Farewell to Lenox

From a performance point of view Sunday was to be a repeat of Saturday with one show at Ventfort Hall at 3.30 pm, which meant I had a lovely long morning to relax in.  Although I woke at 4.30 I managed to go back to sleep and was only re-awoken at 6.00 thanks to the alarm clock in the room having not been turned off when the previous guests left.    I got up, made myself a cup of coffee with the Keurig machine (top marks Seven Hills!) and began to work on my daily blog post.

Breakfast at The Seven Hills was a continental buffet with fruit, cheese, pastries and cereals to choose from and I sat at a table in the huge drawing room area looking over the gardens that were still blanketed with snow.  It looked as if it was going to be another spectacularly beautiful day.

When I returned to my room I had to decide what to do with my morning and my thoughts returned to the night before when Tom had suggested that I might like to visit The Mount, the Lenox home of American author Edith Wharton.  Liz and I are always keen to visit historic homes so this seemed like a good plan.

The Mount opened for tours at 10.45 so I went to the car park at 11 and prepared myself for the drive ahead.  Actually the walk from the front door of the hotel to the car was probably longer than the drive from the hotel to The Mount, for they nestle next door to each other.  As soon as I left the gate and accelerated it was time to brake hard and I almost missed the gate, such was their proximity.  In finer days I would have simply walked but the terrain linking the two buildings was thick with snow and I didn’t want to risk disappearing under a drift.

I was able to walk from the car park to the house itself though for the main drive wound for 1/4 mile through woodland and the scene was certainly beautiful and peaceful.

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Having lived for a long time in Europe as a child Edith Wharton was heavily influenced by the architecture of the continent and brought that to bear when she planned to build her own house on a large estate next to the peace and calm of Laurel lake.

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Once she had finished the house she set to work on landscaping the gardens and became so personally involved in the project that she was moved to say that she was a far better landscape gardener than she was an author.

The house was certainly beautiful, airy and light, and maintained a close relationship with the environment in which it was set, for Wharton was keen to promote nature and our connection to it throughout her design.

I spent an hour walking from one room to another and discovering the story of a an author about whom I knew little.  Wharton loved The Mount, and it was sad indeed that she only spent ten years there until her marriage broke down and the estate was sold.

As with Ventfort Hall the building had fallen into disrepair during the 20th century and was in danger of collapsing completely until a group of passionate volunteers began putting the framework in place to save the old house.  In the kitchen and scullery some patches of wall had been left unrestored so that visitors could see the original structure and a line from A Christmas Carol came to me: ‘fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead’

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Today the house stands as a magnificent testament both to Edith Wharton and to the dedication of the people who restored it.

My visit, including the beautiful walk back up the drive to my car, lasted a little over an hour so I still had plenty of time to relax before the show.  I decided to drive into the town of Lee which had looked so beautiful when I was arriving the day before.

I parked in the main street through the town and ambled around taking in the atmosphere of this little town.  There seemed to be a proliferation of barber’s shops leading me to believe that everyone in lee must have beautifully trimmed hair although it was difficult to tell because everyone was wearing winter hats.  I found an antique store and spent some time in there too  In the window I found two toby jugs in the shape of Sarah Gamp from Dickens’ novel Martin Chuzzlewit.  Charles is certainly omnipresent, and it was curious that it should have been that particular novel that was represented for it was in Chuzzlewit that he criticised America so harshly, leading to copies of the book being burned in public squares!

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My walk took me to the beautiful First Congregational Church which dominates the skyline and whose spire gleamed white against the blue sky looking like a rocket waiting to soar into the heavens.

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I was interested to learn that the cornerstone of the current church was laid in 1857 when Charles Dickens was completing Little Dorrit and was about to embark upon his professional reading tours.

It was time for lunch and the ‘Starving Artist Café and Creperie’ looked a good bet.  I ordered a healthy salad and a cup of warming coffee, which I consumed listening to a female duo performing a cover of Bowie’s Starman among others.  It was a lovely atmosphere and by the time I finished the salad I could certainly not be described as a starving artist (if truth be told most of the clientele looked rather well to do!).

By now it was time to drive back to the hotel and pick up the things I needed for the show, which was not much for I had left my costumes at Ventfort the previous day.  By 2.30 I was back at the old house ready to perform once more.  Hayley, Nick and I made sure that everything was ready in the room.  Nick was looking particularly sharp, dressed in a tuxedo (he later told me he had been singing that morning and come straight to Ventfort.  He had elected not to change into his regular clothes as he thought it would look more classy to remain formal!) Soon the audience began to arrive so I retreated to my expansive dressing room whilst downstairs all of the volunteers and board members made the guests welcome and comfortable.

When I was dressed I laid out my replacement costume on the chaise so as to be able to change quickly after the show and noticed that it had taken on a human form, albeit a very flat one, with a little set dressing involving my cane, hat and scarf the figure stretched out looked just as I would feel two hours later.

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At 3.30 the parlour was filled and on this occasion it was Hayley who made my introduction.  The show worked just as well as it had the day before and there was lots of laughter and participation throughout.  When I flipped my top hat into the air it so nearly landed squarely on my head and there was a sort of gasp of anticipation from the audience which turned into a groan as it toppled off my head onto the stage and from there to the floor.  Once again the ovation at the end was loud and generous.

I made my way upstairs and put some bulk into the flat costume before returning to chat and share tea with the audience.

As well as posing for photographs with audience members I particularly wanted to catch one with Hayley and Nick who had looked after the production side of the show so well during my two days stay.

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For dinner Mary Frances and Susan would again be my hosts but on this occasion we would be joined by two of the Ventfort House board members Alice and her husband Irving.  Sometimes evenings with board members can be a struggle and tiring because it is important to schmooze and be on show so as to encourage future appearances, but Sunday night had none of that weightiness or sense of duty – all of my companions had grown up in New York (well, Alice confessed to be being a ‘Joisey Goil’), with Susan and Irving both having cut their teeth in the Bronx.  The tales of life under the Mafia (for the region was well and truly ruled from Sicily at that time) were amazing and the evening flew by in a trice.

At 9.30 we finished our dinner and said our farewells in the icy parking lot.  My time as a guest of Ventfort House in Lenox had come to an end but hopefully I will return soon.

 

 

Today’s musical connection is related to the scene when Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present fly around the world to deep mine, to a lighthouse built on a dismal reef of sunken rock, to the wheel house of a ship tossed in the black and heaving sea and back to the land again.

To accopany their travels I give you The Pretenders performing 2000 miles.

Incidentally this whole section is one of my favourite passages in the book and even though it doesn’t feature in my show I urge you all to read it in full!

 

 

A Watercolourist’s Dream

 

 

On Saturday morning I was due to drive from Nashua to the farthest reaches of western Massachusetts where I would be spending two days nestled in The Berkshires.  Packing was easy as for the rest of the trip all of the paraphernalia that I need for the shows will stay in the car.  Both of my costumes, my hat and cane and the little roller bag were still in Franz from the night before and in no time my case was filled and closed.

Breakfast was a healthy option of a delicious frozen smoothie with fruit and muesli sprinkled through it. I felt very virtuous as I consumed it.  At one point there was a shriek of laughter from the staff at the Bistro counter and shortly afterwards the most senior of the group came to me and asked if I was having a nice day and was everything OK? I replied in the positive to both inquiries, and then she followed up with ‘I hope you weren’t offended by anything you may have heard us say?’  ‘Not at all,’ I replied, I hadn’t heard anything.  ‘Oh, it wasn’t anything really awful, maybe just sort of, you know, like innuendo.’  I assured her that I hadn’t heard anything and I am sure that I wouldn’t have been offended even if I had. However I was most curious and wish I had overherheard.

At 8.30 I was ready to drive and I carefully set my sat nav to take me back to Vaillancourt Folk Art where I was to drop the reading desk back.  It would have been so easy to drive to The Berkshires and forget all about the desk.  I initially followed route 3 and then was given directions to drive through the charming little town of Chelmsford which sparkled pretilly in the snow, before joining the I-95.

It was strange to find myself driving from Worcester to Sutton on such familiar roads again.  It was an extraordinary thought that it had been exactly a week since I had made the same journey for the first time this year and I had a sort of Pavlovian response to the scenery as if I were about to do a show in the Blaxton Hall theatre.  The journey to the mill took about an hour and when I arrived everyone was bustling about as usual.  I chatted briefly with Gary, Judi and Luke, before setting out on my way again (having remembered to leave the desk, incidentally.)

The day was absolutely glorious with a bright sun shining from a clear blue sky.  The snow from the great storm that had so threatened my travel plans was piled high at the roadsides and covered the countryside.  In woodlands the bare trees through beautiful shadows onto the white beneath.

Everywhere I looked I saw scenes that an expert watercolour painter would have adored:  they would leave great swathes of the paper white and then mix a little Ultramarine Blue with a dash of Alizarin Crimson and with a few deft brushstrokes elevate the flat page into a shadow-crossed landscape.

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As I drove I listened to my Christmas songs and when my playlist came to an end I switched back to ‘Northern Lights’ in which the plot had taken the characters to the frozen north into Svalbard and the land of the great armoured bears.  Somehow the winter scene outside helped me to become more involved in the story.

The journey was an easy one and in no time I was passing through the beautiful town of Lee and towards my hotel in Lenox, the Seven Hills Inn.  Unfortunately my room wasn’t ready when I arrived, the previous guests having only recently checked out, so I left my bags and decided to drive.

I had no plan as to where I would drive, I would just drive and if I saw an interesting road I would take it.  I vaguely wanted to go up, but other than that I set off in blissful ignorance of what I would find.

I drove out of Lenox and then started to turn this way and that and found myself climbing up Richmond Mountain Road from where there was a magnificent view across the lake and the valley.

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It was also a perfect spot to photograph Franz in his natural habitat.

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On I drove along lanes with such amazing names as March Hare Road, Turkey Trot Lane, Swamp Road and Sleepy Hollow Road.  The views were continually magnificent, as were many of the lavishly designed properties which nestled against the hillsides.  I am sure the properties here have magnificent price tags to match.

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After an hour of aimless exploring I found my way back to Lenox and checked into my room.  The hotel has recently been taken over by new management and they had opened the doors as part of a local ‘open house’ day, so the building was full of curious visitors enjoying complimentary hot chocolate and cookies while listening to the piano and vocalist duo who sang in the main drawing room space,

I didn’t have much time in my room as it was 1.45 now and I needed to be at the Ventfort Hall mansion at 2.15.  I performed at Ventfort for the first time last year and it was lovely to arrive back and to be welcomed by many friends.  This year I was due to perform twice on successive days and my stage had already been set up in the small parlour, where a large bus group were being told the history of the house.  I met Mary Frances who had looked after me last year, as well as Hayley who with her background of theatre stage management had been my fixer for all things technical.

My dressing room at Ventfort was a large ladies dressing room (I mean the room is large not, I am sure, the ladies who used it),  and as I went in to lay my costumes into the chaise longue I noticed a little gift bag waiting for me.  In it was a pair of black socks with a welcome card:  last year I had forgotten to bring socks with me and Hayley had found a rather fetching pair with a silver teapot woven into them.  The welcome gift gave me a lovely feeling of being part of the team and was a great affirmation of friendship.

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By the time I got downstairs again the lecture in the parlour had finished so I was able to set the stage as I wanted it.

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Hayley moved furniture around and her brother Nick prepared the sound system and ran through the cues with me.    On the stage was a chair to which was pinned a notice: ‘Please do not stand or sit on stage.  Thank you!’  well, this was going to make the afternoon difficult, so I took a picture and posted it on social media asking for advice and in no time the answers were flooding in: ‘Handstand?’, ‘Hop, skip and jump’, ‘Levitate’, ‘Be like Marley’s ghost and fly!’ ‘Dancing wasn’t ruled out,’ ‘What are you like at cartwheels?’  ‘Try laying down!  It says nothing about laying down!’

Only one correspondent supplied the correct answer: ‘Take the sign down!’ which I did.

The stage was very small, so the show would be a very different creature than the night before where I had roamed freely on the stage in Nashua.  I sat for a while looking at the room and as I pondered how things would work, Mary Frances brought me a cup of tea.

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As well as touring the house the large bus group would also be coming to my show and as time was moving on I needed to return to my room to change.  I relaxed on the chaise longue, not because I needed to but because it was there and I could, and at 3.20 I checked that I had my watch, my old penny in my waistcoat pocket, my hat cane and scarf and went down to prepare for the show.

The parlour was packed and at 3.30 Tom Hayes stood at the little lectern hidden in the corner and after welcoming all of the guests to Ventfort Hall introduced me.

There is something wonderful about telling a story in a historic parlour, I feel it at the General Crook House in Omaha too, it is as if this is where such a story belongs.  It was a fun show and the proximity of the audience really made it feel as if we were all living it together.  I used the floor space and the central aisle a great deal and of course found suitable victims throughout the story, all of whom played along happily. The time rushed by and in no time I was saying ‘God Bless Us Every One’ and leaving the stage, whilst the audience stood to applaud me back.

After the show the guests were to be treated to a lavish tea, so as I changed upstairs tables were placed and the chairs from the parlour arranged.  Sherry was served ‘chilled and dry’, or ‘nutty and warm’, and cake stands groaning beneath the weight of pastries, sandwiches and dainties of every description were raided by the grateful guests.

When I came back I chatted to various people and signed books and programmes as we sat and ate.  It was a much more relaxing and friendly than the traditional post-show signing lines and people asked lots of questions about the show.  Time meandered happily on, until it was time for the last cake to be eaten and the last drop of tea to be drunk, for the coach had arrived to scoop up the tour group and take them onto their next event, a choral concert.

I was to be taken out to dinner by Mary Frances and her friend, and fellow volunteer, Susan.  We were slightly early for our 7.30 reservation so we stopped for a quick libation at the stylishly-décored Kemble Inn.  In the mountains the sky was clear with no hint of light pollution and the stars shone brightly against the inky black.  The ghostly snow banks surrounded us and the air felt fresh and clean.  It was a beautiful moment just to stand and reflect.

Dinner was to be at the Bistro Zinc in the heart of Lenox, and Tom was waiting for us to join him.  What a fun evening we had, full of laughter and bonhomie.  the Berkshires boasts a vibrant arts scene and we talked about the possibility of bringing some of my other shows to the area at a different time of year; the double bill of The Signalman and Doctor Marigold would work well at Ventfort and it would be fun to include the area on one of my September visits in the future.

I enjoyed a delicious pork chop with a thick coating of apple sauce nestling on braised brussel sprouts and potatoes.  Delicious.

The evening drifted on and the bistro emptied until it was time for us to leave too.  Susan and Mary Frances took me back to my car, which we had left at The Kemble Inn and we said our goodbyes before I drove back to the Seven Hills Inn and my bed.

 

Today’s musical link is extremely tenuous:  To accompany the line ‘Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs‘ I offer ‘Dominick the Donkey!

 

Nashua

Friday started with two old favourites of touring life: breakfast and laundry.  My first commitment was not until 9.45 so I had plenty time to achieve both before getting into costume and waiting in the hotel lobby for Sandy to arrive.  Usually I would get into her car and be driven but on Friday we would be going straight from the two media opportunities to the venue of my lunchtime show and as I needed the large reading desk for that it was better to take my Jeep on our morning’s adventures.  Sandy settled into the passenger seat and became my living sat nav.

Our first appearance was at the Nashua Police Department where I was to be given a tour of the facility.  The evening show in Nashua was to benefit PAL, or the Police Athletics League, a charitable organisation which builds a positive link between children and the Police force.  Our guide was Ed and he explained that many people who come into contact with the police have a negative experience – either they are being arrested or being brought terrible news about a family member – so PAL is there to change that perception in the eyes of the younger generations.

Sandy Ed and I were joined in the lobby by Jody Gage, the owner of Fortin Gage Flower and Gift Shop who sponsor my even and Jen Miller from PAL. It was a fascinating morning as we were shown the  communications room, where the public’s calls are taken and then the dispatch room where the officers are sent out in their cruisers.  One wall was lined with television screens monitoring all areas of the police station and fortunately all of the holding cells were empty, it was a quiet day for the PD, ‘Just wait until my show empties out this evening, then there will be trouble!’

Deeper into the building we stood in the briefing room where each shift gathers to be assigned their duties before heading out onto the streets. It was in such a room that the Captain in Hill Street Blues used to send his officers into the field with the phrase ‘let’s be careful out there’.

Ed then took us down into the basement of the building to see the shooting range, but it was in use for training and we couldn’t go in, although there was slight smell of cordite in the air which reminded me of the scene in whichever Bond novel it is when James emergences from the MI6 range smelling of the substance to the satisfaction of a retired naval officer who operates the lift.

The most exciting part of our tour as about to occur however as we were shown the NPD’s pride and joy, the Bearcat.

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The Bearcat is an armoured vehicle used by the force’s SWAT team and looks like a stealth bomber, and it is aggressive, angular and intimidating, The Bearcat is used to protect the officers in a violent situation until they can be safely deployed and as the officer showing it explained is the safest place to be, ‘if my wife texts me when we are at a situation, and she is worried about me I can say “Hell!  I am in the Bearcat!  I am safer then you are in your bed!”‘  I’m not sure how reassuring that would be for his wife….

 

The body was bullet proof, and in the roof there was a tank-like revolving turret from which weapons could be discharged. At the front were mountings for battering rams capable of bulldozing walls down, as well as for fitting more ways of loosing off ordnance.  Cameras monitor every angle so there is no reason for an officer to leave the cocoon if it is not safe, ‘we just sit and eat pizza until we work out the best plan!’

Although like a giant Tonka toy one could only imagine the atmosphere inside the Bearcat as the highly trained officers go into a major incident knowing that death is close at hand, and is a fact of the job.  The SWAT officers who look after the communities in which they serve are truly brave men.

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Having clambered through the Bearcat we were then shown a robot which is used for bomb disposal and other duties when it is not advisable to send an officer in (maybe when suspected chemical weapons are present),  Once again the officer who explained the workings of the skeletal arm was full of pride for the equipment.

We ended our tour in front of the display cabinet once more and Ed presented me with a special Nashua PD medallion, which bore four names, the names of officers lost in the line of duty, the last of which was way back in 1974 – the force has an admirable safety record thanks in no small part to the magnificent equipment that we had been shown.

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From the Police Department we drove to the City Hall where there was supposed to be a proclamation read to celebrate my decade of performing in Nashua as well as recognising Jody’s contributions to the Nahua community.  Unfortunately the proclomation wasn’t ready, but we posed for photographs anyway.  As we milled around one lady who had come to the hall to renew her car license, or some such civic duty, suddenly caught sight of me in my costume, ‘Oh, my God, are you Mr Dickens? I saw you perform years ago in Boston!  Are you doing a show here?’  Sandy and Jody moved in and soon another ticket for the evening’s event had been sold!

From the City Hall we popped briefly into the Fortin Gage shop and met Jody’s team who were busy creating beautiful bouquets.

It was now getting on for 11.45 and as I had a show at 12.30 it was time to drive to the Nashua Senior Center to prepare.  I have been performing at the Center for around 5 years now and it is always a fun experience.  Usually I am driving from a previous venue and arrive after a long journey just in time to change and perform, but this year I was already in costume so everything was more relaxed.  While Sandy took my roller bag, hat and cane, I unloaded the reading desk and carried it into the large room where I was to perform.  It looked perfect and I offered a silent thank you to Judy Vaillancourt for making it however many years ago she did.

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Having set the stage as I wanted it I went to the finance directors office, which doubles as my dressing room, and nibbled at some fruit and a magnificent gingerbread man made by the center’s director Judy Porter, who made sure that I had everything I needed.

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The room quickly filled and at 12.30 I began Mr Dickens is Coming, which was greatly enjoyed by all.  It was a fun performance with lots of laughter.

When the show had finished and I had signed lots of tickets, it was time to return to the hotel and as we emerged we saw that the snow was falling heavily once again.  In England the country would have ground to a halt by this point and my evening performance cancelled probably, but in Nashua everyone just gets on with life: they are used to it.

I rested through the afternoon until 5pm when I gathered my costumes together and prepared for the evening show.  My first port of call was a little private meeting room where my old friend MaMa was hosting a dinner of her friends prior to the show.  I am always invited to join them in their annual get together but on Friday could only look in to say a brief hello, as I needed to drive to the Community College Auditorium to set up.

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With MaMa

It was still snowing as I drove but the roads were running freely and I arrived in good time.

In the auditorium I was due to work with Doug, who has manned the sound and light desks for my last two appearances there and who knew the show well.  We chatted about a few ideas and checked that the sound effects were working well, and then I went to my dressing room to prepare.

Last year Jody had arranged for some carol singers to entertain the crowd before the show and I had suggested that it may be fun to integrate them into the start of the show, with Scrooge marching up to them and sending them packing. I chatted with the leader of the troupe and we hatched our plan: they would perform a few carols and when they got to ‘Here we Come a Carolling’ I would make my entrance

From my dressing rom next to the stage I could hear the large audience (around 250) gathering, despite the continuing snowfall, and just after 7 Jody stood on the stage and welcomed everyone, before letting the carollers start to sing.  I was somewhat surprised that the first tune was ‘Here We Come a Carolling’, but that was my cue so out I went, I stood and stared at the singers incredulously for a few moments before brandishing my cane and telling them to ‘get out of the way! Humbug!’  It was a fun opening.

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The show itself went very well and I concentrated on keeping the narrative light and pacey so as not to allow the beautiful language to become bogged down in dramatic over-emphasis, a sin of which I am sometimes guilty.

Doug hit every cue (lighting and sound) perfectly and the whole show ran its course smoothly.  As I left the stage the audience were cheering and shouting and whistling and when I returned they were standing.

The signing line was a long but very friendly one, with lots of people who have seen me before giving me big hugs and posing for an annual picture.  Some had brought books from home, others purchased them there, others proffered their tickets to be signed, all were excited and generous in their praise for the evening.

It was quite late by the time I eventually packed up and left.  I drove in convoy with Sandy to the hotel where I left Franz, and she drove me to a nearby restaurant where Jody, his girlfriend, and a number of other guests were tucking into a late supper.  I was exhausted and famished so ordered a good old bowl of fish and chips which I devoured quickly and gratefully.  I chatted to Sandy about the show and she commented how she had liked the style of the narrative, which was the perfect comment for that, more than anything else, is what I have been trying to get right consistently.

I was properly tired now and soon it was time to bring my adventures in Nashua to a close.  Sandy dropped me back to the hotel and we said our goodbyes before I returned to my room and flopped onto the bed and slept.  After a little while I woke again, realising I was still in my coat, gloves and scarf!

I got ready for bed properly and in no time sleep returned.

 

Todays Christmas playlist choice unites the two great villains of Christmas, so that ‘Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!’ becomes pared with ‘You’re a Mean One Mr Grinch!’ by Burl Ives

 

 

 

Back to the Snow

Thursday 5 December was the day that I had to leave the luxury of The Queen’s Suite as well as the stylish sophistication of The Williamsburg Inn behind me and return to the snow of New England once more.

As my flight from Richmond was not due to leave until 11.20 I didn’t have to rise and get on the road too early and therefore had plenty of time to pack.  As soon as I began the process I realised that there was a top hat-sized hole in my case, for that item of my costume, along with my thick knitted scarf, were not to be found anywhere in my room.  I carefully packed everything else and then showered and got ready for breakfast.

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Before allowing myself to be taken into the nurturing care of the servers I went to the Regency Room which had already been prepared for an event later in the day and sure enough there was my hat and scarf on a little window ledge where I had put them behind Wyatt’s sound desk when I came off stage the night before.  With relief I took myself to the dining room and studied the menu.  I selected French toast with blueberry jam poured over the top, with a side order of scrambled eggs and bacon to complete the feast.

And there, ladies and gentlemen, was the probable winner of Breakfast of the Year.  Oh, my it was delicious!  The French toast was thick, light and fluffy and the blueberry sauce (jam was the wrong description, for this was a wonderfully decadent and gooey topping) was sweet yet tangy providing a perfect combination of flavours.  The bacon and eggs where an unnecessary addition and I didnt finish them.

Back up in my rooms I slotted the hat into my case (the space I had left was the perfect size) and closed everything up.  I checked the room over and over to make sure that I hadn’t left anything and it was this time that I realised I was carrying three different sets of car keys: 1 for the Rav 4 parked outside, 1 for Franz, my Jeep which was in the parking garage at Boston’s Logan airport and the third set for our little green Mazda back at Heathrow airport  – the opportunities for confusion and disaster were just so great.

I checked out and said good bye to as many of my old friends as were on duty that morning and loaded my cases into the Toyota before starting the hour long drive to Richmond airport, accompanied by my audio book.  The sky was clear and blue and the woods of Virginia swept quickly by until I reached the open plain upon which the airport is built.  I found a petrol station so that I could refill the tank and very nearly pumped diesel instead of regular unleaded fuel, because the colours of the nozzles in America are exactly opposite to what we have in Britain:  at home the diesel pump (dispensing the thick oily heavy fuel that creates large black exhaust clouds) is always black whilst the unleaded fuel is delivered through a nice environmentally friendly-looking green nozzle. Fortunately I realised my mistake before any damage was done.

Richmond airport was not busy and I was very soon checked in and passing through the security line.  I had plenty of time to relax and bought myself a cup of coffee which I sipped at the gate as various other passengers began to gather around me.  I was lost in my own little world when an announcement filled the terminal:  ‘Will passenger Mr Gerald Dickens please return to security lost and found to collect his bag.  Will passenger Mr Gerald Dickens please return to security lost and found to collect his bag’  I looked around me and sure enough my lovely leather shoulder bag in which I carry paper work and my computer was nowhere to be seen – I had left it at the Caribou Coffee counter.

I made my way back to the front of the terminal building to be told that to get to the  lost and found office I would have to go back out and downstairs, meaning that I would have to go through the whole security procedure once again – so much for having plenty of time to spare!

I was soon reunited with my bag (yet another present from Liz!) and was standing once more in my Union Jack Socks in the wooshy scanning machine (the device may have a more technical name, but to me wooshy scanning machine describes it perfectly).

I returned to the gate just as boarding was commencing and took my seat as if nothing had happened.

When I had flown from Bostin to Richmond a few days before I had discovered that the flight was exactly the length of an episode of the new BBC drama Gentleman Jack, so once we were airborne and the inflight WiFi entertainment service was available I logged on to watch episode two.  Once more the timing was impeccable for having flown over Cape Cod and banked hard left to begin our final approach to Logan Airport the show’s credits rolled.  Beneath me the ground was white with snow.

When we reached our gate I made sure that I had picked up everything (the way my day had gone it was likely that I would leave something vital on the plane), before walking through the terminal building to baggage claim where I was reunited with my big blue suitcase.  I had to wait a little while for a shuttle bus to take me to the parking garage and the biting cold of a winter’s day cut deeply through me.  I was very glad that I hadn’t lost my gloves in Williamsburg, for I certainly needed them in Boston.

The bus rumbled on its long circuitous route around the airport taking in every terminal, as well as a few other stops including the chapel and various administration buildings before eventually arriving at Economy Parking.  Franz was waiting for me, with the Dickens reading desk in the boot and in no time I was on my way to Nashua, New Hampshire.

The traffic was heavy but it didn’t matter for I had no commitments on Thursday and soon I was clear of the gravitational pull of Boston and was speeding along the freeway.  It was amazing to see how much snow had fallen over the previous days and the roads were lined with towering snow banks, way higher than a car.  Once again the miracle of my being able to get from Worcester to Boston and that my flight even got out at all, let alone on time, was brought back to me.

At around 2.30 I pulled into the car park at The Courtyard by Marriott in Nashua and was genuinely welcomed back by the desk clerk, which was a nice touch.  I was given the keys to a room on the second floor which was very nice, and I am sure that if the Queen of England were to visit Nashua then that would be the room she would ask for!

I spent the afternoon working on my book and actually writing a bit more, for much of what I have been doing recently has been research based, and now it was time to marshal all the new facts and get them into the story.

Afternoon passed into evening and at 7.30 I got wrapped up in my coat, gloves and scarf for I was due to meet my dear friend Sandy Belknap who had offered to take me out to dinner.  Sandy runs her own PR company and has been looking after all of the promotion for my two performances in Nashua, so apart from catching up on our news and enjoying a delicious dinner in an apparently haunted house, we went through the schedule for Friday which was to involve a couple of public appearances prior to my shows.  It looked as if it would be full, but enjoyable day.

Sandy drove me back to the hotel and another day of my 2019 tour was over.

 

 

Today’s musical connection:

As The Ghost of Christmas Present is on the point of leaving he produces from the foldings of its robe, ‘two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable….

‘They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility.’

They are Ignorance and Want and are shown to Scrooge to starkly display the inequality and inadequacy of humanity.

In 1984 Bob Geldof did the same by highlighting the horrors of the famine in Ethiopia and so today’s song is:  ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by Band Air

 

 

 

A Floppy One

This blog post detailing the events of Wednesday 4 December will not be a very long one, for I didn’t actually do very much all day.  It is what Liz and I call ‘A Floppy Day’, when the body’s sense of self-preservation takes over and sort of just shuts down.

I still woke in the early hours, and sat up on the plumped pillows to write my blog until  a sensible time for breakfast ticked around.  I showered and dressed then walked downstairs to the dining room where I selected a Continental Breakfast which included  a croissant, some smoked salmon, a little pot of granola and yoghurt, some scrambled eggs on the side and two lumps of soft cheese (possibly brie).   I would love to have devoured a lovely glass of grapefruit, which always used to be my juice of choice, but unfortunately the daily taking of statins precludes such a pleasure these days, so OJ and coffee it was.

During breakfast I looked at my phone to see if there was anywhere I fancied visiting during the morning and my attention was a little piqued by a nature reserve with the brilliantly unappealing name of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.  The photographs of the various trails looked much more appealing than the name suggested but the drive would have been over an hour, which wouldn’t have left me very much time to explore before needing to turn around and return to the hotel ready for the shows, but I would certainly like to visit the Great Dismal Swamp one day.

In my room I put the television on and lay on the sofa.  I did a little work on the book.  I watched some more television.  I answered some emails.  I watched some more television and I slept a little.  Before I knew it the clock was showing 11.45 so I ordered some lunch from room service and started to prepare things for the first performance.

The schedule for the afternoon was exactly the same as Tuesday had been with the tea commencing at 2, with my performance at 2.30.  Feeling a little refreshed, although not completely, I arrived in The Regency Room at around 1.30 and went through the sound checks with Wyatt and chatted with Bill and the rest of the team as we waited for the doors to be opened at 2.00.

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With (l-r) Wyatt and Bill

While we waited, Darryl, the banquet captain and Travis the Executive Chef, briefed the waiting staff on the upcoming service.  Travis explained exactly what each item on the tea plates was and how they were made before Darryl ran through the exact running order of the service, up until the point when the show was due to start.  I always enjoy being privy to these sessions and it is a reminder of the theatrical nature of a superb service.  Once everyone knew their roles in the great show the doors were opened.

Bill and I stood at the back of the room and watched as the guests were shown to their seats, many dressed in Christmas attire.  I had noticed the day before, and had mentioned it to Bill, that those guests who sported bright red sweaters or jackets all seemed to be seated on the right hand side of the room, whilst those in more muted hues congregated to the left.  Of course this phenomenon was completely random as the seating plan had been developed in an office weeks before, but as we watched the same pattern emerged.  Curious.

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Although from a dinner show, still the red on the right phenomenon is clear!

The entrance to the Regency Room is raised from the main floor by a little flight of about 5 steps and for those guests in wheelchairs or who are infirm there is a little lift to take them down.  Apparently this piece of equipment has quite an ego for the only person who can make it work is Travis, the Executive Chef, and at the tea performance his role was less of a mighty conductor creating magic in his kitchens but more that of an elevator attendant.  It says a great deal about his kind and humble demeanour that he took to the role with grace and warmth.  I have no doubt there are many lesser chefs who would refuse to perform a duty that they may see as beneath them.

Once again their were lots of people in the audience who had seem me on many occasions including one couple who are usually at my events in Pigeon Forge.  It is always a nice thing for an actor to know that the audience is friendly!  There was a positive buzz in the room and I was ready for a good show.  At 2.30 Darryl gave Bill the nod and he began his introduction from the centre of the dance floor (there is no stage in The Regency Room) while I waited in my top hat and scarf at the back of the room.

The show did indeed go well, although the girl I had originally marked out as the object of Topper’s affections looked rather bored so I changed plans, picking instead on Michele’s assistant who was watching the show for the first time and who played along superbly.

The atmosphere was excellent throughout and at the end everyone stood to clap and cheer, which after an 80 minute work out is all the reward I could wish for.

When I had quickly changed in my room and returned to the main hall there was a long signing line and Michele’s idea of giving away the photographs of me was proving popular, although many couldn’t comprehend that they were actually free!

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After the signing had finished I returned to the room and re-lapsed into my general lethargy.  I napped a little more until it was time to get ready for the evening’s performance.  I bathed, to relax, and showered, to wake myself up and was ready in costume at 6.45.

Once again Bill, Wyatt and everyone else gathered in the dining room and went through our routines until the audience were seated and dinner was served.  It was another audience packed with familiar faces  so once again I knew I was in friendly hands.

Once the dessert had been served Bill and I took up our starting positions ready for showtime.  Somehow I didn’t feel properly prepared and indeed the start of the show didn’t have the fluency that I like, but I soon became completely immersed and things improved markedly.  The audience was a fairly quiet one, but very involved.  They were a ‘listening’ audience who hung on every phrase and became wrapped up in every emotion.  Of course they laughed at Mrs Cratchit, and the disgusting nasal antics of old Joe, but on the whole they were a group who loved having a story told to them.

I reached the end and stood taking my bows as the group stood and clapped.  The night before I had forgotten to thank the staff at the inn who had prepared and served such a sumptuous feast, so on Wednesday night I called for quiet so that I could properly honour Travis and his team and allow them to be rewarded with a loud round of applause.  I finished the evening with a toast to the Christmas season before preparing for a long signing session.

When I had scribbled the last name on the last picture and posed for the last photograph I said goodbye and thanks to Bill who had become a wonderful addition to the show and an admirable stand in for Ryan.  I hope that we will be able to work together again in the future.

The hotel was closing up for the night, so there was to be no winding down in the bar.  I returned to the suite and decided to leave my packing until the morning.

Sleep would come quickly.

 

Today’s music choice is one of the easier ones:  ‘I will honour Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all the year’ will be accompanied by Wizzard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’

 

 

 

 

For Ryan

On Tuesday morning I woke up in the Queen’s bed (which could be a treasonable offence) and took in the delightful surroundings of my room anew.  I made myself a coffee in a little cup which sat on a little saucer, with a little silver spoon, and sat up in bed as I wrote my blog.

Although it was to be a working day I had no commitments until the afternoon so there was no rush to be anywhere.  At around 8 ‘o’clock I showered and got ready to go to the restaurant for breakfast.  As soon as I walked in I was greeted by lots of the staff who had worked with me during my events here in the past.  Everyone said ‘we missed you last year!’

I sat at a table in the dining room and ordered an ‘Old English Breakfast’ accompanied by ornage juice and coffee, which was served with an accompanying amuse bouche of an avacado smoothy in a tiny cup.

The Gerald Dickens award for the best breakfast of the tour will inevitably go to The Williamsburg Inn, but is the Old English the one, or is there something else on the menu that might rival it in the coming days?

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I took plenty of time over the delicious meal before draining the last of my coffee and returning to my room.  I still had the morning before me, so I sat at a desk and started to do some more research for my book.  I had access to the UK censuses of 1861 and 1871 and it was fascinating to trace the lives of those who were involved in the rail crash.

After a couple of hours of work I decided that it was time for some fresh air, so I wrapped the scarf that Liz had given me for Christmas a few years ago around my neck, and dug the soft leather gloves (also a present from Liz) out from my bag and prepared to walk.

I made sure that I had my camera slung over my shoulder and I was anxious to see whether it worked, for the last time I was wearing it was when I was in the muddy River Beult and it was completely submerged.

The day was crisp and clear, the sky a bright blue and I walked to Duke of Gloucester Street which is the main historic avenue at Williamsburg, lined by wooden cottages, and peopled by costumed characters going about their daily (18th Century) lives.  It is a walk I have made often but on Tuesday it looked so beautiful with the last remnants of fall colours standing out vibrantly against the blue.

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The winter sun also cast some spectacular shadows and I spent plenty of time taking pictures, both with my camera which seemed to have survived its ordeal, and with my phone.

I walked all the way to the Capitol building, then all the way back again pausing along the way to admire some of the Christmas wreaths on the cottage doors, until I reached the Bruton Parish Church and the gorgeous little vegetable garden opposite it.

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I took some more pictures and then went to put my gloves back on, for it was chilly.  They were not in my pocket!  Not in my camera bag!  I must have taken them off whilst taking pictures earlier, so I walked all the way back again criss-crossing the street, trying to remember where I had stopped before.  I got back to the Capitol and no gloves were to be seen.  Once again I turned and for a third time covered the same ground without success.  I was very sad, not only because they were very nice gloves but because they were a gift.

I stood outside the little garden feeling a bit mournful when I was woken from the moment by a cheery cry of ‘Mr Dickens?’  A  slim dapper gentleman was hurrying towards me hand extended and a big smile.  ‘Mr Dickens, I am Bill Schermerhorn, I am the creative director here at Colonial Williamsburg and I will be introducing you at the show this afternoon!’  We had a brief chat and Bill seemed to be a very nice man, but there was something niggling in my mind, for every year that I have been coming here I have been introduced by Ryan Fletcher my generous, genial giant of a friend.  Ryan is an opera singer who teaches the subject at William and Mary College, and there was a slight pang of disappointment in me that he would not be with me this year.

Having shaken hands with Bill again I returned to the hotel and in the lobby bumped into Michele who runs all of my events at Williamsburg and has done for many years.  We hugged and she said ‘come and look at the Regency Room, we have changed it since you were last with us’  The Regency Room is a large space at the rear of the hotel looking out over one of the golf courses.  Michelle was right the room had indeed been freshened up and looked airy and welcoming.  I am sure that there were many complaints (those who come to Williamsburg don’t tend to like change), but I thought it was a change for the better.

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I chatted to Michele and it was then that she told me the news about Ryan, he had suffered a major heart attack just a week ago and the doctors had performed a successful bypass operation.  She assured me that he was doing well and had been discussing my shows with her, even offering to lend his costume to Bill for the event.

Ryan, if you are reading this, I missed you and wish you a complete and speedy recovery!

There was still some forty minutes before our scheduled sound check so I went back to my room where I found my gloves on the chair – I’d never had them in the first place, so they were not lost!

I got dressed in costume and at 1 o’clock returned to the Regency Room where Wyatt, the sound engineer, was setting up is desk.  I gave him the USB stick with my sound cues on together we went through the script as well as doing a full sound check.

Bill arrived and once he had done his sound check we chatted about his role at Williamsburg and his past career in New York.  Short of being Santa Claus himself Bill must have had one of the best jobs in the world because for over thirty years he was the creative director with sole responsibility for staging the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade!  How amazing is that?

Soon the audience started to arrive and the plates of a delicious tea were served, cups were filled and there was a loud buzz of chat in the room.  Many guests whom I recognized from previous years came to say hello, and told me how glad they were that I was back this year.

At 2.30 Bill took to the stage and delivered a beautifully written and eloquent introduction (although my thoughts were with Ryan) and I began the show.  It went really well, I captured a lightness of narrative that I had first stumbled on here three years ago during a photo shoot which I always strive to use now.  The audience were enthusiastic and joined in loudly, and being a tea service I could play with a few individuals a little more than at some other venues.  Wyatt was perfect with his sound cues bringing each on time with the verve and panache of a true professional.  There was laughter and there were tears and at the conclusion there was long loud standing ovation.

Having left the stage I rushed up the stairs to my room and changed into a fresh costume before returning to the main hallway to sign and chat.  Williamsburg didn’t have any product to sell, but Michele had printed copies of the photograph taken at the same shoot three years ago and I scrawled my name across that, as well as signing menus and a few copies of books that people had specifically brought to the event.

By the time I had finished the session and returned to my room I had just over an hour before it was time to get ready for dinner, so I had another of my hot bubble filled baths and relaxed on the sofa.

From a performance point of view the dinner show is the same as the tea but the ambience is different and when I returned to The Regency Room the tables had been set with silver and glassware.  It was dark outside now and behind the windows at the rear of the room a long fire pit flamed.  Chatting to Wyatt I mused how good it would be if those flames could soar upwards as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come made his first appearance!

When the chef, the banquet captain, the hosts and all of the waiting staff were ready the doors were opened and the audience took their seats.  The lovely thing about a Williamsburg Dinner is the smart and elegant attire that many of the guests don for the evening.  One very young couple had gone the whole 9 yards for he was in a tuxedo with red bow tie whilst she wore a long white and gold dress with a fur stole over her shoulders.  Others were equally lavishly dressed and it all made for a very special atmosphere.

I was at a table with Bill, his partner Dan and a few other guests and we chatted about this and that as a rich butternut squash bisque was served, followed by a thick slice of roasted ribye steak.  I didn’t eat much of mine for a full stomach is not a good bedfellow to an energetic performance, but what I did eat was delicious.

Coffee and dessert were served and then Bill stood to make his introduction once more.  Once again the performance was most enjoyable and I really got into the story, hopefully bring the guests along with me.  Again there were excellent responses and everyone had a great deal of fun.

Having taken my bows and having wished everyone ‘Merry Christmas’ I went to change before the signing in the hall.  This time there were not only pictures to sign but Michele had found some of my 2016 souvenir brochures which, as there was no method of selling them, she decided to offer for free (it didn’t make any difference to those of us who invested in producing the brochures, for they had already been purchased by Colonial Williamsburg).

Very early in line was the beautifully dressed young couple and he proudly showed me a picture of himself standing next to me after a Williamsburg show when he was only ten years old!  We recreated the picture and shared the hope that it would not be another ten years before he returned

I signed and posed and shook hands and the atmosphere was lovely. When the last guests drifted away I went to the bar and ordered a glass of wine and chatted to a mother and daughter who had been at the show, which was a lovely and relaxing way to bring the evening to a close.

And I raised a glass to Ryan with whom I had shared many a convivial evening in that bar.

I returned to my room, hung my costumes up and returned to the Queen’s bed where I fell asleep upon the instant.

 

 

Today’s musical connection features a passage not in my show, but when Scrooge sees his younger self reading at school he recollects the excitement of Robinson Crusoe on his dessert island:

‘There’s the Parrot!’ cried Scrooge. ‘Green body and yellow tail, with a thing like a lettuce growing out of the top of his head; there he is. Poor Robin Crusoe, he called him, when he came home again after sailing round the island. “Poor Robin Crusoe, where have you been, Robin Crusoe.” The man thought he was dreaming, but he wasn’t. It was the Parrot, you know. There goes Friday, running for his life to the little creek. Halloa! Hoop! Hallo!’

There is only one choice to accompany this tropical scene and that is Bing Crosby signing Mele Kalikimaka

 

 

 

Living Like Royalty

The heavy snow of Sunday night had left me doubtful as to whether I’d be able to get to my next venue, but the alarm in my room at The Beechwood Hotel in Worcester went off at 4.15 encouraging me to try.

I looked out of the window and although there was lots of snow on the ground it was not now falling from the sky above, which was something.  I was terribly impressed that, even at this early hour, their were little insect like snow ploughs scuttling here and there clearing the routes.  I finished my packing and took all of the cases downstairs, leaving them in the lobby while I went outside to liberate Franz (my Jeep) from his snowy grave.

The night before I had noticed that all of the other cars had their windscreen wipers pulled up away from the screen so as not to freeze onto the glass.  This seemed a sensible precaution so I had followed suit and done the same.  Now, on Monday morning, when I started the engine to warm the car up I discovered that I had left the wipers on and they swished back and forth in clear air.  I got the brush and scraper, one of those wooden long handled ones, and began scraping the screen.

This is how my injury occurred:  I was leaning over the screen scraping hard, head down, really leaning into it, when the wiper nearest to me flopped back down onto the windscreen, as it swished towards me it caught the end of scraper and forced the wooden handle back straight into the corner of my eye!  It hurt.  A lot.  At least I had easy access to something cold to pack onto it to stop the bruising.  What a wonderful start to the day.

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When I had finished clearing the windows I got into the drivers seat ready to drive the car to the hotel door so that I could collect my bags, but I found I couldn’t move it.  All of those insect snow ploughs I had seen earlier had certainly cleared the main routes in the car park but with the result that huge banks of snow had been piled up behind all of the cars making it impossible to reverse them out of their spaces.

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By shifting forward and back in tiny increments I was eventually able to get the car to such an angle that I could drive out of the side of the space.

At that point it would have been so easy to just drive away leaving all of my luggage in the lobby of the Beechwood Hotel, but fortunately I didnt.

The roads around Worcester were very slippery with a thick layer of ice beneath thickly packed snow.  My 4×4 did its best to keep me on the straight and narrow but it wasn’t an easy drive and I still wasn’t confident that any planes would be leaving Boston that morning.  However as I got closer to the city the snow changed to rain and by the time I got to Logan the day was simply wet.  I had to remember NOT to go to the Hertz return desk for Franz would wait for me at the airport until I returned from my Virginian adventures a few days later.  I followed signs to the Economy parking where I found a space on the second floor.

I was still in good time and a shuttle bus was waiting at the stand and left as soon as I had stowed my cases.  Check in and security was quick and painless, in fact I had somehow qualified for the TSA Pre Check lane meaning I didnt have to take my boots off and show off my Union Jack socks. What a shame.

In the terminal I found a Dunkin’ Donuts concession and bought a breakfast sandwich, an orange juice and a cup of coffee, then settled down near gate 15 to eat.  It wasn’t quite the same as sitting in the spacious restaurant at The Beechwood enjoying freshly prepared eggs and toast, but it was a very welcome meal after a long and tricky morning.

Against all earlier predictions my flight was absolutely on time and at 8.50 we accelerated and splashed along the runway and headed for the clouds.  I was flying south to Richmond, Virginia and I occupied the hour or so that we were in the air by watching the first episode of Gentleman Jack, the BBC’s adaptation of the letters of Ann Lister, which was excellent, engaging and beautifully made.

With almost perfect timing we started to descend back through the loud base just as the final credits of the television show were running and there was the vast expanse of woodland that is Virginia stretched out below me.  To the port side a mighty river, glinting silver like polished steel in the morning sun, fed into the glorious Chesapeake Bay.  I wondered at the time if it was my old friend the Susquehanna, but later research showed me that she feeds into the bay much further north and what I was looking at was either the Potomac or more likely the Rappahannock.

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We landed at Richmond and in no time I was in the little terminal building waiting to be reunited with my bags.  I walked to the Hertz garage and perused the latest choice presented to me (I do like this way of renting a car!) and I selected a dark gun metal Toyota Rav 4,  The styling of the new model is angular and exciting and it had a rather aggressive and brooding stance as it sat in its space.  It seemed to snarl at me almost daring me to choose it.

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Having set the sat nav unit for The Williamsburg Inn and paired my phone to the entertainment system I made my way onto the roads, which were thankfully dry and free from snow.

Rather than listening to Christmas songs on this trip I decided to get back to my Audible presentation of ‘Northern Lights’ and thoroughly enjoyed the continuing adventures of Lyra and Pantalaimon who for the first time encountered the renegade armoured bear Iorek Byrnison.  What an incredible world Philip Pullman created .when he wrote the ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy

The drive to Williamsburg was a dull one in that the very straight road cuts through the endless woodlands leaving no great view.  However once I arrived in the environs of Colonial Williamsburg itself all that changed as beautifully restored historic palaces and houses nestle into the surroundings.  And looking over it all is the magnificent Williamsburg Inn.

The Inn has been a regular feature of my touring years with visits dating back to the 1990s, although I wasn’t able to perform there a year ago.  It was only 11am as I walked into the grand entrance hall and was enthusiastically welcomed ‘home’ by many of the staff.

At reception (a subdued and stylish parlour, rather than a big high desk) I was told that although my room was vacant it was not yet cleaned, but they would get it done as quickly as possible for me.  ‘Which room am I in?’  I asked the question purely so that I would know at which end of the building to park my car when I returned.  ‘The Queen’s Suite, Mr Dickens!’  Queen Elizabeth II has visited the Inn on two occasions and on her most recent visit she stayed in a suite of rooms at the top of a staircase which descends to (or ascends from, I suppose) the main hallway  (I cant bring myself to describe it as a lobby), which is where I would be staying: my day had just got a whole lot better!

What to do for the couple of hours I now had to play with?  My suitcase had two bulging bags of laundry that needed my attention so in complete contrast to my Regal aspirations I took myself off to a local coin operated laundrette and sat among the metal machines watching my clothes spin round and round and round.  The laundrette was opposite the main and heavily guarded entrance of the Naval Weapons Station at Yorktown and I shared the machines with various people loading in camouflaged combat gear which rather contrasted to my white formal wing collared shirts.   When my two loads were washed and put into a drier I drove up the road to a nearby McDonalds and feasted on a burger.

By the time my fine lunchtime repast was finished and my laundry completed I could return to the Inn and take ownership of my lavish surroundings.  Oh, the suite was amazing, a large entrance hall, a grand drawing room with beautiful sofas, chairs and desks, a spacious bedroom and, as I have run out of superlative adjectives, a bathroom (big).  On every wall photographs of my Monarch looked down at me and I was rather glad that I had selected My Union Flag socks that morning, somehow it seemed the right thing to have done.

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I ran a bath with lots of soothing bubbles and soaked for a long time, before attiring myself in one of the Williamsburg Inn robes and settling down to the exhausting business of relaxing in luxury.

After a short rest I decided to unpack my bags and hang my costumes up. I opened the wardrobe I noticed that there was a long shoe horn hanging up for my use (actually, probably for my butler’s use), which is something that not all hotel chains provide for their guests.

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The afternoon drifted on and in the evening I went to the little bar for a delicious steak frites, followed by a lemony custard and fruit.

The morning when I had bashed my eye and shovelled snow at 4.30 seemed to belong to a different age and soon I found that I had been snoozing on the sofa in front of the television.  I cant even remember what I was watching, but it should have been an episode of The Crown, shouldn’t it?

 

Todays musical choice:  The scene is that when Scrooge watches his young self and his fiancé Belle part company.  He is full of remorse: if only he could change the past and have her back in his life once more.  Cue Mariah Carey ‘All I Want for Christmas is You!’

 

 

There’s Snow Business Like Show Business

Once again I woke early on Sunday morning, giving me plenty of time to write my blog post.  The day was to be a repeat of Saturday with one performance at 2 and one at 7 so I had plenty of time to relax in the morning.

At 7.30 on the dot I was in the restaurant where I availed myself of a continental breakfast to be finished before 8am so that I could be back in my room to watch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from the start.  I watched the entire race, the last of the Formula One season, and then got ready for the day ahead.

Although much of the talk had been of an impending snow storm the sky was clear and bright, although the temperature was noticeably colder as I loaded the car.

Once more I arrived at Manchuag Mills at 12.00 and had plenty of time to stroll around the the store and relax.  As I admired the amazing displays one item stood out to me, and after a quick perusal of my forthcoming schedule an idea began to formulate in my mind.  A few years ago the Vaillancourts had made a replica of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, and it still sat in the store, proudly celebrating the theatrical career of my great great grandfather.  In a few days time I was due to be performing Mr Dickens is Coming in Nashua, New Hampshire, and that show requires a replica of Dickens’ reading desk!  I realised that if I took the desk this weekend I could use it in Nashua and then drop it back to Gary and Judi as I drove back across the state on my way to The Berkshires.

I suggested my plan and Gary suggested that we load the desk into the car before the snow started to fall.  The clouds were gathering and the sky was noticeably heavier than it had been when I left the Beechwood.

The first show would be to another capacity audience and the store was soon filling up with an eager and noisy crowd, many of whom availed themselves of the hot gluevein that Luke was selling. I returned to my dressing room and slowly prepared for the performance ahead.

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When I arrived in the auditorium there were many old friends and familiar faces in the crowd and I knew that collectively we were in for a good afternoon.

Sure enough the performance went very well, although the audience weren’t as boisterous and enthusiastic as the day before’s, they were intense and thoughtful and reflective and enjoyed the storytelling.  For the first time since I have introduced Fezziwig’s dance  the audience started to clap along to the tune of Sir Roger de Coverley and gave me a little round of applause for my dancing efforts!

When the show finished and I’d taken my bows I returned to my dressing room to change and saw that the snow had begun to fall.  the ground was white and the sky was grey.  It was not laying heavily yet, but it looked as if it was set in for the day.

The signing session in the store was surprisingly lengthy (I’d assumed people may want to leave straight away to beat the weather), and I was presented with some lovely goodies to geep me sustained on my trip  by very kindly friends.

The routine was well set and after I had changed I joined the staff of Vaillancourt Folk Art for supper, which on Sunday was a delicious chicken soup and a salad. After which I took the opportunity of the short break to curl up on my little sofa and nap.

The evening performance was always going to be a strange one, in that the Vaillancourts had decided to donate the entire show to the University of Massachusetts Children’s hospital.  UMASS is the largest employer in the Worcester region, but it seemed that the event hadn’t been promoted heavily, or there wasn’t much interest in it, for the audience was only due to number around 50.  With the snow becoming heavier and doom-laden forecasts of ‘thunder snow’ Gary didn’t expect many more than a handful to actually turn up.  In the end there must have been about 20 in the auditorium, all grouped into the middle block of seats, which led to a very different style of show.

Everything was much gentler and quieter and it reminded me of the time a few years before when I was at Williamsburg being filmed for a news feature and they asked me to do some lines.  On that occasion I just told the story, without being dramatic, and it was a complete epiphany for me, reminding me how the story should be told.

In my little theatre in the Manchaug Mills I narrated Charles Dickens’ words in a very natural way that gave the show more pace and freshness that sometimes I lose. In that respect Sunday night’s performance was a very important one.

Once again the audience lingered for a surprisingly long time, but eventually it was time to take me leave of the Vaillancourts for another year.

My Jeep was covered in about 5 inches of snow by now, so as the engine warmed the inside so I brushed and scraped the outside until the windows and lights were clear.

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The roads around Sutton wind their way through woodland and are unlit. The snow lay heavily and had been compacted by other vehicles. I was so grateful that I had chosen this particular Jeep from the 5-Star Lane at Logan airport, for it boasted a large dial with SNOW setting which I selected.

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The four wheel drive system looked after me admirably and I drove with as light a touch as I could manage.

Along the way I watched 2 wheel drive cars slither and slide, while I continued steadily and inexorably onward.

The main difficulty was visibility for the snow still fell heavily and the headlights illuminated the flakes making it look as if I was onboard the Millennium Falcon, making the jump to hyper speed.

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I didn’t quite rival the Falcon’s legendary performance on the Kessel Run, which it famously completed in less than twelve parsecs, but i did get to my hotel in around 40 minutes. As I climbed out of the car I decided to christen it Franz, after the downhill skier Franz Klammer.

In my room I started to pack, as I would need to leave very early in the morning. At this point I had no guarantee that the roads to Boston would be passable, or even if my flight would be leaving, but I had to be ready to try.

I set the alarm for 4.30 and fell asleep watching The Legend of Bagger Vance, which seemed to be on a permanent loop on one of the stations.

Sleep consumed me quickly.

 

For todays Christmas song I have selected one that Mr Fezziwig would love to dance to at his Christmas party:  Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi

Niggles

The Saturday after Thanksgiving has traditionally marked the start of my second block of performances in America and so it was last Saturday.  I woke early but tried to get back to sleep, a struggle I eventually gave up on and instead made myself some coffee as I wrote my blog and caught up with some emails etc, waiting for the clock to tick around to the weekend breakfast hour of 7.30.

My first active mission of the day was a hunt.  When I had left my Jeep the night before I suddenly realised that I didn’t have a key fob and so couldn’t lock the car. The Jeep had a keyless start system that simply required the press of a button to fire up the engine and it was not until I was ready to go into the hotel on Friday night that the thought occurred to me that I had never picked up a key.  I knew I had one somewhere because the engine had run smoothly but I couldn’t find it and eventually left the car unlocked and ready to be driven.

So on a  bitingly clear and cold Saturday morning before breakfast I returned to the Jeep once more and searched everywhere, every pocket, sunglass holder and glove compartment but still no key presented itself.

I tried to start the engine again and was successful: there WAS a key somewhere!  Eventually I took a picture of the licence plate with a view to phoning Hertz in Boston and asking them where they usually hid keys, as well as taking the owner’s manual as if that was likely to help, and went back to the hotel.

The manual told me what I knew: that the car came complete with a keyless entry fob.

I went outside again and starting searching anew, this time with the tenacity of an FBI agent and eventually I was successful: I was on my knees in the rear footwell of the car and there a long way under the front passenger seat was the black key, cunningly camouflaged against the black carpet.  At last I could lock the car.

Back in the hotel I ordered a large breakfast, as I would probably skip lunch, and when I had finished returned to my room just in time  to watch the coverage of qualifying from the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix.

I had the morning to myself and it wasn’t until 11.15 that I packed all of my costumes up and returned to the Jeep which I proudly unlocked.

I was driving to the headquarters of Vaillancourt Folk Art in nearby Sutton, which is where Judi, Gary and Luke Vaillancourt run their amazing business creating and selling plaster Father Christmas figures, each of which is hand painted.  Judi is the creative force, designing each piece, Gary has the entrepreneurial drive which made the company grow and now their son Luke looks after the marketing and online sales with great flair.

The car journey was about twenty minutes and I listened to my Christmas playlist and came up with a new game for this trip, a game you are welcome to play too:  each day I will choose one of the songs that I think suits a particular part of A Christmas Carol, almost as if I were selecting music to underscore the story.  I would love to hear your suggestions too….but that will come at the end of each post, for now back to my journey.

I left Worcester behind me and drove passed many familiar landmarks, such as the sectcularly named Purgatory Chasm.  I arrived at the Manchaug Mills complex in which Vaillancourt Folk Art is based on the dot of 12.  Having unloaded the car I was soon in the spectacularly decorated store that is the public face of the business, and was being welcomed back by the Vaillancourt family as well as their loyal and hard working team of staff.

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My first priority was to get things set for the show, so I went to the large warehouse at the back of the mill which each Thanksgiving weekend is converted into a beautiful theatre.

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Darren the sound man was waiting for me and we did a sound check with one of those head mics which I detest so much but which sound engineers love.  This one felt a bit loose, but I decided to stick with it.  Once the stage was set I went back to the store and sat down with Gary for a catch up chat.

The big news from Vaillancourts this year was that Gary had written a book called ‘It’s Hard To Tell When A Tradition Begins’, which is an account of the remarkable story of the company.  I was overwhelmed and moved to discover that there was actually a chapter dedicated to my visits and shows.

The other topic of conversation was the probable snow storm due to arrive in the Boston area on the Sunday afternoon which may not only disrupt our evening show but might make getting to Virginia on Monday morning a bit of an adventure too.

Time moved on and the audience started to fill the store, so I made my way to my little dressing room and began to prepare. As I put the microphone on it sort of collapsed and dangled uselessly around my neck.  I went to see Darren who taped things up and fixed it back to my head, but it didn’t feel secure.  That should have been the time to make more of a fuss but the audience were already being seated and we assumed everything would be alright.

At 2 o’clock the hall was full, with the exception of a row of about 10 seats right in the front that shone irritatingly white, mocking me with their emptiness.  The seats had been booked and paid for so where were the individuals who should have sat in them?  I wondered if they had thought they’d booked tickets for Sunday’s show, not Saturday’s, which meant there may be some trouble brewing on the following afternoon.

Gary made an introduction in his customary bonhomous style and having plugged his book (ever the salesman) he passed the afternoon over to me.  I walked through the audience, in silence, for no sound effect played.  I was committed to a long route to the stage so the audience were left confused as to why nothing was happening.  Finally I reached my starting point and as soon as I spoke the microphone started banging and crackling and being very annoying.  This was all very disruptive and I wasn’t really concentrating on the words or the performance.  The microphone got worse and worse until eventually I stopped, broke character and said ‘lets abandon this’ and took the mic off.  As I de-robed I discovered that Darren’s repair had not been effective and the unit hung in two pieces.  I made a bit of a joke about the whole thing and ad-libbed some extra narrative describing how Scrooge undressed removed the microphone and got dressed again, all of which earned me a sympathetic round of applause, but didn’t do anything for the integrity of the show.

And so it went on, the show was full of niggles, annoying little things that just didn’t quite work.  It was ok, and the audience enjoyed it and joined in, but it was just, I’ll use the word again, niggly:  The rug on the stage was sliding about meaning I couldn’t really commit to my movements,  when I reached for the penny in my waistcoat pocket it was caught behind the watch fob meaning I couldn’t pluck it out as if I were conjuror, when I rolled up the cloth to represent Tiny Tim on my shoulder it didn’t fold properly and looked like a cloth instead of a frail child, and so on and so forth.

Niggly.

In amongst all of that there was a decent performance and the audiences at Vaillancourts are so familliar with the show that they know exactly when and how to respond.  No prompting needed on the ‘No Bob!’ lines, as they all shouted the line out before I even reached it.  It is lovely to perform to such a crowd and it should have lifted me up, but when I came off stage at the end I was frustrated and a little angry with everything.  As I changed into my dry costume ready to sign Gary shouted to me ‘another masterful show Mr Dickens!’ and I responded with a noise which sounded rather like ‘Bah!’

My mood lightened somewhat with the signing and it was lovely to catch up with many old friends who come to my shows year after year, most especially with George and Laura Wells who have been staunch and enthusiastic supporters for as long as I have been visiting Sutton.

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Once the signing had finished I changed into regular clothes and joined Gary, Judi, Luke and the team for a delicious supper of chicken and vegetable pie and apple crumble (or apple crisp as it is known in America).  Once more the conversation came back to the impending snow storm and once more I worried about the next leg of my tour.

With over an hour to go between supper and the second show I returned to my dressing room, curled up on a sofa and napped.

At 6.15 I woke and went to find Darren who had a new microphone unit which fitted much more snuggly than the first version had, and gave me much more confidence.  Gary and I had removed the rug from the stage and all in all I had done everything I could to make the evening show a less worrisome one.

It was another full house, this time with no no-shows, and the room had a buzz and an atmosphere that filled me with confidence.

On cue the music started, and so did I.

I felt that I gave a much better performance on Saturday evening and this was borne out by the extra perspiration that I produced, always a reliable, if rather unpallatable, barometer as to my efforts. Darren’s music cues were perfect and everything worked well, all of which led to a huge ovation complete with shouting and stamping and whooping.

The signing line was much longer in the evening and one couple proudly showed me a very old edition of A Christmas Carol in a presentation box.  A look at the title page and the blue printing thereon conformed that this was one of the 6000 first editions of the novel.  It was amazing to hold it and look at the hand coloured illustrations which had retianed their vividness of colour remarkably.  As I leafed through this incredibly valuable little volume the couple produced a second copy which was ALSO a first edition!  I rather harboured secret hopes that they might say ‘this should be back with the family and we’d like to make a gift of it to you’, but as they must have invested upwards of £100,000 to own these two pieces of literary history I concede that it might have been an unlikely gesture and sure enough they carefully packed the books away before leaving.

I signed and posed for a while until everyone had left and then hung my costumes up in the dressing room ready for the next day’s shows.   I drove back to my hotel where the Vaillancourt clan joined me for our traditional post show wind down of wine and dessert.

 

 

My first nomination for a Christmas song to represent a scene in a Christmas Carol is Lucy Rose signing  Merry Christmas Everyone, to accompany this scene:

 

As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground….

….They walked along the road, Scrooge recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.
‘These are but shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost. ‘They have no consciousness of us.’
The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Scrooge knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten, and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other Merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and bye-ways, for their several homes? What was merry Christmas to Scrooge? Out upon merry Christmas! What good had it ever done to him?

 

 

 

 

 

Scone as in Gone, or Scone as in Bone?

Friday 3 November, or Black Friday, marked my return to American for the second, and longer, leg of my 2019 tour.

I am used to the pattern and routine of a departure day which typically involves having to be at Heathrow airport at around 8am for a 10am flight, give or take an hour or so, but Friday was different in that my Virgin Atlantic flight wasn’t due to leave until 4.35 in the afternoon, meaning I had most of the day to prepare.  I even managed to get a hair cut and beard trim in, so that I would l look well groomed for my east coast audiences.

At 2 o’clock I loaded the car with my new petrol blue Samsonite case and another new addition, a grey Rock roller carry on bag, as my old faithful black one that has been with me for many years finally broke in Ashford a few days before.  I was sad to see it go.  The replacement was slimmer but still easily held a complete extra costume so that if my main bag should get lost I could still do a show.

The traffic to London at that time of day was light and I arrived at the Meet and Greet parking area in plenty of time and once I had signed various forms and left the car in the care of airport staff I went to check in.

At security I took my shoes off to reveal a patriotic new pair of socks emblazoned with the Union flag, but sadly nobody commented on them.

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Everything had gone so smoothly that I had over an hour to kill until the flight’s gate was called, so I bought a water bottle (again featuring the British Union Flag),  and had a coffee until at last it was time to leave.

The gate was in a large circular area at the far end of the terminal building and there was a piano there for anyone to play, one young boy attempted a few faltering  bars of Claire de Lune (he will assure his piano teacher that he did practice the piece during the week!), and a man with a rucksack and the demeanour of a serious hiker gave us a little jazz.

Outside the sun was setting.

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In a rather lovely quaint way Virgin Atlantic don’t board their planes by zone numbers, but by rows, starting at the back and working forward – just like in those olden days of yore, when I started touring!  As my seat was in row 56 I was one of the first to board, not counting the suits at the front of the plane. Having settled myself into seat 56K (a window seat) the young man next to me asked if I wouldn’t mind swapping seats with his girlfriend, who was also in a window seat on the opposite side of the plane a few rows ahead, so that they could be together for the next 8 hours, which of course I was happy to do.  It almost all went wrong for at the same time he was asking me if I would swap so she was asking the man next to her if HE would swap, meaning that they would still be separated but it all worked out ok in the end and young love was able to run its course.

As we trundled to the runway and then accelerated hard along it the slimmest slither of a crescent moon  hung over our port wingtip, beneath it shone the tiny pin prick of Venus and these two celestial bodies would maintain the same relative position in my window for the entire flight as we headed west.

I passed the time with two films, firstly Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ which is one of those films where you know that every single shot has been planned and constructed with a definite reason behind it.  There are no instances of ‘lets just film him walking down the street’, for each shadow and car and extra has been placed in that street scene with minute detail.  An amazing film (although of course being a Tarantino movie it doesn’t come to a sweet and gentle ending!)

During the film I was served a supper of a chicken curry and rice and so the miles sped by and still the moon shone.  My second movie choice was the utterly charming Laurel and Hardy biopic ‘Stan and Ollie’ which was just as brilliant at the second time of viewing.  For the rest of the flight I tried to get a little sleep which came irregularly and fitfully.

With about 90 minutes to go before landing we were brought a snack in the form of a traditional cream tea – a fruit scone,  a pot of clotted cream and a sachet of strawberry jam, thereby giving me the dilemma of how should I consume it?  Should I eat it as a Cornishman or as a Devonian?  In the county of Cornwall it is traditional to spread the jam onto the scone and then dollop the cream on top, whereas in the neighbouring county of Devon it is the done thing to spread the cream first and dollop the jam.  What to do? I can report that at 38,000 feet over North America I adopted the Devonian technique.

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Another thing, Scone as in gone, or scone as in bone?  Always gone for me, thereby highlighting the complications of the English language for that final E should be a ‘magic E’ which is only there to lengthen the ‘O’ sound earlier in the word, if it doesn’t do that then what is the point of it being there in the first place?  But there we are, in my world the O is short and anyway by this time the scone had gone.

Who knew that I would face such linguistic difficulties during this seemingly routine flight?

We landed a little early and were in the terminal building shortly after 7pm.  The crescent moon, a little richer and more golden on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, still hung in the sky as if watching over me.

My heart sank when I entered the immigration hall for there was a very long line, but my evening instantly got better when I realised that all of those people were queuing up to use the little self service terminals.  For complicated people like me who had a visa we had to see an agent and there was no line in that part of the room at all.  In no time I was on a bus riding to the car rental facility.

In the Hertz garage I was able to choose any car from the 5 star line and as this vehicle was to be my companion throughout the tour I would choose carefully.  Initially I was attracted to a white Jeep Wrangler, but when I switched the ignition on a warning light warning of a flat tyre came on, and the car didn’t seem to have an EZ Pass road toll transponder in it either.  The wheel rims and tyres were huge and actually the car, although fun would probably have been very uncomfortable and noisy.  I eventually settled on the Wrangler’s cousin, a Cherokee and was rewarded by a heated steering wheel, which was rather nice.  With forecasts of snow over the next few days I was also keen to have a 4×4.

Travel has become so much easier in the last few years and it was less than an hour from leaving the plane that I was guiding the car through the subterranean warren that is the Boston road system.

My destination was Worcester, Massachusetts and it was a familiar journey that I have made often.  I knew that as I neared the Beechwood Hotel the satnav would tell me to turn left when actually I needed to turn right, and soon I was in the hotel car park, unloading my cases, checking in and taking my bags to my lovely large room.

It was almost 9pm now which as far as I was concerned was 2am, so I had dinner in the restaurant and then went straight back to my room and to bed.

On Saturday my shows will begin, but  I will have the whole morning to relax and adapt before going to my dear friends the Vaillancourts in Sutton and performing in their impressive temporary theatre there – here we go again!