Portsmouth Writers’ Season: Alison Habens

Novelist, academic and S&C Contributing Editor, Alison Habens discusses her creative intervention into the life and times of a legendary Portsmouth author.

I was walking along Kings Road, on the last day of summer or the first day of autumn, just back from my tropical holiday in time for a new term to begin. September 1st, 2016; a Thursday, spoken word night at The Front Room, at the Aurora Bar in Albert Road, Southsea.

I was enjoying my still-glowing skin and the jet lag working in my favour; flying back from the Caribbean a good long evening unfolded ahead of me. And I was looking forward to reading aloud a new story on a more local theme.

‘A Stitch In Scarlet’ – published here on S&C –  puts a completely fictitious character on the factual plot-line of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s time in Portsmouth. Against the richly detailed backdrop of his days here, between 1882 and 1890, enumerated most thoroughly by Commander Geoffrey Stavert in A Study in Southsea – From Bush Villas to Baker Street – The Unrevealed Life of Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle (1987, Portsmouth: Milestone Publications), I interpolated my protagonist.

She was nobody: ‘the bottom-most governess in a basic dame school, teaching classics, as promised in the prospectus, to the children of Southsea shopkeepers…’: but also conceivably somebody he could have known here, an early patient at his general practice, a regular listener to his public talks at the ‘Scientific and Literary Society’ (Stavert, p.42).

That leafy ley-line through Southsea, along which HG Wells and Rudyard Kipling also walked in their day, was blooming with small schools, independent establishments of varying class and quality; and I picked one, Miss Webber’s on Elm Grove, for my narrator to be based at. So that; ‘Every other Saturday on my afternoon off, when I went to see my publican father and drunken mother in Fratton, the striped canopies of Hides Haberdashery hung so low as to infringe on my best hat. But that route allowed a look through the undressed windows of No.1 Bush Villas, where the manly outline of Conan Doyle might be standing. And now I walked that way, ailment and all, every day.’

I made her ill so that she’d need a doctor, and Doyle’s bargain prescription charges, as he set up his basement surgery, would catch her eye; then, once she was hooked on his medication, there should be the chance for small talk between them. And I made her educated so that something she said could have stuck in his mind, to be transformed into an image, translated into a sentence in a paragraph of a short story of his: though she would never know. And I made her a member of the Penny Street academy, described so vividly by Stavert, so this key exchange could follow:

‘Dr Doyle asked me if I’d heard the talk on Mormonism at our society that month. I said I had and was surprised he’d not seen me there, as I was wearing a new bombazine jacket and must have gleamed like a beetle’s wing in the gaslight. Then, gaily he said it was hard to tell one lady apart, as they all had their eyes sewn to the needlework in their laps, during the lectures at least.

‘Doctor,’ I replied, ‘there’s a scarlet thread of mystery running through the colourless skein of life, and our duty is to unravel it.’

I noticed the knees, which jiggled whenever he was seated, stopped on the other side of the desk.

Of course, this references a significant line from the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre; and perhaps it is a cheap trick to rip it off for an insignificant governess’s twenty first century writing exercise. Or maybe it’s entirely legitimate fan fiction: but it is not the strangest thing about this story, or the real night it was set.

I was walking along Kings Road on the last day of summer or the first day of autumn; a Thursday, spoken word night at The Front Room, at the Aurora Bar. I was still enjoying my sun tan but the evening was drawing in and I started to gather my wits, ready to deliver a piece of lit on this intriguing local theme:

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a noted spiritualist, renowned in his life-time and sometimes ridiculed for his beliefs. This may have been his proudest achievement; possibly what he’d have wished to be remembered for, in place of the pipe and deerstalker hat. Local cultural historian, Matt Wingett, has documented the body of research and writing by Doyle, which constitutes a scientific study in the supernatural, in his book Conan Doyle and the Mysterious World of Light 1887 – 1920 (2016, Portsmouth: Life is Amazing).

If ever there were a dead writer who may haunt his living protégées, who might lie in wait, invisible at the gate of his old house in Southsea, now rebuilt in post-war brick but with the blue plaque that shows where Bush Villas once stood; it would be Conan Doyle. Surely, he of all the literary associates of this seaside town, could be channelled that night as I was about to walk through his very ghost on my way to describe how another book-loving lady was beguiled by him, a hundred and thirty years ago. At the exact place his shiny brass nameplate was screwed to the railing: did he walk through my ghost too? It felt as if my sun tan faded…

A big, black crow (it couldn’t have been a raven or that would signify Poe) called from the roof of the flats opposite as if announcing the precise moment I passed the plaque. Caw. Caw. Caw: three times, loud and clear. I had not heard any other birds on my whole journey; nor did I afterwards, though my senses were heightened for their song. As I walked on, recalling more of the story I was just about to read aloud, I realised that bird was referenced, too; when my opium-inspired narrator tells her doctor how she ‘plucked out its feathers to dip in a bottomless inkwell.’

All the mystery we could wish for, Watson! To write about a deceased author who most fervently believed in life after death, and whose main project was to communicate messages from beyond the grave; did I get a ‘caw’ from him, as I hurried by his old front door? Along Portsmouth’s ‘literary leyline’, Kings Road to Elm Grove, the scene veers from now to then, the genre between fact and fiction: with earthly fame versus heaven only knows for this tale.