Saturday, January 17, 2009
Stories are all around
The thing about stories is that they are all around you. OK, I live in an ancient city that has seen a lot of life but I believe that this maxim is true almost anywhere.
I recently read a wonderful book by Kate Summerscale that won BBC Four’s Samuel Johnson Prize last year. It is called The Suspicions of Mr Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House.
I have a personal interest in this story. I was the “Marine Nematode Man” at the British Museum for many years. I had an office next door to “Coral Man”. We were designated in London’s Natural History Museum by the taxa that we studied: there really was a Bat man.
The most important Coral Man to the BM was William Saville-Kent, Who donated sixty cases of specimens from the Great Barrier Reef to the Museum. The BM holds more type specimens from the Reef than in the whole of Australia.
William Kent was almost certainly a murderer who, with his sister, killed his young half brother, Saville. The sister eventually confessed but refused to implicate her brother, allowing him to have a career.
This story, of a middle class infant murdered in a middle class home by someone who had to be from the family, throws a window onto what to us is a fantasy world – the class-ridden world of 19th Century Southern England. It illuminates a foreign place torn by rapid social change, betwixt one world order and another.
The Mr Whicher of the story was one of the original detectives of Scotland Yard. He solved the murder using evidence gathering and logic. Unfortunately, no one believed him as he was just an oik who had got above himself. How dare he accuse middle class children of murder? A middle class home was a castle and detectives foul informers of a police state. Let them stick to policing the proles. Mr Whicher’s reputation never recovered despite, perhaps because, he was eventually shown to be correct.
Summerscale has written a great book that has started all sorts of idea trains and whirlpools in my mind. Stories are all around us.