Distracted once again with the rigours of summer holidaying, here’s a five year-old piece from The London Yodeller about summer reading and outfitting the rising generation with an appreciation for the classics.
LONDON, ONTARIO – Can we all agree that at least until they achieve something resembling the age of reason, grandchildren can be a bit of a challenge to shop for? Early in my marriage I learned (frankly with great relief) that men – or at least this one – should never try to buy clothes for other human beings. I don’t seem to have an eye or a sense for the whole size and ‘will it fit?’ thing. And, even more fundamental than that not inconsiderable flaw, I am reliably informed (and reluctantly convinced) that I have perfectly appalling taste in matters sartorial anyway. Just because it’s the kind of garment I’d like to see people wear, doesn’t mean any sane person would willingly put it on except at gunpoint.
Now with most aged Papas, there’s that whole sports and games sphere that grandchildren can tap into. But having never harboured so much as a trace element of enthusiasm for any sport known to man, sadly that too is an avenue utterly closed to me. I did however score a temporary and ancillary victory earlier this year if you expand the gamesmanship category to include dangerous weaponry.
Dropping off in Salt Spring Island on the way home from Australia with three aborigine-approved-and-certified boomerangs for the grandkids, things went really well for about 20 minutes until Odessa’s curved missile was thrown off its return course by an unanticipated gust from the west and went karanging off the back of Oscar’s head. Damn – and just when I was starting to hope that I was coming into my own as an inspired giver of gifts. “I think we’ll be okay,” I called back to Oscar’s mom as I huddled over her second-born’s collapsed and bawling form. “Twelve . . . twenty stitches max . . . and he’ll be as good as new.”
My specialty as a bearer of presents is books, music and movies – three art forms that (and I don’t care how many Newberry Awards you’ve won or how many records Raffi sells) are pretty well wasted on the very young. The lack of aesthetic discrimination exhibited by infants is one of the most maddening concomitants of living with them. Give them a choice – Black Beauty or My Little Pony, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf or a CD full of Berenstain Bears ditties about caring and sharing, Disney’s Snow White or the latest computer-generated Barbie movie – and they’ll take the hollow, sparkly crap every time. In matters cultural, their retrograde instincts are positively uncanny. The stuff the kids turn out on their own when set loose with painting, drawing and writing equipment and assorted musical instruments has oodles more vitality and originality than a lot of the professionally produced stuff they consume.
But hark, at the senior-most edge of the advancing generation – that would be just turned nine year-old Basil – there are distinct and oh-so-gratifying signs that we’re starting to emerge from the dismal swamp of kiddie tripe into the broad and sunlit uplands of real art. First came the report that between my visit out west this March and his family’s visit here in August, Basil had read volume one of J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring. Sure, he had some help here and there but being raised in a TV-less home by two constant readers has prepared the ground well and to this he added his own precocious brilliance.
Then the week we were together at the cottage at Port Bruce, he kept digging into the book bag I’d brought along and fastened onto the first volume of a Folio Society edition of late 19th and early 20th century stories of mystery and detection called The Folio Treasury of Shorter Crime Fiction. “Is there any Sherlock Holmes in here?” he wanted to know. There was an Arthur Conan Doyle short story in that volume – a tale with supernatural overtones called The Mystery of Cloomber – but, alas, it wasn’t one of the sixty Holmes stories and novels; the editors correctly assuming that anyone drawn to a recherché collection such as this will have read the perpetually popular Holmes tales and now want to see what Doyle’s less celebrated contemporaries were up to and whatever more arcane stuff Doyle himself produced.
“No,” I told him. “But there is at home. Plus I’ve got all the movies and TV adaptations.”
And then we hatched our plot to head back to London a day before any of the others so we could sit around eating bowls of Lucky Charms and watching as many episodes as humanly possible of the Granada Sherlock Holmes series starring the late, great Jeremy Brett.
One of the greatest Sherlock Holmes mysteries of them all is why it took so long for producers and directors to figure out that these enormously popular tales would be best served cinematically if they faithfully represented the original stories in their adaptations. For the better part of the twentieth century the abysmal trend in filming Holmes was to retain the names of the major characters and perhaps an original title and then crank out some utterly inane re-jigging that reduced those wonderful tales to innocuous twaddle.
There's a particularly ripe line of hokum deriving from one of the Basil Rathbone-as-Holmes and Nigel Bruce-as-Watson vehicles from the '40s that I like to invoke after blowing my nose: "The stain on my handkerchief suggests a certain sinister possibility." And speaking of cornball crimes against narrative felicity, the Granada producers were the first to understand that if you really want to make the world's most famous consulting detective look intelligent, try outfitting him with a partner-in-deduction who isn't a stumbling simpleton.
I have considerable use for the current series out of Britain, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (which ingeniously updates the original stories for our digital age), considerably less use for the gimmicky American series Elementary (with Lucy Liu playing a female Dr. ‘Joan’ Watson to Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes) and adore the 1988 send-up, Without a Clue, which stars Michael Caine playing Holmes as a moronic fathead and Ben Kingsley as an embittered Watson who is the real brains behind the operation but whose professional reputation as a respected and discreet physician prevents him from ever claiming any of the credit or glory. And I have no use whatsoever for the wretched Robert Downey films directed by Guy Ritchie which exhibit no feeling whatsoever for the spirit or content of the original canon.
But the gold standard for Holmes adaptations remains the Brett series which was made over a ten year period (1984–94) and managed to honorably translate more than two thirds of the stories to the screen. In the 20 years since Brett’s death, they’ve become a little creaky in the production values department but the accomplishment still stands.
Basil climbed into bed with an over-sized edition of The Pictorial History of Sherlock Holmes at about 1:30 a.m. having consumed A Crooked Man, The Speckled Band, The Blue Carbuncle and The Copper Beeches and having reduced that box of Lucky Charms to a smattering of oat crumbs and pastel-shaded marshmallow dust. His initiation into the Baker Street Irregulars (that band of street urchins Holmes employed whenever a Victorian London neighbourhood needed scouring) was complete and duly confirmed a few weeks later when I mailed him his own worthy copy – a Heritage Press edition – of the stories for his birthday. Welcome to the club, kid.
(Originally published in The London Yodeller, September, 2014)
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