“Some of the most dramatic months… of contemporary history”

Chapter 3: The Blitz and its impact.

“Here dwell still. . . .“

A still from “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon,” a film set during the Second World War. Here was Basil Rathbone as Holmes, in disguise, ready to walk into 221B Baker Street. Note the sand bags surrounding the door. Despite the destruction all around them, Holmes and Watson still live in Baker Street.

The 1942 film “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon,” starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes, Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson and was the fourth in a series of Holmes features with them in the leads.

Released in December, the film imagines Baker Street after the Blitz, its once gracious Victorian thoroughfare now dangerously littered with rubble, its street sign akimbo, and the entrance to 221B surrounded by sandbags.

In truth, much of Baker Street was badly damaged by the bombings and the ensuing fires. As Christopher Morley noted during a post-War visit to London, there was little left except the façade of the building that had once been No. 111 Baker Street.

Baker Street might have been damaged, but Hollywood could not allow the home of Sherlock Holmes to be destroyed. 221B Baker Street HAD to remain untouched. The image of Baker Street on the movie screen, indeed the entire film, was designed to buck up the spirits of those who had been following the devastation of London during the Blitz.

221B survives, and Holmes fights on

‘That fabled street.’

In this still image from “Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon,” the battered Baker Street sign is on the wall just to Rathbone’s left. In this scene, Holmes is escorting Dr. Franz Tobel played by William Post Jr., and his bombsight safely to London. Just after this image, Tobel will slip on some bricks, and Holmes will say that Tobel will need to get used to London’s blackouts.

Looking at the movie now I am impressed that – with the exception of 221B – the images of Baker Street are pretty accurate. Hollywood couldn’t show a sanitized version of Baker Street to the public.

Americans had become accustomed to visualizing how London looked by reading news stories and especially by listening to the radio reports coming out of the city each night. The most famous of those reports came from the microphone of CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow.

For us, who see battles broadcast as they happen on television like some bizarre reality show, it’s hard to appreciate how broadcasts like Murrow’s reached into the hearts and minds of listeners. The power of these broadcasts on the imagination of the American public cannot be overstated.

Until this time, Americans of the early 20th Century had been accustomed to read about the European war in the newspaper, or see battles reported weeks later in movie shorts, after the censor had used his scissors.

Radio brought an immediacy that had been missing from other reporting. For the first time in history, people thousands of miles away from the conflict were witnesses to war in real time.

Using Holmes to tell war stories blended the horrors of the war reporting, with the mysterious atmosphere that permeates the Canon. The on-screen Holmes became more than an eccentric reasoner. Hollywood upgraded him into the embodiment of British courage, ingenuity and fortitude. Just as 221B survived the bombing, Sherlock Holmes would endure, using his wits to fight the seemingly relentless enemy.

‘You burned the city of London in our houses, and we felt the flames.’

A photo of fires burning the day after a bombing. From the National Archives.

Using simple language and blending reports of bombings with accounts of the way everyday life had been changed, Murrow drew an elaborate and detailed view of London. Suddenly, the war “over there” came uncomfortably very close. As we’ll see in a moment, these broadcasts had an impact on Starrett, the poet.

How influential was Morrow’s reporting? It took another poet, Archibald MacLeish, to explain the impact of those broadcasts:

It was not in London really that you spoke, it was in the back kitchens and the front living rooms and the moving automobiles that your voice was truly speaking. You burned the city of London in our houses, and we felt the flames. You laid the dead of London at our doors and we knew the dead were our dead – were all men’s dead. Without rhetoric, without dramatics, without more emotion than needed be, you destroyed the superstition of distance and time.

(From A People And A Nation: A History of the United States, Since 1865 by Mary Beth Norton, Carol Sheriff, David M. Katzman, David W. Blight, Howard P. Chudacoff, published in 1982 by Houghton Mifflin.)

‘Life never seemed so unreal,’

Listening to those broadcasts in his native Chicago, Vincent Starrett was deeply moved.

Faced with the overwhelming realities of war, he turned to Sherlock Holmes for solace. In late 1940, just before the Blitz began, Starrett recorded some of his thoughts about this dark period in his introduction to 221B: Studies in Sherlock Holmes.

Recently we have passed through some of the most dramatic months, I suppose, of contemporary history. Stirred by a confusion of emotions, too tangled to untease, we hung above the radio waiting each fresh installment of the fantastic serial, and found it difficult to believe that this indeed was actuality.

Starrett’s thoughts echo those of a columnist for the New Statesman in London, who wrote what it was like during the Blitz:

Life never seemed so unreal, so like a chapter from a novelette, as it has done this week. When I get up in the morning I have actually to look at the damage before I can believe that so many of the buildings and places that I most treasured in London have just disappeared off the face of the earth.

(From The Longest Night: The Bombing of London on May 10, 1941, by Gavin Mortimer, published by Caliber Books of New York, 2005.)

London, the very soul of the British empire, was being bombed and burned. The powerful emotions created by this destruction of the old city stirred Starrett and he turned to poetry to express his fears and hopes. Starrett’s poetry had always been heavy on nostalgia and longing, with occasional glimpses of humor. Now, he would pour his heart into words, as we will see in Chapter 4.

‘221B’ Chapter Index

Chapter 1:       Introduction and Prologue: ‘Where it is always 1895’
Chapter 2:       'So they still live for all that love them well'
Chapter 3:       ‘Some of the most dramatic months… of contemporary history’
Chapter 4:       ‘Here dwell together still’
Chapter 5:       ‘He has done many little things for me’
Chapter 6:       ‘A wider circulation’
Chapter 7:       ‘Part of a slim volume’
Chapter 8:       ‘This poem by my good friend’
Chapter 9:       ‘Something remains of London in 1895’
Chapter 10:     What is it we love about ‘221B’?
Chapter 11:     Afterthoughts and Acknowledgments

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