Shake it

I think a lot about Shakespeare. Rum fellow. Really.

Now I don't much hold with conspiracy theories. Too convoluted by far. I pretty much favour Occam's razor - no need to unnecessarily complicate things that actually don't need complicating. Not unnecessarily.

Shakespeare never wrote the Works of Shakespeare, say the conspiracy theorists. Or maybe they'd call Shakespeare Shaksper. Or the man from Stratford. Fair enough.

I've always taken exception to a couple of pet peeves of the conspiracy buffs. One is that no one of such ignoble birth could have written so perceptively of the nobility and kings especially. Another is that it is quite impossible for Shakespeare (meaning Shaksper) to have written his plays without having practised law, without having travelled extensively (and indeed in the very countries and cities in which he sets his plays), without being an expert falconer, without having intimate knowledge of soldiering, without having intimate knowledge of sailoring, without having a university education.

Clearly this is lunacy. Clearly these people have no idea whatsoever how an author creates fiction. Fiction is the art of making things up. The better the author, the more convincing the fiction. He does indeed need some material for his work, some faint straws of reality to erect his mansion of the mind, but not nearly as much as might be imagined by those uninitiated in the craft of drama or prose.

Fiction creates its own reality, often a more powerful reality than the one it purports to be mirroring. It doesn't matter if the author of Henry V ever fought in a war or hobnobbed with a king. It doesn't matter in the slightest if the author of The Tempest never set foot on a boat or witnessed a furious storm at sea. It matters not a whit if the author of Romeo and Juliet visited Verona. What matters, the only thing that does matter, is if he can conjure these things up with his words. If he can make us see them, whether he himself ever saw them or not.

So - birth and first hand knowledge, or more to the point lack thereof: these are not valid reasons to suspect the authorship of the plays.

However. We really know next to nothing about Shakespeare. Most biographies seem to dance around this fact, fabricate facts to fit the life. Hard facts are so very scarce. What we basically have are the plays and the poems, and not a whole lot more. Seems to me most biographies create a life for Shakespeare, create a fiction drawn from and around his plays - try to imagine what sort of a man might have written works such as these and then go on to describe him. Not really cricket, if you ask me.

He might have written every play to be a sliver of his autobiography. On the other hand, he might not. We don't know. And more to the point, we really have no way of knowing.

Recently having read two conspiracy books Täcknamn Shakespeare by Friberg and Brolin, and The Mystery of William Shakespeare by the legendary anti-Stratfordian Charlton Ogburn, I must admit there are a few things that puzzle me. Puzzle me deeply.

Shakespeare was an actor before he started writing and went on being one for quite a while even when he did write. Why is his name mentioned in virtually no rosters of actors? He should be mentioned in several places. Why isn't he? Funny.

Suddenly Shakespeare seems to have a lot of money out of nowhere. This we know because he purchases a share in the company he's in (Chamberlain's men) and then a few years later a tenth share in the Globe. He buys a grand house in Stratford. From whence came this money? A large sum indeed and a guarantee that in the future he will always get a healthy cut of the profits of the theatre. But where did he get the money to invest in the Globe in the first place? Surely not from his writing? That just isn't possible.

Why is Shakespeare's name only ever mentioned in petty litigatory matters? Suing and getting sued for banal and minor matters. Land disputes. As a witness in a trivial case concerning his landlord in London. And once even for assault and acting in cahoots with a known bully and extortionist - acting perhaps as the muscle of that known mobster. Perplexing indeed.

Why are all the surviving autographs such a mess? Surely a man who lived by his pen would know how to spell his own name and do it with a surer hand?

Why are there no manuscripts left? No letters? Nothing the man ever wrote, except for the autographs. He must have written letters? To colleagues, associates, relatives, publishers, patrons? Yet we have nothing.

Why on earth is there such gibberish on his tomb? He didn't write the half-witted, semi-illiterate poem himself, surely? So why is it there?

But above all this: did the man truly own not a single book? Not a one? Not a sausage? If he did, then why aren't they mentioned in his will? Books were valuable things in those days. Worth a great deal. They would certainly have been mentioned in the will. Now Shakespeare if anyone must have owned a lot of books - so extensive was his reading and so much did he make use of what he read. Veritably all his writing is based on other texts. They were the very tools of his trade. This man was a bookworm. Bookworms surround themselves with books. And still, not a single book is mentioned in his last will and testament. He didn't own a single book? Very odd.

Makes one wonder.


Audio science fiction revisited

Browsed some more at SFFaudio and at once I discovered a couple of veritable jewels. Like A House-boat on the Styx by John Kendrick Bangs, The Willows by Algernon Blackwood and finally a real classic: The Castle of Otranto by good old Horace Walpole.

A House-boat on the Styx is described as a forerunner of Philip José Farmer's Riverworld-series - which simply cannot be bad. The American John Kendrick Bangs used to be something of a big name around the turn of the previous century; today he's pretty much forgotten. As chance would have it I do actually have a book by him on my shelves: R. Holmes & Co (1906) as a delightful re-issue by Otto Penzler Books. R. Holmes is none other than Raffles Holmes, the son of Sherlock and the grandson of the famous amateur cracksman A.J. Raffles of whom Doyle's brother-in-law E.W. Hornung wrote several splendid short stories. Well, in Bangs' book it turns out that Holmes, not at all surprisingly, set out to capture the gentleman thief Raffles and in the process, quite surprisingly indeed, fell in love with Raffles' daughter (!), and then married her. The result of said marriage being Raffles Holmes. Who, again not surprisingly, is a detective but also a bit of a rogue - first breaking into a house and then the next morning presenting his services as a detective to the master of the house. Now there's a man who likes his bread buttered on both sides if ever there was one! Or maybe it's just a plain case of schizophrenia.

Algernon Blackwood is an esteemed classic. Not a big name, but revered by those in the know. And a fascinating fellow he seems to have been: born in 1869 he was at one time or another, among other things, a journalist, a farmer, a hotel owner, a mystic, an actor, a spy, a world-traveller, a playwright, and a reader of ghost stories on the radio (or maybe one ought to use the more correct term for the thirties: "on the wireless"?). He's most famous for John Silence, the psychic detective (created a bit before Hope Hodgson came up with his Carnacki) but wrote a bunch of other stuff as well, all of it basically about weird and supernatural thingies. Can't say I've read much Blackwood, just the occasional stray short story. Looking forward to this one.

And finally an old favourite: Horace Walpole. Not the greatest novel of all time, not even a good one; still The Castle of Otranto is an incredibly influential work as it pretty much laid down the foundations of the whole Gothic movement. This is the stone upon which is built so very much. And taken with cum grano salis it's a heap of fun. One really can't ignore Walpole and Otranto. Simply impossible.

All of the aforementioned podcasts are by LibriVox. Now I don't know a lot about LibriVox but they do seem to do a lot of readings of stuff that's in the public domain. And do it for free. They puts it up on the web and you, the avid fan of the superior podcast, simply loads it down on yer computer or MP3-player - no money whatsoever changing hands. None. More power to them, say I. Keep up the good work.

Audio science fiction

I just discovered a rather splendid web site. Wasn't looking, simply stumbled on it by sheer serendipity. Well anyway, the site is called SFFaudio (http://www.sffaudio.com/) and the name of the site pretty well explains itself. First thing I did was to download a few select goodies: Rude Mechanicals (a novel by Kage Baker, of whom I have never heard but couldn't resist such a delightfully Shakespearean title), Dawn of Flame by Stanley Weinbaum (a novel by this classic author that is completely unknown to me - and when I consult my trusted Encyclopedia of Science Fiction I discover, to my great shame, that it isn't a novel at all but in fact a collection of short stories) and a speech held by Robert Silverberg at the 1970 WorldCon. These will go on my Walkman post haste. Well at once I've worked through a couple of operas and oratorios by current favourite Händel, anyway.

The nice thing about the site is that there's more than just readings of short stories and novels - there is also fact. Like the aforementioned Silverberg speech. And interviews and suchlike. And what seems to be a literary talk show. Even a spot of science. Haven't been through it all yet, it's all such a recent find, so I don't quite know what there is. But it's all pretty exciting.

What there might be more of, however, is good solid radio plays. An audio book is all right, at times it's just what the doctor ordered, but really the play's the thing. Of course it's understandable that audio books dominate the market, it's so much cheaper just to have one person read a text than do a full sized production with a full sized cast of actors. But think how relatively inexpensive a medium the radio is for doing a grandiose science fiction epic. It can take place anywhere in the universe (or indeed inside someones mind), the epoch may be whichever, it may cut freely from one epoch to another with no extra cost or effort, the settings can be as big as you like - as big as you can think of. Or as small. The effects needed don't cost more than those needed in a sordid kitchen-sink drama, well not that much more. The only limit is the imagination of the author and those of the director and the sound enginee

And a science fiction radio play is really so much more effective than a film because the listener creates the visions for himself, sees the pictures in his own mind. And it is always quite impossible for anyone to create on screen anything as impressive as the pictures seen in one's mind. No matter how well it's done. You can't beat mental images, it just can't be done. An example? Well, think of Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Full of ideas, incredible, zany, outrageous ideas. Put them on a silver screen (or TV) and it all becomes, well, pedestrian. You simply can't pin down his ideas as easily as that, they become heavy as lead and no longer are they either interesting or funny.

No doubt, when i delve a little deeper in the superb treasure chest that is SFFaudio, I will come across many a marvellous radio play, contemporary productions as well as old classics. Of this I am convinced.


Sherlock in the summer

I know it isn't perpetual summer on Baker Street (and appropriately Sherlockian points beyond) but to me it rather is. And always will be. Maybe that's because I never can shake off that first shattering encounter with Holmes all those decades ago at the old summer cottage, lying on my stomach hours on end on a sunny lawn, drinking in every mesmerising word: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!" And to make it all perfect the old paperback I was hungrily devouring positively reeked of pipe tobacco (from an old Persian slipper, I shouldn't wonder). A direct link to Baker Street, a personal message, no doubt about it. No doubt whatsoever.

This summer hasn't been particulary friendly so far, so there haven't been any fierce reading sessions outdoors on any lawns or otherwise. Neither have I been reading Doyle so much, not quite. I have, however, been reading about Doyle. David Pirie's trio of novels (The Patient's Eyes, The Night Calls, The Dark Waters) very cleverly exploits the character and influence of Doctor Joseph Bell and his relationship with his young medical student and laboratory assistant Doyle. The first book is pretty much a gem, an intricate and very convincing take on The Solitary Cyclist with a few intrigueing extra layers to give it pleasant depth and dimension. The mood of the book is delightfully gothic and has a mystifying air of perverseness throughout; something you vaguely sense but never can put your finger on, not quite. The second book lets Bell and Doyle tackle a serial killer who targets women of loose morals. Indeed one of the earliest serial killers known to criminal history, Thomas Neil Cream, did in fact study medicine at Edinburgh University at the very same time Doyle did. Now there's a thought that boggles the mind: Doyle and Bell and the trailblazing serial killer Cream in the same city at the same time. The setting, then, is Edinburgh, that seedy terrifying city of Burke and Hare and Stevenson, a seat of poverty and despair and madness, a not at all unlikely theatre for such gruesome events. The string of killings distantly echoes or presages that of Whitechapel a few years later, which is as it should be as Cream has become one of the more periphereal, and to be perfectly honest unlikely, Ripper candidates due to something he may or may not have uttered as his last words on the gallows as he was executed for other murders. The third book is the weakest of the lot. Cream, once Doyle's friend, has escaped the forces of justice to become the Nemesis of Doyle. Wherever Doyle turns he finds Cream's shadow lurking in the dark and damp corners, waiting to pounce, ready to exact his terrible revenge for foiling his murderous plans. The whole thing soon becomes a bit melodramatic, dreary and downright silly, and Pirie gives Cream well-nigh superhuman means and resources to stalk Doyle. And the more omnipotent and ubiquitous Cream or his presence is, the less convincing he is, and therefore, the less credible the novel is. And what's more, there isn't a whole lot of Doyle (the writer, that is) or Holmes in the third book, which to me seems an unpardonable offense.

Not really summer fare, these books, more autumn or even harsh bitter cold winter, I should say. Well worth a read the first two of them, still. The first two books were in fact turned into a TV series by the BBC and very successfully too. A right decent job.

Lately I've seen a lot of Holmes movies, many for the first time. A Study in Terror has John Neville as Holmes and his foe is no lesser villain than the scourge of Whitechapel Jack the Ripper. The murders seem a bit unrelated to the real events and the whole plot a bit trivial. In 1965 having Holmes take on the Ripper was probably a quite fresh idea while today it's somewhat of an old hat and been done to death. Neville, however, is not bad as Holmes, suspiciously fair-haired and Aryan though he is. The same goes for the Holmes of the 2002 Hound of the Baskervilles version, Richard Roxburgh, another pleasant surprise. Neither of them looks a bit like the Paget image of Holmes but they both come off with flying colours. The 2002 Hound is by and large a good one. I especially enjoy the casting: Ian Hart as a plucky and intelligent Watson, John Nettles as Doctor Mortimer and Richard E. Grant as the truly villanous and dastardly Stapleton (delicious echoes of Whitnail there, anyone?). By the way, Hart played Watson in another Holmes thingy as well - the slightly iffy Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stockings with Rupert Everett as the not quite terribly convincing Holmes - and he's even done a brief Doyle in Finding Neverland.

The older films invariably let one down. Holmes comes off as a stupid egomaniac whom one wouldn't hire to empty the bin, Watson is rarely anything but a clown and Moriarty chews the carpet for dear life and mostly concentrates on shaking his fist at Holmes - Napoleon of crime indeed. Arthur Wontner was one of the first to portray Holmes on the silver screen in The Sleeping Cardinal of 1931 (which I haven't seen). He doesn't look bad, in fact he looks quite a bit like Paget's illustrations, only slightly older and bulkier. The settings are contemporary and the plots a mixed bag - some original Doyle but oftentimes mangled beyond recognition. And the bits one does recognise are so poorly done and clichéd it's usually an embarrasment. In the not so aptly named The Triumph of Sherlock Holmes (1935) Holmes has retired and gone to Sussex to keep bees. The plot is basically The Valley of Fear but with very little sleuthing going on and a remarkably lame Moriarty trying to outwit Holmes who naturally comes out of retirement to crack the case, much to the chagrin of Moriarty. No Watson and Wontner comes off as a insipid somnambulist. Pretty bad. As is the other Wontner movie I've seen: The Silver Blaze (1937). In it Sir Henry Baskerville invites Holmes and Watson to Baskerville Hall as it now has been 20 years since that illustrious case. The movie follows the Silver Blaze story very marginally and owes absolutely nothing to The Hound of the Baskervilles, which makes Sir Henry's appearance only confusing. And of course it is Moriarty personally who is behind the sabotaging of the horse (as the "Napolen of crime" obviously hasn't got anything more urgent to attend to than fix horse races). Ian Fleming (not him!) does a not bad Watson and Lyn Harding does a Moriarty who really ought to play against Laurel and Hardy rather than the man from Baker Street. Compared to these A Study in Scarlet from 1933 seems halfway decent. Holmes is played by Reginald Owen (who only the year before played Watson in the movie version of the Gillette play Sherlock Holmes with Clive Brook as Holmes) and is the best feature of the movie. And of course the plot has nothing to do with A Study in Scarlet but does resemble The Sign of Four a bit. The members of a secret society are bumped off one by one and each time this occurs the survivors get to inherit the wealth of the deceased member. Anna May Wong plays the widow of one the murdered men and gets to scowl a lot in a very villanously oriental manner. Sinister. Watson is played by the unremarkable Warburton Gamble. Wouldn't actually be such a bad movie if Holmes were removed. So it would be just an ordinary crime movie.

I've never been a huge fan of Basil Rathbone's Holmes films but having seen the older stuff I must say he and the movies are a huge improvement on every level. Except of course for the imbecille Watson. Nigel Bruce is horrible and ought to be shot. Also, after Wontner one is apt to forgive Jeremy Brett and his sometimes almost hysterical excesses. His early work is quite solid - like The Sign of Four and A Study in Scarlet, both of which I only just had another look at. Good stuff.

One thing that often tends to get overlooked is Holmes on the radio. Quite a lot of adaptations were produced before the heyday of TV and some of it is still good by any standard. A lot of the old productions are now being issued on CD and a lot is to be found on the net. Before he went to Hollywood and became a cinematographic genius Orson Welles was a wunderkind of the radio. With a hectic pace he produced radio plays with his company (or companies, actually), many of which have become classics - none more so than The War of the Worlds in 1938 (but not, perhaps, for the right reasons). Before that, Welles produced and starred in The Immortal Sherlock Holmes, based on the famous play by William Gillette. Now my knowledge of this play is weak at best, I've neither seen it nor read it, but it doesn't seem a very good play. Might be that it works better on the stage with a strong lead. In the radio version Welles does a surprisingly weak and whiny Holmes, a stilted character with no charisma, no inner strenght, no wit, nothing to show us we have here a remarkable man, and frankly one does begin to wonder if he has no idea whom he is supposed to be playing. The plot is the usual melodramatic hodgepodge and in no way is The Immortal Sherlock Holmes even close to those brilliant productions Welles turned out so many of and which simply pushed the limits of what radio drama can and should be and thus redefined the whole medium like Citizen Kane redefined the cinema. A pity really. Especially as one can imagine what a Welles radio play about Holmes could have been like if only he'd have commissioned a proper script and let himself go in the title role. Nobody does radio drama like Welles, his scope and range are phenomenal. His voice is an instrument and he the greatest virtuoso ever to have lived. Would've been dynamite.

Next, I imagine, it's back to Doyle's original canon. Won't be a proper summer without reading some of that I don't think.