Rippling curtains of rain. Sudden shafts of sharpening air. We're on holiday in London--me, my wife and two daughters. Gogo, my 9-year-old, seems oblivious to the theatrical British weather. Absorbed in a fragile trance, she studies a brown beetle crawling up her hand. "This bug's head is so small!" she says. "I bet its brain can only hold one idea."
Gogo, who plots our summer and winter vacations with the world view of Alexander the Great, lives in her own ether. She has Pre-Raphaelite features, wide brown eyes that seem to be off on a secret, faraway trip and a quirky private smile. Her mind is a pinball machine: She has a gift for making associations that even James Joyce might admire.
Which is what I like about traveling with my kids. I'm enchanted not so much by their innocence as their skewed perceptions, their undiscriminating appetite for scraps of knowledge. Because everything in their experience is equally weighted, they see things whole, untainted, in clear air.
A few years back we took a family outing to Philadelphia's science museum, the Franklin Institute. We spent an instructive afternoon among exhibits that elucidated the physical laws of nature. On our way out, I bought Gogo a soft pretzel. She took a bite, dropped the wax paper into a trash can and began to giggle. "What's so funny?" I said.
"Gravity," she replied.
Lately, our vacations have followed Gogo's pretzel logic. Wherever her imagination wanders, we follow. She so loved "The Diary of Anne Frank" that we went to Amsterdam for a closer reading. She wanted to walk up the hidden staircase, she said, tiptoe around the attic and peek into the water closet to check out Anne's chain toilet. And happily, Gogo did. Still, the secret annex perplexed her. "There's something I can't figure out," she said plaintively. "How did Anne Frank keep so quiet in wooden shoes?"
Gogo was more contemplative than confused on our odyssey to Greece two winters ago. The Rock of the Sibyl at Delphi delighted her. The Palace of Minos in Knossos enthralled her. The Acropolis Museum's statue of Cerberus, the multi-headed mutt that watched over the realm of the dead, left her rapturously agog. Yet when we got to the sacred spot she most wanted to visit--the Cave of Hades in Eleusis--she shuffled along silently, head down, shoes scraping the ancient stones.
"Are you OK, Gogo?" I asked.
"Sure," she said without lifting her eyes. "I'm having fun just kicking the Gods' dust."
It was a Greek connection--sort of--that piqued Gogo's interest in England last summer. "You'll like it there," said Maggie, her mother. "Londoners travel by underground."
"That sounds cool," Gogo said. "But are you allowed to pet Cerberus?"
If our tour of Great Britain has a theme, it's mystery. We begin at 221B Baker St., home to the new Sherlock Holmes Museum. All spring I'd been reading his adventures aloud to Gogo and her 6-year-old sister, Daisy. But they weren't really hooked until they saw Jeremy Brett's sublimely over-the-top Holmes on PBS. Days after watching an episode, they'd still be reciting lines of dialogue: "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention? "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime." "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." "That was the curious incident."
At the front door, a private bobby monitors the queue. "Will I get to see the blue carbuncle?" Gogo asks him. "Sherlock Holmes said he's put it in his museum."
"I'm afraid we couldn't actually get the blue carbuncle," says the bobby. "But if you look around, I'm sure you'll find the five orange pips."
Curiously, 221B falls between 237, a real estate office, and 241, a chartered accountant firm. We climb the 17 steps to the sitting room, which is crammed with enough Victorian nostalgia to make the master exclaim in his high, somewhat strident tones: "Entirely meretricious!" Gogo inspects every alleged artifact: the severed digit from "The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb," the stuffed swamp adder from "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," the locket of hair from "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches." "Whoever cut this hair didn't use scissors," she deduces. "It must have been done with a dull knife."
"Maybe it was chewed off," offers Daisy.
Gogo rolls her eyes heavenward.
Propped above a mantle is the hair-trigger revolver Holmes fired one dull day into the sitting room wall, describing the initials "VR"--Victoria Regina.
"What does VR spell?" yells Daisy.
Gogo raises a finger to her lips, shushing her little sister. "Very rude," she whispers.
The maids clear out the chambers for an eminent Sherlockian who has come all the way from Japan. He wears a deerstalker and Inverness cape, and holds aloft an out-sized magnifying glass. Striding purposefully across the room, he parts the drapes, looks up and down Baker Street, does an abrupt about-face and shouts, "Aha!"
Then he leaves.
Gogo studies the impostor dispassionately. Daisy raises a slightly heretical question: "Was there a real Sherlock Holmes, or was he just paper?"
Gogo pulls on the brims of her own deerstalker and draws deeply on her plastic calabash. "That," she says at last, "is a three-pipe problem."
We repair to the Sherlock Holmes Hotel to puzzle this out over bowls of Great British pudding ("cook's homemade pudding with lashings of custard"). "Sherlock Holmes was alive and paper," Gogo says between lashings. "It's like Bloody Mary: She was a queen and a drink."
Appropriately enough, our next stop is Buckingham Palace. The joint is open to paying tourists for the first time, and, as Gogo says, "I always wanted to see the Queen's place."
Gogo asks how to act if she should chance upon Her Majesty having a spot of tea in the Throne Room. Maggie says, "Just pretend she's not wearing a crown." I add helpfully, "And don't offer her a stick of bubble gum." We are funneled through 18 exceedingly formal rooms redolent of majesty. William IV called the place "hideous." Edward VIII complained of its "curious musty odor." A TV pundit compares it to a tandoori curry house.
Gogo offers her own detailed critique. "The red carpets are really ugly," she says of the newly laid Axminster. "They're the same ones at the Holiday Inn."
"They are not!" protests Daisy. "Holiday
Inn carpets aren't this fuzzy. These are more like the Sheraton's."
"Oh, yeah? So where's the big S in the middle?"
They dash off through the Green, Blue and White drawing rooms. We lose sight of them in the crimson Throne Room, where they pause briefly to check out the squat monogrammed chairs. Gogo eventually resurfaces in the Picture Gallery.
"Where's Daisy?" I ask.
"Oh, her. I don't know, where?"
We alert a warden, who alerts other wardens. Pretty soon there's an all-points palace bulletin for a "3-foot-10-inch American in a Betty Boop T-shirt." Gogo finds her in the royal loo.
Daisy is chastened, Gogo chagrined."Here's a real mystery," Gogo announces. "Why does the queen have such rough toilet paper?"
Our final conundrum unravels in Portmeirion, a tiny, Italianate dream-town boldly planted amid the slatey cliffs and wide, sandy estuaries of North Wales. Planned and built by Welsh eccentric Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in the 1920s and '30s, this architectural fantasia of columns, cornices and campaniles was the setting for the '60s TV series "The Prisoner." The show told the story of a British secret agent who, after resigning his post, was abducted and held captive by powers unknown in a timeless hamlet called "the village." Everyone is under surveillance; no one has a name, only a number; and there is no knowing who is a friend and who is a spy.
It's been more than a quarter of a century since the series first aired. But "Prisoner" hajjis still pilgrimage to Portmeirion for an annual two-day synod. They cavort as villagers, re-enact scenes from the show and paw over its ambiguities. Everything is accomplished with scrupulous and impeccable seriousness.
Gogo and Daisy are big fans themselves. They've watched all 17 episodes and have memorized the mantra of Number 6, the show's hero. "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered!" they chant over and over during the five-hour drive from London. "My life is my own."
The sun is going down when we finally check into the Portmeirion Hotel. "I'll need some information," says the desk clerk.
"You won't get it!" snaps Gogo.
"Ha! So you're here for the Prisoner convention."
Daisy, who's still not sure if Sherlock Holmes was or wasn't, is even more nonplussed by this diabolical Disneyland. The BBC film crew on hand to document the event only reinforces her impression that we're part of an ongoing television show. When we get to our room, she looks behind the paintings and mirrors for hidden cameras and microphones.
There's a knock at the door. "May I turn down your bed?" asks a voice. Daisy crouches timidly behind Gogo, who sputters, "What's wrong? Is it too loud?"
The next morning we pad past pillared porticoes, splashing fountains and numerous pastel-colored villas to Number 6's house, now a shop that sells "Prisoner" maps and bumper stickers as if they were souvenirs from Lourdes. We ramble up a cobblestone path to the green Florentine dome, where the arch-interrogator, Number 2, once plotted to break Number 6's will. We ramble down to the pink gloriette , the speaker's platform, where Number 6 once tried to rouse the villagers to rebellion. We amble around the green, with its fanciful statuary and colonnades, where scores of middle-age "Prisoner" wanna-bes mill about in striped blazers, straw boaters and flowing capes. They're restaging the human chess game from Episode 11. Instead of name tags, these conventioneers sport badges bearing their numbers.
None of which matters much to Gogo and Daisy, who search in vain for Patrick McGoohan, the actor who played Number 6. McGoohan has never appeared at one of these confabs. He seems to regard the whole exercise with something approaching disdain. He's forever besieged by "Prisoner" cultists seeking answers to the show's riddles. "I've become a prisoner of 'The Prisoner,' " he once lamented.
In the 18th-Century Town Hall, we watch a short film McGoohan apparently made to appease the "Prisoner" faithful. Strolling under a pier in Santa Monica, he pauses to fish a coat hanger out of the surf. He keeps sketching hangers in the sand, only to have them rubbed out by the sea. "Prisoner" cineastes call this bit of whimsy "The L.A. Tape."
After the screening, Gogo stumbles into a discussion group near the piazza. A bunch of earnest villagers are mulling the tape's meaning. "The hanger stands for the Great Pyramid of Cheops," insists a woman whose badge identifies her as 52.
"To me," says someone numbered 39, "it looks like a question mark on a pedestal. McGoohan wants us to keep questioning our beliefs."
It's Gogo's turn. "Young lady," says 43 solemnly. "What do you think McGoohan means?"
"I think he means it's time to hang it up."