Rakshita (Raks) Patel (rakspatel) wrote in mycroft_brolly,
Rakshita (Raks) Patel

From Southsea to the Arctic: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Whale

Philip Hoare, author of Leviathan.
Photograph: BBC/Lonestar, Martin Rosebaum.
Photo credit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/tv/2010/07/my-nervewracking-night-on-the.shtml

Very very VERY belatedly, this is a write-up of the highlights of the Sherlock Holmes Society of London's March event that I attended.

Cut and pasted from the Sherlock Holmes Society of London Website:

The Society's March Meeting was held on Thursday 22nd March 2012 at The Savage Club, housed in the premises of the National Liberal Club at 1, Whitehall Place, London, SW1.

"… he strode into the room, his hat upon his head and a huge barbed-headed spear tucked like an umbrella under his arm."

Sherlock Holmes's weapons experiment with a pig at the opening of The Adventure of Black Peter is a well-remembered image. The origins of this story have been somewhat neglected by the Society to date. In this tale (which, incidentally, features a subplot about a failed banker that resonates with today's current affairs), Holmes goes undercover in the East-end to gather a crew for an Arctic expedition whilst disguised as a whaler called Captain Basil. This is a ruse to catch the man who killed a former seaman - the barbaric Puritan Captain "Black" Peter Carey - with his own harpoon. Published in 1904 as part of The Return of Sherlock Holmes, this story has connections to the past of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who, in 1880, spent time as a ship's surgeon on a Greenland whaler called the Hope.

The speaker for the evening was the writer Philip Hoare, whose talk was sub-titled: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and the Whale. Philip originates from Southampton and is perhaps best known for his celebrated book Leviathan or, The Whale, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2009.

Philip says,
"By coincidence rather than design, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has made cameo appearances in my last three books. In Spike Island: The Memory of a Military Hospital, I described the history of Netley Hospital, famous, of course, for its appearance in the first chapter of A Study in Scarlet, as the place where Dr Watson trained. In my next book, England's Lost Eden: Adventures in a Victorian Utopia, I traced the growth of Spiritualism in England, along with the strange story of the New Forest Shakers, a tale in which Sir Arthur played his own role. And in my latest book, Leviathan or, The Whale, I found Doyle reappearing on an English whaleship. In my talk for the Society, I hope to gather these disparate threads together - along with a cast list including Herman Melville, Emily Brontë, Mrs Gaskill, William Scoresby, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley - to present what I hope will be stimulating new sidelights on the surprising influence that Sir Arthur may, or may not, have shared with them."

Raks's Write-up

By way of introduction to the talk, Roger Johnson explained that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Whaling Diaries were to be published later this year/early next year and he read aloud a passage from the diaries.

Philip Hoare explained that whaling was an enormous industry in the nineteenth century. Whaling was looked down upon as a disreputable trade, something that only the lowest of the low would engage in. The focus of the British whaling industry was the Arctic. There was intensive whaling in the Arctic over a period of 300 years and the English and the Dutch whaling ships decimated the number of whales in the Arctic. One whale could fetch between £2,000 and £3,000, which was a king's ransom in those days. There were two things that whales were hunted for - the oil and the whale bone.

Conan Doyle was a qualified medical doctor. As a surgeon, Conan Doyle would have been a companion to the captain, his confidante. The reason that Conan Doyle had chosen to go on the whaling ship was because he was a young man, seeking adventure and thrills, and he, like all British boys in the Empire, had been brought up on tales of derring do. He would have had to have been fit and strong, and have a resilient constitution, to survive on board a whaling ship.

Although Conan Doyle was the doctor, he was also a gifted writer, and this makes his whaling diaries absorbing. When you read the whaling diaries you get a real sense of Conan Doyle as a man. He is a man of science, looking at the experience objectively, but he is also a human being, and you can feel the empathy and awe he felt for these magnificent creatures. The whale was a mammal not a fish; it was sentient and intelligent, and had the reputation of being mysterious, elusive and unknown. It is clear from Conan Doyle's diaries that he enjoyed his time on the whaling ship and that he loved the experience. What comes across very clearly is Conan Doyle's energy, his desire to live his life to the full, and his passion for life in general.
Tags: arthur conan doyle, books, sherlock holmes society of london
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