23 August, 2017
How I Came To Appreciate Undershaw by David Marcum
I have to warn you: This is written from the perspective of a Sherlockian. I’ve been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since I was ten years old, in the mid-1970’s. In the forty-two-plus years since then, I’ve collected literally thousands of traditional Holmes adventures in the form of novels and short stories, radio and television episodes, movies and scripts, comics and unpublished manuscripts and fan fiction. And I play The Game with deadly seriousness.
You haven’t heard of The Game? That’s where Holmes and Watson are recognized as historical figures, born in the 1850’s, and living to ripe old ages before passing away in the twentieth century. As such, Watson was the chronicler of Holmes’s adventures, which he later published with the help of his Literary Agent, Dr. – and later Sir – Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’m not the only person who approaches Sherlock Holmes in this manner. Yet, even if one firmly looks at Holmes through this perspective, there’s no getting away from his being intertwined with Conan Doyle every once in a while.
But make no mistake: I’m a fan of Holmes and Watson.
In 2013, I was able to visit England on the first (of what has turned out to be three, so far) Holmes Pilgrimages. My wife and son stayed home, both recognizing that this was almost a religious experience for me. I’ve worn a deerstalker as my only hat since I was nineteen, and it went with me throughout the entire trip. I’d been planning the journey for years, making extensive use of over two-dozen Holmes travel books in my collection. I knew exactly where I wanted to go, and if it didn’t concern The Great Detective in some form or fashion, I pretty much didn’t do it. For instance, I refused to ride the London Eye, as it’s a modern contrivance that has nothing to do with my heroes. But I did explore The Tower of London – not for its historic or tourist value, mind you, but because it features in so many Holmes stories . . .
. . . but not in original sixty stories, referred to as The Canon. Holmes and Watson don’t visit The Tower in any of those, although they do see it from across the Thames while riding in a boat in The Sign of the Four. However, they have business at The Tower one way or another in quite a few of those post-Canon stories, as brought to us by later Holmes enthusiasts, after Conan Doyle. He was the first “Literary Agent”, serving in that capacity in fits and starts from the mid-1880’s, when A Study in Scarlet was written and then published in December 1887, all the way through the last Canonical adventure, “Shoscombe Old Place”, which appeared in The Strand in 1927. In between, Conan Doyle decided that he didn’t like Holmes very much, and was very happy to assist in reporting in “The Final Problem” that Holmes had supposedly died at the hands of Professor Moriarty atop the Reichenbach Falls on May 4th, 1891. It took years before new chronicles appeared in The Strand magazine to explain just how Holmes had survived that encounter.
So even though Conan Doyle only associated himself with five-dozen “official” stories about Holmes and Watson, there have been thousands of them since then, filling in the gaps within and around and through the originals, and attempting to answer the many questions that were left hanging. Thus, my first Holmes Pilgrimage in 2013 visited not only sites mentioned in the Canonical narratives, but a great many other sites as well.
David Marcum and his deerstalker at 221b Baker Street
An amazing thing about London is that, wherever you go to see something on your list – especially if it’s a Holmes list – you’ll likely find two other things that you also wanted to see right next door or across the street from the first place. After having read for decades about Holmes from my own corner of the United States, specifically in eastern Tennessee, it was amazing to see the real London. It was nothing like I’d pictured in my head for all of those years, proving to me yet again that whatever you expect or imagine is nothing like seeing the real thing.
So as I traipsed around London, that place at the top of wish list for most of my life, going from Holmes site to Holmes site, I couldn’t help but find myself occasionally passing sites related to Conan Doyle as well. They weren’t intended stops on their own; rather, they were buildings on the way from here to there. Conan Doyle had several homes in London. There was a house in Montague Place, just behind the British Museum – now long gone. Not far away is No. 2 Upper Wimpole Street, where a Green Plaque commemorates his residence there . . .
At No. 2 Upper Wimpole Street
and just a block or so from there is No. 2 Devonshire Place, which has a fanlight proclaiming it to be “Conan Doyle House”.:
No. 2 Devonshire Place
Here I am at No. 2 Devonshire Place on the second Pilgrimage, when it was covered up in scaffolding for repairs:
Another Shot of No. 2 Devonshire Place
Apparently there is some disagreement as to which of these two houses – in Upper Wimpole or Devonshire – are the legitimate residences.
I passed by all of these Conan Doyle homes multiple times as I criss-crossed Marylebone and Bloomsbury and points in between. I even took photos and “selfies” at each of them, but it wasn’t for the historical aspect or the Doyle-ness of them. Rather, as I played The Game, I pictured Watson stopping by to discuss the latest project with the Literary Agent – or perhaps even Holmes himself crossing the threshold for a visit . . . or possibly to plead that the narratives be treated in a more scientific and less dramatic fashion.
I also happened to visit another Conan Doyle house during that first 2013 Pilgrimage. As part of my overall exploration, I wanted to go to Scotland, and where else to dip in for a limited amount of time than Edinburgh? While there, I ate at the Conan Doyle Pub, just across the square from his birthplace. And the best part – to me, anyway, and worth the trip up there – was visiting the Holmes statue that has been erected just in front of it.
At the Holmes Statue in front of Conan Doyle’s birthplace, Edinburgh
After my first Holmes Pilgrimage in 2013, I didn’t know if I’d ever get back to England. However, was able to make further Holmes Pilgrimages in 2015 and 2016, and again saw many wonderful Holmes sites, as well as once again repeatedly passing by Conan Doyle’s London houses. On each of my trips, I went to many places, and I was glad enough to have passed by the Literary Agent’s former houses as part of that, even though they weren’t my goal. Having seen them, I didn’t feel the need to travel to any of the others – Conan Doyle’s Southsea residence in Portsmouth, for instance, or Crowborough, where he lived out his later years, or even Undershaw, about which I’d heard quite a bit.
Beginning several years ago, a lot of people that I “knew” (in this modern sense of knowing someone electronically) through various Sherlockian connections were beginning to write about visiting the ruins of Undershaw, and more often about how they were interested in “saving” Undershaw from decay, or from being turned into condominiums. I vaguely noticed when I’d see something about it, but it never really affected me. I did purchase a couple of books produced by MX Publishing whose author royalties were donated to the Undershaw Preservation Trust (UPT), an organization founded to save the house – but my interest was in the Holmes stories they contained, and not the charity.
But eventually I began to be educated about Undershaw, by way of Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
In early 2015, I woke up early from a dream. If I’d rolled over and gone back to sleep, I might have forgotten it, but instead, I got up. I went in to look at my shelves of Holmes books, wondering whom I might ask – for my dream was about editing a book of new, traditional Holmes short stories, written by my Sherlockian friends, or by some of the authors that I didn’t know, but whose works I admired.
I emailed a couple of good friends about it, and they liked the idea. Then I emailed Steve Emecz of MX Publishing, which had previously published my own Holmes books. He was supportive, and I started emailing other people. And they liked the idea, and wanted to participate.
Originally, I’d first and foremost thought of editing and producing this new book as a way to have more new Holmes stories set in the correct time period, and featuring the true and heroic Sherlock Holmes. This was initially very much a push-back against a certain recent television show that I really despise which sets Holmes in the modern era, and makes him into a sociopathic murderer, Watson into a psychosomatic lump, Irene Adler into a dominatrix, Mrs. Hudson a drug dealer’s widow, and Mycroft and Moriarty . . . whatever disasters they’re supposed to be. I firmly believe and argue wherever I have a forum (including here) that this show does incredible damage to Sherlock Holmes.
And many people agreed with me. More and more authors started signing up to be in this new anthology, happy to follow the conditions that I laid down: Stories had to be set in the correct time period, with no “mind palaces”, and absolutely no “Sherlock” and “John”. Early in the process, we realized that with so many people participating, paying royalties would be a nightmare. What to do? And then I remembered MX’s earlier efforts to raise money for the UPT. We decided that the funds raised by the new anthology would be donated to that organization.
Many people continued to sign up to write stories for that the initial book, to be called The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories. It was originally planned as a single volume with possibly two dozen stories, but it became so big that it had to be split into two books. And then those two became three. By the time it was published in October 2015, it had turned into three simultaneous volumes, containing 63 new stories, as well as forewords and poems. They were arranged chronologically, and titled, Part I: 1881-1889, Part II: 1890-1895, and Part III: 1896-1929. There was a Kickstarter that raised nearly £15,000 – all from people who wanted more traditional Holmes stories. But all of that happened at the end of the process. While we were still in the middle of working it all out, it was determined that the author royalties would be shifted in a different direction.
Somewhere in the middle of 2015, while the stories were coming in and being edited, and decisions were being made about books sizes and hardcover versus paperback and cover illustrations and so on, Steve Emecz pointed out that our target recipient for the funds, the Undershaw Preservation Trust, was essentially finished – they had been set up to save Undershaw, and Undershaw had now been saved. The property had been purchased by the DFN Foundation to be converted into the Stepping Stones School for special needs children. The royalties from the books would instead go to support the school, which planned to move from their current location into the renovated building. In a long Skype call, Steve Emecz explained to me much of what had gone one over the past few years in terms of what threatened the building, what groups and personalities had worked to save it, and what the current plans were. Still not knowing much about Undershaw, I was as happy with this new direction for the royalties as I had been with the old, and preparation for the books continued.
With the publication of the books in October 2015, a grand event was planned in London. I was very fortunate to be able to attend – Holmes Pilgrimage No. 2. While there, I revisited many of the Holmes sites I’d seen two years earlier, and a lot of new ones as well. And on the night of the big party, October 1st, 2015, I was able to meet many of the authors who had graciously contributed their time and efforts, along with Conan Doyle’s great-niece, Cathy Beggs.
With Cathy Beggs at the launch event for The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories
I also met a couple of people involved with the school: Melissa Farnham, Head Teacher of Stepping Stones, and Norman Stromsoy, CEO of the DFN Foundation. They both gave a presentation about the school’s mission, and how it was still located in its current facilities while waiting for the remodeling to be completed at Undershaw. It was during that presentation that I first learned exactly what they do at Stepping Stones, how committed they are to excellence, and why being able to move to the much better facilities at Undershaw was so important. I also realized then that this project, which to me had simply been about encouraging more traditional Holmes stories, was actually going to be able to accomplish a lot of good as well.
After that trip, I returned home, very happy with what had been accomplished. I received a lot of emails, including some from people who hadn’t been in the original books but wanted to be in future volumes. Future volumes? I’d thought of this as a one-time thing. But . . . the hard decisions and heavy lifting about designing the books had already been done. More people wanted to write stories, and it was certain that more people wanted to read about the TRUE Sherlock Holmes. So . . .
. . . I hadn’t been back home for more than a week or so before I sent out new invitations for the next book, planned for Spring 2016, to be called Part IV: 2016 Annual. It was explained that the original three book one-time event was now going to be an ongoing series. The stories rolled in, so many that I decided we should do a second book in 2016. So I sent out invitations for that one too, and more stories arrived, but this time there was a specific theme. Later last year we published, Part V: Christmas Adventures.
But just before that book came out in the fall of 2016, I was thrilled to receive an unexpected email from London – Would I like to return there again, this time for the Grand Opening of Stepping Stones at the now-completed Undershaw? Of course, the answer was yes.
The offer to bring me back to the Holmesland came from the DFN Foundation, the organization responsible for purchasing Undershaw for the school, and then reclaiming the terribly neglected and damaged building. I really had no idea how bad things had become. After standing empty for years, walls and floors had rotted. Original plaster was ruined and windows broken. The building had been a hotel for decades, and the former owners had made some terrible structural decisions, such as cutting through an entire row of floor joists, leaving one section of the building in serious real danger of simply breaking away. The building had been in much worse shape than anyone had realized when construction started. Additionally, there were a number of requirements involved in bringing it back to what it had been – repairs to items such as floors, windows, and plaster had to fit within very specific guidelines related to the restoration of historic buildings – all balanced against what would be required to make a functional site for a school for children with special needs.
The cost had been much greater than the DFN Foundation had anticipated, but the repairs and improvements were accomplished beautifully – and I saw it in person when I attended the Grand Opening on September 9th, 2016.
That was on the second full day of my Holmes Pilgrimage No. 3. I was led down to Hindhead, where Undershaw is located, by author Luke Kuhns. He and I had corresponded for several years, and I met him person back in 2013, during Pilgrimage No. 1, when he was very capably in charge of the release party and signing for one of my early books, held at the Sherlock Holmes Hotel in Baker Street. Back when I’d first had the idea of the MX anthologies, Luke was the very first person to send me a story – giving me an indication that this thing might work after all.
With Luke Kuhns at Undershaw with his book Welcome to Undershaw
When we arrived at Undershaw, there was a threat of rain. As we walked down the driveway, in the spot that I later learned Conan Doyle had wrecked the first automobile ever driven in that village, it all became much more real to me. We arrived early, long before the expected crowds, and were welcomed by Norman Stromsoy. He made us tea – I got to have tea at Undershaw! – and then led us on a very extensive tour of the building, which Conan Doyle had originally constructed to accommodate his first wife, Louisa, who was ill during the last years of her life. We saw specially designed shallow stairs, for instance, fit for passage by someone in poor health. The stained glass windows had been restored. We visited the adjoining bedrooms – Conan Doyle’s and his wife’s, that had now been repurposed. It was in Louisa’s room, with its beautiful bow window, that her husband had read to his sick wife. We were told that in those days, the view from the window would have been incredible, although now it’s blocked by a century’s growth of tall trees. It was a beautiful room, and now it’s set up as the school’s library.
We toured the new building as well, immediately adjacent to the original structure built by Conan Doyle, with its classrooms, small theater, and swimming pool. Even in that section, there are references to Holmes, with quotes from Canonical stories etched onto the hallway windows that look out upon the grounds.
But for me, the most important part of the tour, and the room to which I returned again and again, was Doyle’s study. It was there that he had a number of contemporary literary visitors, such as Bram Stoker, but more importantly, it was in this room that the first Holmes stories written since “The Final Problem” had been published in The Strand in 1893 were prepared. I say “prepared” because, still playing The Game, I maintain that Watson wrote those new stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles and those contained in The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes, but it was here that Doyle provided editing and other Literary Agent-related services.
I was in and out of the room multiple times during the day. I was able to have my picture made at the modern desk, placed in the exact same spot where Conan Doyle’s was over a century earlier, and I even brought a sheet of fancy paper with me from home in order to write the first line of a new story while my deerstalker and I are sitting there, as shown here:
In the same spot as Conan Doyle, while I work on preparing a new Holmes story
(Many thanks to head teacher Melissa Farnham, who now uses that office, for taking time out of her crazy day to take the pictures of me there.)
Later, I was able to spend some time in the same room with my friends, eminent husband-and-wife Sherlockians Roger Johnson and Jean Upton – here’s a photo of Roger and me, taken by Jean, at Conan Doyle’s mantel. (I’m holding the deerstalker instead of wearing it for a change.)
With Roger Johnson in Conan Doyle’s study
I got to spend time in the study when several members of The Sherlock Holmes Society of London made a presentation to the school. And as the building became more and more crowded with happy guests, the study became a place to slip away and enjoy the quiet for a few minutes.
Later, there was the official opening ceremony, a very crowded affair indeed. I wore my ever-present deerstalker – the only person there so attired – and sent messages across social media indicating that all of the writers of new Holmes tales around the world were being represented. The event was attended by the MP for the area, local officials, and Richard Doyle, great-nephew of Sir Arthur. Later in the day, I was able to meet him and his son . . . .
With Richard Doyle and his son at the Stepping Stones opening
. . . and then to give him a tour of parts that he hadn’t seen, since I’d learned my way around pretty well by that time, having arrived early that morning. That was a lot of fun – talking with him and trying to explain U.S. Presidential politics, which – at that point in history, September 2016 – was before anyone realized just how terribly dire the situation was about to become.
At some point during the crowded afternoon, I was able to speak with David Forbes-Nixon, whose son attends Stepping Stones. It was his DFN Foundation that had purchased and renovated the building. We discussed the MX anthologies, and how they were of benefit by providing extra funds for the school. I was very glad to meet him in person, as well as his assistant Julie Owen, and to thank them both for making it possible for me to be able to attend the event.
Finally, it was time to return to London. As the sun set and we walked up the drive, I took one last look at the restored building, which has come so far from Conan Doyle’s original home . . .
. . . to the nearly destroyed and abandoned wreck that it was just a few years ago . . .
. . . to the amazingly beautiful restored building that now houses the Stepping Stones School, the way I saw it as I departed . . .
In the months since, I’ve seen more and more reports of how further improvements have occurred – the grounds have been finished since I saw them, and there are even plans to have the covers of the various MX Anthology volumes blown up and placed in the building as artwork. I hope someday to get back there and see what the school looks like after it’s been lived-in for a bit, as the day I was there was just a few days after they had moved in.
In the meantime, there is more news about the MX anthologies. Early this year, Part VI: 2016 Annual was published. A volume was announced for Fall 2016, in which Holmes would encounter seemingly supernatural stories, but which would have rational solutions. This proved to be so popular that it expanded to two simultaneous books, in the same way that the first book had grown to two, and two to three before all was said and done. As I write this, the Kickstarter for the new books, Part VII: Eliminate the Impossible – 1880-1891 and Part VIII: Eliminate the Impossible – 1892-1905 has been live for less than 24-hours, and it’s already passed 400% of the initial goal. With 48 new stories in this volumes, for a total of 198 so far, and well over 100 contributors participating, there’s no end in sight.
And I’m already getting stories for next year’s planned volumes, Part IX: 2018 Annual and Part X: Some Untold Cases. Enthusiasm for the books continues to grow, both with readers and contributors, and this benefits both Holmes fans like me who want more and more new traditional adventures, and also the school, both by generating funds and also awareness.
I’m so thankful for the opportunity that all of this has given me – to meet new friends, to help encourage new authors and give them a place to be published, to promote the true Mr. Holmes, and to assist in the important work being done at Stepping Stones at Undershaw.
Questions or comments may be addressed to David Marcum at
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