A Return to the Somme

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I am very fortunate to have been born into the Dickens family, for the connection has allowed me to travel extensively.  I have visited many remarkable places and met many remarkable people all thanks to C. Dickens Esq..

Last weekend, however was different. Liz and I joined up with other members of the Dickens clan on a journey to France.  To Picardy.  To the Somme.  We were there to honour the memory of Major Cedric Dickens who had been killed in those fields a hundred years ago in 1916.

 

Saturday 3 September, 2016

 

Our day started unfeasibly early, with the alarm set at 3.45am.  Within forty-five minutes we were in the car heading towards the port of Dover.  As we drove, the early morning mists lingered low in the valleys as the inky blackness slowly subsided, giving way to a beautiful morning.

Thanks to the lack of traffic at that ungodly hour, and to the efficiency of P&O Ferries we were able to board an earlier sailing and soon were tucking into a much-needed breakfast in the Brasserie restaurant.

The crossing from Dover to Calais takes only ninety minutes, which is about time for a good breakfast, a quick freshen up, and a mooch around the shop.  In no time we were easing our little Peugeot down the ramp and onto French soil.

There is something about driving in France – it is, well, just so very French.  There is something about the countryside, the fields, the avenues of trees which is unmistakable.  Along the route large white wind turbines turned languidly, as if France was having a lazy day and didn’t need the extra energy which the warm breezes could provide.  Some didn’t turn at all, but almost seemed to shrug Gallicly.

Our first destination was the city of Amiens where we were staying at The Mercure hotel along with the rest of the contingent, some of whom had gathered the night before.

Thanks to our early sailing we had a little time in hand so decided to explore the city, and in particular the magnificent cathedral, which stood in an open square just a few yards from the hotel door.

Amiens Cathedral!  Why is it not as famous as Notre Dame, or Sacre Coeur, or Chartres?  What a magnificent and imposing structure it is. Work on the great entrance and nave was begun in 1220 and continued over the years, with the most modern addition being completed as recently as 1533.

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Amiens Cathedral

Inside there are towering arches supporting the roof, and outside gothic flying buttresses do the same job.  Every available piece of stone is testament to the masons’ art, each frieze an ancient biblical story.

We had a brief lunch in the cathedral square before returning to the hotel and changing for the afternoon’s events.  At exactly 2.30 we made our way into the lobby to meet up with the rest of the family, and what a happy and excited crowd we were.

We are all descendants of Henry Fielding Dickens, Charles’ eighth child, and the cast of characters was as follows:

Ian Dickens (my brother) and his wife Anne

Nicky Flynn (my sister)

Peter Sticklee (My nephew, representing our late and hugely missed sister Liz)

Mark Dickens (our first cousin) and his wife Debby

Joff Dickens (Mark and Debby’s son)

Marion Lloyd (Mark’s sister)

Tom Lloyd (Marion’s son)

 

All of the above are descended from Henry and his wife Marie’s son Gerald, my grandfather.  The line from Henry and Marie’s son Hal was represented by

Mary and Pip Danby (brother and sister).

The Dickens family can become somewhat boisterous when en masse and that Saturday afternoon was no exception, however we were there for a serious reason and Ian was soon marshalling us into shape and going through the schedule for us.

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Ian

The first logistical challenge was for us all to drive from Amiens to the small village of Ginchy some forty-five minutes away.  ‘It will be easy!’  Ian promised, ‘Simply get onto the D20 and keep driving until you pass Ginchy – don’t go into the village, keep on the main road and there will be a sign showing you where to go.’

It sounded simple and we all leapt into our cars and headed off along the banks of the River Somme.

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The Somme

Nothing is as simple as it sounds, however and as we neared our destination, separated by now from most of the other family cars, we discovered a huge roadblock made of straw bales, directing us down a farm track.  We duly followed, but it seemed a strange diversion.  The track became narrower and dustier and then appeared to come to a dead end with more straw bales, but no, there was a ninety-degree corner, which lead us back towards the road, leaving the car looking as if it had successfully completed a stage in the East African Rally.

Of course now neither Liz or I knew where we were but decided to continue until we found the village of Ginchy itself, then try to find the main road again, and sure enough after a couple of wrong turns we found the small sign which read: ‘Major Cedric Dickens’.  And there, on a small track between two ploughed fields, were the rest of our party and a large gathering of locals.

 

September 9, 1916

Major Cedric Dickens served with the London Regiment – The Kensingtons – and had fought hard and bravely since the start of the war, two years previously.  The Battle of the Somme had been raging for a little over a month, and the toll on manpower had been terrible.

Near Leuze Wood, outside the village of Ginchy, a number of skirmishes were taking place.  The Kensingtons were ordered to advance on the German lines, but as they emerged from the dugout a single shell exploded killing Cedric instantly. 

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Major Cedric Dickens of The Kensingtons

 

After the war Ceddy’s mother, Marie Dickens, travelled to Ginchy to find the ground where her youngest son had been buried.  The fields were devastated, and unexploded ammunition was everywhere.

Marie found the spot where she had been informed that Ceddy had fallen, and immediately made arrangements to buy the plot of land, and have a memorial garden built.  A cross made out of English oak was placed there, as was a simple wooden bench.

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The Cross

Marie, a proud Frenchwoman, was so upset at the devastation (Ginchy itself had been completely destroyed and was slowly being re-built), that she paid for a new well to be dug in the village and bought clothes for the locals.

Every year Marie returned to Ginchy and sat on the bench, to remember her son.

Time moved on and the lessons learned in 1914-18 were ignored, Europe once again descended into war and Marie could visit the grave no longer.  After she died in 1940 the garden fell into neglect.  The farmer who owned the field asked that, as nobody ever visited, the cross and the bench could be moved.  The Dickens family were contacted and agreed with the proposal.  The grave was dug up, but no body was discovered.  The name of Major Cedric Dickens was added to the memorial at Thiepval, honouring the fallen with no known grave.

In the early 1990s Ceddy’s cross was beginning to rot, and a new, identical one, was made to replace it.  The wooden bench similarly was in a poor state of repair and was removed from the site.

And now, one hundred years after the battle the family had returned.  Our connection with the village had been maintained over the last few years, and we were here to unveil a new bench and an information board telling the story of Cedric, Marie and Ginchy.

The ceremony was attended by the mayor of Ginchy, mayors of neighbouring communes, representatives of the Kensington regiment and of course us.  What astounded us though was the amount of public who turned up to be part of the event; a crowd of around sixty had gathered as things got underway.

The cross took centre stage, while the dignitaries stood to one side.  Behind was an arc of French veterans holding flags.  These men, many aged and frail, carried out their duty with pomp and pride.

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At the memorial near Ginchy

The mayor, Jean-Marc, welcomed us all and gave a brief account of the events leading up to 9 September, 1916.  The address was translated paragraph by paragraph by Fiona, (an English lady who works with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and lives locally).  My brother Ian then replied in a beautifully crafted speech using the brilliant metaphor of gardens and re-growth. His words were translated by Tom, who did a superb job under great scrutiny from a largely French audience.

After the applause for the Ian and Tom show had died away it was my turn.

I had been asked to read a poem written by the Irish writer Thomas Kettle; it is seen as one of the great forgotten war poems, but what made it so poignant on this occasion was the fact that Kettle had been killed at Ginchy on the same day as Ceddy. He wrote the words a few days before he was killed, for his 3-year-old daughter, Elisabeth:

 

To my Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

 

In wiser days, oh darling rosebud, blown

To beauty proud as was your mother’s prime,

In that desired, delayed, incredible time,

You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,

To dice with death.  And oh! They’ll give you

Rhyme and reason: some will call the thing sublime,

And some decry it in a knowing tone.

So here, while the mad guns curse overhead

And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,

Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor, –

But for a dream born in a herdsman’s shed,

And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 

To stand in those peaceful fields, with the warm sun shining down on us, it was difficult to imagine the fear and agony that Thomas and Ceddy must have endured just yards away from where we stood: difficult and intensely moving.

The ceremony concluded with the unveiling of the new bench and information board. We also laid 100 flowers, picked from our own English gardens, at the foot of the cross, cementing the strong bond between our family and this little patch of French soil.

Following the formalities, we all drove back into the village for a further ceremony at the war memorial, where Mary and Pip laid a wreath with the Mayor.

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Jean-Marc, Mary and Pip. In the background is the original bench from Ceddy’s garden.

As the ceremonies continued we discovered that we had been joined by a regimental party on their own pilgrimage.  Around the memorial members of the group individually read names of ten soldiers who had been killed but were never found.  Each name was spoken in a soft Irish accent, and each of the remembered souls hailed from Dublin, Donegal or Wicklow, for remarkably the regiment in question was the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, with whom Thomas Kettle, the author of my poem, had been serving in 1916.

We struck up conversation and discovered that earlier that afternoon, at much the same time we had gathered to commemorate Ceddy (as I was reading the poem), the Royal Dublin party had been at the very spot where Kettle had died, and a few days earlier they’d visited the location where he had penned ‘The Gift of God’ for his daughter, a remarkable coincidence.

My sister Nicky, who lives in Kilkenny, had one day noticed a memorial bust of Kettle in Dublin, but knew nothing about him.  She noticed however that the day of his death corresponded with Ceddy’s and thought that it would appropriate for his poem to be read at our service. And so here we all were on the same spot, in the same tiny village, remembering two men who were linked only by the geography of their ultimate fate. It seemed right, somehow, that we should shake hands and informally unite their stories.

The time in the village following the ceremonies was fun, as we admired Cedric’s original cross, which is now in the church, and the original bench which has been repaired and sits on the grass outside. Jean-Marc had arranged a drinks reception in the village hall and presented Ian and Marion with gifts, as a mark of continued friendship between Ginchy and the Dickens family.

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Jean-Marc and Marion

When it was time to leave, Liz and I needed to find a petrol station and drove towards the nearby town of Bapaume.  The evening sun was beginning to cast long shadows over the fields, and the gentle slopes of the landscape looked welcoming and oh, so peaceful.  But in every village, at every intersection, in every wooded glade there was a cross, or a cemetery, or a memorial.  How can such a beautiful valley be forever tainted by the madness and hatred of mankind?

The family regrouped that evening in Amiens, and we had a wonderful alfresco dinner on the banks of the river Somme itself.  As we walked back to the hotel in good spirits, fireworks soared into the night sky and burst into rainbow showers.  Crowds of young people stood on the river bank, eyes turned to the skies as the explosions lit their faces.  On that Saturday they laughed and cheered and clapped, but a hundred years before the reactions would have been very different.

 

Sunday 4 September, 2016

Whilst our Saturday had been very much a family day, Sunday would see us at a much more public ceremony for we would be honouring Cedric and all of his fallen comrades at the Thiepval Memorial.

The Memorial was inaugurated in 1932 and is dedicated to the 73,000 men who died in the Battles of the Somme but had no known grave.  It is a huge and impressive structure standing proudly on a remote hillside, built of Accrington brick and Portland stone.  The twin flags of Great Britain and France fly from the highest tower.

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Thiepval Memorial

On the 1st July this year there was a huge ceremony at Thiepval to commemorate the battle, and the Royal British Legion, in association with Commonwealth War Graves Commission decided to hold a service on each of the next 141 days – the duration of the conflict.  An individual soldier would be honoured on each day, and the family were asked if Major Cedric could be included.  It was a great honour, and the date was arranged to coincide with our visit to Ginchy.

 

If the Somme valley had shown itself to us in its late-summer splendour the evening before, it provided stereotypically torrential rain as we drove that Sunday morning from Amiens.  The clouds clung to the earth and the rain battered the road, reducing our visibility to a matter of feet.  Cars crawled along, hugging the edge of the road, with plumes of spray cascading into the muddy fields.  This was the Somme of the history books – a reminder of why we were there.  And yet, as we drove towards the great memorial modern life carried on.  People hurried out of the boulangeries with bread tucked under their arms, and farmers drove tractors through the mud.  Life had been this way before the wars, and will be the same for hundreds of years to come.

We met up with Mary and Pip in the car park, and then with the rest of the family in the visitor centre.  Outside the weather began to relent and as the time approached for the service itself the rain had passed, although a strong wind continued to whip across the hill.

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Proceedings were conducted by a splendid gentleman in a bowler hat, who must have been a colour sergeant in his military days.  His delivery was to the point and without fuss, but he commanded respect.  There was a goodly crowd present, and many had come to honour their own family members including a lady who sung La Chanson de Craonne.  She had not planned, or been invited to sing, but was so moved by the experience of being at Thiepval that she felt she needed to do something.  Her performance, unaccompanied, was haunting in its simplicity and sincerity:

Adieu la Vie

Adieu l’amour

Adieu toutes les femmes

C’est bien fini

C’est pour toujours

De cette guerre infâme

C’est à Craonne sur la plateau

Qu’on doit laisser sa peau

Car nous sommes tous condamnés

C’est nous les sacrifiés

 

After the song, we bowed our heads briefly in prayer and then Marion gave an address about Cedric.  It was a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully read.  Suddenly I felt as if I knew Cedric as a person.  Throughout my childhood I have seen him only as a tired, mournful, scared soldier looking at me from a sepia photograph, but now I knew that he was a brilliant scholar who read law at Cambridge and played the cello, as well as coxing his college eight, before joining up to do his duty for King and Country.

As Marion made her way down the steps, so Mark took her place, resplendent in his Naval uniform complete with medals.

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Mark

He stood at the microphone and boldly intoned the Ode to Remembrance:

 

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them.

 

As the words drifted away, a bugler played The Last Post and never has it sounded more poignant. In the two minutes’ silence that followed a rope, attached to an unused flagpole, was tugged by the strong wind, and created a rhythmic clang almost as if a single bell was tolling for the dead. In that setting it seemed as if everything held significance; everything was a metaphor.

The silence was brought to an end by the bugler and the sergeant called for the younger generation of our party to lay a wreath of poppies and cornflowers.  After Tom, Joff and Peter returned to the group, so others were invited to lay their tributes to their own relatives.

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Peter and Joff

 

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Tom, Joff and Pete: The next generation at Thiepval

The colour sergeant brought the formal proceedings to a close and the crowd slowly dispersed, almost not wanting to leave this beautiful and moving place.  As we returned to our cars and made our various ways home, I am sure that each of us felt privileged and proud to have been there.

For me I now feel much more connected to a relative who hitherto has existed in relative obscurity.  I also feel as if I understand a little more about the Battle of the Somme and the terrain upon which it was fought.  I think of the world of terror in which we live today, and realise that our parents’ and our grandparents’ generations lived through much darker times. Yet we are still here: still laughing, still crying, still loving, still working.  There are so many lessons to be learned from history: let’s just make sure that we learn the right ones.

Summer in Winterthur

My few days between performances were spent in a wonderful wilderness, courtesy of Bob and Pam Byers, who let me have the run of their amazing cabin.  Apart from the previously described trip to Watkins Glen, I explored, swam, cycled, played pool and generally relaxed, which was rather nice.

On one morning I drove to the Byers’ Choice headquarters and Visitor Center to record a few video clips that Byers’ can use in their marketing for this Christmas’ events.  I was working with Jeff Byers and we had great fun for an hour or so improvising a series of 20 second segments.

Filming finished we all –Bob, Jeff and Joyce Byers and myself – gathered round a computer and studied the first drafts of a very exciting development.  After twenty-three years of performing A Christmas Carol I am at last going to have a glossy, Broadway-style souvenir brochure on tour.  Thanks to the work that my brother Ian has put in, what started as an idea is moving quickly towards reality.

If all goes to plan each venue will have stocks of the brochure which will not only have lots of photographs, but also articles about the history of A Christmas Carol, about my show and about Charles Dickens’ relationship with America – we are very excited at the prospect!

 

Thursday 4 August

And so Thursday arrived, and it was time to leave the cabin and head to familiar climes, as I was due to perform at the Winterthur estate, which has become a firm favourite on my Christmas tours.

The drive took about two hours, and the day was bright and sunny.  Usually as I head to Winterthur – one of the many DuPont homes in the state of Delaware – there is snow on the fields, and the trees are bare, so it was lovely to see the countryside in all its glory.

Amazingly as I arrived at the Visitor Center, which is home when I appear here, all of the staff were outside and greeted me with smiles and hugs.  I was terribly impressed by the reception, until they explained that there had been a fire alarm and nobody was allowed inside.  Once we were given the all clear and we could all go back inside (or just inside, as far as I was concerned), it was as if I’d never been away.  Last December Liz was here with me and everyone asked after her and whether she was with me again.

Ellen is the manager here and she co-ordinates everything to do with my show, and I class her as one of many very good friends on tour.

The summer performance is a new departure for Winterthur, but they have attracted huge audiences for A Christmas Carol and the director, David Roselle, was very keen to try another performance.  I had been asked to perform ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’, which is a light-hearted look at Charles Dickens’ performing career, and ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ – the charming true story of a ten year old girl who met Charles Dickens on a train ride from Portland, Maine, to Boston.

Ellen had arranged for various pieces of furniture to be provided, which would variously represent Charles’ reading desk, a chair in his study, a sofa in the same room and a bench seat in a New England railway carriage.

For the reading desk there was a large lecture podium (the Copland Hall was originally built as a lecture theatre), and I had brought a red cloth to disguise it as the little red table that Dickens used.  Really the podium was a little too big, so I looked around and found a few other props which may have worked.  One was a very small wooden podium, but that was too small (this is beginning to sound like Goldilocks and the three bears).  Next I found a blue plastic bin (a mini dumpster, I suppose would be the best American description), which was actually the correct size, but I couldn’t put anything on it (books, etc), without the fabric collapsing in and taking everything with it.  So I returned to the original podium, which of course was absolutely fine.

The other slight issue was the order of the shows.  I have always performed ‘Mr Dickens is Coming’ first, as it is not too taxing and is a good introduction, but Ellen was publicising ‘A Child’s Journey’ as the main piece and had put that as the first act in the programme.  We discussed it for a while and decided that we would do it my way, with Mr Dickens first, and David would announce the switch when he made his introductory remarks.

Time was marching on and the audience was beginning to arrive – a decent audience too, probably between 150 and 200.  Many of them, indeed most of them, had seen me perform A Christmas Carol and were excited to see the ‘new’ shows (new in inverted commas, in that I have been performing Mr Dickens is Coming since 1995)

The time came and David made his way to the stage, but unfortunately his microphone was not working.  David is quietly spoken, but commands respect, but unfortunately on this occasion his remarks were greeted by ‘WE CANT HEAR YOU’, and ‘ITS NOT WORKING!’  As there didn’t seem to be a technical solution David resorted to speaking very slowly, enunciating well, and cutting the intro short.

In any other venue I would have been worried, but the Copland Hall is an extraordinary piece of theatrical architecture and has the most remarkable acoustics, so I never use a microphone here:  it is old school at Winterthur.

Mr Dickens is Coming went well and everybody laughed at the right moments.  It is not a ‘WOW, that was AWSOME!’ sort of a show and never has been, but it is fun and tells the story without being too serious.  But the great success of the afternoon was ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’.

In 1912 Kate Douglas Wiggin gave a speech to the New York Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, in which she recounted the time that she had engaged her idol, Charles Dickens, in conversation.  The story is a told in her voice, with flashbacks to the actual event, so there are in fact three characters – old Kate, young Kate and Charles.

I am 52, getting portlier by the year and am bearded, and yet here I am playing a 10 year old girl from Maine – but somehow, it works!  People get completely wrapped up in the story and it is as if we are all travelling on the train.

At the end of the recital I tell the story about how I purchased a first edition of the book a few years ago, and when it arrived I discovered it that Kate had inscribed it.  I always feel it is rather lovely that I now own her signature, for it is as if the two families have become reunited.  On stage I usually  just say something like ‘and when I opened the book I discovered that Kate had signed the book…..’  But on this performance a new idea came to me and I said:

‘I opened the book and there, inscribed in a strong, confident hand the words…’ and for the final line I reverted to Kate’s voice as if she was on stage addressing the audience: ‘….I was the child, Kate Douglas Wiggin’.  That drew a gasp, followed by a standing ovation, it was an excellent way to finish the show.

After a short signing session, I got changed and drove the short distance to the Fairville Inn, the bed and breakfast where I always stay, and checked in.  I managed to get about an hour of rest before returning for the evening show which was due to start at 6.

The audience was slightly smaller, but there were some notable members of it, including Pam who brought same friends to watch, and my old friends David Keltz who performs Edgar Allen Poe, and his wife Teresa.

The reaction to each act was similar to the afternoon, and with the same gasp at the very end.  With less people in the audience, the signing was correspondingly shorter.  One family gathered for a picture and the young son asked ‘do you have any techniques for learning all those lines?’  I told him that is was just sheer repetition, going over and over and over, then starting again and discovering where you falter, and going over and over and over that part until it just comes naturally, by which time there will be another barrier which needs attention.  David Keltz was watching and nodded in agreement.  He told me later that the boy had looked crestfallen as if he’d been hoping for some magic tip that would make it easy.  I added that I have to be on the move when I learn lines – I have to pace up and down, and his sister nodded and said she did the same.  Obviously a theatrical family.

When everything was packed up David, Teresa and I drove to Buckley’s Tavern and enjoyed supper as we chatted and caught up on our respective news.  At Christmas Buckley’s is usually very crowded and noisy, but on this occasion it was quite quiet which made conversation a great deal easier.

After an hour or so it was time to go our separate ways – me just five minutes further along the Kennet Pike to the Fairville Inn, and them a longer drive to their hotel.

It was a very happy day, in beautiful surroundings, with good friends.

 

Friday 5 August

On Friday I was to fly home, but as my flight was not until 8.15pm, I had all day to kill.  I woke early and packed all of my things (making sure that I hadn’t left anything in the car or the room), before walking to the main house for breakfast and chatting to the owners Laura and Rick.

Although I didn’t have to be at JFK until 6pm Laura warned me that Friday night traffic around New York City could easily turn a three-hour drive into a five hour one, so I had better leave plenty of time.  I decided to visit nearby Longwood Gardens in the morning before getting on the road at lunchtime.

Back in my room I did one final sweep (I have an awful habit of leaving things scattered around the country in my wake), and then made the ten-minute journey to Longwood.

Longwood Gardens is an amazing garden on a huge scale.  I was among the small group of visitors waiting for the doors to open at 9.  Most of the others were there for exercise, there seemed to be a group of committed walkers who pound the paths each morning, and I would come across them repeatedly during my visit, sharing a cheery ‘hello!’ each time.

What a beautiful place, and how sad that Liz wasn’t with me, as she is the horticulturist in our household and would have adored the scale and variety of the planting.

There was a magnificent conservatory and palm house, there were lily ponds that would have had Monet needing to buy extra paint.  Woodland walks gave way to huge wild meadows which shimmered and trembled with butterflies and bees.

More formal gardens planted in strict colour themes: whites, yellows, reds and blues all bled into one another and each one seemed to have its own gardener assiduously working the beds – what a huge staff Longwood must have.

I spent almost three hours strolling through this masterpiece tucked away in the Pennsylvanian countryside and it was a perfect way to spend my final morning in the USA.

Having sent a few pictures to Liz, in an effort to share my experience, I got into the car, set the SatNav system for JFK and off I went.

The journey ran smoothly until I neared New York City where, as predicted, the delays started to mount up, but I had so much time in hand that it really didn’t matter.  One slow snake of traffic made its way onto Statten Island and past the Snug Harbor Arts Center, where I performed for many years.

I drove on and was delighted to see that we were approaching the Verrazano Bridge which is a magnificent towering structure – a New York Golden Gate Bridge (except it isn’t gold).  The views across to Manhattan were breath-taking, The new World Trade Center dominates, but there was the dear old Empire State building still looking mightily impressive.  In the foreground Lady Liberty stood proudly holding her torch like the Ghost of Christmas Present.

On we drove, past the Coney Island fun fairs, and on towards the airport.  When I arrived I was two hours early.  I returned my little Nissan to Thrifty and took the monorail to Terminal Seven, where I checked in with all the other Business Class clientele.

One of the privileges of flying business is that you get to use the comfortable lounge and I was able to have a bite of supper in the restaurant there, before eventually boarding the plane, climbing the stairs and settling into seat 64A for the overnight flight home to Liz.

It has been a remarkably varied trip, which has been thoroughly enjoyable.  From the passionate collectors of Golden Glow, the ghosts of Watkins Glen to the joyful familiarity and friendship of Winterthur, I have had a wonderful time.

When I return in November it will be for the long six week haul of my annual Christmas tour and there will be many more adventures to write about, which I will enjoy sharing with you as they unfold.

 

 

 

 

 

A Pilgrimage to Watkins Glen

The Glen

 

Yesterday I made a pilgrimage.  A pilgrimage that took me back to my childhood and honoured a group of men who inspired me and who showed me that anything was possible, even if it appeared to be beyond the bounds of the natural physical world.

I have been resting between my two shows on this trip in a wonderful oasis of calm in wooded hills high above the Delaware river, and I decided on one of my free days to get in the car and head for Watkins Glen in upstate New York.  The drive would take me four hours, but the prize would be worth it, indeed.

For those who have regularly followed my blog you will know that I have always been a passionate follower of Grand Prix motor racing.  It is a passion that has been with me since the age of 6, when my brother and sister took me to the Brands Hatch racing circuit in Kent to watch the 1970 Race of Champions.  Brands Hatch was (and still is) a sinuous race track winding its way through woodland, rising and falling with natural contours of the surrounding countryside.  There is nothing artificial about Brands Hatch, and the drivers who tackle it are battling not only the limits of their cars, but also what nature has created for them.

In the 1970s the Grand Prix circus travelled the world, and although there were sixteen races each season, only a few circuits really stood out – The fourteen mile Nurburgring was terrifying in the extreme and had claimed many lives; Brands Hatch, of course was special because it was local; and then there was Watkins Glen which seemed to somehow stand apart from the rest.

The US Grand Prix had been held at The Glen since 1961 and always came at the very end of the season, as the fall colours were at their flame-red best.  The World Championship had invariably already been settled and there was inevitably an end-of-term, celebratory feel about the race.  The organisers ensured that the prize fund was the richest of the year and so a huge entry was guaranteed (these were the days that anyone with a suitable car could turn up and race, and it was not unusual for an official team to enter a third, even a fourth car.  So unlike the rigidly controlled two by two grids that we have today.)

My drive took me along the banks of the Delaware and through Pennsylvania.  Initially I was passing cities I know well from my tour, but as I travelled further north, through Pocono, Scranton and onwards, the names were all new to me.  I was amazed at the city of Binghampton, across the state line in New York.  I pride myself of having a pretty wide knowledge of American geography, but I have never heard of Binghampton, and yet it seemed to be a thriving, multi-cultural city, with tall spires mingling with shining, glinting mosques.

The hours passed slowly but the scenery was so beautiful, lush wooded hills surrounded me on all sides.  It has been rather nice to see America at its verdant best, as I am usually here in the depths of winter, when the trees are bare and the sky grey.

My route took me west into New York state, and as the arrival time came closer I began to reflect more on why I had felt the need to travel to Watkins Glen – it had almost been a compulsion.

I dredged my mind for race histories and I realised that my four great racing heroes had all excelled at The Glen.  Graham Hill, Ronnie Peterson, James Hunt and Gilles Villeneuve had all tamed Watkins Glenn and enjoyed amazing successes there

Graham Hill was a dashing moustachioed driver of the old school.  He drove hard and partied hard and had raced against some of the very greats, and beaten them.  In 1971 I had been at Brands Hatch, a shy little boy, watching the cars returning to the paddock after a practice session, with my pudding basin haircut, and probably my brown leather sandals.  I was standing against a chain-link wire fence and watched as these mechanical masterpieces burbled past me.  The drivers cocooned in their colourful crash helmets seemed remote and untouchable.  But then a white Brabham came into site, and its driver – Graham Hill – was bare headed, and as he drove past he caught sight of me, pointed and waved.  There were no large crowds, just me and he waved.  In that instant motor racing became less about cars and more about the men inside them, and I wanted Graham Hill to win!

Hill had triumphed for three years in a row at Watkins Glen, from 1963 to 1965, beating the likes of Jimmy Clark (who many regard as the greatest ever driver).  But however he might have tamed the Glen it almost took its revenge in 1969.  Hill was driving for the Lotus team and tyre wear problems resulted in his spinning off the track.  He had to undo his seatbelts, climb out of the car and push it back to the tarmac.  The tight confines of the cockpits meant that he couldn’t do his seatbelts back up again (they were somewhat of a novelty in F1 at that time anyway), and he drove on at racing speeds with his belts unfastened.  As he passed the pits he signalled to his team that he would be coming in for a tyre change on the next lap, so they should start preparing now.  He never made it.

As Graham Hill accelerated down the back straight his tyre exploded and sent the car into a huge, cartwheeling accident, going end over end destroying itself as it did so.  The centrifugal forces acting on the car pulled the helpless driver from his seat and ejected him high into the air, breaking both of his legs as he was flung out.  He said later that he never knew if it was a good or bad thing that he didn’t have his belts on, because if he had been restrained in the cockpit the result may have been much worse.

Graham Hill recovered and continued to drive in F1 for many more years, but he was never the driver he had been before that crash.

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Whereas Graham Hill was a larger than life personality, Ronnie Peterson from Sweden was quiet and almost shy, but boy could he drive a racing car fast.  He seemed to have an innate ability to understand the forces at work and control them. His trademark blue and yellow helmet would be tilted forward and down, as if he were urging the car onward.  He would commit to a corner at apparently impossible speeds  and sure enough the car would begin to slide, the rear desperately trying to overtake the front, but did Ronne lift his foot?  Oh no, he simply counter-steered, tamed the beast and drifted around the bend in perfect control.

Ronnie’s first visit to the Glen was in 1970 driving for the unfancied and under financed March racing team.  Over the next few years he would put his stamp on the circuit however.  In 71, still with March he took an amazing and completely unexpected third place, and in 72 he was fourth.  In 1973, now with a major team at last – Lotus – he slid and drifted his way to a memorable victory.

In fact that 73 race saw the emergence of my next hero the rebellious child of the seventies, James Hunt.  Hunt had gained a reputation in junior formula for crashing, and had only found himself in Formula One thanks to the largesse of a young aristocrat, who seemed to have more money than sense.

Lord Alexander Hesketh decided that Formula One looked a fun place to party, so created his own team which appeared to be staffed by a group of hooray-Henrys more interested in Champagne than preparing the car.  But the outward frivolity of the team masked a steely core, and during 73 they started to challenge the major teams.  At Watkins Glen Hunt pushed Peterson (the recognised fastest driver, in the best car) all the way to the finish line, finishing just 0.7 of a second behind him.  Three years later, in his Championship year, Hunt drove one of his finest races to win and repeated that result in 77.

Gilles Villeneuve was a French Canadian who drove in the Ronnie Peterson mould, ignoring the rules of physics and pushing the car way beyond them.  In 1979 the Friday practice session was held in torrential rain, but as there was a possibility of the same on race day, all of the drivers went out and teetered through the puddles.  Most came back saying it was undrivable and dangerous, but Gilles pounded round and when the session was over he hap lapped 9 (NINE) seconds faster than his nearest rival!  Another driver simply laughed and muttered ‘he is on a different level to the rest of us’.  On Sunday Gilles won the race with ease.

So Watkins Glen had been the showground for a succession of my favourite drivers to display their ability, but Grand Prix racing in the 1970s was a truly gladiatorial sport and the slightest error could be fatal.  Today if a driver loses control the circuits are built in such a way as to contain the accident as safely as possible and that of course is a good thing, but there was something about watching Grand Prix cars in my era, knowing that these heroes were pushing themselves to the very limit in full knowledge of what the consequences of overstepping the mark would be.  Oh, yes, they knew because two or three drivers would perish at the wheel each year.

That race in 71 in which Ronnie stood on the podium was won by a dashing young Frenchman called Francois Cevert – he had the dark, brooding good looks of a film star, piercing blue eyes and as well as great ability in a racing car, played the piano to concert standard.  By 1973 Cevert was talked about as a future world champion.

During practice for the 1973 US Grand Prix he entered the swooping fast esses just after the start of the lap and made the slightest of errors in positioning the car, his front wheel clipped the inside barrier and from that moment he was out of control.  In an instant his Tyrrell shot across the track  and slammed into the barrier at unabated speed.  The steel was not sufficiently strong to contain the forces and it opened up, letting the car pass underneath.  Poor Cevert had no chance as the knife-like steel edge inflicted fatal injuries to him.

But the Glen had not finished yet, for in 1974 a young Austrian driver Helmut Koenig suffered a puncture as he approached the Toe turn, sending him headlong into the barrier, which parted just as had happened to Cevert the year before:  the result was tragically and gruesomely the same.

So, triumph and tragedy has coloured the Glen’s history.  Formula One racing stopped coming here in 1981, but the track still hosts major meetings throughout the year, and is largely unchanged since those heady days.

As I got closer I became extraordinarily emotional, and I couldn’t quite understand why.  The circuit is much higher in the hills than I had expected, and is remarkably like Brands Hatch in its setting and layout, making it feel very familiar.

I drove up to the gate, and another man was asking if it was possible to visit, and the answer was in the negative, the circuit was closed to all visitors today as the NASCAR circus was setting up for the weekend’s race.  Strangely I wasn’t disappointed, it was enough just to be there, in the hills.  I drove around some perimeter roads and found a camp site that had views of The Boot section of the track.

I said a silent thank you to my heroes, none of whom are still alive, and drove away.

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Watkins Glen

 

An eight hour round drive seemed to be rather a long time, just to stand in a campsite and look at one corner of racetrack, so I decided to drive the short distance into the village of Watkins Glen itself.

Of course it was ready for the NACAR onslaught, and all of the lamp poles had US and chequered flags flying.  Watkins Glen is very proud of its racing heritage and the influence of the races are everywhere.  In the Chamber of Commerce building I was moved to see a huge mural, featuring Francois Cevert in the centre.

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On leaving the Chamber I found that the pavements have stone tablets set into them, like the Holywood walk of fame, honouring those drivers who have triumphed here.

The first races were held on public roads, with the start and finish line being in the very centre of the village, opposite the town hall.  The stone tablet adjacent to the old start line (still marked across the street) pays homage to the winner of the first race in 1948: Frank Griswold (rather aptly the same surname as the character in National Lampoon’s Vacation who makes a pilgrimage to Wally World, only to find it closed).

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But further exploration brought me to the Glen itself, cutting its way through a deep gorge and falling to sea level (or lake level to be pedantic) via a series of spectacular waterfalls.  The Watkins Glenn State Park have created a natural and unobtrusive walkway alongside the glen.  The narrow stone walk way winds its way through tunnels and over bridges and affords wonderful views of the 19 different waterfalls.

For an hour or so I joined many other camera-toting hikers as we made our way up and back down again, marvelling at nature.  I would imagine if anyone is studying geology in New York State, they only need to come here, walk up and walk down before being ready to take their final paper.

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From the Glen itself I took the car to the very edge of Seneca Lake and found a small restaurant where I had a huge salad as I looked out at deep blue choppy waters, with the occasional slash of white as a yacht tacked this way or that.

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Watkins Glen is a lovely town, in beautiful surroundings and I am glad that my childhood memories had lead me here.  A long journey home lay before me, but I was so happy that I came both to capture those heady years when childhood gave way to adolescence and to discover somewhere new and beautiful.

Hopefully Liz and I can return to the Glen together one day and explore properly, and if there just happens to be a race that weekend…….

[GD1]

A Golden Glow

Thursday, 28 July

My Christmas season always starts early, but this year is impressive even for me.  On 28 July, nearly a full five months before the great day, I was packing my bags and heading to Heathrow airport ready to perform A Christmas Carol for the first time in 2016.

This Summery celebration of the yuletide season was due to a group called Golden Glow, who were holding their summer convention in New York State.  Golden Glow is a huge organisation made up of people who collect Christmas memorabilia of all sorts – as I was to find out they are passionate and committed collectors indeed.

Every trip that I make provides me with new adventures and experiences and on this occasion I was rewarded with a realisation of a dream that was harboured in childhood:  to go upstairs on a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, for the very kind people at Golden Glow had offered to fly me Business Class, which is definitely not a stipulation of my contract, just a kind and generous thing.

Liz drove me to the airport and we tearfully said our goodbyes.  You would think after all these years of travelling we would have got used to this, but it never gets any easier, and I made my way through security and on towards gate B41, where BA flight 175 waited.

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I have to say that I loved every second of the experience: being called up to board first and relishing the moment when the flight attendant said: ‘good morning, Mr Dickens, straight up the stairs, enjoy your flight.’

The little bubble atop the 747 fuselage almost becomes a private jet, so small is it.  I don’t know how many passengers were up there, maybe twenty, but we were served by two very attentive stewards.

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Champagne to start (it was only 9am, but – hey – it was offered!), and then I settled into the huge reclining seat to peruse the lunch menu.  This was no ‘Chicken or beef – sorry, chicken’s run out.’

Oh, no:

Starters

Loch Fynne smoked salmon with red and white radish and wasabi crème fraiche

Garden of grilled baby vegetables on little gem lettuce with tabbouleh and carrot hummus

 

Salad

Fresh seasonal salad served with vinaigrette

 

Main courses 

Braised short rib of Herefordshire Beef with celeriac mousseline, buttered carrots, swede and thyme jus

Grilled prawns tossed in tomato basil butter served with saffron risotto and Tuscan style vegetables with olives

Pappardelle and courgette ribbons bound in truffle cream sauce, served with fresh green asparagus and slow-roast cherry tomatoes

Main course wakame salad featuring grilled breast of corn-fed chicken marinated in lemon with pickled cucumber and miso dressing.

 

Deserts

Mocha and Mascarpone mousse cake with strawberry puree

Warm apple raisin sponge pudding with toffee sauce

West Country Brie and Belton Farm Red Fox served with Bramley apple chutney

A selection of whole fresh fruit

Tea, coffee and chocolates

Ahhhhh.

At take off another advantage of being up here became apparent:  so far from the engines was I sat, that the noise and vibration was almost unnoticeable.

Of course the flight was relaxing and quiet and the cabin had plenty of room to walk and stretch my legs.  I watched a succession of films, starting with the brilliant Steve Jobs, and ending up with the ridiculous – but fun – Eddie the Eagle. And I slept for a while, stretched out on my full length reclining seat, wrapped in an eiderdown (not a thin blanket, you note, but a real eiderdown!)

Of course, as soon as the plane touched down all luxury and privilege went out of the window, and all 605 passengers stood in line waiting to be seen by a surly immigration official; and all 605 passengers gathered around the baggage carrousel; and all 605 passengers waited in another line to be checked by a surly customs official before being disgorged into the arrivals hall.

I quickly found my way to the rental car offices, collected my car and set off for Rye Brook, Westchester County, New York.

The drive was about an hour and as I made my way I caught ghostly glimpses of the New York City skyline through the hot, humid haze.

At one point I passed a very odd looking golf course, which seemed to be made of artificially coloured grass, with vivid greed fairways and sulphurous yellow rough – it didn’t sit comfortably within the surrounding landscape at all.  As I passed the main gate the garish sign proudly advertised it as The Trump Links.

I reached the Hilton Westchester and pulled my bags into the lobby (don’t BA send someone to do that for you, when you have flown business class?) and for a moment it seemed as if I was actually on my official Christmas tour.  The whole foyer (and I was soon to discover the whole hotel) was decked out for Christmas: trees, wreathes, coloured lights, giant Santas, nutcrackers and glass ornaments abounded.

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As I checked in I was welcomed by the hosts of Golden Glow 2016, Bill Steely and Michael Storrings who asked me if Id like to join them for a drink; and so the party began.

Bill gave me a quick tour of the hotel and the sheer scale of this event began to dawn on me for the first time.  Lectures were taking place in one ballroom, whilst another was being prepared for the evening banquet.  650 chairs around circular tables looks an awful lot, and even though my show was two days away I began to think how best to perform in this huge space.

More meeting rooms were given over to museum spaces, where the delegates displayed their treasured collections of Christmas memorabilia.  Some Victorian, some early twentieth century, some post war, all carefully researched and beautifully displayed.

But the strangest thing were the notes:  in every hallway, in every lift, on every table were little handwritten notes encouraging other delegates to go to room #418, or 139, or 624 or wherever to trade.  One read ‘Room 274.  Good Stuff!’  it seemed slightly suspicious to me…

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I got a little rest before joining the group for the evening’s banquet, which was to an Italian Theme.  The food was excellent, as was the company although I was beginning to fade fast as my body was convinced that it was 3am.

Following dinner there was a very entertaining cabaret act, and it was useful for me to watch the singer perform on the same stage that I would be treading in 48 hours.  I watched his movements, observed the light and tried to see how the audience reacted to him.

The show finished at around 9.15 and I headed straight to bed, leaving the members of Golden to Glow to participate in the final event of the day – Room Hopping…..

 

Friday 29 July

Day two was basically a free day for me and was a chance to relax and acclimate.

At breakfast I discovered that Golden Glow was not the only group staying in the hotel, for in the restaurant was scattered various members of The American Academy of Ballet.  There were young dances, presumably from the corps de ballet, and there were more imposing performers who must have been the principals.  There were older ladies with perfect poise who presumably were the choreographers and directors.  There were then less impressively formed characters piling bacon and eggs and bacon onto their plates, who made up the stage management and tech teams.

As I watched this company gather I reflected on what an amazing thing art is – here was a huge group who had come together to tell a story to an audience, and here was I, on my own, preparing to do the same thing:  live theatre – you can’t beat it for its massive scope and wide ranging appeal.

I spent the morning running through A Christmas Carol, which I hadn’t performed since December 27.  I looked at the blog posts from last year’s tour to remind myself of changes I had made to the show during that trip, and went over and over those passages just to fix them firmly in place.

With a couple of runs under my belt I then took myself off for a walk in the hot humid morning sun.  In the land behind the hotel there is a park with walking trails, so I headed for that, not using a map, just following my nose.  I admired the front gardens of the nearby houses, proudly laid open to the passer by, unlike the English who like to hide their gardens behind walls, fences and high hedges.

The walk in the park was beautiful and took me through grassed landscape, past carefully tended garden spaces and alongside a wildflower meadow.

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At one point I came upon a huge cedar that had spilt and fallen, judging by the brightness of the wood and the sweet scent, probably the night before.

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I continued my walk out of the park and through more neighbourhoods before returning to the hotel and a delicious lunch of Pear and Apple salad with grilled chicken.

In the afternoon there were to be a series of lectures and two in particular caught my eye: ‘A Victoria and Albert Christmas’ and ‘Dickens: The Real Man Behind A Christmas Carol’

I took a seat to one side and near the back, from where I could listen, incognito.

The first lecture was very interesting and described how Prince Albert’s influence changed the way that the British nation celebrated Christmas, by introducing lavish decorations and gift giving to the feast.

In describing the ancient pagan rituals our lecturer Kit, explained that ‘wearing of any ivy wreath was thought to prevent falling hair.’  Ivy wreathes for me then, although it may be too late already.

The second lecture was given by Gary Dean, who I had met at one of my tea performances in Hershey.  It was a fascinating talk about the financial trouble that Dickens was in during 1843 (Martin Chuzzlewit was not selling well and Charles was scared that his lavish lifestyle and continued financial imprudence of his father, may lead to severe problems.)

Under these circumstances Dickens came up with the idea of producing a highly popular book for Christmas, which would be sure to sell well, and he had the opportunity of tackling one of his biggest social concerns at the same time: the plight of the poor children in the big cities.

Dickens had been working with the Ragged School organisation for a while and encouraged many philanthropists, most especially Angela Burdett-Coutts, to support him.  By writing a wonderful, magical tale of Christmas, that also featured the worst of society, Charles could bring the plight of the poor to the very forefront of the public consciousness.

Gary spoke very well and didn’t allow himself to become side-tracked into overt sentimentality or hero-worship for his subject – he told it as it was.  He pointed out that many early adaptations left out the hideous, starving characters of Ignorance and Want, and I let out a gentle sigh of relief that they feature in MY show!

The banquet on Friday evening was Germanic (the overall theme for the convention being ‘All Round the World’), and on this occasion the entertainment was ‘Christmas Idol’ in which a few of the delegates performed on stage and were judged by Candy Cane – a Rockette from Radio City (played by Bill Steely’s wife Janine), Jack Frost portrayed by a young ballet dancer, and Vixen, the naughtiest of all Santa’s elves.

The performances ranged from superb, verging on professional, through exceedingly good, to charming, talented and all the way to tone deaf, but it was a fabulous evening and the audience were completely engaged, giving repeated standing ovations, and waving their smart phones in the air, to replicate the 60s and 70s tradition of lighters and candles at rock concerts.

The judges deliberated and were good-naturedly booed when they didn’t put the two cute kids through.  The decision was correct, however and the joint winners were by far the best singers. on the night.

After dinner I spent a little time with Bill, Janine and the other judges in the bar as they wound down from their evening’s efforts.

 

Saturday, 30 July

Saturday marked the day of my show, but as I wouldn’t be performing until 8pm, I had plenty of time to myself again.

After breakfast I made my way up to the grand ballroom to look at the stage, and as the room was deserted I placed a couple of pieces of furniture on it and started to rehearse.  It was a good exercise and very useful to get used to the very wide nature of the room.  It would be important to make sure that the show was spread out to all corners and not become too centred.

As I rehearsed I got more and more into the show, and a few of the delegates poked their heads in to see what was going on.  A hotel waiter took a seat at the back and watched the last twenty minutes or so, meaning that I had an audience to play to.  When I finished and walked out of the room he said ‘Yeah, good job, very good.  Very, very good.’  Never has an audience reaction meant more!

The rest of the day was quiet and relaxing, the main business of the convention being a massive auction that lasted most of the day.  Most of the conventioneers (as the hotel manager called them), would be leaving early the next morning, and the business of taking everything down began early.

As the afternoon moved on I began my preparation routine, with showering, ironing and making sure that I had all the props and music to hand, before going to the ballroom.

A chair and decorated table was on the stage, but there was no stool for Bob Cratchit:  I looked around and found a wooden piano stool that would do, if we couldn’t find anything else.

I did a sound check, and then the audience began to gather in the hall – all 650 of them.  All tired, all wanting to pack their goods, all ready to go home:  a pang of nervousness ran through me – could I do this?  Could I hold their attention?  Well, there was only one way to find out.

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Dinner followed the same patter as previous nights (Great Britain being the theme this time).  I had a little salad and some Mutton Broth, but passed on the Roast Turkey and trimmings.  As dessert was served I left the table and prepared for the off, although I was a bit premature, in that I hadn’t counted on the raffles and auctions, and selling on of the tables centres, and the thanking of the volunteers, and the congratulating of the hotel, and all of the other business that is essential to an event of this sort.

Bill made a short introduction, and left the stage as my introductory music (the haunting opening bars of The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Carol of the Bells), brought a silence across the room.

‘Marley was dead, to begin with…..’  I felt completely at home.

It was an interesting performance, as the audience had an English feel to it, in that they were slow to warm up, but as the story moved on everyone became completely involved and I began to give more and more.  My voice suffered a little with the air con (as it always does when I first arrive in America), but all the little things that I’d worked on in my hotel room, and that morning on stage, worked well.  Even the piano stool did its job admirably.

The applause at the end was wonderful and everyone stood as I took my bows.  I was very relieved and very satisfied.

Everyone had been given a copy of A Christmas Carol at their table, so there was a fair bit of signing to be done.  I sat on the chair on stage and spent plenty of time chatting and posing and shaking hands.

One gentleman, dressed in a red shirt and wearing a large white beard waited until the very end then came to chat.  His name is Jim Morrison and he runs a museum of Christmas in Delaware.  Many years ago we met and he presented me with a set of glass Christmas tree ornaments in the shape of characters from A Christmas Carol, which I was delighted to tell him we still have.

When the signing was finished I retired to the bar and joined Bill, Michael, Janine and plenty of other new friends.  Meanwhile the great exodus had begun and luggage carts loaded high with plastic packing cases full of ornaments and cards were being pushed towards the parking lots.

Really, I was lucky that nobody left during the show (as usually happens, I was informed).

 

Sunday 31 July

As I hadn’t managed to sign all of the books on Saturday night, I had suggested to Bill that I would sit in the lobby to be available as people checked out, the result being that I had a very pleasant hour or two, chatting to people – including a mother and son who were attending the convention from Exeter in England.  I am actually hoping to perform in the town of Ashburton, not far from them, so hopefully we will meet up again in a couple of months.

I said good bye to Michael and Bill and all of the others before heading back to my room to gather my bags and leave.

The main desk in the hotel was long, and there were a few people standing there sorting out their bills.  One of the staff said to me ‘Mr Dickens, It’s been great to have you here.  Really exciting.  Have you enjoyed your time with us?’ and I replied that I had, before telling him my room number and handing over the keys.  We completed the formalities and as I went to leave the gentleman standing next to me at the counter said to the clerk: ‘are you free now?’  ‘Yes’ ‘Mmm, I thought you were free before, until that gentleman barged in…’

Suddenly all of the friendship and goodwill and cheerfulness evaporated in one moment.  My first reaction was ‘for goodness sake, did the story mean NOTHING to you?’  But then I realised that I has been flattered by the desk clerk’s attention, and had become all starry, I hadn’t even bothered to check if the gentleman was waiting (I assumed he was being served by someone else, I suppose), and had just taken over.  I mumbled an apology, which wasn’t received well, and made my way out of the hotel, with a dark cloud hanging over me.

The weather matched my mood, as it was dark and glowering and soon heavy rain began to fall.  I drove towards New York City and managed to successfully manoeuvre through the tortuous lane system onto the two story George Washington Bridge.

Soon I was on the New Jersey Turnpike and a good old dose of Simon and Garfunkel Karaoke began to clear my head and soon I was driving on in a much better frame of mind towards a few days of relaxation and friendship, before my next show on Thursday.

My time with The Golden Glow (it is always mentioned as a singular entity), was great fun.  I met some wonderful people who love what they do.  Hopefully more will come of these few days and I may be invited to further conventions in the future – and not just so that I can go upstairs on a 747.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having a Captial Time

Over the last few days I have twice reacquainted myself with a character who features in every one of Charles Dickens major novels:  The city of London.

He may have been born in Portsmouth and grown up in Kent, but it was in the great metropolis that Dickens discovered a life that would excite and torment him throughout his life.

In London was John Dickens imprisoned for debt and in London did his eleven-year-old son work in the squalor of Warren’s Blacking Factory.

In London did the members of the Pickwick Club meet and from London did they set off on their adventures.

On the banks of the River Thames did Fagin conduct his criminal gang and on London Bridge did Nancy meet Mr Brownlow, effectively writing her own death warrant.

Into the fashionable neighbourhood of Doughty Street did the successful young author move, and there did his seventeen-year-old sister in law, Mary Hogarth, die in his arms.

Nicholas Nickleby met Mr Squeers at Snow Hill, and eventually returned from Yorkshire to seek safety in the home of his friend Newman Noggs in Golden Square.

The Old Curiosity Shop is in London, and Barnaby Rudge tells the story of the Gordon Riots of 1780 which ran through the capital’s streets.

I could go on, but be assured London is a constant companion to the avid Dickens reader.

Strangely enough I spend very little time in London, so it was a curious quirk of circumstance that two events settled themselves into my diary on successive days.  You wait for years and then two come along at once…..

The first event took place at Mary Ward House in Tavistock Place just a stone’s throw from the site of Dickens’ own home in Tavistock Square.  I had been booked by the LUPC to perform during the closing cocktail party at their one-day conference.  For those of you who do not know, the LUPC is The London Universities Purchasing Consortium and the organisation was running the conference in association with the SUPC (Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium).

To be honest I am not sure what all the delegates were doing during the day, but I know that Mary Ward House, which has multiple rooms, was filled with exhibitors and vendors hawking their wares.

I had been asked to provide three ten-minute performances, each to include a little biographical detail about Charles Dickens followed by a reading.  A small stage had been set up in The Dickens Library and as I addressed the audience I was looked over by a rather stern marble bust of the great man.  I must confess to having fears that the bust would suddenly move, topple to the floor and smash into a million pieces if ‘The Inimitable’ didn’t approve of my efforts.

At 5.30 Andy Davies, the head of LUPC and the man who had first dreamed of having Dickens represented at the reception, took the stage to introduce me.  A large crowd was gathered and were most receptive as I briefly explained how Dickens had moved from being a parliamentary reporter (‘travelling during elections or, God forbid, referendum campaigns….’), to anonymous contributor to The Monthly Magazine, and on to become the creator of The Pickwick Papers.  The reading I chose to wrap up the first session was from the scene early in the Pickwick Papers when the four members of the club are joined on their coach ride to Rochester by Mr Jingle:

‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of a family off — shocking, shocking!

The performance was well received and came in bang on the ten-minute mark, which I was relieved by.

My second slot was not for another thirty minutes, so I sat downstairs in an empty room as exhibitors cleared their stands and boxes away.  Almost imperceptibly they were replaced by clones of themselves setting up the next day’s conference – different displays, different products, but same routine.  Life in a London conference venue must be akin to riding a conveyor belt.

My second performance dealt with Dicken’s social conscience and the work that he did to highlight the horrors of the poverty gap.  I wanted to make the point that he was so successful in his efforts to bring people’s attention to the situation on the streets because he did not just lecture and badger.  Dickens was able to engage his readers with great plots and wonderful characters before laying reality bare before them.

To illustrate these two sides of Charles’ work I chose two passages from Nicholas Nickleby as he arrives at Dotheboys Hall kept by Mr Wackford Squeers:

But the pupils — the young noblemen! How the last faint traces of hope, the remotest glimmering of any good to be derived from his efforts in this den, faded from the mind of Nicholas as he looked in dismay around!

Pale and haggard faces, lank and bony figures, children with the countenances of old men, deformities with irons upon their limbs, boys of stunted growth, and others whose long meagre legs would hardly bear their stooping bodies, all crowded on the view together; there were the bleared eye, the hare-lip, the crooked foot. There were little faces which should have been handsome, darkened with the scowl of sullen, dogged suffering; there was childhood with the light of its eye quenched, its beauty gone, and its helplessness alone remaining.

With every kindly sympathy and affection blasted in its birth, with every young and healthy feeling flogged and starved down, with every revengeful passion that can fester in swollen hearts, eating its evil way to their core in silence, what an incipient Hell was breeding here!

This is the first class in English spelling and philosophy, Nickleby,’ said Squeers, beckoning Nicholas to stand beside him. ‘We’ll get up a Latin one, and hand that over to you. Now, then, where’s the first boy?’

‘Please, sir, he’s cleaning the back-parlour window,’ said the temporary head of the philosophical class.

‘So he is, to be sure,’ rejoined Squeers. ‘We go upon the practical mode of teaching, Nickleby; the regular education system. C-l-e-a-n, clean, verb active, to make bright, to scour. W-i-n, win, d-e-r, der, winder, a casement. When the boy knows this out of book, he goes and does it. 

My final performance, which was to a slightly smaller audience as many of the guests were drifting away to their homes, dealt with Charles Dickens’ love of performing.  I talked about the theatricals he mounted using the elite of London society (Wilkie Collins, William Makepeace Thackeray, Augustus Egg, Mark Lemmon, Clarkson Stanfield and many others) to fill all of the roles.  He had one of the rooms in Tavistock Place converted into a small theatre and performed there (just a few hundred yards from the room in which I was now standing).

Later he would take to the stage alone and perform highly dramatic readings from his own work.  To illustrate the reading tours I decided to perform the climax of Sikes and Nancy: The Murder.  It was a slight risk as everyone had enjoyed the humour inherent to the first two readings, but I wanted to give them a sense of the drama and horror of the show that had Victorian ladies fainting (indeed Dickens would judge the success of the performance by the number of faintees carried out of the hall ‘quite stiff’).

The Murder, performed beneath the austere wood panelling and the severe marble-gaze of its originator, had the desired effect and there was a gasp as Bill Sikes’ dog was sent ‘…tumbling into the ditch before striking his head against a stone, and dashing out his brains.’  A pause, a collective deep breath and then prolonged applause.

It is an amazing thing that wherever I travel and whoever I perform for, the works of Dickens still hold such magic for the listener and it was a great pleasure to meet and talk to so many people in the University Purchasing industry about a man who is universally admired 146 years after his death.

 

FTCT

On the following day Liz and I were to attend a reception in The House of Lords, the upper chamber of British government.  Neither of us had ever been inside the Houses of Parliament before, so this was to be a rare treat for us.

The FTCT is a charity that I had not heard of before the invitation fell onto our doormat, but a little research – and I am indebted to Cindy at The Charles Dickens Museum in London for filling me in – revealed an amazing group of people.

‘The Fashion & Textile Children’s Trust gives financial support to families who work or recently worked in the UK fashion and textile industry. Grants start at £250 and can provide practical help during a tough financial spot.’  So says the home page at www.ftct.org.uk

Back in 1853 a group of merchants from the thriving cotton industry started a fund to provide financial support for their workers and at a fundraising dinner in 1857 Charles Dickens lent his support and spoke with his usual eloquence:

‘….Ladies and Gentlemen, this little labour of love of mine is now done.  I most heartily wish that I could charm you now not to see me, not to think of me, not to hear me – I most heartily wish that I could make you see in my stead the multitude of innocent and bereaved children who are looking towards these schools, and entreating with uplifted hands to be let in.  A very famous advocate once said, in speaking of his fears of failure when he first had to speak in court, being very poor, that he felt his children tugging at his skirts, and that recovered him.  Will you think of the number of little children who are tugging at my skirts, when I ask you, in their names, on their behalf, and in their little persons, and in no strength of my own, to encourage and assist this work?’

For those who know their Dickens, the image of poor children tugging at skirts is one that Charles laid before his readers in the persons of Ignorance and Want in A Christmas Carol.

Nowadays the FTCT can boast the patronage of the Queen and indeed we had seen representatives of the charity waving their flags during the TV coverage of the great celebratory street party in The Mall the previous weekend.

So Liz and I left Oxford and drove the ten miles to Didcot rail station as the heavens opened and lightning slashed through the dark thunder clouds.

The traffic was heavy and slow, but we had included plenty of spare time into our schedule, so there was no need to worry.  Once at Didcot I had to feed coins into the pay and display machine in the car park, and as I stepped out of the car my foot sloshed into a deep puddle; the heavy rain ensured that I became soaked from above and below simultaneously.

Into the ticket office just as our train departed, but there would be another one along shortly, and we had included plenty of time into our schedule.  We sat in the waiting room, gently drying out and smelling a bit musty.

An announcement echoed around the damp platforms giving us the tidings that the train had been delayed by ten minutes, which didn’t really matter, for we had plenty of time.

When the train eventually arrived it was packed, but Liz and I managed to find seats and settled in for the 45-minute ride into Paddington station.  Unfortunately, the train had a technical fault and had only one motor propelling it, hence the delay.  The clock was ticking on, but we still had a little time in hand.

And then, just outside of London the train stopped.  The intercom crackled and the guard (called train managers these days) informed us that an empty train had derailed in front of us and pulled down the overhead electric cables (that must have been quite an impressive de-rail!), bringing all traffic into Paddington to a halt.  For now we had to sit and wait, and we didn’t have THAT much time built in to our schedule!

Eventually the Train Manager came back onto the microphone with the glad tidings that we could edge our way into Paddington on a different line and so the opportunity to attend the FTCT function became viable again.

We rushed to the taxi rank and found a long long queue of people waiting for cabs, but the system at Paddington is impressive and soon we were grandly telling our driver that we wished to go to The House of Lords please.

The reception had started at 6.30 and by this time we were an hour late, but we were determined to make it somehow.

Our invitation told us that we had to use Black Rod’s Entrance which would be locked at 7.45.  Our taxi driver did his best, using his knowledge to take us through a warren of small back streets unknown to us, before bursting out into the shadow of the Palace of Westminster.  We inelegantly ran, asking armed police officers where we needed to go, until we arrived at Black Rod’s Entrance and discovered it to be locked.  A wave of deflation and disappointment filled us both as we stared at the heavy wooden door.  A helpful police officer told us that ‘the gate gets locked at 7.45, you can’t get in’.

Just as we were wondering what to do, the gun-toting bobby obviously took pity on us and added: ‘You can probably get in the main door, up there’ and pointed towards the far end of the palace.  The race was back on.

We made our way past Cromwell Green and after a security search discovered ourselves in the magnificent Westminster Hall which was originally built in 1097.  We were told to walk through the hall and ask at the information point at the far end where to go.  We didn’t hurry, we ambled, taking in the magnificent architecture that towered above us.

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Westminster Hall

 

The next guard told us to take a certain corridor and someone would direct us at the far end.

Book cases with dusty tomes and solid wooden doors into committee rooms lined the way as we strolled through the corridors of power apparently alone (although I’m sure that we being carefully monitored by hidden security cameras: perhaps the heads on the stone statues slowly turned as we walked past).

Our destination was the Cholmondeley room (for American readers this is pronounced ‘chumley’, don’t ask why, I have no idea – it just is)

At last, having had the most extraordinary unguided tour of Parliament, we found ourselves in the heart of the FTCT reception.  Although we had missed the speeches and some guests were already leaving, the party was still in full swing and soon we were shaking hands and being photographed.

I was able to chat to one of the trustees whose role it is to decide how to distribute the various grants and she told me some desperately moving stories of families in deep financial hardship.  In one case a young boy was suffering from cancer and the charity helped to pay for treatment.  Sadly he would ultimately succumb to the disease, but the FTCT’s association with is family was not finished and they were able to offer £250 to buy the boy’s sister a bicycle, which went a tiny way to ease the pain of her loss.

And that is the remarkable thing about the FTCT:  it is not one of the big ‘we-need-as-much-money-as-we-can-get-for-life-changing-research’ charities, it is a charity that touches and changes people’s lives at the most basic level.

Charles Dickens would certainly be proud of the work being carried out so many years on.  We chatted, we listened, we networked.  Hopefully I can be closely associated with the FTCT in the future and assist them in their efforts to raise their profile, as well as helping to raise funds.

The Cholmondeley Room was hot and during a lull in the conversation Liz and I took our drinks to the terrace and stood gazing at the mighty River Thames which flows (in a more youthful manner), through our home town of Abingdon.

At 9pm an announcement was made that we had to vacate the room and everyone collected their coats and made their way outside.  As we passed through the gate we glanced up at the Victoria Tower (the one that doesn’t have Big Ben inside it) and noticed that the Union Flag was flying at half-mast in honour of the MP Jo Cox, who had been shockingly murdered in her constituency earlier in the day.

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Victoria Tower

 

Liz and I quickly flagged down a taxi and returned to Paddington Station where we found….all trains were cancelled thanks to the earlier derailment.  We took a tube to Marble Arch and brought two tickets on the bus back to Oxford (of course our car was still in its puddle at Didcot, meaning we would have to book yet another taxi from the bus stop in Oxford to home, and collect the car – possibly with a parking ticket attached – on the following morning.)

As the bus made its way through west London we noticed a glow on the horizon, and saw the arch of Wembley Stadium lit up in rainbow colours as a show of respect to the victims of the Orlando shooting.  Along with the sombre flag hanging from its pole on the roof of Parliament, the rainbow arch was a vivid reminder of sheer hatred and horror across the globe, and yet we had spent the evening with genuine, caring, generous people who only want the best for the society that they live in, and it is that spirit which will always win through in the end.

Despite the occasional evidence to the contrary, the world is inherently a good place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pictorial Rochester

Last year I wrote a blog about the Rochester Dickens Festival.  I have just returned from this year’s event and as not much has changed there doesn’t seem much point in writing another, however I thought it would be fun to give you a pictorial record of my weekend:

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On my way

 

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A Cultural Breakfast

 

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‘Don’t you know who I am?!’

 

The Festival takes over the entire City and surrounds the Castle and Cathedral.  Everywhere you look there are costumed characters – some are specific characters and others are generic Victorian folk.

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The festival takes over the entire City of Rochester

 

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Rochester Castle

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When I was younger, so much younger than today…

 

On each of the three days there are two parades through Rochester High Street and everyone in costume gathers ready to wave and smile until our jaws ache.  Fiction meets reality and there some extraordinary sites to be seen.

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With the cast of Dickens Theatre Company of Medway who were performing The Trials of Charles Dickens in the elegant Chamber at The Guildhall

 

Each year I perform a different show and this year I chose the ghost story of The Signalman.  I have been performing it as a memorised piece for over a year and I have finally found a way of presenting it in a way that I am happy with.  I was fortunate that the Dickens Theatre Company had installed a lighting rig, which they were happy to let me use.  With eerie red glows to suggest a danger light at the of the ‘barbarous, depressing and forbidding tunnel’, as well as The Signalman’s meagre fire in his signal box, the story took on an altogether more sinister tone.

 

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After a grey, misty Friday and Saturday, the bright sun finally broke through for the final day.

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Almost everywhere you look there are connections to the works of Dickens

 

 

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Not all vendors fully embrace the Victorian theme….

 

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…..whilst others imaginatively use Charles for their own ends.

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A visiting brass band from Amsterdam played a wonderful set, including a rousing James Bond theme medley.

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On Sunday evening, during the Cathedral’s regular Evensong, Charles Dickens is remembered

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Evensong Memorial Service in Rochester Cathedral

 

 

 

Two Days in Kent

 “Kent,sir — everybody knows Kent — apples, cherries, hops and women”

 

Last week I spent two days back in the county of my birth – the country of Kent  – and it was a wonderful time.

I was in The Garden of England for two reasons, the first of which was to give a talk to the Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship, of which I am President; and the second was to show Cindy Surgue, the Director of the Charles Dickens Museum, around the county most associated with my great great grandfather’s works.

I arrived in the city of Rochester on a blustery afternoon and met up with Cindy and her partner George in the heart of the High Street, ready to begin the first part of our tour.

At the start of Dickens’ first novel, The Pickwick Papers, Charles took the four members of The Pickwick Club out of London and into Rochester and many of the subsequent scenes feature buildings that still stand today (although Mr Snodgrass did not dine at the Indian restaurant called ‘A Taste of Two Cities).

Our first stop was on a narrow strip of pavement, abutting a busy road, in front of a dishevelled, peeling building which announced itself as The Conservative Club.  A small plaque over the door bore a silhouette of the elderly (be-bearded) Dickens and told us that we were at the site of the Theatre Royal in Rochester.

Charles always loved the theatre and as a young boy, living in nearby Chatham, he would visit the Royal.  He recorded his memories in The Uncommercial Traveller:

The Theatre was in existence, I found, on asking the fishmonger, who had a compact show of stock in his window, consisting of a sole and a quart of shrimps — and I resolved to comfort my mind by going to look at it. Richard the Third, in a very uncomfortable cloak, had first appeared to me there, and had made my heart leap with terror by backing up against the stage-box in which I was posted, while struggling for life against the virtuous Richmond. It was within those walls that I had learnt as from a page of English history, how that wicked King slept in war-time on a sofa much too short for him, and how fearfully his conscience troubled his boots…

Many wondrous secrets of Nature had I come to the knowledge of in that sanctuary: of which not the least terrific were, that the witches in Macbeth bore an awful resemblance to the Thanes and other proper inhabitants of Scotland; and that the good King Duncan couldn’t rest in his grave, but was constantly coming out of it and calling himself somebody else. To the Theatre, therefore, I repaired for consolation. But I found very little, for it was in a bad and declining way… 

No, there was no comfort in the Theatre. It was mysteriously gone, like my own youth. Unlike my own youth, it might be coming back some day; but there was little promise of it’ 

And the Royal is still in the same state, sadly, with little prospect of ever being filled with the noise and gaiety of live performances again.

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Our stroll took us back into the High Street and then left into Crow Lane, at the top of which is situated Restoration House, where Charles the II spent a night in 1660 on his way to London to be restored to the throne.

The house is a magnificent, brooding, red-bricked pile hiding behind a large iron gate and a small patch of garden and was well known to Dickens as he walked around Rochester:

Within a quarter of an hour we came to Miss Havisham’s house, which was of old brick, and dismal, and had a great many iron bars to it. Some of the windows had been walled up; of those that remained, all the lower were rustily barred. There was a courtyard in front, and that was barred.

Restoration House became Satis House and would be the home of one of Dickens’ greatest creations.

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We ambled through a green space known as The Vines and were soon in the precincts of the Norman cathedral featured so prominently in The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  As we walked through Minor Canon Row (the fictitious home of the Reverend Crisparkle), it was wonderful to reflect that the City was an ancient one when Charles Dickens lived and worked  there, and that the crumbling walls, the rotting wooden doors, the gnarled trees and the moss-covered roofs that we saw would have been just as familiar to him.  In the time scale of the city the years that separates us from Dickens are but a minor blip.

The cathedral itself is the second oldest in England, after Canterbury, and is a magnificent specimen of Norman Architecture.

Overlooking the cathedral is the Normal Castle situated above the River Medway and overlooking the vital bridge which carries the main road from Dover to London (a road that we would revisit on the next day).

In The Pickwick Papers Mr Jingle describes the castle as:  Ah! fine place, glorious pile–frowning walls–tottering arches–dark nooks–crumbling staircases–old cathedral too–earthy smell–pilgrims’ feet wore away the old steps–little Saxon doors–confessionals like money-takers’ boxes at theatres–queer customers those monks–popes, and lord treasurers, and all sorts of old fellows, with great red faces, and broken noses, turning up every day–buff jerkins too–match-locks–sarcophagus–fine place–old legends too–strange stories: capital’.

The Guildhall Museum in Rochester High Street houses a fine collection and Cindy, with her professional hat on, was particularly interested in how the various rooms were prepared.  From prehistoric times, through Saxon, Medieval, Victorian and to the modern day each display was carefully presented to appeal to children, whilst not alienating the more historically-minded adult.

In the old, and lavishly gilded, council chamber a series of huge portraits hang high on the walls, looking down.  It was in this room that young Pip received his indentures to be apprenticed to Joe Gargery, the blacksmith.

Having finished in the Guildhall we made our way back to our starting point but noticed as we walked that the Six Poor Travellers House was open.  In 1579 local MP and philanthropist Richard Watts died, leaving in his will a provision for an almshouse to be made available to six poor travellers to stay in for a single night.

The house, which was 100 years old in 1579, still stands and a great sense of peace and kindness seem to emanate from the whitewashed walls.  The bedrooms, although tiny and spartan, are warm and comforting, whilst the courtyard garden is carefully tended and on that sunny day felt like a place of meditation and reflection.

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Dickens visited the house in 1854 and was inspired to write a Chauceresque account of the six gentlemen he found staying there.  His story was called The Seven Poor Travellers (Dickens himself becoming the seventh).

As a minor footnote, Richard Watts lived in a grand house near to the castle, which is called Satis House, the name that Dickens attached to Restoration House in Great Expectations.

Our daytime rambles completed Cindy and George returned to their guesthouse, whilst I made my way to my hotel in order to prepare for the evening’s presentation.

 

The Rochester and Chatham Branch of the Dickens Fellowship

Ever since I became involved in the world of Dickens, back in 1993, I have had a close connection with the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Fellowship.  My father had been President, and I took over from him as, with advancing years, he felt as if he could no longer give them as much time as he would have wanted.

The group is filled with enthusiastic Dickensians, who not only study and revere his works, but also love to take the message out into the community.  No opportunity is missed to get into Victorian garb and perform readings.  The group’s secretary, and driving force is Steve Martin, whilst the Chairman is Norman Munn, who dons a beard and portrays Charles himself when on show.

The June meeting was at the Brook Theatre in Chatham (just a short walk from young Charles’ childhood home).  The Brook used to be the town hall and our meeting was held in the sombre surroundings of the wood panelled Mayor’s Parlour.  There was a fabulous turnout, with many dear old friends there: hugs there were a plenty.

After a short introduction Norman handed the floor over to me and I read two memoirs: one written by Henry Fielding Dickens (my great grandfather), remembering life with his father Charles, and then a speech written by my father remembering his childhood Christmases with Henry.  It is a programme that I have performed in America and gives a charming, gentle insight into the Dickens family, and links the generations back to the man who we all have to thank for bringing us together.

After my talk the meeting of the Branch was conducted in a suitably formal and Pickwickian manner.  The recent activities of the branch included an appearance at the Senior World Fencing Championship, where many members featured in the opening ceremony in costume.

Eventually it was time to leave and everyone drifted away to their homes, guest houses and hotels.

 

A Day’s Drive in Kent

Friday was the day when Cindy, George and I would take a road trip from north to south Kent stopping along the way at various sites that are important in the Dickens story.  Our drive started by leaving Rochester on Watling Street, the ancient Roman road that linked Dover to London and beyond.  In modern parlance we were on the A2 but as we drive over across the Medway Bridge, guarded by the castle, it was impossible not to be aware of how strategically vital this thoroughfare has been throughout history.

The A2 took us uphill, away from Rochester to the summit of a hill: Gad’s Hill, and there we were able to get a glimpse of the red bricked house, with a white cupola on top.

“Bless you, sir,” said the very queer small boy, “when I was not more than half as old as nine, it used to be a treat for me to be brought to look at it. And now, I am nine, I come by myself to look at it. And ever since I can recollect, my father, seeing me so fond of it, has often said to me, ‘If you were to be very persevering and were to work hard, you might someday come to live in it.’

The young Dickens had greatly admired Gad’s Hill Place, and heeding his father’s words he did work hard and he was persevering.  In 1856 he bought the house and would eventually die there in 1870.

We drove on towards Gravesend where, Cindy was astonished to learn, Pocahontas is buried.  We turned off the main road and dropped down hill towards the marshes.  Our drive took us through the small village of Chalk, where Dickens spent his honeymoon with Catherine, and also where the forge belonging to Joe Gargery in Great Expectations is believed to be situated.

The Kentish countryside was looking wonderful and it seemed as if every field and hedgerow was blossoming even as we watched.  Great bunches of cow parsley dominated the roadsides, but there were plenty of buttercups lending a golden glow to the morning.

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The traditional industry of Kent is agriculture, with fruit predominating and large orchards of apple trees   lined our route.  Further into the marshes we drove, leaving the villages and towns far behind us, until we finally reached St James’ Church, Cooling which stands proud overlooking the bleak, wild, low marshland.

This spot inspired one of the greatest opening passages in English literature:

My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister — Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine — who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle — I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence. 

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

And there we were, in the overgrown churchyard looking down on the large gravestone, surrounded by tiny lozenge shaped child’s graves.  But not five, as Dickens described, but thirteen – all victims of marsh fever.

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As we looked at the church itself, we notice bees swarming around a crack in the stone, and birds flying beneath the eves to their nest.  On the roof moss was growing and from that soft prehistoric carpet, tiny pink wildflowers were flourishing.  It was as if the scenery was slowly repossessing the Church and taking it back to nature.  Out of all the Dickens related places that I am fortunate enough to visit, this is one of my favourites.

From Cooling we drove back through the mashes, until we rejoined the main road and headed south towards Broadstairs.  The drive took over an hour, so we talked of many things.  As we passed the small Roman settlement of Reculver I mentioned to Cindy and George how keen I am on the Ian Fleming James Bond Novels (Goldfinger is partly set in Kent, and the villain’s smuggling operation is based at Reculver).  We discuss who our favourite Bonds are, and then our favourite Doctor Whos (for the record – Sean Connery, Daniel Craig, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, George Lazenby, with Roger Moore bringing up the rear; as far as Doctor Who is concerned, I am a John Pertwee fan.)

Broadstairs itself is a respectable seaside town, which has managed to avoid the kiss-me-kwik, fish and chips, amusement arcade sprawl that has blighted so many others.  Dickens spent many long happy summers there, staying in either the Albion Hotel or in a small house on the cliff, called Fort House.  Of course thanks to Dickens’ notoriety the locals cashed in on his patronage many years ago, changing the name from Fort House to Bleak House.

We were there to meet Lee Ault in the wonderful Dickens House Museum situated in a tiny house overlooking the bay.  I know the museum in Broadstairs well as I perform to a packed house each Summer  (the drawing room which serves as my theatre only holds 35 people.)

The cottage in which the museum is housed was once the home of Mary Pearson who firmly believed in her right to prevent donkeys passing in front of her home.  Charles knew Miss Pearson well and described both her house and her donkey habits in David Copperfield (although he moved her to Dover in the book giving her the name of Betsy Trotwood).

Although small, the Brodstairs Dickens House Museum holds an incredible collection and we all spent a happy hour or so poring over letters, pictures and artifacts.  The great treat, however, came when Lee unlocked a cabinet and brought out the auction catalogues for the sale of Gad’s Hill Place and its contents.

A few things struck us as strange:  the first sale of pictures and furniture was held on July 9, 1870 – exactly a month after Dickens had died.  Why the rush?  Were the Dickens family that desperately in need of the financial injection; did they need to strike whilst the Dickens name was still hot?

The auction of the house itself took place just another month on and the agent’s description of the house is extraordinary.  Every line of text is in a different typeface as though someone were trying each one out before making a decision on which to use.  The descriptions of each room are detailed and complete but make almost no mention of Dickens having lived there – wouldn’t you think that an agent trying to sell the house would push the Dickens connection as hard as he could?  As it happens Charles’ eldest son Charley purchased the house and lived there for another 9 years.

After a quick lunch in The Albion Hotel we said goodbye to Lee and got back on the road driving to the largest City in Kent, Canterbury.  Although there is no specific museum to Dickens in Canterbury, he did set a large part of David Copperfield there and John Ingram from the Fellowship was on hand to show us around.

The city is a beautiful one and any excuse to walk around it is to be welcomed, but our journey with John took us to all sorts of nooks and crannies searching out the possible and probable sites of the various houses mentioned in the book.  We started in the cathedral precincts searching out the location of Doctor Strong’s Academy, based on the literary descriptions, before walking into the bustling city to track down the house of Agnes Wickfield, passing the possible lodging of Uriah Heep on the way.

John’s enthusiasm and knowledge was infectious and it was a pleasure to be in the company of a man so wrapped up in the world of Dickens.

Back at the cathedral our tour was over, and we shook hands and thanked John for his time and kindness.   I drove Cindy and George back to Rochester station and bid them farewell as they headed back to London.

Kent had certainly put on a good show for me but the best memories from last week are of the wonderful people I was fortunate enough to be with: Cindy with a huge breadth of knowledge but so anxious to expand it and discover more; George in a seemingly permanent state of delighted astonishment at the things we were seeing, and determined to re-read the opening chapters of Great Expectations following our trip to Cooling; all the members of the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship who are brought together each month thanks to their love of my great great grandfather’s work, and who perpetuate his flamboyance and theatricality in all of their events;  Lee Ault, and her husband Eddie, who run the museum in Broadstairs as a real labour of love and spread the word as widely as they are able; John with his enquiring and academic mind trying to discover Dickens in Canterbury.

Most of all however I spent the entire trip in the company of a very great man indeed:  thank you Charles John Huffam Dickens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Guest Post: Sam Weller’s Walentine

To mark Valentine’s day I have passed my blog over to an author of some repute:  Mr Charles Dickens wrote the following account in his first novel The Pickwick Papers outlining  Sam Weller’s attempt to compose a valentine.

 

‘I’ve done now,’ said Sam, with slight embarrassment; ‘I’ve been a-writin’.’

‘So I see,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘Not to any young ‘ooman, I hope, Sammy?’

‘Why, it’s no use a-sayin’ it ain’t,’ replied Sam; ‘it’s a walentine.’

‘A what!’ exclaimed Mr. Weller, apparently horror-stricken by the word.

‘A walentine,’ replied Sam. ‘Samivel, Samivel,’ said Mr. Weller, in reproachful accents, ‘I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it. Arter the warnin’ you’ve had o’ your father’s wicious propensities; arter all I’ve said to you upon this here wery subject; arter actiwally seein’ and bein’ in the company o’ your own mother-in-law, vich I should ha’ thought wos a moral lesson as no man could never ha’ forgotten to his dyin’ day! I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it, Sammy, I didn’t think you’d ha’ done it!’ These reflections were too much for the good old man. He raised Sam’s tumbler to his lips and drank off its contents.

‘Wot’s the matter now?’ said Sam.

‘Nev’r mind, Sammy,’ replied Mr. Weller, ‘it’ll be a wery agonisin’ trial to me at my time of life, but I’m pretty tough, that’s vun consolation, as the wery old turkey remarked wen the farmer said he wos afeerd he should be obliged to kill him for the London market.’

‘Wot’ll be a trial?’ inquired Sam. ‘To see you married, Sammy — to see you a dilluded wictim, and thinkin’ in your innocence that it’s all wery capital,’ replied Mr. Weller. ‘It’s a dreadful trial to a father’s feelin’s, that ‘ere, Sammy —’

‘Nonsense,’ said Sam. ‘I ain’t a-goin’ to get married, don’t you fret yourself about that; I know you’re a judge of these things. Order in your pipe and I’ll read you the letter. There!’

We cannot distinctly say whether it was the prospect of the pipe, or the consolatory reflection that a fatal disposition to get married ran in the family, and couldn’t be helped, which calmed Mr. Weller’s feelings, and caused his grief to subside. We should be rather disposed to say that the result was attained by combining the two sources of consolation, for he repeated the second in a low tone, very frequently; ringing the bell meanwhile, to order in the first. He then divested himself of his upper coat; and lighting the pipe and placing himself in front of the fire with his back towards it, so that he could feel its full heat, and recline against the mantel-piece at the same time, turned towards Sam, and, with a countenance greatly mollified by the softening influence of tobacco, requested him to ‘fire away.’

Sam dipped his pen into the ink to be ready for any corrections, and began with a very theatrical air —

‘“Lovely —”’

‘Stop,’ said Mr. Weller, ringing the bell. ‘A double glass o’ the inwariable, my dear.’

‘Very well, Sir,’ replied the girl; who with great quickness appeared, vanished, returned, and disappeared.

‘They seem to know your ways here,’ observed Sam.

‘Yes,’ replied his father, ‘I’ve been here before, in my time. Go on, Sammy.’

‘“Lovely creetur,”’ repeated Sam.

‘‘Tain’t in poetry, is it?’ interposed his father.

‘No, no,’ replied Sam.

‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’

Mr. Weller resumed his pipe with critical solemnity, and Sam once more commenced, and read as follows:

‘“Lovely creetur I feel myself a damned —”’ ‘That ain’t proper,’ said Mr. Weller, taking his pipe from his mouth.

‘No; it ain’t “damned,”’ observed Sam, holding the letter up to the light, ‘it’s “shamed,” there’s a blot there —“I feel myself ashamed.”’

‘Wery good,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Go on.’

‘“Feel myself ashamed, and completely cir —’ I forget what this here word is,’ said Sam, scratching his head with the pen, in vain attempts to remember.

‘Why don’t you look at it, then?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘So I am a-lookin’ at it,’ replied Sam, ‘but there’s another blot. Here’s a “c,” and a “i,” and a “d.”’

‘Circumwented, p’raps,’ suggested Mr. Weller.

‘No, it ain’t that,’ said Sam, ‘“circumscribed”; that’s it.’

‘That ain’t as good a word as “circumwented,” Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller gravely.

‘Think not?’ said Sam.

‘Nothin’ like it,’ replied his father.

‘But don’t you think it means more?’ inquired Sam.

‘Vell p’raps it’s a more tenderer word,’ said Mr. Weller, after a few moments’ reflection. ‘Go on, Sammy.’

‘“Feel myself ashamed and completely circumscribed in a-dressin’ of you, for you are a nice gal and nothin’ but it.”’

‘That’s a wery pretty sentiment,’ said the elder Mr. Weller, removing his pipe to make way for the remark.

‘Yes, I think it is rayther good,’ observed Sam, highly flattered.

‘Wot I like in that ‘ere style of writin’,’ said the elder Mr. Weller, ‘is, that there ain’t no callin’ names in it — no Wenuses, nor nothin’ o’ that kind. Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel, Sammy?’

‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.

‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.

‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.

‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.

Sam complied with the request, and proceeded as follows; his father continuing to smoke, with a mixed expression of wisdom and complacency, which was particularly edifying.

‘“Afore I see you, I thought all women was alike.”’

‘So they are,’ observed the elder Mr. Weller parenthetically.

‘“But now,”’ continued Sam, ‘“now I find what a reg’lar soft-headed, inkred’lous turnip I must ha’ been; for there ain’t nobody like you, though I like you better than nothin’ at all.” I thought it best to make that rayther strong,’ said Sam, looking up.

Mr. Weller nodded approvingly, and Sam resumed.

‘“So I take the privilidge of the day, Mary, my dear — as the gen’l’m’n in difficulties did, ven he valked out of a Sunday — to tell you that the first and only time I see you, your likeness was took on my hart in much quicker time and brighter colours than ever a likeness was took by the profeel macheen (wich p’raps you may have heerd on Mary my dear) altho it DOES finish a portrait and put the frame and glass on complete, with a hook at the end to hang it up by, and all in two minutes and a quarter.”’

‘I am afeerd that werges on the poetical, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller dubiously.

‘No, it don’t,’ replied Sam, reading on very quickly, to avoid contesting the point —

‘“Except of me Mary my dear as your walentine and think over what I’ve said. — My dear Mary I will now conclude.” That’s all,’ said Sam.

‘That’s rather a Sudden pull-up, ain’t it, Sammy?’ inquired Mr. Weller.

‘Not a bit on it,’ said Sam; ‘she’ll vish there wos more, and that’s the great art o’ letter-writin’.’

‘Well,’ said Mr. Weller, ‘there’s somethin’ in that; and I wish your mother-in-law ’ud only conduct her conwersation on the same gen-teel principle. Ain’t you a-goin’ to sign it?’

‘That’s the difficulty,’ said Sam; ‘I don’t know what to sign it.’

‘Sign it —“Veller”,’ said the oldest surviving proprietor of that name.

‘Won’t do,’ said Sam. ‘Never sign a walentine with your own name.’

‘Sign it “Pickwick,” then,’ said Mr. Weller; ‘it’s a wery good name, and a easy one to spell.’ ‘The wery thing,’ said Sam. ‘I COULD end with a werse; what do you think?’

‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’

But Sam was not to be dissuaded from the poetical idea that had occurred to him, so he signed the letter —

‘Your love-sick
Pickwick.’

Further Memories of Life in Tunbridge Wells

A year or so ago I wrote a blog post reflecting on my memories of childhood in Royal Tunbridge Wells and the reaction from the town itself was so enthusiastic that I decided to continue delving into the past and to resuscitate some scenes of my youth.

 

27 Boyne Park

The town of Tunbridge Wells is built in a valley between two ridges, one to the south (Forest Road) and one to the North (Mount Ephraim). We lived in Boyne Park, a rather well-to-do road off Mount Ephraim.  The houses were mostly been built around the turn of the 20th Century and were substantial red-bricked monuments to the wealth and success of professional gentlemen who had served their country – and their empire – abroad.  At the bottom of the hill was number 27: our house.

27 Boyne Park was (and remains so) one of the few old houses in the road that had not been converted into flats and was what an estate agent would refer to as ‘a substantial detached property. It was three storied house and had a strange conical tower growing from the roof.  There was a small driveway which wound around the house to a garage which had been built for one of the original owners who was a doctor and who actually owned a car: a peculiarity in Edwardian Tunbridge Wells.

The house was on the corner of Boyne Park and the cul-de-sac of Mayfield Road and when we lived there was boarded to the front by a beech hedge and to the side by a grassy bank which in the spring hosted the most remarkable display of daffodils. There were seven of us living in 27: my parents, four children and our paternal grandmother who had assisted in the purchase of the property in exchange for a suite of rooms on the top floor.

27 was never happier than when it was entertaining and the house seemed to come alive at Christmas, when it would be filled with noise and laughter.  Often on Christmas Eve there would be a great party and friends, neighbours and relations would fill the ground floor, oozing from the rooms into the large hall which was dominated by a wonderful staircase.

There was quite a community feel to the Boyne Park neighbourhood as many of the families were of similar ages, and the children were in and out of each other’s houses all the time. The roads around us were largely residential and free from heavy traffic so we could play quite safely and happily on them.

Boyne Park linked Mount Ephraim at the top end to Oakdale Road and tucked away at the end of the latter was The Twitten: a very narrow path between two houses, and which connected us to Royal Chase, which in turn led to Earl’s Road, Byng Road and Connaught Way – another world!

If I were to walk through The Twitten and turn left into Royal Chase I would eventually find myself joining Bishops Down Road near to its junction with Lake Road. Here, in an overgrown wilderness, there was an abandoned neglected and ruined house deep in the woods which was said to be haunted.  Occasionally we would explore that house, but only on very bright sunny days when the chances of haunting were minimal (I knew that ruined houses such as this were places to be scared of thanks to watching Scooby Doo).

Hurrying away from the haunted house Bishops Down Road became, without ceremony, Culverden Down, which was lined with modern open plan homes. At the junction of Culverden Down and Coniston Avenue the road overlooked a narrow path alongside a small stream which ran through a tunnel under the road.  Children would clamber down the muddy bank and play in the stream, sometimes the braver ones would get on their knees and crawl through the concrete culvert, although our parents always warned us not to in case we should be swept away (in retrospect I think that the stream was little more than an open sewer and that our mothers and fathers were more worried about what we might ingest rather than a possible drowning).

I knew this area well because Coniston Avenue led to my school.

 

 

Bishops Down

My sisters and brother were slightly older than me and they had all attended St John’s Primary School, which was a wonderfully traditional establishment (I don’t know if it had separate doors for boys and girls, but I imagine so); however when I was old enough to commence my formal education I was sent to a brand new school: Bishops Down Primary School.

At the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s education was changing and Bishops Down was created to reflect the new attitudes and to stimulate creativity and individuality within its young charges. For example, rather than teaching us to read and spell by rote, the school used a system called ITA, which was a phonetics-based system to develop linguistic skills.  ITA (the Initial Teaching Alphabet) had been invented by Sir James Pitman who, as it happened, owned the Pitman Publishing Company and for whom my father worked in London.

In the name of research I have looked up ITA online: it seems to be terribly complicated and it’s a wonder that we learned anything.  Certainly to this day my spelling is hopeless, but it is equally true that I have grown up to have a fascination and love for the sounds and rhythms of the English language

 

The school itself was at the end of a quiet residential road called Rydal Drive and the single story building was set a little away from the houses up a short drive (which seemed to be terribly long to me). The main entrance led straight into the school hall in which we ate lunch and which would be the setting for my very first theatrical performance, playing a large cockerel in the annual nativity play.  I learned a great deal about performing in that hall, for I also played violin in the school orchestra.  I was not a good violinist and on one occasion during a school assembly I was scraping the instrument with such force that the tailpiece could not cope with the abuse any longer and snapped clean in two.  There was a loud bang, followed by a TWANGGGGGGG (which was possibly more musical than anything that had preceded it), and the strings dangled listlessly from the tuning pegs like rosin-covered dreadlocks. In my panic I looked at our music teacher Mr Sutton and with tears in my eyes mouthed ‘what do I do?’ to which he replied ‘SING!’

At the rear of the building there was an L-shaped tarmac playground onto which the children would pour at playtime, but the real excitement came in the shape of ‘The Mound’. When the school had been built a large pile of rubble and earth and been left on site, and this was subtly landscaped into an organic, natural play area.  Large concrete pipes were set into the base through which we could crawl, and the mound itself developed well-worn paths across it as we young Sir Edmund Hillarys made our proud way to the summit.  I am sure that the mound is long gone – a victim to health and safety regulations and natural erosion, but if there was ever a better way of encouraging children to exercise I have not heard of it.

The main playing field was at the front of the school and it was here that I first fell in love with the game of cricket.

 

 

The Nevill Cricket Ground

In the 1970s Kent was a good county to grow up in if you liked cricket, for we boasted one of the best teams in the country. When England squared off against the Australians to battle for the Ashes the spine of the team came from Kent: Colin Cowdrey was the captain, Brian Luckhurst opened the batting, as would Bob Woolmer a few years later, Alan Knott was the greatest wicket keeper in the world, and Derek Underwood bamboozled opposition batsman with his medium paced spin bowling.

These men were heroes to me, as were others in the team: The West Indian John Shepherd, the little Pakistan master batsman Asif Iqbal,  Alan Ealham who looked like a blacksmith on a village team and who would bash the ball to all corners of the ground and our fast bowler Kevin Jarvis, who couldn’t bat to save his life.  For one week every year the Kent team would come to Tunbridge Wells and play two matches at The Nevill Ground.

The Nevill was, and still is, an elegant cricket ground which nestles among banks of rhododendron bushes. The County Cricket Week was held in May and if the weather had been favourable the red flowers would provide a vivid backdrop to the game.  The main pavilion was grand, and that is where the Kent County Cricket Club members would sit in their ties and panama hats sipping their gins and tonics or Pimms, dozing in the sun, waking only to clap politely  and mutter ‘well played’ through their bushy nicotine-stained moustaches.

The players themselves weren’t permitted into the pavilion, but had a small shed in the shadow of the main edifice from which they would watch the game. The changing rooms were behind and underneath the pavilion, so crowds of children would wait until the gladiators emerged and get them to sign autographs, which they were always happy to do.

Later in the summer I would sit in front of our black and white television and watch these men doing battle against Dennis Lilly and Jeff Thomson and the rest of the pantomime villains who made up the Australian team – I had met them, spoken to them and felt proud of them: I knew that they were fighting for ME!

 

 

The Carnival of 1969

Each summer Tunbridge Wells held a carnival, the highlight of which was the parade through the centre of the town.

In 1969 my father decided that we would enter a float to help raise awareness and funds for the local branch of the RSPCA and set about the project with customary gusto.

The construction of most carnival floats involved borrowing or hiring a flat-bed lorry from a local haulier and decorating it on the morning of the event. Some floats had a band playing, a choir singing or tinny recorded music blaring out; all of them were crowded with people trying not to fall off as the inevitably surly driver let out the clutch and his truck shuddered away, leaving behind a thick smog of diesel fumes.  The Rotary Club and The Lions and the Local Scouts and Girl Guides and Army Cadets and Sea Scouts would all be out in force waving flags and collecting loose change, but Tunbridge Wells had never seen anything like the Dickens entry of ’69.

Dad decided to build a full-sized Loch Ness Monster (what was actually full size was, of course, open to debate but ours was thirty feet long), which would seem to float along the roads. The construction started many weeks before the event itself and involved many visits to RN Carr, Ironmongers in Southborough.

Carr’s had a specific smell that was only to be found in old ironmonger’s shops, and which was a mix of galvanised steel nails, cleats and screws wrapped in oiled brown paper, and garden compost. I am sure that Ronnie Barker bought his fork handles in Carr’s.

Back home in Boyne Park Nessie began to take shape. She was built on a strong (for which read heavy) wooden frame, which was covered with chicken wire to create the dinosaur’s shape.  The chicken wire was then covered in papier mache, onto which was stuck the individual cups from a thousand cardboard egg boxes to give the impression of scaly skin.  The whole thing was painted in a lurid green paint, and had the most luscious eyelashes you can imagine.

As the creation grew my mother was repeatedly dispatched to Carr’s to buy new supplies of nails and screws, and she became more and more frustrated at being patronised by the old boys who worked there. She would try and describe what she needed and the men would try to confuse her be asking the sort of question that the little lady of the house wouldn’t possibly understand: ‘are those screws to be steel or brass, countersunk, domed head, or flat?  Timber: planed or rough? Paint: gloss or emulsion?  Look, dear, why not just tell us what job your husband’s trying to do and we’ll see if we can help you out.’  To which mum fixed them with a steely eye and replied: ‘That’s very kind of you, and since you ask he is building a thirty foot long, seven foot high Loch Ness monster which is to be painted green and pushed along the road.  It needs to billow smoke from its nostrils and be strong enough to last for a two mile journey: what would you suggest?’

The motivational force for this gargantuan creature was hidden beneath each of the famous humps and involved dad, my brother Ian and one other gullible – sorry, I mean willing – friend, pushing her along on little casters. If you think how wayward a modern shopping trolley is and incrementally increase that frustration from three feet to thirty you will get some idea as to what they faced on that summer’s day.

As the float was built to promote the RSPCA it was decided that Nessie would be a pet monster, so I was dressed up in a tweed jacket and kilt to walk ahead clinging on to her ‘lead’.

The day of the procession arrived and all of the floats were marshalled in a yard of the Old West Station (roughly where you would buy sandwiches in Sainsbury’s now) and slowly made its way through the town, involving a long push up the steep hill of Mount Pleasant. We passed the Town Hall and war memorial before reaching the Five Ways junction and turning sharp right at Chieseman’s into the then un-pedestrianised Calverley Road where the crowds were four or five deep, cheering, laughing and clapping.

loch ness

Me leading Nessie in Calverley Road

I seem to remember that the whole thing ended up in Broadwater Down, but that seems so far away I can’t quite believe it.

We won a rosette for best float and I think that dad was probably more proud of that award than any other achievement in his life. For years afterwards Nessie’s head hung in our garage at Boyne Park – a reminder of an extraordinary and somewhat surreal day in the summer of 1969.

There is a lovely cine film on YouTube of the Tunbridge Wells Carnival, sadly not from 69, but the year before. However the flickering, faded pastel-coloured images give some sense of the event.

I don’t think that I can’t top Nessie, so I will bring this collection of nostalgia to a close, but I have no doubt that all too soon there will be more memories of Royal Tunbridge Wells to be shared.

 

January 2016

The start of a new year is always a time when, with the rigours of Christmas behind me, I can look forward and see what is on, and over, the horizon.

For a few reasons 2016 looks to be one of the quietest for many years and although that may seem to be a frightening prospect for one whose income is based solely on performances given, I actually go into the new year in a very positive state of mind, as there are lots of new ideas and plans in my head.

This enforced period of inactivity has given me time to stand back and look at where I am now and where I need to go. Hopefully over the year you will get a sense of how things are developing.

Firstly, why are things so quiet this year?

 

To Begin With

You may remember that this time last year I was starting to learn lines for an exciting new project that was supposed to become a regular part of my year. ‘To Begin With’ was a show commissioned by my good friend, and theatre producer, Dennis Babcock.   After many years of trying Dennis had found enough investment to launch the show in Minneapolis.

After a short rehearsal period in England, I flew to the USA and spent a month working in The Music Box Theatre to bring the new show to the stage. We were a small team and it was an amazing experience.

To Begin With was well received both by the audiences and the press and we got some great reviews but sadly almost as the word was beginning to spread, so our run came to an end. We had proved however that the show worked and Dennis assured me that we would revive it as soon as possible, and to clear my diary from January to Easter in 2016 as the only thing that would limit our USA tour of To Begin With would be my availability and willingness to be away from home.

I duly put a large line in my diary and waited for news. And waited and waited. Deadlines for English theatres came and went, and still I waited for news from Minneapolis, but none came. In America Dennis was struggling to find suitable investors and eventually he let me know that we couldn’t tour To Begin With in 2016.

January, February and March lay empty in my diary.

 

The Derek Grant Organisation

In England my work comes from a number of sources, but for the last seven years or so my theatre bookings have come from a small company called The Derek Grant Organisation. DGO is run by Derek himself and his partner Michael Jones who have been involved in variety performances for many years. They have produced their own shows and represented many artistes. Sadly, however, over the last decade or so it has become increasingly difficult to attract large audiences to theatres (unless you are a tribute band, which in a way I am: perhaps I need to gather a few performers together and find a more cheesy name for the act such as ‘The Twisting Olivers’, ‘Those Dickens Dudes’, ‘A Tale of Two Dickies’, or, if I want a whole new audience ’The Knickerless Nicklebies….’ Mmmmm, maybe I’ll stick with what I have).

Just before Christmas Derek informed me that he and Michael would be stepping back and no longer working as full-time producers and while there may be a few repeat bookings filtering through their books, the regular appearances in regional theatre would stop.

So 2016 lay before me: an arid desert, with a few oases of regular bookings shimmering here and there; that made me sit back and consider what the next move should be.

 

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices

The first big idea came to me as Liz and I were getting ready to visit her sister and brother-in-law in Cambridge for a post-Christmas get-together. Martin, a very talented amateur actor, whose ability has often far outstripped the productions he has been in, is due to retire as a solicitor this year and it struck me that it would be fun to find a show that we could work on together.

In the back of my mind there was the glimmer of an idea which had been planted three years ago in Santa Cruz, when I was listening to a lecture about the relationship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, which quite fascinated me. The two authors were close friends for many years and in 1857 Dickens proposed that they should go and have a walking adventure in Cumberland which they could use to create a short story for Dickens’s magazine Household Words.

The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices is a fun account of the adventures befalling Francis Goodchild (Dickens) and Thomas Idle (Collins) and starts with a day’s walking on Carrock Fell, during which they get hopelessly lost in the rain and cloud.

As the idea took hold I began to realise that there was an opportunity to interweave the biographies of these literary giants by using letters and diary extracts, alongside the Lazy Tour text, which could create a show of great interest.

I immediately ordered two copies of the book and let my mind wander. The weekend in Cambridge was fun (somehow Liz and I ended up in Capt Jack Sparrow wigs and costume), and Martin embraced the idea of The Lazy Tour with great enthusiasm. The first new project was underway.

For the next few weeks I started to search for the letters that Charles Dickens had written to Collins before the trip, as well as those written to other friends during their time away. Unfortunately the letters from Collins TO Dickens will be more difficult to find – in a fit of pique brought on by constant public scrutiny Charles burnt all of his personal correspondence in the gardens at Gad’s Hill Place.

To further my research I emailed Melisa Klimaszewski, the academic who had originally given the lecture in Santa Cruz, and to my delight she replied almost straight away with great enthusiasm for the project. In her reply Melisa happened to mention that Professor Michael Slater was currently editing a new edition of The Lazy Tour and perhaps I should chat to him as well. Professor Slater is one of the leading Dickens academics in the world, who has published a great many fabulous biographies: As far as Dickens is concerned If Michael doesn’t know about it, it didn’t happen! Michael also happens to be a great friend and supporter of my shows, so an email to him also elicited a positive response.

I now had all that I needed to begin work on the script, so how should this work…..?

 

Highgate Cemetrery

The second week of January saw my only performance of the month, at Highgate Cemetery in London, where I had been asked to perform The Signalman in the chapel.

Highgate Cemetery is one of the largest in the capital and is the final resting place of many famous people, including Karl Marx.  On a more personal level many of the Dickens family are buried there, including Charles’s parents John and Elizabeth, his wife (my great great grandmother) Catherine, his sister Fanny (who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music while Charles was working in a shoe blacking factory and who became the model for ‘Little Fan’ in A Christmas Carol,) and his brother Alfred.

On a dark and wet night Liz and I drove towards London in the height of the rush hour. One would have thought that all of the traffic would be heading away from the city, but the fact is that it was just moving around, so we sat on the North Circular road watching the time tick by.

Fortunately The Signalman isn’t a complicated piece to stage and we arrived at the great iron gates of the cemetery with thirty minutes to spare. A few keen members of the audience were huddled together in the cold, trying to shelter from the rain as we unloaded a chair, a table and a railwayman’s lamp from our car.

The chapel itself was a lovely room, with a low stage set up at the far end. The wind outside and the knowledge that we were surrounded by thousands of dead bodies made it a perfect setting for the spine-chilling tale of The Signalman.

Having set the stage we were shown to a small office across the courtyard, where we tucked into a plate of sandwiches and waited for 7.30 start time.

The chapel was full and I started by recounting the circumstances of the terrible rail accident in which Charles had been involved in 1865. With the horror of Staplehurst vividly on the audience’s minds I launched in with that great opening line: ‘Halloa! Below there!’ The low lighting combined with the arches soaring up to the vaulted ceiling above threw eerie shadows across the room, which seemed to darken as the plot unfolded.

London_1 133

The performance went well and I’m sure that as the audience made their way out of the chapel and through the gothic gatehouse into the dark night more than one may have nervously glanced over their shoulder or started as a ghostly bough of the overhanging trees creaked.

As we packed up my props Melanie, the event organiser, pointed out that we were in the Anglican Chapel, where in the past a short service would have been held before burial , and that many of my ancestors would have gathered in this same room to pay their respects to John, Elizabeth, Catherine, Fanny or Alfred.

Tax Return

The tax year in the UK runs from April 5, and the deadline for submitting a return is January 31, therefore the sensible thing to do is to collate all of the figures and get them off to the accountant in April, leaving the rest of the year worry-free. Do I think that every year? Yes. Do I do it….?

Every January is filled with a mental struggle as I find any number of ways to put off ‘doing the books’ (this year the initial research for The Lazy Tour project was a superb excuse). Finally, with a week to go before the deadline, I dragged myself into the office, pulled out the various receipts and invoices from the year 2014-15 and began to work.

For a task that is purely number driven the job of preparing accounts is wonderfully evocative, for with each invoice, or hotel receipt comes a raft of happy memories: memories of a beautiful theatre with gilded boxes overlooking the stage; reflections on a show well performed and enthusiastically received by a responsive audience. I could almost taste the fish and chip lunch in a wind-swept Little Chef near Barnsley. Whitby Abbey reared before my eyes once more in all of its ruined majesty.

But the figures didn’t only bring happy memories, for there were also receipts from our trip to Ireland and Wales which was the prelude to losing our dear cat Kip. The pain and emptiness of that time returned as I ignored my financial responsibilities and tearfully opened pictures of him.

 

Marketing

With such an empty diary it became obvious that I needed to find some more work to fill the gaps, and rather than hope for a few bookings dripping in here and there, I needed to be proactive in developing new opportunities.

As regular readers will know my brother Ian is a marketing man. For many years he worked with Olympus Cameras and rose to become their Director or Marketing and now has his own consultancy business.

It seemed sensible to get together and work out a way forward that would bring us both a new income stream, so on January the 27th we had a meeting.

I drove to Ian’s beautiful house in Bedfordshire and immediately it became apparent that we were doing things right, as he had erected a flip chart with the words ‘Gerald Dickens. The Brand’ written up.

After coffee was poured we got down to a long and varied discussion based on an agenda that I had drawn up during the week.

Ian’s great talent is his common sense approach to marketing. There are no gimmicks or buzz-words just plain sensible strategies. One of his mantras is to identify a goal and then work back from there; for example, imagine I want to play for a two month run in a thousand-seat theatre filled to capacity every night. That is not going to happen next week, so let’s first find a small theatre, and identify an audience and work until we have filled that for one night; then let’s see if we can fill it for three days, and then a week. The success and profile generated by our successful run means that we can talk to a larger theatre in a larger city with a theatre-going demographic, but there we will be starting again, so we work on the next step finding a new audience to fill every seat – and so it goes on until eventually the original goal has been reached.

The result of an hour or two around the kitchen table was that we are going to investigate self publishing a book based on my interpretation and performance of A Christmas Carol, and finally try to film the show either for DVD release or online streaming. We are going to investigate all of the festivals in the UK, and maybe try to create a tour of venues where Dickens himself performed.

Next year is the 160th anniversary of the Lazy Tour’s publication and will also see the publication of Michael Slater’s new edition, so there are plenty opportunities to launch the new show with a fanfare.

Our meeting broke up to make way for a delicious lasagne and salad. I have no doubts that from here on things are going to get very exciting.

 

Tunbridge Wells

As the month came to a close a strange thing happened with my blog. I was minding my own business when an alert came from WordPress reading: ‘Your stats are booming! On The Road With Gerald Dickens is getting lots of traffic’, which surprised me somewhat as I hadn’t posted anything for ages. Further investigation revealed that a post written almost a year ago about my childhood memories of Tunbridge Wells had been placed on a Facebook page dedicated to the town.

I watched in amazement as the skyscraper on the stats page grew and grew, far surpassing my previous best, and then doubling and almost tripling it!  Messages came in from others who had spent their childhoods in the town and discussions went back and forth on Facebook about the town in the 1970s and where various shops had been.  In an instant digital age the power of nostalgia is a remarkable thing.

I re read the post ‘Memories of Tunbridge Wells’ and once more my childhood came to life as a whole host of new recollections came to mind: there may well be a sequel written soon, and I certainly know who to share it with.

 

A New Blog

At the beginning of January as we pondered the year ahead Liz mentioned that she wanted some creative outlet and thought that she may like to write a blog about our garden. Liz is an amazing and creative gardener and the thought and artistry which goes into making our long stretch of mud into a thing of beauty is extraordinary.

Liz wanted to share not only her practical work in the garden, but also her influences and emotions as a new year began.

As we looked out across the dull dank vista we saw dots of colour as a few buds responded to the warm winter: It was the perfect time to begin the story.  I know that you will enjoy it:

https://foxcottagegarden.wordpress.com/