In Limbo

Today’s entry will be short and sweet, as I didn’t do anything!  The day was very definitely one during which I was in limbo.

I wake on my final morning in The Salem Inn and start to pack my cases.  I have strewn my belongings across the room and I have to try and get them back into some semblance of order.  At 8 I go to  breakfast and meet up with Kevin from New York.

After breakfast and having said my farewells I walked out into the streets of Salem, specifically to Chestnut Street which people had told me was one of the most elegant and impressive streets in the town.  They were not wrong.

A broad, straight avenue lined by trees (um, Chestnut trees, funnily enough), the houses are substantial and superbly preserved.  Each bears it’s little plaque with the name and date of the original owner, which is quite fascinating.

On Chestnut Street

On Chestnut Street

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My walk takes only about 30 minutes and back at the hotel I just crash on the bed.  This is very much my floppy day.

I check out at 11 0’clock and retrieve my car which has been sitting in a parking lot, improving the profits of Budget Car Rental, without incurring any wear and tear as I have walked everywhere during my stay here.

I have an hours drive to Newton, just outside Boston, where I am able to check in early to the Crowne Plaza Hotel.  I empty my laundry bags and decide what I am going to need for the next few days and get a load ready to be taken to the front desk.

In the afternoon I really do just flop on the bed.  I had downloaded ‘The Invisible Woman’ (the film based on Charles Dickens’s relationship with Ellen Ternan, starring and directed by Lord Voldermort) onto my phone and lay on the bed watching it.

It is very well made and beautifully shot and I was very impressed by Ralph Feinnes’s performance as Charles Dickens.

After a brief snooze I do a little work on The Signalman to bring it back to the forefront of my mind, ready for two outings in Missouri later in the week and then do some work on the computer.

I have booked The Unicorn Theatre in my home town of Abingdon to perform A Christmas Carol on December 20th and I need to get the artwork for the posters created as soon as possible, so I spend some time on that.

There are also some emails to be answered relating to the DVD of Doctor Marigold which was recorded and released earlier in the year.  The exciting thing is that now we have a version that is compatible with America DVD players and are ready to sell copies on this side of the Atlantic.

So: commercial time!  To those of you have already requested copies, I will be in touch to arrange shipping etc shortly.  To those of you who would like to order copies and to witness this beautiful little story for yourselves, simply email me via my website http://www.geralddickens.com and I will arrange everything.

After my admin hour I have a lovely hot, lazy bath, an early dinner and an early night.

On to tomorrow and I want you to do some homework for me.  I will be visiting the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown and it promises to be a remarkable day.

For suggested reading I refer you to ‘Chapter the Third, Volume One’ of American Notes, which chronicles in great detail Charles Dickens’s visit to the school in 1842 and his account of meeting Laura Bridgeman, a blind, deaf and dumb student.  His incredibly moving observations later inspired the Keller family to send Helen to the school.

Good night!

The Last Day in Salem

Today is the final day of the Dickens Fellowship, North of Boston Branch’s Pickwickian Endeavours conference and the final formal event of the final day is to be me, performing The Complete Works of Charles Dickens.

I wake at a decent time, make my coffee and get up to have my first run-through before I shower. It seems to be running well (the show, not the shower), but it still doesn’t feel fully natural and I am having to concentrate too much, which can be a dangerous thing.  The perfect situation to be in is for the words to be so familiar that you have plenty of mental capacity left over to deal with other situations.  I must hope that no other situations arise!

Before going to breakfast I need to make one of my props for the show. During the scene from David Copperfield the script calls for me to pour a tumbler of ale, hold it up to the light and ‘make it look beautiful.’

Beer Brewing

Beer Brewing

I have no ale, but I do have a tumbler, some hot water and a few tea bags. I fill the tumbler, leave the tea bags infusing and head for the breakfast room where I meet up with the trio from Chatham, Ontario.  We discuss last night’s performance of Doctor Marigold and this morning’s programme of lectures which sound very interesting.

I go back to my room where the ‘beer’ is brewing well. I do another run through which I achieve without any problems.  I think that I am ready.

My show is at 11 this morning so am in costume and ready to leave the hotel at 10.20, In the front parlour there are some little finches in cages and a wave of sorrow comes over me.  Not only because they are caged but also because my head is so full of lines from the show that the passage from Barnaby Rudge presents itself:

At one house near Moorfields, they found in one of the rooms some canary birds in cages, and these they cast into the fire alive. The poor little creatures screamed, it was said, like infants, when they were flung upon the blaze

The Caged Birds

The Caged Birds

I wish them ‘good luck’ and head for The Athenaeum. When I arrive the previous lecture is just finishing so I listen to the end.  It is a fascinating study of how Charles Dickens was influenced by the writings of the mill workers at Lowell, Mass and may have used those influences in the creation of A Christmas Carol.

The question and answer session finishes and everyone gets up to stretch their legs as I set up. The room is an elegant library, a perfect setting for such a show.

The Library

The Library

There is no going back now, no quiet time in a dressing room; no solitary moment for reflection. Before I know it I am introduced and everyone is clapping, then settling back in their seats with expressions of expectation (no, I am NOT going to say with expressions of Great Expectation: that would just be cheap).

I start the show and it works, oh it works well! No, it is not completely natural, but the audience are responding to it all the way through. Mrs Gamp has them laughing and each scene leads smoothly on to the next. I cruise through my problematic Bleak House passage and onto the end where even Edwin Drood passes without a hitch.

Performing The Complete Works.  Oliver Twist falls asleep before waking as Nicholas Nickleby

Performing The Complete Works. Oliver Twist falls asleep before waking as Nicholas Nickleby

I am hot, tired but so happy.

I take questions about the script, how I developed it and why I chose the passages that I did. There is a final, planted question, about the little story A Child’s Journey With Dickens, so I talk about that for a while.

When everything is finished the conference is officially wound up and we all mingle around chatting. The students from Salem State University are due to perform two more short scenes from Martin Chuzzlewit on the back lawn so some of us take seats and settle down to watch.  They are very entertaining and do a great job.

When the students are finished everyone starts to leave The Athenaeum for the last time. Although I haven’t attended many of the lectures, due to other shows or line learning, the consensus is that it has been a highly successful event and that Deb has done a great job.

There are still events laid on for the rest of the day however, the first of which is a Clam Bake by the sea (that sounds like an East Anglian seaside resort). Sadly not many people decide to go and there are only a handful of us there but it is a beautiful setting and the company is very good.

Clam Bake by the sea

Clam-Bake-By-The-Sea

There is a real sense of being ‘off duty’, but I am not done yet and have two further commitments today the first of which is an appearance and book signing in a local book store. It is a very informal affair and I say the same sort of things that I said at the British Beer Company a few days ago.  A decent group of people gather.  Actually I am set up near to the front door so any unfortunate people who had happened to be in the shop when I started can’t really get out, thereby swelling the numbers.

I remain at Wicked Books for about forty five minutes before returning to the hotel. Whilst in the room I call Bob and Pam Byers to chat over things and to confirm how well everything has been going. We chat over speakerphone and it is very nice to hear their voices.

When the call is over I start assembling props and costumes for my final appearance in Salem this year. As a few of the delegates to the conference are not leaving until tomorrow, Deb has arranged a dinner theatre production of Nicholas Nickleby in Finz Restaurant, near to the old docks where I walked on my first day here.

I walk in costume and receive the now familiar cheery greetings and banter. The Nickleby costume is all black, as the main characters are in mourning, so I really fit in to the Salem scene today.

Our group is in an upstairs function room in what I imagine was an old warehouse. The décor is very modern and stylish (as you would expect from a seafood restaurant called Finz). There is a good smattering of people although numbers for each successive event are dwindling.  Only the hardy few have made it to the end.

The meal is a ‘do it yourself’ or rather a ‘choose it yourself and let the chef do it himself’ buffet. Your choice of pasta is popped into simmering water and then your chosen vegetables are fried in oil and garlic, before the al dente pasta is tossed into them.  Very fresh, very crisp, very lovely.

The plates are cleared away, glasses replenished and it is time for The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby. The setting is very intimate and bright, which is slightly odd for what is a very large theatrical sort of show.  However everyone enjoys it and I am sure the people in the main restaurant downstairs must wonder what is going on as I bellow in the character of Mr Crummles: ‘I AM IN THE THEATRICAL PRO-FESS-ION!’

I bring the show to its end and now at last I am off duty.

A few of us remain and I say my goodbyes to Deb and the rest of the Salem crowd. It so happens that Kevin Quinn, from the New York branch of the Fellowship has been attending the conference, and is staying in the same hotel as I am, so we walk back together, stopping for a nightcap on the way.

When I get back to my room I am suddenly very tired. This has been a mammoth few weeks and all of that energy and adrenaline can now disperse, like the delegates of the conference.  I have more events coming up over the next few days but for now I can switch off and sleep.

Oh, one gripe before parting: why, in hotels which do not offer a turn-down service (which in itself I find bizarre), do they insist on piling the bed high with quilts, scatter cushions and ornamental pillows which I will just throw on the floor where they will stay until housekeeping carefully arrange them again tomorrow ready for me to throw them on the floor again? Grrrrrr.  There, rant over.  Goodnight.

A Long Day

At last I wake up at a sensible time. Well, let me qualify that: I still wake at around 4 o’clock but get back to sleep before surfacing for real at around 6.  I remember that someone once told me that it takes roughly a day for each hour of time difference before the body adjusts fully.  On current evidence that is just about right and I will be fully on track by Monday.

The morning routine falls into place: I make coffee and bring my little wooden table to the bedside, write the blog and watch the unfolding drama from Gleneagles.

At 8 I have breakfast and there are some other delegates from the conference there, a group of three from Chatham, Canada. We sit together and chat about various other people in the Dickens Fellowship.  I’d love to travel more in Canada and here at the conference there is not only the group from Chatham but also one from Montreal.  Maybe in the future I can do a mini Canadian tour.

Back in my room and it is rehearsal time. I run through The Complete Works and STILL Bleak House  and Drood are being troublesome. It is not a case of freezing and not being able to remember anything: I’m not going to be standing there not knowing what to do.  No, the problem is nailing the correct phrase.  As I approach the line I know at the back of my mind that I’m going to struggle and when I get there – hey presto!

To take an analogy from golf: it is like playing a shot over a lake and saying to yourself: ‘I mustn’t go in the water’, which puts only one word in your head – water. Splash.  Yes, my issue with the Bleak House passage is a mental one now and I have to break the deadlock (that’s a little Bleak House joke…)

I am being picked up this morning by Debby, the journalist who interviewed me on the telephone on Thursday. Debby has seen me perform in Salem before and is a fan!  I get into costume and wait outside the hotel for her to pull up.  Wow, it is hot.  It is like an August day in England.  I don’t know what the temperature is but it certainly feels as if it is in the high 70s.

Our destination today is the Peabody Institute Library in the town of Danvers, where I performed A Child’s Journey With Dickens last during last year’s tour. As we drive I notice that Saturday 27 September seems to be National Yard Sale Day. Almost every block we pass has at least one house with its front lawn full of toys, fitness equipment, furniture, rails of clothing etc.

We arrive at the library which is housed in a magnificent mansion. Debby unloads a suitcase filled with books from the car and I unload my little case containing my props and we make our way into the children’s section on the ground floor.  The room has been set up with about 100 seats and the librarian confirms that they have had lots of interest in the show.  I move furniture around, hide the toy white cat that features in ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’ section of the show, cover a little table with a red cloth to represent Dickens’s reading table.  When everything is in place there is still an hour to go, so it is a question of waiting.

I poke around the library for a bit, and check out the biography section to see if there are any children’s biographies of Dickens. Leanardo Di Caprio is as near as it gets.

I find another book which strikes a chord with me, as it represents a link to my very first acting role. The book is for pre schoolers and teachers them about farmyard animals.  One page has a picture of a rooster with the caption ‘I am a Rooster’. Most of you will know my rooster/nativity story and for those that don’t I am going to leave you trying to imagine what on earth it is all about.

I Am a Rooster

I Am a Rooster

As there is still time I take myself off to a quiet corner of the room and do a short rehearsal of Doctor Marigold which is this evening’s show.  It may seem odd to be rehearsing one show just before performing another but to be honest Mr Dickens is Coming is so engrained in my head that I really don’t need to worry about the lines.

The audience begins to arrive and it seems as if they are going to be very good crowd. At 1 o’clock the show begins and it is such fun.  The audience respond superbly to the performance, laughing and clapping and joining in all the way through.

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When the show is finished Debby and the librarians haul a table onto my set and lay out lots of books and CDs for a brief signing session.

Once the audience has drifted away I say my goodbyes and we go back to the car, drive past the yard sales, now with depleted stocks, and back to the Salem Inn.

It is almost 3 O’clock now and I haven’t eaten yet so I get changed and walk into town to buy a sandwich. On the way I stop by the bank to get some cash from an ATM but the machine will not recognise my card and refuses to give me anything.   I therefore have to use a credit card to buy a sandwich, a bottle of water, some crisps (transl: chips) and a tube of toothpaste.

Back at the hotel I call the Santander Bank’s help line and spend about thirty minutes convincing them that I really am Gerald Dickens and that I really am in Salem, Mass.

Looking at my schedule I see that I have a sound-check for this evening’s performance on stage at the Hawthorne Hotel at 5 o’clock. Back into costume and walk through the middle of Salem where there are lots of other people in a variety of costumes along the way.  A Ghoul statue calls out ‘Good day to you Mr Cratchit!’; a wizard in robes similar to those of Albus Dumbledore says ‘Ah, that is how a gent should dress!’; a grave digger shouts out ‘You are looking good sir!’  It is quite a procession.

The Hawthorne Hotel is a magnificent, solid historic hotel standing proudly on a major intersection. I am shown to the room where the banquet is to be held and find it is quite a small room, with no stage.  I certainly will not need any amplification so a 5 o clock sound-check is a bit irrelevant really.

An Historic Hotel Selfie

An Historic Hotel Selfie

John Jordan (professor from Santa Cruz) joins me. He is giving a lecture tonight before my performance and together we try to set up the laptop and projector to show the slides accompanying his talk.

He has had to borrow the equipment so the whole process takes quite a while and there is a panicky moment when he can’t find the lecture’s power point file on his memory stick. Eventually we track it down and all is sorted out.

Many of the delegates are staying at The Hawthorne so they drift into the room in dribs and drabs. The bar is doing a good trade but I remain abstemious. I chat to some old friends and much of the talk is about a lecture given this morning about Dickens and his passion for conjuring.  The lecture was given by an English expert in magic and I spend quite a long time talking with him.

We all sit down and salads are served and cleared. I am aware that things are running a little late and the early mornings are beginning to catch up with me in the warm room.  Main courses go down and I eat a little but with a show fast approaching do not have a massive appetite.

Main courses cleared, and coffee served. Desserts.  I excuse myself, and change into my Doctor Marigold costume.  When I return John is setting up to give his lecture. And the group are re-charging their glasses.  At 8.30 John is introduced and he begins a fascinating, scholarly, beautifully prepared lecture about the relationship of the illustrations in David Copperfield to the text.

I am feeling so tired and the room is warm and I’m very glad that I hadn’t accepted one of the many offers of a glass of wine earlier for that would have finished me completely.

John winds up, and there follows a brief question and answer session before the stage is cleared and I am on.

As soon as I start with ‘I am a cheapjack….’ The energy floods back through me and the whole performance goes very well. The line learning and extra rehearsals have paid off and as I deliver the final lines I can hear sobs from the audience, which is always gratifying.

It is now 10.30 and the company dissolves gradually as people retire to their rooms for the night. I change out of Marigold back into Victorian gent, have a glass of wine in the Hawthorne’s bar before walking back to The Salem Inn and collapsing into bed, exhausted.

This is the BBC

It is an inevitable fact that for the first few days on this side of the Atlantic I will wake early in the morning. A dawn waking is even more inevitable today as I went to sleep so early last night.

So with 3.30 showing on the bedside clock I am awake.

The one saving grace is the Ryder Cup coverage, which I am able to have on in the background as I drop in and out of sleep.

As the morning progresses I can start thinking about the day ahead. I swap a few emails with Pam back at base about arrangements for this morning and discover that I will be picked up by Terry at 10.00 for the first event of my trip.

I make coffee. Annoyingly there isn’t a bedside table on my side of the bed and the bedside light doesn’t work on the other side.  A little wooden stand, presumably designed to put flower arrangements on, comes to the rescue and I am able to have my coffee close at hand.

The early hours pass and gradually a grey light starts to filter through the curtains as the sound of traffic intensifies, suggesting that the world outside is starting to wake too.

I write the blog and turn my attention to the events of the day. I have been working so hard on the line learning, that I have rather ignored the first commitment, which on the surface sounds as if it may be rather strange.  I have been booked to perform: ‘A costumed Informal story/reading for children aged 4-8’.  I admit that doesn’t sound strange in itself, until you see the location: ‘at The British Beer Company’

The reason that I have not prepared anything is not through neglect, but merely that it is so difficult to judge what will be required, therefore it is better to improvise when I find what my audience is like.

At 8.00 I go to breakfast in the basement before coming back to the room and getting my costume together. I need to iron a shirt but discover that the ironing board is one of those short stubby things that you are supposed to put on a table.  It has little folding legs that collapse as soon as you put any weight on them.

I am struggling to find a suitable surface to iron on. I take a sip of coffee and the answer comes to me: the little wooden stand is perfect to lay the short ironing board over.  This little wooden stand has become my new best friend!

The Little Wooden Stand

The Little Wooden Stand

Terry calls and suggests that I walk up to The Athenaeum Club, where the conference is being held, as parking outside my hotel is impossible and the club is only two blocks away.

It is a beautiful sunny day with a vivid blue sky and the trees (no doubt under contract to The New England Tourist Board) are beginning to change to their fall colours of rich reds and golds.

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The Salem Inn and The Athenaeum are in an old area of Salem and all of the houses have little plaques such as:

‘Built For Priscilla Abbot, 1773. Widow.’ It would be fascinating to learn the stories behind the plaques.

As I get to The Athenaeum Terry is in a panic. She had accidentally left her car boot (translation for my American readership: trunk) open last night and the battery has drained.  She has left the car running for the past 40 minutes in the hope the battery will recharge itself.  It may of course run out of petrol (gas) instead!

Just before we leave, Deb Benvie, the event organiser, comes out and gives me a great big hug of welcome.

The drive to the community of Danvers takes about twenty minutes and we pull up outside the British Beer Company at about 10.15. It is a pub with a huge union jack incorporated into its sign.

This is the BBC

This is the BBC

The first thing you see as you walk in is a Triumph motorcycle, accompanied by a photograph of the Queen Mother sampling a pint of beer. All over the walls are pictures of various British icons: The Beetles, Sean Connery, David Bowie and many more.

I am shown to where I will be entertaining the children, in front of a fire place overlooked by a portrait of Winston Churchill. On the wall, just below the ceiling is his famous quote to Lady Astor in response to her telling him that he was drunk: ‘I may be drunk but you madam are ugly.  In the morning however I shall be sober!’ Sheer brilliance although maybe not entirely suitable for the 4-8 age range.

As it happens I needn’t have worried for not a child appears. Instead a steady stream of adults take their seats and at 10.30 I begin to chat about Dickens’s life, upbringing, reading tours, travels to America etc.  It is all very informal and chatty.  A few of the audience have seen me perform before and others are following the blog.  I make a point of mentioning the other events during the weekend in the hope that some people may like to attend one of the other shows.

I have been talking for about an hour and we are well into a question and answer session when I notice that Terry is making signals for me to wind up. It has been a lovely session.

Terry’s car is loaded with dishes of food, and this is why we had to stick to our timetable. The BBC (British Beer Company – see what they’ve done there? Clever), has provided lunch for all of the delegates back at the conference and we need to get back to The Athenaeum.  Fortunately the battery has charged sufficiently and the car starts.

As we arrive at the Club the morning lecture is just finishing and the group spills out onto the back lawn for their lunch. There are many familiar faces here from my previous visits to Salem but also friends from further afield.  Diana Archibald is from The University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is an expert on Dickens in America.  I have worked with Diana on a few occasions in the past and it is always lovely to see her again.

John Jordan is from The University of California, Santa Cruz and is the director of the amazing Dickens Project faculty. Each summer The Dickens Project stages The Dickens Universe a massive conference during which they study a single book.  I appeared at the Universe last year, which was an amazing experience and would love to go back sometime.

The group is very nice and we sit in the garden with the sun filtering through the trees. As we eat, some students perform a scene from Nicholas Nickleby which is fun.

In the garden at The Athenaeum

In the garden at The Athenaeum

This afternoon the delegates are taking a walking tour of Salem and I am going to go back to my room and try to catch up on some of the sleep I missed last night. I have promised myself that I will not manically learn lines today, I need a rest from that.

I doze a little and do nothing until I can’t bear it anymore and do a surreptitious run through of Doctor Marigold.

There is a conference reception at 6 o’clock and I have a shower to try and wake myself up a bit. Back into costume and walk to the Athenaeum again. Everyone is there including the State Congressman and the Mayor of Salem.  Speeches are made and toasts delivered.  I make a few remarks and the guests drift away back to their hotels or restaurants for dinner.

I have an hour now until I have to be at Salem Old Town Hall to perform Sikes and Nancy so I return to the hotel and go through the reading to myself.

The Salem Museum is housed in the Old Town Hall. The main hall is on the second floor and is an elegant room lit by brass chandeliers. There is a stage at one end where a screen, chair and small lectern have been placed. It is a beautiful setting to perform a Victorian reading in.  The only problem is that acoustically it is very ‘hot’ very echo-ey, which will not suit the violence of The Murder.

As 8 o’clock nears, the delegates start to arrive and take their seats. Also there are two couples who were at the event this morning, which is really nice to see: it’s like welcoming old friends to the show.

The Murder was one of Charles Dickens’s most notorious readings, although he only performed it for a single season before the mental and physical strains took their toll and he was forced to retire from the stage. It is a short reading but, oh so intense and details the events leading up to the death of poor Nancy at the hands of Bill Sikes and his ultimate demise on the end of a rope.  It was so shocking in its day that Charles judged the success of a performance by the amount of ladies who fainted.

I start by talking about Dickens’s reading tours and the murder specifically before launching into the reading itself. I am right about the room and try to control the power and pace of my speech to allow for the booming acoustics but don’t always succeed.  However the passion behind the words works well and the audience is stunned as the final horror is delivered.

The applause at the show’s end is amazing and I am very pleased with the way the whole evening has gone. I chat a little and then make my way back to my new local, The Tavern in the Square where I sit in Victorian costume and eat chicken tenders and fries.  It is a busy loud Saturday night and the bar is full of couples and groups.

All you need to know about Salem is encapsulated in the fact that nobody gives a second look to a Victorian gent sitting in the corner.

I get back to the hotel at 10 and once in bed fall straight to sleep.

Changes, Witches and Floorboards

Changes

For the last twenty years or so the end of my year has traditionally been taken up with touring America with my one man version of A Christmas Carol. The usual routine is to fly out during November, perform a few shows before Thanksgiving Day and then plunge into the hectic part of the trip before returning home just before Christmas.

Over the years I have met a great many people and performed in some beautiful venues. Occasionally some of those people organise events at other times of the year and invite me to perform for them then too.

One such group is The North of Boston branch of the Dickens Fellowship, based in Salem Massachusetts. For the last 2 years I have visited Deb Benvie and her team during November but this year they have bigger plans.

2014 marks the branch’s first bi-annual Dickens conference and they have collected a fine group of speakers and performers to stimulate and entertain their delegates.

As long ago as last year Deb contacted Lisa Porter, my ‘fixer’ at Byers Choice, to see if I would be available on the last weekend in September to attend the three days of the conference. Plans were laid, timetables studied and events planned until we arrived here: the beginning of September.

There have been a few changes since the first plans were discussed, however. Lisa announced during the year that she would be leaving Byers Choice, after working with them for many years, to pursue  new professional challenges. Ever since I returned to touring some five years ago and began working with Bob Byers as my agent in America, Lisa has looked after all of the details of my tours.  She has sorted out transportation and accommodation.  She has liaised with journalists to ensure that they know when to call, so as to fit in with my commitments on any given day.  She has provided event organisers with complete details of what is required from my shows:  what size space I need to perform in, what props I need, how much time for sound checks, the exact location of my signing tables, what I like to eat before and after a show, and so on.

Even when an event is done it was Lisa who followed up after me and asked the organisers to send on my pen/watch/cufflinks/memory stick/camera and so forth. Lisa certainly made my life easier.

So, it was with great sadness that I learned of her departure and I would like to take this opportunity to say a huge thank you Lisa, for all that you have done for me professionally over the years and for your friendship.

There was also a practical concern of Lisa’s departure: who could possibly take on the role? Who would Bob chose and could we ever develop a similar rapport?  I certainly had someone in mind who I knew could do the job but I was not sure if Bob’s choice would match mine.

Actually Bob moved very quickly and appointed the exact person I had thought of: I therefore ask you all to welcome Pam Byers who will no doubt be a central part of these adventures over the next two months

Pam is Bob’s wife and has worked closely on my performances at Byers Choice over the years and has also become a great friend. She will be a great ally to have on tour.

Although we could never have realised it at the time, this short mini tour is a perfect opportunity for Pam and me to get used to working together whilst I’m on the road.

Wednesday

On 24th September Liz drove me to Heathrow airport and the goodbyes never get any easier.  Although this trip is only ten days or so, it marks the beginning of the time of the year when Liz is left alone at home as I gallivant across America.

We hug and don’t want to let go. We both know, however, that I need to go and eventually I take my cases into the terminal and she drives back to Abingdon.  You would think we could have got used to it by now but it is always a horrible empty feeling.

Actually there is another emotion today: fear. With the awful events in Syria at the moment I am well aware that the possibility of a terrorist attack against the west is extremely high.  No doubt the security checks are huge at the moment, but still there is a horrible niggling, nagging fear at the back of my mind.

The airport experience is harmless and it strikes me how far the industry has come during my years of travelling. The whole process of checking-in online and dropping bags has marked the end of long lines of hot, impatient people.  Even the security screening is quick and unproblematic.  Actually, considering my irrational fears, perhaps I would have preferred the security screening to be a little slower and more difficult.

The plane is packed full but I have an aisle seat so am able to stretch my legs a bit. Although our booking is with Delta Airlines the flight is actually operated by Virgin Atlantic.  The flight attendants are friendly, the plane is modern and the entertainment system is comprehensive.

A few rows in front of me are sat a very elderly couple. He is dressed in an anorak and a flat cap which both stay on during the whole flight.  At fairly regular intervals he and his wife get up and slowly, oh so slowly, shuffle their way along the aisle towards the lavatory at the rear of the plane.  Each time the flight attendants are trying to roll a drinks or food cart to the front of the cabin but they never get impatient with the old couple, they never see the mechanics of their job as being more important than looking after their customers

Three films and two meals later we are touching down at Boston’s Logan Airport where, once again, the transition through the various official channels is quick and easy. In no time I am climbing into my rental car and setting the Sat Nav system for The Salem Inn.

I arrive at the hotel at around 10pm and get checked in. the Inn is actually more of a B&B in a lovely historic house and has no restaurant but it is in within easy walking distance of the city centre, so after lifting my cases up to my room, I stroll for ten minutes before I happen over The Tavern in the Square, where I sit at the bar and enjoy a lovely shepherd’s pie.

Back to the Inn I check out the TV and discover to my delight that the channels include The Golf Channel. This weekend Europe takes on America for The Ryder Cup in Scotland and hopefully I will be able to keep up with some of the events each morning.

Thursday

Despite a late night (and on UK time a VERY late night), I still wake early in the morning. In a half-wakeful state I find myself going over lines from the Complete Works of Dickens show in my head. After half an hour or so I give in and get up to make coffee.

I realise that I was probably in rather less than a half-wakeful state when I consider that the lines I was repeating in my mind do not actually exist!

I put the television on and watch the build-up to The Ryder Cup, which is being hyped up here just as much as at home. There is a sense of drama surrounding the contest as the two teams seem to be closely matched this year.

Time passes slowly until it is time to get showered and ready for Breakfast, which is served in a basement room.

Back to the room and after a telephone interview with a local journalist about the weekend’s events, it is time to pick up where I left off at home: yes, it is time to line-learn once more.

Over the next three days I am due to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and Nicholas Nickleby both of which I know inside out and back to front; Sikes and Nancy which is a reading; Doctor Marigold which I’m comfortable with and a couple of impromptu, improvised appearances.

But on Sunday morning I am performing The Complete Works of Charles Dickens to the delegates of the conference, all of whom know their Dickens well. It has to be precise and tight.  Once more the pacing commences.  Fortunately my hotel room is a proper town house room, with high ceilings and plenty of floor space to roam in.

Of course being a historic house the floorboards creak and I hope that there is nobody in the room below.

Most of the lines are coming back very easily, as are the transitions between novels, but I am struggling with a few passages, particularly the short section from Bleak House which for some reason will not stick. Edwin Drood is proving annoyingly reluctant as well.

I spend over two hours going over and over and over the script. I work at individual sections and do a couple of complete runs.  It is going fine, but needs more work yet.  However my little brain has had enough, so I do what Dickens used to do: I go for a walk.

As I mentioned earlier downtown Salem is very close and I decide just to follow my nose, with no particular plan.

Back at college when I was doing a Theatre Studies course, one of our set texts was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible which is his fictitious account of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Salem has taken witchcraft to its heart and most of the shops are starting to prepare for Halloween during which time the city becomes overrun.

Cobwebs, spiders and ghoulish latex masks abound as do broomsticks, pointed hats and black cats. Posters advertising Salem Ghost Walks are much in evidence and there are museums to witchcraft and piracy.  There is even a statue of Elizabeth Montgomery playing Samantha Stephens from Bewitched.

I walk through the tourist zone and get to the wharfs and docks which is where Salem’s prosperity as a city was really built. There are some lovely buildings at the water’s edge including the old Custom House (the equivalent to Logan airport’s immigration hall), and a beautifully restored sail loft.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My walk takes me into some antiques stores, which have amazing and eclectic collections and back into the centre of town where I go into a restaurant for a delicious spiced chicken salad. After that it is back to the room, back to the creaky floorboards, back to the lines.

The Complete Works is coming together nicely now, although Drood is still being annoying. After another two run-throughs I decide to give it a rest and pick up the reading script for Sikes and Nancy that I will be performing tomorrow night.

I start running through it and realise I know it so well that why don’t I commit that to memory right now. An hour later I have chapter one fully learned!  This is ridiculous; this line learning is becoming obsessive.  There is only one thing for it: get back to The Complete Works.

After some more work ,night is falling so I finally pack my scripts away and return to the Tavern in the Square where I have a thick juicy burger before settling in for the night. It is relatively early and I know I will wake at some silly time in the morning but, there will always be the Ryder Cup!

The Trench

For the last three weeks or so my head has literally been exploding. All right, I know that is one of the most incorrectly used pieces of grammar, so let me put it another way:  It feels as if for the last three weeks my head has been on the point of exploding from an excess of literary content.

There are occasional times of the year during which nothing much seems to happen. There are no shows to prepare for and a dwindling bank account to watch.  During such times I am apt to say ‘Yes!’ to any offer that comes in, even if it means preparing a new show or re learning something that I haven’t performed for a year or so.

Then there are the times during which all of the ‘yes’s align in a perfect storm of bookings.

The period from Friday 12th September to Saturday 4 October is a case in point.  Suddenly I have six different shows piling up to be performed.  Each and every one of them seemed as if ‘it was a good idea at the time’ but now they just climb onto one another, their words fighting for space in my head.

The only way to get through a time such as this is to work methodically through the different scripts, making sure I am prepared for the next one up.

The first job was to relearn my PG Wodehouse golfing show Top Hole! I had first performed the script back in April at my home golf club in Oxford and had been very pleased with the way it had been received.  I had then marketed it to various other clubs around the country and now the first results of that exercise are coming to fruition.

I had been contacted by The Faversham Golf Club in Kent to perform for them on the evening of Friday 12 September. After returning from our trip to Ireland and Wales, I got straight back down to working my way, line by line, scene by scene, through the script.

Some of the words just fall easily back into place, which is reassuring, but the order of them was a struggle. That isn’t quite as daft as it sounds:  Top Hole! Is a show featuring four different short stories, and I have written it in such a way that the narrator gets mixed up with his telling of them, meaning he is forever hopping from one tale to another in a very random manner.  That was a clever idea of mine, then, wasn’t it?

Top Hole! Is performed in two acts and lasts for a little under two hours. There is no other way than to just go over and over and over it again and again and again.

‘On the broad terrace, outside his Palace, overlooking the fair expanse of the royal gardens, King Merolchazzar of Oom stood leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hands and a frown upon his noble face…..’

As Friday night approaches the lines are getting better and by the time I pull up to the impressive clubhouse, nestling in a wooded valley, I am fairly confident that things will go well.

Faversham Golf Club

Faversham Golf Club

The audience is made up of members of the club and the show is well received. I am very pleased not only with the way that I perform, but also how the script performs, for when you adapt something it is the programme itself that is on show, not just the performer.

All of the lines stay in their correct place and I remember to say ‘Rather a quick tempered fellow, this Holmes!’, after ‘…and that is why this brave young woman hit you with her Niblick.  She took what she considered to be the necessary actions.’ Which has always been my stumbling block.

As soon – and I mean AS SOON – as I finish Top Hole! I start work on The Signalman. Although I performed this eerie little ghost story at Kytelers Inn, in Ireland, it had been a reading there and now I had grandly decided to perform it as part of a Dickens Double Bill in my home town of Abingdon.  I have precisely seven days to learn it.

In the car driving back from Faversham I am going over the bits of the script I know but the really hard work starts in the back garden when I get back.

I learn lines by pacing; I seem to have to be continually on the move otherwise they just do not stick. I take my script and start to go through the lines, as I walk around a sort of kidney-shaped circuit on the grass.

Six days to go and it is a struggle. I just don’t seem to be making any progress.  Walk. Repeat. Check script. Walk. Repeat. Check script.

Two or three hours pass and my head is bursting with ‘deep cutting’, ‘strange attitude’, ‘Below there!’ ‘…ghastly nods.’

I stop for a coffee and a rest but still find myself trying to link apparently unconnected sentences and working on the language of complicated phrases.

Out into the garden again: more pacing, more repeating.

Five days to go and there is a semblance of shape to the narrative, although Charles Dickens may not recognise it as his own work.

Liz despairs as my kidney-shaped circuit is very visible in the grass now, a trampled down track. And still it goes on.

Actually Liz And I are in a similar state as she has a concert at the weekend too, playing at a Church near Ipswich with the Lyric Piano Trio.  Rehearsals for her are very stressful  and the atmosphere in the house is tense as we each concentrate on our particular pieces.  At times like this it is good that we each understand the pressures of performing.

I am waking early in the morning and find that the hour between six and seven o’clock is a very profitable learning time. When I eventually get out into the garden later in the morning, the morning muttering has paid off.

Four days. I think it is going to be OK.

Three days and the trampled track is close to becoming a furrow.

Two days. I need a rest!  My little brain cannot take any more.  I decide to have a day off on Wednesday and play golf instead.  But even as I’m walking between shots there is a little voice in my head: ‘….quickly changing to a violent pulsation and oncoming rush causing me to step back as though it had power to draw me down….’

Then, suddenly out of the blue I start mixing The Signalman with Top Hole! Every time I start with: ‘Halloa! Below there!  When he first heard a voice thus calling to him he was standing at the door of his box, a flag, furled round its short pole in his hand…..’  I find myself continuing the sentence with: ‘….leaning on the low parapet, his head in his hand, a frown upon his noble face’, which is Wodehouse not Dickens.  Oh dear.

Thursday, a day to go and the lines seem to be sticking and I’m at last confident that The Signalman will be fine but the show is a Double Bill and that means a whole second half, which is to be Doctor Marigold. Last time I performed it, in Llandrindod Wells the lines were not perfect and I got myself rather lost during it, so I wearily set off around my circuit (now a trench) and start working on the cheapjack’s story.

When I have finished that, I go back to The Signalman, just in case the effort of working on something else has driven the newly-learned words away, but no, they are still there, albeit a bit reluctant to show themselves.

Friday. The day of the show.  The Dickens Double Bill is my own show: I am producing it, which means that everything is my responsibility.  Friday morning is spent picking up the printed programmes, collecting ticket stubs and cash from Mostly Books in Abingdon who have acted as a box office for me, and buying large amounts of wine, water and fruit juice for the interval drinks.

I make sure I have a good sized lunch, as I know I won’t want to eat later and then go into the garden for a final descent into the line-learning canyon.

The show is to be in the Unicorn Theatre which is a converted grain store dating back to the 14th Century when Abingdon was dominated by a huge Abbey and was one of the most important towns in the area.  That all changed when Henry VIII had his spat with Rome and destroyed all of the Abbeys and Monasteries in the country, so that he could create his own religion.  Fortunately Mr The VIII’s cronies left some of the outbuildings in Abingdon untouched, so here we are.

The Double Bill is to be my first show at the venue and I’m hoping to make regular appearances there over the next few years.

On arrival I am introduced to John, who is going to look after the lighting for me. I have decided to have a few simple effects during The Signalman, including a representation of the much-mentioned red danger light.  I go through the script with him and he sets the lights up until we are both happy.

Liz arrives and starts to set up the front of house area. I am getting nervous now and am rather snippy and short, which is unfair of me.  I decide it is probably best to take myself to the dressing room and leave Liz to run front of house.  She is to be assisted by her colleague Penny Durant and her husband Jon.  Penny is an avid follower of this blog, so I now have the opportunity to say a huge thank you for all of your help last Friday.

Start time is drawing closer and I get changed muttering the lines over and over (shows are so much more relaxing when I am very familiar with a script).

As 7.30 approaches I make my way backstage and make contact with John through the intercom system. We are ready to go.

I step into the light, make my introduction, take a deep breath and begin:

‘Halloa! Below there….’

The Signalman goes very well and the atmosphere builds all the way through. There is one slight hiccup over lines which, frustratingly occurs around one of the lighting cues.  Fortunately I am aware of exactly what I’ve done and realise that John is about to plunge me into a blackout, so I quickly double back, without any hint of a pause and John takes the hint, finds where I am in the script and we are back on track.  It’s always nice to work with someone who understands theatre.

The Signalman finishes, hopefully leaving hairs standing on end throughout the audience, and I go back to the dressing room to get ready for Marigold.

After 20 minutes or so the audience file back in, having availed themselves of the wine, water and juice; settle back into their seats and Doctor Marigold takes over.

The evening is a great success I think. The audience isn’t big, as  we booked the theatre only a month or so ago, but they all seem to enjoy the show and hopefully when I return with A Christmas Carol in December there will be more.

So: phew! That is the end of the line learning and at last my head can relax.  It can let all of those words seep out like a sort or cerebral flatulence.

Oh, no: Still I have to learn.

Saturday is Liz’s concert and we set off for the three hour drive to Ipswich at around 11 o clock. Despite some traffic delays we arrive at the beautiful church in Rushmere St Andrews at the same time as the other two members of the trio, Beth Reed (violin) and Coral Lancaster (cello).

The Lyric Piano Trio rehearsing

The Lyric Piano Trio rehearsing

After a little while spent getting the performing area set up so that everyone can see everyone else and so that the piano does not drown out the two stringed instruments, Liz, Beth and Coral get down to their rehearsals and as they do that I…..learn lines.

Next Wednesday I am travelling to America to perform Mr Dickens is Coming, Nicholas Nickleby, Doctor Marigold, The Signalman and…..The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, which I have not performed for over a year.

While in the nave of St Andrew’s, the music of Ravel, Boulanger and Ireland drifts into the high vaulted expanse; in the vestry a muttering can be heard: ‘There was a deal table before the fire, on it a candle stuck in a ginger beer bottle, two or three pewter pots, some bread, butter and a plate….’

The Complete Works uses passage from every Dickens novel in chronological order, each linked to the next in such a way that the audience cannot ‘see the join’.  It seemed like a good idea when I wrote it.

Liz, Beth and Coral rehearse for almost three hours, which is exhausting for them, especially with a performance later, and I mutter my way through The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and so on all the way to The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Before the concert we are all treated to a high tea of sandwiches, pork pies, quiches and cake until the volunteers begin to arrive.   With them comes the vicar, a cheery jolly man, although he rather dampens the atmosphere by announcing that it is a miserable evening outside and Doctor Who is on, so we probably won’t have much of an audience.

Those hardy souls who own raincoats and who are not desperate to follow the latest incarnation of The Doctor, make their appearances and The Lyric Piano Trio disappear to change and collect their individual and collective thoughts.

I, of course, cannot rehearse during the concert so I just settle back and listen. I love watching and hearing Liz perform – she is so talented and makes the piano ‘sing’ in a way that few pianists do.

The concert is called ‘In Remembrance’ and is made up of music composed during the years of the First World War. The programme is well received by the audience and the applause goes on and on and on.  It is an extraordinary ovation from a small audience and fills me with an immense sense of pride.

It is only after the audience have left that Liz tells me that during the last piece of music she had begun to feel faint and dizzy, and could hardly concentrate. It is a testament to her professionalism and natural talent that I had no idea until now.

We pack up and get on the road. Fortunately we are not driving all the way home, but only as far as my brother’s house where the kitchen table is laid with cheese, pickles, relishes and wine.  We spend 30 minutes or so gently winding down before going to bed.

On Sunday we spend we spend a very happy and relaxing next day with my brother Ian and his wife Anne. After a delicious breakfast of grapefruit, bacon and scrambled eggs, Ian Liz and I go for a short walk.

Ian drives us to the small village of Tempsford and its nearby airfield. During the war this is where the men and woman operating for the Special Operations  Executive and the Secret Service (spies) flew from.  In the middle of the airfield is a simple brick barn, filled with bird droppings, from where these bravest of the brave collected their supplies from.

The barn has become a simple shrine to their memory and is filled with letters, postcards and accounts of the activities of various individuals whose very role in the war means they are unsung heroes. It is an extraordinarily moving place.

Having returned to Ian’s house we have a splendidly relaxing lunch in the garden, all thoughts of line learning and music as far away as they can be.

But, on Monday it is back to the garden. The circuit/track/furrow/trench/canyon is in danger of becoming a subterranean city as I begin once more. The Complete Works is re-acquainting itself with me well, but there is much more to be done.  More pacing, more muttering.  I will pace and mutter at the airport and in my hotel.  I will probably mutter in the immigration line at Logan airport and be refused entry on the grounds of insanity.

The question, of course, is: Did it all pay off?

I will update you from Salem, Ma

A Dickens Double Bill

For those of you who have become used to long, detailed blog entries which take you through every waking minute of my day, you will find this one a little more brief.

This one is a shameless piece of self-promotion.

On Friday evening at the Unicorn Theatre in my home town of Abingdon, I will be performing A Dickens Double Bill. The show features two of my favourite short stories written by Charles Dickens in the mid 1860s.

The Signalman is a spine chilling, eerie ghost story which takes place in a lonely signal box in a deep, damp railway cutting.  The narrator tells the tale of his chance encounter with the signalman under whose charge that stretch of line was.

What starts as an idle conversation to pass an hour or two soon becomes something much darker and more terrifying.

The fact that Dickens wrote The Signalman a year after he had been involved in a terrible railway accident lends an awful realism to the piece.

Regular readers of my blog will know all about Doctor Marigold.  Written in 1865 this charming monologue is a piece of Dickens little known today but one which delights audiences whenever they hear it.

Marigold featured heavily in Charles Dickens’ highly successful public reading tours and differs from most of his repertoire in that it is delivered in the first person. Almost reminiscent of Alan Bennett’s amazing ‘Talking Head’ sketches which were so popular in the 1980s, the audience really begins to feel as if they know the gentle man who shares his life’s struggles, tragedies and joys with them.

The two shows contrast beautifully and I am thoroughly looking forward to presenting them as a double bill for the first time on Friday.

So, now with my producer’s hat on: tickets are still available and can be ordered directly from me (use the email link on my website: http://www.geralddickens.com) or, if you are local, they can be purchased at Mostly Books in Stert Street, in the centre of Abingdon itself.

I look forward to seeing as many as possible on Friday and to writing a complete account of the show next week.

Remember:

Friday, 19 September, Unicorn Theatre, Abbey Buildings, Abingdon.

marigold poster white jpg

Links:

http://www.geralddickens.com

http://www.abingdonabbey-unicorntheatre.org.uk/

http://www.mostly-books.co.uk/

Monday – Wednesday: Llandrindod Wells

Monday

And so it is that, at 5.00am, the alarm goes.  As usual when there is an early morning call the alarm is unnecessary, as we have both spent a broken night more awake than asleep.  That will come back to haunt us later, I have no doubt.

We have showers and pack up the last of our belongings, in the certain knowledge that we are bound to leave something behind, and head to the kitchen to perform the sustaining coffee/tea/toast ritual.

Nicky, God bless her, comes in and we chat about the preceding days and the fun we’ve all had together.  It’s always so much fun to be here and this year has had the extra excitement of being in at the start of JD and Una’s trip.  I can’t wait to hear their updates and news.

We get ourselves loaded into the car, more hugs from Nicky, and we are on the road to Dublin.

Of course, at this hour of the day, there is very little traffic about, but as we get to Naas and various routes from the west and south converge, the Monday morning rush hour begins to build.

This time we aim for the tunnel, not the route along the Grand Canal and our journey is much quicker, less problematic and much duller. The tunnel takes you right beneath the City and into the heart of Dublin Docks.

As we drive up to the check in booth we take a decision to book a cabin on this crossing.  We are already exhausted and the thought of battling for chairs and trying to get comfortable is too much to bear.

Before we head up to the quiet of the cabin deck our first stop is the restaurant for a full slap-up breakfast: the works.  Bacon, sausages, eggs, tomato, toast, coffee, orange juice.  Delicious and much needed.

We find our cabin and for a 3 hour crossing it is surprisingly well equipped and well presented. We pull the top bunk down, I climb up and in a very short time we both doze off, lulled by the gentle movement of The Irish Sea and the far distant hum of the diesel engines.

I’ve no idea what happens for the next two hours, so you may as well go and make yourself a cup of tea or something.

When we do both wake there is still a short distance of the journey to go, so we make drinks and turn the tv on.  There is a film showing: ‘Bell, Book and Candle’, a strange thing starring Jimmy Stewart about witches.  We are both brought up short when the character played by Kim Novak is revealed to own a Siamese cat, so like our dear Kipling at home that he is almost in the cabin with us.

We slowly come to again and leave the cabin ready to join our car.  One huge bonus of paying the extra for the cabin is that our boarding and departing of the vessel is due to be expedited and we have a specially coloured tag dangling from the driver’s mirror to show everyone the fact.

We smugly sit in our car, looking sorrowfully at all of those with the standard, non-coloured tags.  Poor them.

The bow doors open.

We watch as a line to our left is waved off.  A line to our right is waved off. Lorries are waved off and some coaches are waved off.  Eventually and somewhat reluctantly our row of cars is permitted to leave the ship.

Actually it makes no difference whatsoever as the line of cars is completely stationary in the dockyard.  The entire payload of two ferries from Ireland is held up by one small set of traffic lights in the centre of Holyhead.  As the residents of the town go about their daily routine so drivers of cars, lorries and coaches sit fuming and impatient.  Presumably this scenario plays out each morning.

Even when we clear the town centre and set off along the A55 across the centre of Anglesey, we are still not free. 

To leave the island and rejoin the mainland there are only two, very old, very narrow, single file bridges and the line of cars and lorries which first became acquainted in Dublin at 8.00 this morning, are once more bumper to bumper.

Actually the delay doesn’t really have any significance for us, as there is nothing to rush for today.  In fact I have no real commitment until tomorrow evening, but it is extremely frustrating all the same.

At last we are released from Alcatraz, sorry, Anglesey, and begin the most beautiful day’s driving we could ever have wished for.

We are driving towards Llandrindod Wells, in the heart of Wales where I am due to perform at the Victorian Festival .  If this were a normal booking I would be driving from Oxford using the motorway system, but because we are driving from Holyhead the route take us through the heart of Snowdonia and, what is more, the sun is shining which is not always the case in North Wales.

The single-track roads wind this way and that, past farms, over rivers, alongside narrow-gauge railways.  We drive alongside the lower slopes of Mount Snowdon – at least we think it is Mount Snowdon: it appears to be bigger than all the surrounding mountains as well as being sort of pointy.

We amble on, occasionally getting stuck behind caravans and other holiday traffic, but we have not a care in the world.  At one point we are running behind a Dutch couple on an historic motorcycle and sidecar.  It looks terrifying from where we are as, being ‘left hand ride’, the rider is forced close to the slate wall marking the edge of the road, whilst the passenger is stuck out in the path of any oncoming traffic.

At around lunchtime we decide to find somewhere to stop and turn off the road into Dolgellau where we find a little café.  The town looks pretty but we are both feeling tired and want to get on, so it is back into the car and on towards Llandrindod Wells.

The Victorian Festival is due to be officially opened this evening and I have been asked if I could be up on the bandstand for the opening ceremony.  Speeches will be made and I am terrified that I will mispronounce Llandrindod Wells.  I have been practicing for weeks but am still convince that at the pressure-filled moment when I have to say ‘I am delighted to be in Llandrindod Wells…..’ I will actually say something completely insulting in Welsh and probably spit all over the Mayor.

We drive on and arrive in town at around five o’clock.  We have been booked accommodation in the amazing Metropole Hotel, which looks like it has been plucked from the slopes of the Alps.  All of the staff there are very attentive, helpful and polite.

At six I get into costume and head to the little park across the street where the opening ceremony is to take place (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’). 

Straight away I see David Hawes.  David is a good friend of many years standing.  In a previous blog post I called him an old friend, which he took exception to, so we will stick with good friend.

It is thanks to David that I am here.  He has been coming to Llandrindod for a few years now and has used his theatrical costume expertise to help dress the festival.  After last year’s event he  suggested to the organisers that it would be a good addition to the programme to have me performing.

Fortunately for me, they agreed

Since last I saw David in Rochester he has had a major medical scare and undergone a serious operation.  For a long time it was assumed that he would not be well enough to come to Llandrindod, but he’s here – as ebullient as ever.

David introduces me to the various people in the party that will parade to the bandstand.  Most importantly I am presented to Queen Victoria.  It is immediately apparent that the folks here take the festival very seriously indeed, as we are given our parading orders by a gentleman in a uniform of the Coldstream Guards.

“We will parade from here to the bandstand, where we shall assemble.  Speeches will be made. When the speeches have been heard and appreciated there will be photographs after which we will form up and process back here where you will be dismissed!”

Goodness!  I’m even more scared now and spend our entire parade, which isn’t very long admittedly, whispering to myself: ‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’.

There is small crowd awaiting us and they cheer and clap.  We stand on the bandstand. (‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’).

The chair of the festival committee makes a speech, and as she winds up my mouth is dry and my stomach in knots.

‘And now, to officially open the festival I am delighted to welcome our very special guest this evening…..’

(‘Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells, Llandrindod Wells’)

‘…..please give a round of applause for The High Sherriff of Powys.’

Of course I had completely got the wrong end of the stick: I had never been asked to say anything, nobody had ever expected me to say anything, they just thought it would be nice for me to be there.  Oh, happy day!  At least I could now say the name of town correctly.

We all finish up and go back to the hotel where we are formally dismissed.

Liz rejoins me from her place in the crowd and we have a lovely quiet dinner in the hotel’s brasserie. 

After coffee we decide to take a brief stroll around the town before retiring for an early night.

 

Tuesday

After breakfast on Wednesday morning I spend a couple of hours going through the lines for Doctor Marigold, which I am due to perform tonight, whilst Liz has a massage in the hotel’s spa.

When we meet up again we still have plenty of time to walk through the elegant town and take in various aspects of the events going on: craft stalls, a fairground barrel-organ, a marquee hosting ‘The Great Voltini and Madame Electra Sideshow’.

We go into the Church where there is the most magnificent collection of flower arrangements and a coffee shop selling delicious cakes of which we avail ourselves.

We continue our walk and make our way to the park containing the original chalybeate springs and Victorian bath houses that brought such prosperity to the town during the 19th century. Heading back to the hotel there is an opera singer performing on the bandstand and everyone seems involved and happy.

In the evening I am performing Mr Dickens is Coming and Doctor Marigold in the Albert Hall Theatre and we have arranged to meet David there at 5.45.  We are soon joined by Keith, who will be looking after us and the theatre tonight.

Oh, it is magnificent!  What a gem of a theatre. A beautiful stage, with all of the paraphernalia that you would expect to find backstage.  There are gently raked stalls and an elegant balcony.  At each side of the stage are large semi-circular panels, which had been designed to hold pipes for an organ but which are now filled in with the stained glass.  I am going to enjoy this evening.

 

The props, as usual with my shows, are minimal, so I’m soon set up and Keith has focussed the lights for me.

As 7.30 approaches the audience start to arrive and I am backstage peeking through holes in the curtain.  Liz is going to watch the whole first half from the wings, so that she can close the curtains at the interval.

Suddenly there is a fanfare and my friend the Coldstream Guard announces the arrival of Queen Victoria.  Everyone solemnly stands as she takes her place in the centre of the front row.  This suits me very well for a running gag in the show is Dickens’s repeated refusal to meet the Queen. 

David then stands to make an introduction and he gets a round of applause before he’s even said anything – this promises to be a good audience.  It is clear how fond everyone here is of David, for as he says that he really hadn’t expected to be able to attend the festival this year due to his operation, the whole audience begin to clap.  I’m welling up in the wings, so heaven knows how he is coping out front.

He keeps his composure, completes the introduction and I am on.

The audience are with me from the start, they know the characters and passages I use, they appreciate the jokes and love the byplay with The Queen.  There is a wonderful, warm, friendly feeling in The Albert Hall tonight.

During the interval Liz and I clear the stage.  I change into the Doctor Marigold costume and soon the house lights dim and I’m on again.

Marigold is a perfect piece to perform in a small Victorian Theatre and, as is becoming the norm now, people warm to a tale that they have never heard before.  They feel close to this kind man entrusting them with his life’s story.

It has been a lovely evening.

When I am changed and back into the 21st century I start to move the furniture and props to the front door, where we load the car.

David has arranged for us all to descend on the house of one of the regular festival participants where we tuck into a Chinese dinner ordered and collected after the show.  We all chat, eat and slowly wind down until it is time to get back to the hotel and bed.

 

Wednesday

This adventure is almost over and I have just one more duty to perform before we head for home.  This morning at 10.30 I am due to appear at Dickens Wine Bar, which is a basement establishment just off the gardens which form the hub of the festival.  The wine bar has not been open long but, as the name suggests, is completely Dickens themed, with character prints and quotes from novels hanging on the walls.

Even the bar’s mission statement is a quote:  ‘Whatever we have tried to do in business, we have tried with all our heart to do it well; whatever we have devoted ourselves to, we have devoted ourselves completely; in great aims and in small we have always thoroughly been in earnest.’  I’d love to tell where that is from….but I can’t!

The wine bar is owned and run by Chris and Denise Hartley who, for the period of the festival, are appearing as Mr Bumble and Nancy. Their son (now THAT is a plot line Dickens never thought of), is The Artful Dodger, aka Evander.

I am sat at a Victorian clerk’s desk, complete with inkstand and quill pen and there is a nice steady stream of people coming in.  We have brought my DVDs of Doctor Marigold; David sold plenty at the show last night and a good many more sell this morning.  There are photographs and lots of friendly chat.  It is a nice way to finish our week long trip.

At 12.00 the final pictures are taken outside the bar and we go back to the hotel where I change out of my frock coat and back into civvies before getting into the car and heading home to Abingdon.

It has been a remarkable trip.  It has been lovely to spend so much time with Nicky in Ireland and it has been a treat to be part of such a warm welcoming festival as the one in Llandrindod Wells.  We have had a lovely time but now it is certainly time to go home.

 

Epilogue

After returning home on Wednesday afternoon our first task was to pick up our two cats, Ruby and Kip from the local cattery.

On Friday I was away again, performing in Leicester, so Saturday was really the day we were finally all at home together.

I flopped and Liz worked in the garden throughout the day.  The cats, enjoying the freedom of the garden again, accompany her.  In the late afternoon Kipling began to struggle to breathe and although we rushed him to the vet who performed an emergency operation, he died that night.

He was not yet two years old but had become so much a part of our home that he leaves an immense hole in our lives.

We posted the news on Facebook and were overwhelmed by the support and love we received from friends all over the world for which we say a heartfelt thank you.

Kipling, you will always be here with us.

 

 

 

Sunday: The Great Golf Match

After two days of performing Sunday is a day off and I would normally take this opportunity to flop. There will be no relaxation today however, for it is the day of The Great Golf Match.

JD and I are due to go head to head this afternoon and my concentration needs to be tip top.  Over the past couple of days JD and I have been playing a psychological war, which mainly involves getting our own excuses for terrible golf into the mix.

The pressure is mounting: for two nights I have slept soundly, despite the fact that I have had performances looming.  No nightmares of walking onto stage naked, or discovering that I’m in a completely different show to that which I’d planned for.  However last night I writhed, tossed, turned in my bed, dreaming of swinging hopelessly at a golf ball which remains resolutely in place.  On the few occasions that the club does touch it the ball moves either a matter of inches or flies off in completely the wrong direction.  Oh, this is bad!

During the morning JD heads off to the gym (an underhand bit of training, I call it) and Liz and I head back into Kilkenny.  We walk around the castle grounds and have a coffee but most of the businesses in town are closed.

After a relaxing time we go back to the house to make final preparations.  JD comes back from the gym looking fit and buoyant. 

We load my clubs into the car and we all set off (Liz is coming with us, for the walk and to ensure fair play!)

The venue for the match is Mount Juliet, a magnificent golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus that has hosted the Irish Open and other PGA events.  It is a money-no-object facility the like of which I have never played on before.

As soon as we arrive JD heads off to the pro-shop and I dash after him, as I’m determined to pay for something during this trip.  The generosity of Nicky and her sons is unbelievable. 

Fortunately on this occasion I manage to get there before him and not only get our rounds paid for but also buy a Mount Juliet cap, a course guide and a few extra balls, which may well be necessary.

At precisely two o’clock, Liz, JD and I walk to the first tee.

JD has the honour and as he warms up I can see that he has an elegant, powerful looking swing.  He stands over the ball, waggles the club, pauses and then the match is on.  His first tee shot flies long but right into an area of rough.

And now it is my turn:  forget about those bad dreams, concentrate.  I try to keep the swing short and slow and am rewarded with the sight of the ball soaring into the sky in a dead straight line, landing just to the right of the fairway.

JD doesn’t find his ball and has to drop but I put my second into a greenside bunker.  We halve in six.

The second we halve in six too, and move onto Mount Juliet’s signature hole.

When Jack Nicklaus got his hands on the patch of land near Kilkenny he spotted a short valley which was a perfect par 3 length.  Having dug a lake, he put the tee at one end of it and the green 170 yards away at the other.

JD still has the honour and hits a shot onto the green.  Now I begin to self destruct.  First shot: plop! into the water.  Second shot: plop! into the water.  Somehow the third gets across but I’m now one hole down.

My demons follow me to the next and I’m soon two holes down.  At the fifth I go three down.  This is shaping up to be a rout.

The one great hope for me is JD’s putting which is fragile at the moment.  He is playing beautifully from tee to green (assisted by his seemingly magical rescue club) but once there he is struggling to finish the job.

From the sixth I start playing again.  My drives are long and the approach shots decent.  While JD still can’t find form on the greens I pull myself back to level as we reach the ninth.

At the ninth tee there is another example of the luxury of Mount Juliet, a little telephone in a box with a menu attached.  You simply place an order for a burger, wraps, drinks and snacks and by the time you have navigated your way to the green the food is waiting for you to collect on the way to the tenth.

Our match swings back and forward.  For a while it looks as if I am in complete control but, as I had done earlier in the round, JD fights back to level again.

All square as we start the seventeenth.  We halve. 

All square and everything to play for at the last.

The sun is setting and the shadows are long as we look down the eighteenth fairway.  JD slices his ball and is placed in short rough on some hillocks.  I hit my best drive of the round into the middle of the fairway and when JD fluffs his second, only advancing a short distance, I am definitely the favourite.

The lie is good and I take a 3 wood to clip the ball off the immaculate turf and send it towards the hole.  The swing is good, the contact is clean and the ball climbs into the sky with plenty of power behind it.  I am almost celebrating until I realise that it is arcing away to the left and what runs up the whole left side of the fairway?  Water.

For a moment I hope that I may just clear the water hazard and reach the bunker beyond.  However it is only a fleeting hope and frustratingly once more my ball plops into the lake, a fountain of silver briefly marking its landing point.

JD, now back on the fairway, is in charge once more. 

It soon becomes apparent however that neither of us seems ready to win this match, for JD’s ball follows mine into the lake.

Throughout the round JD’s composure and sense of calm has been remarkable.  He has played a superb game, getting out of trouble with that rescue club of his and scoring consistently.  But now, half way up the eighteenth fairway it all collapses.

As we walk to the point where his ball has gone into the lake his trolley and bag start to roll down the bank towards the water.  We all make a leap to save them but in his haste JD knocks over one of the red stakes marking the edge of the hazard.  For a moment it looks as if he may follow the balls into the lake but although he saves himself his composure is lost.

He drops a ball but the tempo of the swing is hurried and it flies into a bunker.  He swipes at the ball angrily, taking three to get out of the sand, but his next shot, a magnificent long putt, almost rescues his day.  Sadly for him the ball pulls up a few inches short.

In the meantime I have played a scrappy shot to the front of the green followed by several nervous putts to the hole.

After four hours, 6554 yards, some great shots from both us and some frankly embarrassing ones, it has all come down to this final green and I crawl over the line first, taking the match by a single hole.

It has been such a fun round (I would say that, wouldn’t I?)  JD has been great company throughout and it has been fabulous to have Liz with us. 

We pose on the green for pictures and make our way to the clubhouse where we pore over the scorecards and they reveal a perfectly democratic result, for while I won the matchplay game by that single, final hole, JD triumphed on strokes by 3.  We both won!

JD has let Nicky know that we are finished so she and Una drive out and join us in the clubhouse.

For all of Mount Juliet’s superb qualities the service in the bar isn’t brilliant and we have a bit of a wait before a) we can order and b) we get served our plates of fish and chips, chicken and a bowl of soup.

I am seriously beginning to flop now and the various conversations carry on around me as I subside deeper into the large leather chair.

When we have all finished, we take a little bit of time to walk through the grounds of the magnificent 5 star hotel which is attached to the golf course.

JD wants to show us the hotel’s putting course, and our walk takes through the extraordinary walled garden.  It is a complete dream in there, helped with the golden evening light.  The beds are extravagantly planted with riotous colours and set off with dream-like, whispy grasses blowing in the breeze.  It is like an oasis of flowers.  We could be anywhere right now, the location is completely forgotten.

We leave the garden and return to the real world and there JD shows us the putting green.  It is a complete miniature replica of the main golf course, complete with bunkers and those dreaded lakes.  I scowl at the third hole and we walk back to the cars.

Back at the house it is time to pack the car.  Our adventure in Ireland is almost at an end and tomorrow morning we have to leave at 5.45 to pick the ferry up in Dublin.

For once the evening does not extend as far towards midnight and we say our ‘good nights’ early and head for our various beds.

 

 

Saturday: The Signalman, The Nore and More

Morning

Once again the rigours of the evening before (and I’m not really referring to the performance), take their toll and it is another slow, pottery start to the day.  We go through the same routine of coffee, tea and toast.

This morning Una is the first to appear from the rest of the house.  We all sit round the table and have a most remarkable conversation.  Una and JD are about to head off on what can only be described as the trip of a lifetime.

Una is a primary school teacher and JD, of course, works in the hotel industry.  They both went straight into their respective professions as soon as they graduated and therefore missed out on the gap year enjoyed by so many students.

Thanks partly to a piece of legislation in Ireland which allows teachers to take a break from work, yet guarantees them a job when they return, JD and Una have decided to travel the world.  They will be flying to Russia and from there will spend a year and maybe more exploring the eastern hemisphere. 

They will be taking a train across Russia, hiking through Mongolia, exploring Tibet and hoping to trek through the foothills of the Himalayas to Everest Base Camp.  Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Singapore, Hong Kong all feature in their itinerary.  However, they will not be calling in favours from JD’s contacts in the luxury hotel industry as their homes will be packed up in their rucksacks each night.

Quite apart from the sheer physical scale of the adventure, there is also the logistical side of the trip to be worked on.  Visas for everywhere have to be applied for: some online, some at embassies.  Some countries will let you in and back out, but only if you haven’t travelled from a hostile neighbouring territory.  In some cases the political situation may well have changed between the planning and the arrival so everything is up in the air.

It sounds an amazing trip and Una’s excitement of the months to come is infectious.  Hopefully they will write a blog of their adventures, I can’t wait to follow them.

As we chat JD’s brother Niall appears.  Niall is the only one of Nicky’s three sons not working in the hotel industry, preferring the more regular hours of a career in marketing.  He drove down from Dublin last night and arrived during my show.  Nicky soon joins us too.

In past years Saturday has been a day of recovery but not so this year as for the first time I am doing a second show at Kyteler’s: The Signalman.

When we discussed my trip earlier in the year Nicky suggested that we staged a daytime, more intimate show to again coincide with the Arts Week crowds.  If we don’t ever become part of the official festival remember that this is where the Kilkenny Fringe started.

Niall heads into town first, and Nicky goes later.  Liz and I arrange to meet her at Kyteler’s for an early lunch before the two o’clock show.  Fortunately for us JD and Una are about so there is no pressure for Liz and me to set the house alarm.

 

Kyteler’s Inn

In Kyteler’s we are shown to a small table and order Irish Stew – well, you have to, don’t you?  As we sit and watch we are reminded (not that we have ever been in any doubt), what an amazing establishment Kyteler’s Inn is.  It is Saturday lunchtime and it is busy.  There are locals, there are tourists, there are Arts Week visitors and throughout all three floors are waitresses taking orders, serving dishes, clearing tables.  Guests are taking photographs of the decor, getting in the way of the staff as they do but there is never any issue and the whole building has a sense of relaxed efficiency.

A table near us has been reserved and when the party arrive the reserved sign is put on an adjoining table.  A second reserved table is occupied and the sign for that one is also put aside next to the first.

  Now a group of American’s arrive and they head towards what looks like a large empty table but they are disappointed when they see the two reserved tabs. A waitress bustles past and realising that the group are looking for a table says: ‘You can sit there if you like’.  ‘But it says reserved’ ‘Ah, don’t worry about that, that’s grand!’ She whisks away the two reserved signs and the group are beaming as if the Maitre D’ of a Michelin Starred restaurant has just freed up the most sort after table especially for them.  It is a tiny thing but that group will have loved their visit to Kyteler’s Inn and, by association, to Kilkenny.

Our Irish Stew and soda bread arrives and it is delicious.

And now the time is approaching to get back to work.

 

The Signalman

The Signalman is a ghost story written by Charles Dickens in 1866.  It is set in a deep, dark, damp railway cutting, at the mouth of a long tunnel and is packed with atmosphere.  The story is told by an unnamed gentleman who befriends the signalman and spends long hours talking to him in his lonely box.  The poor railway worker tells a tale of ghostly sightings and terrible happenings.

For this show I am performing it as a reading but will be introducing it as a fully fledged part of my repertoire soon.  To allow the brilliant narrative to be the centre of attention I have cleared the stage of all my paraphernalia with the exception of a small rustic stool. 

We are not expecting a huge crowd today but there are plenty of people returning after last night (presumably with the requisite ‘S’ marked on the back of their tickets) and a group of ladies who just happened to hear about the event have turned up on spec.

Just as we are about to start one of the groups order teas and Nicky’s family goes into action giving  a further illustration of the professional attitude that pervades at Kyteler’s: Nicky goes to the main bar to sort out the order, asking Niall to fetch milk and sugar for the table. Niall, remember doesn’t work in the hotel industry (although he has been brought up in it and knows how it works).  He is dressed in jeans and a casual shirt and calls JD, who is dressed in jacket and tie, over.  Both know that it would be bad form to serve guests inappropriately dressed, so Niall passes the tray to JD.  Nicky comes back with the tea, JD serves the milk and sugar, and another set of guests are spoiled without realising it.

And it is time to start.  Being a reading the whole atmosphere is much more relaxed than the theatrical events of last night and it’s a rather nice feeling, almost getting back to my roots.

I begin the show by telling the story of Charles Dickens’ narrow escape in a terrible train disaster just a year before he wrote The Signalman.  From that date he felt haunted and terrorised by the horrors of the railway and the story seems to be an exorcism of those fears.

The show goes well and I am very pleased with the way its debut has been received.  The next time I perform it will be in my home town of Abingdon as a double bill with Doctor Marigold (Friday September 19 at the Unicorn Theatre, if you must know. Tickets available directly from me).

Again the audience hang around in the bar and chat about both shows.  Many of them are going to get in touch with the festival organisers and push for our inclusion next year.

After doing a brief television interview up in the roof of the bar, I am able to get changed and Nicky, Liz and I take all of my furniture and props down to the car.

Before we leave Kyteler’s Nicky is anxious to show us her new pride and joy.  Throughout the first part of this year she has had an entire new kitchen area built which has entailed complicated planning applications, negotiations with neighbours, architectural meetings about how to fit a modern, purpose-built, mass-catering kitchen into a limited space enclosed by a 14th Century witch’s house.

The results are spectacular and it is so lovely to hear Nicky bubbling with enthusiasm as she shows us round.  She is, justifiably, very proud of what she is achieving here.

 

A Walk by The Nore

We all get back to the house at about the same time.  Niall is going to go to the gym and Nicky had suggested that a walk would be fun.  It sounds like a great idea, especially as all of my shows in Ireland are now finished and I can free my mind of them.

Liz and I are a bit intimidated as JD, Una and Nicky all appear in very sporty looking gear, whilst we are in wellies and sweaters.  The walk takes us initially along the road and then across some fields to the banks of the River Nore.  It is quickly apparent that JD and Una are in serious training for the trek to the foothills of Everest – they are gone! Striding out ahead at a great pace.

The walk along the Nore from Kilkenny to Bennet’s Bridge is beautiful.  The river itself is dark and peaty, occasionally the strong currents created frothy white crests and then it looks like a freshly pulled pint of Kilkenny Ale.  It is a river of many characters, sometimes it flows slowly and peacefully and at other times there are sections of rapids that would not be out of place in the Grand Canyon.

The path follows the river’s meandering course, through meadows, fields and deep dark woodlands.  It is here, in the woods, that the most amazing structures arise before us.  Covered in creeping ivy and sinuous branches is a lost industrial community.  Huge mill buildings, factories, wharfs, stand long forgotten.  Here was a noisy bustling river bank, these skeletons of buildings were filled with labourers shouting, swearing, sweating.  Barges took loads up the river.  Fortunes were made and presumably lost meaning that industry moved on leaving this ghost town in the heart of the forest.  All very Brothers Grimm.

As we walk on we admire magnificent houses on each bank.  Una tells us to look out for a shrine visible briefly through the trees and when we see it, it is frankly terrifying.  Framed in a V in the woodland, a large white figure of Christ hangs against a black background, seemingly suspended in mid air.

We approach the end of our walk and the river path passes under a huge flyover carrying the M9 motorway towards Waterford.  Here, as business men roar past over our heads, as lorry drivers belch diesel into the atmosphere, as holiday makers and taxi drivers motor on blissfully unaware, wrapped up only in their respective worlds; here we are given to a rare wildlife treat.

Our first excitement is a heron perched on a rock in the river.  He is a noble bird taking off with slow, languid beats of his wings into the setting sun which refelcts brightly against the river.  And then Una squeals with excitement: in the middle of the river is an otter.  Coming to the surface, searching, fishing, inquisitive before diving again.  For a few minutes we stand searching for him, never quite knowing in which part of the river his head will reappear.  It is a beautiful end to the walk.

Back at Nicky’s car we all pile in and JD phones ahead to a Chinese restaurant in Kilkenny.  As we drive across each railway crossing Nicky takes her hands and feet from the controls of the car, at the same time shouting out ‘Win the Lotto, win the Lotto, win the Lotto!’ Apparently this is a good-luck ritual introduced to her by our sister-in-law Ann.  I might have thought keeping control of a high -powered vehicle in a rural lane might bring better results of self preservation.  However, if Nicky wins the jackpot this weekend I am willing to be convinced.

Back at the house JD and Una go to fetch the Chinese and the rest of us settle down to watch another episode of ‘The Shelbourne’ television programme.  Niall is excited about this episode as he is responsible for one of the advertisements shown at half time.  The ad in question is for a foot fungal treatment. He says it is a perfect bit of advertising, as all of the staff at the hotel (including his brother, JD) are on their feet all day and always on the move so may well suffer from foot fungus.  We’re certainly looking forward to our Chinese now!

We all tuck in to the various dishes and it is delicious.  As usual we chat and laugh.  Nicky’s home is so welcoming and she is a generous host.  We talk about our walk, the television show, the performances.  We talk about board games that we used to play as kids.  We share silly old jokes such as: ‘why is there only one Monopoly’s Commission? Why is there only one word for thesaurus? Why is dyslexia so difficult to spell?’ and others.

We play a card game and then decide to have an early night.

It’s after midnight and tomorrow I have a major golf match to play.

 

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