Writing Portfolio


Walk the Lines

I recently chanced upon a hardback copy of Walk the Lines by Mark Mason in a charity shop, and after reading the description on the dust-jacket, I thought I’d buy it and give it a go.

This book is a travelogue about walking the length of all eleven London Underground lines. In other words, London – and a fair bit of its outskirts – by foot. It’s undoubtedly an eccentric challenge, but it presents us with a very insightful view of modern London in all its forms – suburbs, industrial estates, open fields, the inner city and the point at which a poor area ends and an affluent one begins.

It’s not just about the places, mind you. On the way, Mason meets an interesting range of people, including the City of London planning officer, a novelist, a trainee cabbie and an actor from The Archers who did the ‘mind the gap’ announcements for part of the Piccadilly Line. He gets to climb up the NatWest Tower and Barnet Church. And he even manages to walk to Heathrow Airport.

As one would expect, there are some great pieces of Tube trivia here – for example, when the Metropolitan Railway opened in 1863, the Prime Minister (Lord Palmerston, who was 78 at the time) refused to attend on the grounds that at his age, he preferred to spend as much of his time above ground as possible. There is also an explanation for the convention of standing on the right on escalators. On a wider note, there’s a useful definition of what constitutes a modern-day high street from a man who, over the course of this book, has walked along rather a lot of them: “A high street ain’t a high street unless it can sell you a rawlplug.” (By this definition, I am pleased to report that High Road in East Finchley meets his requirement.) There is also plenty of food for thought for people who like maps, and in this sense Mason goes beyond the ‘I went to Stanfords to buy my maps’ travel-writer cliché.

Now an account of a series of walks, however interesting, may get dull after a while but Mason mixes things up to keep the reader interested. He is at various stages accompanied by fellow-walkers. He turns his Circle Line walk into a Circle Line pub crawl. Later on, he does the Jubilee Line by night, offering a nocturnal perspective on London. And by spreading his walks over several months, we see the city (and environs) through different seasons as well. Each walk tells a different story about the same metropolis.

I really enjoyed this book, despite the fact that Mason is rather disparaging about Edgware (perhaps inevitably, it gets compared to that other Northern Line northbound destination, High Barnet, and comes off second-best). This was a good idea for a book, and in Mason’s hands it’s a very good read. If you live in London, or are interested in London, you’ll find something to like here.


A study in Sherlock

So after a wait of two years, it was over before we got half-way through January. I refer, of course, to the third series of Sherlock, which I had been keenly anticipating for several months.

(Before I go any further, I should warn you that this blog post contains various plot-spoilers, and if you haven’t seen the third series of Sherlock yet you may wish to stop reading at this point. You have been warned.)

On the whole, and I speak as a bit of a fan, I was pleased with what I saw. The first hurdle for this new series was always going to be the explanation of how he faked his own death (“short version: not dead”) and this part was well done, I thought, with plenty of nods to various online conspiracy theories (can you even have a conspiracy theory about a fictional TV drama? You can, apparently, if it’s Sherlock) before coming up with an explanation that referred, as the writers had promised, to events that had taken place earlier in the final episode of the second series. The clues were always there, apparently.

The only jarring note for me as far as Sherlock’s return went was not Martin Freeeman’s dodgy ’tache but he question of Tube trains – a pivotal plot point as the great detective raced to stop a North Korean sleeper-agent from blowing up Parliament on, of all days, 5th November. Now I know that viewers who don’t live and commute in London may not be interested, but the use of the wrong rolling-stock for a District Line train did not go unnoticed by viewers who do, and left me anticipating a completely different twist than that which did occur. A rare slip by the writers, especially given their attention to detail and the fact that they’d just added a trainspotter to the plot; if information about Tube rolling-stock wasn’t in Sherlock’s mind-palace, surely he’d know?

For me at least, the second episode dragged a bit, with a couple of interesting-looking mysteries playing second fiddle to Sherlock’s best man’s speech and a couple of funny interactions between the self-confessed high-functioning sociopath and other guests, with things not changing gear until the last half-hour. Even though they all tied together in the end for a pretty interesting murder plot (after all, everything in Sherlock happens for a reason, even if you have to remember seemingly minor points from previous episodes as became apparent in episode three), it seemed to me as though the writers were paying more attention to character development than having Sherlock go and solve some mysteries.

Ah, character development. Mary Morstan gets more attention here than she did in the books (in which, with the obvious exception of The Sign of Four, she plays a surprisingly minor role as the narrator’s wife), being in this instance a fully-fledged character in her own right whose shady past provides a key plot point in the third episode. I’ll admit I didn’t see the ex-CIA assassin thing coming, although this being Sherlock there had been plenty of clues to indicate that she was not what she seemed, for example her code-cracking abilities. We got to see Sherlock’s parents, which may be a Sherlock Holmes first (they were played, funnily enough, by Benedict Cumberbatch’s real-life parents), and even Mrs Hudson got a bit of a back-story with the revelations about her involvement in a drug cartel (“I did the typing!”).

The final episode of this was, in my opinion, the best, probably due to the reptilian way in which Lars Mikkelsen played the villain. Did he really lick his victim? Yes, he did. Now, having a newspaper proprietor as the villain of the piece may be topical in the light of the phone-hacking scandal but it is not exactly an original idea (the baddie in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies ran a newspaper empire, and had the same rimless glasses as Charles Augustus Magnussen for that matter, although he merely attempted to start a war between Britain and China to boost circulation figures rather than use his power-without-responsibility to have a go at blackmailing people). Similarly, Sherlock’s use of a pretend-relationship to gain access to the baddie’s office may have drawn comparisons with some of the more questionable things that have been done by undercover policemen in recent years, but readers of the books will note that this underhand tactic is there in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” (which first appeared in 1904), the short story on which it is based.

A surprising amount of the material in Sherlock is from the original stories – while watching it, I always find myself thinking of which of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures this character or that reference came from. The ‘east wind’ speech at the end of the third episode is taken from “His Last Bow” (chronologically, although not in the order in which the stories were written, the last Holmes adventure), the ‘John or James’ text-message in the first episode is a reference to Conan Doyle’s occasional habit of (probably inadvertently) changing Dr Watson’s Christian name, while the hat deduction scene is a take on “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle”. In the third episode, the scene where John (it seems almost impossible to refer to the main characters in this series by their surnames, as one instinctively would when discussing the books or other TV and film adaptations) finds Sherlock in the crack-house is taken from “The Man with the Twisted Lip”, the Victorian-era opium den having been updated for modern sensibilities. Even Mary’s real initials, as shown on the memory-stick that she gives John, refer to the novel The Sign of Four, the one in which Dr Watson’s wife first appears. Moving away from Conan Doyle, there are even a couple of nods to The Day of the Jackal (how Mary obtained her new identity) and Casablanca (the scene at the airfield).

What I’m trying to say is that the plot devices used by the writers of Sherlock are not in themselves original ideas; they may have taken Sherlock Holmes out of the nineteenth century but they are being surprisingly faithful to the books. Even moving Holmes and Watson to a modern setting isn’t entirely a new idea – back in the 1940s, the Basil Rathbone version of the great detective was taking on the Nazis – but I do like the way this new, modern version of Holmes is so instinctively at home in the twenty-first century.

And why not? After all, there was also more to Sherlock Holmes than hansom cabs, fog and gaslights. Twenty-first century London has email and text-messages (which take the place of the near-ubiquitous telegrams that kept arriving at 221B Baker Street), and in the books Holmes was always keen to use the latest that modern technology and forensic science had to offer to help solve crimes. And, of course the twenty-first century Dr Watson is a wounded veteran from the war in Afghanistan, just like the original. Instead of chronicling his adventures with his somewhat unconventional flatmate for a magazine, he writes a blog (and there really is a blog to go with the show, created by the writers; for sheer detail, they’ll stop at nothing). There’s even some real-life London lore, such as the fake houses on Leinster Gardens, thrown in for good measure.

Sherlock Holmes has undergone quite the revival in recent years; as well as the BBC series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, there have been two Guy Ritchie films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as the original dynamic duo in a pseudo-late-Victorian setting, and an American TV series with Cumberbatch’s fellow-Frankenstein Johnny Lee Miller as a modern-day Sherlock who moves to New York and is assisted by a Dr Joan Watson. Thanks to all of this, sales of the original books have apparently shot up.

Here, it seems, is one literary character you just can’t seem to get rid of. Heck, even his creator had to bring him back after killing him off, and every new generation would appear to desire their own version of the great detective. We currently have three; I don’t know what that says about us, but it says a lot for the enduring appeal of Sherlock Holmes.