Memorials and Websites –what do they say about our view of writers?
The Memorials we erect to writers surely tell us something about our opinions of them. This month I’d like to consider both the physical memorials to our Edinburgh Boys and the modern equivalent, which I suggest, is the website.
Who does not know of the Scott Monument in Edinburgh? Scott’s memorial is domineering, all-encompassing- something to be ‘proud’ of on a vast scale. And it stands close to Waverley Station. Scott really ‘bosses’ this part of the Capital. But how many people read the Waverley novels, despite the size of the memorial. I wonder whether the rule is the memorial is large in inverse proportion to how much the writer is read? You can build it, and they may come, but you can’t make them read!
By contrast Robert Louis Stevenson is having something of a resurgence in popularity. He is certainly more read than Scott these days. He even has a ‘day’ in Edinburgh which is this week lasting for a whole week. (November 13th so you may just have missed it). He even has a hashtag! #rlsday. This is all because he has been taken to the heart of Edinburgh City of Literature and is being heavily promoted. Which is all as it should be, but does tend to confirm that suspicion that post mortem, the perceived value of a writer lies in things other than the actuality of his writing – how much capital can be made out of him seems to be vital. Now I’ve been a lifelong lover of Stevenson – I am familiar with his house at Heriot Row having even slept there on a couple of occasions as a child. I used to dine out that I slept in his bed, but I suspect this isn’t true since the bed I slept in was at the back of the house so how could he have seen Leary light the lamp? Still, my point is that I have every cause to praise Stevenson, but that doesn’t stop me from suggesting that his recent rise is not only to do with a sudden awakening to the greatness of his work but to other more commercial forces. As far as actual memorials go, Stevenson isn’t that well represented. There has been a bronze memorial plaque in St Giles Cathedral since 1904 but more recently a small stone memorial in West Princes Street Garden commissioned by the Stevenson Society in 1987. Stevenson stated in his letters that he didn't want a statue of himself and so this modest stone is appropriate to a modest man. However, some have greatness thrust upon them and in 2013 a Bronze sculpture was unveiled in Colinton village. Whatever the ins and outs of Stevenson Resurgit in the literary canon, I just hope it leads to more people reading his work widely (and beyond the best-sellers)
There’s an interesting memorial connection between Robert Louis Stevenson and Samuel Rutherford Crockett. While the two men never met, they became friends through letters and literature. Stevenson suggested Crockett ditch poetry in favour of fiction. He wrote a forward to Crockett’s early work ‘The Stickit Minister and Other Common Men’ (1893) and he wrote a poem to Crockett part of which forms the plaque on the Crockett Memorial in Laurieston. Built by public subscription in 1932 it is quite an impressive memorial, though in an out of the way place and until recently had fallen into something of dis-repair. However, on the anniversary of Crockett’s birthday this year the Memorial has seen a renovation including an inscription board, a wooden bench and much needed parking space. The Crockett memorial is the sort of structure he would have climbed as a youngster and the view would have been amazing from the top: a view of all the places he loved in childhood and wrote about throughout his adult life. The Scott monument it certainly isn’t. Crockett never was and never will be a Walter Scott – the two men are diametrically opposed in almost every way. And yet Crockett was chosen to write abridged versions of Scott novels for children of the early 20th century – who ‘would not read Scott.’ The irony is that in these works ‘Red Cap Adventures’ and ‘Red Cap Tales’ it is Crockett’s writing (and his fictionalised children) who steal the show from Scott.
So Crockett has connections to both Scott and Stevenson – beyond literary style. J.M.Barrie was also a pen friend of Stevenson and a friend of Crockett. Both men planned a trip to Samoa for 1894 but sadly never made it and the opportunity for ‘Jimmy and Sam’s excellent adventure’ was lost when the news came that Stevenson had died. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to all three men had they met up in Samoa early in 1894. Crockett might never have become famous (1894 was the year he burst onto the literary scene with no fewer than four novels published) and Barrie might never have got married. (Instead of going to Samoa he got sick and was nursed by Mary Anstell whom he subsequently married – out of gratitude?)
Barrie’s memorials in Kirriemuir and Kensington Gardens are not of the man himself but of his character Peter Pan. He shares this commonality with Arthur Conan Doyle. He has a memorial at his birthplace in Picardy Place, Edinburgh but it is of Sherlock Holmes. There is a Conan Doyle statue in in Crowborough, East Sussex, however. Like Barrie, Buchan is under-represented in statuary in this country. You have to go to Haenertsburg, in the North-eastern Transvaal to find a memorial to him.
Never mind the statues, there are places associated with our Edinburgh Boys. Scott once again top trumps the pack with Abbotsford. Stevenson has 17 Heriot Row, home of the Stevenson Society and an up market bed and breakfast these days. Crockett is perhaps worse remembered. His birthplace Little Duchrae is up for sale right now. His other childhood home in Cotton Street gives no recognition (but then nor does the entire town of Castle Douglas see fit to honour one of their most famous sons) and his houses at Bank House, Penicuik and Torwood, Peebles are both private homes neither of which evince any interest in their former famous inhabitant.
As for Conan Doyle? There is a Sherlock Holmes museum at 221b Baker Street and in Edinburgh he features in the Writers Museum in the High Street, but all attempts (online) to find out about the Arthur Conan Doyle Centre were met with server errors. Not so elementary my dear Watson! Barrie has a birthplace museum in a cottage in Kirriemuir – it’s a great place to visit and perhaps the best Barrie memorial that exists. And Dumfries is in the process of capitalising on the Barrie/Peter Pan connection with a massive project to renovate Moat Brae, where Barrie lived for a while as a child and allegedly first came up with the idea of Peter Pan (I have my doubts, but it makes a nice story!) And Barrie is so overlooked that any publicity should surely be good – although again I do wish those promoting Barrie would look beyond Peter Pan.
John Buchan has a new home in Peebles. Until some years ago there was a centre in Broughton but it ‘upgraded’ to Peebles where it exists as ‘The John Buchan Story.’
But hey, we live in a virtual world right? So let’s perhaps pit our Edinburgh Boys head to head in the only venues that count – websites. These are generally maintained by literary societies and I leave you to make your own minds up about the varied prices for membership. For those who love competitions and rankings, let’s just say that I’d place the Stevenson society website top of the pile. The Buchan Society and the Galloway Raiders (the Crockett Society) give a good account of their ‘man’ and offer an insight into both the writer and his works. All three of the aforementioned seem to have an investment in keeping the memory alive and encouraging folk to read the work.
Scott has a ‘digital archive’ for the hardcore and a ‘tourist’ attraction for others which as you’d expect, pisses higher up the wall than any other in terms of money but not necessarily in terms of content – it seems to be selling the place rather than the writing. Conan Doyle has both a literary Society (which is actually the Sherlock Holmes Society) and a site which appears to be directed at preserving his literary estate in terms of commercial opportunities.
And poor Peter Pan. Poor J.M.Barrie. He is atrociously served. I defy anyone to make sense of the Barrie website. I don’t think it’s even remotely up to date and trying to connect to it is well nigh impossible, I’ve tried several times over the years. The man is as neglected in this respect as every other. For Barrie the only thing to do is go to Kirriemuir. Until someone sees sense and sets up a proper website. I am frequently tempted to do so myself. But shouldn’t it be something the Mote Brae Trust look into – if they can prise themselves away from Peter Pan for just a minute. I for one think it’s time to grow up about J.M.Barrie.
But enough from me. Go on a wee journey of discovery yourselves:
RLS website http://robert-louis-stevenson.org
S.R.Crockett Galloway Raiders website www.gallowayraiders.co.uk
John Buchan website http://www.johnbuchansociety.co.uk/
Walter Scott Websites http://www.walterscott.lib.ed.ac.uk/
Arthur Conan Doyle Website http://www.arthurconandoyle.com/
And http://www.sherlock-holmes.org.uk/conan-doyle/ for the literary society
Last, and very definite least:
J.M.Barrie Websites http://www.jmbarrie.co.uk/ and if possible the even more appalling http://www.jmbarrie.net/
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