The Signalman

Today I move on again, but not far.  As I start to pack I have a sudden, wonderful, realisation that I am going to be driving everywhere for the next week, so don’t need to squeeze everything into my cases.

I have a bit of time before John calls for me at 8.30, so I take the opportunity to load the first few things into the car.

Of course this is the replacement vehicle, which I haven’t driven yet and as I open the boot I notice that its license plate pronounces it to be from Colarado:  I wonder how it got to Lincoln?  Who drove it before; what business are they in?  Were they rushing for the airport to catch an important flight, or was it rented to a family on a vacation?  Has it been driven from Denver to here in one journey, or has it made the trip via a series of shorter hops? The life of a rental car would be interesting to chart.

Punctual to our 8.30 appointment John knocks at the door and we make our way over to the assisted living (aka – better breakfast), dining room.  Our friend Chan is waiting for us and greets us cheerily.

As we eat we have a very interesting conversation about how Chan experienced the show, without being able to see it.  He says that listening to the inflections of my voice he could picture the individual scenes in his mind’s eye.  He asks us lots of questions about my costume and the arrangement of props on the stage etc. so that his perception of the show can be completed.

John asks Chan an interesting question: how does he cope with the different value of the currency in his wallet?  In the UK each note (£5, £10, £20 and £50), is a different size, whereas in America they are all the same.  Chan makes sure that he always knows what he is receiving and then folds each one in a different way.

At the next table Dorothy (our one hundred year old new girl), is being fussed over by other residents and seems to be thoroughly happy and at home.

Breakfast finished we make our way back to the main block and our journey is interrupted often as people talk about the show and congratulate me.  They are a very friendly bunch here and I feel as if I’ve known them all for years.

I go back to my room, pack up the last of my bags and return to the lobby to say my goodbyes.  There a few extra book signings to be squeezed in before I finally hug John at the main door and get into my car.

I set the beloved SatNav unit and head out onto the icy roads on Lincoln, towards Omaha.

Once on the freeway I start to run through The Signalman again.  Because of Top Hole! a few days ago, I have left all of this too late and I am not going to be nearly as well prepared as I’d like.

The journey to Omaha is not long and I am soon pulling into the parking garage of the Hilton hotel.  I have not stayed here before and it looks very plush and elegant.

At the check in desk I am told I have a package waiting:  it is the replacement fountain pen that I ordered online, after I had lost my previous one in Norfolk. I feel complete again.

Even as I am checking in, my good friend Lee Phillips, who is always responsible for driving me when I am in Omaha, is waiting for me.  We make arrangements to meet up in about forty minutes and I go to my room to get ready.

Up on the third floor and out of the lift, I take the direction for room 3097. The corridor is very, very long and my room is right at the far end.

A long walk

A long walk

I have just about enough time to have a quick shower and get my costume sorted out for this afternoon’s event, before I start the hike back along the corridor and to the lobby where Lee is waiting.

My first venue today is the Omaha Central High School and as we drive through the city Lee points out the building to me.  It is certainly impressive, situated on a prominent hill it is built in the Palladian style and looks not unlike Buckingham Palace.  I never went to a school like that!

We find a parking space and go into the main entrance to register our presence.  The first thing that I see is a banner hung across the entrance hall proclaiming: ‘Welcome class of 2018. Where Great Expectations are Met’.  I think Dickens is going to work just fine here.

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We are shown to the theatre by one of the English staff who fills us in with a bit of the building’s history, and then hands us over to the head of theatre.  The auditorium is magnificent, with a huge stage and a lavish lighting in the main house.

The auditorium at Omaha Central High

The auditorium at Omaha Central High

As there is a class going on Lee and I are taken down into the basement and shown into the dressing rooms, where we are to wait.

Hmm, High School dressing rooms.  I wonder how often this sign is ignored....

Hmm, High School dressing rooms. I wonder how often this sign is ignored….

I hang my costume up and we chat for a while, until it is time to go back to the theatre and get the stage prepared for my show.

There is a bustle on stage now, the lighting is being prepared, mics are being checked, and lots of students are moving here and there on various errands.

Also in the theatre are Kathy Aultz, who is the director of the Douglas County Historical Society, who sponsor my events in Omaha, and Susan Phillips, who was responsible for first bringing me here, having seen me perform in Williamsburg a few years ago.

Susan is Lee’s wife and they have become great friends over the years.  Indeed this Summer they travelled in England and stayed with Liz and me in Abingdon.  We had a wonderful day exploring the sights of Oxford and taking a boat trip on the Thames.  It is lovely to see them both again now.

Once I have got the furniture arranged as I want it, a student approaches me and introduces herself.  She is the reporter for the school newspaper and she would like to interview me, if that is OK?

We spend about fifteen minutes chatting and I am sure she has an excellent career in journalism ahead of her.  She has a list of prepared questions, which she occasionally refers to, but listens intently to my answers and lets the conversation grow out of them.

When the interview is over, I do a quick sound check as the tech guy walks all through the auditorium making sure it sounds good from all quarters and then it is back down into the dungeons, to change.

The show itself is interesting and I can’t quite gauge how it is going.  The students are all honors students, studying English literature.  There is very little reaction or feedback from them, but equally it doesn’t feel as if they are bored or restless.  I just concentrate on the performance and hope that they are enjoying it.

At the end there is good applause and some nice questions, so I think it has been well received.

Having got changed and collected all of my belongings (it would be just like me to leave my new pen here), I meet up with Lee and we drive back to the hotel, where I have a couple of hours to try and drag the Signalman up to where I want it to be.

Firstly I order some lunch from room service: it will be forty minutes, which is excellent.  Time for a complete run through of the script.

Five minutes in and the phone rings: room service, would I like cream with my coffee.  Yes, thank you.

Resume the run.  The phone rings. It is Abby from the Historical Foundation, could I call a radio station in an hour to record an interview.  Of course, that is fine.

Resume the run.  The phone rings.  It is the front desk, I have a package to collect.  I have already collected my package.  No, this is another one.

I walk along the corridor (two city blocks I am informed by one of the housekeeping staff) and take the lift to the lobby.  Nobody can track down the new package until someone appears from the back office with a bag of goodies which was supposed to be in my room on my arrival.  I thank everyone very much and go back to 3097.

Resume the run. The phone rings.  Room service tried to deliver my lunch but I wasn’t there, am I ready for it now?

I give up!  Let’s just hope that there is enough in the memory banks to get me through this evening.

My lunch arrives and I watch the television as I eat. In my mind the Signalman lines are still rolling about.  I don’t want them to roll about; I want them to be in straight lines!

At 5.45 I get into the sombre all-black costume for the show tonight and meet Lee in the lobby.  We drive out to one of the Historical Society’s properties, and a favourite venue of mine: The General Crook House.

The General Crook House is a house built for General Cook (I love history), in 1879.  It has been lovingly restored by the Society  and is a perfect venue for Victorian performances.  It oozes atmosphere from every nook and cranny.

The General Crook House

The General Crook House

In one of the downstairs rooms there is a small stage set up, which is well lit.  At the back of the stage are three further lights up-light the lace curtains in front of the bow window. One light is green and two are red.  As the story of the Signalman revolves around a single red danger light at the mouth of a tunnel, I ask for two of the lights to be disconnected, leaving me with a single red glow.

The Danger Light

The Danger Light

The guests arrive and enjoy a convivial hour’s cocktails and chat, eating from a superb buffet.

I chat and pose and sign with many people who have been to my performances over the last three years and it is nice to be among friends.

At seven, Kathy makes the introductions, I take a deep breath, say a few silent prayers and step onto the stage.  I hate being this under-prepared, but it is what it is and I have to make the most of it.

I start by talking about Dickens’s involvement in the Staplehurst rail disaster of 1865.  Before I’m five minutes in, a buzzer sounds from somewhere and I am aware of people scrabbling about on the floor.

I stop the show and the situation is sorted out (this room was actually a dining room, and under the carpet is a switch, so that the lady of the house could surreptitiously call the servants to clear the table.  One of the audience chair legs is on the buzzer).

I restart.  A cell phone goes off.  The poor lady in question is mortified and tries to dig it out of her bag, but can’t find it.  It rings and rings and rings.  She finds it and takes it out.  Now it is ringing louder.  Fumble, try to turn it off, fumble.  And at last it is silent again.

I restart.  There is no magic about theatre: miracles just don’t happen and my performance of The Signalman is horribly approximate. However the atmosphere in this small, dark room; the proximity of the audience to me; the low voice I am able to maintain; the eerie glow of the red light, and the story itself all come together to create a suitably Victorian telling of a ghost story.

I have got away with it, but it is certainly not in the way I had wanted it.

After the performance I take a few questions, before we all move into the next room and gather round the lavish buffet table as Susan makes a toast.  She does this after every performance in the Crook House and writes them so carefully to reflect that particular performance.  Today she uses the opening phrase ‘Halloa! Below there!’ and talks about Omaha’s links to the great USA rail network.  It is a wonderful toast.

There follows a short period of signing, but people drift away into the icy night quickly, and I am soon dropped back at my hotel.

Back in my room I find a wonderful email from the English teacher at Omaha Central High, thanking me for my performance earlier and saying how rarely she has seen a group of students so attentive and captivated.  I am very relieved to know that it was a success and so touched that she should have taken the trouble to write.

Tomorrow is going to be a busy day, but I feel much more confident about the two shows I am to perform: Doctor Marigold and Nicholas Nickleby.

The last thing I do before I go to bed is to ceremoniously pack The Signalman script deep in the bottom of my case.

Admiral Dickens

Not surprisingly after the day I had yesterday, I sleep through to a decent enough time.   Last night I arranged with John to meet him for breakfast at around 8.30, so I still have a couple of hours to kill.

I sit up in bed, coffee to hand, and write the blog.  There isn’t a wifi signal in the room, so I can’t post it immediately, but I’m sure there will be somewhere in the centre where I can get online later.

I also take the opportunity to do some work on The Signalman.  It is slow going (which is frustrating for such a short piece).  At the back of my mind is the thought that I can always do it as a reading, but I try to keep that thought well and truly at bay.

At 8.30 on the dot there is a rat-tat-tat-tat on my door, and John is there waiting for me.  We walk through the centre, take a couple of lifts and end up in a different wing of the building.  John explains that this is on the assisted living side of the centre, as opposed to the independent living rooms, where I am staying.  He goes onto say that they serve a better breakfast here!

Our first port of call is to knock on the door of Chandler Tyrrell, or Chan, who is joining us for breakfast.  Chan is blind, but definitely one the centre’s great characters.  We go to the dining room and order eggs, bacon and toast.  I even spoil myself with a bowl of porridge.

There is a constant banter between Chan and John, while the servers fuss over all of us with great affection, and attention to detail.  This is my first experience of The Landings in operation and it is very impressive.  Even at this hour of the morning there is an energy, a vitality about the place.

Chan is 89.  He used to own the largest single florist store this side of the Rockies, with a staff of 42.  On Valentine’s Day his business would make almost a thousand deliveries around Lincoln.

After he retired he became blind, and a few years later his wife died. It is very apparent that he still lives life to the full.  He starts to tell us about his girlfriend who is moving away.  ‘Which one?’ asks John. ‘I lose count!’

As we all chat, a frail lady using a walking frame comes into the dining room and asks if she can join us.  Of course she can and Dorothy sits down.  She is quiet and doesn’t join in so much but we discover that she has only been at The Landings for two weeks and is still finding her feet.

John goes into promoter mode, and asks if she is coming to the show.

‘I don’t think I know about it.  I don’t suppose I will’, she replies.  It seems as if all of the information went out to the residents here before she had arrived.

‘Well, come along at 7.00, you will enjoy yourself.’

‘Oh, I’m too new here, I don’t know where to go, I don’t think I will.’

‘Someone will show you the way, just ask any of the staff.’

‘Oh, I don’t know who to ask.  Maybe when I’ve been here a little longer I will start coming to things. I think it’s too soon for me’

I feel very sad, but realise how difficult it must be to join a large, fully functioning community like this.  I have no doubt though that Chan and the rest will very soon make her feel right at home.

‘Well,’ says Dorothy, ‘I have enjoyed listening to you gentlemen talking, I must go now.’  She gets out of her chair in leaves us to finish our breakfast.

Once she has left the room Chan says: ‘you know, she is one hundred’.

After breakfast John gives me a quick tour of the whole centre and along the way I am introduced to many of the staff and residents.

‘Let me show you the swimming pool, here we will go through the men’s locker room’

There is a gentleman in the showers and we have a conversation, as he stands dripping before me, about the origin of the phrase: ‘the little Dickens’.  It is a strange moment!

Our tour ends up in the room where I will be performing later.  The stage is already set up and there is plenty of space to move.

The centre manager John, who we had briefly met at breakfast, hands me a microphone and we do a quick sound check.  Everything sounds good and after much hand shaking it is time to return to my room.

As a reminder of the dry cold weather outside I get a static electric shock, each time I touch one of the metal door handles.

The first thing on my agenda for the day is to try and sort out the rental car issue.  John had picked up a business card for the local branch manager of Hertz and calls to his wife, Mary-Ann to bring it along to my room.

John and Mary-Ann had seen me last year in Omaha, so we have a chat about how keen they had been, as soon as they’d seen the show, to bring me here.  It was always going to happen: I am learning quickly that once John gets his teeth into something, he doesn’t let go.

When I am alone I call Hertz and explain the situation. After a while on hold the girl comes back on the line and says that they have a car, complete with a GPS system, being returned at 12 and I could pick it up from the airport then.

Unfortunately, that is just about when the day starts to get busy, so I ask if they can deliver it here after three. After a short discussion with her manager, she says that yes that would be possible.  What good service, I can’t see that sort of thing happening in the UK.

Having sorted out my transport worries I go to the main reception area and ask about wifi.  There is a small library in which there is a signal, and I am soon online posting the blog, as well as catching up with emails from home.

Posting the blog

Posting the blog

It is now time to get back to The Signalman.  I work for a good hour or so and by the end of the session I am feel that first half is in a comfortable place, the second is sketchy.  More work to be done.

At 12.15 there is a knock at the door again and it is time to go to lunch with John and Mary-Ann. They had taken a memorable trip to London a few years ago to celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary and their experience there makes me feel very proud to be British.  It seems as if people could not do enough for them

Mary-Ann has suffered from Polio for almost her entire life, and now gets around in a rather racy, red mobility scooter.

On one day in England John had booked a van for a day to take them touring, but when it turned up it wasn’t suitable for Mary-Ann’s wheelchair and she couldn’t get in.  So they simply asked the hotel’s concierge to flag down the next black cab that passed.

‘Where to, Guv’n’r?’

John explained that he wanted to book the cab for the entire day, and to go to Windsor.  How much would that cost?  The fee mentioned by the cab driver was almost exactly what John had been quoted for the van, so a deal was immediately struck.

The driver couldn’t have been better, showing them all of the sights and keeping up a steady commentary.  They had the time of their lives, topped by the fact that at Windsor Castle they go to see the Queen as she left to attend Ascot races.

On returning to their cab, Mary-Ann was bubbling with excitement and told the driver of their good luck.

‘Lor!  Ive been coming here thirty six years and I’ve NEVER seen the Queen!’

They have many other stories of the care and attention which they received whilst in England, and it is good to hear of such a positive experience.

It is almost one, and I need to quickly change into costume for an hour’s signing session.

There is a goodly line forming and I am quickly inscribing books. Everyone is so excited about this evening’s show.  The wonderful thing about this signing is that every person at the desk wants to tell me about their story: ‘I was a teacher’; ‘I lived in England’; ‘I travelled in Europe’.

One lady, the resident thespian here, greets me in a splendid Eliza Doolittle cockney accent; another tells me how her father made paint brushes in England, and that, as a girl she would travel around hardware shops, posing as a potential customer: If the store in question didn’t stock Harris’s paintbrushes, her job was to look crestfallen, telling the shopkeeper that she’d heard Harris’s were the best and that’s the only brand she wanted.

Even now, well into her eighties, her parting shot is: ‘Don’t forget, if you need a paintbrush, make sure you get a Harris!’ Her father would be very proud!

Here is the important point about The Landings (and all of the other similar communities):  it is not a group of elderly people living out their twilight years, it is a place full of stories and energy and vitality.  It is a thoroughly uplifting place.

As the signing hour finishes, it is now time for the next leg of John’s programme: A ‘Meet Mr Dickens, Q&A’.  John and I are sat on stage and he conducts an interview with me about my life, my tours and the show.

On stage with John

On stage with John

In between my long rambling anecdotes, we take questions from the floor, one of which is: ‘Which moment in the show means most to you?’  It is an interesting question, and I ponder for a while before answering that it changes each time.  The show is never the same twice and my reaction to it is different every time I perform it.

It is an enjoyable hour and is over all too soon.

Back in my room I change into civvies once more and concentrate on the second half of The Signalman, until the phone rings.  The girl from Hertz is here with my replacement car, which is a huge relief.

The afternoon heads into evening.  John and I have an early dinner (just a chicken salad for me), and then I get ready for the show.

The room is packed!   It seems as if there is no space left and yet still residents pour in from all directions.

As the 7 o’clock start time gets nearer, I see something that fills me with so much happiness that I almost want to burst into tears:  Dorothy, the one hundred year old new girl from breakfast, is making her way along the corridor to come to the show after all.

After brief introductions from John (the manager), and John (John), I start the show.  The reaction is wonderful and the attention to the words is remarkable.  I can see people leaning forward on the edge of their seats, to catch every nuance.  There is laugher and there are tears.

At the end there is such a generous ovation, complete with ‘Whoops!’ and ‘Bravos!’  It is actually a very similar ovation to that which I received from the students at the Martin Luther King High School in Riverside.

When the noise dies down, John (manager) gets up to thank me and to make me a very special presentation.  I will let you read the proclamation in full:

ADMIRAL

THE GREAT NAVY

OF THE

STATE OF NEBRASKA

To All Who Shall See These Presents

GREETINGS

Know ye, that reposing special trust and confidence in the Patriotism, valor, fidelity and abilities of

GERALD DICKENS

And knowing you to be a good person and a loyal friend and counsellor I have nominated and do appoint you an Admiral in the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska.  You are therefore called to diligently discharge the duties of Admiral by doing and performing all manner of things thereto belonging. And I do strictly charge and require all officers, seamen, tadpoles and goldfish under your command to be obedient to your orders as Admiral – and you are to observe and follow, from time to time, such directions as you shall receive, according to the rules and discipline of the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska.  This commission to continue in force during the period of your good behaviour, and the pleasure of the Chief Admiral of the Great Navy of the State of Nebraska.

Given under my hand in the City of Lincoln, State of Nebraska this 19th day of November, 2014 in the year or our Lord.

David Heineman, Govenor.

 There are two things to comment on here:  firstly Nebraska is as far from either ocean as it is possible to be in the USA, so this is a great piece of Nebraskan humour.  Secondly (and this gives me a ridiculous amount of pride), my grandfather was also named Gerald and he was an Admiral in the Royal Navy.  To hold the same name and rank is very moving.

After a short Q&A (including the inevitable: ‘So, what was your ‘special moment’ during this performance?), we all start to vacate the room.  Everyone is so generous about the show and there is lots of hand shaking and hugging.

During the course of today I feel as if the Landings has very much embraced me and made me part of the community.

John has laid on a special wine and cheese reception and a few of us spend an hour or so chatting.

It is about 10.00 when everyone starts to drift away. The adrenaline is beginning to lose its effect and I am ready for my bed.

Airing

Airing

I return to my room, hang my costume up to air, and slip between the sheets of my bed.  What a happy day it has been.

Gotta Love Travelling….

Today, Tuesday November 18 is my day off:  A day of relaxation and rest.  It is a day on which, by its end, I will feel calm and ready to face the next set of challenges.  Happy Tuesday!

Yesterday I had discovered that The Millennium Hotel in Minneapolis has a guest coin-operated laundry, so my first job is to get two loads into the machine before breakfast.

For once the restaurant is not serving a buffet breakfast and I am treated to full waitress service and a menu.  It is a lovely treat and the food is delicious.  The orange juice is freshly squeezed and the coffee rich and tasty.

I can’t linger too long though, as I have to be back in my room at 8.00, to take a telephone interview over the phone.  The call is coming in from James Rana, part of the set up at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, where I will be performing in December.  James and I have chatted each year that I’ve performed at the University and the interview has become a tradition in its own right.

We talk for ten minutes or so about all sorts of topics, including Charles Dickens’s strange habit of re-aligning all of the furniture in hotel suites, so it faced a certain way.  I expect he stipulated ‘no green M&Ms in his dressing room’ too.

After the interview is finished I swap the washing to the drier, before returning to my room and getting down to a little admin work.

On December 20th I am performing A Christmas Carol in my home town of Abingdon.  Liz and I are producing the evening ourselves and ticket requests are starting to come in, so I nave to liaise with Liz about that.

I also do a little preliminary research into finding a rehearsal space in which Jeffery and I can work on ‘To Begin With’ next February.

After an hour of office work, the phone rings again for a second interview, this time for a newspaper in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I am headed later today.

I retrieve my laundry and frustratingly discover that Id left a single sock in the washer.  Back in my room I carefully lay it over one of the desk lamps so that it can dry before I have to leave.

Once all of my early morning commitments are done I settle into a session running through ‘The Signalman’.  The words are there, but a bit approximate and muddled, so it is good to be able to work on them.

As midday approaches I get my cases packed (which isn’t a great effort as I have hardly unpacked them) and go to the lobby to meet Kathy, Jeffrey’s assistant, who is taking me to the airport.

As I check in I come across a new phenomenon: the self tagging of bags.  At a little monitor I put all of my details in (as normal), but then it starts to print off the baggage labels.  Suddenly, after much whirring and chattering deep within the machine, a tongue-like strip of paper is rudely stuck out at me.

I attach it to my case, and repeat the process for my second piece of luggage.  I appear to be left with two sets of small stickers with barcodes and as I don’t want to be responsible for not having any costume in Lincoln, I go to the agent to check I’ve done everything correctly.

They will be asking the passengers to pilot the plane next.

Minneapolis/St Paul Airport is a large, busy, international one and is well provided for in terms of shops and restaurants.  Once checked-in, I have a bite of lunch before browsing the many stores.

I also look for opportunities to take a memorable black and white photograph to submit as my final day’s entry into the black and white challenge.  People look at me suspiciously as I shoot close-ups of various mundane things.

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Airports have changed in twenty years.  The book store is almost deserted, whereas they used to be full of people getting something to read to pass the long hours at the gates and in the air.

I remember that in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, airports insisted that you arrived three hours before flight time.  It was during that year’s tour that I first discovered the Harry Potter novels and read the first three, one after another.

Now the bookstore is almost redundant, with the ability to watch movies or listen to audio books via a phone or tablet.

Another symbol of the change in travel is the proliferation of little charging posts: podiums at every gate area with power outlets and USB slots.  All of these posts are surrounded by travellers, making sure that everything has enough battery life to get them to the next little post, in the next city.

Maybe it is because I have recently been in the old west, but the charging areas strike me as a modern equivalent to a frontier town’s water trough at which all of the horses take refreshment before carrying their owners onto the next city.

After I have mused my way through the airport, I return to my gate and get ready to board for the short flight to Chicago O’Hare airport.  It is another of those days where I am flying away from my end destination.  Lincoln is slightly south west of Minneapolis and I am flying to the south east, to pick up another flight to bring me back again.  Travel in America is strange.

Our airplane is an Embraer E175 and the crew proudly explain that it is the newest plane in the fleet.  It is certainly very bright and airy and there is so much legroom compared to my Spirit Air flight of yesterday.

As it is a new plane I think I should pay closer attention to the safety briefing and I wonder: ‘why does the bag on the oxygen mask not inflate (even though oxygen is flowing), and why is it there at all if it doesn’t do anything?

The weather is still bitterly cold so the plane is sprayed with de-icing fluid before we taxi to the runway and depart.

It is only a short flight and soon we are breaking through the clouds, emerging over the coast of Lake Michigan.

I have a two hour layover at O’Hare and it is so busy.  There are crowds in front of the big screens trying to find details about their connections.  The restaurants have lines waiting to be seated.  All of the device-charging points are surrounded by clones of the people in Minneapolis.

Actually, now I think of it, my phone could do with charging and I am soon supping from the same trough.

The winter weather is causing considerable delays, as the planes being de-iced are blocking the gates for incoming flights. All through the terminal I can hear agents apologising for the ‘late arrival of the incoming craft’; ‘we will get you out of here as soon as we can’; ‘there is a gate change, your flight will now be departing from….’

There are a lot of disgruntled passengers moving from gate to gate.  My flight alone moves from F6b, to F5, to F2c, to F2b. And there we all wait.

Flight time comes and goes: no plane.

The crew is there in their leather fliers jackets: no plane.

The gate agent is there trying to keep us up to date with progress: no plane.

My layover extends pass the four hour mark.

I could probably have driven from Minneapolis to Lincoln in less time than the journey is actually going to take me (and think of all the line learning I could have done!).

At 7.20 the little regional jet finally decides to put in an appearance and we get to board at last.  The flight attended announces that we are ready to go but still we sit at the gate: five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen pass and still we don’t move.  Would you believe that there is nobody to retract the jetbridge?

It is just one of those days and at least I have no show today.  Relax: it doesn’t matter.

The flight is OK, and we finally make it into Lincoln at a little after 9 pm.

As I walk out through the secure area and back into the real world, the day starts to improve, for there is a gentleman, with a kindly face holding a board: ‘Gerald Dickens’.  I could give him a big hug.

My contact for the event in Lincoln is John Clinton, a close follower of my blogs and a great fan of the show.  On following my adventures he has worked out that I haven’t been met at an airport all through my trip, and thought it would be nice for me to see a friendly face: how right he is!

My event tomorrow is at The Williamsburg Village Assisted Living community and John has put the whole idea together.  He has come to the airport with Michael, another part of the team.  Together we walk to the car rental desk to pick up my car.

This car will take me from Lincoln, to Omaha and then on to Kansas City, so I am looking forward to a nice comfortable vehicle that can become a friend.  Hertz car rental only have a tiny, boxy Kia Soul.

My Soul Mate

My Soul Mate

OK, it will be fine I’m sure.  ‘I will need a GPS system with that’

‘None of our vehicles have a GPS system and we don’t have any units here.’

Somehow I have to make my way across the Midwest unaided: it is another reflection on how travel has changed. I will have to use a map.

There is a possibility that some of the cars being returned tomorrow may have GPS built in, if I call I may be able to swap.  I hope so.

We find the little Soul, which is bright red and rather sweet.  The boot isn’t large enough to take my cases so we have to flatten the rear seats.

John gets into the passenger seat next to me and navigates me through downtown Lincoln, pointing out some of the sights to me, including the historic State Capitol building towering above the skyline: ‘A monument to Viagra’ is how John describes it.

We drive to Applebee’s restaurant and Mike joins us there.  Over a simple and welcome dinner we chat about tomorrow’s timetable, the tour so far and the history of Lincoln.  Mike asks if we had come downtown and had I seen the ‘Prairie Penis’?  Lincolnians are very proud of their phallic State Capitol.

The other major venue in town is the football stadium and when it is full on match day (as it will be on Saturday), it becomes the third largest city in Nebraska, holding over ninety-thousand people.  Only Omaha and Lincoln itself have larger populations that that.

After dinner we drive to the Landings at Williamsburg Village where John shows me to my room, which is large and comfortable.  There is a lovely vase of flowers on a table (oh, yes: John definitely reads the blog,) and a basket of goodies to take with me on the road.

Welcome!

Welcome!

We make arrangements to meet at breakfast and say our goodnights.

Today was my day off: a day of relaxation and rest. I am exhausted.

To the Land of the Penguins

Isn’t it extraordinary how the body’s internal clock works?  Even though my alarm is set for 4.45, I still wake up fifteen minutes before it rings.

I write a little of my blog before getting up and packing carefully.  Today I am flying with Spirit Air, whose fares are remarkably cheap but who will charge you for everything extra, including $95 for an extra carry-on bag.  It pays to follow the guidelines to the letter.

Having got everything correctly placed I load up my car and drive to the front entrance to check out.  Although it is far too early for breakfast there is a coffee pot steaming away, as well as a selection of little muffins.  I load myself up for the journey and get on my way.

The drive from Newport Beach to Los Angeles airport should be about forty five minutes, and my flight is not until nine.  Why, then, am I leaving so ridiculously early?  Everybody I’ve spoken too about the journey has told me the same thing, with Monday morning LA traffic it could take two hours, and if there is an accident – well, anything is possible.

As soon as I join the main freeway I see what they mean.  Even at 5.30 the road is choc-a-block with traffic and the high-speed, aggressive Californian driving style would easily lead to multiple accidents that could block the entire road in an instant.  I sip my coffee and concentrate harder.

5.30, nr Long Beach

5.30, nr Long Beach

We are all travelling much faster than the speed limit and in my mind I expect to see Larry Wilcox and Erik Estrada astride their CHiPs motorcycles, flagging me down (the reference will be lost on many, I am sure.  But to me, now, the TV series of my youth is vividly in my memory).

My mind is playing all sorts of tricks this morning and almost every town, intersection, or road sign puts a thought into my head.

It all starts with Long Beach.  I, as I’ve mentioned before, am a Formula One fan and in the mid seventies to the early eighties the Grand Prix circus came to Long Beach.  I can picture the individual races, the triumphs and the tragedies of the circuit.

In my mind’s eye the Queen Mary stands proudly.  The Queen Mary:  I once heard a story, I don’t know if it’s true, about the naming of the ship.  The executives of Cunard wanted to call their new ship the Queen Victoria, and went to King George V to ask his permission.  In their presentation they said: ‘Sir, we would like to name our new ship after the greatest Queen this nation has ever had.’  The King replied, ‘Excellent, my wife will be delighted and honoured!’  A quick change of plan and name ensued!

I drive past a sign for Santa Monica and find myself singing ‘All I wanna do is have some fun, I got a feelin’ I’m not the only one….’

Almeda Drive: whatever happened to the character of Tony Almeida in 24?

Avalon Blvd: singing again, this time as Bryan Ferry.

The traffic is heavier than ever but I am getting closer to LA.  There is the Goodyear blimp, tethered and apparently being prepared for a flight.

Past a sign: ‘The Martin L Ganz Memorial highway’.  Last year I took to investigating the stories behind these stretches of highway and inevitably they are full of tragedy.  Officer Ganz’s story is no exception: he pulled over a car for some minor traffic violation and as  walked toward it, the driver got out and gunned him down.  Officer Ganz’s twelve year old nephew was riding with him in the car that day and witnessed everything.

Police Officers should never be in that sort of danger: it was not as if he was making some dangerous raid on a gang’s HQ, he was stopping someone for a traffic offence. I am glad that he is honoured in this way and that I can tell his story here.

The final part of the journey is actually the easiest and in no time I am pulling up outside the Fox Car Rental Office.  It is 6.45 and I am in plenty of time.  I could have left later after all, but then I would have hit even heavier traffic and who knows what would have happened then.

The shuttle bus arrives quickly takes me to terminal three, where I check in and clear security without delay.

I settle myself into a seat and continue writing.  I have a long wait, but it is a beautiful morning outside: the sun has risen and the sky is blue.  In the distance the Hollywood sign stands proudly over the city.

I buy a bottle of orange juice, some fruit and a sandwich for my breakfast and wait for the flight to be called.

Spirit Airlines: what can one say?  Actually the service is very efficient, friendly and quick.  Once on board we are packed in.  The seats are very close together and they do not recline, so you are bolt upright for the entire flight, knees against the seat in front.  Needless to say, there is no snack or beverage service (unless you want to pay for it).

Before departure the Captain’s comes over the intercom as he makes his pre-flight broadcast: ‘Hi ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Spirit flight 424, with service to Minneapolis.  It is a lovely day in the Twin Cities…..if you are a penguin!’

I watch a bit of Field of Dreams, which I have downloaded to my phone, but soon am dozing off.  The last thing I see before I fall asleep is the magnificent snow-capped peaks of the Rockies.

When I wake again the terrain has changed, and we are flying over the extraordinary circular fields of the Midwest.

Midwest fields

Midwest fields

The plane begins its descent into Minneapolis airport and I can see how thick the snow is here.  When we land it is obvious that this has been a major fall and that it must have happened sometime ago as the ice is hard packed.

Once the plane has arrived at the gate and as everyone stands, I can see that the locals returning home are ready for this: woollen hats, scarves and gloves get pulled out of bags and are donned.  As I leave the plane the sudden chill blast hits me.

I follow the signs to baggage claim where I am met by my dear, dear friend Dennis Babcock who is the reason that I am here today.

As we stand at the carousel, we chat about the project that we are working on (more of that in a moment).  As Dennis talks I see my main suitcase coming round towards me, but as I watch another man takes it off, passes it to his mother and they start to leave.

I interrupt Dennis in full flow and run up to the family.  On checking we discover that it is indeed my case.  Thank heavens they were standing on my side of the carousel, if not I would never have noticed them, and they would have been in for a surprise when they got home: ‘Mama, why have you bought a top hat?’

Once both of my cases are safely reunited with me, we walk to the car and head into town.

To Begin With

Dennis is a theatre producer. I have known him for many years and he has always said that he would like to do a show with me one day.

Last year that process started to happen.  Dennis is a devout and committed Christian, and has long had a dream to create a show based on Charles Dickens’s little book The Life Of Our Lord, which he wrote for his children.

A few years ago the project began to move on from being a dream, towards reality.  Dennis found a playwright to create a script and last year we all worked together on a series of rehearsed readings to get public feedback.

In the intervening period Dennis has been frantically searching for funding and now the project is ready to go.  The show will open, with me as Dickens, next February right here in Minneapolis.

As we drive away from the airport Dennis brings me up to speed with all of the developments and in no time we are at the Millenium hotel in downtown Minneapolis.

I go to my room where I have just under an hour before having a meeting with the show’s designer and Jeffery Hatcher, the writer and director of the piece.

The time passes quickly and before I know it there is a call from the front desk telling me that Nayna is here for our meeting.  Nayna is designing the show and is here to measure me for my costume and, yes, for my wig.

I have never had to wear a wig before, except once for a ‘do famous people’s descendents look like their forebears’ photo shoot many years ago.

Which is which?

Which is which?

We chat for a while until Dennis arrives, closely followed by Jeffrey.  We discuss how the character of Dickens is going to look, should he have a beard, how long should it be, or do I need to be clean-shaven for the show (a subject that has caused much alarm to Liz, since it was first mooted a few months ago).

Nayna measures my head in every direction and, once satisfied, leaves the rest of us to our evening.

Dennis is taking us out to dinner so that we can discuss the project in a convivial setting and has chosen a nearby steak house. ‘We can walk, it is only four blocks’.  I look out of the window at the hard-packed ice on the sidewalks and remember Dennis telling me that the temperature is dropping to -20.  I don’t really relish the idea of a walk.

However I am forgetting where we are:  Minneapolis has a huge network of skywalks – covered walkways that take you anywhere in the city.  After a ten minute walk, we arrive at the restaurant, warm, dry and in good spirits.

The steaks are delicious and the conversation is superb.  When the plates have been cleared away we start to talk about the rehearsal period for the show.

Working back from the opening date of February 19, we have to find blocks of time during which Jeffrey and I can work.  This process is complicated somewhat by my commitments in the UK, but we find a suitable week when Jeffrey can fly to London and work with me there.

Diaries suitably annotated, we say good-bye to our waitress (Dennis, ever the good producer, has furnished her with brochures about the show and made the introductions), and we leave the restaurant.

Back in the hotel, I say goodbye to the creative team behind this exciting project and go back to my room.

‘To Begin With’ is going to be an extraordinary experience for me.  Most – well, all actually – of my shows are written, directed and designed by me.  I do my own thing and live or die by the consequences. But with this project I am going to be part of a team, an ensemble.  There are people who have invested large sums of money to make this happen; there is Dennis’s life-long dream; there are Jeffrey’s carefully crafted words;  there will be costumes and make up and wigs;  there is marketing and promotion.  And, when I say the opening lines next February I will be responsible for all of them.

It is a new challenge for me, and a very exciting one.

Under Californian Skies

Upon waking my first job to pack Top Hole away: all of that work and now the show is getting shipped back to England.

Kathy has generously said that she will pack all of the costume and props, as well as a few other things that I don’t need on the road anymore, and get them sent.  I am to leave this box of goodies at the front desk and Brenda, the festival’s treasurer, will pick them up later this morning.

I write my blog, and post a few pictures online.  My brother Ian has nominated me for the black and white photograph challenge, which means posting a monochrome picture every day for five days.

I’ve decided to post pictures from the trip, so I need to look out for suitable subjects over the next few days.

Outside, the weather has changed and there is a strong wind whipping round.  The sky is filled with dust from the arid country, and there are palm fronds lying in the streets.

I am moving slowly as I feel very tired, achy and fatigued after an intense two days of performing here.  In truth the thought of performing again today doesn’t appeal but I know I need to motivate myself to do a good job.

I know nothing about the next venue but hope that it provides some sort of spark: a small audience in a non-descript room will not cut it today!

I get everything packed up and make a couple of trips to the car before having my breakfast and checking in for my early flight tomorrow morning.  I am due to fly out of Los Angeles on Spirit Air.  Spirit is a very low budget airline that makes you pay for everything, even a normal sized carry-on bag, so I have to be very careful to do everything by the book, and not incur extra charges.

As I get ready to leave a lady calls my name, I do not recognise the petite, blonde woman in blue jeans and a khaki denim jacket, until I suddenly realise it is Queen Victoria!  We chat about the shows and say our goodbyes.

I set my Sat Nav for Newport Beach and I am on my way.

The drive is extraordinary: the wind is so strong that I can hear the car’s body being shot blasted by the dust storms and can feel it coming through the air con system (and into my throat – I close all of the air vents).

On the road there is tumbleweed being blown across the carriageways.  There have been professional moments when metaphoric tumbleweed seems to have rolled across the stage but I’ve never seen it for real before.

The road takes me through the mountains and the terrain is wild and stark.  I can imagine the cowboys of the Spaghetti Westerns riding through these hills.

The Wild West

The Wild West

Today’s venue is Roger’s Gardens in Newport Beach.  I arrive a full hour early.  My initial perception is that it is nothing more than a large garden centre and my heart rather sinks.

A few years ago I performed at a similarly large, busy venue and the shows were always just an added on event in the massive scheme of things.  The audiences were never large and I never enjoyed it.

Here I fear may be the same and in my tired state it is the last thing I need.

I decide to drive the fifteen minutes to my hotel in the hope that I can get an early check in and lie down for a little bit.

I am lucky and have forty minutes or so relaxing in a comfortable room, before heading back to Rogers Gardens.

In a small shopping mall next to the hotel there is a formal clothes hire shop, with a wonderful name: Friar Tux.

Another thing that attracts my notice is the tree lined central reservation.  The trees are going golden and red.  Somehow I never expected to see fall colours in California.

The car park at Rogers Gardens is very full now, but I find a space and take my costumes and props from the boot of the car.

I have no idea who I am meeting or where to go, so I just walk into the midst of bedding plants, hanging baskets and all of the other flora and fauna you would expect to find in such an establishment.

Almost at once I see a notice board advertising forthcoming events and I notice that my good friends, and event sponsors from Massachusettes, the Vallencourts are here today.  What a coincidence, it will be wonderful to see them.

I am standing at the top of a steep slope and as I look around I notice at the foot of the hill there is a rug, a chair, a stool and a hat stand. How strange: those are the props for my show.  I assume they are waiting there to be collected and taken to my venue.

Then it begins to dawn on me for the first time:  the slope is covered with benches; there are stage lights being rigged up; the props are framed by poinsettias and Christmas trees.  Good grief: I am performing outside!

The stage

The stage

Under Californian skies

Under Californian skies

Back in Riverside I had wished for something extra from today’s venue but I not expected this.

As I am taking all of this in, a tall smiling man welcomes me and introduces himself as Michael.  He asks if everything looks ok and then is on a small radio, letting lots of unseen people know that I have arrived.

Within minutes I am meeting Karen, who has been assigned to look after me for the day and getting me whatever I need; and Hedda who is ‘in charge of Christmas’ and has booked me to be here.  When Hedda introduces herself it turns out that she is from England too, and her parents live in Henley-on-Thames, about 20 miles from us.

The AV guys are setting up the sound system and there is lots of ‘ONE, ONE, ONE. ONE TWO, ONE TWO. ONE, ONE’ going on.

Karen takes me to an admin building and shows my dressing room, a rather elegant board room with lovely paintings in it.  She fusses over me checking constantly if I have everything I need.

I go back to the stage area to do a sound check.  The microphone that I am given is the sort that sit on top of your ear.  I know from experience that they always fall off but in the current circumstances there is really no choice, as a normal lapel mic will do nothing but pick up the strong wind, which is still blowing.

All I can do is tape the microphone to my temple and hope for the best.

Back in my board room I am just getting ready to change when the President of Rogers Gardens comes to say hello.  Everyone is very excited about my being there and about the show.  We chat for a while and then he leaves me to complete my preparations.

It turns out that they have never staged a theatrical event in the amphitheatre before.  They have used the space for gardening demonstrations and lectures but have never charged the public to attend a show.  The success of ticket sales has been amazing and Hedda is already talking about next year.

The audience are so keen that they were already lining up at the check in table, when I first arrived ninety minutes before the start time.

As the clock ticks round towards one, Karen escorts me to the back of the stage (a large box hedge) and we wait as Hedda makes the introductions.

I walk onto the stage and look at the audience looking at me.  They don’t know what to expect from this show, which is a coincidence as neither do I.

There sound system is very good so there are no issues about having to project harder for an outside performance, but there are a few practical issues I must attend to.  The stage is at ground level and the audience are above me, so I must keep my head up as much as possible:  unfortunately the harsh Californian sun is right behind the auditorium and shining into my eyes, making me squint.

The show goes well and the audience soon get into the spirit of it.  I am working hard and trying to keep the microphone hooked over my ear.  The tape peels off early in the show and, as I had suspected, my lobe is not enough to hold it in place.  I think it must be the case that I don’t have theatrical lobes.

I can feel myself getting hot and suddenly realise that it is more than just the energy of the performance: I am getting sunburned.  If I come back again I must remember to specify sun screen as a rider to my contract.

When I finish and have taken the applause I run back to the board room to change costume and then go to my signing table, which is in a small bandstand (originally from Disneyland).

Near to my chair and table there is a wonderful Christmas display, featuring models of Mr Pickwick, Mr Micawber and a shocked lady (Mrs Bardell?).  There had been more of the figures on stage and Hedda explains that they had originally been part of a Harrods window display in the 1940s.

Harrods figures

Harrods figures

There is a large line waiting for me and everyone is so enthusiastic about the show.  Many comment on how red the top of my head has gone.

One very kind gentleman tells me that he has watched Patrick Stewart’s one man version of A Christmas Carol on many occasions and much prefers mine, for the way I involve the audience in the story.  He is the second person in the last few days to compare me favourably to Stewart’s show and it makes me feel very good.

Hedda has underestimated how popular book sales are at my shows and her entire stock sells out very quickly.  One lady has purchased 15 copies as gifts for all of the teachers at her school.  As I sign for her, the goodwill engendered by the show, is beginning to wear thin further back in the queue.

When everything has been signed and I have smiled for many photographs, it is time for a bit of rest.  Karen brings me cookies, coffee and water.  I sit in the board room trying to relax.

The sound man pops his head in and we try to find a better solution for keeping the mic in place.

I feel very weary now and I really miss having an energising shower before getting ready for the second show.  I’m aware that the top of my head is glowing and that my throat is a bit tense.  I must be careful not to overdo the vocals tonight.

The second show is at 5, after sunset, and the gardens are looking spectacular with every tree draped with hundreds of white lights.

Christmas lights

Christmas lights

The temperature has dropped noticeably and I hope that the audience is well wrapped up.  I consider wearing my thick scarf throughout the whole performance.  I certainly won’t be taking my coat off and flinging it into the audience.

As start time nears Karen takes me back to the stage, Hedda makes her announcement.  As she does, I spot Gary and Judy Vallencourt sitting nearby, so I go and give them a hug of welcome.

‘Please welcome Gerald Charles Dickens!’

The performing area i well lit by the spotlights, and with the thousands of Christmas lights surrounding us, the atmosphere is amazing.  Unfortunately the Rogers Gardens electrical system is struggling to cope with the extra strain put on it.  One bank of theatre lights trip the circuit-breakers and for most of the show only the other set is working.

Again the audience start quiet, unsure of what to expect but soon come round and it is another great success.

There is one moment when I am completely stopped in my tracks:  one of the Harrods figures on stage – a small boy – has the face of my nephew Guy when he was about seven years old.  It is uncanny!

Back in my gazebo and the signing session goes well again, until the last guests leave and it is just Karen, Hedda and me.

It has been a remarkable day, and against all expectations, I have thoroughly enjoyed it.  The staff at Rogers have been professional, enthusiastic, helpful and completely charming.  The experience of performing in the open air has been amazing and especially under the night sky.

It has been the first time for all of us, and we have all learned lessons from the day, but it has certainly proved very popular with the audiences.

I get changed and pack all of my belongings up.  I thank Karen for her superb attentiveness throughout the day and load my car up.

Hedda has reservations at a nearby restaurant and has invited me to join her and the Vallencourts, which I am very happy to do.

The dinner is so much fun, and so relaxing.  It is truly wonderful to catch up with Gary and Judy.  In July this year Gary had a major heart attack and has undergone surgery since, but he is still his ebullient, loud, fun, boisterous self and Judy is still raising her eyes to the Heavens every time he speaks.  They are good friends and I am so glad we have time together.

At the end of the evening we all say our goodbyes and Hedda promises that she will be in touch with Byers Choice first thing in the morning to try and get me back for next year.  It looks as if there may be a West Coast swing to my tours in the future.

Back at the hotel I join Gary and Judy for a nightcap, before we all go to our rooms.  It is another early start in the morning and I set the alarm for 4.45, before turning the lights out and lying down to sleep.

Top Hole, At Last

On waking up, still somewhat on eastern time, I am able to pace around my room doing a complete run through of Top Hole which I am to perform this evening.

Suddenly it has reached the point where everything works.  I don’t need any comfort-blanket glances at the script and both acts run smoothly.  It is always a great moment in the rehearsal period when this happens and as far as today’s show is concerned it couldn’t have been more perfectly timed.

Due to the rehearsal I am later to breakfast today and it is very busy, but I find a table and have pancakes with the complete works.

In my room I start to prepare my costumes for the day ahead, which is a logistical challenge. I need one to wear for A Christmas Carol, then one to change into before my signing period.  I will need a third shirt to wear for the early part of the evening, and then two shirts for Top Hole (a change in the intermission will inevitably be required). I hope there is a laundry at my next hotel, for I am going to have a goodly collection to be cleaned.

I pack everything up into separate suit-carriers and lay them all out on the bed ready to be used at the appropriate moment.

Costumes all ready to go

Costumes all ready to go

I get into the first costume, put on my hat and scarf and walk out into the Californian morning.  It must be said that a thick woollen scarf is not generally the attire favoured by Southern Californians and I attract a few strange looks as I walk.

Californian attire

Californian attire

Why walking, why no Babs this morning?  The venue for my lunch performance of A Christmas Carol is the huge Convention Center which is situated right behind the hotel.

There are many serious business folk wearing their own form of costume heading towards the main entrance and they are joined by a smattering of Victorians.  We all converge on the main steps in front of the entrance and a move into the building as one mass.

Our event is in a goodly-sized ballroom on the lower level and, as at yesterday’s events, the whole board is present, busily making preparations.  The room is laid out with round tables and a stage at one end.  There are two theatrical spot lights trained on the acting area and it looks as if it will be a very nice room to play.

Kathy gathers everyone round to go through the itinerary for the lunch:  The guests will arrive at 11.30; the Queen will be introduced and welcomed; the salad and main course will be served; as dessert is being eaten I will be introduced and begin my show.

‘Wait!’ I say, ‘does that mean I miss out on dessert? ‘ I’m joking, as I wouldn’t eat a creamy rich dessert immediately before performing anyway.

One of the other volunteers chimes straight in with his own joke: ‘Don’t worry, it looks as if you’ve eaten plenty of desserts in your time!’  Ouch.

As per the schedule the guests begin to arrive at half past eleven. There are lots of people that I have met at previous events, either here in Riverside or when I used to perform in a luxurious resort north west of LA called the Ojai Valley Inn.

Guests are genuinely glad that I am back in the area, which is very special.  I have always felt a very strong bond to Riverside.

Some people have been following my blog, including the duty manager at the Convention Center.  He makes a point of introducing himself and shaking my hand.

The bustle continues and I catch the strangest snippets of conversation: for instance you would never have expected to see Prince Albert hurrying after a Victorian lady, calling out to her: ‘I must return your casserole dishes!’

At 12 everyone is seated and Bruce makes the announcement to rise and welcome the Queen.  In comes the royal party led by a magnificent major domo in full Highland attire.  Ed has been playing the role for many years at the festival, and he commands respect and awe.

The young Victoria and Albert follow on and the party is completed by a lady in waiting and an equerry.

Sat with the Royal party

Sat with the Royal party

Attending the Queen

Attending the Queen

Once seated we can all begin.

I am sat next to Albert (Tim), whom I have known for many years and have bumped into at other Dickens events.  He is great company with many stories to tell, including how he almost burnt down Miriam Margoyles’ house in London.

During lunch is one of those ‘two countries separated by a common language’ moments.  There is no butter on the table, so I ask our server for some.  He looks blankly at me.  ‘Could we have some butter?’  ‘Some what?’, ‘butter’, ‘No, I still don’t understand’, ‘butter’, still a blank look.  I realise that I need to flatten the consonants more: ‘buddr’.  ‘Oh, buddr, sure.’

Liz went through a similar experience in Kansas City a few years ago.  On that occasion the issue was over a Tuna sandwich.  The English pronunciation is ‘Tyuna’ for the Missouri folks it was ‘Toona’.

Dessert served (not for me), it is time to begin.  Before the show however I am presented with a special certificate by Cheryl Brown, a local state representative,        honouring my contribution to entertainment and education in Riverside over many years.

It is very moving and I had no idea the presentation was to happen.  I have known Cheryl since my first visits to the area and she has always been a passionate supporter of the festival and of my performances.

The show itself is, I have to say, a triumph.  I was right about the room, it works so well.  Every part of the performance hits the mark and I really feel a surge of energy today.

There is only one small error.  Instead of saying  ‘Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed…’ somehow it comes out as: ‘….one last prayer to have his face reversed’.  A strange thought.

When I am finished and taking my bows, a student appears and presents me with a huge bunch of flowers.  I’ve never had a bunch of flowers after a show before and I am on the point of welling up!

Flowers

Flowers

When everything has settled down, we all sit while the Royal party is processed out and then I make a dash for the little conference room next door to change out of my damp performing costume, into an identical, but dry, one for the signing session.

There is a good queue waiting when I am ready and I sit, sign, pose and chat for forty minutes or so.

Signing

Signing

It is about 3.15 and Barbara is picking me up to take me to the country club at 4.30, so I have a brief period of down time.  I get straight back to the hotel and throw off the costume.

I have a shower and try to wash away Scrooge and A Christmas Carol.  The performance was so intense that I am still buzzing with the memories but I have to get rid of it and inhabit the world of PG Wodehouse.

At 4.30 and with all my Top Hole accoutrements, I wait on the pavement for Babs to arrive. She is a few minutes late and all in a fluster.  She had gone home and dropped off to sleep, woken only by her sister calling to ask if she needed help hooking up her Victorian costume.

It is no great issue and we get to the Oak Quarry Golf Club in plenty of time.  As the name suggests the course has been constructed in an old quarry and the setting looks incredible.  High, jagged, harsh rocky outcrops towering above the lush green fairways.  It is how golf will look if we ever inhabit the moon and cultivate courses there.

Oak Quarry Golf Club

Oak Quarry Golf Club

Against the large windows overlooking the course there is a stage ready for me.  On it  is a canvas bag with hickory shafted golf clubs which have been lent to us for the show.

I fuss around, setting the stage exactly how I want it, but mainly still trying to get rid of A Christmas Carol and Dickens.  The sound check helps and I run through the opening of the Top Hole script for longer than is really necessary.

The golf club staff are very friendly and helpful and soon everything is ready.  Now I just have to remember all of the lines.

The guests begin to arrive and many of them have been at all of the events over the two days.  I am introduced to one lady who I don’t recognise; she is a member of the local PG Wodehouse Society.

Oh my!  I have performed the show in England a few times, and have dealt with the society as I created the show, but none of them have seen, or passed judgement on it yet.  I suddenly feel a huge sense of responsibility to do full justice to the author and his work.

At 6 o’clock The whole process of welcoming the Royal party is repeated.  Ed, the major domo, takes a seat near to the stage and I am delighted, because he can feature in the show.

Dinner is a cafeteria style buffet and we are called up table by table.  I, being on the Royal table, get to go up first.  The golf club have lain on British dishes and there is a tasty looking shepherd’s pie, which I chose.

Once the main course is cleared away and dessert is served, I absent myself to change into the costume of The Oldest Member and get ready to perform.

Although PG Wodehouse is best known for his hilarious Jeeves and Wooster novels, he also write thirty three short golfing stories and it is from four of these that I have created the show.

In the books The Oldest Member sits in the clubhouse bar telling long rambling anecdotes to anyone who comes near.  My idea was to use the character to start telling one of the stories, but he becomes increasing muddled and ends up telling the four tales, interwoven with each other.

‘On the broad terrace, outside his palace’, I begin.  The first story is set in the mystical, ancient land of Oom.  The King spots a gardener behaving strangely and this where I use Ed, in his Highland costume: ‘..he saw a stranger bearded fellow, with bushy eyebrows and a face like a walnut.  ‘who is that?’  ‘It seems a harsh thing to say of any man, your majesty, but he is a Scotsman!’

Everybody laughs and I have them onside.

The show goes very well indeed and the lines stay firmly in place.  There is a slight glitch towards the end of the second half and I don’t break into one of the stories with another when I should, but it doesn’t affect the overall running of the script and is easily retrievable.

I am very pleased with the way it has gone.

Lots of people come up to me and say how much they have enjoyed it.  The lady from the Wodehouse society?  She thinks I should be touring all of the WS chapters throughout America.  Oh, my what a huge weight off my shoulders.

I am ready to get back to the hotel and pack up all of my belongings, before saying good bye to the clubhouse staff and indeed to all of the Riverside Dickens Festival folk.

It has been a marvellous two day visit and hopefully I will see them all again soon.

In the hotel I have a glass of wine and a warmed-up chocolate chunk cookie (after all, I do like my desserts) and ponder the evening’s events.

Top Hole has dominated the early part of this tour and I am very glad that I will not to have to worry about it any longer.  Does that mean no more line learning?  No.  I now have to re-learn Dickens’s great ghost story The Signalman, which I will be performing in Omaha in a few days time.

No rest for the wicked and even as I ride up to in the lift I am already muttering ‘Halloa! below there…..’

This is no time for a proper rehearsal however, and I am soon in bed and ready to sleep.

Doing My Best

And so, just as my body clock was getting accustomed to Eastern Standard Time, I suddenly lose another three hours.  My body thinks it is 7am, the clock thinks it is 4.  Sadly the clock is correct.

I read, write and doze until I see 6 o’clock when I get up and shower.  Breakfast is served from 6.30 at the Hyatt and I need to be there early, as I’m being picked up at 7.15.

After I have finished my breakfast I go to my room and change into costume before returning to the ground floor level.

I am joined in the lift by a lady who completely ignores the fact that I am in frock coat, fancy waistcoat and carrying a top hat.  She is, however, completely enamoured with my cane. As we reach the lobby she says darkly: ‘I’d like a cane like that with a sword inside it……’

At precisely 7.15 I meet Dickens Festival board member Barbara Lara outside the hotel and we set off in her car.  Barbara is to be my chauffeur during the next two days.

My first show in Riverside is at The Martin Luther King High School.  I am due to perform A Christmas Carol to a group of students and that can be a very intimidating experience.  High school students on their own territory tend to be a very honest audience: if they don’t like something they don’t hide the fact.

Barbara is a great student of Riverside history and enlivens the drive with anecdotes.  She points out the old town whorehouse and explains how all of the oranges in the USA are descended from the four original orange trees grown here.

We get to the school in good time.  At first I thought we were pulling into a shopping mall’s parking lot but no it is the school.  There are students all over the place; it is a hive of activity.

King High School

King High School

We find a parking space and go to the main office to sign in.  I am given a badge to stick onto my costume.

It's me!

It’s me!

Everywhere on the walls are good, improving motivational quotes: ‘If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing best’ is one I like especially.

While the official details are being sorted out a girl runs into the office and says: ‘Are you Mr Dickens?  Oh, I so wanted to come to your show today, but I have another class.  I just really wanted to say hi!’  And then she is gone.

Suddenly I am beginning to feel a little more confident about the show.

Barbara and I try to navigate our way through the myriad buildings.  Eventually we find the arts block but still don’t know where to go.  There are two students sat in a corridor.  Barbara asks for directions and one of the students jumps up and says, ‘Oh I’ll take you there, follow me.’  We hadn’t asked her to take us, she just naturally wanted to be helpful.  The students we have seen are a great credit to the school.

After a short wait Kathy Wright, another festival board member, arrives in full costume and we meet up with the head of theatre at the school.  She leads us to the stage which is full of timber, as the set for the next show is in the process of being built.

Fortunately there is plenty of space in front of the main curtains for me to perform, meaning that the work in progress can be hidden from the audience.

I poke around back stage: it is magical, as it always is in a busy theatre.  There are workshops full of off-cuts of timber and plywood, there are pain stores with brushes hanging to dry, there are costume rails, lights, cables, props and furniture. I am like a child in a sweet shop.

Back Stage

Back Stage

Watching paint dry

Watching paint dry

The auditorium itself, with a capacity of three hundred and fifteen, is a nice size – so often school theatres are big, cavernous and lacking in atmosphere.  The only issue in here is the height of the roof.  Apparently in the original plans they were going to build a balcony, but budgets were slashed and when it comes to a choice between the arts and sports, the football field will always win through.

Two more students, Josh and Chris, turn up to look after the technicalities.  We decide that I don’t need a microphone and we sort out how to light the stage.  I always enjoy meeting and working with the tech guys in school theatres.  Usually they are extremely committed and have an attitude that almost amounts to ownership of the space.  Josh and Chris are no exception to this rule.

There is now an hour or so to wait before the show starts.  We all sit in the auditorium chatting.  Kathy used to be a school principal, as well as a schools superintendent and talks about the education system passionately.  She mentions that the school is about  ten years old, before adding wryly, that you can tell by the build up of gum on the sidewalks.

Chatting prior to the show

Chatting prior to the show

As 12 o’clock nears, the students begin to file in.  There is noise and spirit and energy.

When everyone is in, Bruce Spieler (yes, you guessed it: from the festival board), introduces me and I take to the stage.

I have no idea how this will run, but all I can do is heed the advice hanging in the office: ‘If a thing is worth doing it is worth doing best’

At first there is silence from the audience: don’t panic, keep concentrating.  Once the characters start making an appearance there is more response and by the time Mrs Cratchit fetches her Christmas pudding, there is loud laughter throughout the hall.

The show runs through its most dramatic phase and on to the joy of Christmas morning before finishing with ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’

I mentioned before that a high school audience will let you know if they don’t like a show; well, they also will let you know if they do like a show and boy, do they like it.

After the applause has died away I am invited to the stage to take questions: a forest of hands go up straight away, and I spend a very enjoyable thirty minutes answering a wide variety of queries.

Answering questions

Answering questions

Some ask about the show, some ask about the acting profession, some ask for advice, some just pass comment on the show: all are bright, intelligent and perceptive.  On the evidence of this morning the future in Riverside is in good hands.

After the Q&A I sign programmes and pose for photographs until all of the students leave for their lunch and I get back into Barbara’s car for the ride back to the hotel.

I buy a sandwich and crisps (chips) from the foyer and go to my room.  I hang all of my costume up to air and eat my lunch before considering what to do next.  I should do a run through of Top Hole, but the early start is catching up with me, so I decide to rest instead.

After a welcome lie down I shower, get back into costume and meet Barbara once more for the ride to the evening show.

Babs is now in full Victorian costume and her crinoline has been forced into the driving seat.  At least if we have a crash she has her own personal airbag system to keep her safe.

Tonight I am performing at the Evergreen Masonic Center where Kathy and the rest are already setting up as we arrive.

The performance is to be a recreation of one of Charles Dickens’ most notorious readings: Sikes and Nancy.  The show uses Dickens’ own script and tells the story of the events leading up to and including the brutal murder of Nancy.  It is a powerful piece of work and one that I get immense amount satisfaction from performing.

I am shown the room where I will be doing the show, it is very atmospheric, with a single light shining down on the lectern where I will be stationed.  Once more I will not need a microphone in what is a small room.

Spooky

Spooky

I look at my watch and realise that when I first arrived in California I had set it an hour fast.  I go to change the time but the shaft that moves the hands has broken.  I am very sad as this watch holds sentimental value for me and I have travelled with it for many years.  I am sure that I can get it repaired when I get home, but it is an upsetting moment.

The time passes slowly and I seem to be stationary in the middle of a whirl of activity.  Books are laid out ready for sale, a desert and cheese buffet is set up as is the reservations table for people to collect up their tickets from.

The sales table is decorated with beautiful arrangements of fir and Union Jacks.  Unfortunately the company, presumably somewhere in the far east, that makes the flags, doesn’t know which way up they should be:  always a major bugbear of mine.

Wrong way up

Wrong way up

As the start time draws nearer the guests begin to arrive and there are some dear friends among them, in particular Carolyn Grant who founded this festival way back when, and who was responsible for first bringing me here.  Her son Doug is on the board now and we all three have a very nice time conversing.

As the 7o’clock start time approaches, the audience are shown into the room.  I take a seat by the door and we all rise as Queen Victoria is announced and processes, with Albert, to her seat.

Bruce makes my introductory announcement and I am ready to start.  I begin with a bit of background to Dickens’s reading tours and specifically his decision to adapt Sikes and Nancy.  He was unsure if it would be accepted by the audiences on the day, so he staged a small private reading for his friends and family.  That try-out was on November 14, 1868 and now, exactly 146 years later, to the very day, I am performing the same words.

Once I get into the reading itself the passion and violence of the piece take over.  I am sweating profusely and the page of the reading script is spattered with drops of perspiration, making the ink run.  The shock of the audience as the very final line is delivered is palpable and, as is so often the way with Sikes and Nancy, there is a stunned moment of silence before the applause starts.

When we are all finished we adjourn to the hall where the food has been laid out and every one sits at tables chatting.  The show has left a powerful impression on the audience.  The other great topic of conversation is Top Hole tomorrow night.  People are really very excited about it, so I hope that all of the line learning pays off.

I sign a few books and programmes, shake a few hands, respond to the nice compliments of the guests and generally mingle.  Gradually the hall empties and Barbara is soon at hand to take me back to the hotel.

I sit in the lobby for a while writing up the day’s notes, having a slice of cheesecake and a glass of wine, before returning to my room and climbing, aching and exhausted, into bed.

A Day for Imagery

Today is a really early start:  the alarm goes off at 4.45 and I am straight out of bed to pack.  I know, from warnings given, as well as from previous experience, that the traffic into Boston can be a nightmare.  My flight is at 9, so I will be hitting the worst of the morning rush hour.

Following my losses when leaving Norfolk I make sure I pack very methodically this morning, checking and re-checking that I have everything with me. Phone, chargers, wallet (with all credit cards), two sets of costume, top hat, cane, scarf, scripts and books are all accounted for.

Of course it is still dark as I roll my cases to the car.  The sky is clear with stars shining brightly and the shimmering disk of the moon against the black, looking like a Pearly King’s button .  The clear sky means a frost, so I have to leave the car running for a while to let the windows clear.

I had wanted to get going by 5.45 and am actually on the road at 5.25, so things are going well so far.

Even on the freeway here in Nashua the traffic builds up every time a new road joins and soon the road is a mass of constantly moving traffic.  Nobody overtakes or changes lanes because there is no point.

As I look down the road the hundreds of tail lights remind me of the World War 1 art installation at the Tower of London, that George was so interested in yesterday. In my mind every little red glow takes on the same significance as the individual poppies in the moat. Once that image is in my mind it is almost scary when suddenly all of the ‘poppies’ intensify in colour, as some delay causes everyone to brake hard.

Ever closer to Boston and ever heavier traffic.  As I pass those good old Essex towns of Chelmsford and Billarica (the English version is Billericay), we slow to a crawl.  I still have plenty of time and I can use the slowness of the traffic to run through Top Hole in my head.

I get to Logan airport and drop the car off before taking the bus to terminal A.  When I check in I stay at the computer terminal after my boarding pass has been printed, waiting for a second one.  I am so used to having a connecting flight, that I forget that today’s flight is non-stop.

Once checked in I find a restaurant and settle down to breakfast and start to write the daily blog.  Unfortunately I didn’t make many notes yesterday, so I am scrambling through my memory to remember what happened.

When I am finished, I go to my gate to await my flight to Los Angeles.  All of the announcements are made in English and Spanish and it is interesting to look at my fellow passengers and divide them into New Englanders and Californian.  There is a definite difference

I mentioned in a previous blog that I rather missed the days when every flight was made on a 737.  Today my nostalgic wishes are answered.  There is the dear old familiar snub nose and the engines, with their flat bottomed cowlings, slung way ahead of the wings.

Once we are onboard there is a delay, and it is so nice not to have to worry about a connection at the other end.  Eventually the captain comes over the intercom to tell us that a fuel pump is not working, but it should be ok shortly.  I’m not sure if that’s very reassuring.

We wait a bit longer and the captain comes back on:  the technicians have discovered that it is a sensor issue and the pump is working fine, they just can’t tell it is working in the cockpit.  Everyone up front seems happy, so we are ready to go.  I have the thought that if the sensor is not working and the pump DOES fail, then presumably the crew won’t know that either.  Probably best not to think about it.

I have downloaded The Da Vinci Code on my phone, so settle into my seat and start watching. I have a coffee and order a cheese/fruit plate for $6 but the time passes slowly.

The film finishes at about the same time as my phone battery runs out, so I read for a bit before trying to get a little nap.  It doesn’t work terribly well.

The flight tracker is showing another four hours to go, so I scroll through the film choices in the plane’s system and chose Jersey Boys.   It’s a good movie but, boy, does Frankie Valli’s high voice cut straight through my head like a knife.

Flying over.... somewhere

Flying over…. somewhere

At last the flight is into its final stages and we are starting our descent into the smog covered metropolis of Los Angeles.  I haven’t been here for a few years but the sprawling city is very familiar to me.

Because of our delay in leaving Boston we are late arriving, and the flight attendants ask that seven passengers who have tight connections be allowed to deplane before everyone else.

As soon as the plane stops at the gate everyone stands up and blocks the aisles with their bags, making it almost impossible for the passengers in a hurry to get through.  It seems very selfish.

I’m quite near the back of the plane and it is fascinating to watch everyone getting off.  There are three seats on each side: the six passengers in each row slowly filter their way to the middle and then are released, unchecked, towards the front off the aircraft.  It is like watching grains of sand falling through an hour glass.

Los Angeles airport is so busy compared to Boston, let alone Norfolk and Knoxville.  It is a huge seething mass of people. I get my bags and then go to wait for a bus to take me to my rental car office.

It is now that I can see how sensible the Boston system of car rental is, where all of the companies are housed in one building and are serviced by a single bus route.

At LAX each office is separate and each has its own van, so it is a matter of waiting at the curb side until the correct one comes past.  On the evidence of this afternoon Fox Car Rental only has one van for it seems an age before it arrives.  As we slowly circle the other concourses we drive past the iconic Theme Building, which looks like something out of The Jetsons.

LAX Theme Building

LAX Theme Building

The Fox office is a long way from the terminal building, which I must remember when I drop the car off in a few days time; I must build in plenty of time to get to my flight.

Once all of the car paperwork is completed, the agent takes me out to the garage but can’t find the size of vehicle that we’d booked, so I am upgraded to a people carrier (a large one in English terms, a small van in USA terms).  I’m glad to have something a little bigger as I head out onto the LA road network.

There is so much traffic covering so many lanes.  It makes my Boston drive this morning seem positively sleepy.    The drivers are much more aggressive than on the east coast and, competitive too: no quarter given or taken.  You really have to be aware of what is going on all around you as people are changing lanes at high speed all of the time.

My destination is Riverside, where I have been a few times before.  It is a drive of some two hours and the traffic never really lets up, although eventually it loses the manic quality of LA itself.

A complete run of Top Hole brings me nicely to the exit for Market Street and I am soon in the Hyatt Place hotel, checking in.

Once in my room (a lovely mini-suite), I find a large basket of fruit from the Riverside Dickens Festival organisers and my Top Hole costume, which I had shipped out prior to the event. There is also a note inviting me to dinner at 5pm in the hotel across the street.

A lovely welcome

A lovely welcome

I have time for a quick shower and a change of clothes before walking to The Marriott and meeting up with many old friends from my previous visits.

We all chat about the forthcoming events and the festival itself, which is actually in February to celebrate Charles Dickens’ birthday.  I have a lovely steak which is a real treat after a long day in the air and finish with a coffee.  Dinner is over by 7.30.

I know I mustn’t go to bed too early, or I will be waking at 2am or something silly, so I sit up, watch some television and write the days blog before giving in to the inevitable and getting into my very comfortable bed

Hunting

Although I don’t have a show until this afternoon, my first commitment of the day is to be interviewed live on morning radio.  I am meeting Jill at 7.40, so I am able to get an early breakfast in at the hotel restaurant.

The drive into downtown Nashua is a quick one and in no time we are pulling up outside the building that houses WSMN 1590.

The morning host is George Russell and he interviewed me last year as well.  George and his wife came to the show last night, so I am keen to find out what he thought.

When I was here twelve months ago (eleven if we are being pedantic), I wrote in my blog about the sparsity of the studios and how George is a ‘character’.  Apparently he read my blog and dissected it the next morning on air.  So this year I am going to be very careful.

In all seriousness George is an amazing broadcaster.  For all his manic and loud presentation style his is an incredibly intelligent man, who has the respect not only of his listeners but also of the Nashua business community.  This is borne out by the fact that also sat around the table is the editor of the local newspaper and a State Senator.

George is so kind about the show and goes to great lengths to encourage people to come out and see it, either this afternoon or evening.

We move on from my performance, and talk about the Poppy art installation at The Tower of London.  A listener had sent him a photograph of the dry moat filled with almost a million ceramic poppies, each of which represents a lost soul from the Great War.  I have not visited it but Liz made a decision on Sunday to go to London and see it, she said it is a remarkably impressive and moving work of art.

The interview lasts for about twenty minutes and George sends me on my way with three packets of his specially blended coffee and a firm, friendly handshake.

In the lift at the hotel I am joined by a businessman, presumably here for a meeting or conference.  I give him a ‘good morning’ sort of a nod.  He shuffles a bit, apparently feeling that he needs to say something, and is searching for an ice breaking opening gambit.

‘Have you ever been in a hotel where the elevator buttons do not match?’

He is right, the button panel on one side of the door is arranged:

8

4 5 6 7

B 1 2 3

And on the other side:

6 7 8

3 4 5

B 1 2

OK, it is not the most ground breaking moment of my tour, but it is one of those quirky little things that move a day beyond the mundane.

In my room I begin to run through Doctor Marigold a few times.  It is a piece I perform often in England, so I am very familiar with it, but there are a few twists and turns in the script that can catch out the unwary and unprepared.

The story is about a market salesman, so I gather as many little articles from my bag that can be scattered around on the set, as if they were his goods.

The drive into Nashua is busier now.  My destination is a senior centre and a lot of the cars around me have occupants that (how can I say this politely?), look as if they may be coming to my show.

As it turns out I am right, everyone seems to be making for the senior centre and the car park is packed to capacity.  Five or six cars are circling like birds of prey.

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground

New England Colours

New England Colours

New Hampshire is a hunting state and that tradition is paying off for the locals.  A few people are coming out of the centre (having been playing Bridge I subsequently discover), and the eagle eyed track them, stalk them and hover over them as they get into the cars ready to leave.  The strike when it takes place is swift and clinical and another parking space has gone.

I spot a suitable quarry and am pleased when I beat three other hunters to my space.

The room in which I will perform has been laid out with about two hundred chairs and as the time moves on they are almost all filled.  I don’t have a stage but I find a wooden bench that I can stand on to represent Marigold’s cart from which he sells his goods.

The audience is mainly elderly from all over Nashua but there are many others too who have seen my shows elsewhere and are keen to find out what this unknown work of Dickens is all about.

The audience gathers

The audience gathers

At 12 o’clock Jill gets up to announce me and I give a short introduction to the piece.  As I talk, I remove my frock coat, cravat and cufflinks, leaving me in rolled up shirt sleeves and a waistcoat.  By the time I finish the intro I am Doctor Marigold and launch into the story.

It is a really fun show.  The proximity of the audience gives it the feel of a crowded fairground and they laugh and cry with me as the story runs through its many highs and lows. There are sobs as I speak the final lines.

At the end they stand and applaud and I have introduced 175 more people to my favourite little story.

I do a short signing session, but most of the audience have to get back onto buses to take them home.

One family, who have come to my performances in Nashua every year, and who have become good friends and supporters, kindly invite me to join them for lunch.  Sadly I have to decline: this afternoon is one of the last days I have to rehearse and perfect Top Hole, before I perform it in Riverside on Saturday.

Back at the hotel I get into the lift and am of course now fascinated by the arrangement of the buttons. I change, order a salad from room service and get straight down to rehearsal for a couple of hours.

After a brief nap I shower and get ready for the evening show here in the hotel.  To be honest I am not looking forward to it and am worried about it.

Apart from the big ballroom show, Jill likes to sell a dinner show, in which I perform each chapter of the story between the courses of the meal.

This year, maybe because I am here very early in the season, maybe because there is a huge Rotary Club banquet tonight, maybe because the format has run its course, the ticket sales are very low: only 25.

I have a horrible feeling that the evening will be a real damp squib.

As I walk towards the lift I see that other rooms have dry cleaning hanging on the doors.  Mine has not appeared and I am worried that I will not have one of my frock coats, and most of my shirts for the trip to California.  I find myself rehearsing what I will say to the front desk:

‘I am leaving for Logan airport tomorrow morning at 5.30 and I must have my clothes before I leave: what are you going to do about it?’

Bloodlust up I stop at the desk: ‘Yes sir, your dry cleaning is here, would you like it now?’

I feel rather silly.

At  the Hunt Room, where the dinner is held, Jill and Jody are setting up the room.  I talk with the hotel staff about the running of the evening’s events.  The show requires the service and the performance to dovetail smoothly if it is to work

An intimate setting

An intimate setting

At 6pm the guests begin to arrive.

Within the space of thirty minutes my attitude towards to the evening changes completely, almost everyone is coming to the event for the first time, there is no jaded: ‘we are only here to support Jill and Jody, but wish we didn’t have to be’ attitude.  Everyone is excited.

The four tables are grouped around the stage and the feel of the room is very intimate and positive as I start the show.

Against all of my prior fears everything goes very well.  The audience enjoy themselves, the hotel staff are efficient with their service and an event, which can sometimes drag, is superbly choreographed by all involved.

We are finished by 9.30 and everyone goes away happy.

Before going to my room to change I stop by the front desk and sheepishly collect my dry cleaning.

I change and meet Jill and Jody for a quick farewell drink in the bar.  We chat for a while but are all tired.

In August this year Jill made a trip to Florida to see her mother, as a result of which an emergency relocation was called for.  For the last few weeks both Jill and Jody have been busy settling her in and dealing with all of the care and financial issues that have arisen.

With the two days events finished Jill is ready to drop.  For my part I have to get up at 4.45 in the morning to beat the traffic into Boston.

It is certainly time for bed.

The First Casualties

Today sees another of my 5am starts, of which there seem to be quite a few this year. Blearily I get everything packed and make the journey to the lobby and check-out.

In the parking garage I have a momentary panic that I can’t actually remember which car I have now or where I parked it. Thank heavens for the remote key fob as I see my car winking at me.

The journey to Norfolk airport is an easy and quick one, for there is little traffic on the road at this time of the morning. It is still dark as I pull into the Alamo car rental returns lane and wait while the agent checks all of the details before wishing me a cheery good day.

Norfolk is another of those lovely smaller airports and in no time my bags have been taken from me and I am through security. I discover that my gate is right next to a restaurant, so I set myself up to write the daily blog and to tuck in to a plate of eggs, bacon and toast.

Once I have finished writing for the day, I sip a second cup of coffee before going to gate A4 and wait for the boarding process to begin. Among my fellow passengers are a group of five, who do not appear to know each other terribly well but who are talking nervously, and slightly too loudly.  An interesting dynamic and I try to work out who they are and why they are there.  I love airports for the people-watching opportunities.

We get boarded swiftly and easily (it only being a small plane) and once in my seat I plug my earphones in and start to watch Baz Luhrmann’s amazing take on The Great Gatsby: one of my favourite novels.

When the safety briefing starts I dutifully switch the film off and direct my attention, as requested, to the front of the cabin.

The flight attendant has the most remarkable way of speaking, always placing the emphasis in a surprising place. Sadly I can’t do justice to it on the page but it is a remarkable thing to listen to.

In the seat next to me is one of the nervous group and I notice that she is busy filling in a questionnaire: ‘What 5 items are in the seatback pocket?; What announcement did the Flight Attendant make after the doors were closed?; did you board the flight via a jetbridge?.’ The questionnaire is headed: ‘Initial training for Wisconsin Air Flight Attendants’.  So, there is my answer.  Maybe they will all learn to speak with surprising emphasis.

Having taxied away from the gate we then sit on the tarmac for an age. The Captain informs us that there is heavy congestion in Philadelphia and that we will be here for a while.

I have a fairly tight layover in Philly but I can’t do anything about it now and the chances are that  if our flight is delayed getting in, then so will the onward one be. I relax and immerse myself in the story of Nick Carraway, Daisy Buchannon and Jay Gatsby.

As we wait I think back to my fumbling morning and suddenly have a fear that I didn’t pack my wash bag in my case. I remember putting all of the things in it, but whether I actually then packed the bag itself?  I can’t remember doing it. A stop at a Wal-Mart may be in order later.

Having finally taken off we fly along the coastline and it is remarkable to see the long strip of sand and what appear, from this height, to be stationary breakers on the shore.  I think we are over Atlantic City although I can’t be sure.  I have plenty of opportunity to try and spot familiar landmarks, as we are put into a holding pattern over the coast, to await a slot at the airport.

Maybe Atlantic City

Maybe Atlantic City

After fifteen minutes or so we start to descend. Once on the ground we taxi to terminal F, which is stuck out right on the edge of the airfield.  Unfortunately my connecting flight is out of B, one of the main terminals.  This means getting on a bus and trundling across acres of tarmac as the minutes tick by.

Once into B, I quickly check the monitor and discover, frustratingly, that my flight is ‘On Time’. B10 is about as far as possible from the bus drop off point, and when I reach the gate there are no people sat waiting to board.  I dash up and discover that there are people lined up on the jetbridge, so I am OK.  I knew I would be.  Bags?  We will see.

Philadelphia airport is very busy this morning and once we have left the gate the Captain informs us that we are 20th in line to take off.  This means a long wait on the taxiways but there is no urgency now, I have nothing to do until 7 this evening.

I am flying to Boston and this is one of the most familiar airports to me. Many of my tours have started here and I know the ropes very well.

In baggage claim I am very relieved to see that my cases have made it and I quickly open the main one: the wash bag IS there.

The car rental plaza at Boston’s Logan airport is a little way from the main terminals, and you have to board a bus to get there. All of the different companies have desks and, of course, the Thrifty desk is the farthest away, right at the end.  Having completed the paperwork I walk to the garage and select a Toyota, set the Sat Nav system to take me to Nashua and get on the road.

This drive out of Boston can be a nightmare of traffic but today everything is flowing freely. Through the many tunnels that take the road system beneath the city and off towards old favourite venues such as Salem, Lowell and Peabody.

Once clear of the City streets I get back to some rehearsing again, but not Top Hole today. I need to run through Doctor Marigold, which I will be performing tomorrow.  I know it well, having performed it often at home, but it is still good to go over it a few times.

Despite a quick McDs lunch stop, I am soon arriving at The Crowne Plaza Hotel in Nashua, where I have been many times before and which is reassuringly familiar to me.

I get checked in and as soon as I’m in my room, I flop. The early mornings are catching up with me and it is very nice to have a brief nap.

As I am lying on the bed the phone rings and the friendly voice of Jill Gage welcomes me back. Jill and her husband Jody run a florist and gift shop in town and they are my event sponsors.  They have become good friends over the years and it is always fun to perform for them.

Jill runs through the itinerary for the evening’s events and we arrange to meet just before 5.

I open my bag, get my frock coat out to hang it up and discover it is soaking. Closer inspection reveals that the cap on the bottle of mouthwash in my wash bag was not securely on and the entire contents have leaked out.  I now have the freshest smelling costume in America.  Maybe it would have been better if I had left my wash bag in the Norfolk bathroom.

I unpack and try to find out what else has been affected and actually it is remarkable little. But I do discover that I have managed to leave a pair of trousers back in Norfolk.  Bleary-eyed packing is never a good thing.

Further investigation reveals that I also appear to have lost my fountain pen along the way. UGHHHHH!! Last year I was so careful and didn’t lose anything, but this year after only a week I’m having to trace my movements and try to work out where I left things.

I call the Marriott in Norfolk and get put through to the Housekeeping voicemail, where I tell them about the pen and the…I have to use the American word. It is a difficult thing for an Englishman to admit on a phone that he has left his khaki pants in the hotel room.  It means something quite different in Britain.

At 5 I go down to the main ballroom where Jill is bustling about, making preparations for the evening. We hug and catch up briefly with events in our respective lives before going to dinner.

In Nashua there is a wonderful lady, originally from Britain, who gathers all her friends together at various times throughout the year, to join he in fine British celebrations. Her name is MaMa Rogers.

For the last few years she has organised a group of her friends, all very respectable, professional and busy people, to come to my show. She also arranges a pre-show dinner in a private dining room, to which I am invited.

Every year I am sat with different guests and it is always a fascinating experience. Today I am with a lady who fences for the USA senior team.  She loves to travel in Scotland, drink single malt and play golf so we have plenty in common.

Also at my table is a highly well presented business man: the perfect model of American corporate manhood.  I am rather intimidated at first but he turns out to be excellent company.  We talk about Doctor Who (a recurring theme on this trip it seems), and a children’s adventure book he is writing.

We are soon joined by another couple, with their grandson Tyler, who loves A Christmas Carol and is clutching a copy of the book for me to sign.

The conversation is fine and we eat a delicious soup, before moving onto turkey and stuffing. MaMa likes to respect the traditions.

Sadly I have to leave the gathering early to go and test the microphone system in the ballroom. The stage here is wide and spacious, giving me plenty of room to move around.  Jody has built a fireplace, complete with flickering logs, and the furniture is elegant and functional.  It is a good place to work.

For the last few years Jill has used an excellent AV man and he is already set up and waiting for me. I stride about the stage trying to give as many volumes, voices and attitudes as I can so that he can set a good level. Everything sounds great and I go back to my room to get into costume.

The idea of having two suitcases, with a complete costume in each, has certainly paid off here. It means I can do the show without reeking of Listerine.

As I’m in my room an email comes through from Liz telling me how well her concert in Oxford went.  I know she had been worried about it, so it is great news to take with me into my own show.  I’m ever so proud of her and would love to give her a big hug right now.

I am in Nashua much earlier than usual, this year but the audience is still an impressive size, with many very familiar friends who have made the show a Christmas tradition.   I stand at the door and chat as they all come in.  There is certainly a family feel about the events here.

At 7.pm I am introduced by Kathy, the arts editor of the local newspaper and get up to do the show.

The audience is a little quiet but are certainly enjoying it. I learned many years ago not to panic about a quiet audience and not to go ‘chasing’ them by trying to over-perform.  I let the story do the work and by the end they are standing and applauding loudly.  It’s always a nice room to perform in.

In the lobby outside I sit at a large table to sign and chat. All the old friends stop by and shake hands and have a word.  Many of them have read the blog so comment on certain aspects of my tour so far and are worried about the cough and if it is still affecting me.

Gradually everyone fades away and I can go back to my room to change, before meeting Jill and Jody in the hotel bar where we chat and catch up some more.

In the old days I would have stayed up late into the evening, but the half-century is taking its toll on my party going these days and I return to my room ready for an early night.

Although I am not moving on tomorrow (a rare luxury at the moment), I do have an early morning radio interview, so bed time is 10.15.

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