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What could Sigmund Freud possibly teach Sherlock Holmes?

Sometimes a deerstalker is just a deerstalker. Plus: why The Halcyon fails.

There are a hundred reasons to love Mark Gatiss, so talented and so clever, but Sherlock is not, I fear, one of them. I’ve never taken to his Holmes reboot (Sundays, 9pm), and not only because I cleave to Basil Rathbone’s comparatively motionless impersonation of the great detective (though in truth I’d rather read Conan Doyle, my first grown-up literary love, in an edition illustrated by Sidney Paget, and leave it at that). Still, I was surprised by how little I liked The Six Thatchers (New Year’s Day), an episode inspired by Conan Doyle’s “Adventure of the Six Napoleons”. Its frenzied plot felt too contingent. Is Gatiss wearying of Holmes? The word is that he’ll shortly kill him off. Meanwhile, getting his eye in, he did in Mary Watson (played by Amanda Abbington) instead. She died at the London Aquarium, killed by a bullet rather than the murderous price of a ticket. Luckily the attraction, like the city itself, in this series, was bafflingly empty, and the sharks remained safely in  their briny tanks, oblivious to the unbounded silliness on the other side of the glass.

John Watson (Martin Freeman) arrived moments before his wife’s death, which gave them the chance to have a brief conversation: the gist was that they’d made each other very happy. Meanwhile, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) looked on, resembling more than ever a porpoise in human form, his elongated face gleaming in the blueish gloom. One of Sherlock’s themes is the emotional stupidity of intelligent people: Holmes can solve a complex crime in three seconds flat but his empathy has long since gone missing, if it was ever there at all.

Nevertheless, above the animal keening of Watson, my batlike ears picked up another sound: the cracking of ice. Compassion, it seemed, was rising in Holmes, like mercury in a thermometer brought suddenly indoors. Soon afterwards, he was sitting with a shrink, struggling to make sense of his loss (not only is Mary gone but John won’t speak to him). Dear me. Touchy-feely is going to be no use at all in a world where assassins appear at the merest flash of an Oyster card. Low as my investment in this series is, I do hope it will be Moriarty who pushes our hero metaphorically off Tower Bridge, rather than the irrational ideas of Dr Freud.

In other news, ITV is back on the Downton hunt. This time, the trail – I picture desperate ITV executives sniffing a hankie scented with Mitsouko, or Jicky, at their planning meetings – has led to a London hotel, the Halcyon. Handily, it is owned by a toff, Lord Hamilton (Alex Jennings), whose wife, Priscilla (Olivia Williams, wearing lipstick the colour of expensive chocolate), likes to live there when she’s in town. But being a hotel, it comes with staff, so the upstairs-downstairs structure is present and correct. Should things get boring – and how can they when it’s 1940 and air-raid sirens are sounding? – the writers (Charlotte Jones, Jack Lothian and Sarah Dollard) can always invite a guest. Everyone knows what fun lies in The Crazy Things People Do in Hotel Rooms.

Unfortunately, this is writing by numbers. The Halcyon (Mondays, 9pm) is a facsimile of a facsimile, as lacklustre as pearls that haven’t been kept next to a woman’s skin, as lifeless as a dress hung too long in an attic. It makes Julian Fellowes seem like John Galsworthy, and John ­Galsworthy seem like William Thackeray, F Scott Fitzgerald and Daphne du Maurier rolled into one. Plus, they killed the most interesting character, the Nazi-sympathising Lord Hamilton, at the end of the first episode, which is a disaster, given the want of charisma in the younger members of the cast.

So, what part will Hamilton’s Munich-loving mistress, Charity Lambert (Charity Wakefield), play? Where once she was able to wreak tight-smiled havoc over the breakfast kippers, now Lady H and her soppy sons will simply exile her to the 1940s equivalent of a Premier Inn, with only rationed butter for company. Eager as I am for a new Downton out of which to take the mickey, this series is about as likely to be recommissioned as the Germans are to win the war. Expect it to sink without trace. If not, the kippers are on me, silver-domed and steaming hot.


Now listen to a discussion of Sherlock on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain

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Scot of the South Seas: Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa

Story of author's time with his family in the island nation details a political awakening.

A contemporary once saw Louis and Fanny Stevenson, with Fanny’s son Lloyd, strolling barefoot along a Samoan beach. With their shawls and shells, floppy hats, pyjama suits and banjo, they could have been 1960s hippies. Indeed, the writer mistook the trio for wandering players. But Stevenson was already the famous author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He was wealthy, too. An only child, he had recently inherited from his father, despite the elder Stevenson’s alarm at his son’s lifestyle and choice of spouse: the older, divorced mother of three, Frances Van de Grift Osbourne.

As is well known, Stevenson settled in Samoa, surrounded by what we might now call a “blended” family. Even his mother joined in, travelling from the douce Victorian Edinburgh, tolerating the Samoan sun in her heavy skirts and widow’s cap.

That was in 1890. Samoa was in the midst of a grievous colonial push and shove. Because of its strategic position in the South Pacific, the UK, Germany and the US all maintained an aggressive interest in the archipelago. Joseph Farrell writes in his account of the writer’s four years on the island:

The 1880s were a decade of war and rumours of war, the raising of banners, the gathering of forces, the issuing of indignant notes, the summoning of assemblies and councils on Samoa, and of exchanges of diplomatic missives between Washington, London and Berlin.

In 1885, Samoan chiefs asked to become part of the British empire, to the Germans’ annoyance, but the request was declined. Gunboats were a common sight in Samoan harbours. Sometimes they fired at villages. Despite, or because of pressures from without, Samoan society was descending into inter-clan war.

As a rich white man, Stevenson surely benefited from the imperial adventure. Sailing by, he liked what he saw and decided to return, buy land, build a home and hire servants. Having done that, he could have remained aloof, but instead he soon came to identify with the Samoan people and their cause. He became a champion and activist. It is this change that primarily interests Farrell, and his book examines the effect that Samoa had on Stevenson the writer in the few short years he had left to live. Farrell explores how he responded to the politics of empire-building, as he witnessed it at the sharp end.

To their colonial meddlers, the Samoans were backward savages, inhabiting an imagined utopia of fruitful nudity and ease. But Stevenson soon felt his way into Samoan culture. Even his acknowledgement that they had a culture at all set him at an angle to the imperialists. He found the Samoan people admirable. He wrote, “They are easy, merry, and pleasure-loving” – but also given to warfare.

Having decided to integrate, Stevenson set about learning the Samoan language and, as a way of understanding the situation he encountered on the island, he identified parallels with Scotland. Stevenson may have been a Lowlander and a conservative but, like many Scots, he was seduced by the romance of the Jacobites, and the Scottish Highlands fuelled his imagination. He could feel for the situation in Samoa by referring to the Highlands after the failure of the Jacobite Risings. Both societies had clan systems. In both cases, the indigenous people faced the occupation of their land and suppression of their culture. But the Jacobite times were over and romanticised, not least by Stevenson, and the Samoan situation was happening in front of his eyes.

Taking the Samoan name “Tusitala” – “writer of tales” – Stevenson sought out local stories (chieftains and their families became guests at his house), but he could give as good as he got. He not only recorded Samoan legends, as an anthropologist might, but he offered Scottish stories in return. Farrell writes that he used weird tales of brownies, kelpies and the like to win Samoan friends. The story that became “The Bottle Imp” was told to him in the South Seas.

As Stevenson’s knowledge of Samoa and its problems grew, Farrell identifies in him a new frustration as a writer. It was no longer sufficient to be a romancer. He experienced a desire to address and influence political issues, right from the hot spot. He quickly became the annoying activist, lecturer, reporter and agitator, firing off letters to the Times, ambivalent about missionaries, a friend to Samoan chieftains. As well as championing the islanders abroad, he apparently felt himself “entitled to plunge head-first on arrival into the political affairs of Samoa”.

Farrell clearly believes that the writer’s interventions were right, even heroic. “Injustices casually perpetrated in Samoa, like similar acts of oppression on native peoples in far-off lands, would have passed unobserved… had they not aroused the indignation of this man.” Stevenson’s A Footnote to History appeared in 1892. It’s a poor title, but the subtitle – “Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa” – sets out its intention. In today’s parlance, it is a micro-history. Though the book is little known now, Farrell believes that Footnote can take its place alongside Heart of Darkness as “a radical, deeply felt critique of foreign intrusion and dominance”.

Farrell believes that had Stevenson known the term “racist”, he would have employed it, as it was “an attitude RLS abominated instinctively”. Nonetheless, he felt able to lecture the Samoans, too. Pyjama suits notwithstanding, Stevenson was a Calvinist to the last. Although Samoa had been settled for 3,000 years, at a public meeting he told the Samoans that he deplored their “indolence” and that the remedy to the loss of their land and dignity lay in “hard work”.

Stevenson wrote an estimated 700,000 words during his years on Samoa. He may have become engagé (Farrell’s word) but his imagination still resided in Scotland: it was there he wrote Catriona and began Weir of Hermiston. Although his routine was constantly disrupted by visitors, events and ill health (his own and Fanny’s), his mornings were spent writing in bed, with afternoons and evenings a never-ending round of parties, visits, horse rides, dressing for dinner and good wines. Farrell is careful to explain Samoan political complexities that Stevenson despaired of expressing; the glimpses of domestic life at
Vailima offer light relief.

It came to a sudden end. A note on the effect of Stevenson’s early death on his family and household, especially Fanny, would have been welcome, but these topics are well covered in other books. As it is, the book closes with the cerebral haemorrhage that killed him and the bearing of his body to its hilltop grave.

Farrell declines to speculate how Stevenson might have developed had he lived another 20 years on Samoa. We might remember a different kind of writer: fewer tales and old-time romances, more investigative journalism. Or perhaps he might have combined both by developing a more realistic fiction. He had embarked on that direction by completing “The Beach of Falesà”, which, Farrell writes, “exposes exploitative behaviour… The villains are white, their behaviour towards the islanders reprehensible and contemptible.” Stevenson called it “the first realistic South Sea story”, the first to tell it like it was.

Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa
Joseph Farrell
MacLehose Press, 352pp, £20

Kathleen Jamie’s poetry collections include “The Bonniest Companie” (Picador)

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear