It’s been a long time since I wrote a blog. But it’s time at last to deliver some great news. Over the last few months I’ve been beavering away at a brand new project that I actually started before lockdown, and then mothballed. Somehow it felt right a few months ago to get it back on the go. So, I’m here to announce the Kickstarter campaign for my new book, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Southsea Stories And Beyond, which will be hitting the shelves before Christmas.
What’s It About?
Okay, good question, even though I did ask it myself. So here goes the quick rundown:
Arthur Conan Doyle moved to Southsea, the seaside resort attached to the town of Portsmouth in 1882 at the age of 23, after a stint as a ship’s surgeon and a brief period working with fellow doctor George Budd in Plymouth. He had already started writing, but in Southsea he wrote a lot more. Many of those stories were published anonymously, were forgotten and were never drawn together into anthologies under Doyle’s name in his lifetime.
Reading them afresh, it becomes clear that Southsea was a formative ingredient for development of his writer’s palette. Here he first uses ideas of the lonely house on Dartmoor with a big fierce dog (The Hound of the Baskervilles), of a Cabman involved in criminal acts at night (A Study In Scarlet), of treasure in the outposts of Empire argued over by friends (The Sign of Four) and of dangerous confrontations in the Wild West (The Valley of Fear).
Is Southsea Really So Central To His Work?
I think so, yes. There are many, many more influences that surface again in his later work, but also there’s the subject of Southsea itself. In some of his tales Conan Doyle writes about Birchespool, in fact the fictionalised town of Southsea, and so we get a glimpse into what life was like in the town in the 1880s, with its bankers and colonels and debating societies (of which he was a member).
Throughout, Arthur Conan Doyle experiments with genre. Adventure, thriller, horror, romance, comedy and much more all feature in his work. What we see is Conan Doyle inching towards creating Sherlock Holmes.
But that’s not all. Some of the stories in this book were published long after he left Southsea, and what becomes apparent is that the ideas he developed here stayed with him long after the event. Portsmouth pops up from time to time in his later works, names from the town and its environs appear over and over. It’s fascinating to see just what an influence the town had on his work.
What Else Is In The Book?
When I realised this, I asked the wonderful writer Andrew Lycett (author of the definitive biography, Conan Doyle, Teller of Tales) to write the preface, and I added a brief introduction.
Throughout the book, I add short passages to the end of each chapter, describing how the story related to parts of Conan Doyle’s life, and to the life of the town of Southsea.
It’s fun, it’s informative – and I’d love you to come on board and help me out with the Kickstarter campaign!
The creation of the brand on the mugs from Life Is Amazing has been a long time in the process, and it’s fascinating to look back over the series of permutations that artwork and strapline has been through.
I first published the strapline incorporating Sherlock’s Home on facebook on 17th March 2019. On the previous day, my facebook post announced I was going to arrange the 2019 Holmes Fest, with the following artwork:
The exquisite cover to A Study In Scarlet is one that I had reworked from the original artwork taken from the Bodleian Library edition – one of the 11 complete copies that still exist – another one of which Portsmouth City Council owns.
At this stage I was simply making a statement of intention about Holmes Fest 2019, which I posted to my facebook account.
The following day, however, I must have gone back through previous files and found these rather messy images on my system that were created a month before on 9th February 2019 in PSD format…
I was clearly on a creative swing, because it was only two days from this initial sketch to arriving at the following images, which were created on 11th February 2019. The evolution of the imagery was radical:
Here, in contrast to the rather naff-looking Victorian font, I was looking for a kind of smooth, cool look that I could use for Southsea and Portsmouth. At the time, I focused on Southsea – Sherlock’s Home rather than Portsmouth – Sherlock’s Home simply because it is more accurate. Southsea at the time Sherlock was created was not a part of Portsmouth but a separate town, so I instinctively felt that Southsea in the strapline was more accurate.
That winning strapline – Sherlock’s Home – was the perfect pun on Sherlock Holmes in relation to Portsmouth. So, the day after I published my invitation to artists, I published the following permutations on facebook:
Basically, with this, I was doing what I love best, creating and making. I realised that the strapline Sherlock’s Home was a winner, as friends commented to me at the time.
Unfortunately, I was unable to go ahead with Holmes Fest that year, with the sudden and hugely unexpected developments around The Snow Witch – an arts project that absolutely flew. But the idea would not leave me, and this year I finally came back to it.
So, look out for Holmes Fest 2021, and for more merchandise, too! 🙂
To celebrate the creation of the world famous detective Sherlock Holmes while Arthur Conan Doyle was living in Southsea, Life Is Amazing are pleased to announce the release of this special mug!
The stylish white and blue design is perfect for the dedicated Sherlockian and anyone with a love of Portsmouth and Southsea, too!
The design on the side incorporates Holmes’ trademark accoutrements – his deerstalker hat, pipe and magnifying glass.
It reads: Southsea – Sherlock’s Home in celebration of the character’s “birth” from the brain of writer Arthur Conan Doyle while he lived in Southsea, a suburb of Portsmouth.
Your mug will be sent to you direct from Southsea.
In fact, Life Is Amazing is based only a few hundred metres from the site where Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes while he was working as a General Practitioner on Elm Grove, where he lived at Number 1 Bush Villas.
A man who enjoyed working his grey matter over a cup of tea brought to him by Mrs Hudson, Sherlock Holmes would surely approve of the modern sleuth meditating over a hot beverage that lubricates the thought processes!
The price is just £10 including postage in the UK!
Yesterday, I was looking through my tweets when I saw a message from some friends. It really moved me, because I’ve known them a long time and I hated to think things weren’t going so well for them. It was this one:
Not a single book sold today…
We think think this maybe the first time ever…
We know its miserable out but if you’d like to help us out please find our Abebooks offering below, all at 25% off at the moment…. pic.twitter.com/Cn5uhYWw88
That feeling was painfully familiar. I worked for seven years as a rare bookdealer. There were times I sat in my office waiting for a sale to come in, not knowing what else to do, feeling lonely as hell – and getting desperate about whether I’d be able to pay the rent and heating. There was something else – sweet nostalgia. Because I’ve bought books at the Petersfield Bookshop since I was a kid.
I remember going in and seeing the (now long-departed) grand patriarch Frank Westwood sitting in state at his desk, surrounded by piles of books like an aged magician with all the tools to hand to cast the spell of words. He seemed terribly fierce when I was a kid, but as I grew older and I got to know him well, I realised what an amazing font of knowledge he was.
It was Frank who sold me two beautiful first editions – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes – in my early days as a bookdealer, knocking £400 of the price and bringing them down to £1200 to “give me a chance to sell them”. I loved the old boy and would go in and sit and chat with him for hours about books, about the book trade, auctions and much more besides.
Then, after he died, his son John Westwood took over – just as the market in rare books began to change beyond all recognition. I was an entirely online solitary bookdealer, but John had to cope with wages, rates, members of the public, keeping the shop presentable, and much more besides as the retail business and the sale of books metamorphosed. I watched John fight to keep the business going during the credit crunch when no-one had any money. I watched the general public’s habit of getting out to physical shops decline – and I saw everyone in the business at Petersfield Bookshop keep at it, as the shop changed, responded and moved with the times to keep up with the market, all the while creating an environment visitors will love to visit.
There is plenty to love! The shop has a wonderful cosiness to it, and John (who is himself a true eccentric in the nicest possible way) has moulded it to fit his personality. It has unexpected manikins on the walls and ceilings, little figures peering out, and, sitting at its heart, a church organ that doubles as a bookshelf. Perhaps most aptly, considering how much is crammed in this shop, there is even a bookcase shaped like the Tardis. That police call box is filled with crime novels – and the whole shop is stuffed with treasure!
So, when I saw that tweet, I was pretty sad. It seemed so forlorn. And I knew that to keep the shop going in a rough patch, John had sold his flat and was sleeping on a camp bed above the shop. What to do?
It was then I remembered someone I deeply respect online for his kindness and willingness to help others – and a man whom, I admit, I’ve got a bit of an obsession about because he was born in my home town of Portsmouth (and I am a nut about Portsmouth writers). So, I sent Neil Gaiman this:
@neilhimself, The Petersfield Bookshop is an extraordinary place that should really be cherished. I’ve bought so much amazing stuff in that shop over the years. Would you please put a shout-out for it. The message below breaks my heart… https://t.co/8bP7letGbO
Amazing. Of course, they didn’t owe me a drink, but they did owe Neil one, as I pointed out to them. I tweeted this to Neil again – because, hey, why not? And Neil responded kindly to that, too, with encouraging words – just a simple “I’m so glad”. Yet those few words will make an extraordinary difference.
Today, with the weather calmed and a bright sunny day shining down on a very wet and battered Hampshire recovering from a violent storm, I went in to see them. Overnight, they had received 300 messages and enquiries, and made a pile of sales. Even better, BBC Radio 4 news had featured them in a 5 minute interview on World At One, and they appeared in an article in The Guardian. Big, brilliant eccentric John came in, walked over to me, gave me a hug, and said: “Matt, we’re in the middle of a twitterstorm – in a good way!”
Here’s the thing. The Petersfield Bookshop has been around for over 100 years, and has been in the same family for 60 of them. For me, it’s a home from home. I love that shop. I love the smell of the old books, the sheen of the leather, the engravings and pictures on the wall. It’s precious. I hope, when you go there – you’ll love it just as much as me!
We live in a strange world. It’s the weirdest thing to think that a kind man whom I’ve never met on the other side of the world can make a huge difference to someone who has been down on their luck – just with a simple tweet. Let’s hold on to that thought amidst all the terrible news we keep reading and being told. We’re lucky to have people in the world who recognise that the fame they enjoy also has powerful influence – and with that power comes a responsibility to use it – not only wisely and ethically – but also kindly.
Neil Gaiman’s kind words through the ether on a rain-lashed night are exactly what it means to pay the love forwards. What a great start to 2020! Let’s hope it’s a good one for the guys at The Petersfield Bookshop and for everyone.
And generally, let’s have more kindness in the world. Why not? 🙂
UFOs, ghosts, hauntings, sea-serpents, curses, fortune-telling and witchcraft – just some of the strange, bizarre and unexplained phenomena recorded in historical documents and newspaper reports over the centuries. Author Matt Wingett collects these tales and explores whether they are true or Fake News.
Prepare to meet the Pompey man who discovered the site of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the ghost of the beheaded Countess of Salisbury, the mysterious White Rabbit of Portsea, Spring-Heeled Jack, the first officially recognised UFO sightings in the UK and many more tales of the strange and unusual in this highly illustrated book packed with the mysterious, the bizarre and the quite possibly fraudulent! Includes inexplicable ghost stories as well as explanations of other newspaper reports.
A fabulous tour of the strange and bizarre in and around Portsmouth Town!
Matt Wingett talks about the preparations for the launch of Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour, and some of the discoveries and surprises he made along the way.
Well, it’s been quite an intense period over the last few months, preparing images, collecting together the writings of numerous authors and then going over my own reminiscences of growing up in and near the old town to get my book out, and the launch will soon be here, at Portsmouth Central Library’s Menuin Room at 3pm on Wednesday 21st November.
I’m just preparing the talk right now, and wondering what to cover – whether in my launch talk I should make a mention of some of the extracts I had to leave out for lack of room, or tell some of the extra stories about Pompey places I gleaned while I was putting the book together. And then, there’s the distinct possibility – in fact very firm likelihood – that people will have things to tell me about the hometown. Sharing stories is one of the things I love.
That, really, is one of the reasons I wrote the book. I’ve looked through 50 full length works by 75 different authors to put the book together. The idea was a simple one. I had over the years collected engravings, postcards and drawings of Portsmouth, from the 1700s onwards. And I had read so much about the town by really top-notch and important writers. Wouldn’t it be great – I thought – to find extracts from novelists who mention the town and put them with pictures of the places they’re talking about?
That was the starting point of Portsmouth, A Literary and Pictorial Tour. When I mentioned it to councillor Steve Pitt on facebook and he asked me if I was actually doing a real tour, I thought – Yes, I could do that. Start at the top of Portsdown Hill and work my way around the island.
That’s what I’ve done, with maps at the back to show the locations of each place written about and pictured.
I’ve been really surprised over the years by the quality of writers connected to the town. Of course, there is the big four: Dickens, Conan Doyle, Kipling and Wells, who all had stronger or weaker connections here. But then there are other lesser-known homegrown Nineteenth Century novelists.
George Meredith was born in the High Street and based the opening of his novel about a social climber, Evan Harrington in the town. Walter Besant was born just off St George’s Square, and he went on to found the Society of Authors, wrote around 50 novels, was compared favourably with Dickens in his day and earned a knighthood for his charitable work. His great Portsmouth work is By Celia’s Arbour, which gives extaordinary descriptions of the place as it was in the 1840s before the town walls came down.
In the Twentieth Century, Olivia Manning was born in North End and grew up in Portsmouth. She hated the town with a passion, but still wrote three novels while she was here. Nevil Shute, Graham Hurley, P G Wodehouse (to a lesser extent), Pauline Rowson, Lillian Harry and many others have had something to say about it this century.
And right now, there is a whole new crop of writers and poets working away around Portsmouth. Some are already internationally published, others are learning their trades, doing live performances, writing plays. Portsmouth was and is a fascinating place and much really interestiing stuff has been written about it.
And that’s my conundrum for the launch. Not so much what to write about, but what to leave out!
Well, wish me luck. And hopefully, I’ll see you there tomorrow. The Menuhin Room, Portsmouth Central Library, 3pm, Wednesday 21st November!
With just a few days to go before Holmes Fest 2018 begins on 27th June in Portsmouth, Matt Wingett reveals Arthur Conan Doyle’s early days in Southsea and the struggles he went through.
When Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Southsea in 1882 stepping on to Clarence Pier from a steamer, he had £10 in his pocket, a medical degree and a strong will to make the best of his new life here.
He very much needed the last on the list. His previous attempt at partnership with George Budd in Plymouth had left him determined to go it alone. Budd was unreliable, prone to swings of wild temper and behaved like a melodramatic performer putting on a show for his patients. Doyle considered him deeply unprofessional – and worse – paranoid.
Soon Conan Doyle had set himself up at his surgery on Elm Grove, where his younger brother Innes later joined him to help out. Conan Doyle always had a hands-on positive approach to life, and he later recalled in “Memories and Adventures” applying his can-do attitude to make the best of the bare surgery. With very little money, he used his creativity to improvise, and his cooking arrangements would have given a modern Health and Safety officer a fit. He wrote:
What with cleaning up, answering the bell, doing my modest shopping, which was measured in pennies rather than shillings, and perfecting my simple household arrangements, the time did not hang heavily upon my hands. It is a wonderful thing to have a house of your own for the first time, however humble it may be. I lavished all my care upon the front room to make it possible for patients. The back room was furnished with my trunk and a stool. Inside the trunk was my larder, and the top of it was my dining-room table. There was gas laid on, and I rigged a projection from the wall by which I could sling a pan over the gas jet. In this way I cooked bacon with great ease, and became expert in getting a wonderful lot of slices from a pound. Bread, bacon and tea, with an occasional saveloy—what could man ask for more? It is (or was) perfectly easy to live well upon a shilling a day.
The matter of money remained a tough one for him, and it isn’t true to say that money flooded in. He remembers:
I had obtained a fair consignment of drugs on tick from a wholesale house and these also were ranged round the sides of the back room. From the very beginning a few stray patients of the poorest class, some of them desirous of novelty, some disgruntled with their own doctors, the greater part owing bills and ashamed to face their creditor, came to consult me and consume a bottle of my medicine. I could pay for my food by the drugs I sold. It was as well, for I had no other way of paying for it, and I had sworn not to touch the ten golden pieces which represented my rent. There have been times when I could not buy a postage stamp and my letters have had to wait, but the ten golden coins still remained intact.
Elm Grove, had once had tall, elegant elms growing in the front gardens of some of the villas along its length. You can see a great example of how shops were built on to the old front walls of the houses at Rosie’s Wine Bar, where the steps up to the front door can still be clearly seen, inside, at the back end of the bar. The picture above is from before 1897, and shows part of the elm-lined street as it once was. Below is a more recognisable image of the road, with the elms still visible at the far end, where commerce hadn’t yet reached.
In Conan Doyle’s day, the nature of the street was thus changing from the country idyll it had been just a few decades before, as Southsea thrust further and further east along the farm fields of the island. Doyle wrote:
It was a busy thoroughfare, with a church on one side of my house and an hotel on the other. The days passed pleasantly enough, for it was a lovely warm autumn, and I sat in the window of my consulting-room screened by the rather dingy curtain which I had put up, and watched the passing crowd or read my book, for I had spent part of my scanty funds on making myself a member of a circulating library. In spite of my sparse food, or more probably on account of it, I was extraordinarily fit and well, so that at night when all hope of patients was gone for that day I would lock up my house and walk many miles to work off my energy.
So it was, that of an evening in Southsea in 1882, you might have met a tall, strong Scot, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighing 14 stone of lean meat, walking the streets and getting to know his surroundings – as the adventure of his life was about to begin, and the adventures of his most famous hero, Sherlock Holmes, were to be begin here, too!
Life Is Amazing: Hello Sue, tell us about your sketch at Holmes Fest 2018?.
Sue: My story is about the love between Holmes and Irene Adler. When it ends disastrously, she resolves to lead a life of crime and realises that there is a particular problem with becoming a criminal mastermind – her sex. Thus she works out a particularly fiendish way to spread havoc. And all ll is revealed at the Reichenbach Falls .
Sue: I like Holmes because he combines instinct and intellect, and has more than a dash of Asperger’s. I am also fascinated by him because of the scale of his repression. He thinks he works by logic: but in fact his best conclusions come from gut instinct
Life Is Amazing: What would you investigate if you could investigate anything at all?
Sue: I would investigate the cause of broken hearts, and their rate of recovery.
Life Is Amazing: If Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes went shopping, what one item would each buy, and why?
Sue: Holmes would go shopping for a corset. Moriarty would shop for opium