Thanksgiving Day

For the first time since my first day of performance on the 3rd November I have no official duties today – no shows, and no travel.  In a schedule such as mine a day’s rest is something to be thankful for.

Having written my blog and posted it I go to breakfast and exchange greetings for the American holiday with staff and other guests.  I love being in America for Thanksgiving day, as it seems to me to be a particularly genuine holiday: it is not commercialised in the way that Christmas has become, and the sole reason for it is for families and friends to come together and share their blessings.

Back in my room  I watch the traditional Macy’s Parade from New York City, as I always do.  It is just so American – a pageant perfectly choreographed and which celebrates a way of life, an ethos, that is so easy to forget in these troubled times.

I cannot ignore the tour completely, as another mountain of laundry has built up, and I want everything to be ready for the next leg of my adventures.  Upon inquiring at the front desk I am informed that the guest laundry is on the 1st floor – and it is free!  Free!  No quarters required.  A Free laundry?  Now that is something that I can be very thankful for!

 

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No Quarter Given

 

I spend the morning watching the TV and carefully packing my cases.  This will be the last time I have to fold my costumes and stuff my hat with socks for many weeks, for when I arrive in Boston tomorrow I will rent a car that I will keep until I leave Williamsburg on December 14.

I have been invited to share a Thanksgiving lunch at the home of my dear friends Susie and Lee Phillips, and I am very honoured to do so.  I drive to their home at 2pm, and complete the party of 7.

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I don’t want to say too much about our lunch, as it is a private and personal memory, but the bonhomie and hospitality around the table is truly moving.

Susie and Lee have just had their house remodelled and there is not yet a stove in place with an oven large enough to take the huge turkey, but another of the guests has cooked it and it is a truly impressive bird.

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We talk and we laugh and we pull Thanksgiving crackers and, yes, we are thankful.  I wish Liz were here to share the day, but we talk about her too, and raise our glasses to her.

It is dark when I leave the house, having said my goodbyes for another year and as I drive back to the Element Hotel (where I stayed last week), many houses are already bedecked in Christmas lights, and the neighbourhoods look cheerful and festive.

I check in and the guy in the front desk says ‘Ah, I don’t need your ID – I know you!’ and soon I am in a lovely small suite, made up of three rooms, which seems rather a waste for just one night.

I decide finally to watch Frost/Nixon, that I downloaded on the day that I had visited the Nixon Library in California, and thoroughly enjoy the superb performances by Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, as well as the stylish Ron Howard direction.  It is not a very festive film, it is true, but one that is well worth re-watching.

And so my time in the Midwest is coming to an end, for early tomorrow I leave Omaha and head to Boston.  The tour is about to burst into life once more, but for now I can sleep soundly after a truly happy day.

 

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A New Novel. A New Film

This morning my alarm is set at 4.45, as I have to drive back to Omaha for two performances during the day.  My first sound check is at 9am, and as I will have to stop for breakfast en route, I need to get on the road very early.  I packed my cases last night, so it is just a question of having a quick shower and leaving the hotel.

To keep me company on the road I have downloaded the audio book of Goldfinger, read by Hugh Bonneville (he of Downton Abbey fame).

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The James Bond novels are among my favourite, and I love the way that Ian Fleming wrote.  As I described the road from Omaha to Kansas City a few days ago, I thought that this morning I would treat you to a James Bond-style journey.  Here then, with apologies to the Ian Fleming Foundation, is the first chapter of a new novel:

 

Cocooned deep within the scarlet Hyundai, Dickens slipped his fingers sensually to the small hidden lever that would set the cruise control, and as the car surged towards the 70mph limit he relaxed and his mind wandered back to the events that had brought him to this moment.

Two hours earlier the sky had been inky black as he emerged from the hotel. The night manager had been attentive and confirmed that there were no charges on the account. It was of no consequence to Dickens, he knew that all of the charges had been picked up by his employer.

The experiences spy never relaxes, to do so could mean the failure of a mission, or worse. So even in the early hours, with tiredness till wrapping itself around him, Dickens had naturally noticed that the manager’s name was Squire (the badge on his shirt had stolen his anonymity – a mistake that Dickens would never let himself make) . Squire had worn a striped shirt of royal blue and white, that may have been handmade in Saville Row. The tie had been a garish mixes of blues and pinks, and the combination proved that Squire was not a man driven by convention. Dickens approved of him, and the positive image was confirmed by a firm dry handshake and a conspiratorial smile.

‘Drive Safe!’ Dickens grunted a reply and wondered why the loss of the final syllable was now acceptable.

The Hyundai (the 2.4 litre, 4 cylinder model with the flattened tail pipe) burbled into life as Dickens flicked his fingers over the device that Q branch had provided for this mission. The ‘Tom Tom’ unit (jokingly named after Thomas Tom from the Quartermaster’s design office, who was responsible for producing this masterpiece) would give him precise directions to anywhere in the United States. Dickens sighed, he missed the days of an old-fashioned map, but knew that his survival relied upon such technology.

The readout informed him that the journey would take 2 hours and 56 minutes, and he sent a silent word of thanks to Tom. Before caressing the transmission to drive Dickens took a sip of the hot coffee in a paper mug. The drink was rich and strong and immediately the caffeine coursed through his veins. He smiled grimly and reflected that today he would need all of the help he could get. As he drained the last of the liquid he crushed the cup and lusted for his royal blue Minton china service, with the three gold rings around the rim, at home.

The ice was clearing from the windscreen now, and he swung the steering wheel to the left, guiding the beast onto the empty road. The low-profile Pirellis briefly objected, but Dickens was an expert and in no time the rubber gripped the tarmacadam surface and propelled him towards Omaha and his destiny.

In the darkness he caught a brief glimpse of his face reflected in the glass – a face ravaged by so many years of such missions. He grimaced at the memory of the young man who once would have gazed back at him with clear eyes, a cruel mouth and a comma of dark hair falling carelessly over his forehead. What would that young man think if he knew how soon that comma would be deleted, thought Dickens.

For a moment Dickens pulled himself back to the present, the Sonata was eating up the miles, but the road demanded his full attention. He had been driving with that built-in auto pilot that every high quality driver possesses, but now every fibre of his being was required to execute a dangerous and complicated manoeuvre: the i29 curved gently to the left, Dickens let his left hand drop, pulling the soft leather of the wheel down, simultaneously pushing his right hand higher.

Would the car respond? Dammit, turn dammit, TURN! On the edge of the road a carcass of an animal lay mutilated. If he couldn’t complete this turn he would become its eternal companion.

No! the car was not turning, and beads of sweat began to form, but Dickens lived for moments such as this, it was his reason for being, and all of the training had prepared him for split seconds of such danger. He was resolute, holding the wheel lightly (the less experienced agent would grip far too tightly, Dickens knew, and over commit the machine), and just as it seemed that the cossetting vehicle which had been his protector for that last two hours would become his metal coffin, the nose began to turn.

Dickens let out a long exhalation and as Mound City flashed by to his right, he let his thoughts return to the morning’s events.

The darkness had enveloped the car and was broken only by the twin shafts of light reaching out from either side of the curvaceous bonnet of the car (why did the Americans insist on changing the names of everything? What on earth was a hood? A hood was a criminal, a hoodlum, a crook.) There was not much traffic on the road and what there was ignored the red saloon that was being driven so purposefully.

The mission had been a successful one, three days in and out. He had been required to report at six locations and had performed his duties effectively and efficiently.

Now he had to tidy up the previous mission, which had been left hanging when he had left early in the morning, how many days ago was it? Two? Three?

He glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw that the sun was, if not rising, certainly making its presence felt. The narrow strip of glass appeared as a bronze bracelet, with a Verdigris substrata.

He drove on.

This had been over an hour ago, and as he once more flicked his steel eyes towards the mirror he noticed that the sky was now golden: the celestial alchemist had completed his work.

And now he was hungry. Thomas Tom’s electronic device showed him that he was fast approaching the old trading post of Rock City, there would be somewhere there for breakfast he mused. It would not be the perfectly cooked soft-boiled eggs, which he had delivered daily from the farm operated by an ex chief petty officer from the Royal Navy, and there would be no wholemeal toast, browned for exactly 3 minutes and 42 seconds. The butter would not be the rich jersey butter that he preferred and the coffee would be a watery liquid which would not deserve to be described in the same breath as the fine blend that he had made up by the Drury Coffee company in the heart of London, and who had been supplying his family for generations.

He knew he had to make many sacrifices in the line of duty, but this? A tall, yellow neon sign which appeared to represent two huge arches, reaching into the sky, was the only beacon of sustenance, and he guided the car into the car park which was filled by huge trucks. The hot metal of the tortured engine clicked as he strode towards the door.

He felt conspicuous in this environment, and wished he had worn a baseball cap this morning, as everyone else here was. He ignored the curious glances that greeted him, and studied the menu with amused interest.

When the waiter, who obstinately remained behind a counter, asked for his order, Dickens said ‘I will take one of your Sausage McMuffins, with Egg and you had better make that a meal, I don’t want to miss out on the hash brown. I want coffee, hot and strong, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Make it quick, and there will be an extra dollar in it for you!’

The waiter looked at him cautiously, ‘what is your name?’ he asked.

‘Dickens.  Gerald Dickens’
The order came speedily, and Dickens took a seat in a conservatory area and from where he studied the Truck Wash that was situated on a patch of rough ground to the west. From this vantage point he had a wide field of vison, which gave him the maximum opportunity to respond to danger.

The breakfast was surprisingly satisfying, and gave Dickens the boost he needed to face the day. When he had devoured the last scraps of meat and egg, and drained the coffee cup, he returned to the Sonata. Something about that car nagged at him: a memory. What was it? Of course! The Hyundai was made in Korea, and so many years ago he had come face to face with  one of his deadliest foes, the mighty force that had been the Oddjob, the Korean henchman of Auric Goldfinger…..

And we are back, listening to Hugh Bonneville!

Actually the journey is not bad and the audiobook keeps me entertained.  I arrive in Omaha bang on schedule and soon pull into the car park of The Arboretum Retirement community, where I am to perform.  The Arboretum is part of the Immanuel Group of retirement homes, and last year I performed at two other venues in Omaha.  The shows were so well received and such a success that this year I have been booked at two more of the sites.

Kathy and Roxanne from the Historical Society are there to meet me, and soon the furniture is in place and the microphone has been tested

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The residents of the community make their way into the dining room and take their seats, and at 10 o’clock Kathy introduces me.  I am performing on floor level, which is nice because it means I can move about freely, which after the small stages in the libraries of Kansas City, and the narrow one at the Field Club here in Omaha, is very welcome.  I use the space as much as I can and re-introduce much of the blocking that establishes the various characters’ positions within the imaginary rooms.

The audience are a sprightly and enthusiastic bunch and love the show.  Most are residents, of course, but there are also a few younger family members who are visiting, and I use one such lady as Topper’s girl.  The lady is here with her son who squirms with extreme embarrassment as I flirt with his mother!

I feel quite strong and the effects of the early start do not really show, which is a relief.  When I am finished I answer a few questions from the floor, and then chat as the audience leaves.  It has been a nice show, I am in good spirits as I drive off to my hotel for the day, which is nearby.  Kathy has made sure that I can have an early check-in, and I am able to relax for an hour or two, and even cook a chicken stir fry (purchased from the little pantry next to the front desk) in the microwave oven, which will keep me going through the afternoon.

The second venue is just five minutes away, and is the Lakeside community.  It seems to be a larger facility, and the signs in the car park state that there are two entrances, one for independent living and one for assisted living.

Once more Kathy and Roxanne are there to look after me, and the set is already in place, laid out in an anteroom just off the main hallway.  The chairs are arranged in a huge semi circular sweep, which will give the space a nice, intimate feel.

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I change into costume as the audience starts to arrive very early.  Because many are coming from the assisted living part of the centre, there are a great many wheelchairs and oxygen tanks that need to be placed.  The staff of course are expert at looking after all of the varying needs of their residents and in no time rows of chairs have been removed to make plenty of room.

At 2.30 the audience are in place and I begin.  Roxanne plays the intro music on an old CD player, and I walk through the audience in the character of Ebenezer Scrooge, scowling at the floor.  I am nearly at the stage, and am passing a lady in a white sweater who almost achieves the reformation of Scrooge in a second, by calling out in a loud and happy voice ‘WELL HOWDY!’  Scrooge almost laughs there and then!

The show here is more difficult it has to be said, the crow are more infirm than at The Arboretum, and many sleep through most of it  At one stage staff seem to watch one of the residents with a degree of alarm, and soon after, gently take her from the room whilst I am still performing, which makes concentration a bit difficult, especially as she is sat right in the middle of one of the rows, and her exit requires lots of shuffling and moving of wheelchairs and walking frames.

Also, I am beginning to fade slightly, and the show follows the actions of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, as it shrinks, collapses and dwindles down…towards the end.

Once more there are some lovely questions, and as I chat to the audience as they leave they all seem to have greatly enjoyed it, and that is the most important thing.

I pack up all of my costumes and once more say goodbye to Kathy and Roxanne and return to the hotel once more.  This time I have a longer break, but my day is not over yet, as this evening I have an exciting commitment.

Today marks the general release of the new Christmas Carol-inspired film The Man Who Invented Christmas, and I have been invited to a special screening here in Omaha.  The event has been put on by Boomer 104, the radio station that I visited a few days ago, with the support of The Douglas County Historical Society.

I arrive at the cinema at 6.20 and there are the ubiquitous Kathy and Roxanne, as well as the two radio presenters Patrick and Dave.  I am on hand to sign giant movie posters for anyone who wants them, and spend the 30 minutes before show time scrawling like a true Hollywood star!

Just before 7 we all go into the theatre itself, and Patrick introduces the evening, before handing over to Kathy, who hands over to Roxanne, who hands over to David, who hands over to me!   I say a few words, hoping that they relate to the plot of the film, and then we all take our seats for the big feature.

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The Man Who Invented Christmas tells the story of Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol in 1843.  It concentrates on his ‘three flops’ (rather overstating the facts, but it is unquestionable that Martin Chuzzelwit was not selling as well as his previous novels), and the desperate need for a financial boost.  To add to Dickens’ woes his feckless father John is on the scene, generally running up further debts in a Micawberish sort of a way.

Charles is played as a dashing energetic young superstar by Dan Stevens (also of Downton fame), and his demeanour and looks are accurate, although I am not convinced by his voice, which sounds rather modern to my ear (of course that could just be sour grapes on my part!).  John Dickens is played by Jonathan Pryce, who is made up to look like the Charles Dickens that people will recognise, with goatee beard and wild hair.  It is almost as if the producers have thought that the public wont respond to a young Dickens, so we must have the ‘real’ one in it too.

So, there are two images of Charles Dickens floating around the screen, and then things get even more complicated when Simon Callow, who has made a career of playing CD, appears as John Leech, so now there seems to be three Dickenses in the show!

The subject matter is great, and the idea of the various characters of A Christmas Carol appearing to Dickens to assist him in the creation of the Ghostly Little Book, fully ties in with the mania in which he wrote it.  The visions of past, present and  future are not Scrooge’s however, they are Dickens’s own, and we see many flashbacks to Warren’s Blacking factory, and John’s imprisonment for debt.

The characters from the book, and the characters in his own life ensure that Dickens finishes the novel and becomes a better man in himself, taking his parents in for Christmas and re-engaging a kitchen maid whom he had curtly dismissed (even though she told him that the character of Tiny Tim should not die!)

It is all lovely, but somehow it doesn’t quite work for me.  I found myself getting very frustrated at the endless little nods to Dickens other works, and all of the shops in London are named after various characters – Spenlow, Brownlow and Trabbs among others.  Grip, the Raven flutters about for no real reason, other than the director wanting to tell us that Charles Dickens had a raven – it doesn’t add to the story.  Then right at the end a police constable says ‘Mr Dickens, I cant wait for your next book, what will it be called?  By the way my name is PC Copperfield’  STOP!!!!!! ENOUGH!!!

There is a rather nice relationship played out in the Garrick Club between Dickens and Thackeray, the latter always goading Dickens by quoting the terrible reviews of his recent flops. For those of us in the know, however, we are aware that Thackeray will write a glowing review of A Christmas Carol, which, by the way, is quoted in the 2017 souvenir programme, available at all my shows and via http://www.geralddickens.com!

So, for what they are worth, those are my views on the film.  I must say that everyone I spoke to after the event loved it, and that is important to include, for they are the target audience, not me.

It is 9.30 when I leave the cinema, and I have a brief supper in a nearby restaurant before returning to the hotel, and the prospect of a day off!

 

 

 

 

The Microphone Strikes Back

I wake up at 5.15 this morning and have the awful thought that this time tomorrow I will have to be on the road, heading back to Omaha.

I am expecting a telephone call from the UK at 7 am, so I make sure that the blog is written and posted  well before my Samsung begins to play ‘The Chain’ by Fleetwood Mac,  my current ringtone.

The call takes rather longer than I had anticipated, and I have only a brief amount of time to gather my costumes together and get down to grab a bit of breakfast before Kimberly arrives to ferry me to the first of the day’s performances at the Blue Springs North branch, which is a slightly longer drive than the other venues this year.

We arrive in good time and I am delighted to find that Sarah has been called in from headquarters to look after the microphone today.  Sarah is  Mid-Continent’s ‘microphone whisperer’ as the system  seems to respond only to her touch and nobody else’s.  Sure enough everything bursts into life and I am amplified once more.

The show this morning is open to the public, but the large majority of the audience will come from a neighbouring elementary school next door, leading to the rather disconcerting sight of 200 empty chairs with 15 minutes to go.  Soon however the doors open and the school children start pouring in.

It is a huge audience, but it is going to be an interesting challenge, as the show will be quite long and wordy for most of the crowd, but I cant really cut and simplify (as I would if it was exclusively for the school), as that would be unfair on those adults who have travelled to watch.  This will be a compromise.

I start and to their huge credit the students are very attentive and well behaved, although they do not respond to many of the lines that usually get good reactions.  The first big laugh comes when I plonk my top hat on one of their teacher’s head as Scrooge takes his usual melancholy dinner in his usual melancholy tavern.

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Another rather helpful prop is a huge mural running along one wall, which depicts a winter scene with a river and a town, so when the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to such a place I can almost play the scene with a cinematic quality.

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As the show goes on the concentration levels start to drop away a little and the students become fidgety and tired, with a few yawns in evidence.  I cut a few passages from the script and don’t linger over moments that usually merit more attention in a full production, and push on towards the end, which is received with polite applause.  However at the very back of the crowd the adult audience stand as they clap!

I change in the head librarian’s office and then return to the signing table where I undertake the shortest signing session of the tour: 6 people!  Meanwhile all of the children flow through the door and head back to school.

The early start and the lack of signing means that I can get back to The Hampton Inn before midday.  I am keen to get as much rest as I can today, for tomorrow is going to be an incredibly intense one.  I spend time packing my case, so that I don’t need to do it late tonight, and then drive to Panera Bread where I have my favourite chicken noodle soup, served in a hollowed out bread bowl. The restaurant is full of people busily working on their laptops, which I suppose is the danger of offering free Wi-Fi to your customers.

With lunch finished I drive to WalMart because I want to replace the battery in my wrist watch, having noticed that at 6pm yesterday it was telling me it was 11.  I find the jewellery counter and ask the rather frightening lady behind the desk if she can replace watch batteries?  ‘That depends,’ she growls, ‘on how difficult it is to get the back off.’  She takes my Skagen watch and peers at it, then takes it to her work station.  She selects a sharp implement and then, almost as an afterthought, asks ‘is it an expensive watch?’  This is turning into one of those conjuring tricks where the magician takes a Rolex from an audience member, wraps it in a cloth and then hits it with a hammer.  I gulp ‘quite, yes’  The answer seems to change nothing and with a deft flick of the wrist the back of the watch is off.  The battery is replaced, before the watch is put into a kind of crushing machine, which apparently is necessary to re-attach the back plate.

It is with great relief that I finally receive my watch (a present from Liz a few years ago) back unharmed.  All of this cost me the grand total of $7.00

I return to the hotel and take the opportunity of having a free afternoon to phone home, and Liz and I catch up on our various adventures.  Of course we are in email contact every day, but there is nothing quite like hearing each other’s voices.

The afternoon is a relaxing one, and I have nothing to report until 5.45 when I meet Kimberly once more and head off to our next venue, the Raytown branch.  When I first travelled to the Kansas City area in 1994 the Raytown library was the first one I ever visited and I recall it was the night of a horrendous ice storm, something I had never seen before.

The weather today is better, although there is a keen wind blowing and I am very glad that I have my scarf  wrapped around my neck.  The staff at Raytown are all incredibly welcoming and it is lovely to be back.

Immediately I go to the stage where Sarah is busy whispering to the mic, and it answers her as it had earlier at Blue Springs.  As is always the way at the library branches, some of the audience have already arrived, and one lady tells me that she used to bring her baby daughters to see my show – they are now both in their mid twenties.  Ugh, I feel old!

I retreat to the Library’s staff room where I get ready for the evening, and play a little backgammon on my phone until it is time to head for the stage.  Carol singers (the same troupe as last night) are entertaining  the capacity crowd, who are in very good spirits.

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Promptly at 7 I am introduced, and I start the show.  Instantly the microphone gets its own back – maybe it resents being coaxed into life by Sarah, but somewhere in the system a connection is loose and it crackles and pops throughout the rest of the show, which is rather distracting to me, and presumably the audience also.  Each time I am sat in the chair, or have a moment, I try to jiggle the lead in my pocket, with varying degrees of success.  Unfortunately the problem never goes away and the show is accompanied by most un-Victorian noises.  But this is a loyal audience of long-time supporters, and they wont let anything as mundane as a crackling microphone put them off: they laugh and cry and join in and all in all make the evening a thoroughly enjoyable one.

The signing line is very long when I come out from my dressing room, and everyone has lovely things to say about the show.  One girl asks to be photographed striking the ‘you have never seen the like of me before’ pose with me.  I agree to her request knowing full well that  a large can of worms is being prised open.  Sure enough in short order the request is repeated, and I am spending a lot of time balancing on one foot.

The final photographs with the library staff are taken and it is time to leave.  Kimberly drives me to an Applebee’s restaurant for a bite of supper before dropping me back to the hotel, where we say our goodbyes for another year.

My time in Kansas City has come to an end, and has been great fun as it always is.  Tomorrow morning I have to be on the road at around 5am for what could well be the toughest day of the tour, so I finish my packing, set the alarm and get into bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Devouring The Space Anew

Monday morning, and a new week begins.  Today I have two shows in separate library branches, buy my day’s work will begin with a live TV interview to help promote the forthcoming events as well as getting some exposure for Mid-Continent Public Library.

I take the opportunity to load some costume shirts into the ground-floor laundry which can clean as I am eating my breakfast, so that I will have a good stock for the rest of my performances in the mid west .  I potter around in my room until it is time to get into costume and meet Kimberly in the lobby for the 20 minute drive into the heart of downtown Kansas City, and the studios of the local NBC affiliate KSHB-TV Chanel 41.

We make good time and arrive quite early, so sit in the lobby surrounded by posters of tanned, white-teethed presenters.

After a while some more of the team from the library service arrive: Dylan, a colleague of Kimberly’s who will be interviewed with me, Emily from the marketing team, and Tommy who looks after all of the company’s social media and who is already touting the camera on his phone in the way that the old pioneers touted their Smith and Wessons in the same neighbourhoods way back when.

Shortly after 11 we are ushered into a studio and as ever I am amazed to witness news television from behind the scenes.  These days there are is only one camera operator and he is sat behind a desk, controlling the whole fleet.  Suddenly, without warning, cameras will start to glide around the floor rather like the Daleks in Dr Who, bent on taking over the world.

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After a bit of travel and a bit of weather Dylan and I are ushered onto the stage ready for our slot and we are joined by Cynthia Newsome who will be conducting the interview.  As is the way with these things it is all over in a flash, but goes very well – I talk about my long history with Mid-Continent, and Dylan gushes about how great it is to have me in town.  All of the event details are flashed up onto the screen over some video of me performing at Byers’ Choice a few years ago and everybody achieves what they wanted to achieve.

 

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Dylan, myself and Cynthia

 

After our piece is over, and when the meteorologist on the far side of the studio is waving his arms around against a blank green screen, we pose for selfies on the set, before we leave and Cynthia returns to her desk.

There is still a little time before my first show, so Kimberly drops me at the hotel where I can relax for a while.

The first performance today is at the Parkville library branch, a drive of about 30 minutes.  When we arrive the audience is already filling up the rows of metal seats which have been arranged amongst the book shelves.  The set is the wrong way round (ie the armchair upstage left instead of right, and the stool on the opposite side).  I can easily flip that once our sound check has been completed.  Ah.  The microphone system resolutely refuses to produce any noise.  We check every connection, every dial, every volume control, every button, but from the speakers comes there nothing.  An occasional ‘pop’ or crackle, but no voice.

The audience are still gathering and our start time is getting ever closer.  Phone calls are made and instruction books are sought but without moving us on any further.

As we peer at the tangle of leads a snippet of conversation reaches me from the front row of the audience, and it is one of those moments when you wish you were privy to the whole tale:  a lady’s voice says ‘This T-shirt saved my life on Mount Rushmore….’ But I never hear the details of the story!  It would be a rather good title for an essay contest.

The head librarian at the branch is getting nervous as we are now running late, so the decision has to be taken to perform without amplification today.  I run back to my dressing room to finish getting ready, and am not in the best frame of mind to do a performance.  The frustrating thing is that we have had the same problem with this microphone system for the last 2 years, and we just can’t get to the bottom of it.  I am rather short and snippy with everyone as I stride to the stage.

In itself performing without a microphone isn’t really an issue (I did exactly that in Pigeon Forge and at The Hermitage, as well as at the High School in Riverside), but the issue here is the venue itself: it is a library.  Libraries are designed to be quiet, and to suck extraneous sound up.  I must not strain my voice, but will have to work much harder than usual to make sure that everyone can hear.

I start the show, gauging how much I need to project to include everyone in the audience and trying to adjust my output accordingly. Things are not helped by the fact that I never got around to switching the stage around and am trying to make my moves in reverse.  A couple of times I stride to a chair that is not there but on the whole I adapt pretty quickly.

The best part of this show is the audience who are completely onside and enthusiastic from the very start.  Perhaps they are extra supportive because they know of the technical difficulties (after all they watched them unfold before their very eyes), or perhaps it is just one of those days when a certain group of disparate individuals come together to form a positive mass, but they spur me on and bring out the best in me.

It is a good performance, and I am very pleased with the response, although worried about my throat and voice.  As soon as I have taken my bows I go back to my dressing room and drink lots of water and suck a Fisherman’s Friend lozenge.  I sign plenty of programmes and take the plaudits, whilst trying not to talk too much, having lapsed already into preservation mode.

When it is time to say goodbye I rebuild a few bridges, before getting into Kimberly’s car for the drive back to the hotel.  Kimberly is so apologetic and arrangements have already been made to bring a professional sound crew in for tonight’s big show, which is reassuring.

Back at the hotel I have a sandwich for lunch, even though it is 4pm, and soak in a hot bath, which is wonderful.  I do nothing until getting ready for the evening’s performance, which is at the nearby branch at Woodneath, a matter of 5 minutes up the road.  At 6 I am in the lobby and make myself a black tea with honey and wait for Kimberly, who as ever arrives on time.

Woodneath is one of my regular stops and I am greeted by the enthusiastic staff who always put on fantastic shows there.  In the past I have performed in their ‘program room’, but this year they have laid out the stage in the library itself, which allows a much larger audience, they are expecting around 350.  The seating is arranged in three banks: the largest one is straight out in front of me, the other two at 90 degrees to left and right, meaning that I must remember to include everyone in the show.

The sound guy is called Connor, and fits my microphone to my waistcoat before switching it on: and there is sound, wonderful, distorted, loud sound.  Connor adjusts everything from his hand held tablet, and will monitor the levels throughout the show and adjust them as necessary: oh, it is nice to have a pro on board!

The audience are arriving in their droves, the majority clutching our wonderful red souvenir programmes in their hands, for the staff on the door are doing a great job in selling them hard.

I have two interviews to conduct before the performance, one for a newspaper and one for a videographer who is filming some of the show on behalf of Mid-Continent so that they will have extra promotional material in the future.  Once the pre-show commitments are completed, I have another Fisherman’s Friend and stand at the back of the library listening to the fabulous carol singers, and watching the audience swell.

It is a BIG show!  A lovely show.  I work hard and the audience responds.  my movements are slightly hampered by the seating layout (in that if I walk into the main bank of the audience, the two side areas cannot see me), but it is not too much of a problem and I once again I adapt quickly.  Connor is hovering with tablet in hand listening intently and obviously enjoying the show.

One member of the audience catches my eye particularly – a tall bald-headed man with smiling eyes.  From my vantage point this gentleman is the spitting image of the actor Patrick Stewart, who of course toured his own one man production of A Christmas Carol for many years, in between flying around the universe in control of the star ship Enterprise.  Of course it is not Patrick Stewart (it seems unlikely), but the fact that I think it is, and that he is so obviously enjoying the show, gives me quite a confidence lift!

It is a great fun evening and I get that wonderful high of performing to such a large crowd.  The reactions are amazing and the cheers that accompany a long standing ovation are so welcome.  As Percy Faith’s rousing version of  ‘Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly’ rings out through the library, I stride off to change.

My signing session is going to be back in the Program Room where I used to perform and the staff have laid on plenty of cookies and drinks for people to enjoy as they wait.  There is a long line waiting at my desk when I re-emerge from the little plant room that doubles as my dressing room, and in no time I am signing programmes and smiling at the backs of smart phones.

One lady arrives at my table and presents me with a bunch of flowers!  She reads my blog daily, and had responded to my remark in Riverside that I had never received flowers after a performance!  How very, very thoughtful.  Now, I need to say here that I have never been presented with a Ferrari after a show……..the ball is in your court blog lovers!

Not only does she give me a bunch of flowers, but also a can of freshly made choc-chip cookies to accompany me on my travels.  She has carefully decorated a Pringles canister, so that the cookies can remain fresh and will not get broken as I make my way East during the next few days.  Thank you so much, your generosity is very touching.

The evening winds down and the Library becomes quiet once more.  It is time to leave and as there is a Longhorn Steakhouse nearby, we decide to have dinner there (‘we’ being Kimberly, Dylan and myself.)

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As we sit in our little booth Dylan talks about the shows and how I manage to adapt to different venues so easily.  Dylan always expresses himself in a fabulously literate way, and in making his point he comes up with a spectacular phrase, he says:  ‘It is amazing at every performance to watch you devouring the space anew.’

I like that!

I am tired, but the hotel is only 5 minutes away, so when dinner is over it is but a tiny hop back to my room.  A challenging day in some respects but ultimately a very satisfying one.

 

To KC

I have to get onto the road fairly promptly, albeit not desperately early today, as I have a sound check at 12.15 in the Kansas City area.

As I will be driving there is no need to squeeze my hat, cane, frockcoats, waistcoats and costumes trousers into my cases, and as I go to breakfast I take all of those items to my forgotten car, which has been languishing in the parking garage for the past three days.

The Element is a lovely and friendly hotel but I have to say that their breakfast choice isn’t the best.  Today I make do with some rather watery porridge (oatmeal) and some rather limp waffles (limp waffles).

At 7.45 I am ready for my road trip and say a cheery goodbye to the front desk staff who have been very helpful throughout my stay.  I set the SatNav and discover that my journey will be a little shy of three hours, and set off into the rising sun of a beautiful Nebraskan morning.  I make a few turns, join a few roads before eventually taking the slip road to the i29: ‘in 158 miles take the exit to the right’.  I settle in for the long haul.

As I mentioned a few days ago I am currently taking part in the Black and White Challenge on Facebook, and I made a decision that as I am on tour all of my images would come from my daily adventures, rather than using any old pictures that I may have.  No sooner have I joined the interstate than I see one of those huge American flags being barely stirred by the wind, so I pull off the road to take a picture.  And then there is a motel sign, and then there is some strange sculpture on a bridge, and before I know it I have lots of possible images to consider.

I get back on the road and actually could stop every two minutes, as the images of an early morning are stunning.  Lots of farm land with large silos and water towers seem to float on the low morning mist, made more ethereal by the soft morning light coming from my left (I am driving south).  Long freight trains with rusty goods cars make false horizons, and long spidery irrigation systems stretch across the fields.

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At one moment there is a powerful, modern, sturdy wind turbine casually sweeping the air, and in its shadow cowers a typical vintage windmill with its little wheel made up of offset blades, and its tail all sitting on a spindly wooden tower.

Thank heavens that the scenery is so beautiful because the road is interminably dull with no hills and only a few gentle curves to relieve the boredom.  I hit rush hour as I pass Mound City, and see three cars and a tractor.  The miles pass relentlessly beneath me.

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It is a moment of great excitement when the display on my SatNav tells me that I have only an hour to go, and as the figures change so my Christmas playlist arrives at Mele Kalikimaka – it certainly feels as if I driven to Hawaii!

Soon I am passing my old friend Kansas City Airport (which I will not be using for the first time in many years), and suddenly become aware that I have to switch my concentration on again.  My driving instincts have lain dormant for the last few hours, but before I know it there are cars joining the freeway, and others changing lanes as the road becomes a more urgent and dangerous place.

The drive from the airport to my hotel in Liberty (a suburb of KC) is only about thirty minutes and it is a familiar trail, and at around 11am I pull up outside the Hampton Inn where I have stayed on many occasions (and whose waffles are NOT limp).

By the time I am checked in I have less than an hour before my friend and event organiser Kimberly Howard arrives to pick me up and take me to my first appearance of the day.  She is rather worried when I appear in the hotel lobby in jeans and a sweater but with no costume, until I explain that I had left everything in the car.  We collect the gear and set off towards the North Independence Branch of the Mid-Continent Public Library, where I am to perform at 2.  We spend the journey catching up on our news – we have known each other for so many years now and Kimberly is indeed a good friend.

The library is closed when we arrive (it being Sunday), but we enter through the staff door at the back.  I am greeted by various librarians who are very excited to have me in their branch.  The events at Mid-Continent are all free, but due to the policing of fire codes, people have to register for them – all are ‘sold’ out with waiting lists.

I am shown the room where I am to perform, a typical library meeting room, rather bland and brightly lit, with a small stage at one end with my props already in place.  The microphone system here has caused as trouble in the past so we take plenty of time to ensure that everything is working properly.  Mid-Continent invested in a very good portable sound system a few years ago, but the only actual microphone they have is attached to an ear piece.  I don’t know if my ears are a particularly odd shape, or the rigours of my show are over and above those for which the ear piece was designed, but the thing always falls off.  Last year we actually sewed the piece on (NO!  Not onto my ear!  Into my costume…), and this year we achieve the same effect by using a couple of little binder clips beneath my waistcoat.

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A CD player is found for my music, and all is ready.  I change in good time and pick a book from one of the many carts that are scattered around – very strangely I find myself reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

At 1.50 I emerge from my changing room ready for the show.  Unfortunately a lot of people have decided not to turn up, which is rotten for those who had been on the waiting list, and the room is only two-thirds full.  Many that are there have seen the show in the past however so I know that I have a friendly crowd.  The stage is very small and becomes somewhat cramped with all of the furniture, but I can use the floor as well, which gives me more space to spread out into.  It is a decent performance, if not stellar, but I work up a good head of steam and really get going by the end.  The audience clap loudly, but do not stand, which is probably a fair reflection of my afternoon’s efforts.

Having changed costumes I return to my signing table where lots of people are buying programmes (of both 2016 and 2017 vintages), and I pose for lots of happy photographs.

It is 4 o’clock now and Kimberly drives me back to my hotel, whilst the Library staff dismantle the set in our wake.  We stop briefly at a branch of Panera Bread so that I can get a salad to take back to my room, as I have yet to have had any lunch today.  I have an hour and a half before it is time to go again.

I am feeling a bit flat, to be honest, so I decide to trim my beard shorter, have a shave and a shower all in an attempt to ‘re-invent’ myself; and when I emerge from the bathroom I do indeed feel refreshed.

The event this evening is not a performance as such, but a meeting to thank ‘The Libray Lovers’ members, who support Mid-Continent.  We are due to be at The St James Event Center in Liberty at  6.15, and it is only a ten minute drive, which is good.  The St James Center is a converted Church and is beautiful.  The high vaulted ceilings and exposed brickwork give a real sense of style, whilst the light fittings are modern and artistic.

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Tables are being readied with various decorations, and an amazing lavish and decadent desert buffet has been constructed.

At around 7 the guests start to arrive, and once more there are many very familiar faces among them:  I have been performing for the Mid-Continent Public Library for over twenty years and it is the longest continual sponsor on my tour.

My role tonight is to regale the audience with various tales of how I came to perform A Christmas Carol, and soon I am on the little stage pouring out many well-used anecdotes about myself and the show.  Of course the giant cockerel makes a guest appearance, as does the losing of my book in Tennessee which forced me to develop the memorised version of the show.  The lady who thought I’d had a stroke, because I only gestured with one arm, and many other silly stories bring colour to the tale.  I take a bit of time explaining some of the tricks of the trade, and how I change characters so quickly, before taking a few questions.

It is a nice, friendly evening and after I have finished I spend plenty of time chatting with the guests and being photographed by the Library’s official photographer who has been doing a sterling and inconspicuous job throughout the event.

But now it is time to leave, and Kimberly squirrels me away into the night.  We stop for dinner at Olive Garden, where I have meatballs and spaghetti, and then back to The Hampton Inn.  I hang my costumes up and prepare bags of laundry for the morning, before getting ready to sleep, which will not be long in coming.

In fact I alm….zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

 

 

 

 

 

A Queue for a Cue

Today is day three in Omaha, and also the last day…for now.   I have an earlier start today, with Lee due to pic me up at 9.15, so cannot afford to be quite as relaxed as yesterday.  I write my blog, have coffee and shower, before partaking of the breakfast in the lobby, which today consists of a bowl of cereal with plenty of fruit heaped onto it, and two slices of toast (one with grape jelly and one with a strange, glutinous substance of a rusty brown hue, which declares itself to be strawberry jam).

I have two shows today, both of which at The Field Club, and there doesn’t seem to be much point in returning to the hotel between them so I make sure I have all the costumes that I need for both.  Lee, as ever, is punctual and we are soon walking into the beautiful hallway of the club.

Everyone is here, busily preparing for the  first show and as I walk into the ballroom I catch Kathy just having done an impression of me – she declines to repeat it, but I suspect it was the Ghost of Christmas Present’s ‘You have never seen the like of me before’ pose!

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Everyone is in fine spirits and the audience begins to arrive good an early.  This morning I am performing A Child’s Journey with Dickens once more, which will be fun.  I go to change and then spend a little time pacing, going over a few bits of the script that got slightly muddled yesterday.  Today there is not such an elaborate tea service before the performance, although each audience member has two vouchers for Mimosas to put them in a nice relaxed mood.

The show is better today, tighter and somehow more personal.  The audience are so attentive, and smiling along with the story, and once more the revelation that my copy of the book is actually signed by Kate Douglas Wiggin brings gasps of astonishment and a few ‘Oh, my Gods’, as if the spirit world has really worked its magic on me.

After answering a few questions on the stage I make my way up the long corridor to the main lobby, where I sit at the signing table and….wait: nobody comes out of the room!  I wait a bit longer and still no-one.  I chat to Caitlin and some of the Douglas County Historical Society volunteers, and wait some more.  This is the strangest phenomenon.  Of course I have had very quiet signing sessions before, but these have usually been after rather poor shows when everyone has instantly left, trying to avoid eye contact with me.  Today is different.

Eventually a lady appears, proffering her programme, ‘That was the most beautiful story, I so loved your performance.  Oh, and THIS is the book?  Oh that is so amazing, to actually have her autograph!  Let me shake your hand.’  We chat for a while before she collects her coat and leaves.  Then another lady appears and we have much the same conversation.

For the next 30 or 40 minutes that is the pattern as the audience gently drift away one by one, apparently reluctant to leave.

When I eventually chat to Kathy she tells me that they were so relaxed, and so chilled in the ballroom, and just wanted to browse and talk.  It is a rather lovely way to finish the show, rather than the manic, long, noisy signing lines of A Christmas Carol.

I now have plenty of time to kill until the second performance, so Lee and I take the opportunity to have lunch and today I chose a delicious crab cake salad.  Outside, the golf course is looking resplendent but there is very keen, icy wind blowing across Omaha today and conditions for golf would require many layers.  A few hardened players are battling the wind, but our position in the warm clubhouse is the preferable choice today.

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With lunch finished Lee and I repair to the tiny bar known as The Cry Room (every golf club should have one).  In the past it has been quiet in there, but today there are quite a few golfers and lots of raucous banter.  Having watched some American football for a while I decide to go and find a quite place to nap.

In the end I lay on the floor in the ballroom next to the stage, as the waiters quietly and efficiently lay the tables for tea.  I will be performing A Christmas Carol this afternoon, and a large fireplace has been placed on the stage, along side the requisite chair, table and stool.  Roxanne is dressing the set, artfully decorating the fireplace with fir and spruce, and Kathy checks the reservation sheets for any anomalies.  One of the most impressive things about working with the DCHS is their constant eye for the smallest details, meaning that the events tend to run so smoothly.

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There is one thing that good planning cannot overcome, however, and that is the bizarre sound system in the ballroom.  There is no way to play a sound effect from a CD or a USB stick in the room itself.  The only solution is to plug my phone into the main muzak machine, which is in a store cupboard at the far end of the main corridor from where there is no view of the ballroom.  Connor, one of the servers, is detailed with the duty of hitting ‘play’ on my phone, but the lead which plugs into the phone is very short, so not only can Connor not see the stage, he can’t even see the corridor.  Therefore Roxanne is stationed outside the plant room, ready to signal him, and I will take up my position in the ballroom, ready to signal her when Kathy has finished her introduction.  Good grief!  There must be an easier way, maybe I should just sing the opening bars of The Trans Siberian Orchestra’s Sarajevo!  The chances of success, I would say, are limited.

The audience are keen!  Boy are they keen.  In complete contrast to the laid back, languid crowd of this morning, the afternoon group are almost banging at the door to be let in a good 90 minutes before show time.  When Kathy finally opens up there is a tidal surge, and I quickly disappear to the locker room to change.

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With fifteen minutes to go I make sure that my phone is on airplane mode, so that no phone calls or Twitter alerts interrupt the mournful music, and hand it to Connor who takes his place.  Roxanne, with Lee as backup, take their positions, I take mine, and Kathy takes hers, thus creating a long line from stage to plant room: a queue for my cue.

When Kathy finishes the intro I signal to Roxanne and then turn to make my entrance and to my astonishment the music comes in perfectly.  This was an awful lot of effort for 50 seconds, but it has worked.

The performance goes very well, and all of the business works.  The stage at the Field Club is very narrow (front to back), but very wide; it is also not very high which means that it is easy to step down between the tea tables, which is always very much enjoyed.

It is hot work, so much more physical than A Child’s Journey for instance, but it goes very well and I am congratulated by a lovely standing ovation.  As ever Kathy calls me back to answer a few questions from the audience and after an initial reluctance, they start to flow. The questions are interesting and more about Dickens himself than about me and my show – with the forthcoming release of ‘The Man who Invented Christmas’ there is a fascination over here about the great man.

When I leave the stage I go straight back to the locker room to change out of my damp costume, and when I return to the lobby there is a long and noisy line waiting for autographs – in complete contrast to this morning.  I pose, I smile and I scrawl and the reception is wonderful.

And so my events in Omaha have come to a close.  Before the show both Caitlin and Kathy had said ‘here we go! the last show!’ and of course to them it is, but I have to keep focussing as I have shows tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and pretty well every day until December 17.  Even though there is a celebratory feeling in the air that the event is over and everyone can relax, I have to detach myself from that somewhat, which is rather a shame.

I change and pack up all of my things and hug my goodbyes (although I will be seeing Kathy, Susie and Lee again next week for a couple of extra shows in Omaha).

Lee takes me back to The Element, where I hang my costumes up, before resting for a short while.

I have dinner back in Crave restaurant where I ate on my first night here, which somehow seems like an age ago.  I treat myself to a large juicy New York Strip steak, followed by a Peach Bread Pudding.  The restaurant is very busy with lots of couples out enjoying their Saturday night.  A wave of rather melancholy loneliness comes over me, and I wish I were at home in Abingdon on the sofa with Liz watching TV.

I finish dinner, and walk back to the hotel, my scarf carefully wrapped around my throat to protect it from the chill of the night.  It is still early, but I am soon in my bed ready for a good, and I think well deserved, night’s sleep.  Tomorrow morning I have to drive to Kansas City, where I will be working with different friends and colleagues, in different venues – and so the tour inexorably continues.

 

 

A Different Kind of Day

Today is a more relaxing day and will give me the chance to re-charge a little.  There are still two shows to be done, but the first is not until 3 which means I have the whole morning to myself, which is a treat.

Of course free time equates to laundry and my first job this morning is to send my ‘smart’ shirts for dry cleaning.  In the past I have sometimes struggled with clothes shrinking in the guest laundry process (nothing to do with burgers, fries and waffles I am sure), so I am taking extra care this year, especially of the beautiful shirt that Liz made for me which I particularly want to be able to wear for Thanksgiving.

Having dropped the cleaning off at the front desk and then had breakfast, it is back to my room in order to bag up the rest of my shirts and to collect the vast amount of quarters required for the machines’ voracious appetite.  Most people judge a hotel on its comfort, or its efficiency, or its convenience; not me – the availability and quality of a guest laundry is all that matters!  Here, at The Element, I am spoiled with a fabulous laundry room, albeit 5 floors below me, which means a bit of a trek.

With two machines loaded and tumbling I come back to the room and start a  little work in preparation for todays shows.  I am going to be performing ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ in the afternoon, and a series of readings from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ this evening.  Although I have been rehearsing A Child’s Journey over the last week or so, I want to remind myself of some of the build-up material, and particularly the newspaper review that Mark Twain wrote having watched Charles Dickens perform in New York.

Unfortunately I discover that I haven’t brought the Twain material with me, which necessitates another trip downstairs to the business centre computer to print it out.  A  quick online search pulls up the document and it is a more complete version than that I have seen before, with an amazing description of Dickens’ face and beard, comparing him to a Scottish Highland Terrier!

I spend plenty of time going through the long quote, and then run through the main show again until I am quite happy with all of the lines.

All of this is punctuated by various visits to the 3rd floor, and on one of these I let the laundry door click shut just as I realise that I have left the keycard inside, the other being in my room.  So once more I have to descend to the lobby, this time carrying a bulging bag of white shirts, and ask for a new card (and an extra dollar of quarters), before returning to my room.  Goodness, no wonder I get so tired!

The morning is moving on, and it will soon be time for Lee to pick me up so I go through the routine of gathering my costume together, and having a shower before going to the lobby to wait.

Bang on the stroke of 1 Lee arrives and we drive together to the Field Club, where I am to perform.  The Field Club is an old Omaha Golf club, and it so happens that Lee is a member there.  The weather is warm and lots of people are out on the course: maybe I don’t really need to do a show today….maybe I could just borrow some clubs…..maybe just a few holes!

Reality takes over, however, and in no time I am greeting the events manager Caitlyn, who looks after our event every year, and starting to do a sound check in the ball room.

It is still early so Lee, Susie and I repair to the restaurant for a spot of lunch where I choose some fish and chips.  The fish is crispy, the fries fluffy and the coleslaw delicious.

The audience is already beginning to arrive, the bulk of it being made up of two large coach tours who include my show in their itinerary.  One is from Virginia and a number of guests booked on the tour specifically to come to my show, which is very flattering!

I still have plenty of time, as the guests will be served with a sumptuous tea first.  The machinery of the event runs to perfection: Caitlyn supervises the tea service, Roxanne looks after the merchandise table (with the 2017 souvenir programme selling well!), Kathy supervises everything and makes sure it is all as she wants it.

I get changed in the golf club locker room, and then take myself to a little ante room, where once more I run through the Mark Twain quote and  parts of the show.  As the clock moves towards three, the tea service is finished and Kathy gets onto the stage to welcome me.

A Child’s Journey with Dickens is a true story written by the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, describing a meeting that she had with Charles Dickens when she was a ten year old.

The show starts with a description of Charles’ tour to America in 1867-8 and the reception to it (hence the Mark Twain review)

It is a gentle story and quite charming, and the audience love it.  The coup de grace is when I produce my first edition copy of ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ and reveal that when it was delivered I discovered that it was inscribed by Kate herself: ‘I was the child, Kate Douglas Wiggin’.  All of the audience gasp!

When the show is over I go straight to the signing table without bothering to change, as I haven’t got nearly as hot as I do during A Christmas Carol.  The coach tours particularly are keen to pose for photographs and have their programme signed which is lovely.

The event eventually runs its course and I return to the locker room to change.  Lee has taken the opportunity this afternoon to try his new driver out on the practice range – I am rather jealous.

We get in his car and start to drive back to the hotel, and I am surprised when he takes a different route to usual – maybe there is heavy traffic and he is taking a short cut.  Strange, for I am sure the Mutual of Omaha building is next to my hotel and yet we seem to be driving away from it – a one way system perhaps?  Suddenly Lee cries out ‘SHOOT!  I’m driving home! ‘ and he has to double back towards The Element.

I only have an hour between shows, but its enough time to rest a little and shower, before getting dressed all in black for the sombre A Tale of Two Cities readings at The General Crook House Museum.

The events at the Crook House are lovely, and very Victorian, with the readings taking place in the parlour, as they would have done when Crook himself entertained here.

The audience of 40 is already gathering when we arrive and tucking in to the delicious buffet that Chef Mario has provided.  I chat and mingle with the guests, many of whom are long time supporters and old friends.  As 7pm approaches Kathy starts to marshal everyone into the tiny theatre space (most swinging by the bar for a last minute top up), before closing the doors and starting the evening’s programme.

This script is only performed here and was specifically created because the Omaha events are billed as ‘A Tale of Two Dickenses’  I have created a script that is made from my favourite passages throughout the book, and it is nice to go ‘old school’, reading Dickens as I used to when I started performing back in 1993.  The rhythm and the language of the story is beautiful and I am so looking forward to getting to work on my full-scale theatre version of it next year.

The show ends, of course, with the famous ‘it is a far far better thing that I do…’ speech, and the lingering words of the ultimate self-sacrifice makes the atmosphere in the room heavy and electric.

At the conclusion of the show Kathy opens the doors into to next room and the whole audience piles through to share a champagne toast, composed and performed (for it is quite a poem) by Susie.

The evening continues and I sign a few books, but with an audience of only 40 (capacity!) it does not take long.  It is soon time to leave and Mario presents me with boxes of food from the buffet for me to enjoy in my hotel room, which has full kitchen facilities so I can reheat the superb beef tenderloin.

Lee drops me back to the hotel and I get out of costume, into pyjamas and enjoy the delicious fare before me.

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It has been a lovely day, a different day, with two interesting shows, and lots of interesting people to share it with.

 

 

 

Not at my Sparkling Best

Despite my long day of travelling yesterday I endure rather a broken night of sleep, and having been nominated by Ian to take part in the Black and White photo challenge on Facebook, my first offering is of my clock taunting me at 3.45.  Even in my half-sleep state I think how odd that I should happen to wake when the numbers are in the correct order.

 

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I finally wake for good at 5 and do not have long to write the blog, as I need to start preparing for a typically busy Omaha day.  My first commitment is at 7am at a nearby radio station, where I have been interviewed in the past.  A very quick bowl of cereal and a muffin, before I walk into the brisk icy air (definitely not in California now!), and stride to Boomer 104, where I am met by Roxanne (working with the Douglas Historical Society this year – the new Rylee, Abby, Cassandra), and two of the show’s presenters Patrick and David.

I am welcomed back as an old friend and the banter is great fun.  The interview is of course to promote my appearances here, but also to talk about the big new film release of ‘The Man Who Invented Christmas’, which opens on the night before Thanksgiving.  The radio station are staging a premiere night, and are giving away tickets, so are keen to know my thoughts.

The off-air banter continues on air, which is always the best way to run a morning drive time interview.  At one point Patrick asks me if I will tell the listeners something about Charles Dickens that they do not already know.  ‘No!’ I reply, conspiratorially.

 

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At Boomer

 

The interview runs its course, and I am back into the cold morning by 7.30.  The sun is just rising and looks beautiful over the Mid Town Crossing park.

 

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A Nebraska Sunrise

 

Back at the hotel I have time to grab my costumes and paraphernalia before Lee Phillips arrives at 8am to ferry me to my first show of the day.

Lee and his wife Susan have become very good friends of both Liz and I over the years and have  stayed with us in Abingdon.  It is always so good to catch up and Lee and I spend the drive talking about the most important things in life – that is how our respective golf games have fared over the year.

The first show is at a Preparatory School called the Brownell-Talbot school where both Lee and Susan used to teach.  It s a small school, obviously well supported and successful.  At the reception desk we ask if we have to sign in and the office manager says ‘Oh, I think we know that you are here – don’t worry!’  In these days of high security, this is rather refreshing.

We are shown to the auditorium which is lovely and intimate, and Eileen, the drama teacher, shows me to the dressing room and makes sure that I have everything I need.  We do a sound check with a student called Noah, who also makes sure that my opening sound effect is ready to play.

Susan and Kathy Aultz, the Executive Director of the Historical Society , are also at the school and it is lovely to hug our greetings and chat about the next few days as well as the past year.

The time of the performance is getting closer, so I return back stage and to my dressing room. This is obviously a thriving drama department and all over the walls are various motivational theatrical quotations:

‘The actor should be able to create the universe in the palm of his hand.  Laurence Olivier’

‘Movies will make you famous, television will make you rich but theatre will make you GOOD’

and:

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Somehow I feel rather ill-prepared by the time the show is ready to start!

The stage is a perfect size for my show, as is the auditorium and I am able to give the full theatre-style performance for the first time on this trip.  The show goes well, although the pupils are just a little TOO well behaved for my liking.  There are laughs at the funny lines and murmurs of appreciation during some of the character transitions, but it is all just a bit constrained.  However I am very pleased with the performance and the audience clap loudly with teenage whoops thrown in at the end.

We have time for some brief questions and those students from the drama department particularly are keen know all about the rigours and difficulties of staging a one man show.

The question and answer session is brought to a close by the bell ringing and the pupils disperse to their next lessons, but a few remain behind to pose for photographs and to continue their questions.  One girl is over the moon: ‘I’ve never met anyone with an accent before!’

I get changed and pack up before joining Lee and Susie who will take me to the next venue, via lunch.  We drive a short distance to a branch of Panera Bread where I have a delicious chicken noodle soup.  Before out food arrives we group together to take a picture to send to Liz (who is off work, not feeling well).

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We cannot tarry over lunch as we have to be at the next school before 12.15, and it is a 30 minute drive.  The Northwest High School has a very different demographic to Brownell-Talbot and is in a much more diverse and poorer part of the city.  We are greeted by the drama teacher in the parking lot and taken to a side door, which is locked – apparently the locks have actually been changed since she used the same door earlier this morning but nobody had mentioned it to the staff.  Josh is a student who will be assisting us today, and he is dispatched to run to the main entrance, through the school, back up the corridor and open the door for us.  He achieves this in double quick time – I am to discover that everything Josh does is at breakneck pace!

Another auditorium, larger this time, but less well equipped than this morning.  My dressing room is the backstage area behind the curtains and a small bathroom which is used to clean paint brushers and rollers.  Whereas at Brownell-Talbot the theatrical maxims were carefully printed and laminated, here they have been scrawled on the back stage wall in permanent marker, but are just as relevant and useful.

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Suddenly waves of tiredness come over me and I can hardly stand up.  I slump into a chair and listen as the students arrive, and actually nod off into a brief nap.  I hope that the energy returns for the show.

I shall soon find out because the announcements are made and it is time to get going.  As Doctor Marigold would say ‘I thoroughly shake myself together’, and make my entrance.

As with this morning the audience is very quiet and reserved, which I was not expecting here, and the show is played out in near silence which is rather disconcerting, as I had expected a more raucous response from this crowd.  This is perfect territory for my trying too hard and straining my voice but I manage to restrain myself and give a measured, if not a spectacular, performance.

Once again the reception at the end is fabulous, and once again the questions are intelligent and probing.  One young man says that he loved the show, loves my great great grandfather’s work and can he shake my hand?  ‘Of course! I reply and he comes to the stage, respectfully shakes my hand and returns to his seat.

When the audience is dismissed a teacher asks if she can have a word, she is in charge of the Special Ed class and the young man who had shaken my hand was one of her pupils.  She says he was so moved and riveted through the show, and it really made an impression with him, which is  great to hear

Lee and Susan are waiting for me when I have changed and they drive me back to my hotel in the middle of Omaha, where I can rest for a couple of hours before my evening event.  I unpack my costumes and hang them to air before slumping onto the bed, where I am soon dozing and having  alarmingly lurid  dreams involving falling out of windows.

I haven’t set an alarm, but my internal body clock wakes me at 5.15, giving me half an hour to get ready before Lee arrives to pick me up.  I shower and get into costume and am in the lobby as he pulls up.

Our evening event is a very nice and not terribly taxing one, in that it is a private dinner for 16 guests at the historic General Crook House – nothing to perform, just to enjoy.

We are among the first arrivals and I am able to say hello to the Executive Chef Mario who always caters the events here, and who has a spectacular touch with his flavours.  The other guests arrive and many of them are familiar from years past.  We take our places around the beautifully laid and decorated dining table and the first of our six courses is served – an amuse bouche of chilled avocado soup offset by pomegranate seeds in a shot glass.

The banquet goes on, with Mario making an entrance to describe each course to us – all of which are amazing.

I am not at my sparkling best sadly, but as the dinner goes on I try to regale the guests with a few anecdotes and remarks.  At some point the conversation comes round to Port (a few of the diners being rather partial to the tipple) and I am able to tell them about the George and Vulture Dickens family lunch that is held in the heart of the City of London each Christmas.  The ‘G&V’ is a spectacularly chauvinistic event for all of the Dickens males directly related to Charles Dickens, and tales of woozy members of the family being discovered on trains having missed their stops, are legion.  (There was also the night the Roman Catholic priest almost ended up in a lap dancing club, but maybe that is a tale best not told….)

The dinner is wrapped up with an amazing rich chocolate desert, before we pull Christmas crackers which Susie has provided.

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Everybody dutifully dons their paper hats and poses for a group photograph, before we all say our farewells and drift away into the night.

It has been a wonderful evening, with good company, but boy am I ready for my bed now.  Lee takes me back to the hotel and we make arrangements for tomorrow (which is a much less hectic day), I say good night and return to the eighth floor where I have no doubt that I will be asleep ‘upon the instant’

 

Musing with Mr Crippen

Today is the day that I move on and leave sunny California behind me, settling first in the Mid West for a week, and then to the East coast where the majority of the tour will be played out.

My flight is not until 1.55 this afternoon, and the journey back to the John Wayne airport at Santa Ana should only take 45 minutes, however once again I have received dire warnings regarding the traffic on the I91 and have been advised to leave in plenty of time.

My duties here in Riverside are not quite done, as a large box of books have been delivered to the front desk, all of which need signing.  So, after breakfast, I lug the carton up to my room and settle into an easy rhythm of scrawling until the job is done.

I carefully stuff my top hat with socks and make sure everything is packed, and to my horror discover that my camera battery charger and the Byers’ Choice mobile phone are nowhere to be seen.  Then I remember putting them on a counter top back at the Ayres Hotel and realise that I must have left them there.  Well that is not a problem, as the hotel is right next to the airport, and if the traffic is kind I will have plenty of time to pop in and retrieve them.

I know I wont be able to fly with the flowers that were presented to me last night, but I cant bring myself to leave them in the room, so I balance them on top of my case and will think what to do with them later.

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As I drive away from Riverside a Los Angeles smog sits among the mountains, giving the air a yellowy-grey, cloying appearance.  I just couldn’t live constantly in an atmosphere like this, however beautiful the climate and natural terrain is.

The traffic is heavy, but fine.  Cars swoop from lane to lane in that Californian style and I witness plenty of near-misses along the way.  Soon I am once more approaching Santa Ana (or Costa Mesa, or Newport Beach –  take your pick), and take the familiar route to the Ayres Hotel.  In reception I ask about the chargers, and the girl tells me to wait while she contacts the housekeeping department.  The wait is a long one, but there are comfy sofas in the lobby and it is vastly preferable to an airport terminal.

Eventually I am summoned once more to the desk, only to be told that no chargers were found and that they are very sorry.  Well!  she doesn’t get the flowers then!

Back to my car and I open all of my cases for a final look, and needless to say, there is the charger and the mobile phone nestling amongst my smalls……

Rather ashamed of myself I drive to the John Wayne airport and follow the signs to the car rental drop off point, where the assistant cheerfully asks me if I’ve had a good morning, as she goes about her job of checking everything.  OK, she gets the flowers!  I absolutely make her day when I explain the situation, and she floats away boasting to all of her colleagues.  I am glad that bouquet which meant so much to me on stage last night is continuing to bring pleasure.

I check in for my flight and then pass an hour or so watching the planes out of the airport windows.  John Wayne Airport has a curious mix of large commercial airliners, sleek corporate jets and little Cessna high wing, single propeller aircraft, all sharing the same runways.

When driving from the hotel I had noticed a small flying school with a fleet of white and yellow Cessnas, and smiled to myself as I remembered the scene in Live and Let Die when Roger Moore commandeers such an aircraft from the Bleeker Air School, terrifying the pupil, Mrs Bell, as they flee the bad guys.

My first flight is to Denver, and what a beautiful one it is, to be sure.  We fly over the Grand Canyon and the rock formations are made more stunning by the low sunlight and heavy shadows that it creates.  The flight is a short one and I pass the time by starting to read a book that I was leant way back at the beginning of the tour called Christmas and Christmas Lore, in which the author TG Crippen investigates the origins of our modern Christmas celebrations (I say modern, the book was published in 1923).  It is an excellent read and Mr Crippen certainly did not stint on his research.  One particularly fascinating fact is that Carols were originally children’s ‘ring dances’, such as ‘here we go round the mulberry bush’, but over the years became celebratory religious songs.  A carol could be written and sung at any season of the year, although we seemed to have abandoned all but those of the Yuletide, hence the fact that we still place the word ‘Christmas’ before Carol, to differentiate from, say, an Easter Carol.

 

The layover in Denver is short and having found my new gate I am quickly being crammed into a very full flight to Omaha.  My immediate neighbour is a mountain of a man and I am squashed up against the window as I return to TG Crippen’s musings.

Once more the flight is a short hop, but thanks to the various changes of time zones it is 8pm by the time we land, and my journey has taken up the entire day.

As ever I am overjoyed to see my bags on the carousel and pull them to Thrifty Car rental, where I am placed in charge of a rather old, shabby and noisy Hyundai Sonata, which will sit in a parking garage for the next few days, before taking me to Kansas City next week.

The drive from the airport to my hotel is only a matter of 10 minutes and in no time I am checking in to the familiar surroundings of The Elements Hotel at Midtown Crossing, where there is a wonderful bag of goodies waiting for me from my friends at The Douglas County Historical Society, including a beautiful framed picture featuring photographs of some of my performances here.

It is after 9 now and I need something to eat, so I walk to Crave restaurant where I greatly enjoy a fantastic chicken stir-fry dish.

As ever travelling is tiring, and I am ready for bed, most especially as I have an early start in the morning and a very busy day ahead of me.

 

A Personal Best

This morning sees my unexpected appearance at the Poly High School in Riverside, which although a shock is not really a problem as I am expected to perform A Christmas Carol for the students.

Last night I had left my costumes in the car, so I need to collect them so as to get ready.  In the car park I am able to admire a beautiful sunrise over Riverside’s historic hotel, the Mission Inn.

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After a leisurely breakfast I get myself ready and at around 10 am make the short drive to the impressive campus of a school that obviously prides itself for its sporting prowess.  Each name board of the school includes the legend ‘Home of the Bears’ accompanied by a logo made up of a roaring bear’s face superimposed over a slash wound from a  bear’s claw.  Not subtle, but certainly imposing to the team’s competitors, I would think.

I am directed towards the main office and as I walk find Doug, in full Victorian costume, heading the same way.  Once inside there are more Victorian-attired volunteers waiting to be walked to the theatre.  We are met by Chris who is the head of theatre here and he is very excited by the prospect of the show.  However, there is a slight problem in that the programme will start at 11.10 and the lunch bell will ring at 12.09.  So, after the audience have arrived, and settled themselves and been welcomed, I can only really afford to perform for 50 minutes.  My shortest version of the show is currently an hour, so this is going to take some doing!

The theatre is charmingly small, compared to some of the cavernous High School auditoria that I have played in before, and I quickly decide that I will not need a microphone to assist my morning’s efforts.  I come to this decision after talking to some of the theatre students who are hanging out in the hall.  They tell me that they use microphones for musical productions, but for drama they don’t bother, especially, they add, as the microphones usually don’t work anyway!

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At 10.45 I change is a tiny closet/toilet, and then wait for the audience to arrive from various different classes around the school – a theatre class, a choir, a dance class, an English class and slightly incongruously, a maths class: (if a theatre show lasts for 80 minutes, and the allocated time is 50 minutes, how much time does a performer have to lose from each chapter, to achieve his target).

The clock ticks on as the theatre fills up, painfully slowly.  Students study their phones, listen to music and one young man in the front row bounces a tennis ball repeatedly (please DON’T do that throughout the whole show!).  11.10 comes and goes.  11.15 and 11.20.  Finally Chris gets onto the stage and instructs his pupils about acceptable behaviour, before passing over to Doug who, after thanking sponsors, and plugging the festival itself, introduces me.

It is around 11.25.  This has to be the fastest, and shortest performance I have ever given.  Everything is cut: no atmospheric scene building, no charity collector, no carol singer.  Marley is turned around and sent out of his window almost as he   arrives through the door.  And  before I am aware of it the Ghost of Christmas Past arrives.  No lingering at the school, and no vision of Belle happily married, but instead Scrooge wrestles the ghost to the ground immediately after his young fiancé has walked out.  The whole show delivered at a rapid-fire pace with few pauses for emphasis.  On we go, Christmas Present!  No murmur of delight over the Christmas pudding, and even Mrs Cratchit’s concerns about her Christmas Pudding are swift.  No Topper, no Ignorance or Want, but the ageing Ghost instantly vanishes to be replaced by Spectral Future.  Not much to cut here, but one of the gentleman in the street is superfluous, and there is no mention of it being ‘a very cheap funeral’   Old Joe and Mrs Dilber do their bit, but without time-consuming mucus business.  Slowwww everything up briefly, so that Bob Cratchit can grieve, and then back on the gas, through the Churchyard scene until Ebenezer is scrabbling at the bedpost.  Run to the window, fling it open: ‘What’s today? Christmas? Then I haven’t missed it!’  And at this point I can check my watch – 12.00!  I am going to do it.  Onward, don’t lose focus: turkey, walk through streets (don’t need to worry about meeting the charity collector as he has never existed in this version).  Quick visit to the nephew’s house and then I am into the final scene back in the office where it started.  ‘So as Tiny Tim Observed, God Bless Us, Every One!’

Like an Olympic athlete I have a few moment’s before my time is confirmed – the lunch bell rings just as I finish and I have achieved a new personal best, a new record for performing A Christmas Carol!

Phew!  The audience have loved it and cheer and clap and stamp (and for all I know bounce a tennis ball) loudly.  As I come off stage I am just giggling over what I have just done, and the adrenaline is coursing through my body.  The Festival staff and Chris congratulate me, and some of the students remain behind to ask a few questions.  Slowly my world comes back to a regular pace, and I begin to calm down again.

Back to my little bathroom and I change, and soon we are all ready to leave, heading off to my next commitment.

My closest friends over the years of coming to Riverside are two of the past chairs and very prominent movers and shaker’s behind the festivals continuing success: Carolyn Grant (Doug’s mother), and Gerry Bowen.  Today they are hosting a lunch to honour all of the past Chairfolk and board members of the organisation.  I follow Doug to the community where Carolyn lives and soon am enjoying a lovely informal buffet, chatting with lots of interesting people, including John who portrays Dickens during the festival and gives readings.  We talk about the various performances that Dickens himself gave, and compare notes on our own respective repertoires, as well as classic sports cars…..

The Queen is present, although in her everyday persona of Janet, and it is nice to chat to her without the enforced formality by which we are usually constrained.

When we have all eaten our sandwiches and are happily nibbling an array of cupcakes, Gerry stands and says a few words of thanks to everyone present.  I offer my gratitude to Riverside for inviting me back and for making me feel so welcome, and there are a few gentle questions, but this is in no way a staged event, it is just a wonderful informal chat with good friends.

The afternoon is mine to rest in, before returning to the First Christian Church for my performance of Doctor Marigold.

I decide to have a quick rehearsal on the stage, just to get my mouth working around the very quick-fire sales patter sequences at the beginning of the show.  As I am working through the lines, Doug and others are busy putting some flood lights in place, to improve the lighting on the stage.  Soon it is time to change and the audience begins to arrive.

Naturally a little known, obscure short story doesn’t sell as well as A Christmas Carol, so the audience is somewhat smaller than last night, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in interest and curiosity.  Some have read Marigold in advance and some have purposefully not, wanting to discover it for the first time through my show.

At 7pm Doug welcomes the Queen (Janet no longer, but Victoria again), and I start by introducing the audience to the story of Doctor Marigold, and explaining some of its history, before reciting the words that Dickens himself used: ‘And now I shall elt Doctor Marigold address you in his own words’.

Those of you who follow this blog regularly will know how much I love performing Doctor Marigold, and the audience completely buy in to the tale this amazing man.  Maybe I fall into my trap of overdoing the pace of the sales patter (that seems to be the day’s theme), but as soon as gentle, resilient, kind and caring Doctor starts to tell his own life story, the atmosphere in the room becomes electric.

When I finish (having elicited gasps and sobs at the conclusion of the story), I return to take my applause and am amazed when I presented with a bouquet of flowers!  I have never been presented with flowers before; I am quite overwhelmed and moved.

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We all relocate to the church hall for the desert buffet, and soon I am signing and posing as usual.  Many of the audience were present last night as well, so there are not as many books to sign, but lots of people want to chat and talk about tonight’s performance.

The evening winds towards its conclusion, and before I leave there are a final series of pictures to be to be taken with the board.  I change and say my grateful goodbyes to everyone, and look forward to returning in a few years, before loading my things into my car (as Queen Victoria is also doing – I thought they had staff for that), and driving back to the Hyatt, where once again I have a light meal before returning to my room.

The Californian leg of my trip has come to an end, and from now things will start to get much busier and more frantic – but surely never as frantic as those 40 minutes in the Poly High School this morning!