Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A previous generation's head Irregular

Sonia Fetherston's new book, Commissionaire: Julian Wolff And His Baker Street Irregulars, arrived yesterday, and having a furlough week off work (no sympathies needed, just a cost-saver and I got to take some vacation pay and leave unemployment for those who need it) with time to spend, I made short work of reading it. I don't normally review books in this blog, as there are many more books out there than I want to read, even involving Sherlock Holmes, but when I found myself almost a third of the way through the book after just unwrapping it, it seemed to justify a few words.

With two Christmas Annuals of The Baker Street Journal and a previous book in "The Baker Street Irregulars Biographical Series" under her belt, Sonia is a practiced hand at writing Sherlockian biography, and it shows. Since I'm not usually a BSI history guy, I didn't pick up her first book, so I don't know if her style of gathering reminiscences from existing Sherlockians and written comments of past Sherlockians went on there or not, but the way they peppered this book made it a nice breezy read, easy to pick up and read in small spurts if needed.

The life of a quiet little fellow who held a club together when it needed an anchor doesn't make for the most dramatic reading, and this book is as much a celebration of his life by those who remember him as some sort of tale of dramatic triumph and tragedy. He made maps, he put out a journal, he had parties at the New York apartment where he lived most of his life. Since his papers were all lost after his death, there is no chance for a deep dive into his inner thoughts, but the book gathers what we do have and presents it well for those who want to know a bit more about the Wolff.

I was definitely one of those. Sonia contacted me as she wrote the book, to hear my memories of Julian Wolff, and I persistently told her that I didn't know if I had anything of worth to tell. I had one black and white photo that Gordon Speck took of me standing beside Julian Wolff in 1987, and that picture is practically my entire memory of the man who carried the Baker Street Irregulars from the sixties into the eighties. (Why Gordon used black and white film, I don't know. I shot color that same year.) My own pictures from that year featured John Bennett Shaw and Peter Blau, whom I considered the superstars of Sherlockiana back then, as collectors were the thing.

So it was good to go back and learn of the man who caused so much grief in my own Sherlockian life. Well, I can't completely blame him, of course, as we all cause our own problems to some degree, but the chapter of the book "No Gurlz Allowed" amply shows how Wolff's membership policies set up one young Sherlockian for a rift with the organization Wolff had been running until a few years before. The book's cover photo of Julian Wolff with chin upraised might look noble in some ways, but to me, he now just looks stubborn.

So it was good to learn about a fellow from the past whom I met once, really didn't know much about, yet affected my world (and probably yours too, either directly or in ripple effects). And Sonia Fetherston does an excellent job of telling that story through the eyes of a legion of his fellow Sherlockians.

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