Friday, 21 August 2015

A Shaggy Dog

… as told by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but, even so, there may still be one or two erroneous deductions …

When Charles Doyle took his wife Mary up the wooden hill one night in August 1858, little could they have suspected that they were about to produce one of the great names of English Literature. And what a name it turned out to be too, seeing that it’s actually Arthur Ignatius Conan Doyle – he kept the Ignatius bit quiet, didn’t he? – the dad being no stranger to originality in the christening department, having Altamont for his own middle name, but it was probably the mum, an Irish Catholic, who came up with the actual Ignatius, after the Spanish saint who founded the Jesuits but who also wasn’t too honest about his name, being as that was actually Inigo. It might have been that he just wanted to make himself sound a bit posher by upgrading to Ignatius, which may also be the case with our man too when, soon after graduating from high school, he decided to start using his Conan as part of a compound surname, to give the impression that he was a double-barrelled somebody and not just an unknown Scottish medical student called plain old Doyle, which is the name he was knighted under in 1902 – for a non-fiction work on the Boer War. The cataloguers of the British Library, and of Birkbeck Library too, treat Doyle alone as his surname, so don’t waste your time looking in the Cs for his works. Conan, incidentally, is also a saint, from the seventh century. Ironically, however, and at an early age, Arthur turned agnostic, though in later life though he would become a spiritualist mystic, which is what his anecdote is all about.

From 1876 to 1881, Doyle studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh before setting up in medical practice where, legend has it, patients were so few and far between that he took up the pen in order to pass the time. Between 1888 and 1906, he wrote seven historical novels, which he and others considered to be his very finest works, including no less a figure than Winston Churchill. Doyle also authored nine other novels, numerous short stories, plays, romances, poetry and non-fiction plus, along the way, he came up with the characters of the irascible scientist, Professor Challenger, featured in his best-known “other” work, The Lost World, and Brigadier Gerard. Not content with that, he went on to popularise the mystery of the Mary Celeste and couldn’t resist adding one or two myths to the history, such as that the ship was in perfect condition when it was discovered (it was taking on water), that all the lifeboats were still there (one was missing), and even changing the name to Marie Celeste. When he wasn’t busy wordsmithing, he liked nothing better than a spot of sport, being a lifelong fan of boxing (writing some of the most tedious pages ever to fall from the pen of man in stories on that subject), playing in goal for amateur side Portsmouth Association Football Club – there is some dispute as to whether this club, disbanded in 1896, has any connection with today’s Portsmouth F.C., founded in 1898, though Doyle was never a professional goalie – as well as being an avid cricketer, turning out ten times for the MCC, where his highest score was forty three and his figures for bowling record him having taken just the one wicket, though that did belong to a certain W.G. Grace. He also played for an amateur side whose teamsheet included the names of J. M. Barrie (the Peter Pan man) and A. A. Milne (he of Winnie-the-Pooh). Which may explain why Doyle spent so much of his later life away with the fairies.

But it was in 1886 that he came up with his greatest literary invention: that of the world’s first consulting detective. In true Doylean tradition, he felt honour-bound to saddle his creation with some unlikely and impressive-sounding name, so he came up with Sherringford Hope. The wife hated it (she would later become the first wife, can’t think why) and gave it an emphatic No Dear thumbs down, telling him to think again. Digging back into his cricketing days, so the story goes, he remembered a pair of Nottinghamshire players, T. F. Shacklock and Mordecai Sherwin, so he bunged the two together and ended up with Sherlock, the Holmes part coming from Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician and author of the period. This time, the wife approved and Sherlock Holmes was born. A similarly ticklish situation evolved when it came to Holmes’ constant companion and biographer, originally to be known (frightfully) as Ormand Sacker until, we assume, Mrs Doyle got to hear of it and made him settle for the much more ordinary John H. Watson. As we know, Holmes was largely based on Doyle’s university lecturer, Joseph Bell (who could, in fact, deduce a compositor from his thumbnail), so much so that Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to Doyle asking, “Can this be my old friend Joe Bell?” Equally well-known are the facts that the Holmes stories were (mostly) narrated in the first person by his rather less-gifted sidekick, thrown in to present the opportunity for Holmes to explain his brilliant deductions, and that, by 1893, Doyle had become so fed up with the fictional detective taking all the limelight away from his “serious” work that he decided to hurl him into the Reichenbach Falls to get shot of him. The public, however, weren’t having any of that and demanded a comeback so, in order to put the publishers off, Doyle upped his prices to a ridiculous level, which failed to keep him free of Holmes and merely resulted in his becoming fabulously wealthy.

Doyle had a sister and, when it came to the naming game, the parents hadn’t stinted there either, plumping for Constance Aimée Monica Doyle, the Aimée part, complete with convincing accent, being a sort of French version of What’s Not To Like, seeing she was described as “being attractive, with pre-Raphaelite looks” and also “the most sought-after of the Doyle daughters.” Great things were expected of her in the marriage stakes, so Arthur was somewhat miffed when who should come sniffing around but a fellow writer in the shape of Ernest William Hornung, who would prove to be something of an all-round rival for Doyle, being a cricketer in his own right and mates with the likes of Jerome K. Jerome and Oscar Wilde. Not to mention being a successful author of highly popular stories, though of a completely different nature altogether to those of Doyle’s, Hornung telling tales of the adventures of a brilliant man, related in the first person from the viewpoint of a less-impressive sidekick, there mainly to have things explained to him, but his hero being a gentleman thief, so therefore not at all copied from the idea of Holmes and Watson. Or Hope and Sacker, as we might well have ended up with, had it not been for the insight of the first Mrs Doyle – the only Mrs Doyle, as it turned out, the second wife being known as Mrs Conan Doyle. Hornung’s creation was, of course, A.J. Raffles, along with his companion, Harry “Bunny” Manvers, and he dedicated the first volume of stories, The Amateur Cracksman, to Doyle as “a form of flattery”, even giving Raffles the name Arthur, though such obvious toadying did him little good because Doyle never turned up to the wedding when Hornung married Connie in September 1893. The couple even called their first child Arthur Oscar, the first after Doyle and the latter after Wilde, upon whom Raffles is supposedly based.

Despite the fact that the relationship between the two writers was often strained, they were not at all averse to heading out together of an evening for a few jars and, on such occasions, as we can well imagine, the situation could have developed into one not unlike that of Holmes to Watson or even Raffles to Bunny, with the rather pompous and self-opinionated Doyle as the brilliant protagonist and Hornung left with the role of understudy, which can’t have pleased poor Willie in the least. As it goes, on the very night in question, when the events leading up to the Arthur Conan Doyle After-Dinner Anecdote were about to unfold, it was precisely this that Hornung was complaining about, most vociferously, as they wended their way homeward from the Rat and Raven.

‘Now, look here, Doyle,’ Hornung was protesting. ‘Why is it that I always end up as the underling whilst you invariably assume the mantle of intellectual colossus?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ came Doyle’s response. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, by the bye, if you please. The reason for it is a most natural and obvious one. That being, that I am seldom wrong.’
‘So you always say,’ complained Hornung. ‘But what about the Case of the Cottingley Fairies, then? You went round telling everybody how that photograph proved the existence of fairies and in the end it turned out to be an elaborate hoax. You were wrong about that one, weren’t you, Doyle?’

‘Mere froth and bubble, old chap,’ retorted the undaunted knight. ‘And it’s Conan Doyle, if you don’t mind.’

‘In that case, what about that Houdini fellow? The one who said that Spiritualist mediums were all a bunch of tricksters and charlatans, and who then exposed them all as frauds? You were convinced he had supernatural powers and then refused to believe him when he told you his feats of so-called magic were nothing but illusions. You were most certainly wrong about that, weren’t you, Doyle? Then there was the spirit photographer chap, William Hope, who you defended so vehemently when the psychical researcher fellow, Harry Price, showed him up as yet another fraudster. You not only threatened to have him evicted from the National Laboratory of Psychical Research but claimed that, if he persisted in writing “sewage” about spiritualists, he’d end up meeting the same fate as Houdini, didn’t you? And, when Price did prove that Hope was nothing but a con-man – weren’t you originally going to call your consulting detective chappie Hope? – you led a mass walk-out of eighty four members, if I’m not mistaken. Which you clearly were. Pity you weren’t more skilled in the old mindreading department, eh, Doyle? Which, coincidentally enough, could also be said about Julius and Agnes Zancig, if you recall, who you lauded to the heavens for their astonishing – and genuine, you claimed, let’s not forget – psychic powers and telepathic communication. That turned out to be nothing but them using a secret code and another big fat raspberry for Sir Arthur, did it not? And, just while we’re on the subject, how’s that book of yours doing? You know the one: The History of Spiritualism, in which you state repeatedly that Eusapia Palladino and Mina Crandon were capable of producing the most stupendous psychic phenomena and spirit materializations. Right up until the moment they were exposed as swindling scammers of the first water, into whose murky depths they dragged your reputation with them. And, just while we’re on the subject, you’re not above a bit of huckstering yourself, are you, my dear fellow? Not content with the whole Marie Celeste business, you then follow that up by perpetrating your Piltdown Man hoax, complete with counterfeit hominid fossil to fool the whole scientific world, just to get your own back on them for debunking your psychic spiritualist mumbo-jumbo that you never seem to tire of championing. Well, Doyle, old man, what have you got to say about all that then?’
‘It’s Conan Doyle, actually,’ said Conan Doyle. ‘Now, I believe we were discussing Beethoven’s fascination with fruit and the references he made to it throughout his musical oeuvre. Take his Fifth Symphony, for example.’

‘Beethoven’s Fifth?’ seethed the exasperated Hornung. ‘What on earth can Beethoven’s Fifth possibly have to do with fruit?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ replied Doyle. ‘Ba-na-na-NA!’

Fortunately, Hornung’s expletive-ridden response has been lost to posterity as, at that precise moment, they happened to be passing a pizza place and, finding themselves in need of something to soak up all the alcohol sloshing around inside them, they decided to turn in, where Willie promptly ordered a Hawaiian with extra mozzarella, while the rather smug-looking Doyle requested that they prepare him a Buddhist Pizza. Naturally enough, the spotty-faced youth behind the counter had not the faintest idea of what such a thing could be or what toppings might be involved and so, rather ironically, requested enlightenment.

‘It’s perfectly simple,’ explained Doyle. ‘A Buddhist Pizza – it’s One with Everything.’

As they munched their way homeward, they eventually came to the graveyard where, by cutting through, they could take fully ten minutes off their journey time. Doyle, with his Spiritualism and unshakeable belief in fairies and the like, immediately blenched and refused point blank to take that route, at which Hornung leapt at the chance to get one up on the great man at long last, announcing that he wasn’t afraid and how, in that case, he’d see Doyle in the sitting room when he finally got back from going the long way round. And, with that, they parted.

It was some two hours later, with Doyle parked comfortably in an armchair with a copy of the Strand magazine on his knee, that Hornung finally staggered in, white-faced, quivering and visibly shaken. Doyle sprang to his feet and assisted his companion to the sofa.

‘My dear fellow!’ he cried, with genuine concern (they weren’t always at each other’s throats). ‘Whatever can have happened?’
Hornung took a moment to compose himself and then, in a small tremulous voice, described how he had been making his way through the pitch dark, weaving in and out between the scattered headstones, when all at once he became aware of sounds coming in his direction from away in the distance.

‘I could scarce believe my own ears,’ he gasped. ‘Eerie, horrible sounds they were, almost like music but not. Ghastly, it was, and yet, afraid as I was, I found myself being drawn towards them, irresistibly, as if summoned by Sirens. They were getting louder all the time, ringing out haunting and uncanny, like nothing you’ve ever heard before in your life. And then I saw it! Great heavens, Doyle, it was a glow! Right there in all that blackness, luminous and inchoate, hanging like a mist over one small patch of ground, vaguely lighting up the stone that stood to the back of it. I don’t mind admitting, old man, the hairs on my neck fairly stood up like the hackles on a terrified dog and I very nearly turned on my heels and ran for it. But, even then, I couldn’t. All I could do was go on, step by step, getting ever nearer to this hideous apparition, all the while knowing its horror and evil, yet wholly unable to prevent myself from approaching it. There were some words written on that stone and, a moment later, I was able to read them, as plain as I see you now. You won’t believe it, Doyle, but what those words said was simply, ‘Ludwig van Beethoven, 1770-1827’. By now, those dreadful sounds seemed to playing right inside my head until I felt my skull would burst, crashing and ringing like piano chords, yet diabolically distorted somehow, almost as if it was music being played backwards. That’s what they were, Doyle: music being played backwards. In a churchyard. In the dead of night. Coming out of what seemed to be Beethoven’s grave. What on earth can it all signify? I mean, all this music playing backwards. And, hang it all, what was Beethoven doing there in the first place?’

‘Elementary, my dear fellow,’ said Doyle calmly. ‘Music playing backwards from a grave and you ask what Beethoven was doing? It’s perfectly obvious, old man – he was decomposing!’

Arthur Conan Doyle: By Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
W.G. Grace: By Credit: "From photo by E. Hawkins & Co., Brighton" [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes: By Employee(s) of Universal Studios (Photograph in possession of SchroCat) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
E.W. Hornung: By Elliott & Fry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Fairy: Luis Ricardo Falero [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Beethoven: Joseph Karl Stieler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Gravestones in Haworth Churchyard: Author

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