Watch/Read/Travel: Richard Skelton

January 28, 2015

The Return of Sherlock Holmes ‘The Devil’s Foot’ (1988, dir. Ken Hannam). I don’t own a television, so I’m limiting my choice to material that can be seen online. I have a particular fondness for the ITV adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, starring Jeremy Brett, which ran for a decade during the 80s and 90s. Watching them all these years later provokes a peculiar nostalgia, and Brett is at once histrionic and yet utterly compelling – he draws you in. Benedict Cumberbatch has a long way to go…

This particular episode sees Holmes visiting the south-west coast to convalesce, spending time wandering through the Cornish funerary landscape, before being absorbed by the usual murder mystery: ‘Quite often during those days in Cornwall, Holmes would strike out alone. The mystery and glamour of the place, with its sinister atmosphere of forgotten nations appealed to the imagination of my friend. He spent much of his time in long walks and solitary meditation.’ The episode is worth watching for the landscape alone, but there is also a magnificently lurid hallucination scene near the end.

The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis (Lynn White, 1974)This is a fascinating article that I would urge anyone with an interest in the history of our drift ‘away from nature’ – the disconnect from the real world afforded us by religion and technology:

‘The victory of Christianity over paganism was the greatest psychic revolution in the history of our culture. […] Man named all the animals, thus establishing his dominance over them. God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes. And, although man’s body is made of clay, he is not simply part of nature: he is made in God’s image.’

‘In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men; centaurs, fauns, and mermaids show their ambivalence. Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.’

Djúpivogur, Eastern Iceland (Photo: Rodney Topor)

Djúpivogur, Eastern Iceland (Photo: Rodney Topor)

I don’t get chance to travel much, but I recently spent a month in a fjord in eastern Iceland. Part of the reason for my visit was an interest in the Icelandic language and toponymy, and its echoes in the dialect of northern England, which has all but disappeared. These two geographically distinct locations were both settled contemporaneously by Scandinavians – but Iceland’s isolation has meant that relatively little has changed, culturally and linguistically – and so, in a sense, it preserves a kind of analogue of northern England’s past.

I listened to a lot of Icelandic radio during my stay – perhaps I was trying to absorb the language by osmosis. It felt at once utterly alien when I listened closely, and yet in general terms its rhythm and music were strangely familiar. Perhaps as an antidote, I found myself watching the aforementioned Sherlock Holmes series – an emotional and linguistic anchor in unfamiliar seas.

When outdoors I spent most of my time traversing the sea strand, visiting the many fosses (waterfalls) and coming to terms with the sheer-sided ‘fells’ which occupied a great amount of the horizon. The resident Icelanders were rather sanguine about the effects of the latest volcano erruption, which was spewing sulphurous gases into the atmosphere at an alarming rate. It certainly made for an interesting stay.


(Richard Skelton)


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