After waiting in line for a good 20 minutes behind some very talkative French school girls, the young woman dressed up as a maid and the young man in an old police uniform check my ticket and let me go inside. After a coat rack and a few pictures in the narrow entryway, there is a set of stairs, and I count them as I climb.
1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — and here there is a landing, where I turn around to walk up the next flight. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. 17 stairs. Yes. This is indeed the place.
It’s hard to tell you exactly how strong an effect Alexander Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had on me as a kid. Of course it was all of the usual things: I wasn’t very social in elementary school, and I instead buried my head inside as many books as I could find. I was a reader, happier in the library than playing during recess.
But aside from that (which I’ve found characterizes anyone interested in words of any kind), Sherlock Holmes hit me in exactly the right spot. I loved Doyle’s (Watson’s) clear, simple prose, and I loved how structured everything was. A man or woman appears at Baker Street with a problem he or she can’t solve, Watson empathizes and is also confused, but Holmes of course already has it all figured out. He’ll just need a few days or a trip to confirm his suspicions. And by the end of the story, Holmes has gathered his evidence through some climactic scene that has caused the police to come running, and he calmly, nonchalantly explains that it was the butler all along, and indeed, if you had really read the story and seen the details, you would have known that as well. Little Mike Schramm couldn’t believe it — he would frantically turn back through the story’s pages to see what Holmes had seen that he did not, and sure enough, right there, the lady was carrying a red case when she’d earlier mentioned a black one.
I swallowed up these stories as a kid — I digested them, turned them into part of me. Holmes’ direction of “eliminating the impossible” to find the truth, “however improbable” still guides me today. I found a set of tapes in the library of some British actor reading all of Doyle’s stories, and even though I had read them all multiple times before, I listened to all of those tapes for hours, hearing this man (I don’t know who he was) using his solid British accent to tell the stories yet again. And when I was in junior high school, our class was directed to read A Study in Scarlet out loud, with each student reading a line in sequence. After I read my line, my English teacher actually (this is true) stopped the class, and commented on how well I’d read it. He asked me to keep reading, and I read the whole rest of the story out loud to the class, relishing every phrase the way I’d heard that reader do it on the tapes. I was not, obviously, very popular in junior high.
I don’t know when I learned, as a kid, that 221B Baker Street actually existed. I read lots of other books as well, of course (Encyclopedia Brown captured my interest in just the same way, and eventually Lord of the Rings and Douglas Adams also soaked into my bones), but those were all just stories. Sherlock Holmes’ residence, however, actually existed. I had to go. Someday, I thought even as a kid, I would go to London, and walk up the exactly 17 stairs to his lodging.
And yesterday, I finally did.
As you might imagine, the place is a tourist trap. 221B Baker Street didn’t exist in the days that Doyle wandered London’s streets — he apparently picked an address that didn’t have a real door associated with it, because he didn’t want anyone to be bothered by fans. But over the years, various groups and museums have fought to make sure there was a 221B, and eventually London’s government assented. The entire 221B building is now dedicated to Sherlock Holmes and his legacy.
And as real representations of fictional places go, it’s authentic. Holmes’ various implements lay around the small parlor — there’s his deerhunter cap and his magnifying glass, over there a microscope and some Victorian scientific tools and medical journals. I was glad to see that though there wasn’t actually opium lying out, there were spoons meant to dilute the drug. One of my favorite qualities about Holmes is that his meticulous obsessiveness sometimes works against him, usually in the form of unhealthy drug use.
Elsewhere in the building, Watson has his own room, with his famous army revolver and various Victorian medical equipment. Holmes’ housekeeper’s room is filled with newspaper mentions of Holmes and his work, both real and printed excerpts from the stories. And the top floor is taken up with waxwork statues of various characters from the books, including Irene Adler (“the woman”) and the King of Bohemia, the evil rival Professor Moriarty, and one of my favorites, the red-headed man who was hired to copy the Encyclopedia, just so thieves can use his office to rob a bank.
As you might imagine, however, it was less than entrancing. None of it was actually used by Holmes, because Holmes didn’t exist. None of it is authentic, because there is no authenticity to any of it. It’s all icing, no cake. And though the stories were quite meaningful to me, the French schoolgirls wandered through the house chattering away, clearly bored. I actually stood in the parlor for quite a bit of time, maybe 20 minutes, and watched various tourist groups come through, take pictures of the exact same views that I had, and then trundle on. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in an apartment like that back in the 1800s, with horse carriages rumbling outside and Holmes inside, pacing back and forth about a case, occasionally grabbing his violin and playing a few notes.
But of course that never happened. He wasn’t there. I don’t feel ripped off — it was worth the six pounds to go up and see a place that I’d wanted to see ever since I was a kid. It’s satisfying to know that 221B Baker Street is really there, and who knows, maybe visiting it will make some of those French schoolgirls pick up the old books and discover what I discovered.
But that whole place proves that what’s real isn’t necessarily what we can touch or see. Instead, it’s those words I read as a kid, the idea of Holmes, of a man who trusted deduction and reason and used it in such wonderful ways, that provides me with such power. I did enjoy seeing the place for myself, and I got a kick trying on Watson’s bowler in the gift shop, and marveling at all of the Holmes trinkets and paraphernalia. But the real draw and power of Sherlock Holmes and his life isn’t in the collection of fake props in 221B. It’s in the stories, the words I’ve had with me the whole time.
After I left 221B, I took a nice walk around Regent’s Park, seeing the Queen’s Garden and the various John Nash-designed buildings there. I was reminded of Chicago and Lincoln Park, actually, though of course all of London’s great parks were built for royalty, even if they’re now used by the public itself.
I also got to meet up with a fan for a few pints, and my first (and probably last) plate of fish and chips at a place called The Beehive. I am not a fish eater at all — aside from sushi, I just don’t like the taste of any aquatic creatures. But when in London, I figured I needed at least to try some fish and chips, and so I did. It wasn’t bad (it is, after all) fried, just not my speed.
Later on, I went to meet a man I met on AirBNB to stay at his house. It was in the most run-down part of London that I’ve yet visited — I won’t say I feared for my life (I used to live in Chicago, after all), but there was a notice outside the building that I stayed in that told anyone who wanted to read it that police had sighted drug buying and selling in the area and (I’m paraphrasing a little bit for comedy here, but it was so very British) “would you please not do that any more?”
After dropping off my bags at his house (though I tellingly brought my computer back with me), I met my friend Jeff and his wife, from San Francisco, for dinner. We first had drinks at a pub where, no kidding, Bates from Downton Abbey (well, the actor who plays him, but I just called him Bates) actually sat down to have drinks with a friend. I really wanted to go up and tell him how much I love the show, but I figured I probably won’t be representing America very well if I frantically went up to a celebrity trying to get a quiet drink in a London pub. We left him alone.
Afterwards, I ticked off “Have an Indian” from my to-do list with a trip to a restaurant called Sartaj. The chicken tikka masala was excellent, and we had way too much naan — both a gigantic “family” style naan that was huge, and something called “murgi naan,” which was naan bread filled with a really tasty barbecue chicken. After that meal and another drink or two, lacking a few days of sleep, I stumbled back to the AirBNB flat, snuck into the room, and essentially passed out on a stranger’s bed. I don’t know if I will use AirBNB again — it was just a little too weird for me.
Don’t forget: Tomorrow night, 5pm, we’re having a Tipoaa meetup — just come to the Oxford Circus tube station and I’ll be standing right around there with a Tipoaa t-shirt on. We’ll probably go to dinner and then out drinking, so if you’re in London, please do come and say hi!
Posted on Thursday, April 5th, 2012 at 12:33 pm. Filed under general.