Saturday, March 3, 2018

What is a scion society, really?

During a recent discussion of Sherlockian culture, a familiar theme came up: "Well, the Baker Street Irregulars do this . . ." followed by "The Baker Street Irregulars aren't the government of all Sherlockiana."  The image that the BSI projects versus what the BSI actually takes ownership for is a continual question for new Sherlockians. And a big part of what creates that question is the term "scion societies."

"Scion society" gets used almost interchangeably with "Sherlock Holmes society" among Holmes fans of the older generations. In the 1980s, when new societies were springing up like popcorn, it was a part of the unspoken checklist of what every Sherlock Holmes club wanted to have. You had meetings, of course, and a newsletter. A journal was also a common goal. But in addition to all that, you wanted to write to the Baker Street Irregulars and get official "scion society" status.

There were no rights or privileges associated with that status. And it didn't mean anything to anyone who wasn't already Sherlockian enough to be familiar with the culture. And it's not like the BSI checked on its societies to make sure they were fulfilling any duties or not turning into a Doctor Who fan club. All in all, applying for scion society status was just a sort of "bowing to the king" thing and acknowledging the first among . . . equals?

Well, maybe not equals. The Baker Street Irregulars of New York has this weird thing that no other Sherlockian society has. People want to get into the group to be recognized as a true Sherlockian. Not every single member, of course, and nobody really likes to admit people do things like write for The Baker Street Journal instead of other publications in hopes of that BSI shilling, but the aspiration for membership in the Baker Street Irregulars has driven a lot in American Sherlockian culture.

Becoming a member of the Irregulars -- very hard. Becoming a scion society of the Irregulars -- very easy. Got an original club name and a town? Unless standards have drastically changed of late, you're in. You don't even have to have a local member of the New York club.

So when new folks get the impression that the Baker Street Irregulars of New York is somehow the central power for all of American Sherlockiana, well, it's an error that they are pretty much encouraged to make. And there's a certain level of honesty we don't get to a lot of times, because folks who want to make BSI someday, whatever that really means, don't want to get on the bad side of the shilling decider. And Sherlock Holmes clubs have, ninety-some percent of the time, be very good things. It's hard to criticize the "scion society" tradition without looking like you're going after the clubs themselves.

But a big difference between the Benedict Cumberbatch wave of new Sherlockians and the Jeremy Brett wave of new Sherlockians has been the amount of scion societies created. The eighties seemed full of Sherlockian clubs being created or revived under that banner. The twenty-teens have been more about meet-ups, cons, and podcast groups. The old style of "the Canonical References of Anytown, U.S.A." didn't seem to be coming into being quite so much . . . of course, maybe that style had hit a saturation point in towns big enough to support them. And I could just be out of the loop on this, too, since we only know what we know.

The term "scion society" probably isn't going anywhere at this point. Even if the ocean reclaims the East coast, Chicago gets nuked, and the established B.S.I. structure is wiped out by a roving Mad-Max-style gang of road-crazies, some cave somewhere will have a small band of skinny survivors reading Sherlock Holmes by candlelight and telling the younglings, "We are the Scion of the Four, and we are charged with reading the Holy Text."

And like many a previous group, that ragtag band won't have passed any official sanctioning rules or even contacted the current version of the old NYC club for permission. They'll just do what Sherlockians do and keep gathering around the name of Sherlock Holmes. Because, in the end, every club, society, podcast team, street gang, or whatever comes next are all really just the scions of one thing: Sherlock Holmes.

"He was indeed a scion of one of the very oldest families in the kingdom, though his branch was a cadet one . . ."
-- Sherlock Holmes, "The Musgrave Ritual"


  1. I think the BSI tries to have it both ways. When criticized one of their go to responses is “we’re a private little club and aren’t beholden to anybody else and why does anybody care what we do anyway?” but at the same time they have spent decades asserting their primacy in the North American Sherlockian world. The letters BSI behind one’s name carry a lot of weight, and more than a few Sherlockian swing them like brass knuckles. The opinion of a BSI trumps that of anyone else, exclusive opportunities for publication etc. are open to them, there are multiple forms of media that covers everything they do, the BSI Dinner hijacks the Sherlockian news cycle every January... And the fact that I could join the Bootmakers or the Sherlock Holmes Society of London (and probably a dozen other national societies) in the next five minutes but I will never be able to join BSI is pretty damning in itself. The very process of investiture creates a needless system of have and have nots that facilitates the trickling down of some ugly attitudes and behavior. I think it is important to make the distinction; I have interacted with several scion societies who have been gracious and wonderful. I can also say the same of many individuals with a BSI investiture. Conversely I can say that 90% of the rotten apples I’ve encountered have had BSI behind their name, because annointment went to their heads. I also think there is a class element to BSI investiture that isn’t a good look in the 21st century, and that feeds their other diversity issues as well.

    1. Well said, Robert. I can't disagree with a word.