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Those Weird Sherlockian Eighties (1983)

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Weekend in That Country of the Mind

(From The Baker Street Chronicle, Volume 3, Number 4, July-August 1983)

By Brad A. Keefauver

Being a Sherlockian is, for most of us, a part-time endeavor. There are always the mundane matters of everyday life that get in the way: a living to earn, bills to pay, a dwelling to keep clean. But on occasion, that master of Sherlockiana, John Bennett Shaw, gives us a chance to be 24-hour-a-day Sherlockians -- at least for a weekend.

The latest of such happenings occurred the weekend of June 3, 4, and 5, at Illinois Benedictine College in Lisle, Illinois. Sherlockians from New York to New Mexico descended upon the college, bringing with them a wide range of Holmesian viewpoints, a number of deerstalkers, and a mysterious fog that some said only extended to the limits of the campus. A pleasant-sized school, Illinois Benedictine has a growing Sherlockian collection, which provided a good reason for arriving a little early for the seminar.

After arriving early to see the Sherlockian exhibits, one finds that there are other rewards for appearing ahead of time. The best of these would surely be hanging around the lobby of the dorm as others arrive, especially when accompanied by someone whols been to a workshop before. With a knowledgeable co-hort, one can start putting faces to names only seen in the various Sherlockian journals previously. To an avid Sherlockian, it can be a little like a Hollywood premiere of old, spotting BSI's instead of stars.

As everyone arrives, the socializing grows, and soon a light buffet supper and cash bar sets the weekend agenda into motion. John Bennett Shaw opens the program with his talk, "Sherlock Holmes, Then and Now." Sprinkling his entire talk with poems and quotations from the likes of Vincent Starrett and Christopher Morley, he begins with a little history of the first Holmes clubs around the turn of the century through the revival sparked by The Seven Percent Solution. He moves on to why Holmes is what he is, from what he was to the people of Victorian London, to some reasons for his continuing popularity today.

John Bennett Shaw

It's a fine start to the weekend, and the Friday night session ends with a showing of They Might Be Giants, an interesting Sherlockian film about a former judge (portrayed by George C. Scott) convinced that he is Sherlock Holmes. Most have seen it on television, but it's a good film, and the big screen in the library auditorium makes another viewing even better. One has to wonder about Shaw’s selection of this one: Is he trying to start the weekend by implying that we're all a little mad? Looking around at some of the other attending Sherlockians, one might agree.

The movie concludes around 10:30 p.m., marking the end of the formal agenda for the night, but a Sherlockian weekend is no place to catch up on your sleep! With a quiz scheduled early the following morning, a late night reading of "The Adventure of the Empty House” is in order, not to mention brushing up on the details before the 8:00 a.m. breakfast in one of the college, cafeterias.

The well-rested Mr. Shaw begins the day's activities with a slide show featuring a portion of his reknowned collection. The presentation begins a little late, held up by stragglers from breakfast. By the time of the next event, the quiz on EMPT, our master of ceremonies is trying to get things back on schedule.

A word about quizzes: Some Sherlockians (like John Bennett Shaw) hate quizzes; some don't like Shaw's quizzes; and some people just can't resist a challenge, especially a competition in their favorite territory. That last group is the one that a Shaw quiz is perfect for, and to add to the challenge a strict time limit is imposed in an attempt to remedy the off-schedule agenda.

The winner of the quiz is not really a surprise. John Whitcomb, a young Sherlockian who won both quizzes at Shawls Kansas City workshop last year, walked away with first prize. Even such a master of Canonical quizzery

however, is hard pressed to handle a Shavian quiz. His winning score? A mere 74 out of 119 possible points. Prizes for all competitions were mainly books the latest works of Gaslight and Magico -- plus some others, and a couple of varied Sherlockian items. The winners were given their choice, first choosing first, etc. John Whitcomb picked out Simpson's Sherlockian Studies as his prize.

When the smoke clears and this is an apt expression for referring to the hall outside as the coffee break finishes up -- Dr. Frederick Kittle takes the lecturn to present a talk on "Arthur Conan Doyle, Doctor." The life of the Agent is familiar to most, yet Dr. Kittle still manages to add a bit to that knowledge.

After lunch and a bit of sitting on the grass in front of the library to get some sun, it's back into the auditorium darkness to watch the only known film of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For ten minutes he speaks of Sherlock Holmes and spiritualism while seated in a garden accompanied by a dog (a neighbor's dog, Shaw tells us). Watson fans are shocked to hear Doyle refer to the good doctor as "rather stupid," but the audience still treats the film with a mild reverence. This is, after all, the man responsible for it all, In the celluloid flesh.

The lecture that follows by Evelyn Herzog changes the mood to irreverence very quickly. Entitled "Knowledge of Sensational Literature -- Immense,” her talk is based on a survey of the type of crime and detective material Doyle must have been reading about the time he created Sherlock Holmes. Ms. Herzog gives us lively synopses of three typical mysteries of the time; two of these feature Scotland Yard men as protagonists, and the heroes of all three stories solve their cases by the sheerest coincidences of luck. By the time she finishes, we are all aware of the great void Doyle saw to be filled. Sherlock Holmes arrived just in time.

Sherlockian author/publisher Jack Tracy comes next with a change-of-pace talk on cocaine. To the people of Victorian England, we discover, cocaine was a miracle drug at first, curing their depressions and ill moods almost magically. Later, both they and Sherlock Holmes would discover otherwise.

With an odd irony, Mr. Tracy's talk is followed by the film, "The Dying Detective" starring the silent movie Halmes,Eille Norwood. A short break follows, and things become a bit more upbeat with Dorothy Rowe Shaw's lecture, "Sherlock Holmes in Miniature."

If genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains, then such miniature Holmes rooms and houses as Mrs. Shaw shows us are, indeed, works of genius. The painstaking attention to detail, visible in the small copies of the Baker Street rooms is very impressive, especially in Dorothy Shaw’s own complete (yet never fully finished, as such things must be) replica of 221 Baker Street.

Another hardworking Sherlockian, Paul Herbert, author of The Sincerest Form of Flattery, comes next with a talk entitled, "Sherlock Holmes in Parody and Pastiche". His lecture, however, does not have the same content as his book on the subject, and he updates us on what's become available since in the world of pseudo-Holmes. When he has finished, not only are we filled in on pastiche and parody, but our agenda has finally caught up to its schedule. We retire to our rooms to prepare for Saturday evening's banquet.

The banquet begins with a cocktail hour and Canonical toasts by various noteworthy and learned Sherlockians. Noting all of them would be hard, however, when one arrives late after snatching a little time to work on an entry for the weekend's literary contest. Dinner is soon heralded by a bagpiper, and is served and eaten without incident.

Sherlockian singing follows, featuring that most popular of such songs, "We Never Mention Aunt Clara", and the camaraderie continues with John Bennett Shaw's popular anecdotal talk on the Baker Street Irregulars and its scions. When the banquet finally breaks up, after an excellent film entitled, "The London Of Sherlock Holmes," tired but satisfied Sherlockians find their ways back to their dorm rooms.

But once more there is the next morning's quiz to prepare for, and a literary contest as well, so sleep is still hard to come by (one does well to think of the intense energy Holmes exhibited while on a case).

When the quiz on "His Last Bow" finally occurs, first thing Sunday morning, the outcome is hardly different from the preious day's. As Shaw said earlier in the weekend, “We'll have the quiz, and you can all try for second,third, and fourth. John Whitcomb will be first." He was, and this time he chose Dr. Joe Bell autographed by Ely Liebow.

Entries for the literary contest are then turned in, followed by Susan Rice up -- who took the podium to speak on "Women and Sherlock Holmes." We learn a bit about women in Victorian England and how Canonical females compare to them. There is a subtle shade of feminism to the talk which makes many of the males in the room slightly uncomfortable. The representatives of The Hounds of the Baskerville [sic], a scion which doesn't admit women, are probably especially so.

"The Speckled Band," an early Holmes film starring Raymond Massey follows, thus relieving the tension in the air. Despite some ridiculous liberties taken with Holmes (He lives at 107 Baker Street and walks about his office full of secretaries and machines in a hideous bathrobe), the movie is still a good one. It captures the eerie spirit of the story, and we are left in a good humor for lunch.

At the start of the afternoon session, David Hammer, author of a soon-to-be-released Holmesian gazetteer, gives us the results of his years of search for the sites of Canonical events. His slides let us see some great old homes Holmes undoubtedly visited during his cases, adding a bit more flesh to the already full reality of Watson's chronicles.

By the time we are through "touring," the judges of the literary contest -- Newt Williams of "The Occupants of the Empty House," and Jack Tracy -- have made their decision. with all of the Holmes-meets-celebrities pastiches of the past years, Shaw invited us to do the hacks one better and write a short piece featuring Holmes working with or against King Kong, Brooke Shields, Muhammed Ali, Conan Doyle's mother, Mayor Daley, or Cardinal Cody. The winners were announced and read their pieces for us, Susan Rice taking first with a poetical rendering of an encounter between Holmes and Kong. In second and third places were known Sherlockian literateurs, John Nieminski and Ely Liebow. The former wrote on Brooke Shields consulting Holmes concerning an affair of two lovers, and the latter on Muhammed Ali calling on Holmes in Sussex for some royal jelly.

The final speaker of the workshop comes next as the weekend begins to wind down. Phil Shreffler of the Noble Bachelors of St. Louis tells us about the creation of the Jefferson Hopes scion, a group with perhaps more and stricter by-laws than any other, designed to produce meetings of pure Sherlockian scholarship. It causes one to consider all of the different types of scions seen at the seminar, in the end leaving a person glad to belong to the society he or she does.

And the end is coming quickly. As we watch a short Holmes puppet movie by IBM, and a marvelous piece on Victorian England entitled, "A Set of Slides," a general weariness settles over the group. Everyone receives their certificate of having attended, as the seminar concludes. Some stay for a light supper at the college, others begin their long journey home.

The end of this Shaw workshop has a bit more regret in it than most. Earlier, John Bennett Shaw mentioned that the Georgia workshop, scheduled for later this summer, would probably be the last one he would do. Perhaps someone else will emerge to do such events, but as with all life's finer things, one knows it will never be the same.

For the Sherlockian attending the workshop for the first time, the experience is a milestone in their Holmesian career. After the total concentration on one's Sherlockian side for an entire weekend, one can never quite be the same. The encounter with the world outside a person's own scion group offers new perspectives on his or her favorite obsession, perspectives not to be missed. Arriving home, one realizes that although the workshop is over, it still goes on, in the multitude of scions, scion publications, and individual Sherlockians.

The enjoyment of the master of detectives never stops.