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My good friend Sherlock Holmes sat on the far side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, staring into the flames with an intensity I might have found worrying in a lesser man. From time to time he drew languidly on his pipe, and when it burned low, emptied the ash and refilled the bowl from the quarter pound of shag that lay bare upon the table.
"There is nothing so unnatural as the commonplace," he observed.
I prayed to heaven that something out of the ordinary might happen so as to bring my respected colleague out of his torpor, and to my surprise, being a man of science and no great faith, my prayers were answered.
"Ah," said I, hearing that faint but unmistakable sound. "Your bell."
"My dear Watson," said Holmes, changing his expression not the slightest. "You are absolutely correct. I sometimes wonder why you chose to be a man of medicine when you could so easily have been a detective."
A few moments later there came a step in the passage and a tapping at the door. Holmes stretched out his long arm to turn the lamp away from himself and towards the vacant chair upon which a newcomer must sit.
"Come in!" said he.
The man who entered was on the far side of middle-aged, having passed his fiftieth year some time before, but sprightly enough, even if more portly than he might have wanted. He was adequately groomed and clad, with cleanliness and attention to detail but no clear level of refinement. A man of modest birth who might have made some little way in this material world. He looked about him without anxiety in the glare of the lamp, and I could see that his face was round and jowled, in the manner of an ageing yet affectionate mastiff.
"I have come for advice," said he.
"That is easily got," replied Holmes.
"That is not always so easy. I beg that you will draw your chair up to the fire and favour me with some details as to your case."
"My name is John Coleshaw, but my own affairs have, as far as I can understand, little to do with this awful business. It is no ordinary one."
"Nor would I desire it to be. And yet you, sir, are a man of regular habits and no extraordinary tastes, apart from a predilection for underage women, which to your credit, sir, you keep on short reign."
Coleshaw blushed furiously, and from his agitated movements I knew not whether he would flee or stay.
"I am," he protested, "a respectable family man."
"Pray tell me," asked Holmes, "in a world that is overcrowded, over-exploited, and fairly ravaged by the excesses of humanity in numbers it can barely support, and certainly not alongside healthy amounts of other species, what is respectable about bringing yet more humans on to our suffering planet?"
At this, Coleshaw's eyebrows raised, and I feared that if he had been a younger man I might have had to show my pistol to prevent him delivering to my friend a clip about the ear.
"I protest, sir," he said. "Do you treat all your guests in this manner?"
"Non fee-paying clients," responded Holmes. "But I have digressed, and on a point that I should not expect a response from any regular individual. Please do explain to me your circumstance, that I might make amends."
From his coat pocket Coleshaw produced a slip of white paper, no larger than a postcard, and slammed it on the table by Holmes's side, slightly disturbing the pile of shag as he did so.
Holmes took out his magnifying glass and inspected the paper with great earnestness. "It is, I believe, a voting paper from the London Borough of Hackney, ward of Haggersham. It is for a general election in five days' time, and it has yet to be filled in. Are we looking here at a forgery, perhaps a batch of counterfeit papers you may have come across?"
"Nothing of the kind, Mr Holmes, it is real."
"Then may I ask what problem brings you here?"
"Its value has been stolen."
Holmes sat with his brow furrowed in thought. "I see. This voting paper is of less value than by rights we might expect it to be. Less effective, we might say. And do you know who is responsible for this misappropriation of value?"
"No, Mr Holmes. I was hoping you might find the thief."
"Or thieves. Dear me! Well, it is certainly a most curious little problem. I may take a glance at it in my leisure. But I believe I know a suitable way in which we should begin. Dr Watson, would you be so kind as to take a Hansom cab and visit the headquarters of the major political parties and collect for me their manifestos? That way, we may by comparison check to see if there are items of distinction to be made between them. Meanwhile I will discuss the matter further with Mr Coleshaw to see how best we may measure the value of a voting paper."
And so I found myself descending the stairs from my good friend's chamber, on my own, fastening my topcoat and putting on a cheery face for the ordeal I anticipated at the outside door.
I was not to be disappointed. Gathered on the street immediately beyond the door were scores of tourists, come from all around the world in the hope of catching a glimpse of the great detective, or myself as distinctly second best option.
"It's Dr Watson!"
"Hey, Watson, is Homie in?"
"Dr Watson, will you sign this brochure? It's for my son, Randy. He's eleven next week."
Many of them were American, a little too loud for my ears but generally well-behaved. As always there were Japanese too, and Australians, and Gaelic and Saxon people from the northern and western approaches of our own great islands.
I signed a small number of brochures and scraps of paper, announced that Mr Holmes was even at this moment with a client, and called for a cab.
It is my avowed intention to catch one of these modern black contraptions with pneumatic tyres, an engine and an amber sign above the windscreen, but always my topcoat, hat and starched collar single me out for the attention of the two horse-drawn carriages that spend their days on Baker Street attempting to drum up custom from the tourist throng. And it was no different today. There was a clattering of hooves, a cry from the carriage master, a crack of the whip, and my transport arrived in front of me.
We made haste to the headquarters of the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. It was a relaxed journey apart from the perpetual tooting of impatient locals in their automobiles. We also suffered a five minute delay when our horse decided to disgorge the contents of its bowel upon the tarmac. Our driver stopped the carriage and made busy with a black plastic bin-liner and an enormous dustpan which he referred to as a pooper-scooper.
Holmes pounced on the manifestos the moment I returned. He ran his glass over them, front to back, becoming increasingly puzzled and agitated as he did so. After a period of more than twenty minutes of inspection, he put his glass down and stroked his chin.
"To be frank, I was hoping for something more specific."
"As was I," said Mr Coleshaw.
"These are documents of aspiration, and the aspirations of both parties are close to identical. Health, wealth and happiness for all. I can only find minor differences in emphasis, slight shades in the mechanism."
"Take this Tory manifesto, here." Holmes picked up one of the two brochures and opened it randomly. "On the value of education "
I disliked correcting my good friend in front of guests, but I did not want him to embarrass himself. "Holmes, I believe the manifesto in your hand is that of the New Labour party."
Holmes looked at the front. "Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness! So it is. Well what more proof could we need? And what a strange state of affairs. I do believe the situation is very similar on the other side of the water. In the United States there are two parties of similar aspirations and not a great deal to choose between them. We must investigate further, for what value is a vote if it only allows you to choose between cow dung and horse manure?"
Mr Coleshaw was dismissed for the period of investigation, which Holmes anticipated might take many days. I myself stayed on at the Baker Street lodging to see if I could be of assistance.
I read the morning's papers peacefully by the fire, until I looked up and to my surprise found the leader of the Conservative Party, Mr Ian Duncan Smith, standing by the window looking out on to the tourist crowd below.
"Good Lord!" said I.
"Excellent!" said he. "Do you recognise me?"
"But of course. I would admit that you are not the most widely known of Conservative Party leaders, but you are famous enough, nonetheless."
"It's me, Watson.
"Mr Duncan Smith, fear not, for I do recognise you."
"No, Watson. It's me, Holmes, in one of my magnificent disguises."
Well I'll be pickled in Formaldehyde and displayed in the Tate! I could barely believe it. I doubt that Mrs Duncan Smith herself would have known. I approached my good friend with some trepidation and placed my hand on his bald crown. Indeed, the texture was of latex, not of skin, but even from close up the disguise was close to perfect.
"My dear Holmes, that is quite tremendous!"
Holmes had a twinkle in his eye, which quite went against the effect of the disguise.
"Excellent," said he. "I shall now tread the corridors of Westminster with impunity, and learn more about this theft of value from innocent voting papers. Return at six, Watson, and I shall share my research with you."
I returned at six as instructed, making my way through the crowd at the door, who were looking up towards Holmes's lodging window in a state of great agitation and barely seemed to notice me. Holmes was not in, or so I first thought, but then I noticed the figure by the window where Ian Duncan Smith had earlier stood. Clearly Holmes had decided to go one better. He was equally perfect as Tony Blair.
"Ah, Dr Watson, I presume," said he. Even the voice was perfect.
"My friend, that is truly outstanding. The hair, the voice but tell me, how did you do the ears?"
I approached and, with somewhat less trepidation than before, grabbed hold of the ears with both hands and gave them a severe tug, intending to detach the latex abruptly, as I had watched Holmes do a number of times when revealing himself from beneath one of his many disguises.
But on this occasion, Holmes was reluctant to give up his secret and squirmed and protested most volubly beneath my strong hands. However, I was quite adamant that I would have my way. Soon, we had collectively lost our balance and were thrashing about across the seat of an easy chair, my hands unceasing in their quest, and my friend howling and swearing in their powerful grip.
Imagine my surprise when I heard Holmes's voice behind me. "Good Lord! Watson! Let go of Mr Blair immediately!"
But I am not so easily fooled. I did let go, then reached for my pistol and turned to draw it on the new arrival. "So, you think you can trick me with the old Holmes disguise, eh, Moriarty? Almost perfect, I have to admit, but unbeknown to you I have the real Holmes here, right next to me, cunningly disguised as the Prime Minister."
"Watson, it is I, Sherlock Holmes, and the man you have only just released from your invigorating grip is indeed the Prime Minister, Mr Blair, who kindly agreed to come here to advise me further on the issue of the devalued vote."
"Then if that is the case, pray reveal to me a secret to which you and I are the only parties."
The Holmes figure thought about the challenge for many seconds, and I was about to discharge my pistol into the scoundrel when he said to me these words:
"Dr Watson, you have been sexually impotent now for almost three years. I suppose it's fair to say that your good lady wife also knows this fact, but I doubt that you have shared it with many others."
I put the gun away. I believe my face might have turned redder than a spanked bottom, and certainly it felt equally as hot.
"Perhaps it might have been possible choose something a little less personal," I muttered.
"Do you have a licence for that," asked Mr Blair, indicating my pistol.
"I believe there is a firearms amnesty," I replied, thinking quickly. "And I am even now in the process of taking it to my nearest police station."
"Then hurry along," said Holmes, ushering me out of the room before further harm could be done. "Mr Blair and I have much to discuss. Perhaps you could call in on me tomorrow and I will let you know how things are progressing."
They progressed slowly. I called in on my good friend the next morning to find he had installed one of these new-fangled electronic screens in his living room, where it quite seemed to dominate the arrangements, to the extent that even though it had been there for just a few hours already all the chairs were pointed in its direction.
"Quite fascinating, quite fascinating," murmured Holmes, not bothering to turn to address me.
"What are you watching?"
"The Phil Donahue Show, a show of the type which I believe is called Reality TV. Purely for research purposes, of course."
I took a chair and watched the show with him. It was on the issue of stem cell research, a subject with which I am well acquainted, being a man of medicine. After a few minutes I was at my wits end.
"These people know nothing!" I protested.
"And yet they can be so passionate in their views," said Holmes. "Fascinating, don't you think?"
"Holmes, we are listening to the rantings of imbeciles. It would be a fair impossible task, I would say, to find a collection of more stupid and less well-informed people than those we are listening to and watching right now. "
"Tut tut, Watson. I would say very easy indeed."
From any other man, this comment would not have entertained me. But from Holmes it was a prologue that could not be ignored. "Pray continue. Where do we find this collection of greater imbeciles?"
"The people who watch the program regularly, my dear Watson. Its faithful audience."
Once again I found myself a mere pupil in the presence of the world's greatest detective, and I had no quarrel with that, but I could not stand watching the television show for one moment longer. My friend was avid in his research, and I rose from my chair and resolved to leave him to it.
"I believe I have found the answer to the mystery of the devalued vote," he said, as I reached the door.
He pointed at the domineering contraption, still issuing nonsense.
"Mr Blair was kind enough to give me a clue, when we broached the subject of the constraints of power. And this device has confirmed it. Absolutely fascinating, Watson, you should get one."
"I fear my lady wife would spend all her time Well yes, perhaps you're right, I should certainly consider it."
"I have arranged for Mr Coleshaw to return here tomorrow at five, at which point I will provide him with a full explanation. Perhaps you would care to join us?"
"Most certainly, Holmes. Most certainly."
It was a little past five when I finally made it back to Holmes's humble lodgings, for it is the lot of every practitioner of medicine to be delayed by ailing and unreliable patients.
Mr Coleshaw, our dissatisfied voter, had arrived only just before me, and Holmes was still engaged in putting him at ease.
"Here we are!" he said, cheerily. "The fire looks very seasonable in this weather. You look cold, Mr. Coleshaw. Pray take the basket-chair. I will just put on my slippers before we settle this little matter of yours. Holmes busied himself and eventually sat and lit his clay pipe. He placed the voting slip on the table as a point of reference.
"So, without further ado, let me begin," said he. "We established earlier that in our country exists a consensual democracy where the difference between the main political parties is so small it is close to insignificant, consisting possibly of slight shades of opinion on personal taxation and the distribution of wealth. In North America and many parts of Europe the situation is very similar. And where more radical parties exist they have little chance of gaining power by themselves, and must moderate themselves to become part of a coalition.
"From this we can already be sure that this vote is of little value, because the choices for which it is cast are so similar.
"In many ways this has always been the case. Where we find ourselves in fresh territory of devaluation is in the question of numbers. There are now many more people in our population and indeed many more people who are eligible to vote, including you good lady wife, Watson, and so in that sense each individual vote is indeed of far less consequence than it once was, though it is doubtful many people would wish to go back to the days when only the landed gentry qualified.
"Here in Britain, we also face the constraints of Brussels. Our domestic life and legislation must fit within the rules laid down by the far larger organisation of the EU, which, while it is a democracy itself, consists of many hundreds of millions of voters, includes countries we may not be able to pronounce and certainly cannot find on a map, and conducts business so dreary that none of us takes the slightest interest.
"Yet I am not finished, barely started. As Mr Blair kindly pointed out to me, Brussels is but a minor constraint when compared to the limitations imposed by the world economic system and its financiers. We must float our stocks, our government bonds, even our noble currency upon free markets where the very wealthy may dabble with them and punish any acts of governance which they find displeasing. In poorer countries, this whip hand of economic control belongs to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In poorer still, it befalls to corrupt dictators to control their populace in return for money and privileges from the Western powers.
"And finally, not least of all, we must take into account the dreadful expense of electioneering. A political party is obliged to raise millions of pounds to gain the exposure necessary to win an election, and to raise it through freely given contributions. Few individuals are prepared to part with money in this manner, and so the yoke is taken up by businesses and by large corporations. In the United States, I believe, the sums donated to each party in this manner may exceed 200 million dollars.
"Businesses and corporations are by definition run for profit, and so we can anticipate that they appreciate a return on this investment. And while the president of the US does not go so far as to wear baseball caps proclaiming the names of his sponsors, nor is he in the habit of approving legislation against them. Corporations are the paymasters of the election mechanism and due respect must be paid to them.
"In short, Mr Coleshaw, you are quite correct. The value of your vote has been almost entirely taken away from you, and the thieves are multiple. Once we have taken into account the insignificant differences between the major parties, the immense number of voters, the position of our parliament in relation to Brussels, the power of the markets, and the payback required by the corporate financiers of the election process, this voting paper I hold here in my hand is of less value than a blank sheet upon which useful things might be written."
Mr Coleshaw did not take the news kindly. His face turned as white as Michael Jackson's. He snatched the paper from Holmes's hand, crumpled it in his fist and with finality threw it on to the fire, where it flared for a few seconds then turned to thin black ash.
"Then I am nothing but a pawn in this society, a mere consumer, and that I will not be."
So saying, he rose from the basket chair, collected his hat and cane and made haste to leave the room.
For all his mastery of detective work, I fear that Holmes did not anticipate what was about to happen next, any more than did I. For Mr Coleshaw, feeling particularly pained by his new appreciation of his overall place in the scheme of things, instead of heading for the door, increased his pace to a slight run and headed directly for the window, which he penetrated head first, loudly shattering the glass and carrying a spray of it with him like a crystallised splash from a pool as he headed for the street below.
In an instant I was on my feet.
Holmes did not move.
"Blast," said he. "How inconsiderate of the man to leave before I'd reached the termination of my story."
"Holmes," I protested. "This the third floor. We have this moment watched a man cast himself to his death."
"I think not, Watson. If you would be so good as to move to the window, I believe you will even now find him making his way along the street, cursing his luck and shaking his fist in frustration."
"Good Lord, Holmes," I said, when I had done as I was asked. "He is indeed striding along the street in a most irritated manner, and shaking his cane wildly, though I see he has lost his hat."
I looked directly down on to the pavement below the window and the reason for this miraculous escape became clear. At least a score of the tourist throng were lying upon the ground in various states of injury, some unconscious, others moaning and nursing their wounds. Mr Coleshaw had encountered a far softer landing than he had anticipated, though this eventuality had been no surprise to a man of Holmes's genius.
There were two hundred more to the crowd, and many were already tending to the wounded, passing around MacDonalds' tissues from the outlet close by to stem the blood from the many horrific glass injuries. Then I was seen at the window and a cry went up, "Look, it's the Doc!" and the Samaritans paused from their ministrations to look up and wave, as they are wont to do. A few tossed their notebooks and pens towards me in the hope of an autograph, causing more injuries as these items once again fell to earth.
As a practising physician, there was no question where my duty lay. I gathered up my topcoat and hat and had almost made it to the door when Holmes called after me in his stern voice.
"And where do you think you are going?"
"To attend to the injured."
"Do you think your presence there will improve the situation? An ambulance or two will call by when it pleases them. Pray sit here by the fire again, Watson. To lose one of my audience before finishing my tale would be careless of me, to lose two would be a mistake."
He was right again, of course. My presence downstairs would simply complicate matters and prove a distraction. An ambulance would arrive by and by. I could also hear in Holmes's tone a demand that his excellent detective work should not go without an audience of any kind.
"And so I set about finding out what a vote might truly be useful for in this day and age," continued Holmes when I was once more comfortable in my chair and he had recharged his clay pipe. "And why the populace bothers to cast them at all, in the circumstances, and how they might distinguish whom they cast them for, since the entire procedure is almost completely divorced from any semblance of power. Naturally I found that, like Mr Coleshaw, the general populace does not wish to feel powerless, and this is a strong incentive for them to make a voter's choice, to pacify their anxieties that they have no significance of any kind.
"Yet most people realise in their heart of hearts their vote makes little difference, but they carry on regardless, and often with good cheer. For there is very little work involved in voting. It is not necessary to learn the policies of parties, where they differ or see eye to eye, to assess whether their financial plans hold water or their strategies make sense."
"Well bless me!" I cried. "If people know none of these things, how do they decide how to cast their vote, even if it is of little value?"
Holmes tapped the bowl of his pipe on top of the electronic box. "Why, through this device, of course. It struck me in my research, Watson, how every Western leader of recent times has a more than adequate personality on television, and yet in the run of the ordinary population the proportion of people suited to the camera is not high. Indeed, the ability of a leader to deal with the television camera is so important that the good American people have in recent times elected a number of complete morons merely because they possess telegenic personalities. I believe they are led by one right now.
"At first sight, this makes little sense, Watson, but with my powers of deduction I have been able to get to the bottom of the issue, and find the logic that supports it. We must start by looking at the chief attribute of the most able personalities on television. These, my good friend, are actors, professional actors, and their chief attribute is that they are able to convince the rest of us that unreality and artifice are real, that they are somebody that in fact they are not, and the circumstances in which they exist are real when they are merely a studio or film set and wholly artificial.
"A close second in this competition of TV capability comes the public relations executive, full of charm and sincerity and able to persuade us that the leaking tanker grounded off the west coast is of no danger to wildlife, or that the chief executive himself is mortified and loses sleep over the surprise appearance of a dead rat in our packet of frozen peas. These people are the best in the world at soothing our ruffled feathers.
"Combine the two, Watson, and it becomes clear we have exactly the attributes required of a prime minister or president. They are themselves so constrained by the world economy, by the markets, by financiers, by corporations, that they are quite unable to do anything of value, but if they are very good at appearing on television then they can give the appearance that this is not so. And when these many constraints cause our country damage, they are able to phrase it in such a way, and with such sincerity, that we are not even aware that we are being harmed.
"And this, Watson, is why voters do not read manifestos or bother to research the issues, or even vote for policies or parties. They watch television and vote for the leader they believe will bring them greatest comfort, who will most successfully disguise our nation's unpowered drift in the sea of the world economy, and most charmingly smile through the disasters we are too constrained to avoid. In short, Watson, they vote for the most convincing creator of fantasy, the best storyteller, their favourite chief apologist."
I confess I was somewhat taken aback by Holmes's rant. I have never been a fiercely political man, yet I had not imagined our system of politics to be so superficial. But if Holmes said it was that way, then so it must be.
We shared the intimate silence of the revelation, until finally Holmes rose and took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction.
"Which is it to-day," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?".
"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per-cent solution. Would you care to try it?"
"No, indeed," I answered brusquely. "My constitution has not got over the Afghan campaign yet. I cannot afford to throw any extra strain upon it."
He smiled at my vehemence. "Perhaps you are right, Watson," he said. "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendently stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."
He rose from his chair without his customary grace and wandered across to the broken window through which our visitor had departed. As his face appeared there, a great cheer rose from crowd below. Holmes waved, languidly, and after a few seconds turned away again.
"I must set my mind to finding a way to pass these bleak autumnal evenings," said he. "On your way out, Watson, would you be so kind as to show in the lady with the green hat. There is only one green hat in the crowd, on a fine bosomy young thing of an excitable disposition."
"I don't suppose you have any Rohypnol about your person, do you?"
"I most certainly do not."
"Oh well, it is of little consequence. Send her up, nonetheless. I shall have to test my good fortune with a little intellectual stimulation and a few tunes on the violin."
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Copyright Andrew Starling 2003, www.foxglove.co.uk, includes extracts from Conan Doyle's original material, copyright expired.