Recently, I’ve been reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories. It’s January; there’s not much else to do right now in London. And because, for me, Sherlock Holmes is the ultimate Londoner.
First, there is his obsessive knowledge of this vast, dense and knotty web of people, places and things perched in the Thames estuary. His forays outside it are undertaken with a sense of adventure, but also a polite distaste for spending too long outside the capital that any Londoner would recognise.
Even the way in which Holmes eventually retires from the city to keep bees on the south coast is an acting out of a version of a longstanding Londoner fantasy that’s as potent now (and as likely to remain confined to fiction) as it was a hundred years ago.
Then there’s his anthropological fascination, used to great effect professionally, with London’s caste distinctions and conventions – and his willingness to ignore or breach them. This is true to London as a whole, which is the place where the UK’s class system and social customs are at their most complex, and also their most flexible.
Finally, he shares the fascination of many Londoners with anything unexpected and novel. And like many of them, he is as happy mining the city’s layers of historical detritus as he is looking to the newest scientific innovations to get a hit.
While I’ve read plenty about New Orleans and visited many times, I can’t claim to know this city as well as I know London. So I asked people who live there which fictional character they would pick to represent it. I received some inspired suggestions that reminded me how much great literature has been written about New Orleans. (Though as one person pointed out: “Tough question for a city full of real-life characters.”)
Lestat, Anne Rice’s legendary rock star vampire. Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, which many see as the best novel ever written about New Orleans, or just ever. “Sometimes Stanley, sometimes Blanche”, two of the lead characters in Tennessee Williams’ electrifying downtown-set play A Streetcar Named Desire. Benjamin Button, the eponymous hero of an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story and a 2008 film starring Brad Pitt, who lives life going backwards.
Quite a gang. They’re all very much individuals, but I notice some common threads in their personalities and the stories that link them to New Orleans.
First: order versus anarchy. Stanley lectures Stella on the Napoleonic Code as their lives begin to twist out of shape. Ignatius is a notorious breaker of New Orleans’ social rules, yet cannot bring himself to leave the city.
Then there is time. Lestat is a joyfully decadent immortal, only occasionally troubled by the trials of neverending life. Button is distinguished by being born old and dying young, which I think qualifies him well to be (in the film at least) an inhabitant of New Orleans.
Sherlock Holmes could be one of this crew. Like them, he balances somewhere between order and anarchy. He also seems to somehow float free of time’s usual restrictions, as shown by the regularity with which his adventures are adapted and updated.
All these characters tell us something about the overall characters of London and New Orleans. The fact that they’d probably all get on well if they were to meet in a Marigny bar or a Hackney pub also tells us there are a few things the cities have in common.