SHERLOCK HOLMES AT THE MUSEUM OF LONDON

By early morning four-wheeler to the Museum of London, for the media preview of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die, the museum’s major exhibition of all things Sherlockian with opens tomorrow (17th). You might think, given the continuing appetite for Holmes, this would be a shoo-in as a blockbuster event. But, as lead curator Alex Werner has said: ‘We found ourselves having to think hard about how you create an exhibition about a fictional character.’
That sentiment alone will raise some hackles. Werner does not subscribe to playing ‘The Great Game’, popular with many Sherlock Holmes societies around the world, in which all pretend that Watson, not Conan Doyle, wrote the stories and that Holmes was flesh and blood (albeit capable of Whovian-like regeneration). So you won’t find a reproduction of the sitting room at 212b Baker St, like the one at the Northumberland Arms near Charing Cross, complete with Persian slipper, violin and a copy of Bradshaw, claiming this was where Holmes tackled his three-pipe problems. Instead, the curators have assembled cabinets of the sort of artefacts Holmes might have come into contact with, without claiming the great man actually handled them (and so you will find an 18th century violin, a selection of service revolvers of the sort Watson and Holmes might have carried, and a case of drug paraphernalia of the correct period).

 

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Then there is question of which Holmes do you concentrate on when creating a show about the world’s only Consulting Detective? There will be some visitors who will be disappointed to find this is not a Cumberfest, although he does appear on screens and his Belstaff ‘Milford’ coat and his dressing gown (originally used by Conan Doyle to suggest Holmes’ “bohemian” qualities) are on display. But it is not a celebration of the BBC version of the Great Detective. In fact, nearly all the Holmes are represented, from the well-known (Brett, Cumberbatch, Rathbone) to the half-remembered (Ian Richardson, Christopher Plummer, Richard Roxburgh), the point being to demonstrate that no matter how many times he is re-imagined, re-located and re-booted, the immutable essence of Holmes lies within Conan Doyle’s 56 short stories and four novels (rare examples of which are on display under glass). And, of course, it lies with the city where Holmes lived and so often worked.Unknown

This being the Museum of London it should come as no surprise that a large part of the show concentrates on the city that fed both Holmes and Conan Doyle, and it is very effective at conjuring up the gaslit, fog-bound streets that the author wrote about. Maps show Holmes and Watson’s movements about the city in several of the tales, and contemporary paintings of a hansom cab stand, the Strand, Piccadilly and “The Bayswater Omnibus” – shown above, as mentioned in The Adventure of the Missing Three Quarter – give visual life to the architectural and cultural backdrop to many of the stories.
So Werner and his team have done an exemplary job of touching all the Holmes bases while maintaining a focus on the city that helped gave life to this remarkably resilient creation. Criticisms? Yes. Not enough Watson. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Dead can Wait PBB front cover

* Sherlock: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die” costs £12/£10 concessions (020 7001 9844, museumoflondon.org.uk/sherlock).

MY LUNCH WITH SHERLOCK

There are many sites of pilgrimage for Sherlock fans in London (The Criterion, St Bart’s, Baker St), but one that is often overlooked is The Langham Hotel, which sits in splendid grandeur opposite the BBC in Portland Place. A regular haunt of Arthur Conan Doyle, not only does it feature in A Scandal in Bohemia, The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax and The Sign of Four, it was also the venue for a memorable dinner which, arguably, ensured Sherlock became the iconic character he is today.

9. The Sign of Four

       It was on 30th August, 1889, that Conan Doyle accepted an invitation to dine with Joseph Marshall Stoddart, Managing Editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, who was in town looking for UK writers for the US publication, and Oscar Wilde. It was, Conan Doyle, later said, ‘a magical evening’, and from it came The Sign of Four, Holmes’s second outing, and, from Wilde, the not inconsiderable The Picture of Dorian Gray. (There are those who claim the playfulness in some of the Holmes stories was a direct result of Conan Doyle meeting the legendarily witty Wilde.)

7. The Sign of Four

       As Nicholas Utechin, historian for the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, points out, at this juncture Holmes was a moribund character. He had appeared in A Study in Scarlet in Beeton’s Christmas Annual of 1887, but it garnered scant attention, and it was by no means certain he would appear again. ‘The Langham dinner revived a career that was all but comatose,’ says Utechin.

       Last Monday, the 29th of September, Chris King, Head Chef of Roux at the Landau restaurant in The Langham recreated (or rather re-booted) the type of menu the men would have enjoyed at dinner, using a Victorian menu from the archives as a template. I was fortunate enough to be invited. The lunch included a beautifully intense consommé with shaved turnips and seared foie gras; dover sole in vermouth, tarragon and shimeji (mushrooms possibly not on the original list); rib of beef from the trolley and cheese with straw, praline and dandelion (see below).

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Original Victorian Langham menu... with ads...

Original Victorian Langham menu… with ads…

Between the beef and the cheese was a surprise course – a chance to view the original first page of the manuscript of what was then called The Sign of The Four (the second definite article being dropped later). It, famously, opens with a description of Holmes and his notorious seven per cent solution:

The first manuscript page of ‘The Sign of Four’ by Arthur Co

       This precious relic has been loaned by the University of California Audrey Geisel University Library at the University of California in San Diego. Sadly, the rest of the m/s is in the hands of a private collector, but that one page of meticulous, very lightly corrected handwriting will be on display in the Museum of London’s “Sherlock: The Man Who Never lived And Will Never Die” (£12/£10) exhibition. This installation covers all aspects of Sherlock’s career, from the writings to Gillette on stage, silent films, right up to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Belstaff coat, and runs from October 17-until April 2015. See museumoflondon.org.uk. 

 10. The Sign of Four

 

 

 

 

 

MY LUNCH WITH JEFF – THE MUSICAL

On November 18 a piece of music will be premiered at the Queen Elizabeth Hall that owes its existence to a lunch I once had with Jeffrey Bernard (below).

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A few months ago, I received two phone calls, a day apart, both concerning Soho. One was from the Groucho Club, asking if I had any anecdotes to contribute to a compendium it was compiling for its 30th anniversary. The other was from Guy Barker, saying he had a hankering to write a piece based on Soho for the BBC Concert Orchestra (he is Associate Composer there). However, he was staring at a blank page (well, actually a screen of the Sibelius programme) and needed a framework. Did I have any ideas for a skeleton he could flesh out with his music? We have done this before, with dZf, a re-working of the Magic Flute, and last year That Obscure Hurt, a Henry James/Britten-inspired piece. I give Guy a narrative; he builds his music around it.

Both phone calls, it seemed to me, could involve a story told to me by Jeff when, back in 1987, I interviewed him over a rather disastrous lunch at the back of the Groucho Club brasserie, when he fell asleep in the soup – the only time I have ever had to save a man from death by pea and ham. Anyway, he described an incident involving himself, the Colony Room, Francis Bacon & Co, a window cleaner’s ladder and more profanity than can be repeated here.

I wrote up the story for the Groucho and then met with Guy and said I would like to make that story at least part of the ‘Soho Symphony’ as we began to call it. I talked over other locations and tall tales we could include. I ended up with the task of combining Bar Italia, Mozart, Ronnie Scott’s, Archer St, a serial killer, the French, the Protestant church on Soho Square, Pizza Express, 20th Century Fox, ‘Fifis’ (the French and Belgian working girls of the 1950s), all-nighters at the Flamingo Club, late night drinking at Gerry’s, Harrison Marks, Paul Raymond, The Black Gardenia and, of course, that Groucho lunch, among many others.

And so, I wrote a short story that is (very, very loosely) inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses (but, you know, more readable), about a boy failing to meet a girl and spending 24 hours wandering around the streets of Soho, among its ghosts, its music and its memories, and meeting Jeff with his ladder. To paraphrase the producer/writer Kip Hanrahan, I gave this piece of pressed tin to Guy Barker who proceeded to turn it into rolled gold.

It will be played at an ‘orchestral jazz’ concert – although Guy’s piece does not feature his usual jazz band, it is for the BBC C.O. only – featuring the symphony, plus the excellent saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, and the vocal legend that is Norma Winstone, at the QEH on November 18, as part of the London Jazz Festival (see http://tinyurl.com/mff9g6n).

FIRE IN THE SKY

In San Sebastian, you know things are about to kick off when Jesus goes out. I am just back from the firework contest there, which involves manufacturers from several countries (this year, Spain, Italy and Austria) setting off thousands of pounds’ worth of explosives every night at 22.45, an event signalled by the illuminated on the ‘Sacred Heart’ statue of Jesus that overlooks the town being switched off. I’ll write about it further nearer the time next year, no doubt, but it is spectacular and, although busy, a great time to be in one of the best seaside cities in Europe.

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We stayed on the Gros side of town, near the Zurriola surf beach, which has a great selection of pintxos bars (Hidalgo 56, Bodega Donostiarra, Senra) and good value restaurants (especially along Calle Zabaleta) that don’t suffer from the scrum afflicting the Old Town. You can see the fireworks from the beach here, too. You also get very generous G&Ts hereabouts (these below at the Ondarra Bar almost opposite the Kursaal conference/arts centre), which help the evening go with a different kind of bang.

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BELGIAN INTERLUDE

Berlin InterRail will be along shortly; meanwhile, here is some music….

There was a moment during Melanie de Biasio’s performance at the Purcell Room on the Southbank the other night when, as a fan of light framed her uplifted face, I felt as if I was watching Ingrid Bergman playing Joan of Arc re-incarnated with the voice of Abbey Lincoln fronting a Belgian version of The Necks.

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Certainly anyone who popped along because of the tag ‘the Belgian Billie Holiday’ that she is often saddled with was in for a surprise. This was strange fruit all right, a cross pollination of jazz, blues, trip-hop, post-rock and late Talk Talk and it certainly wasn’t a singer showing off her chops with a succession of torch songs or standards. If anything, she used the power of her spine-tingly voice too sparingly, often simply breathing out phrases or single words to wrap around the repetitive, sometimes languorous patterns created by a band consisting of piano, keyboards (clavinet, synths) and drums. But that meant when she did let rip, it counted, and hairs stood up on necks.
In a short, intense, one-hour set she played most of new (also short) album No Deal (Play it Again Sam records) with parts of A Stomach Is Burning, her less minimal debut from a couple of years ago. It was effectively one single, stripped-down sixty-minute song, building to the wonderful I’m Gonna Leave You. The two keyboards players added mostly texture and a skeletal framework for the tunes – no long noodly jazz solos here – while drummer Dre Pallemaerts ably supplied the rhythmic heft (and the singer added smoky stabs of flute). It was an unsettling – on a good way – monochrome show, a little like the drawings that come with the album, and was brilliantly lit, creating a close, clubby atmosphere in the sometimes sterile Purcell Room.
It’s all too rare to come away from a gig thinking: well, I haven’t seen anything like that recently, but Melanie De Biasio (who is highly rated by Jamie Cullum and Gilles Peterson) will leave you scratching your head and producing weird combos of artists to explain her to those who don’t yet know her sound. Although possibly none as odd as Joan of Arc.

http://www.melaniedebiasio.

A BERLIN HIGH LINE?

I have a soft spot for Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, which was built between 1934-36 and mothballed seventy-odd years later. Yes, it is a symbol of Nazi Germany but, even though its pedigree is suspect, the audacious sweep of the curved building, the 50m-wide canopy to cover the aircraft and its intimidating scale – like all Nazi-era public buildings it was intended to make you feel very small indeed – was and is very impressive.

Souce: Berliner Flughäfen/Archiv

Souce: Berliner Flughäfen/Archiv

Sir Norman Foster called it the ‘mother of all airports’ – after all, the main terminal building is a stunning 1.2 kilometres long. It also featured in my novel about the Berlin Airlift of 1948, Dying Day, re-issued this week by Open Road as an e-book in the USA (see http://www.openroadmedia.com) and I spent a fair amount of time back in 2006-7 poking around the airport.

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So I thought it was a shame when Tempelhof closed to air traffic in 2008. Since then it has entered a twilight phase – the main runways have morphed into a popular public park, but the vast and iconic terminal buildings are only used for ad hoc fashion and music events. A recent conversation with Burkhard Kieker, CEO of Berlin Tourism, however, suggested that there might be an interesting future for the building.  ‘A long section of the roof was designed to support a hundred thousand people – so they could welcome Hitler when he landed and listen to his speeches. My vision is to turn that into something like the High Line in New York – an aerial park, with trees and shrubs and cafes.’

It’s a great idea. Much is being made by Berlin of the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down in November. 2018, though, is the 70th anniversary of the  Airlift, an almost equally important bookmark in the city’s history. It would be very apposite to have something opening on the roof of Tempelhof by then, overlooking the field where the constant flights saved the city from starvation.

WELCOME TO HOTEL NUCLEAR

The Hotel Jalta sits in a prime spot on Wenceslas Square in central Prague. It’s tall and imposing, as it should be given its vintage: the Jalta opened in 1958, when Prague was in thrall to Moscow and public buildings had statements to make. The Jalta, though, is not just another brutalist piece of Socialist Realism. Instead, its lines, both inside and out, are softened by Art Deco and Nouveau touches – the figures carved on the facade, the balustrade of the sweeping staircases and the geometric patterns on the stone- and metalwork. True, the corridors are wide enough to drive a tank down, just in case guests got uppity, so the proportions are definitely in the mode of so-called Stalinist Baroque, but the architect, Antonín Tenzer, did a brilliant job of softening the totalitarian feel of such buildings.

Hotel Jalta Exterior
Nobody is quite sure how Tenzer got away with this subtle celebration of western decadence. Some say he had the ear of the Czechoslovakian president at the time of construction, Antonín Zápotocký, others that he was allowed a little leeway in return for keeping schtum about one of the hotel’s most intriguing amenities – its built-in nuclear bunker.

Papers, please

Papers, please

The subterranean shelter was the first part of the Jalta to be built, the hotel’s construction being a perfect cover for the surreptitious excavations needed. Able to house 150 people, with its own underground water supply and hospital, it was intended to be a Warsaw Pact command centre should, say, Moscow be knocked out in a ICBM strike, as well a bolt-hole for the Czech government.
The Jalta is still open for business, these days as a rather nice 99-room boutique hotel and restaurant (Como), but so is the nuclear bunker. By booking in advance (and paying £2.25) you can tour some of the rooms that have so far been opened to the public. Access is via steep stairs and through a hefty blast door. There are various stagy exhibits and artifacts, but the real star is the structure itself, which comes with what look like torpedo tubes, that are in fact ventilation and communication tunnels that lead to….well, nobody is quite sure. The full extent of the bunker is yet to be established. My guide to Prague, Eva Vondrusová, said: ‘Jalta was where the visiting foreigners all came and stayed. There was even a nightclub. And prostitutes, which was against the law, but nevertheless everyone knew the girls in the basement of the Jalta were for sale.’

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The reason for this laissez-fare by the authorities is clear from an artifact sitting on a desk in one of the rooms – the Czech State Security’s switchboard. It looks like an ordinary old-fashioned wire-and-plug telephone exchange, but in fact this was the device with which the StB could activate the bugs in the rooms. On the hotel plan above the switchboard, the VIP rooms, where journalists and politicians were housed (with, the StB doubtless hoped, the odd call girl or two), are coloured red, so the listeners knew which rooms to go for first.
Eva tells me that the system led to some Le Carre-like tradecraft among the visitors. ‘When the reports of the listening devices were declassified, lots of them said that the operators couldn’t hear the conversation because of loud music or the shower was running. Everyone knew everywhere was bugged – and even the bunker was an open secret. When the Jalta manager was asked who in the hotel knew about the secret bunker, he said everyone who worked here. But those were the days when it was best you said nothing.’ Little wonder that almost everyone I spoke to in Prague brought up the subject of Ukraine and Putin and shivered a little, as if the old, cold days could sweep back at any moment. What lies beneath the Hotel Jalta certainly doesn’t feel like ancient history, not yet at least.

* Hotel Jalta, Václavské náměstí 818/45,
(420 222 822 111, hoteljalta.com). Book a tour of the bunker through the concierge.

Thanks to Eva of CAT Guided Tours (00 420 602 618 354, catguide.cz) for showing me the bunker and to Czech Tourism (020 7631 0427, CzechTourism.com).

I travelled as a guest of Voyages-SNCF (0844-848 5848, voyages-sncf.com), taking the night train from Amterdam to Prague. Of which more later. 

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