While I was working a self-guided tour of Sherlock Holmes’s London haunts, it dawned on me that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had, amongst the other talents he had given him, equipped his fictional detective with a natural sense of psychogeography, before the word even existed.
In the second Sherlock Holmes novel, The Sign of Four, a mysterious note received by a client, Mary Morstan, directs her to “Be at the third pillar from the left outside the Lyceum Theatre tonight…” She duly turns up, but with Holmes and Watson as chaperones.
What struck me first of all in this episode, was how powerfully Doyle conveyed the city mood in an almost metaphysical study of elements: “It was a September evening, and not yet seven o’clock, but the day had been a dreary one, and a dense drizzly fog lay low upon the great city. Mud-coloured clouds drooped sadly over the muddy streets. Down the Strand the lamps were but misty splotches of diffused light which threw a feeble circular glimmer upon the slimy pavement. The yellow glare from the shop-windows streamed out into the steamy, vaporous air, and threw a murky, shifting radiance across the crowded thoroughfare.“
In Doyle’s intense London backdrop, matter captures light, rather than light capturing matter. Objects become less figurative, more abstract. One can imagine the contemporary artist Whistler, like Turner before him, revelling in the battling elements of industrial smoke and meteorological effects, and trying to trap them on an Impressionist canvas.
Doyle also creates a subliminal feeling in this scene, conjuring irrational fears and unseen horrors: There was, to my mind, something eerie and ghost-like in the endless procession of faces which flitted across these narrow bars of light — sad faces and glad, haggard and merry. Like all human kind, they flitted from the gloom into the light, and so back into the gloom once more. I am not subject to impressions, but the dull, heavy evening, with the strange business upon which we were engaged, combined to make me nervous and depressed. Indeed, it was the kind of atmosphere where Jack-the Ripper would find space to operate undetected.
The Lyceum rendezvous is just a ruse. The next thing, Morstan, Holmes and Watson are whisked off in a carriage driving: “at a furious pace through the foggy streets. The situation was a curious one. We were driving to an unknown place on an unknown errand.”
But to illustrate my point that, in addition to his arsenal of cold logic, scientific rationale and simple deduction, Holmes also posessed a psychogeographic perception of his surroundings, it is the next passage which deserves a full rendition:
“I lost my bearings, and knew nothing, save that we seemed to be going a very long way. Sherlock Holmes was never at fault, however, and he muttered the names as the cab rattled through squares and in and out by tortuous by-streets. “Rochester Row,” said he. “Now Vincent Square. Now we come out on the Vauxhall Bridge Road. We are making for the Surrey side, apparently. Yes, I thought so. Now we are on the bridge. You can catch glimpses of the river.“
We did indeed get a fleeting view of a stretch of the Thames with the lamps shining upon the broad, silent water; but our cab dashed on, and was soon involved in a labyrinth of streets upon the other side. “Wordsworth Road,” said my companion. “Priory Road. Lark Hall Lane. Stockwell Place. Robert Street. Cold Harbour Lane. Our quest does not appear to take us to very fashionable regions.“
Finally, Doyle had Watson describe the end of the journey as if it were an arrival into a surburban nightmare: “We had, indeed, reached a questionable and forbidding neighborhood. Long lines of dull brick houses were only relieved by the coarse glare and tawdry brilliancy of public houses at the corner. Then came rows of two-storied villas each with a fronting of miniature garden, and then again interminable lines of new staring brick buildings — the monster tentacles which the giant city was throwing out into the country.”
So in conclusion, writing a hundred years before ‘reality’ authors such as Peter Ackroyd or Iain Sinclair, Doyle, who always had a mystical side to his nature, is for me, as much an observer of London’s psychogeographic landscape as any writer.
You might say he helped open the doors of perception.
And now, my dear Watson, the needle.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Complete Sherlock Holmes. Penguin. 1981.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. Memories and Adventures. Wordsworth. 2007.