Saturday, 1 October 2011

Giants walking the Strand

The Strand in London stretches from Trafalgar Square to Fleet Street, full of names that evoke romance in the lovers of English literature. Still a part of the theatre district, the cultural vibes resulted in substantial readings on the literary Richter scale in the nineteenth century when it became the preferred place to stay for the then avant-garde thinkers and writers including – Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Carlyle and Herbert Spencer. Ralph Waldo Emerson spent a few days as a guest in the locality and Virginia Woolf was enraptured enough by the bustle and colour of the thoroughfare to make it the setting for an epochal moment of Mrs Dalloway, when Elizabeth comes to understand the purpose of her life.

Tucked away in the adjoining Southampton Street, in the periphery of the Theatre district, stood the offices of the famed Strand Magazine named after the street. Established in 1891 by George Newnes and phenomenally popular as a delightful monthly platter of stories, articles and puzzles, it gave birth to the gentleman thief “Raffles”, created by Ernest William Hornung, and also included among the contributors writers of the stature of Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, H.G. Wells, E.C. Bentley, Rudyard Kipling, Georges Simeon, Edgar Wallace, Max Beerbohm , E. Nesbit, W.W. Jacobs and many others.  Readers used to line up outside the 7-12 Southampton Street offices of the magazine waiting for the next instalment.

However, the two giants who strode like twin Colossuses in the first quarter of the Twentieth century for the magazine were P.G. Wodehouse and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sherlock Holmes short stories appeared in the pages as did a lot of Jeeves and Wooster capers. When Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes, although we can say temporarily in hindsight, in The Final Problem, 20,000 people cancelled their subscriptions.

When, however, Conan Doyle decided to reinstate the detective in his Baker Street residence, citing some far off travels during the hiatus including interactions with the Dalai Lama, the Strand was obviously delighted. A twenty two year old Wodehouse, a dabbler in many forms of literary expressions in those days, wrote a fascinating poem to welcome the sleuth back to the premises. Named Back to his Native Strand, it contains the following lines:

When Sherlock left his native Strand, such groans were seldom heard;
With sobs the Public’s frame was rent; with tears its eyes were blurred.
                But optimists reflected
                That he might be resurrected
It formed our only theme of conversation.
We asked each other, Would he be, and if so How and where?
We went about our duties with a less dejected air.
Location of the offices of The Strand
                And they say that a suggestion
                Of a Parliamentary question
Was received with marked approval by the nation.
And Sherlock, Sherlock, he’s in town again,
Sir Conan has discovered him, and offers to explain.
                The explanation may be thin,
                But bless you! We don’t care a pin,
If he’ll but give us back our Sherlock.

Perhaps because it was a four-minute walk from the Strand Magazine office, both these authors placed several of their fictional encounters in the Simpsons in the Strand, one of the oldest traditional English restaurants.

Part of the Savoy Hotel, Simpsons is now famous for its roast meats, and before being taken over by Savoy, was home to 19th century chess encounters between the grandest names including Steinitz, Morphy, Lasker and Tarrasch.

At the end of The Adventure of the Dying Detective, in which Holmes pretends to be down with fatal Oriental fever in order to lure the villain into a cocoon of security, the consulting sleuth says, “When we have finished at the police station I think something nutritious at Simpson’s would not be out of place.”
In The Illustrious Client, Watson arranges to meet Holmes at Simpsons and finds him ‘sitting at a small table in the front window, and looking down on the rushing stream of life in the Strand.’

Several paragraphs of Something New by P.G. Wodehouse are devoted to the restaurant. And two of the earliest heroes of his fiction for grownups, Mike and Psmith in the novel of the same name, dine there after ‘Psmith waited for Mike while he changed, and carried him off in a cab to Simpson's, a restaurant which, as he justly observed, offered two great advantages, namely, that you need not dress, and, secondly, that you paid your half-crown, and were then at liberty to eat till you were helpless, if you felt so disposed, without extra charge’. In Cocktail Time, Cosmo Wisdom has lunch there after leaving prison.

However, Strand and the restaurant apart, and the Charing Cross, Paddington, Waterloo and the other stations from where characters created by both of them get on the trains for the countryside, the two Strand stalwarts depicted rather different parts of London in their novels.

While a probable lack of confidence in the Geography of London made Sir Arthur restrict most of his significant events around Charing Cross and the Strand, P.G.Wodehouse, in his many many novels and short stories, is more peppered across the city, while being somewhat inclined to use Mayfair as his base. In fact, in The Mating Season, Bertie Wooster is referred to as the Mayfair Consultant.

Let us take a trip with the two authors in and around London and some idyllic locales of England.

The Sherlock Holmes Walk                                 
The PG Wodehouse Tour

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