Michelle Lovric has a new book for intelligent children out. It is called The Fate in the Box and, like all her books, it is set in Venice
and is chocked full of juicy historical tidbits. The first line is: “The girl who climbed the ramp knew that there were only two
possibilities at the top of the tower. Life or sudden death.” That made me want to read more.
May 31 to May 1 THE DREADED LURGY – Ill Ill Ill
For the last few weeks I have been ill: coughing fits waking me up every two hours…unable to draw breath. I was too congested and exhausted to concentrate, so, I could not read or do puzzles. All I could do was languish on the sofa, TV remote control in hand. During these last weeks I have watched programs about hunters of auctions, alligators, undersea treasures, ghosts, UFOs, river monsters and dinosaur fossils. And I have learned the secrets of: the pyramids, the aliens among us, the Aztecs, the Mayans, mummies, and Australian Air Port Security.
Why has this lurgy lasted so long? Well, at first I thought it was a simple cold and I waited for it to just go away. Then I went to the doctor, who prescribed a course of antibiotics that did absolutely no good. I went back and she subscribed another course of a different antibiotic, which did little good. Then, thank the Lord, I went to a specialist who said: NO MORE ANTIBIOTICS and prescribed a 10 day course of medication that seems to be working.
During this period I had to cancel all my trips (to Emilia Romgna, Lombardy, Trentino, The Marche, plus Veneto events). I had to cancel two opportunities to be a tasting panelist and I had to cancel a lesson with my tasting student. The only thing I did: one article about Donnafugata, the Sicilian winery; I worked on it a scant hour a day for 10 days. I couldn’t stay at my desk for longer than that.
My favorite quote from the article is from The Leopard, written by a Sicilian Prince, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. In the book he refers to the area where Queen Carolina stayed while in Sicily as Donnafugata, which literally means “fleeing woman”. Lampedusa describes the landscape there as “aridly undulating to the horizon in hillock after hillock, comfortless and irrational, with no lines that the mind could grasp, conceived apparently in a delirious moment of creation; a sea suddenly petrified at the instant when a change of wind had flung the waves into a frenzy.” Wow!
The web-radio interview I did on April 23 aired: Episode 17 (I start at around 43 minutes in. At 48:25 the topic is dogs. Favorite wines – 55:29, Thomas Jefferson and the American character -57:50, Osteria life – 1:01:30, and a mention of The Baker Street Irregulars -1:03:02).
Part 2 Episode 18 (I begin to speak at around 12:00 into the show, 16:29 – Sherlock Holmes, 18:15 Italian TV, 22:42 – Michael speaks, 23:15 – Kansas, 25:20 – books, 27:00 – Matching Wine with Asian Foods. ) on http://www.pikaradio.com/
It was recorded at the beginning of this lurgy adventure and my voice is a quarter octave lower than usual.
For those who want more wine info, feel free to whiz down to the April diary, which includes the highlights of Vinitaly, the world’s largest annual wine trade fair.
In the meantime, I have decided to put in an essay I wrote last year about Sherlock Holmes, Italians, Florence, Tibet, the history of the circus and so much more. This will give you a little insight into Sherlockian Scholarship.
Sherlockian Scholarship must be fully researched and the historic elements must be verifiable. The writer then takes all these interesting threads of history and weaves them around an hypothesis that includes Sherlock Holmes.
A Hiatus Hypothesis:
in which Sherlock Holmes gets the whip-hand
The period in Mr Sherlock Holmes’ life that has come to be known as “The Great Hiatus”, has provided excitable scholars with decades of merry meandering, allowing them, as it does, to fill any gaps in the narrative with their own fervid longings.
The questions they ponder are these: how did the great detective cross national
borders without attracting undue attention; what did he do for money; how did he
maintain his anonymity during his years of traveling; and how did he make his way
from Florence to Tibet?
Elaborate theses have been constructed, many of which have our hero depending upon his brother Mycroft (sometimes in his role as government advisor) for financial and logistical assistance. Excited by train timetables and whiffs of espionage, these theorists focus their attention upon constructing complicated – if precarious – scenarios that never quite answer all the questions asked.
I, however, should like to throw light upon an unchartered path, one that satisfies all these queries neatly, and – if need be – incorporates the popular “secret mission” theory. Furthermore, it allows Holmes the autonomy he would have preferred and accounts for the difference in his demeanour, references and skills before and after his adventure at Reichenbach.
Before Reichenbach the Italians who are given a glancing mention are the painter Salvator Rosa and the famous fiddle makers, Stradivarius and Amati. The stories that actually feature Italians appear in the chronicle of adventures after his return to London in the spring of 1894. Many of the Italians who play an active role are scoundrels or scallywags. Encounters with these unsavoury individuals allow Mr Holmes’ to display his knowledge of Italy’s secret societies of villainy, as well as the tendency to Machiavellian twists and turns of mind that underpin the Italian mentality.
Then there is the language issue. Whilst Mr Holmes spouts French and German from his first recorded adventure, he does not display skills in Italian until after his return. In “The Adventure of the Red Circle”, set in 1902, after some initial confusion, he identifies the code flashing in the darkened window as being in Italian.
My companion gave a sudden chuckle of comprehension. “And not a very obscure cipher,
Watson,” said he. “Why, of course, it is Italian!”
However, his language skills are not precisely fluent. Whilst he quickly recognizes that the word attenta means beware and vieni means come, he hesitates over pericolo.
“Pericolo—pericolo–eh, what’s that, Watson? Danger, isn’t it.”
Though why he would turn to Watson for confirmation of this fact is unclear as the good doctor has demonstrated no comprehension of the language in question. Watson’s remark on “a thousand pretty Italian exclamations pouring from [Mrs Lucca’s] lips” hardly leads one to the conclusion that he understood the meaning of this joyous patter, rather he seems to be interpreting the attractive young woman’s intentions from her gleaming dark eyes, her capering dance and clapping hands. One might conjecture that Mr Holmes was having a bit of fun with Watson here.
There are those who will point out that the only time Mr Holmes chooses to disguise himself as an Italian (in the chronicles as related by Watson) occurs in “The Final Problem”. He assumes the guise of a priest in order to elude Moriarty’s henchmen on his way to his fateful appointment at Reichenbach Falls. However, he does not demonstrate any level of fluency in the language. Watson, after all, describes him not as speaking Italian but rather as speaking “broken English”.
And, finally – and most significantly, it seems to me –, the Great Detective only frequented Italian restaurants after his return to London in the spring of 1894. He did not issue invitations for Watson to join him at Goldini’s or Marcini’s until he had tasted the delights of Italian cuisine first hand. This cannot be put down to a surge in Italian immigrants opening eateries in the capital city, for there have been Italian restaurants in London since 1803, when Venetian “Joseph” Moretti opened the first Italian Eating House, off Leicester Square. By1886 there were so many Italians working in the catering trade that The Italian Society of Mutual Aid for Hotel and Restaurant Employees was established.
These and other changes in Holmes indicate that his stay in Italy lasted for at least several months and that indeed the effects of this stay continued to influence the Great Detective for the rest of his life.
Now let us examine Holmes’ character and the circumstances in which he found himself in May 1891, and how these two threads intertwine in Fate’s great tapestry.
Whilst Holmes sat sipping his espresso at a Florentine café after his harrowing experience at the falls, he was well aware that he was still a wanted man – and that Moriarty’s henchmen would be quick to act should they get wind of his survival. Where could a man without money or sufficient documentation, a man with the need to submerge his identity, find work and a degree of security?
The answer is as natural and as inevitable as rain: he would join the circus. Indeed, it was his experience under the Big Top that literally set him on the road to Tibet.
That Holmes was already familiar with the circus goes without saying. After all an Englishman, Mr. Philip Astley (1737-1836), parlayed his equestrian talent into an illustrious and lucrative career in show business by adding jugglers and clowns to fill out the bill and thus earning the status of The Father of the Modern Circus.
In the very first case narrated by Watson, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes demonstrated his knowledge of circuses when a babbling crone calls to claim a lost ring for her daughter. It is established that the ring was found on the Brixton Road and the woman lived in Houndsditch. She then goes on to burble: “If it please you, she went to the circus last night along with –,” she says.
“The Brixton Road does not lie between any circus and Houndsditch,” said Sherlock Holmes sharply.
Let me quell those of you who would claim that the circus in question refers to a roundabout, such as Picadilly Circus, by pointing out that, according to the Victoria and Albert Museum website (www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/v/victorian-circus/), “in the mid-19th century there were hundreds of circuses operating in Britain”. In London some of these did not perform under a tent or in the open air but rather had fixed venues in converted traditional theatres.
The popularity of such entertainments spread and by the 1890s there were an estimated 200 travelling circuses in Continental Europe. Some of these were enormous in scale such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which performed at venues in Liguria, Piedmont, Emilia, the Marche, Umbria, Tuscany and the Veneto. When it played the Roman Arena in Verona in April of 1890 journalist and novelist Emilio Salagari wrote in the local newspaper of the special train that was nearly a kilometre in length that carried five hundred horses and eight hundred roustabouts, musicians and featured performers, such as Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, to town.
The Barnum and Bailey Circus also spent five years touring Europe (1897 to 1902) and played venues in Italy. It boasted over 1000 employees and, it too, had a special train to move its gear, personnel and animals. Others circuses and menageries were smaller, but they also were afforded a liberty of movement that would be impossible in contemporary life: border checks, bureaucratic paperwork and quarantine precautions were not enforced until after World War I.
What better way to slip into anonymity whilst still having the stimulation of a varied scene and the security of keeping on the move. The circus also offered Mr Holmes three square meals a day, a bed, an unparalleled opportunity to study the human condition (including, perhaps a passing acquaintance with Neapolitan secret societies), plus a small stipend to keep him going until he could safely contact his brother Mycroft for additional funds, should he choose to do so.
He could pick up a bit of Italian but could also communicate in French, German or English, depending on the provenance of his fellow circus folk, among whom there has always been a certain fluidity where nationality was concerned. It was a Geman, Carl Magnus Hinné (1819-1890), who set up circuses in Poland, Denmark and Russia. In Scandinavia, the roots of the circus are associated with the French Gautier family, whilst Italian Antonio Franconi, a former employee of Philip Astley, who came to be known as the Father of the French Circus.
The names of the circuses themselves shifted with the political wind: Giuseppe Chiarini’s travelling circus was sometimes known as The Royal Italian Circus, at others as The Royal Spanish Circus, and the nationalities attributed to its performers shifted easily from English, to French, Belgium or Italian, depending on what would be most impressive for the audience of a particular venue. Whilst in the United Kingdom in the 1900s, British circus folk often found it easier to get work if they performed under exotic Italian nom de cirque.
Mr Holmes was singularly suited to circus life. One need only note his “human love for admiration and applause” (“The Six Napoleons”), his “amazing powers in the use of disguises” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”) and his grasp of showmanship and appreciation of drama. Consider also his “love of all that is bizarre and outside the conventions and humdrum of everyday life” (“The Red-headed League”).
As to his role within the circus we must make an educated guess. Ring Master would attract too much scrutiny by the public. His tall, lean frame would not be ideal for the trapeze. The position of clown offers an easy opportunity to conceal his features and form, however, I believe he would eschew this role for the very reason that it is too obvious. That, and the fact that, as Watson noted in The Hound of the Baskervilles: “I have not heard him laugh often, and it has always boded ill to somebody.”
Of all the jobs available he had three real options: first, he could become a roustabout; second, a musician (although the violin seldom features in circus parades); or third, and the most likely option, he could assume the role of wild animal trainer.
Animal acts date from around 1831, with the best known of the early proponents being the Frenchman Henri Martin (1793-1882), who performed with lions and elephants. His training style, which became standard in Europe, was to treat the animals with kindness as if they were household pets.
Mr Holmes’s “strong, masterful personality” (“The Solitary Cyclist”) and his “almost hypnotic power of soothing” (“The Red Circle”) could have effectively been put to use lulling ferocious jungle creatures into obedience. We also have Mr Holmes own assessment of his character: “Surely no man would take up my profession if it were not that danger attracts him.” (“The Three Gables”) This love of danger is as much a professional requirement for wild animal training as it is for detecting.
In addition, Watson noted some telling comments made by Holmes in “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger”, a case that occurred in 1896, after Mr Holmes’ return from his sojourn abroad. In this tale, Mr Holmes demonstrates a certain affinity for the, in Holmes’s words “very fine North African lion” named Sahara King. “Look at it from the lion’s point of view,” he urges Watson. This demonstrates clearly the Great Detective’s intimacy with and sympathy for savage beasts.
Let us now explore the ways in which Mr Holmes’ circus experience led him to Tibet.
The potent fascination of the circus does not depend upon spoken language rather it relies on spectacle. Crafty circus managers were quick to act upon this and set about taking their shows to the most remote corners of the world. In a sense, travelling circuses can be considered the first truly global enterprise.
Giuseppe Chiarini, whom I have already mentioned, spent a good portion of his life taking his circus to Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania and the United States. He also did several extensive tours of Asia, visiting Singapore, Japan, Java, Siam, Burma, Malaysia, Batavia (today Jakarta), Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), Korean, French Cochin China (today Vietnam) and India. In many instances Chiarini’s was the first circus the local populace had ever seen and as such his troupe performed for and was feted by heads of states. In Bombay (today Mumbai) they entertained many a maharaja. In Siam they performed before the king and his extensive harem. In Tokyo the show impressed the Emperor Misuhito, as well as other Japanese nobility, politicians and wealthy businessmen. Gentle Reader, if one were looking for access to the highest realms of power and the potential for political intrigue…well, I’ll say no more.
The circus provided Holmes with everything he needed during his “Great Hiatus”, as well as giving him the means to make his way to Tibet. Whether he followed China’s silken path or the saffron scented road from India, it was the circus that provided the vehicle.