Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Taking Silk–The Emperor’s Tale

Justinian and Theodora 2

After the proper period of mourning had elapsed, the four chroniclers met in a little chapel in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, who was, after all, the avatar of wisdom. To inspire their deliberations in other and more sensual ways, their nostrils occasionally caught the fading scent of incense, burning at the High Altar, and they could faintly hear the latest mass being said for the soul of the late Emperor.

“He was a great soldier, whose armies drove the barbarians from whole tracts of the old empire,” said the first chronicler. Nearby, a scribe (who was also a slave, and therefore sat on a low stool with his forehead level with the table top) smoothed a piece of parchment on his knees and poised his stylus.

“But not from Mother Rome herself,” said the second. “The Empire remains here, at Constantinople, in the Holy City of Byzantium. Savages still desecrate the seven sacred hills.”

“Perhaps,” said the third, “for his brave attempt and that sad failure we should call him ‘The Last Roman’?”

“A sorry epitaph indeed,” said the second. The chroniclers brooded. The slave let his hand drop. It was going to be a long night – and perhaps a long day afterwards. Candles flickered on marble sills and sconces. From beneath the great, gilded octagonal dome came the sounds of soft chanting and echoing footfalls. Outside in the piazza, silence. Even the drunken soldiers of the Imperial Guard had gone to bed.

“No,” said the third chronicler, “above all he must be remembered as a legislator; look at what he did: he took a cacophony of conflicting laws – different customs, tongues, territories, cultures – and harmonised them into a single code.”

“You’d have this on his memorial?” asked the second – “‘Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus – Lawyer’?”

The others laughed, and the fourth said, “what fools we are. His holiness takes precedence over everything: crushing paganism; championing the Church; the light he shed on the sacred doctrine of the Incarnation; in the terrible darkness of schism and confusion he lit the clear flame of orthodoxy.”

“Yes,” murmured the second chronicler. “A flame that will go on burning so-called heretics for generations.”

“So, what would you say, then?” demanded the first, angrily.

The second chronicler pushed back the bench and went to make sure the door was closed. “Stop your ears,” he said to the scribe, who put down his stylus and obeyed. “I would say,” he continued, “that we will remember Justinian the Great because of a loose woman, a bolt of cloth and a handful of insect eggs.”


Some facts beyond dispute: Justinian the Great, later a Saint of the Catholic Church, dies in 565 AD at the age of 83. Just to the south-west of Hagia Sophia, he is commemorated by a great, bronze-wrapped column, topped with his statue (head crowned by the sun) on horseback, which monumental stack rises almost as high as the apex of the adjacent dome (180 feet, or if you prefer, 55 metres). The structure is demolished when Byzantium falls to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.

He’d been a man of war, a man of law, a man of God, and a man of flesh. In the first capacity, he failed to turn back the tide of history: eventually, of course, the barbarians won. In the second, after more than 1500 years, his legal code, the “Corpus Juris Civilis” remains in some European states the foundation of their civil law. It is the third capacity which troubles the modern, materialist historian. How could this pragmatist have spent so much intellectual energy trying to make sense of a doctrine which was as ambiguous as it was poetic, as subtle and dangerous as it was radical?

Its gospel foundation was an encryption of the divine and the human into a single omnipotent algorithm: “God becomes Man.” But what did that mean? Priests and scholars dissected and wrestled the concept in front of their anxious, fascinated emperor. Was the immaculate and immortally divine really united with corruptible human flesh and transformed into a single entity? Or did God, having fashioned the most virtuous of humans, descend at a certain point – the baptism in the Jordan? – to anoint this man his “Son” and immaterially cohabit with him for a while before forsaking him? Or was “He” a divine illusion – a charismatic, miracle-working phantom who carried the benign deception of flesh and blood right up onto the cross and beyond, completing his holy conjuring act with resurrection and ascension.

Each theory (and many others) had implacable adherents. There were Monophysites and Arians, Nestorians, Manicheans, Anthropomorphites, Docetes and Aphthartodocetes, Ebionites and Gnostics… The cacophony of scriptural interpretation in front of the imperial throne made the cacophony of laws more like a children’s nursery chant.

But Justinian wanted to save the souls of his subjects as well as the substance of his empire. If it could be established that somehow, at some verifiable moment, the divine had married itself to the mortal, then there was the possibility that out of this “worm of sixty winters” (as William Blake would later call the fallen human) – out of this carnal and corruptible cocoon, might, through a metamorphosis of grace, and of worship and diligence, emerge the butterfly of a soul to live in the purity of an eternal hereafter.

So Justinian needed to make sense of this sacred binary code. He wrote theological treatises. He protected monks (and the monasteries where they prayed, fasted, studied and meditated on the mysteries) from secular laws and lay interference; and he granted them gifts from the imperial treasury and subsidies from local taxes. He extended the jurisdictions and powers of bishops and clergy and it was he who disbursed twenty thousand pounds of his own gold to rebuild the Cathedral of Sophia.

But to tell the truth, saint or not, try as Justinian and his monks and bishops might to plait the holy threads together, these never quite led, unknotted or untangled, to the butterfly.

A Jew and a Greek (a priest of Dionysus) were in the great court one evening. All day they’d been patiently waiting to plead for toleration, all the while listening to the bilious, obstinate and obviously irreconcilable argufying of the theologians.

At last, they whispered together and stepped forward.

“Sire, may we speak,” said the Jew, humbly

There was silence. Justinian raised an eyebrow and nodded.

“We were wondering if you’re trying, perhaps, to wed the unmarriageable?”

“What?” said the Emperor, sharply.

“You see, on the one hand,” said the Jew, “you have the omnipotent and eternal Yahweh, awful and blessed be his name.”

“And on the other,” the Greek continued, “you seem to have an incarnation of the beautiful but sacrificial Adonis…”

“And you are trying to contain these two powers, somehow, within a single, fragile cocoon of mortality?” said the Jew, barely suppressing his incredulity.

Some of the theologians coughed uneasily, glancing at each other. Justinian said: “Have you any other pagan wisdom to share?”

Tired as he was, the Jew entirely missed the sarcasm in the Emperor’s voice. He had been biting his tongue on this point for hours, and couldn’t resist an indiscretion he regretted for the rest of his life (which was a little over a day).

“Only, Eminence, that in our courts we would never a permit a woman to observe, let alone speak.”

Justinian ordered the Jew and the Greek to be sown in a sack with a pig and a jackal, and then thrown into the Bosphorus.

The woman was an actress called Theodora, described here by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Painting and poetry were incapable of delineating the matchless excellence of her form.  But this form was exposed to the public eye, and prostituted to licentious desire.  Her venal charms were abandoned to a promiscuous crowd of citizens and strangers of every rank, and of every profession: the fortunate lover who had been promised a night of enjoyment, was often driven from her bed by a stronger or more wealthy favourite; and when she passed through the streets, her presence was avoided by all who wished to escape either the scandal or the temptation.”

Justinian fell in love with her. Surely there were Roman laws prohibiting intermarriage between the highest and the lowest – between emperor and courtesan? There were. But Justinian, the lawyer, changed them. Gibbon continues:

“Perhaps she inflamed, at first by modest delays, and at last by sensual allurements, the desires of a lover, who was addicted to long vigils and abstemious diet.  When his first transports had subsided, she still maintained the same ascendant over his mind, by the more solid merit of temper and understanding.  Justinian delighted to ennoble and enrich the object of his affection; the treasures of the East were poured at her feet, and the Emperor was determined, perhaps by religious scruples, to bestow on his concubine the sacred and legal character of a wife. He seated her on the throne as an equal and independent colleague in the sovereignty of the empire, and an oath of allegiance was imposed on the governors of the provinces in the joint names of Justinian and Theodora… The prostitute who, in the presence of innumerable spectators, had polluted the theatre of Constantinople, was adored as a queen in the same city, by grave magistrates, orthodox bishops, victorious generals, and captive monarchs.”

Ah, the “treasures of the East”. These included, of course, a fabulous cloth known as silk; a shining, shimmering, enigmatic fabric whose mode of fabrication none in the whole of Byzantium understood; a fabric which was ruinously expensive, and which Theodora must have, in bolts and swathes.

It came from somewhere in Asia. Persia and Abyssinia controlled the intermediate trade and fixed its exorbitant prices. But since extremes of bribery and threat failed to source the secret in either of those countries, it had to lie far beyond their frontiers.

Was it teased out of some fine hybrid of flax or hemp or cotton? Byzantine agriculturalists sweated at their seedlings and failed to repeat the marvel. Zoologists, likewise, searched in vain for the rare animal, pure or crossbred, whose fleece might be spun into this delicate, luminous thread. Alchemists insisted that given the right proportions of precious materials, the right retorts, athanors, alembics and crucibles, they would refine silk and bring skeins of it to the palace. Only they must have gold to melt, and silver, and rubies and emeralds to grind to powder… and in quantity.

And then, two monks set off for Asia.


I do not know whether they were missionaries who decided to do a little espionage, or commissioned spies who posed as missionaries. But as monks, they were grateful and loyal to Justinian and either saw or sought the opportunity to pay the debt that loyalty implied, and return a good deed for good deeds.

I imagine them bearded, shabby, unkempt, coarse-robed, tramp-like (because that is how contemporaries described and depicted the monks of the time). I imagine the contempt of the fastidious Chinese – their sophisticated disdain for these ragged quasi-primitives, impertinently trying to preach their neo-religion to an audience from an ages-old culture of ancestral homage and complex ceremonial.

I imagine someone jeering – “You? You stupid foreigners don’t even understand how silk is made…”

And the trap is opening.

“We have no use for silk.”

“Your courtiers have.”

“Vanity. Foul ostentation. The very livery of the devil, Beelzebub, the lord of the flies.”

“Ha! We have the flies here, hatched by the devil himself. Come and see…”

And there, in the hatchery, the little moths, eggs, worms, pupae – the cocoons from which the priceless, iridescent threads, the soul of silk, are teased.

One monk, perhaps, pretends to faint, or, better, seems to throw a fit. The other quickly, gently, in the commotion, palms a few eggs.

I do not know which of them had the clever idea of hiding the eggs in dung to incubate them on the journey home; or how, if there were borders and customs posts, the dung was explained – some strange ritual, maybe, involving mementos of human corruptibility and the mortification of the flesh? Revolted, the guard clutches his nose and waves them through.

So the eggs laid in China hatch in Byzantium. A secret of almost incalculable value is unlocked; eventually it will be published to the world.


Thursday, 31 January 2013

“All this, from a tent in Zimbabwe”

Noel's Painting

Just after the snows had melted, two friends died within a few days of each other.

The first to leave us, on January 23, was Noel Wain. I’d met him when he joined The Western Morning News as chief reporter. I was his deputy. Later he became picture editor, and in a final chapter, he cut free and discovered his real vocation as a painter.

This is one of his pieces, a painted collage of objects found on a Westcountry beach. It was created in 1989.

Four days later, we lost Brian Pedley, whom I knew when he and I were at Television South West, where he was a senior producer, working principally on the evening news magazine.

I liked to think that at least in spirit (if not in fact) Brian was descended from that robust line of Westcountry non-conformist radicals, those upright, unbowing dissenters whose stock also produced the late Labour leader Michael Foot, who was, like Brian, one of Plymouth Argyle’s passionate pilgrims.

Brian was a master of popular TV journalism, a tough discipline which required a bold field of vision, a pitch-perfect ear for colloquial speech with a talent for getting words down onto paper then back up in the air as if newly spoken, an affinity with the audience, and an instinct for the stories that would entertain or resonate with them. What he did not ever do was to cross the boundary into that demeaning and patronising travesty of his craft, “populist” TV.

Perhaps because of that decency and scruple, on more than one occasion he reached out an arm to steady a tipsy superior and save him from tumbling into the consequences of his tipsiness, rather than push him over the edge and take his job.

He preferred, I know, that unpredictable but endearing toper to the cynical shits who succeeded to the superordinate post. They tried and failed to turn Brian into their sort of management stooge, sending him off, among other irrelevancies, on one of those ludicrous courses where people are supposed to develop their “skills” by fording rivers and bridging ravines with a length of rope, some barrels and a few planks.

“How did it go, Brian?” I asked. “Oh, you know”, he said, grinning and raising his eyebrows. “Bit damp”. And then that unforgettable, rumbling chuckle.

Though I worked with Noel at The Western Morning News, we didn’t become fast friends until he’d left to paint and I was with TSW. Our homes were only a few doors from each other in Ann’s Place and Somerset Place in Stoke (Stoke, Devonport, that is).

I lived alone then, and Noel and Jacqui frequently asked me round for supper and great, long, swerving conversations, after which he and I, now mildly intoxicated, played fluent duets on his African drums.

Both us were prone to something we called “creative mishearing”. I remember him whooping when I thought he’d said “sub parrot”, and from then on – “Ah, Sub Parrot, come in” – that was his nickname for me.

One night, after listening to a concert on Radio 3, Noel sighed, “just think, all that from a tent in Zimbabwe”. “You idiot,” Jacqui said. “It was the Assembly Rooms in Derby”.

Brian and Noel had this in common: they were enchanting company and engaging conversationalists because they were the kind of cultured, gentle, inquiring and largely self-taught individuals who were once the mainstay of regional newspapers and broadcasting.

T S Eliot wrote that "we cannot afford to forget that the first - and not one of the least difficult - requirements of either prose or verse is that it should be interesting." These two gentlemen were interesting not because they mugged the camera, but because they stepped back and told the story. Or rather, the story, in whatever the medium, seemed to be telling itself.

Their deaths reminded me of the loss, decades before, of another good friend, who was also a mentor (our evenings, I now realise, were as much seminars as social events): Mike Tilson, one-time deputy editor of the Tavistock Times.

There were about half a dozen of us apprentice journalists, none older than 19 or 20, who were drawn into his orbit. He was in his late fifties, I guess: grey crew-cut hair, bright eyes behind round steel spectacles, sharp features – think of a sparrow hawk that’s gone vegetarian.

He lived by himself in a tiny granite cottage in the Tamar Valley, beside some fields where a farmer grew cauliflowers and anemones. A little wooden table with his portable typewriter on it; a neat, small fireplace where he burned coal and logs; and bookshelf after bookshelf: all of Dickens, all of Orwell, all of the two Lawrences (T E and D H), Penguins black, red, grey and green (Simenon), reference books, guide books, art books – and poetry; in particular, he loved Milton, Shelley and Blake (we’re back, I see, with radical dissent).

Once when we were there, and he returned from his galley kitchen with the omelettes he’d cooked, he saw me reading his Everyman edition of the poems of Francois Villon.

“Like them?” he asked.

“Very much”.

“Have it”.

“I couldn’t”.

“Go on – I’ve got two copies”.

And I have it still - here it is:

Mike's Book

This morning, thinking of Noel, Brian and Mike, I tried a little translation:

Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine

Ou ells sont, ne de cest an,

Qu’a ce reffraing ne vous remaine:

Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?


Prince, please don’t moan “where’d that week go?”

Or sing your “wish it were last year” song.

You might as well ask me whether I know

Where all the melted snow has gone.

RIP, mes amis.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Thank you, Wilko

Dr Feelgood

Yes, yes, I know 1975 was the year of the last great EU referendum, but that same Summer my good friend Graham Ball (himself a scion of Southend-on-Sea) barged into my house clutching a vinyl LP called Down by the Jetty and pushed past me to the record player (a Pioneer PL-12D wired to  a pair of Wharfedale Dentons) crying “listen to this, listen to this,” and introduced me to Dr Feelgood.

So in the week when Wilko Johnson (Feelgood guitarist, nearest to you) announced his farewell tour – farewell because he also announced, with dignity, wisdom, and measured wit that he was dying - I find I don’t really care much about Mr Cameron’s forthcoming referendum; or only insofar as the event might fulfil the promise of an entertainment suggested in these lines from Marx:

“Hegel says somewhere that  great historic events occur twice. He forgot to add: 'once as tragedy, and again as farce'.”

I do care about Wilko, though, who was also a philosopher and historian, and I care, of course, about times past, sweet and irretrievable.

Cheque Book is a great song, still thrilling to hear after nearly forty years. How’s this for a masterclass in getting on with the narrative? -

“Well my mum and pop told me they had some words to say
They said get out, I said I'm leaving anyway
I made some money playing this here guitar
Filled in a form and went and bought myself a car
I got my cheque book baby
Got my bags all packed
You come with me, get in the motor
Throw your suitcase in the back

“I've been here for so long, sick of this whole town
Ain't getting younger and it's time I got around
Wanna go some places I ain't never been before
When I turn that corner mamma you won't see me no more
I got my cheque book baby …”


What’s high art? what’s low art? Roy Campbell made a stunning translation of Baudelaire’s Invitation to a Voyage, a poem which seems to me to be bowling along on the same kind of journey as Cheque Book -

“My daughter, my sister,
Consider the vista
Of living out there, you and I,
To love at our leisure,
Then, ending our pleasure,
In climes you resemble to die.
There the suns, rainy-wet,
Through clouds rise and set
With the selfsame enchantment to charm me
That my senses receive
From your eyes, that deceive,
When they shine through your tears to disarm me.

“There'll be nothing but beauty, wealth, pleasure,
With all things in order and measure.”

Here’s to the great Wilko Johnson, whose music (for me, at least) retrospectively made the great Charles Baudelaire rock and roll.


Friday, 9 November 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 9): An icy solution

I did not expect to sleep, in the anticipation of that fatal dawn. But somehow, albeit I was fully clothed, and despite the cold and the stink of mothballs from a candlewick bedspread, I drifted away, and dreamed that a light was pulsing in my face, and then brightening, and then fading away – and woke to watch, through the uncurtained windows, clouds dancing across the moon.
At six, Lestrade and Entwistle came into my room. “Shall I wake Holmes?” I asked.
“We have at least another hour,” the metropolitan detective replied tetchily, shining a torch around my room, though for no reason I could deduce. Why had he come so early? Wearing a flat cap, battered sheepskin coat, old moleskin trousers and wellington boots, Lestrade looked more like a poacher than a policeman. At least the priest was in character, in his grey overcoat, buttoned to the neck. One of his hands grasped a bible; through the fingers of the other played the olive-wood beads of a rosary which was attached to an ivory cross with silver tips: a souvenir, I guessed, of some pilgrims’ package to the holy land.
“While we wait,” said Lestrade, “there’s something I want to ask you, doctor.” Out of his pocket he pulled two leather-bound books. “You recognise these?”
“Of course – they’re presentation copies of my reports on Holmes’s cases.”
“Good, good” said Lestrade. “Only, seeing as I couldn’t sleep, I was refreshing my mind about ones I was involved in, and I was struck by an anomaly.”
“Oh Inspector,” I protested. “Is this really the moment to cavil at the literary persona I gave you? Surely you can appreciate how for artistic reasons I needed to accentuate incompetence on your part in order to burnish the lustre of our friend’s accomplishments?”
“Yes, yes, assuredly so,” said Lestrade. But he frowned as he opened one of the books. “I quite like ‘wiry’,” he said. “And ‘dapper’ is fairly kind, if a bit patronising. But ‘ferret-like’? Thank you so much, Dr Watson, thank you.”
“Perhaps in the name of Christian charity we should forget these trivial slights and remember the daunting challenge of the dawn,” suggested Entwistle.
“Yes, padre, quite, just passing the time,” said Lestrade. “Now, doctor, that description of me came from the, um, ‘Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which I believe I have alluded to before? Well, anyway, re-reading it, I paused at this passage, shortly before my entrance into the story.”
Lestrade assumed a declamatory voice and began almost to chant:
It was a blazing hot day in August. Baker Street was like an oven, and the glare of the sunlight upon the yellow brickwork of the house across the road was painful to the eye… and so on, blah-di-blah-di-blah, and then, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice broke in upon my thoughts. ‘You are right, Watson,’ said he. ‘It does seem a preposterous way of settling a dispute’.
He looked at me and raised an eyebrow. “So?” I said, a trifle uneasily. “So what?”
“Well doctor, listen to this, from ‘The Adventure of the Resident Patient’,” and he swapped books, opening the second volume (as he had the first) between pages where a matchstick held his place, before beginning a new half-incantation:
It had been a close, rainy day in October. Our blinds were half drawn, and Holmes lay curled upon the sofa, reading and re-reading a letter which he had received by the morning post… forgive me another, uh, skipping a bit, blah-di-blah, and, so on, until, yes, here we are, finding that Holmes was too absorbed for conversation I had tossed aside the barren paper, and leaning back in my chair, I fell into a brown study. Suddenly my companion’s voice
He shut the book with a smack and sat down on my bed.
"Well? Your explanation, doctor?”
“My goodness, Lestrade, you are such a very prosaic ferret.” Holmes had opened my bedroom door softly, and now he was inside. He was fully and smartly dressed – plus-fours, frock-coat, polished boots, deerstalker, alpenstock, with the familiar saxophone-pipe between his teeth, tobacco smouldering in the bowl.
“I’m asking, Mr Holmes, which story is real,” Lestrade protested, “or whether we should conclude that the lot of them, all five volumes of so called ‘case-studies’, are really fiction.”
“Ha! ‘Really fiction’, I think that’s precisely what they are, Lestrade. What a lovely hinterland that is, the zone of ‘really fiction.’ It’s where you are, and I am, and Watson is. ‘Really fiction’. Only in my case, I have to surrender my immortal soul in an hour or so, at which point the ‘really’ can be subtracted from my own diagnosis, and I will become fiction entire.”
“Gentlemen,” Entwistle began, “is this the right moment for ontological status reports?” But Lestrade persisted: “A hot day in August or a rainy day in October, eh? which one?” until Holmes interrupted him.
“The simple fact, Lestrade, is that ‘The Adventure of the Cardboard Box’, which featured you and was a grisly tale of jealousy, revenge and severed body parts – sawn-off ears packed in salt, if I remember – went down very badly with Dr Watson’s public – revolted them, in fact – and he temporarily withdrew it, meaning to suppress it altogether, but forgot. Proud of the passage in which I read his thoughts from the oscillations of his eyebrows, and therefore reluctant to leave it on the spike, he lifted those paragraphs verbatim into the other narrative, thus inadvertently printing it twice. And now, if you please, I shall breakfast before meeting my maker. Or rather, my un-maker.”
We trooped downstairs in silence, bar some mutterings from Lestrade, and finding half-a-dozen kippers in the pantry we broke our fast with those and slices of unbuttered pumpernickel, from a tin, and black, unsweetened tea.
“I have a plan, Holmes,” said Lestrade, at last.
“Oh dear.” Holmes took up his pipe. “Do you wish to share it, pray?”
“I want you to return to Old Coombe Cross, where you made your bargain with that supposed dark emissary fifty years ago.”
“But why?” asked Holmes, with a deep sigh.
“Please,” I interjected, “Holmes, just for once, set down your pride and take Lestrade’s advice. It may be our only hope.”
As we climbed back up the stairs, Lestrade tugged at my sleeve. “Tell me,” he hissed, “that it actually is November – that we’ve woken to an icy November morning, and that you’re not suddenly going to change all of this into a warm evening in July?”
“I promise,” I replied, “that this is November, and that there is a hard frost outside.”
“Not too hard, I hope,” the detective murmured. “Just hard enough.”
“Good grief,” Holmes exclaimed as we went into the courtyard, “do you propose that I should freeze to death, Lestrade, and pre-empt our sinister friend?”
“Go on with you,” Lestrade replied. “Quickly, now. You, too, Entwistle, eh?”
Holmes and the priest pushed through a gate in the perimeter hedge and set off along a twisting path down the valley. The old granite cross stood in moonlit silhouette in the distance, but already there was the faint glow of dawn on the eastern slope of Vixen Tor. “Yes,” said Lestrade, in a triumphant, sibbilant voice as he saw sunrise painted on a cloudless horizon. Holmes and Entwistle turned back at the sound, their four eyes looking – to me, rather absurdly – like dipped headlights in the gloom.
“What is it Lestrade?” Holmes called. Then he slipped, grabbed at Entwistle’s arm, and the two men executed a swift and clumsy jig before falling on the ice.
“Holy skating,” murmured Lestrade.
“What?” I asked.
“Remember? We diverted the water from the Holy Well into the valley? Well, hence this morning’s rink. Come, let us go inside and wait for Mycroft, or Mephisto-whatever he should be called.”
Almost as soon as we were back in the hall I smelt a lemony odour of talc, and for a moment I thought that ‘she’, our shape shifting fantasy woman, was back among us. But out of the shadows stepped Mycroft, or the man we had known as Mycroft – and yet he, too, was altered, his own shape shifted, into someone still recognisable as the creature he had been, but now younger, thinner, his face less plump and more aquiline. He twirled a silver-knobbed cane and sang:
“Don't fail to do your stuff
with a little powder and a puff
Keep young and beautiful
If you want to be loved…”
…Before roaring with laughter and bowing to us both. “You see, I have done Sherlock the honour of bathing and refreshing my appearance before our departure? Am I not young and beautiful, gentlemen? Even though you may find it difficult to love me? Sherlock loved me, once. Now, where is the old reprobate? I can call him ‘old’, now, of course, since I have indulged myself with a dose of rejuvenation to restore the strength I require to drag him down.”
“Delay him,” Lestrade whispered in my ear. “We need time.”
Years in the consulting room have taught me that a well-judged inquiry after someone’s welfare, delivered with kindness and solicitude, will detain the most fretful of clients. And so I began:
“Much as I admire your physical versatility, I’ve always worried about you, you know, Mycroft. Sitting all alone there, year after year – no, decade after decade – in the same draughty corner of the Diogenes club, friendless, austere; what a poignant life you led while you were among us. The facility to wreak so much evil can hardly be any compensation at all, I’d have thought, for such utter loneliness and misery.”
Mycroft stood very still; grim-faced, eyes moist, flattered and self-pitying. He was momentarily trapped, exactly as I hoped he’d be, spiked on his self-regard.
“Ah,” he sighed. “You understand, doctor. So few do. But then, I am but a part of a necessary and organic whole.”
“How do you mean?” I asked. Faint amber sunlight began to glint on the mullioned windows. We sat on settles in the hall. I leaned forward and held his eyes with mine.
And at some length, with much gesticulation and not a few oaths, he told me how his powers were held in check by other universal and supernatural forces which adjusted evil with goodness, but that the existence of the evil was necessary for the good to prevail and for, oh, something about the free existential choices of men and women which baffled me and left Lestrade yawning.
The sun, meanwhile, crept higher all the while, and when it had left the tor’s slope with a last kiss on bracken, granite and thorns, Mycroft sprang up and threw open the doors.
“The day has come,” he cried. “You puny humans think the puppet theatre that the sun reveals each morning is a perfect whole. But I come from the immaterial dark which is mother of the light. My parent darkness is prime, prior, timeless and supreme, and the sun is just her contrary, clock-bound, vice-regent. One day the sun and all this stuff you take for real will go to wreck and vanish like smoke. Now, where’s Sherlock?”
“He’s gone to Old Coombe Cross, where you bound him to you with a bargain fifty years ago,” said Lestrade. “Holmes makes just one request of you – that you go to him as a man, and stay man to his man, and abstain from any other shape. Will you do that?”
“Of course.
” “Do you promise?”
“Yes, yes,” he muttered.
“I didn’t hear you, sorry?”
“I said, I promise.”
“You got that, doctor?” Lestrade very slightly shook his head at me. I began to understand.
“No,” I said, “I didn’t hear.”
“I told this man,” Mycroft shouted, “that I promise not to take another shape while I’m going to fetch Sherlock Holmes.”
“Good,” said Lestrade. “Three times. So - now you are bound to your promise.”
For a moment, Mycroft looked uneasy. But then he fastened up his coat and set off, twirling his cane and singing once more, “keep young and beautiful”. We followed him across the courtyard and as far as the gate, then watched as he took the path which Holmes and Entwistle had slithered along an hour or more earlier.
Lestrade gripped my elbow. The sun rose higher, the sky was a vibrant bronze and blue and the dry-stone walls were steaming. A flock of redwings flew above our heads. I looked down, and beneath the surface of the ice I could see a line of tiny bubbles. The diverted stream was beginning to flow.
“Holy water,” I said.
“Hmm, maybe,” said Lestrade, and gripped me tighter still. In the distance, we could see Holmes and Entwistle standing by the cross. The priest was holding out his bible and cross and mouthing words we could not hear.
The ice started to creak with every footstep Mycroft took. He stumbled. His left leg plunged up to its knee in liquid mud and he screamed. He jumped onto a tussock and swayed, windmilling the air with his stick. “You swine,” he shrieked. “You clever, clever swine.” And the tussock swivelled and tipped right over, and the man we’d known as Mycroft Holmes plunged into the marsh below, yelling and screeching as if the water were an acid.
I thought I saw his face turn to a skull, grinning in agony, as he sank out of sight.
Some two hours later, Holmes and Entwistle having walked in the direction opposite the bog, and the London policeman and I having taken a long road around, the four of us were sitting in the Dartmoor Inn at Merrivale with pints of beer and hot meat pies.
“For a secular man,” Entwistle remarked, “you are highly attuned to the efficacious subtleties of religious ritual, Inspector.”
“Ah ha, excuse me, no” Lestrade replied, fanning his open mouth with his flat cap where a chunk of pie was apparently burning his tongue. “Either your demon was destroyed by holy water, or my villain was drowned. You pays your money and takes your choice, and I know mine. And by the way, doctor, this prosaic ferret saw no skull.”
“But you made him promise three times not to…” I began.
“Humouring him,” Lestrade replied. “Here, padre” – he tossed the priest a five pound note – “fetch us some more beers, would you?”
“I don’t understand,” said Holmes, as Entwistle went to the bar.
“Don’t understand what?” asked Lestrade.
“How we got safely to the granite cross but Mycroft drowned.”
“Well, the ice melted,” I explained.
“That was so lucky,” said Holmes.
Lestrade drew breath, but said nothing. Instead, with a long exhalation, he turned to me with mouth open and eyes wide.
Three walkers came into the bar. “How’s the weather in the South Hams,” Lestrade asked them, as Entwistle returned with our pints. “Crisp and fine like this?”
“Raining like billy-o,” said one. “That’s why we came up to the moor.”
“How did you know that?” Holmes asked.
“What?” said Lestrade.
“That they’d come up from the south?”
“Why, red clay on their boots, of course.”
“Oh.” Holmes sipped his beer. “Clever.”
“I think,” remarked Lestrade, “that at the conclusion of your report of this adventure you might diminish the level of my incompetence? What do you say, doctor?”
“Assuredly,” I replied.
“Bee-keeping is nice,” said Holmes.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 8): A cold snap for Halloween

Mycroft Holmes, now unveiled as a vice-regent of the dark powers, brushed a few damp ivy leaves from his astrakhan collar and leaned down over the Great Chess set. “My cockatrice takes your lion and leaves your king vulnerable.” He smiled at Holmes, delicately moving the pieces. “In fact, your king is fatally exposed, I think.”
The fire murmured and settled. Holmes sighed and placed another log among the embers, pushing it down with the heel of his boot. “Perhaps I must surrender after all,” he said.
“What did you say this imposter’s name was asked?” Lestrade.
“Mephistopheles,” said Holmes.
“Well, it’ll be hello ‘Metphistophelose’ and into my bracelets unless I get a few straight answers pretty quickly,” snapped the London bobby. Not for the first time, I admired his phlegmatism – the absence of any trace of romance in a mind which proceeded instead from one simple building block to the next, eschewing the grand, imaginative leaps which typified Holmes’s deductive procedure. It was exactly his prosaic nature that prevented Lestrade from being intimidated by any sudden turn of events, however Gothic – as in this case – such a turning might prove to be.
Mycroft – or whatever we should now have to call him – gave Lestrade a patronising smile and settled in a rocking chair. “How can I help you, little man?” he asked.
But the Inspector was not to be provoked. “You’ve been posing, all these years, as Mr Holmes’s brother,” he began. “But if you’re not a member of his family, and we now have good reason to believe you are not, then where exactly do you come from?”
“The other place,” Mycroft replied.
“What, the House of Lords?”
Mycroft laughed, shrugged off his coat, folded and sat on it, and stretched out his legs to the fire. “No, no. The nether regions.”
“The where? Are you some sort of weirdo?”
“He means the infernal regions,” said Holmes.
And I added, miserably, “Hell. He says he comes from Hell.”
“Oh yeah?” Lestrade snarled. “Well, you must be the first cove who ever got out of there alive, never mind with his whistle and flute and his boots unsinged.”
“Why this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” said Mycroft wistfully, in the tone of a child reciting a lesson.
“No it ain’t, Sir,” Lestrade responded, “It’s Wilder Hall on the south-western edge of Dartmoor just beyond the margins of the county borough of Plymouth, so don’t go deluding yourself or trying to delude us that we’ve got transported to some zone of the beyond.”
But the wind sobbed in the chimney as he spoke, and the pelmet rattled above shivering curtains, while the air turned icy. “Sherlock will soon know what I mean,” said Mycroft.
“You’ll harm my friend over my dead body,” I cried.
“If you really wish it so, the more the merrier,” Mycroft laughed. “But we have a bargain, haven’t we Sherlock?” Holmes looked away, nodding miserably. “Fifty years ago today, as he has described, not a mile from here, at the old Coombe Cross, Sherlock begged for the gift of clairvoyance. I gave it to him, to exercise and enjoy for exactly half a century, in exchange for his immortal soul. Tonight, on the eve of All Souls Day, and I have come to arrange my collection.”
“How could you contemplate a transaction so unspeakably evil, practised upon an innocent youth in the height of his grief?” I said.
“Oh,” Mycroft replied, “very easily. I have an eternity of boredom to relieve. Eternity without hope, you know, is a very, very, long time. You have no idea how desperate one is for amusement. Sherlock’s soul will be a pretty pet to play with for epoch or two.” He stood up and unfolded his coat, which he swung over his shoulders and which, to my astonishment, had changed colour, whilst serving as his cushion, from black to brown. As he strolled over to the window he grinned and sang softly, “Be sure and get your man, wrap your body in a coat of tan,” then said briskly, “I shall call for you at dawn, Sherlock,” he said. “Enjoy Halloween. Good night, gentlemen.” He climbed over the sill, and as he vanished in the darkness, we heard first the bark of a dog, and then the cry of a cormorant.
There was a crack, and I turned to see that Holmes had knocked over the white king on the Grand Chess board.
“I am sorry, my friends,” he said, “that I have dragged you here to witness the dissipation of my gifts, and indeed, of myself. But a deal is a deal, and this creature who has been my putative brother and my real oracle for these past five decades is only asking me to honour a contract I sought and to which I volunteered my assent. And yet, how very long a stretch, back then, this half a century seemed, and how very far away its terminus.”
For the first time in the years of our acquaintance, my friend looked haggard and defeated. And where, indeed, could his pride make a stand, now that the fons et origo of his talents had been discovered in the diabolical gift of another? To be an ordinary mortal, prey to emotion and ambiguity and quotidian vicissitude, was to be everything which Holmes had once disdained – but oh, how clearly now was an envy of ordinary mortality inscribed on his melancholy features.
Felix Entwistle came in, rattling a tray of crockery and cutlery, and biscuits, tongue, corned beef, pickles and preserved fruits which he told us he’d found tinned and bottled in the pantry. He began to prattle about the hall’s origins as a sanctuary and hostelry attached to the estates of Tavistock Abbey, but I interrupted him and sadly reported what had just transpired, and what was foredoomed for the morning.
“We could,” the priest ventured, “pray earnestly to the Lord in these once consecrated surroundings that Mr Holmes might be delivered from this curse?”
“Forgive me, father,” said Holmes with a bitter laugh, “but I have no appetite for prayer, and nor indeed have I any appetite for the preserved comestibles on your tray. I do, however, have a large sachet of cocaine in my room, and I did take the precaution of bringing the necessary paraphernalia. With your permission, I shall spend my last evening in a reverie of my own direction.”
“Holmes, really, no; I must protest,” I said sharply. But then, of course, I stopped.
“You were thinking of my health, eh, doctor? A little late for that, I fear.” Holmes laughed sardonically again, and left us.
Lestrade pressed a slice of corned beed and some piccalilli between two squares of crispbread and bit into the sandwich with a loud crunch. “Is there nothing which will defeat this fiend, father, if fiend he is?” he asked.
“Oh, the usual sacred objects would destroy him were he to be subjected to their holy contagion – the cross, the bible and prayer book, holy water or the blessed sacraments.”
“He’ll be too cunning to succumb to tricks like those, surely?” I said.
“Tricks?” said the priest, querulously – and I apologised while Lestrade smirked at me and reached for the pickled onions. “Tell me, father, why was this spot chosen for a sanctuary?”
“It rests upon an ancient holy well.”
“Where?” asked Lestrade, with excitement in his voice.
“In the cellarage.”
“Show us.”
And down we went, down a steep flight of granite stairs, their treads hollowed by generations of feet, into a damp, cold, low-ceilinged basement chamber.
“Here,” said the priest. Before us was a low parapet around a cistern full of water. A constant dripping echoed musically around us.
“So, the water flows,” said Lestrade.
“Yes,” Entwistle explained. “The spring that rises here once sank underground again and ran to old Coombe Cross, where it emerged as a brook; hence the monument there. But the monks stopped it to create their local water supply, and the excess flows away through the barton to a system of tanks around the pastures.”
“So if we were to prevent the overflow?”
“The stream would resume its course into the valley.”
“Then let us stop it quickly,” cried Lestrade.
“What’s the point of this?” I asked, as the policeman seized an adze that was lying in the corner of the cellar, smashed a flagstone, and began pushing fragments into an aperture at the side of the cistern through which water had been gently spilling.
“It is a freezing night, is it not, Dr Watson?” said Lestrade.
“Indeed it is. So?”
“Forgive me a little Holmesian melodrama, if I may call it such,” he said. And ripping up an old sack, he caulked the rubble and entirely stopped the flow. We watched as the water in the cistern rose and at last began to fall over the back of the parapet into a channel which seemed to drain down into the foundations of the building.
“There,” said Lestrade. “Now, one of us – perhaps you, Dr Watson – needs to raise Holmes before dawn. Will you do that?”
“Yes, but why?”
“Wait and see, doctor.”
“Surely,” I protested, “you aren’t trying to raise our hopes with some superstitious mumbo-jumbo? Not you, Inspector, of all people?”
“Ha! Doctor, old friend, my project works either way; sacred or profane, my unicorn takes that smug, fat bastard’s gryphon. But if you do have any piety muddled up in your constitution, pray for a fine morning. Holmes’s life, at the very least, depends upon it. Now, vicar, was there any beer in the pantry?”
“I thought I saw some barley wine,” said the priest.
“It’ll do. A couple of bottles will see me to bed. Goodnight, my friends. Be up before first light, if you please.”
Reluctantly, I went upstairs. As I passed Holmes’s door, to my astonishment I heard a guitar playing, two voices raised, and merriment. I paused. One voice was my friend’s – but unmistakeably, the other belonged to Miss Irene Adler. She was singing, and he was clapping and humming along between giggles: “Oh, a slim little waist is a pleasure, and a trim little limb is divine; oh, a sly little eye is a treasure, it’ll get him drunker than wine…”
I went swiftly to my room, almost putting my fingers in my ears.
Already, there were ferns of frost on my bedroom window. The moon was full. The landscape of tors, wind-bent hawthorns, gnarled oaks, ancient fields, furze, bracken and dry-stone walls was silvered and still. And on All Souls’ Eve, the fate of at least one soul was hanging in the balance.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 7): A bargain with Mycroft

Mycroft’s humming unnerved me. Rumbling through the scarf of fat that swathed his windpipe was a distorted but unmistakeable tune – and had there been a doubt, Lestrade dispelled it when the humming stopped and he picked up the broken melody to sing with a matching flatness: “You’ll always have your way if he likes you in a negligee, keep young and beautiful...”
“Oh, do shut up, Lestrade,” I cried. “That wretched song is beginning to cause grief.”
So we drove in a prickly silence for a while; down the steep hill into Gunnislake, through the village, and sharply down again to the single track of New Bridge. I reminded Mycroft of his promise to “elucidate” our mysteries as we travelled, but he pursed his lips, steered slowly up through the pine-canopied ‘S’-bends of the valley’s side, and said he needed to concentrate on the road. There would be revelations, but “later, later, all in good time”.
“Not as if we’re short of an enigma or two,” muttered Lestrade, and squinting hard at me, he nodded meaningfully at the space above and beside Mycroft’s head, just beneath the Bentley’s courtesy light. I couldn’t get his drift, and raised my eyebrows, frowning. Lestrade nodded again, with vigour, at a place where Mycroft’s halo might have spun, had he earned one, then jerked his right thumb minimally towards the front driver’s side window, and his left towards the passenger’s side. “Well?” he mouthed. I mouthed back: “what am I looking for?” and he mimed smiting his brow with his palm and sank into the leather seat with a sigh.
The afternoon gave way to dusk as we snaked eastward out of Tavistock and upward onto the moor. The leonine stacks of Vixen Tor revolved and faded among indigo shadows and then the road broadened across a high plateau until eventually, a little past Merrivale, we turned into a bumpy lane – perhaps the former route of narrow-gauge railway track – which rose and fell and twisted through abandoned settlements and quarries until finally we drove between the rusting iron gates of a fearsome and ancient Gothic pile.
“Wilder Hall,” barked Mycroft. “Go inside. I’ll park the car, scout round, and join you later in the house.”
“What were you trying to show me?” I asked Lestrade as we pushed open the front door.
“Nothing,” the detective replied.
“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing? It was as if you were performing in pantomime.”
“Nothing. Where the mirrors should have been. Nothing. The driver’s mirror, the wing mirrors – nothing there.”
“Perhaps it’s to do with the antiquity of the car? It is a veteran model...”
“Oh, never mind.” Lestrade sighed again. “Come on. Look. Here.”
A bar of light shone beneath one of the doors off the hall, which Lestrade now pushed open. Holmes sprang to his feet from an armchair by the fire; there was an odd blur for a moment beside him, and a whir as of feathers in the air – then an odour of lemon mixed with the scent of burning coals and applewood.
We heard a series of wingbeats and croaks ascending outside.
“Cormorant,” observed Lestrade, then, “why, where’s that lavender smell coming from?”
“Yes, yes,” Holmes said, breathing a little heavily and straightening his coat and trousers. “Lavender for you, Lestrade, and an air of lemons for you, Watson, and for me, the dark, wicked redolence of patchouli. But her difficulty, you see, is that she can never be in company – never with more than one man at a time. But still, maybe even now she’s upstairs tempting Father Entwistle from his afternoon nap with the aroma of the Magdalene, eh?”
“She?” I said. “But who is she, Holmes? Please tell us.”
“Ah, who indeed? Time might bring an answer. But – well, whoever you want her to be, I suppose.”
“Another mystery?” I complained. “Perhaps we should add it to the list that brother Mycroft has promised to explicate.”
“Mycroft?” said Holmes sharply. “Here already? So. The game is nearly done. No matter. Sit gentlemen. Sit.”
Lestrade, loosening his paisley cravat, took a place on a wooden settle, opposite Holmes at the fireside. “It might appear,” he said tentatively, “that there is a question to be asked about whether you actually have a brother at all?”
Holmes laughed, a little ruefully. “Talking of families, do either of you remember what I said about Rusbridger and his father?”
“That nothing exerts a stronger effect upon a child than the point at which his father’s life failed,” said Lestrade. “Strikes me now it might be apposite to your own case, Holmes.”
“What sages we both are, Lestrade. But wait - what about Rusbridger himself? Does anything I said about him spring back into either of your minds?”
“If I recall correctly,” I picked up, “when I remarked that Rusbridger’s being hung naked over the viaduct was like bait for a giant fish, you agreed that’s exactly what it was, and wondered precisely whom he was bait for.”
“Indeed I did. Well, he was bait for me.”
“What? For you?”
“Of course he was. Some years ago, as you’ll remember, I unravelled the connection between his father, a lap-dancing club, a beach hut in Whitstable, and some British Telecom shares, so in revenge he willingly played his part and dangled, with a few delicious refinements – nudity, a bicycle, car keys, just the sort of stuff to intrigue me – above the place where my father lobbed the Cathedral plate into the River Tamar. Ha! Idiot that I was to suppose that the trove might still be there, with fisherman passing back and forth beneath the viaduct on every tide since. It seems I have all but check-mated myself.”
There was, in fact, a chess board beside Holmes, placed on an ivory-inlaid table, with the pieces set as if in mid-game and scattered with a little ash from Holmes's pipe and from a cigarette – but some of the figurines were alien to me, and instead of the customary pattern of eight squares by eight, the board had twelve squares by twelve.
“What is that strange travesty of a chess set, Holmes?” I asked.
“This? Oh, this is Grande Acedrex, Great Chess, played on a hundred and forty-four squares. Do you see these pieces that have no role in your conventional game? The gryphon here moves one square diagonally then travels straight as many as you please. And this one, the unicorn, begins like the knight and continues as if it were a bishop. Here’s a lion, which can leap four squares in any direction. This is the cocatrice, and this the giraffe...”
Lestrade cleared his throat. Then he yawned.
“The set belonged to my father,” Holmes persevered. “He obtained it from Spain, where it was owned in the 13th century by Alfonso the Tenth, who was called ‘the wise’. Like Alfonso, my father was beguiled by heterodoxy. Like Alfonso, he did not renounce Christianity, but saw certain suggestive affinities between Christian metaphysics and the Kabala of Judaism, the mystical Sufis of Islam, aspects of Neoplatonism, and various arcana and formulae from the Hermetica – and in an alembic of all these resonating influences he thought he saw stirring a transfiguring force that had long haunted history but seldom materialised. Unfortunately, though, while Alfonso was King of Castile and Leon at the zenith of the Muslims’ Iberian ascendancy, my father was the Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard in crusty old Christian England.”
“What happened?” asked Lestrade who had, I noticed, unobtrusively got out his notebook.
Holmes gazed into the fire. “Like Alfonso, and, for that matter, like Phillipus Aureolus Bombast von Hohenheim, to whom I drew your attention in Calstock, and like a very few others, visionaries and heretics all, my father came to believed that the universe resembled a giant, esoteric harmonium, kept in tune by its cunning Maker, and in the harmony of its chords all phenomena were conjoined in multifarious patterns – flowers, trees, limbs, bodily organs and musical keys, animals, days of the week, signs of the zodiac, planets, precious stones... and so on, et cetera, in a network of correspondences for which diligence might uncover a supercelestial index.”
“Could you do anything useful with it?” asked Lestrade, shifting his buttocks on the elm planks of the settle.
“Oh indeed, yes. Get the combinations right and you had a measure of control over nature. Or so they thought.”
“Sounds harmless enough, compared with some ecclesiastical eccentricities,” I remarked, trying to lighten the mood.
“Unfortunately, a girl died,” said Holmes.
“Oh, my God. How?”
Lestrade licked his pencil.
“Oh, she would have died anyway,” said Holmes, “but you know how it is? There are a number of peculiar but familiar stories which leave the media powerless – by which I mean, particular indications in these stories trap journalists into a specific narrative from which they find it impossible to escape, however innocent the overture, however fictional the ultimate presentation. In this case, I give you the victim child, the satanic bishop, and his wicked spells and potions. And so on.
“The girl was 11, daughter of some parishioners who were newly back from the colonies. She had some ghastly tropical disease, I don’t know what it was, nobody knew what it was, attacking her liver, and my stupid, well-meaning father offered a private service of intercession and brought her here. Look.”
Holmes got up and went to the main table. He removed a green baize cloth to reveal a mass of manuscripts and an extraordinary assembly of interconnected apparatus – tubes, retorts, dishes, stills, burners – which looked like a charred, begrimed and twisted parody of the equipment in his own laboratory at 221b Baker Street. He grimaced as he saw it, and recited softly:
“Here stands the gear that I have never touched,
My father’s stuff, bequeathed to be my prison,
With scrolls of vellum, blackened and besmutched.
Where the desk-lamp’s dismal smoke has risen
“He brought her here, as I say, and, well, I really don’t know what the constituent elements were that he arranged for her: but, say, an emerald, vipers’ bugloss, skin of a rabbit, poems by Spenser, bark from an aspen, music by Lawes, kippers and cream, a shoelace, perhaps, mumbo jumbo, using only his thumb, gibberish, balderdash, all on a Tuesday, under the aspect of Aries, with a corncrake’s feather and more added nonsense and a soupcon of tosh. No damage was done, nothing changed in the young lady’s condition, but she went home and as predicted by all, a few days later she turned up her toes; my father’s valet sneaked and took the red-tops’ shilling and the hacks made up the rest.
“Papa was defrocked and fled – to Malaya, I think – hurling the Cathedral’s treasures over the viaduct and into the Tamar out of spite. He never told me where he was going, and he was so ashamed of his exposure, of the image of himself he saw thrown back in the mirror of the Press, that he never got in touch with me again. And so I wept for the very last time, out there on the moor, before changing my name and moving to London and embarking on a new life.”
“And?” said Lestrade.
“And what?” said Holmes, irritably.
“And why are we here?”
“You don’t exactly brim with compassion, do you, Lestrade?” said Holmes.
“I’m a London copper. A red top reader.” Lestrade grinned. “They’re often right, you know, the hacks. Your old man may not have been a murderer, but he thought he was a wizard, so he was a bit of a weirdo after all, eh?” And he looked at my friend as if to add, “like father...”
“I was eighteen, and as I say, almost destroyed,” Holmes continued briskly, resuming his seat by the fire. He took out his pipe, looked at it, and returned it to his pocket. “The day I realised my father had fled, and fled for good, I staggered out of here, raging, into the Spring sunshine, and stamped across the moor to the old Combe Cross. I cursed the church, but more, and with much more venom, I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I been able to read my father’s behaviour? Why hadn’t I deduced from the drift and growth of his obsessions where a dangerous addiction to the occult might take him? Why had I failed to construct a profile and a prognosis from the books he was buying, the artefacts he was collecting, the habits he was developing? Why was I blind, in other words, to what was staring me in the face. I raised my eyes to the Heavens and begged for clairvoyance, for percipience, for the sheer rigour of observation which would allow me to pierce the veils and comprehend the inner workings of the human mind and its motivations. Why, for a gift like that, I cried, I’d even surrender the priceless immortal soul that my father had insisted smouldered perpetually inside me.”
The fire seemed to groan, and the chimney belched noxious smoke into the room.
Again, Lestrade said softly, “And?” He drew his cravat over his nose while I opened the window.
Holmes stared away, reliving the scene. “Something black came running towards me over the moors, through the gorse and furze, bounding from tussock to tussock and rock to rock. For a moment I thought it was the beast of the moor, then more prosaically, a calf, but when the creature neared I realised it was a black dog – a Labradoodle. But when it reached me...” He coughed, and stopped.
“Yes?” Lestrade persisted.
“It stood up on its back legs and became...”
Again. “Yes?”
Then Holmes said, curtly, “come and join us, Mycroft. Come in. Enter. You see, gentlemen? I have to invite him three times?” And at last the portly figure in its black coat with black-braided lapels, and blue-black waistcoat, and shining black boots, climbed through the open window and strolled over to join us by the fire.
“The dog became your brother Mycroft?” I gasped.
“My Mephistopheles,” Holmes replied.


Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Facebook of Sherlock Holmes (Pt 6): Of detectives and detection

Was the hiss emitted by the lifting bottle-cap, or Lestrade’s plump lips? Difficult to tell, but without doubt there was a trace of parody in the Scotland Yard man’s tone when he remarked, putting the metal opener down and pouring his beer into a glass, “this, I think, is a triple White Shield problem.”
The two of us were sitting on scuffed, dun-coloured leather armchairs in the seedy, dun-coloured parlour of Webb’s Hotel in Liskeard, which the unexpected sunlight of this October afternoon failed to penetrate through either of two tall, cobwebbed and mossy windows. Lestrade had just joined me, a sheaf of papers on his lap, all written over in his own distinctively thin and wavering hand (“a penmanship that looks,” Holmes had once remarked, “as if a bluebottle had lately escaped from a bottle of whisky into a bottle of blue-black Quink and then gone staggering across a notepad.”)
There was a bluebottle, now, rubbing its forelegs together in one of the little rings of beer Lestrade’s glass was leaving on the yellow formica-top of our table.
“Brother Mycroft? Get hold of him in the end?” Lestrade asked, swatting at the fly with his papers. It took off, circled, landed on the detective’s head, and when he angrily brushed it away, went back to his beer.
“At the third attempt, yes.”
After my friend had – perhaps unsurprisingly – begged a private audience with the priest, I’d left Holmes with Father Entwistle and gone straight to find Lestrade with my news (either sensational or farcical: as yet, who knew which?) of the newly disclosed allegations about Holmes’s parentage. Sensibly, Lestrade had suggested that we head straight for Liskeard, a part of the see in which Holmes’s father was supposed to have been a Bishop, and the likeliest place to yield a copy of Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
Lestrade had taxed me with the raising of Mycroft, which I first tried to do via Facebook on Holmes’s laptop in his hotel bedroom. I remember a cormorant landing on the windowsill and staring hungrily – or so it seemed – into my eyes just at the very moment the broadband gave out. My next endeavour took the form of a text message, after we’d set off. In reply, I received a stream of unintelligible algebraic symbols. I turned the screen of my mobile to show Lestrade, glanced out of the train and was convinced that our Labradoodle was bounding through the fields beside us. “Look!” I cried. “That dog...”
“A calf,” said Lestrade, tersely. “Try texting again.”
“Can’t. No signal, now. Are you sure?” For the ‘calf’ had just leapt a hedge.
“All right then, a panther,” said Lestrade. “The beast of Bodmin.”
But whichever creature it was, the animal ducked into a birch wood and was gone. Meanwhile we were now so deep in a valley that all hope of phone contact was lost until we reached Liskeard.
Now I was able to tell Lestrade, who had gone to the lending library before joining me at Webb’s, that I had at length used the hotel landline to reach Mycroft Holmes through the porter’s lodge at the Diogenes club.
“He’s on his way.”
“What did you tell him?”
“Very little. The Webb concierge was keen to overhear me.”
“This is a rum business, doctor,” said Lestrade. “Turns out there was a Bishop of Bodmin and Liskeard with the unlikely name of Arthur Plynnfarlong, that he was cashiered for some species of heresy, and that he had just the one son by just the one wife, Shirley, née Holmes, who died in childbirth. What do you make of that?”
“Great heavens. Shirley Holmes? Blow me down.”
“No, doctor. Not that. One son.”
“I don’t follow you?”
“Grief man. Was it Mycroft or Sherlock? It can’t be the both of them if he was Dad to a singleton, can it?”
“Great heavens.”
“So you say, quite often. Well listen, my friend” – and Lestrade swigged his beer then spat, for the fly had moved to the rim of his glass; the insect shot out from his lips, looped the loop, then zigzagged away – “we need to talk about our chum Sherlock Holmes. There’s things don’t add up.”
“For example, what?” I asked, with some heat.
“For example, in your preliminary notes on the man,” (and here Lestrade spread his own shabby papers upon the formica) “which you published in the reminiscence named ‘A Study in Scarlet’, you say, inter alia, ‘knowledge of philosophy, nil’, and, ‘knows nothing of practical gardening’.”
“Yes? And?”
“And then, Doctor Watson, in a collection of reports you gathered under the title ‘His Last Bow’, you remark that ‘friends of Mr Sherlock Holmes will be glad to learn that he has, for many years, lived in a small farm upon the Downs five miles from Eastbourne, where his time is divided between philosophy and agriculture’.”
“When the recession began to bite, of course, he left Sussex to rejoin me in Baker Street.”
“Hmm. Forgive me, but you’re prevaricating just a little, I think.” Lestrade dropped one sheet of paper on the floor and took up another. “Now. Here we have third little yarn of yours, with a deceptively dull title, ‘The Cardboard Box’. I quote: ‘As to my companion [which is, of course, Mr Holmes], neither the country nor the sea presented the slightest attraction to him. He loved to lie in the very centre of five millions of people, with his filaments stretching out and running through them, responsive to every little rumour or suspicion of unsolved crime. Appreciation of nature found no place among his many gifts’.”
“Rather mellifluously put, don’t you think?”
“Indeed, but hardly accurate if we are to believe this next bit of reportage.” Lestrade cleared his throat, drank again, and continued thus, somewhat to my embarrassment: “The adventure, as you call it, of the ‘Lion’s Mane’ occurs, Holmes says, and this is his direct speech, as set down by you, ‘after my withdrawal to my little Sussex home, when I had given myself up entirely to that soothing life of Nature for which I had so often yearned during the long years I spent amid the gloom of London... On the morning of which I speak the wind had abated, and all Nature was newly washed and fresh. It was impossible to work upon so delightful a day, and I strolled out before breakfast to enjoy the exquisite air’.” Well? Did you never observe the inconsistency? His enraptured stroll, by the way, takes him through the countryside and down to the sea.”
“I... I... well, people change, don’t they?”
“Oh, come off it,” sneered Lestrade. “He always says you’re not the brightest pin in the cushion, but really, doctor, really, wake up and try to shine a little. This isn’t change you describe, it’s the invasion of the body snatchers. Given that you portray Mr Holmes several times as a master of disguise, are you sure, what with the wild disparity of your descriptions of his favoured and unfavoured disciplines and predilections, that there haven’t actually been two or even three different Sherlock Holmeses sharing your digs in Marylebone, London NW1?”
“I think,” said a portwine voice from behind us, “that we should cease this casuistical squabbling and address ourselves forthwith to my brother’s welfare.”
“Mycroft?” I was stupefied. “How the devil did you reach us so swiftly?”
“Why, by the quickest route, clearly,” he replied. “Needs must, and so forth.” The older of the Holmes brothers was sitting on the velvet-covered stool beside the parlour’s old piano. It occurred to me that his habitual garb, sober and severe, a black coat with black-braided lapels and a blue-black waistcoat, was not unepiscopal. His bald head shone and his pewter-coloured, close-shaven chins gleamed and wobbled. But his eyes, as ever, were cold.
“Where is your brother, then?” asked Lestrade.
“Entwistle is taking him to Wilder Hall on Dartmoor, seat of our father’s exile. I sense danger, real and imminent. Come. My car is outside. There are mysteries, I know, but I can elucidate them as we travel.”
Lestrade grabbed an unopened bottle of White Shield and thrust it into his trouser pocket . Mycroft opened the door to usher us into the lobby, but his way was blocked by the concierge, who said: “Sorry, gentlemen, but I’ve had to bolt up the front. Beer delivery. The hatches are open. Health and safety, you know? Wouldn’t want you plunging into the cellarage. This way, if you don’t mind.”
He tried to shepherd us back along a narrow, dingy corridor, but Mycroft was seized with what seemed a mixture of panic and rage, screaming, “I must go out at the front. I must.” And he barged past the concierge, unbolted the door, and rushed into the square, breathing stertorously and clawing at his brow.
“Well, goodness me,” I murmured to Lestrade. “I wonder what that was about?”
“What indeed?” Lestrade replied, helping the concierge to his feet. “And three times, as well, you had to ask him to come. These are deep waters, as our mutual friend might aver. I sense, doctor, that we might be getting out of our depths.”