Tuesday, 30 October 2007

‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Book Club Debate review.

My appreciation of Sherlock Holmes was born out of a summer watching reruns of a TV series starring Basil Rathbone as the unstoppable Holmes (apologies Peter!). Having never read any of the books I was excited to reconsider Holmes in relation to ‘The Hounds’. Recurring questions crept into my mind as I was reading the novel; Why does Sherlock Holmes remain such an appealing figure? Why do we relate to him so clearly and unquestionably? And why do some fans want to believe he really existed? (Can you think of any other fictional character that has a blue plaque erected in their name?)

These concerns opened the third book club debate; many members being devoted fans of the novels had some illuminating opinions to share.

Holmes is brash, unsympathetic, patronising and smug these are the attributes of our anti-hero and it is perhaps the “anti” in Holmes that makes us warm to him. As Gail suggested it is exactly this outside-ness that makes him appealing to “the everyday man on the street”. He is a true English eccentric, combining respected codes of reason with intuition and imagination. Emily (a Holmes fan from a young age) believed Holmes’ appeal lies in his impressive powers of deduction, his startling ability to deduce motives and character just by looking at a person’s face.

But it is just this idea that disturbed me, Holmes’ approach is rooted in the context of Victorian England, a post Darwinian moment where faith and belief systems were being shaken to the core. Holmes adopts many dubious scientific techniques of the time such as phrenology and concepts of biological determinism to solve his cases. At their very core these techniques are fundamentally racist, classist and unscientific by today’s standards. Angela suggested that we still pander to our Victorian heritage, as our instincts rely on judging people by their appearance. We like to think we have progressed beyond such prejudiced techniques with the use of DNA testing and high tech CSI but as Gail suggested do we really understand these techniques? Are they not to an extent still rooted in Holmes’ black and white analysis of criminality?

In “The Hounds”, Selden represents the “born criminal”. His appearance is primitive and atavistic,“ There could be no doubt about the beetling forehead, the sunken animal eyes. It was indeed the same face that had glared at me in the light of the candle from over the rock–the face of Selden, the criminal.” Pg 129.
This description suggests Conan Doyle borrowing from Alphonse Bertillon’s* creation, Anthropomorphy. This was a system of physiological measurements for the identification of criminals.

Polly questioned the condemnation of Holmes’ methods of deduction by suggesting that Conan Doyle was experimenting with creating fear through body horror. Using physical attributes to strike fear in to the reader and the characters in the book. Conan Doyle could have been referencing ideas of monsters and zombies rather than being prejudiced.

During the debate we touched on the idea of how trapped Conan Doyle was by his Holmes creation. Gail pointed out what a talented and remarkable man Conan Doyle, was; a championship sportsman, a doctor, a lawyer with a social conscience and a spiritualist. By 1893 and after writing 24 stories Conan Doyle had tired of Holmes to the point that he killed him off in “The Final Problem“. Doyle wished to focus on his historical writing but by 1903 The Strand was desperate to up their sales which had experienced a sharp decline since Holmes’ death. The magazine literarily bribed Doyle to resurrect the hero of the masses and so at a sizeable fee Doyle sold his sole to The Strand and produced “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.

Many believe it to be the best of all the stories; book club members certainly felt that it was very different to the other books in the series. Emily noted that the other stories were much shorter and punchier making “The Hounds” structure more predictable in comparison. This may have explained my overall disappointment at the lack of excitement I experienced reading the book, wishing that I had read it when I was fifteen.

What most excited me about the book was that it prompted me to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum at 221b Baker Street. Having lived in London all my life I was aware of this ‘museum” but felt it was a tourist trap and not really worth a visit. I was wrong and now wish I had visited it sooner, the museum illustrated for me the most bizarre collision of fiction and history. This is as close to the truth of fiction as you get.

A Victorian bobby guards the entrance of the house ensuring that you have paid your obligatory 6 bob to get passed his subtle mix of intimidation and politeness. You ascend the narrow staircase to arrive at the first floor that combines Watson’s study and the infamous front room where all the great cases were solved. A convincing array of bric-a-brac lines shelves and tabletops whilst amongst the watercolours and photographs that cover the walls are a series of bullet holes forming the letters VR (Gail’s powers of deduction suggest they stand for Victoria Regina). What becomes problematic in this attention to detail is the fact that this is the reconstruction of the fictional house of a fictional character. A house which didn’t even exist when Conan Doyle was writing the books as Baker Street was much shorter than it is today. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that Baker St was extended and 221b was brought in to existence.

The front room becomes crowded with visitors all eager to sit in the armchairs of Watson and Holmes planted by an open fire. On the small table between the chairs lie all the paraphernalia necessary to transform yourself in to Holmes and Watson: a bowler hat, a pipe, a magnifying glass and last but not least the essential deer stalker.
5 or 6 people wait to don the garb provided. A young women perches on the chez long at the side of the room. She is a member of staff invigilating the space, dressed in a Victorian maids outfit. Even though there seems to be a distinct lack of concern for most of the objects (which you can touch and photograph with a flash!) this young women ensures the reconstruction is maintained and not too much of the bric a brac gets disturbed or stolen.

I was curious to find out who ran this “museum”, who was raking in the cash being liberally parted with at the front door. She confirmed the house was owned by a Russian family and that it was endorsed by the Sherlock Holmes Society. When asked what she thought about working at the “museum “ she began with an attempt at diplomacy but quickly revealed her true feelings. Having recently graduated from a degree in Museums and Galleries she expressed her professional horror at how wrong the whole “museum “ was as it went against everything she had been taught. She shook her head in dismay, but everything that she had expressed is the reason why the museum is so amazing, it is the inappropriateness and idiosyncratic nature of the reconstructions that make it in to a work of art. Throwing history in to question through presenting fiction as truth.

The Museum, the books, the films, the merchandise perpetuate the Holmes myth, but who will be the next fictional character to capture the imaginations of generations to come? Will anyone surpass the myth of Holmes?
Book club suggest Harry Potter. Emily informs us that a theme park inspired by the schoolboy wizard will be open in the US by 2009.

Many Thanks to Gail Burton and all the book club members for another great debate.

Please check out Emily Turner's brilliant review of the events proceedings at:


* Alphonse Bertillon (1853- 1914), Head of criminal identification for Paris Police/

Sunday, 21 October 2007

This months Book, The Hound of the Baskervilles!

This months book is billed as one of the greatest crime thrillers of all time.
We are very lucky this month to have two experts chairing the debate the fantastic Helen Brown and the wonderful Gail Burton. Helen is no stranger to Book club setting the standards high when she chaired the very first debate of Dracula, she is a book critic for The Daily Telegraph and Radio 5 Live. Gail Burton is an artist, campaigner and expert on Sherlock Holmes.
This should prove to be a lively debate, questioning the myth of Holmes, Conan Doyles relationship to his creation and the battle between reason and the imagination.

Friday, 21 September 2007

"Lolita" Book Club Debate Review

The second Library of Secrets Book Club debate set the stakes high as we sat down to grapple with this provocative and disturbing text. I entered the debate feeling the gravity of the book especially considering the current climate of fear surrounding peadophilia. I had many thoughts whilst reading the book about society’s attitudes towards child sexuality and our complete inability to discuss the issue due to the fear surrounding it. Ironic, in a media age that objectifies and over sexualises children, placing prepubescent beauty at the forefront of fashion and advertising whilst pressurising children to emulate adulthood too early.

Only today I was confronted by it at the swimming pool when a large group of schoolgirls came in to the changing room. They were chattering and shrieking. As they unpeeled layers of their clothing, revealing parts of their bodies to one another, a tall thin black girl turned to her friend and said “your soooo skinny, oh my god you must be a size zero.’’ Another girl interjected, ’Where’s the meat on ya bones” giggling and looking slightly embarrassed. This generated a wave of inspection between members of the group leading to a string of paranoid statements; “I thought I was skinny but your even skinnier”, “I’ve got a big bum.” “I hate my thighs.”
These were girls of maybe 9 or 10 years old, adopting the body fascist language of trashy magazines and tabloid press to talk about their bodies!

Murrough O’Brien opened the debate by considering Lolita as a love story, to be precise a story of unrequited love. Humbert Humbert however perverse is in love with Lolita and the story is his story, told solely from his perspective. He mythologizes Dolores Haze, turning a ‘normal’ teenager in to the ultimate nymphet:
‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children: she stands unrecognised by them and unconscious herself of her fantastic power.” Pg 17
He uses a fairytale language to create a monster, a deviant child who is “asking for it”. Throughout the text Humbert detaches Lolita from normality imposing a temptress, femme fatal quality to her character that he uses to justify his actions. Nabakov published Lolita in 1955 only a couple of years after Alfred Kinsey had published his groundbreaking report on Male and Female sexuality. Nabakov uses Kinsey’s new ideas of “normalcy’ in early sexual development, to highlight Humberts abusiveness. Lolita after all, in the wake of the Kinsey report is just a “normal’ teenager beginning to experiment with her sexuality. At the rather appropriately named Camp Climax she experiments with girls and a boy, and this according to the new sexology of the era is perfectly normal adolescent behaviour. However it gives Humbert another false justification for his actions.

Humbert introduces Lolita’s exploits at Camp Climax after having raped her the previous night in the first of many motel rooms.
“ She told me the way she had been debauched”pg135,
Nabakov uses these moments to highlight Humbert’s madness, his twistedness and powers of self-delusion. As the book develops, so Humbert’s nymphet fixations alter into an obsession with Lolita herself, this is compounded in the final scenes where she is pregnant and has lost all her nymphet attributes undeterred Humbert demonstrates his love for Lo by asking her to go away with him.

As much as ‘Lolita’ is a love story it is also a story of abuse, rape, exploitation and death, as Martin Amis establishes in his seminal essay “ Martin Amis on Lolita “ everyone Humbert comes in to contact with dies. “Humbert’s childhood love Annabel dies at thirteen (typhus), and his first wife Valeria dies (also in childbirth), and his second wife Charlotte dies (“a bad accident”) though of course this death is structural, and Charlottes friend Jean Farlow dies at thirty-three (cancer), and Lolita’s young seducer Charlie Holmes dies (Korea) and her old seducer Quilty dies (murder another structural exit) and then Humbert dies and then Lolita.”
The tragedy is that we will never know Lolita, we will never see her side, we only have Humberts sordid tale to reap judgement over which disturbed many people in the group.

There was mixed reaction from the group as to whether they liked the book; everyone seemed to agree that the first two thirds were engaging where as in contrast the road movie section seemed mundane and monotonous. Murrough wondered why Nabakov had decided to make Humbert Humbert and Lolita such nomads, why not stay in Ramsdale? Peggy suggested that it was Nabokov highlighting the European in Humbert, the romance of the journey and a desire to discover and explore. Others thought that it was to keep Lolita interested in him. If he could endlessly show her new sites and wonders she would surely never tire of this lecherous old man. However the overall consensus was that the decision was tactical on Humbert’s part. Initially he didn’t want to get caught, or be pried upon by suspicious neighbours. The Kubrick film (that Nabakov wrote the screenplay for) demonstrated this most clearly, when they settled in Beardsley and an overbearing neighbour warns Humbert that people are talking about him and his young daughter.

This was also the first book Nabakov wrote in English, having recently immigrated to the States suggesting that perhaps Humberts restlessness could reflect Nabakovs desire to explore and discover America. But as Murrough pointed out there are no mistakes in Nabakov this is prose at its tightest, from Humberts use of language to the literary references that crop up throughout. For instance Humberts first love is called Annabel Leigh, this was Nabokov tipping his hat to Edgar Allen Poe’s poem ‘Annabel Lee’. (See below). However lyrical and prosaic, Lianne noted that Nabakov was constantly dotting the text with clues about what was happening, she highlighted a pivotal moment in the text when Humbert admits to feigning sleep whilst hearing Lolita sobbing at his side every night.

Humbert is constantly justifying his unwholesome and debauched actions, using statistics, mythology, and sociology:
“The stipulation of the Roman law, according to which a girl may marry at twelve, was adopted by the Church, and is still preserved, rather tacitly, in some of the United States. And fifteen is lawful everywhere.” Pg 135
These are moments of desperation in a book whose dominant theme is conscience. Guilt, paranoia and madness insue in Humbert Humbert as his veracious appetite for Lolita and the open road send him round the bend. He is defendant, prosecution, judge and jury, a sudden death conveniently allowing him to escape the fate that he has cast upon himself.

Kubrick’s film is a triumph and in some ways almost better than the book. As the trailer protests “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bHBcEYh_Gmc
Kubrick and Nabokov came up against many difficulties, the first being that the original screenplay would have produced a feature 5 hours in length. Continual negotiation between writer and director resulted in a film that plays for a modest 2 and a half hours! The cast is astonishing and Peter Sellers depiction of Quilty is humorous and chilling. But for me Shelly Winters takes the Oscar, her depiction of Charlotte Haze is terrifyingly brutal. As she saunters through the house showing Humbert around for the first time, with that outrageously tight fitting yet frumpy dress and a smouldering cigarette holder. She boasts of how she has just hosted the book club association meeting with Clare Quilty as guest speaker. I giggle to myself, does she seem familiar to you!?

Many thanks to Murrough O’Brien and all the book club members for making it such a great evening.

Book club member Emily Turner has writtern another fantastic review of the Lolita debate, please check out


Annabel Lee
By Edgar Allen Poe

It was many and many a year ago.
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee:
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee:
So that her highborn kineman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in Heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the side of the sea.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Library on the move!

You may not think the library looks very mobile but here's some photographic evidence to prove all you sceptics out there wrong!

A car waits patiently as the library trundels by. I like holding up traffic with the Library, there were a couple of indcidences where we were forced on to the road and had a procession of cars behind us. It definitley got the Library noticed.

The Library pitched up outside many different venues, here it is outside Saint Alphege Church.

Once the Library has arrived at its chosen destination there is no time to waste, the Librarian must hunt down and recruit new members!

Once drawn in to what the Library has to offer they are signed up to become fully fledged members.

Photographs by Simon Steven 2007

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

This Months Book, LOLITA!

This months book is that provocative twentieth century classic Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I am very lucky to have nabbed Murrough O'brien, jounalist and playwrite to chair this months book club debate. Peter Cushing fans amongst you may be wondering what the connection is between the man himself and Lolita. ( I did promise book clubbers that all the books would some how relate back to the splendiforous Cushing!) Well, although tangential he does appear in the Stanley Kubrick version of the film. There is a scene when Lo, Humbert and Charlotte all go to the drive in, they are watching Frankenstien. Cushing appears on the screen for a split second, then the camera cuts back to Lo and Charlotte ( who are sitting either side of Humbert) grabbing hold of Humberts Knees as they gasp in terror.

Friday, 27 July 2007

Book Club Debate No.1: Dracula

Last night I hosted the first Library of Secrets Book Club Debate, in Whitstable. We had a 16 strong crowd of Library members come along to the Umbrella Community Centre to debate Dracula. The brilliant Helen Brown chaired the debate, which started by gleaning peoples general opinions about the book. The majority ruled that Dracula was an unexpected delight that was very contemporary in its style and approach. All written through diary extracts and letters between the main characters, it sets a lively pace to the book which is easily translatable in to the filmic genre through which it has been so popularly portrayed. This is no surprise when considering that Bram Stoker worked with Henry Irving in the theatre and was exposed on a daily basis to this very immediate approach to telling a story. This might also explain his decision to involve so many characters and not have just one person telling the story, allowing different interpretations of events and different opinions to move the story along. Some members found the style difficult to read and an immediate turn off, but others among us felt that it reflected a very contemporary desire to broadcast yourself, for instance as I am doing right now by blogging. Dracula after all is a very technologically advanced novel, Mina Harker uses a typewriter, Dr. Seward uses a phonograph and Van Helsing experiments quite haphazardly with blood transfusions. This focus on technology and science reflects the fin de siecle mood of the time Bram Stoker was writing in (1887), these medical and scientific advances are just one of the many aspects that add to the anarchy and melt down of a move towards a new dawn, a new century. The book reflects a blurring of gender boundaries and roles, as women were starting to claw out emancipation from the patriarchal shackles of the time whilst men were being confronted with the coining of the term Homosexuality. This sets the tone for a book that deals with threat and invasion of the British Empire, which considering its state of flux was in a pretty weak position. However morality, piousness and religion save the day as the demonic Dracula and his harpy’s are kept at bay with crucifixs, communion wafers and holy water. Helen suggested that Bram Stoker was having a bit of a giggle with the reader, considering his Irish protestant upbringing.
The discussion lead us to consider how much Draclua reflects our own times, with the ‘threat of terror’ and the ‘axis of evil’ as well as the influx of immigration from Eastern Europe. One member who really disliked the book, brought up how racist and offensive she found the depiction of the East. The group agreed and I myself being of Hungarian descent found the charicature of Dracula reflecting the current prejudices surrounding Eastern European migration in to Britain today.

Pete Doherty was cast as a good modern day Count, as Helen suggested he sculks around at night, looks abit like the undead and has added to his fame by having had a girlfriend that is idolised for looking like a skeleton.

One of the Book Club members, Emily Turner, has written a fantastic review of the evening’s events and describes more succinctly the ins and outs of the debate. Please read at

Many thanks to Helen Brown and all the Book Club Members for making it such a great evening!

Thursday, 19 July 2007

Monday, 9 July 2007

I became a member of the Whitstable Library today, one of my new members advised me to take out 'The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova' writtern in 2005, it is based on a young woman who discovers an ancient book in her fathers Library and a cache of yellowing letters, this takes her on a journey in to her family history where secrets of her fathers past and her mothers fate connect her to the legend of Dracula. As I was taking out the book I noticed this clever device, whcih scans and stamps the Library books simultaneously!

We managed to get to the Library today where I met Jane, she's a Community Librarian based at the Whitstable Library. She was very excited by the Whitstable Librarian Campaign, making sure that all the library staff were wearing my stickers by the end of the day. "Save the Whitstable Librarian" is a campaign I have been starting as part of the residency. Trying to make people aware of the cuts that are occuring throughout our Library services.

The Library moves! It just about fits through the alley way that runs down the side of the museum and it just fits around the glass cabinets inside the museum. It seems to have been made just to fit in to this space, as the door jam doesn't seem to be the standard height that I was counting on. Moving the Library is quite difficult however. I have to take the roof off before it can get through any doors and then I need at least two people ( thanks Alice and Sue!) to push the back whilst I pull and direct the front. We went for a little adventure today just down to the Church on Oxford St. Once the roof was back on it just went under the awnings hanging from the book shop and the butchers. There were some odd looks but we managed to recruit about 6 new members which was pretty good going considering it was half day opening.
Alice, Sue and I went for a well earned drink in The Neptune Pub, we even had a quick invigorating dip in the sea, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but then realised I might not dry off in time for the talk I was giving at the Library about my work and my library. Luckily the sun was out and we all dried off in time for the talk, where I managed to recruit another 10 new members. I also met two lovely Librarian one of whom told me about the collectiuon of things found in books that the Library actually keeps. Once a man of 80 returned a book and as she was checking it in she found a blakc suspender between the pages! She told me that they collect the things and then at a certain point in the year they put them out on a table for the public to claim them back. I got really excited about this collection of objects found in books and asked her if there was anyway we could exhibit them alongside my Library. She said she would see what she could do.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Inside the Whitstable Museum and Gallery, Peter Cushing memerobilia, diving and oyster history, The Library of Secerts!

The Library of Secerts Book Club will be celebrarting the movie career of Peter cushing in books! For those of you who don't know Peter Cushing is a local hero in Whistable as this is where he setteled down in the later part of his life. There is a section in the Whitstable Museum and Gallery devoted to Peter Cushing's life and work!


The Library has arrived in Whitstable! This is part of a four day residency located at the Whitstable Museum and Gallery. I am here to advertise and promote the library in Whitstable, recruiting as many new members to the Library as possible. The Library will be staying in Whitstable for a year, it will organise a book club, a writing challenge, a campaign to save the Whitstable Librarian and much. much more!
The Library will travel around Whitstable throughout the year, apprearing in different locations, including the Public Library, the Horsebridge Centre and the Museum. People will be able to deposit secrets, memories and thoughts amongst the pages of the books as well as participating/attending book club debates, film screenings and book sniffings.
This residency is part of a year long project that will culminate at the Whitstable Biennale in 2008.

Tomorrow is the Library’s first outing and at the moment it is hard to see a.) how the community will react to the work,b.) if the library will actually move, c.) if the library will actually be able to fit through the narrow alley way that runs down the side of the Museum. All shall be revealed tomorrow!

Monday, 18 June 2007

In November 2006 I was artist in Residence on the Worlds End Estate, Chelsea and Kensington, London. I was on the estate for 6 weeks and as part of many attempts to get residents to reconsider their surroundings, The Library of Secrets established The Worlds End Estate Book Club. The Book Clubs book of the month was JG Ballards High Rise. At the end of my residency, book club members convened in the Chelsea Theatre for the
Book Club Debate! The debate was chaired by Helen Brown, Journalist and Broadcaster, residents discussed their understanding of the book in comparison to their own experience of High Rise Living.

Official Worlds End Estate Postcard, 2006. This was the winning photo of the Belle-Vue competition which invited residents to submit their best view from the estate, the winning photo was made in to a postcard which was distributed across the estate.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

A red brick building with large glass panels and seamless sliding doors nestles beside Sainsbury’s just off of the Roman Rd. there is a fat tattooed bouncer/security guard at the main entrance. As I enter my senses are assaulted by garish lime green, red and orange covering parts of the walls and floor. A coffee shop beckons you inside with stainless steel tables and chairs; the cappuccino machine coughs and splutters as it froths up a carton of milk. An Elderly man sits drinking his tea next to the touch screen information centre; there are CD’s and DVD’s to rent but where are the books? This is Tower Hamlets vision of the future, a new idea for libraries, this is the Idea Store.

The Library of Secrets celebrates the value and function of existing libraries which are under valued, under funded and under threat. New government initiatives such as the Idea Store ring the death knell for the libraries that I grew up using. These beautiful Victorian constructions and strange squat 60’s builds, house slightly ailing book collections with skilled librarians who have a genuine desire to assist in the dissemination of knowledge and information. Local libraries have been under funded and under threat for many years seeing closures in smaller, more rural towns across England. Progress does not have to mean destroying what already exists by replacing a well-established system with a brand new one, which is more about image than content. Progress is surely improved facilities and more money for books not coffee shops and touch screen information centres, which demonstrate a dehumanising trend towards the blurring of consumerism and culture.

The Library of Secrets is a mobile library conceived out of a love of keeping and finding things hidden amongst the pages of books. This bespoke double sided bookshelf houses an eclectic collection including 19th century fiction, historical reference, biography and crime thrillers. However, unlike most libraries the value of this collection does not lie in the rarity, significance or condition of its books but instead in what is entombed between their pages. I wanted to create a mobile environment that would become a collection point for the knowledge, thoughts and wisdom of a community. As I often keep pieces of writing that are important to me inside books I wanted to replicate this idea in the library. Appearing and disappearing in different venues, this structure has a tardis like quality, embedded within this double sided bookshelf are two writing booths, inside them you will find everything you need to express your thoughts; pen, paper and privacy. Once committed to paper you are invited to place your thought/s in one of the 400 hundred books that line the library’s olive wood shelves.