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Laurie Penny on the BBC's Sherlock: I'm tired of stories about clever white men and how special they are

We need to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.

School's out in Westminster and there's nothing good on telly, so everybody seems to be talking about Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories for the BBC. And since everybody's talking about it, and since it's a terribly clever update of a traditional British adventure with saucy gay innuendo and phones that do the internet, Sherlock has become rather more important as a cultural barometer than 90 minutes of Sunday-night crime drama would normally suggest. Most of the commentariat has decided that Sherlock is a good thing, but I beg to differ.

It's not that Sherlock is a bad show. It's beautifully shot, with a lovely suggestive rapport between Martin Freeman's cantankerous Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch's rakish, manic Holmes, who seems so taken with his own genius that he can barely keep his balance. Gatiss and Moffat clearly have a great deal of affection for the original books, and the scripts are stuffed with the sort of throwaway quips designed to please Sherlockian geeks, of whom I happen to be one - as a child, I read every Holmes story over and over again until my charity-shop paperbacks disintegrated. Nonetheless, the series has failed to make a case for why yet another dramatisation of the exhaustively adapted Holmes tales is really worthy of BBC licence money, only six months after the latest big-budget Hollywood retelling, much less a version implausibly set in modern London.

On a number of levels, the adaptation simply doesn't work. The real fascination of Holmes and Watson's puzzles was always that they could only be solved by rigorous forensics, by using reason over superstition, a method that set Conan Doyle's icy protagonist at odds with the law enforcement of the day. The notion that today's force would need the help of a wayward genius to solve forensic puzzles is more than a little clunky.

This is just one of the reasons why Sherlock Holmes doesn't belong in the 21st century. Ultimately, the decision to have him dashing around texting his sidekicks, slurping frappe lattes and looking broody under the London Eye was misplaced, because substantial thematic elements of the original stories simply refuse to be rehabilitated. Like a lot of excellent fiction from previous centuries, Conan Doyle's writing is scarred by ugly cultural assumptions about race, class and gender, and while there are many stories from the 19th century whose dodgy sexist, racist or imperialist undertones can be excused on the basis of being incidental to the plot, Sherlock Holmes is not one of them.

In the books, the maverick detective's deeply felt superiority to women, to people from other nations and to the "criminal classes" is an intrinsic part of the stories, as is the fetishisation of the British empire as a place full of bristling, hostile natives, rum deeds and murder most foul.

Sherlockians have a choice: we can acknowledge and try to understand the racism and sexism implicit in our beloved detective's adventures, or we can try to pretend it's not a problem.

Gatiss and Moffatt seem to have gone for the latter option. Cumberbatch's Holmes retains his disdain for women, who are there merely to provide two-dimensional foils for the protagonists' character development, presuming they are lucky enough to survive to the end of the episode. Sunday's show, moreover, was less of an update than a direct transposition of British Sinophobia in the late-Victorian period.

In précis, the plot of The Blind Banker was booga-wooga yellow peril exotic chinky slaughter emporium: an exhilarating romp through nearly every hackneyed orientalist cliché going. There were improbable and sinister circus contortionists, ersatz torture devices, yellow-themed cryptic writing, keepers of dusty Chinatown shops attempting to peddle curiously significant pieces of ethnic tat, a submissive and inevitably doomed eastern maiden pouring tea in traditional dress, and even, for Christ's sake, ninjas. As the British-Chinese blogger Anna Chen observed:

Sherlock morphs into Nayland Smith (hero of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books) . . . and it's all Black Lotus, Tongs, drugs and torture. For are we not a cruel race, as the clever programme-makers have noticed? Unaccountably, they omitted the Limehouse opium den scene, but there are some Victorian values which should be locked in a hansom cab back with the swirling pea-soup fogs.

The description of the mysterious Chinese assassin, Spider, all broad brow and smouldering evil eyes, had a worrying resemblance to the following uncomfortable passage from the opening scene of Conan Doyle's The Adventure of the Three Gables:

The door had flown open and a huge negro had burst into the room. He would have been a comic figure if he had not been terrific . . . his broad face and flattened nose were thrust forward, as his sullen dark eyes, with a smouldering gleam of malice in them, turned from one of us to the other . . . "I've wanted to meet you for some time," said Holmes. "I won't ask you to sit down, for I don't like the smell of you, but aren't you Steve Dixie, the bruiser?"

"That's my name, Masser Holmes, and you'll get put through it for sure if you give me any lip."

"It is certainly the last thing you need," said Holmes, staring at our visitor's hideous mouth.

The racism, sexism and imperialism that are fundamental to Conan Doyle's stories do not mean we should dismiss Holmes out of hand, but they do raise the question of why, precisely, Sherlock Holmes still means so much to us, and why we're so anxious to rehabilitate him to the modern world, as it's highly unlikely that this will be the last BBC dramatisation of the books.

Holmes has enduring appeal because he's the original brilliant outsider, the lone maverick who wins every time, simply by being cleverer or braver than everyone else. The formulation appeals particularly to teenagers -- all of whom are brilliant outsiders -- and remains an enormously important part of pop culture, particularly in crime fiction and especially in Britain, where we just love an oddball. Harry Potter, Gene Hunt, Jonathan Creek, Inspector Morse, John Constantine, even Doctor Who -- all are brilliant outsiders with rich interior lives. They are all also always male, always white and always western.

I'm getting bored by stories about posh white men and how much cleverer and more special they are than everyone else. I've been hearing that story, in one form or another, since I was old enough to listen. I want to hear about other lives, new adventures. Adaptations are all very well, but it's long past time we updated our myths for good, rather than struggling to rehabilitate the past.

If we want to avoid cultural implosion, it's high time for the British to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster