Billiards With Thurston: The Retired Beekeepers of Sussex

On behalf of our Editor-in-Chief “Pippin” and myself, a new feature we are excited to announce for The Watsonian is “Billiards with Thurston” – wherein we reach out to other Sherlockian societies to learn more about them and share in their interests. By doing so, we gain the benefit of learning more about our fellow Sherlockians, deepening ties with the wider Sherlockian world, and encountering perspectives that would otherwise be unknown to us.

On this very first occasion, our visiting friends are one of the newest Sherlockian societies in existence (yes, even younger than us): The Retired Beekeepers of Sussex

The “Billiards with Thurston” feature will include an interview and a guest submission to The Watsonian, a short story titled “The Tenderness of Patient Minds,” as you will see once the Fall 2015 volume reaches your mailbox soon.

Only a portion of the interview appears in the volume, so I am presenting here the full interview between myself and one of the co-founders of The Retired Beekeepers of Sussex: Elinor Gray, JHWS “Misty.”


Who are the Retired Beekeepers of Sussex?

The Retired Beekeepers of Sussex are an all inclusive, queer-run, LGBTQIA+ Sherlock Holmes enthusiast group. Run by Basil (aka ghostbees), Elinor (JHWS “Misty”), and Michele (aka neverwhere), the group meets monthly on Sundays at a pub in Brighton, England, to discuss the Sherlock Holmes canon, favourite adaptations, various issues relevant to the stories, and current events in the Sherlockian world. Members have also started volunteering to give short talks on the monthly topic, which have been splendid so far, and can be read at our website (retiredbeekeepers.tumblr.com).

What inspired the creation of your society and how did it form?

The creation of the Beekeepers arose from a desire to have a local and queer-friendly Holmes group in Sussex: an appropriate place for a society because it is, of course, where Holmes is reported to have retired. We also wanted a group that met with more frequently than the SHSL, because we believe getting together often with fellow Sherlockians for a drink and a chat is beneficial to our collective health. We came up with the name last, which seems silly at this point, because what else could a Brighton-based group call itself? We are proud members of #teamsussex, ascribing to the notion that Holmes and Watson retired together to keep bees and bicker long into their golden years.

What sort of activities does your society engage in?

Alongside our monthly meetings, we have held a field trip to Beachy Head for a walk along the Sussex Downs, and we have also published the first issue of our hopefully-biannual journal, The Practical Handbook of Bee Culture. The topic of the first issue is “First Encounters;” the topic of the second issue, which is now accepting submissions, is “Queerness in Holmesiana.” Going forward, we are planning a Halloween Hound of the Baskervilles movie night, and a “Blue Carbuncle” themed holiday get-together.

The Retired Beekeepers of Sussex is one of the newest Sherlockian societies to form. Were there any unexpected challenges for you and your co-founders?

Finding a place to meet was our first biggest hurdle. We knew we’d have no trouble building an online presence, but with a budget of £0 we had to search for a place to meet that was both accessible from the train station (and therefore relatively easy to find) as well available for free. Societies are, of course, run by volunteer enthusiasm, so we have to be smart about where and how to spend our limited resources. Michele, one of our Head Bees, found us a lovely meeting spot in the private side of a local gay pub, and they let us have it for a few hours for the price of a few drinks.

After several gatherings and the first society publication, what you learned from the experience so far?

Running a society is a lot of work! We come up with a new poster design every month, and write several newsletter emails between meetings: one before to let everyone know the theme, and one after to recap the meeting. The latter is always more work than the former. But it’s also easier than expected, in that people actually show up and get involved, and we haven’t had to beg or wheedle anyone to give a talk, and submissions for the journal came in relatively smoothly. It’s also a lot of fun; organising topics, planning media, and getting together with Sherlockians is infinitely rewarding.

The ongoing discussion on Sherlock Holmes spans several decades and there is an immense variety of viewpoints that have taken part to discuss every conceivable element of the Canon and the many adaptations, considering how often we’ve speculated on the Great Hiatus and even the nature of Dr Watson’s bullpup. Is the queer point of view relatively new, to your knowledge? Or have there been notable Sherlockian discussions in the past from this perspective?

Discussions of a queer Holmes have certainly arisen before now, but they’re rarely taken seriously by “serious” Sherlock Holmes scholars, and “the gay question” has often been played for laughs. There are several published Holmes pastiches with queer elements, but they’re either not written by dedicated Holmesians, not written in earnest, or not taken seriously upon publication. Likewise, there have been articles in “classic” publications, such as the BSJ and the SHJ, that consider a queer interpretation, but they’ve never been written by an (openly) queer-identifying person, and they don’t often conclude that the reading is a valid one . We’re actually pretty confused that a deliberately queer Holmesian society hasn’t been formed before now (perhaps it has, but we haven’t found one, and if so we’d love to know about it), but we’re not particularly surprised.

Published pastiches:

  • The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Larry Townsend, 1971 – this one is rubbish, don’t read it
  • My Dearest Holmes, Rohase Piercy, 1988 – cute and very repressed; we hope to interview Rohase for our “Queerness” journal issue
  • Kissing Sherlock Holmes, T. D. McKinney & Terry Wylis, 2011 – written by people who seemed to be jumping on the Holmes bandwagon without a lot of background experience in Holmes
  • A Study in Lavender: Queering Sherlock Holmes, anthology, 2011 – an interesting attempt, but seems to be centered around the shock value of queerness rather than presenting itself as a serious exploration of queer characters
  • Elementary Erotica, anthology, 2011 – mostly Holmes/Watson erotica, one Holmes/Irene piece at the very end, all done with affection for the source material
  • Compound a Felony: A Queer Affair of Sherlock Holmes, Elinor Gray, 2015 – written for an audience familiar with the Holmes stories and able to pick up on references and asides, but not at all focused on mysteries and cases

Other resources:

Does gathering as an LGBTQIA+ group open up new avenues of Sherlockian discourse, or are discussions similar to other Sherlockian gatherings that you’ve experienced?

The discussions, for the most part, follow similar patterns to those at other Sherlockian gatherings that I’ve attended. We argue about adaptations, talk about motivations, and listen to radio snippets or watch TV or movie clips. But we want to talk about queer issues, so we talk about queer issues. Because the door is already opened to queerness in the discussions, sexuality and identity do come up more often than they usually do at other formal Sherlockian dinners.

Does being a part of “Team Sussex” (i.e. maintaining that Holmes and Watson retired together) call into question Dr Watson’s credibility as a biographer?

I would say yes, but Watson himself admits to alterations, cover-ups, and name changes to protect the innocent (or not-so-). Our own “Pippin” wrote his monograph about Watson’s early publishing career, and in it discusses the way that because the stories were written during the Hiatus, Holmes would not have been actually bringing up Watson’s previous publications, but that Watson is putting words into his mouth to remind his reader that there are other stories to purchase and read. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d adjusted the truth to fit the story. He’s a professional liar and manipulator of facts, even if his intentions are good, and there’s no reason he couldn’t move to Sussex with Holmes and simply tell his audience they had drifted apart. In fact, that falsehood would have been the safest option to protect their reputation and their privacy.

As our first guest society to be featured in the Watsonian, your group selected “The Tenderness of Patient Minds.” How do you feel this chosen story will be of interest both to the Watsonians and to the Retired Beekeepers?

“The Tenderness of Patient Minds” is a story I (Elinor) wrote originally for submission to MX Publishing’s New Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories. I’d been in touch with the editor before I submitted it and he was initially excited about my participation, but then when he read what I’d produced he essentially deemed it too gay for the collection. He asked me to remove the references to Holmes and Watson living together in retirement and sharing a life, and I refused. I could understand why the story I’d written wouldn’t fit in among all the others, but there were two main reasons I didn’t want to make such deep cuts. Firstly, I believed those elements were what made the course of the story logical: Holmes and Watson’s relationship, explicitly a romantic one, contributes to Holmes’s reason in passing the case on to Watson, and Watson’s motivation to finish the job and come home. Secondly, my queer interpretation of the Holmes/Watson partnership isn’t something I care to compromise on, even to make an editor happy: to jettison it in the name of a “traditional” pastiche is inauthentic to my own queerness and my reading of the canon, and to equate “traditional” with “non-romantic” is problematic. I offered it then to The Watsonian because I knew the JHWS, being only slightly older a society than mine, was open to giving a platform to an interpretation that often goes ignored or belittled.

So, to get back on track, I feel this story represents what the Retired Beekeepers of Sussex are all about, both superficially and more deeply. On the surface, it’s a story about a South Downs beekeeper who refuses a case on the grounds that he is retired from detecting, and sends his trusted companion, conveniently his husband, in his stead. Underneath, the form of the story as a traditional pastiche with queer elements underscores the way the queer interpretation of the canon doesn’t require a great deal of squinting or hand-waving. The Holmes/Watson romance, while integral, is incidental: this is both a detective story and a story about a detective. It has a few noteworthy elements: it takes place after the Great War and deals with some of the new medical and social issues of that era; it gives Watson the stage to bring about the mystery’s solution; and it celebrates the core of the Holmes stories’ popularity, which is the unbreakable partnership of the detective and his biographer.


 

I hope you enjoyed the interview and that you will also enjoy their guest submission to The Watsonian: The Tenderness of Patient Minds. Due to an invitation from Don Libey “Buttons” from very early this year, “Misty” and fellow co-founder of the RBS, Basil, agreed to present a story for the Spring 2016  edition of The Fiction Series and we look forward to that as well.

For our next “Billiards with Thurston,” we have extended an invitation to Uno Studio in Holmes, the Sherlock Holmes Society of Italy,  to join us for a friendly game and a warm chat. You can look forward to learning more about them in our Spring 2016 volume of The Watsonian.


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