Saturday, June 14, 2014

Is the BSI relevant in the age of the internet?

I'm always hesitant to blog about the Baker Street Irregulars of New York these days.

It's not because I fear the ire of its powers-that-be, or the occasional grumpy e-mail or two that follows. One gets used to those things over time. No, I hesitate to write because I get a real feeling that nobody much cares about them so much in this latest Sherlock boom.

Once upon a time, when one graduated to the larger Sherlockian world and bought a Baring-Gould Annotated, one of the early chapters, fully equivalent to that on Holmes, Watson, and Baker Street, was a whole chapter on the Irregulars and all the fun things that whimsical and celebrated fan club did when they invented the whole Sherlock Holmes club idea. (Yes, yes, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was inventing it at the same time, but we weren't as globally-thinking back then.) And the Baker Street Irregulars was where you could write (via snail-mail, of course) to get connected to the larger Sherlockian world.

But times change, and social networking has really changed, and one is left to wonder. Go looking for that other esteemed Sherlockian society of old, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London, and you find a lovely and interesting website, details about what they're up to, their history, etc. Go looking for the Irregulars, and what do you find? A pretty weak Wikipedia article, and maybe this:

Or maybe this: 

There's a big ol' website for "The Baker Street Irregulars Trust," the Harvard archive for preserving the past of the Baker Street Irregulars. And, of course, a web presence for The Baker Street Journal, because the B.S.I. wants your subscription dollars, even if they don't necessarily want you. But no real online presence for the Irregulars themselves.

Why? Because America's oldest Sherlock Holmes club doesn't want you. Let's be honest, now.  The guy in charge hand picks who gets to be a member of the club (and now, apparently, who doesn't get to be a member of the club) and loves talking about how it's "a literary society," which lets him ignore prominent fans of any TV or movie Holmeses at will. There are plenty of excuses about "Oh, how, oh how could we hold our annual dinner if we just let anybody be a member?" despite the fact that the Sherlock Holmes Society of London seems to do it every year. But in the end, it all comes down to one thing: the guy in charge wants to keep getting to pick which Sneetches get stars on their bellies and which don't. Keeping the little garden that blooms once a year well weeded. And that comes with a cost.

I wonder if the Irregulars aren't just slowly hand-picking themselves into irrelevance. By picking a small number of safe choices each year, people that the one guy has to like, there's a certain spark that could easily get missed, and a certain tendency toward encouraging butt-kissing. (Anybody really notice when the "Two Shilling Award" quit being for contributions to Sherlockian culture and more about contributions to the Irregular organization under the current regime? I did.)

Yes, they have a lovely publishing business, but I remember some guys like David Hammer, Jack Tracy, and Sam Gringras, who had Sherlockian publishing interests that did great things for our Sherlockian world in smaller print runs than any big house would have allowed. Do we need the B.S.I. to be a publishing company? And yes, they now have a Harvard archive about themselves, when the in-house historian, a guy named Jon Lellenberg, once did pretty well at that, possibly having a greater impact than the archive ever will, unless somebody just like him gets a fire in the belly on some future occasion.

But the thing that gets overlooked, time after time, is that the Baker Street Irregulars of New York is, whether we like it or not, America's main Sherlock Holmes society. America's big Sherlock Holmes fan club. And instead of being a flagship, it too often seems like a private yacht for a few invited guests to cruise around singing, "I'm on a boat!" Is that fostering connection and helping support our Sherlockian community here in the states? No, but I'm sure there are many who might say that's not the BSI's job -- which is to hold one entertaining dinner each year for mostly the same crowd. (Except for maybe the publishing and the archives . . . . and this paddle game . . . and this remote control . . .)

And when you look at it in that light, I really shouldn't have brought up the website business, or any of the rest of it. A little banquet for mostly the same couple hundred people every year doesn't really need a cool website, or a social networking presence, or, really, relevance in the internet age.

I probably shouldn't have brought any of this up at all. I just find myself a little fired up that a guy who I have tended to disagree with got yanked from the official BSI membership roster, something that doesn't even happen to dead people. And if somebody's going to start shouting "Off with her head!" Some of us are going to feel the urge to stretch our neck out on the block and say, "Let's see how sharp that axe is."


  1. Brad, you entirely misrepresent an organization of which you have not been an active member for many years. That is your choice. But there are those of us who participate, who enjoy the varied attendees at the annual dinner (many of the younger fandom--something you wouldn't know since you have not attended for nearly a decade). You refer to the BSI Dinner as " entertaining dinner each year for mostly the same crowd..." Hard to understand how you came to that conclusion, since there are new people in attendance every year.

    And I am quite familiar with that "guy...[who] got yanked from the official BSI membership roster..." I have no knowledge of what caused him to have his membership revoked, but my own dealings with him and that of close female friends have been less than cordial. Let's just say that men in the Sherlockian community--including the BSI--have been more gentlemanly on their worst day than "that guy" has been to many female Sherlockians on a good day.

    1. Yes, perhaps there is a certain fuzziness, a certain incorrectness, that comes from viewing something from a distance. But if we simply dismiss the view of everyone who sees things from a different point than us as "their choice," a significant perspective might get lost. (Not saying my POV is that significant perspective, just that it exists for reasons, just as yours does.) As for the personality traits of that fellow who got yanked . . . well, there have been enough disagreeable sorts in the BSI's past who didn't get yanked that such a factor shouldn't enter in or justify said action. He could simply have been ignored, without the drama of trying to take back the shilling.

    2. As I said, I have no knowledge of why his membership was revoked, nor do I care to know. I was not implying in any way that it had anything to do with his treatment of female Sherlockians. I was merely saying "good riddance." And why should his membership--active or revoked--matter anyway, since you have deemed the BSI irrelevant?

    3. I think you got my timeframe backwards, probably due to the order in which I wrote it. First came the "his membership matters," and then came the "questioning of relevance of a carefully controlled population." It was a quite natural progression.

  2. Clubs - I don't join them - but with the B.S.I. we don't have that option - to join or not to join. (I still wouldn't) I do enjoy the B.S.J. though, for the Sherlockian articles (other than the ones about the yearly dinner). If they opened it to all for 'Dues Paying Members' perhaps that would help their coffers. As to dinners - it's in New York! Never been, plan to keep it that way.

  3. Who would you want in the BSI?

  4. From my first reading of Baring-Gould's Annotated Sherlock Holmes I dreamed one day of being asked to join the Baker Street Irregulars. It was a ridiculous idea. The chances of that happening, I knew, were almost non-existent. But in the decades since, that distant, inaccessible BSI became my entryway into the wide and astonishing world of Sherlockian studies. I was always old school, seeking out the obscure journals and long out-of-print books by members of the BSI. I honestly don't particularly care about Sherlock Holmes on television or in films. I can enjoy them or not. What never disappoints are the Canon and the best of the Writings on the Writings. Jon Lellenberg's great BSI History Volumes changed the way I collected Sherlock Holmes, even the way I thought about Sherlock Holmes.
    When I attended my first BSI cocktail party there were men and women there whose names I had come to know and even venerate. Being able to meet them in the flesh was a thrill. What was less than a thrill was realizing, a few years later, when the impossible happened and I was inducted myself, that I was present at one of the last weekends where several of those admired Sherlockians were on their way out the door forever and complaining about the fact that there were already too many people at the dinners, not too few. In a fairly short time, I came to realize that my perception of the BSI, nurtured from boyhood, was romantic and unrealistic. The boorish attacks on members of the Baker Street Babes by certain long-time members was a bitter disappointment to me. But I will never forget my induction into this organization or "the guy" who made it possible. I know. Naive. Sentimental. Not cool or cynical.
    But I remember the first time I met Nicholas Meyer in person. It was at an audition; I was reading for him and several producers and casting people. We had been inducted, I think, just a year or two apart. I had been at the dinner during which he was inducted and after the audition, he said, "Where do I know you from? I mean, aside from your work. Have we met before?" I told him that I had been present for his induction into the BSI. His face lit up, he launched himself out of his chair, came charging around the startled executives and eagerly shook my hand. Then, putting his arm around my shoulder, he turned me to face the others and said, "None of you will ever know what it means to us to have those three letters, BSI, after our name!"
    I'm looking forward to the dinner next year, Brad, and it would be great to see you there.

    1. That, Curtis, is all class, and you have impressed the heck out of my wife who took it upon herself to screen some less classy web chatter in the past week. Your point is well made, but I still have to publish today's blog, which I was just finishing up when your note came in. Thanks for that.