At the risk of being cancelled himself, our Writer at Large champions some of the greatest, but most politically incorrect, novelists of the past

WHEN are they coming for Sherlock Holmes? It can only be a matter of time before the New Puritans call for Conan Doyle’s creation to be cancelled – for 221B Baker Street to be bricked up to prevent contagion spreading across the land. Holmes is, after all, a horrific misogynist, and the detective’s adventures are littered with casual racism and bigotry.

I’ve a confession to make – I love the fiction of Conan Doyle. To me, he’s one of Scotland’s greatest storytellers despite the fact that when viewed through the blinkers of 2020 his writing is heretical and politically incorrect. In fact, I love the work of many old, dead, white, male writers who despite their storytelling genius are now beyond the pale when it comes to the gatekeepers of moral and politically purity.

I love H Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. I love John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. I love – and here I probably do risk getting cancelled myself – Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King.

Quite simply, I love the classic adventure stories of the Victorian and Edwardian eras – not because of their jingoism and awful views on race and gender, I could really do without those unpleasant, uncomfortable and outdated moments, but because I love great storytelling and escapism.

In today’s world, though, great writers of the past, by failing to live up to the impossible standards of the so-called “woke brigade”, risk being ignored, purged or falling out of favour.

In truth, most people don’t read even Holmes anymore and know Conan Doyle’s work mostly through the middling BBC offerings starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the gentleman sleuth. Despite their obvious flaws in viewpoint, however, these writers need to be preserved and read.

If we lose these books, culture loses a great deal. Of course, culture should and could do without the racism and bigotry, but culture can’t do without the bricks that built the cultural world we live in today. Crime fiction, thrillers, Hollywood, the adventure genre would be a shadow of themselves today without Conan Doyle, Haggard, Kipling and Buchan – that’s if they even existed in their current form at all.

I’ve only recently rediscovered my love for these writers and their work. I adored them as a boy, but for most of my adult life I’ve been a bit of a literary snob. I’d read the great adventure writers as a youngster, so why would I read them again? Also, I’m a writer myself and it’s almost my job to consume modern literary fiction by the bucketful.

It always felt a little sinful to return to something like Holmes when I hadn’t finished everything on the latest Booker longlist. How foolish of me.

But I was quite ill recently and confined to bed for over a month. During that time, I couldn’t face anything too taxing or serious, nor could I face anything too miserable – and there’s an awful strain of miserabilsm in current writing. I needed adventure and escapism, and that overcame my cocoon of snobbery.

So I dived back into Conan Doyle and friends. I rediscovered my love for the stories, the atmosphere, the evocation of era – but I was also taken aback by the attitudes. I’ve weighed up the pros (fantastic stories) against the cons (absolutely dreadful comments about race and women), and I have to confess – the pros must be found to outweigh the cons.

Great storytelling from the past can’t be damned and banished because the storytellers held attitudes that were widespread and prevalent in the past. If that’s the case, then rest assured – 100 years from now, our most popular modern writers from today will end up on the cancellation list of the 22nd century. In 2120, won’t all of us alive now look like bigots in some way?

Let’s take Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation. Firstly, Holmes hates women. That doesn’t necessarily mean Conan Doyle is a misogynist, it means his character is – something which some modern-day arbiters of taste fail to understand. Secondly, the books are littered with racism that’s impossible to ignore or excuse.

The Sign Of Four, from 1890, is racially coarse and crude when it comes to its depiction of one of the villains – an Andaman Islander. It almost made my eyes boggle when I reread it. However – and this isn’t meant as a defence or whataboutery, merely as a comment that Conan Doyle doesn’t appear to be simply another textbook Victorian white supremacist – there’s also respect and admiration shown for foreign cultures throughout his writing, even if it’s wildly romanticised.

The word “Jew” is also thrown around by Conan Doyle in a deeply unpleasant way. Like most Victorians though – and that means our own great-grandparents as well, by the way – Conan Doyle was basically bigoted towards everyone. His first Holmes novel, A Study In Scarlet, is dreadful in its depiction of Mormons. He would probably get prosecuted under modern hate laws for how he describes the religion as blood-soaked and evil.

I’m guessing readers don’t need much of a rehearsal when it comes to the depiction of race in H RiderHaggard’s 1885 novel, King Solomon’s Mines. This book oozes empire. At best, Haggard portrays Africans through the rather ghastly “noble savage” trope, at worst it’s downright offensive.

But is the book still one of the best adventure stories ever written? Yes. Would it be better if Haggard thought like us in 2020? Of course.

Without the work of another great Scots storyteller, John Buchan, there would be no James Bond. No bad thing, I hear some readers say. I’m not a Fleming fan myself, but culturally it’s foolish to dismiss his character Bond, one of the most famous and influential figures in popular literature.

Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, from 1915, is just a fantastic thriller romp. But be prepared for your 21st-century political sensibilities to get a kick in the teeth from the opening chapter when one character goes on a prolonged rant about Jews. Again, writers don’t necessarily hold the same views as their creations – I once wrote a novel about a werewolf and medieval serial killer, and I’m neither a lycanthrope nor a murderer – still, it’s pretty hard not to feel that Buchan himself was a casual anti-Semite when reading the book.

Then we come to Kipling – well, we all know Kipling, or at least we should if we assume the right to judge the literature of the past. He was the empire made flesh. But I’ll choose this as my hill to die on and say that The Man Who Would Be King is the greatest adventure story ever told. And yes, it reeks of jingoism and casual racism.

The thing is, if we cancel these writers we also have to cancel parts of ourselves. My grandmother, for example, was pretty radical for her time – she inspired a lot of my own political view of the world.

She was born in 1904 and was a teenage suffragette. She was a socialist who campaigned for equality before and after the Second World War, and her husband literally fought fascist blackshirts with his bare hands on the streets of London in the 1930s. Pretty politically correct for 2020, right? Well, not if you’d heard her talk about black people in the 1970s like I did when I was a little boy.

Was she a racist? Not at all in her opinion – she hated America for its racism and wanted minorities in Britain treated equally and fairly. But from today’s perspective my radical old granny would be cancelled in a heartbeat. And so would yours, most likely.

I think we also need to get over this dread of appreciating a work of art from the past – a book, a film, a painting, a piece of music – because of the views of the artist. All that should matter is the work of art itself.

I love the music of Wagner – but I’m definitely not a Nazi. You can admire Picasso and still respect women. If we apply today’s standards to the past then we genuinely have to cancel Shakespeare. Have you seen The Taming Of The Shrew?

We would also have to get rid one of the greatest women writers of all time – Virginia Woolf, who was hideously bigoted. Her comments on class, the disabled and race are appalling.

There’s a cultural stupidity at large in the world which seems incapable of understanding that time progresses forward, and views change.

If we only accept art or literature that conforms to the morals of today’s New Puritans then we should burn everything that was created before the millennium. Partly – and I’m aware that I’m stepping into the equally cancelling position of seeming like an intellectual elitist – I think this might be down to education.

I genuinely don’t want to sound like some old duffer, though I probably am, but when I went to university to study English literature (back in the mists of time before the fall of the Berlin Wall) that meant reading nearly every major work written between Beowulf and Harold Pinter. We started in 900AD and finished in the 1970s. And yes, incidentally, we did study plenty of women writers as well and even, for the times, a fair number of non-white writers, though there should have been lots more.

Today, the study of English literature seems without heft. For what it’s worth – and it’s probably not worth that much – I watched an episode of the quiz show Pointless.

One contestant was a recent English graduate from a very good university. A question came up about literature. Not only did he fail to answer a single question, he relished his own ignorance. This doesn’t make for good cultural critics.

We also need to remember that it’s not just old, white, male writers who offend against today’s so-called cancel culture. Black writers and women writers could easily get stomped on too – if the New Puritans actually took the time to read the works they were condemning.

Take Chinua Achebe’s masterpiece Things Fall Apart. In the book, the acclaimed Nigerian writer tells the story of an African wrestler confronting the coming of British colonialism. It should be the perfect politically correct book, right? But the attitudes of the central character towards women are shockingly misogynistic.

Was Achebe a misogynist or was he writing about a particular way of thinking at a particular time in history? Personally, I think the latter, but nevertheless the book breaches current sensibilities.

We must remember that fiction is not reality – today, some arbiters of taste seem incapable of separating the two.

I should point out that in this defence of the great adventure writers of the past I’m in no way saying that women can’t write rattling good yarns too. One of the greatest adventure stories is the 1915 Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s a feminist version of The Lost World (also by Conan Doyle) which sees a group of fairly idiotic male explorers discover a utopian society ruled by women. I love it.

Women writers of classic popular fiction can be just as politically incorrect as men as well, however. Another writer I rediscovered during my illness was Agatha Christie. Her prose is hypnotically simple and her plots a delight. But do you really think we’d publish one of her best novels today? The whodunnit Ten Little N*****s?

Here’s the thing. If we don’t understand the past, then we don’t understand ourselves or the present, and nor can we make intelligent choices based on the failures of the past to create a better tomorrow. Literature is the greatest guide to the past – probably greater than the study of history. History explains why the past happened, but literature lets you experience the past and inhabit the minds of the people who lived that past.

Yes, so much literature from the past is uncomfortable to read, and offensive, but we need to accept that for what it is, realise it just doesn’t conform to our own sensibilities, and use that literature for what it can provide us with today: rollicking entertainment and an understanding that our ancestors were very flawed, that we’re also very flawed, and the people of the future will be flawed too, but that by learning from the mistakes of the past we can perhaps help make tomorrow a little bit better than today.

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