of them is disaffected and helps replace BG’s body with one of the other murdered French officers atop the pyre, while he and a handful of bandits escape the murderous ‘Smiler’.
  • How the Brigadier Rode to Minsk (December 1902) On the retreat from Moscow Marshal Ney orders BG to take a squadron to seize corn at Minsk. He stops at a village, captures a Russian officer, is taken in by a scrawny priest and pretty daughter who translates the officer’s meesage as Minks is undefended. On his men and BG ride only to be ambushed and slaughtered in Minsk. Because he was kind to the Russ officer, the pretty girl helps BG escape.
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Forest Inn (January 1903) On he fateful day of Waterloo Gerard is ordered to ride across the battlefield to the army of Grouchy which is seen coming over a distant hill. He is almost passing an inn, when the keeper grabs him and tells him it’s not French reinforcements, it’s the Prussians. BG hides in the hayloft and overhears the Prussian General telling a squadron of the fastest cavalrymen to ignore the battle and capture the fleeing Napoleon. Now he must warn the Emperor!
  • Brigadier Gerard at Waterloo: The Adventure of the Nine Prussian Horseman (February 1903) Gerard rides like the wind to find the Emperor, guarded by a handful of valets and servants just as the Prussian squadron arrive and, on impulse, grabs Napoleon’s hat and coat and makes off on Violette, hunched down like the squat Bonaparte. The nine chase him. It is a genuinely thrilling ride across country, across a river, through a maze of farm buildings and finally, as is horse is dropping from exhaustion, into the village square where his very own regiment is recuperating and, so, to safety!
  • The Brigadier in England (March 1903) [aka How the Brigadier Triumphed in England] During his enforced stay in England BG is the guest of a noble family and a) is ludicrously bad at all sports, thinking cricket is about throwing the ball at the batsman, that boxing includes kicking and biting b) gets caught up because of his ludicrous French gallantry in a dispute between his host’s and his brother-in-law who has behaved like a cad to his sister, and is involved in an impromptu duel.
  • How the Brigadier Joined the Hussars of Conflans (April 1903) He is transferred from Berlin where the war has stopped to Spain where it is still hot, specifically to the siege of Saragossa. At the first officers’ mess he is led on to tell vainglorious stories about himself until they ridicule him and his anger BG insists on a duel. At which point the colonel enters and asks a volunteer for a dangerous mission: it is to smuggle into Saragossa, rendezvous with a spy who should have blown up the defences. BG disguises himself as a monk, volunteers, climbs up over the wall, discovers the spy has been exposed and nailed to the wall (!) but inveigles himself into the convent/city wall where he blows up the gunpowder so distracting the guard that the French win the siege. Congratulated by the general he insists on absenting himself from the victory breakfast to keep his appointment for the duel where – all the Hussars of Conflans salute him. He has been accepted.
  • How Etienne Gerard Said Good-Bye to his Master (May 1903) A very satisfying conclusion to the series which has hopped about in time and space but concludes with Gerard joining a ship of French old-timers which abandons its voyage to Africa, and heads to St Helena to rescue Napoleon. Gerard is smuggled ashore in a rowing boat and creeps up to the window of the little house only to see – Napoleon dead and laid out on his bed. He salutes and returns to the rowing boat but it has been wrecked in a storm, indeed the ship he came in never reappears, and he surrenders himself to the British who (of course) treat him with every courtesy.
Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

Illustration from the Crime of the Brigadier by Sidney Paget

  • The Marriage of the Brigadier (September 1910) [Uncollected story] BG is a star-struck 20 year old garrisoned in sleepy Normandy where he falls in love with the local beauty Marie, but her parents are keen for him to clarify the situation. One night he takes a short cut across the field to Marie’s house where the English bull is. It looks at him moodily from a distance but doesn’t approach. At Marie’s house her father despatches her to her room and insists that on his next visit Gerard must either propose or end the relationship. Pondering this Gerard sets off across the field back to town – and comes face to face with the bull! Slowly he turns and tiptoes away but the bull charges so Gerard runs full tilt back to the house and just as he reaches it the bull tosses him clean through the upstairs window into Marie’s bedroom. There is only one thing a gentleman can do and so Gerard proposes and Marie tearfully accepts, admiring the way he is panting with passion and only true love could have made him make such a leap!

And the point is….

Funny The Gerard stories are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. It is not literature but it’s a good read, every story has at least one genuinely funny moment. But they also include the kind of macabre and grim scenes which we’re familiar with from the Holmes stories – especially in Spain where the Spanish guerillas’ torture and the crucifixion of the French spy are gruesome. And there are some vivid descriptions of times and places like the snows of Russia or the watery canals of Venice. And there are no end of thrilling chases, whether the comic chase after the fox or the genuinely thrilling escape from the nine Prussian hussars.

Boo to France But a core function of the stories is to satirise the bombast and braggadochio of the French; time after time ‘gallant’ and ‘debonair’ are cover words for chatting up every woman in sight, for a waggishly amoral playing with ladies’ affections which wouldn’t be permissible in a British hero. Another central plank of the satire is Gerard’s repeated failure to understand games or sport – in his English sojourn he gets cricket, fox hunting, shooting and boxing all completely wrong.

Hooray for Britain and, time and again, Doyle puts into Gerard’s  mouth grudging compliments about the British. Gerard is made to credit the British with all the right virtues. A the climax at Waterloo, the French may have the gallantry, the spirit and the romance – but the British are as solid as old beef!

‘So high was the spirit of France at that time that every other spirit would have quailed before it; but these people, these English, had neither spirit nor soul, but only solid, immovable beef, against which we broke ourselves in vain. That was it, my friends! On the one side, poetry, gallantry, self-sacrifice—all that is beautiful and heroic. On the other side, beef. Our hopes, our ideals, our dreams— all were shattered on that terrible beef of Old England.’

The success of the stories, in fact their sheer existence, demonstrate just how much barefaced flattery an English reader in the 1890s could take – and then happily have a few trowels more thrown on top!

Brigadier Gerard on film

To my surprise there are some dramatisations of Gerard.

1. A black and white TV version, as stagey and cheesy as the original story.

2. A 1970 colour movie starring Peter McEnery and Claudia Cardinale (!)

Pop Art Design @ Barbican

Pop goes pop

Pop Art. There’s so much to say about it – it is so involved in the massive social transformations that took place in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s – that, paradoxically, there’s so little to say about it. This exhibition has an interesting idea, to put the design element back into Pop, to put the famous Pop paintings and screens and album covers into the broader context of a revolution in design and ideology. Trouble is it ends up being about everything.

Peter Blake’s ‘iconic’ (ie tired) cover of Sergeant Pepper is Pop, with it shiny plastic primary colours and cutouts of celebrities, fine, but so, apparently, is the poster inside the White Album, which is drab and grey and fragmented and verité, pretty much the opposite in every way. Experiments with typography incorporating psychedelic swirls are part of the Pop revolution in design, but so are square typefaces reminiscent of the Constructivists.

The opening title sequence of From Russia With Love is Pop –

… but so is an experimental home-made movie by Andy Warhol of balloons jostling against the ceiling of a small room.

Tupperware is Pop, Las Vegas is Pop, plastic chairs are Pop, basically everything fun and youthful from the 60s is Pop.

Maybe. In which case, isn’t the word in danger of losing its usefulness as an adjective?

Origins of Pop

The 1950s in America – then the 1960s everywhere – were about the rise of mass market consumer culture. Everything became cheaper. A wide range of consumer durables were brought to perfection at prices lots of people could afford – washing machines, spin dryers, dishwashers, toaster. Cars were cheaper as were all the accessories including radios and the new jangly pop music which started with Elvis in 1956 and has never stopped. Youth culture – teenagers – pop music – the mini skirt – the Beatles – the pill and sex for everyone!

Plastic played a key role, a new lightweight, durable, flexible material which could be made into chairs and tables, tupperware containers and boxes, even into clothes. And the futuristic feel and look of plastic encouraged the use of bright primary colours.

Buried in some of the later rooms are small cases of work by various (often Italian) designers, who worked on products for consumer brands like Braun and Olivetti. In my opinion it would have been better to have featured these brilliant industrial designers at the start, along with technological explanations of the invention and introduction of new materials, notably plastic and all its offshoots.

It could then have been explained how sophisticated design became widespread in the 1950s and ’60s as the Western world underwent a boom, bringing life-changing white goods, creative gadgets and devices, as well as the celebrity lifestyles of movie stars and pop stars, exotic foods and drinks etc within range of vast numbers of consumers.

And then finally explaining how it was from the turmoil of these social, economic and technological innovations, that Pop art emerged.

This exhibition certainly goes to a lot of trouble to emphasise the design credentials of many of the artists of the 1960s. Warhol is the most famous example of this crossover, a man who made his reputation with stylish window sets in the early ’60s before going on to apply a thorough-going understanding of the new super-commercial, media-saturated, celebrity-obsessed, superficial, 2-D culture which surrounded him.

But, in my opinion, the exhibition is distracted by a large number of shiny but irrelevant exhibits and by a compulsion to include everything it can which obscures the potentially very interesting story that it sets out to tell.

Some works

  • Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? by Richard Hamilton (1956). Allegedly a lot of this art satirises the superficiality and crassness of the new consumer culture. Maybe that was the intention of people like Hamilton, but whatever satire there is in his amusing collages is swamped in the exhibition by the far more obvious and far more powerful worship of new icons like the Coke bottle or Marilyn. (Later we have Hamilton’s treated photo of Mick Jagger with handcuffs on in a police car which is legally required to be included in any exhibition of the 60s.)
  • I love you with my Ford by James Rosenquist (1961) Another satire of an advertising slogan and Heinz spaghetti, which in fact creates a neutral, non-critical image. An object which has become a valuable and uncriticisable artefact in its own right.
  • Variable Sheets No.2 by Stephen Willats (1965). Triumph of plastic, a shiny plastic dress made of squares which can be unzipped and rearranged at will. As long as the zips last.
  • Monica Vitti with heart by Pauline Boty (1963) (as it happens, there’s an exhibition of Pauline Boty’s work in Chichester at the moment). The commentary pointed out Pauline was a rare female artist among the Pop dudes, and claims for her work a special deconstructive approach to the female iconography which went hand in hand with mass media, celebrity culture etc. Really? Just looks like another pretty young woman. Boty’s style is distinctive with its amateurish hand-made finish (cf Warhol, Lichtenstein etc) but her subject matter comes across just as woman-obsessed, youth-obsessed, garishly primary coloured as everyone else.
  • Cowboy by Jann Hawarth (1964). Lifesize mannekin painted white.
  • Marshmallow sofa by George Nelson Associates (1956) One of the numerous designs in the 50s, 60s, 70s which threw off traditional materials and designs to create furniture which was meant to be as visually fun and bright as it was comfortable. A few other sofas were on display, including Leonardo sofa by Studio 65, the Italian ensemble, and their Lip sofa, here occupied by the perfect guest.
  • Drag by Jim Dine (1967) Yep, I’ll admit this is satire, and it works pretty well, reminiscent of the nihilist satire of Weimar Germany, based as it is on newspaper photos of political leaders. But much of the other artefacts don’t satirise anything, but celebrate the power of good design. Hence:
  • Moloch by Gaetano Pesce (1970) The point of this is that the lamp is huge, as big as a man. Funny, right? Except we in our time have the Pixar lamp and the idea of immaculate consumer artefacts becoming animated and talking etc seems very old. The cleanness of the original design is the beautiful thing.

Lots of Andy Warhol, for me, simply celebrates beautiful design. He had a fantastic eye and made a name by treating poster images, photos and everyday commercial products with the same reverence as ‘High Art’. Or just picking wonderful images and producing them in ‘arty’ media. Hence innumerable silk screens or prints of Marilyn or of Elvis firing a revolver, lovingly selected from the vast sea of celebrity images which began to swamp the world in the 1960s. But also hence Brillo Soap Pads Box (1968) and the Campbell soup tins, perfect examples of consumer design. Yonal Levovicci’s Plug socket (on the right in this photo of the exhibition) doesn’t really satirise anything; it simply pays a debt to the skill of the plug designers and the beauty of so many of the artefacts which surround us everywhere.

  • Allen Jones’s fetish chair (1969) is included to outrage feminists everywhere and remind us why feminism was necessary. Or just to titillate us.

The effect of the posters of Dylan, Cream, Soft Machine, the Beatles and the Stones was to make me think that anything from the 60s was Pop. It would have been good to have it really properly explained why they were Pop. What – if anything – about the swirly, psychedelic typography and layout of these posters connected them with the hard lines of Warhol’s Brillo pads or the cut-up effect of Hamilton’s collages or the sculpture of a mansize Coke bottle? Otherwise they seemed to have nothing at all in common except they all come from the same exuberant decade.

Postscript

In 1968, American architects Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour took photos of the ‘strip’ in La Vegas from a moving car. According to a recent exhibition about the project, ‘Their fresh way of looking at the city: the influence of popular culture, advertising, film and the experience of the built environment from a moving automobile extended the categories of the ordinary, the ugly, and the social into architecture.’

Maybe. Without doubt the photos convey the excitement and fun of kitsch oversize models of doughnuts, ducks, drink cans and the 24/7 world of brightly-lit shopping malls when it was all relatively new.

But it was only 14 years later that director Godfrey Reggio used the same scenes and locations to convey the sense of a world out of control, hurtling towards destruction, a world of anomie, despair, urban failure, presaging the collapse of our civilisation, in the film Koyaanisqatsi or Life out of balance.

Many people, hundreds of millions of people, continue to live in the pop-celebrity-nifty-gadget world which was established in the 1960s, and all of us can relate to the bright shiny imagery and objects on display at the Barbican. But hundreds of millions more are uneasily aware that a consumer culture can’t go on consuming indefinitely, and that sooner or later there will be a price to pay.

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