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It was early in the afternoon I called in at 221B Baker Street, having heard little from my good friend Sherlock Holmes for a number of weeks, which absence of communication did concern me, considering the disposition of that fine mind, wont to consume itself when lacking outside stimulation.
Holmes lay with his gaunt figure stretched in his deep chair, his pipe curling forth slow wreaths of acrid tobacco, his hands unrelaxed and his two gray eyes, as bright and keen as rapiers, transfixing me with their searching glance.
"Was there ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world?" said he. "How is it outside, Watson? Does the yellow fog swirl down the street and drift across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, Doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them? Crime is commonplace, existence is commonplace, and no qualities save those which are commonplace have any function upon earth."
"The day is a pleasant one," I answered. "As you know, given the limitations on my body induced by the Afghan campaign, I am not liable to be found wandering the streets of free will when the weather is inclement."
Holmes rose from his chair and moved with some listlessness across to the window, where he could more easily see the day was indeed set fair. His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.
Predictably, a great cheer rang out from the crowd of tourists gathered on the street below, come from all four corners of the world in the hope of glimpsing the great detective. Many days they would go away unsatisfied, but those here today would be recounting their luck across dinner tables for many years hence.
"The deerstalker!" one of their number shouted. "Put on the deerstalker! For a photograph!" And the shout was taken up by others until it was only possible to hear the word deerstalker, without unison and from voices of many different tones, issuing from their ranks.
Holmes sighed and moved back into the room.
"This is your fault, Watson," said he. "In one of your over-elaborated tales of our endeavours you mentioned that I had a hat with flaps to cover the ears, and in the game of Chinese Whispers that is our world at large, I have become a man with a deerstalker."
"More than one, I fancy."
Holmes arrived at the chest of drawers where he kept a good store of the items mailed to him by women without companions around the world, but particularly from North America. He rooted through the many pipes and knickers, some not new, some decidedly worn for a number of days and not washed, by intention, this recognisable by their imprint upon the beholder's nostrils, quite heady while the drawer remained open, until he came across one of the dozens of deerstalkers sent to him by attentive fans. Other admirers would request he send them a deerstalker or pipe, and when the drawer became too full he would oblige them, so bringing the content back to manageable again. I had once suggested to him that I knew a Japanese Web site where he might also dispose of some of the knickers for a tidy profit, but he did not seem taken by the idea, and so their number as a proportion of the whole tended to grow year upon year.
He detached a g-string that had become caught up inside the hat and put it on his head, and the g-string back inside the drawer.
"How do I look, Watson?"
"The very height of fashion, Holmes. Might I suggest the addition of a pipe, for otherwise I feel sure the crowd will be baying for one before even the minute is out."
"Of course, of course." Holmes took a curved briar from the drawer and held it to his lips. His return to the window was greeted with uproarious enthusiasm, and from my chair I watched the ceiling whiten with the light of flashbulbs for a goodly time. Yet I was mildly bothered by my friend acting in this manner. Usually the indulgence of the crowd was not high on his list of priorities. I feared it was an indication of the inclemency of his internal thoughts, and I was soon to be proved right.
"What case are you working on, Mr Holmes?" came a shout from the crowd, which I doubt did little for my friend's spirits.
"What pipe tobacco do you smoke?" asked another.
"Meerschaumershag," he answered, loudly. And then in a quieter voice that only I could hear, he added. "There, let them find that in their local tobacconist."
"How do you spell that?" Came the yell.
"M E E R S C H A U M E R S H A G. Good Lord, Watson, there are hundreds of them writing it down!"
Another cry: "What are your views on human cloning?"
My colleague rocked back from the window as if he had been struck soundly by a brick. "What!" he ejaculated. "What?" And clearly hit by this most astounding of questions he cast the deerstalker and pipe to the floor and staggered back to his comfortable chair by the fire.
I believe I have mentioned this before, but now is a good opportunity for me to mention it once again. Although Sherlock Holmes's knowledge was so extraordinarily ample and minute that his observations often fairly astound me, his ignorance is as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appears to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle once, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
"You see," he had explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as
to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to
have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
"But the Solar System!" I had protested.
"What the deuce is it to me?" he had interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
It was clear to me that the recent question from the crowd on the subject of human cloning had inflicted upon him an equally foul disposition, though perhaps in a different direction, a different odour of foul, though I knew not which.
"Human cloning?" he said, incredulous, as he sat without comfort in his chair, his elbows digging in to the armrests. "My view on human cloning? They might as well ask me how to solve the Middle East crisis."
That very same thought had crossed my own mind on a small number of occasions. The world's greatest detective would most easily deduce the truth of the situation in the Holy Land. But then I always reminded myself that the crisis there was of a political nature, and truth is generally nothing more than a hindrance in the affairs of politics.
Holmes snatched at a magazine from the rack and flicked the pages no slower than a hyperactive child. "Pink pillowslips in Nicole's house. How fascinating!"
I gathered that this might be a celebrity magazine of the ilk of OK! or Hello. He moved on to a red-top newspaper, a tabloid, I believe they are called.
"Prince Charles on high-rise architecture, Charlton Heston on gun control, Julie Birchill on everything. The Prime Minister's son likes a certain kind of music. Well hey ho, good for him. David Beckham prefers this film to that. The man is a footballer. Is he judging these movies on the quality of their football games?"
Sherlock Holmes puffed on his pipe like a locomotive climbing Box Hill, and I knew not how to pacify him. Though happily good fortune was with me, and after a number of minutes the locomotive clearly reached the summit and began its more relaxed decent. I noted the presence in Holmes's eye of a sly twinkle.
"I do suppose, Watson, that I might be slightly famous myself, and I should be careful of mocking the statements of the famous without further study. What say you?"
"Absolutely, my dear Holmes."
"And if I am slightly famous, as I believe the crowd outside confirms, then I might find it easier to engage the famous in discussion on their views than would the average Ilford motor mechanic, to take an example."
"I am quite sure you would, Holmes."
Holmes puffed now a little more contentedly, and certainly with some active thought upon his mind, which in the case of my good friend is far preferable to a mind searching for employment.
"I wonder," said he, "where I should start? So many celebrities and so little time. I might like to begin with a little dinner with somebody mildly famous. Would you imagine that perhaps Ulrika Jonsson would be free for dinner some time?"
"The question is worth the candle," I replied.
And so began one of the most extraordinary periods in the life of my friend Mr Sherlock Holmes. He dined nightly with the famous and the mildly famous, and although I have become one of the mildly famous myself I was not privileged to dine with him on any of these occasions. Indeed, I barely saw my esteemed colleague for days upon end. I read about him in the newspapers, how he had been seen with Ulrika Jonsson, with David Beckham, with Richard and Judy, Madonna, and Adam Clayton of U2, how he had become such a major presence on London's social scene. But for two weeks I did not see him once in person, though I took the liberty of calling at his flat in Baker Street at all kinds of hours, both polite and irregular.
Finally, on one of these visits, the landlady took me to one side and asked me if I had any news of Mr Holmes, since it was so unlike him to be behind with the payment of his rent. This was altogether new territory for me, and quite unlike the Holmes I had come to know and admire. I resolved to put an end to this nonsense before my good friend risked the sacrifice of his reputation.
I had heard a rumour, though I scarcely believed it, that he was engaged with the entourage of a certain Fatboy Slim, the Brighton oxymoron, and since it was my only lead, slim as it might be, it was to Brighton that I hastened to by train to bring a virtuous man back in communication with his virtue.
There was no great difficulty in the first stage of my adventure. I asked in local hostelries where I might find the fans and admirers of the dance music DJ Fatboy Slim, rather than the man himself, also known as Norman Cook, and soon I was directed to the Swandam Nightclub, a mere hundred yards back from the seafront, where I was told I might well find some of his followers bent on merrymaking.
Swandam Nightclub is approached by a steep flight of steps leading down to a black gap like the mouth of a cave. I passed down the steps, worn hollow in the centre by the ceaseless tread of drunken feet; and by the light of a flickering laser lamp above the door I made my way into a long, low room, thick and heavy with brown smoke, and terraced with wooden berths, like the forecastle of an emigrant ship.
Through the gloom one could dimly catch a glimpse of bodies lying in strange fantastic poses, bowed shoulders, bent knees, heads thrown back, and chins pointing upward, with here and there a dark, lack-lustre eye turned upon the newcomer. Out of the black shadows there glimmered little red circles of light, now bright, now faint, as the inhabitants inhaled on enormous cigarettes, the like of which I have never seen before. And such sweet tobacco! So aromatic! Reminiscent of burning marjoram or oregano.
The most lay silent, but some muttered to themselves, and others talked together in a strange, low, monotonous voice, their conversation coming in gushes and then suddenly tailing off into silence, each mumbling out his own thoughts and paying little heed to the words of his neighbour. At the farther end of the room there sat a tall, thin old man, with his jaw resting upon his two fists, and his elbows upon his knees, staring into two Yamaha record decks, both rotating but neither currently adorned with a record.
As I entered, a sallow Malay shuffled up to my side and opened his leather jacket, revealing a neat row of large cigarettes and small plastic bags containing herbs and resins. He beckoned me to an empty berth, but I was perfectly satisfied with my unfiltered king size from Bradley's of Oxford Street, which appeared to interest him too, as he persisted in trying to position himself such that he could take in the odour of my exhaled smoke.
"You want some quality?" said he, stammering on the final letter, so it sounded like quality-e.
"Some quality what?" I answered.
"Quality-e," he stammered again.
As a medical man I am fully conversant with different kinds of stammer and their possible causes, but I had never before encountered a stammer at the end of a word rather than at its beginning. Knowing nothing of the matter, I resolved to ignore the impediment and the sentence which it was destroying.
"I have not come to stay," said I. "I have come on the off-chance that there is a friend of mine here, Mr Sherlock Holmes, though I sincerely doubt it. "
There was a movement and an exclamation from my right, and peering through the gloom I saw Holmes pale, haggard, and unkempt, staring out at me. He was seated in what I at first took to be a series of elongated scatter cushions, but which on closer inspection turned out to be an assortment of young women of many different hues and habits of dress, all semi-drugged and as floppy as bean-bags.
"My God! It's Watson!" said he. "Pull up an abdomen and sit down."
My voice must have woken him from a light slumber. He came to a little more and rubbed his red eyes. "I say, Watson, what o'clock is it?"
"Of what day?"
"Of Friday, June 19th."
"Good heavens! I thought it was Wednesday. It is Wednesday. What do you want to frighten a chap for?"
"I tell you that it is Friday, man. Your landlady has been waiting upon your rent for five days now, which small matter I have settled with her on your behalf, and which you might desire to settle in turn with me at your leisure." Try as I might to keep the irritation out of my voice, I had no doubt that it was there to be perceived by the world's greatest detective, even in his current dreadful state. "How many days have you been in this place?"
"Three, maybe four."
"Have you eaten?"
"The bar snacks are passable. But I fear I am in need of fresh laundry."
To my relief, Holmes got to his feet, and brushed down his clothes, looking more solid and less the worse for wear than I had feared.
"Have you a cab?" said he.
"Yes, I have one waiting."
"Then let us be gone from this place before time plays more tricks upon me with its cruel distortions. Farewell, ladies. Feel free to call by if ever you are on Baker Street. 221B, you can't miss it, the one with the crowd outside."
The amorphous mass of limbs did neither stir nor groan, and merely carried on collectively with its faint and ladylike inhalation and exhalation of slumber.
Holmes recovered quickly from his ordeal. A bath, a change of clothes and soon he was his old self, back in his comfortable chair in the large room at Baker Street, pulling contentedly on his pipe, and though I had felt critical of the circumstances in which I had found him, and of his long absence without word, it was clear that his recent sojourn had eased the agitation that I had earlier seen in those eyes.
The landlady, having a straightforward female outlook upon the world, and most certainly any part of it relating to Sherlock Holmes, had also been mollified, in her case by the gift of a large spray of flowers, sent over especially from John Lewis.
"Quite remarkable, quite remarkable," began Holmes.
I had waited patiently for an explanation of his singular activities over the past two weeks, and now it seemed that my patience was on the verge of being rewarded.
"And definitely most entertaining," he added. "After some days in the company of minor and major celebrities, I had had more than enough of the business of fame. I venture I may have had enough even before I started. But I am a man of a hardy disposition and when presented with the opportunity to join the entourage of Mr Fatboy Slim, I did not fail in my duties.
"I was royally entertained by the man himself, and allowed access to VIP suites, record company limousines, mixing desks, and, most educational of all, my dear Watson, genuine record production studios. These are most peculiar environments, with many machines and dials and sliders and naturally high quality loudspeakers through which songs are played at high volume, repeatedly, and refined at each repetition in a lazy atmosphere of smoke and dim lighting, with a few selected hangers-on allowed to witness the proceedings.
"At first I found the music somewhat odd, but the company was more than passable and exceedingly friendly, and time flew along pleasantly into the small hours, when I found to my horror that the half pound of tobacco I had armed myself with days before was entirely used up, and my pipe empty. Not wishing to depart prematurely, I had a search around in case some obliging devil had visited the premises before me and accidentally left behind a trace of shag that might still be usable.
"Imagine my joy when I found inside an old drawer a reasonable quantity of shag in a plastic bag, the leaves not very well broken up and unusually small and resinous, and of a colour I could not determine in the dim light, and the whole smelling of an odd and powerful perfume yet stale at the same time. But there was no other option, Watson, and so I loaded up my bowl to the brim and settled down to a comfortable smoke.
"My main recollection is of a gradual and eventually overwhelming appreciation of the music I was hearing, which before had appeared mildly tedious, but now the repetitions, the occasional discords and the transitions between opposing beats I found quite magnificent. They represented in my mind not merely a string of notes but a sequence of powerful emotions, as good as an earlier Norman, as Norman Neruda in her stride, with her attack and her splendid bowing. What's that little thing of Chopin's she plays so magnificently: Tra-la-la-lira-lira-lay.
"Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at. Perhaps that is why we are so subtly influenced by it. There are vague memories in our souls of those misty centuries when the world was in its childhood.
"Its influence upon me was far from subtle at that point, and my heart bounded along at double-quick time until I was worried it might burst. I had little idea of my surroundings and I was not sure if I was listening to the beats of Norman Cook or some other, or indeed whether his producers were at the production desk or elsewhere. However, somebody of influence in the place did eventually startle me when they looked inside the drawer where I had found the old shag, and swore heavily.
"'Jesus! Who's smoked all that?' I heard..
"The man's nose led him inexorably to my pipe, which I had to admit was giving off a most pungent odour. Happily, his reaction of finding me was a most playful one, for I was the guilty party yet at the same time I found I was unable to form words and project them to effectively make my apology. He slapped his jeans and laughed loudly.
"Hey, Jerry, come over here. The geezer in the Victorian outfit, he's just smoked half an ounce of Mick's Norfolk Thai. He must be off of his face."
"I then became an object of intense amusement, and during the next hour an entire regiment of people filed by to see me and peer into my eyes. I do not know what came over me but I did not have the wit to move, or even hold my pipe, and it was hard work enough simply to blink my eyelids. At one point a strong nausea overtook me and I feared I might vomit, but fortunately it did not happen, for I doubt that I would have moved in the process.
"By and by, Mr Fatboy Slim himself called in and took a look at me and smiled, but by this time I had recovered my powers of speech and I was able to determine that indeed this was his music I was listening to, and compliment him upon it.
"He was most interested in me and asked if I had ever performed at a mixing desk with a live audience. I said that I had not, and he suggested that he had a gig in six hours' time and we might profitably spend that period practising together. His followers seemed most keen on the idea. "Yeah! Fatboy Slim versus Sherlock Holmes! Wicked!" I heard one of them yell, punching his fist in the air, and I gathered from their discussion that the word 'versus' in this case was not entirely antagonistic, and that 'wicked' was in no way the same as evil.
"I can tell you, Watson, now speaking as an experienced DJ, that a mixing desk is a most magnificent thing. It is perfectly possible to change the speed of a record so that its beat matches the speed of another one, and at the same time adjust the pitch in a different direction to ensure that the musical keys of the two do not overtly clash.
"Over the hours I learned how to play the beginning of a record, then mix in a second and transfer across to it entirely, and then add a third and move across to that, and in time revert back to the second, and later reintroduce the first and so take a musical journey on many levels, a veritable adventure. Watson, in short I was enthralled.
"The gig was not inside a nightclub, as I had expected, but was in fact on Brighton beach, where we set up our podium and played loudly until curfew and some modest interference by the police. Over 200,000 people were in attendance. I believe its fame was such that there were mentions on TV."
"And in the papers," I gasped, barely able to believe my ears. "Indeed, Fatboy Slim versus Sherlock Holmes. But my dear Holmes I had not the slightest notion that it was really you. I felt sure this was some impostor making use of your name."
"Not at all, Watson. We had a most merry time on our podium, and from the movement of the crowd outside I gathered that they had a most gratifying time as well. We were, in short, magnificent. From time to time I indulged in a little of Mick's special shag, though in small quantities, having experienced its consequences before. Some wise attendant had even thought to bring along a violin and I played a merry tune which Fatboy sampled and worked into one of his own exceedingly danceable arrangements.
"Most regrettably, curfew was eventually called and we and our modest entourage retired indoors to the Swandam Nightclub, where we celebrated in no short measure our success on the beach. I found a number of nubile young ladies intent on my company, perhaps dissuaded from pursuing my more good looking companion by his marital status, and I confess that with the more generous administration of Mick's extraordinary shag, time slipped away from me, as did the floor and the walls, which is how I came to be in the imperfect state in which you found me, for which I thank you."
"But Holmes. While that is a fascinating tale in itself, pray how does it relate to your investigation on the statements of the famous? Did your DJ experience add to your insights?"
Holmes momentarily gave me one of his mildly dismissive looks. "The statements of the famous? Good Lord, Watson, why that is a most straightforward issue. We live in a society that pays little respect to God, to the monarchy or to the ariistorcracy. And yet the vast majority of the populace still wish to be led, to have leaders which they may simply follow without the burden of thought. The traditional icons are no longer of value, and so through the vote of popularity our people elect their own, from film and television and sporting events. And that, dear Watson, is why a TV cook may pronounce judgement on the quality of a car, a footballer influence our views upon a film, and a comedian promote our national lottery - though perhaps the latter is a poor example."
"But Holmes," I protested, while that makes perfect sense, how did your experiences in Brighton help to bring you to this conclusion?"
Holmes had by this time picked up his violin, and he played a single note, repeating it and fading it in and out. He shook his head and put the violin down.
"It did not help in the slightest, Watson. How could it? I came to my conclusions about the statements of the famous before I ever set foot out of this buildiing, that very afternoon after my affair with the crowd. But the conclusion depressed me, as it might do any sensitive human being. What a shame to realise that we are so weak that we must elect figureheads to do our thinking for us. And so I resolved to set out and remedy the situation, at least in my own mind. And the best remedy for depression is to go out and have a jolly fine time. Which I believe I succeeded in doing. Case closed."
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2003, www.foxglove.co.uk, includes extracts from Conan Doyle's original material, copyright expired.