The Country Cupboard Triumvirate

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Having done all of my driving on Tuesday, it meant that I could have a nice relaxing morning on Wednesday. I woke fairly early, and decided to fold all of my costume shirts, which were still in the laundry bag. As I carefully laid each one out on the bed, I counted them off in relation to my remaining shows and was delighted to discover that the number of clean shirts corresponds exactly with the number of performances remaining on this tour!

When shirts were folded and blog post written, I walked to the lobby for breakfast which, as is the norm at the moment, was a pared back version of what the Best Western usually offer. I chose a pot of oatmeal and poured water to the required level before putting it into the microwave for 2 minutes, as stated on the pot. When the ‘ping’ sounded, I opened the door to discover that my porridge had exploded and made a terrible mess. I called for the lady who presided over breakfast and confessed my breakfast sin to her. ‘Oh, that’s OK, I can clean that – it is always happening. Last week an egg exploded!’ She seemed to suggest that my folly with the oatmeal was much less serious that ‘egg-gate’.

After breakfast I still had over two hours before my sound check, so I decided to unpack my running and swimming gear for the first time and headed down to the fitness centre and pool. Over the last year I have ‘discovered’ running and have greatly enjoyed pounding the country lanes around our home, but the treadmill in the gym really didnt do it for me. I ran for a short distance, albeit at a much faster pace than I would normally run at home, and then swam lengths of the pool. I didnt push myself too hard as I was due to perform twice in the afternoon and I didnt want to use all of my energy before I even set foot on the stage.

At 11 o’clock I walked the short distance from the hotel to the large function room at The Country Cupboard store where I found Missy Grant Swartz placing individual seat numbers on all of the 250 chairs that had been laid out ready for my performances. We greeted each other like the old friends that we are, as Missy has been looking after my events at CC over the last decade or so. As ever the room looked spectacular, with a large stage at one end complete with a fireplace and furniture taken from the store. Two huge Christmas trees, decorated in gold, flanked the stage, and touches of greenery added the final touches.

As with so many venues on this years’ tour, it really didn’t feel as if we had missed a year and in no time we were chatting and going over the plans for the day as if Covid had never happened. I re-arranged a few pieces of furniture, and asked if we could not use the electric lamp that had been provided (it looked a bit anachronistic in a ‘Victorian’ room), and then did a mic check. I ran through various lines including some quieter moments as well as the more bombastic scenes, and when Missy was satisfied, we agreed to reconvene at 1.30 ready for the first show.

I walked back to the hotel and drove to a nearby store to buy a salad and some fruit for my lunch, which I ate in the hotel, before getting ready for the afternoon show. I got into my costume, making sure I had everything with me, and then walked through the hotel, masked of course.

Although The Country Cupboard is a store, it also features a large buffet-style restaurant, and the audience were enjoying a lunch before moving into the theatre. Missy had arranged for a separate room, just off the restaurant, to be available for me to wait in and I sat and listened as the audience gathered. I could also here Kj singing from the stage. Kj Reimensnyder-Wagner is the third part of our triumvirate, and a superbly talented singer/songwriter who always entertains my audiences by performing a series of carols and festive songs. I stood at the door to the hall, as the audience gathered, and could tell from the way that they joined in with the singing, that they were going to be a good crowd.

As 2 o’clock arrived, Kj signed off with her final song, and then her and Missy executed a well-rehearsed plan: Missy removed the microphone stand from the stage, whilst Kj unplugged her guitar and placed it on the floor. Next, Missy took the microphone from the stand and began to make her welcoming remarks, while Kj made her way to the back of the room to prepare the first sound cue. It all worked perfectly, and in a moment I was walking to the stage ready to begin.

I had been right about the audience; they were excellent and lively and fun. Many were old fans and knew the show well, but a show of hands to Missy’s question ‘who is here for the first time?’ had shown a goodly number of newbies were. The performance went very well, and I relished in the sheer space of the stage, giving me plenty of room to execute a very theatrical and physical performance, which had the sweat dripping from my forehead by Marley’s entrance.

The microphone was popping and banging against my costume a bit, which was slightly annoying, but on the whole, it was an excellent show and one that I was extremely happy with. At the end I took my bows and then remained on stage, while the audience sat down, and started another fun question and answer session: these have really proved popular throughout the tour and have been an excellent replacement for the very long signing sessions that I used to do after a show. Yes, it means remaining on the stage for longer, but it is no different to the time I would have spent working through a long queue of people, and not being able to give anyone much attention.

Having answered some interesting questions about Charles Dickens himself, especially how his readings were staged compared to my performances, and of course dealing with the ‘favourite film version’ issue, I eventually brought the afternoon’s events to a close and left the stage to more applause.

When the main room was clear I returned to reset the stage for the next performance, said hello to Kj at last and then went back to the hotel to change ‘for dinner’

It has become a tradition over the years that Missy, Kj and I get together for dinner, from the buffet, between the shows. This year has been a particularly difficult one for both of them, but they are both strong and resilient women and are both looking to what the future can bring, rather than back at the hand the past has dealt them. As always it was lovely chatting and exchanging news, and at the end of our meal we gathered on the stage for our annual ‘cast’ photo. I was wearing my Christmas sweater, and earlier in the day I had sent Liz a selfie of me in it sitting in front of a Christmas tree, she had pointed out that it looked like a cover shot for an Andy Williams Christmas LP and now on the stage, holding Kj’s guitar, it looked even more so!

I returned to my room, where I didn’t have long before needing to change back into costume and prepare for the second show. The routine was the same, and again I stood at the back of the hall sipping black tea and honey (another tradition here: back in the old days of a much longer tour I would often arrive at CC exhausted, with my voice scratchy and tired. A black tea and honey is an excellent way of soothing the throat and, even though my voice was fine this year, still Missy always provides me with the restorative elixir). Again, the audience were joining in and singing with Kj, and once more I knew it would be a lively show, which it was.

Strangely at first, I didn’t feel fully connected with the script, I can’t quite describe why, there was nothing wrong, I didn’t forget anything or stumble, but the words seemed to be coming out of someone else’s mouth, while I observed, but that passed very quickly and soon I was right back into the swing of things again, and at the end of the show the audience stood and applauded once more.

The Q&A followed a similar pattern as the afternoon, indeed with the same question about CD’s readings compared to my show, which was interesting. But the last two questions took a surprising turn: the penultimate query was the ‘what is your favourite movie version’, and I gave my regular answer actually listing my three favourties (I won’t give the game away….). When I had wound up that answer I suggested that we had time for one more question, and a hand shot up at the back of the room: ‘Have you ver seen the Barbie version?’ Barbie?! Barbie? There is a Barbie version of A Christmas Carol? I couldn’t get my mind around that at all! Does Ken come to haunt Barbie Scrooge? Are all of the characters Barbies? Even as I left the stage my mind was boggling over this most extraordinary revaltion. I am not sure if I will hunt it out, or not, but there is certainly an insane curiosity to see how my great great grandfather’s work has been adapted to suit a slim blonde plastic doll!

When most of the audience had left I returned to the hall to gather my things, and Missy told me that there was a lady and a boy who wished to say ‘hello’ What a wonderful surprise for there was Derek, who always came to see me when I performed at The Hotel Hershey. And here he was, grown tall now. Derek and his grandparents always gave me a gift at Hershey, most memorably a supply of beer (when Derek was 6), in honour of the line at Fezziwig’s party, ‘there were mince pies and plenty of beer!’, and now they gave me another gift, a copy of the Muppet’s Christmas Carol. They had travelled a good distance to see the show, and it was a wonderful way to end the day.

I collected up all of my things and said goodbye to Missy and KJ before going back to the room and enjoying a huge slice of apple pie that Missy had sent back with me. It had been an energetic day and I would have a fairly early start in the morning, so once the adrenaline subsided, sleep came quickly.

Don’t Break a Leg!

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Monday was all mine to do as I liked in. So, long as by the end of it I ended up in Lewisburg Pennsylvania, I had no timetable or agenda.

Throughout the tour so far, the weather has been clear, bright, cold and beautiful and when I pulled opened the curtains, I fully expected to be greeted by the same sight that Ebenezer Scrooge saw on Christmas day: ‘No fog. No mist, but clear, bright, shining, golden sunlight’, unfortunately, it was the opposite to that, for there was a low, misty cloud hanging low over the mountains and the ground glistened wet from a light, but steady rainfall. But I was not going to let a little rain upset my morning. I am from Britain – we ‘do’ rain there.

I went down to the lobby and once again ordered the yoghurt, granola and fruit bowl. Due to staffing issues all hotels are struggling to provide the full service and at The Courtyard in Lenox there was only a very limited breakfast menu. It is the same with housekeeping services, every hotel that I have stayed in has informed me on check-in that there is no housekeeping service available, and if there is anything specifically that I need, I should ask at the front desk.

I took my breakfast to a table and removed my mask as I ate, and as I sat another man arrived and went through the process of ordering his. Once he had made his selection, the lady behind the counter asked if he would like it on a tray or in a bag. He asked her to repeat what she had said, so she replied, ‘would you like it in a bag?’ ‘What?’ he barked back at her. ‘A BAG!’ she repeated. ‘Madam, if you insist on not removing your mask, I cannot hear what you say!’ At which he grabbed his breakfast items and stomped off to a table where he angrily consumed his morning feast. It all seemed a trifle unnecessary.

Back in my room I had a fair amount of admin to do, not only sorting out details for forthcoming shows, but also liaising with Bob Byers about booking the Covid test that I am going to need before flying home in a week’s time. He had managed to find a testing station that will tie in with my various events towards the end of the week and booked an appointment for me at a convenient time.

Work finished, I packed up my cases and at 10.00 left the room. It was still drizzling outside, but I wanted my morning of fresh air and exercise, so I followed the road signs that I had noticed the day before to the Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve. The narrow road took me through woodland, where there were wonderful remote houses hiding away, and then slowly rose uphill. The surface looked muddy, but soon I realised that it was quite hard-packed ice, and the wheels were slipping and spinning: AT LAST! I could engage the All-Wheel Drive system which had thus far been redundant.

I reached the entrance to the reserve and as the office was closed on a Monday, I just took myself in and began to explore. There was a large map displayed and it showed that there were various trails, of different lengths, winding through the woodland and up onto the mountain side, so I just followed the signs and plunged into the undergrowth. It was still damp and the mist hang low over the trees, creating some mysterious and menacing views.

Some of the trails were closed due to storm damage, so I simply followed where I could. Eventually I started to climb, over rocks and branches and streams, and as I got higher, so the ice and piles of hardened snow covered more of the ground. Although this was a nature reserve, I didn’t see any animals or birds, although there was an occasional screech from far away.

As I climbed higher, and began to slip on some of the rocks, I began to think that maybe I had pushed my luck too far, for if I slipped and fell, breaking a leg, I would be alone on the side of a mountain, with no help for miles around. It was time to return to the car, and I very cautiously clambered back down until I saw a gleam of deep red through the trees.

And now it was time to drive. The journey to Lewisburg would take 4 and a half hours, and it was now 12pm. I set the SatNav unit, and left Lenox for another year. The route took me along some beautiful roads, which skirted the mountain, giving me some incredible views, despite the low cloud. I was very surprised after not long driving to discover myself crossing the state line into New York, I had no idea that it was so close, and soon I was joining the New York Throughway, a road that runs straight down the middle of the state. There were signs to Albany, Buffalo (I thought of the lovely elderly couple in The Beechwood Hotel in Worcester), Syracuse and even, at one intersection, Montreal.

After a while I pulled into a rest center and feasted on a McDonalds, before filling my little rouge Rogue up with fuel and continuing southwards passed through The Catskills and later on, when I had made it to Pennsylvania, over The Poconos.

For company I was still listening to the various podcasts about the forthcoming Ashes series, but eventually my phone lost any signal and instead I started playing my Christmas playlist, which actually I haven’t listened to much on this trip. There were all my old friends, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Bing, Lucy Rose, The Beach Boys, The Peanuts (via Vince Guaraldi) and the rest, who accompanied me across The Susquehanna River and to the very familiar Best Western hotel at The Country Cupboard store.

I checked in (being told that there was no housekeeping service) and made my way through seemingly endless corridors to the room that they always give me here, a large room with a whirlpool bath! As soon as I was settled, I ran the taps and let it fill, which took a long time (in fact it took a very long time, because I hadn’t closed the plug properly, and when I came to check the water was barely covering the bottom of the bath). Eventually it filled and I luxuriated in a bubbling, frothing tub!

Later in the evening I took myself to a nearby Applebee’s restaurant and dined on a Cajun Salmon dish (although the ‘Cajun’ aspect seemed somewhat lacking) and finished off with a very rich chocolate pud. The restaurant was filled with lots of rowdy locals, and I sat quietly at my corner table, minding my own business, watching, observing. Three guys sat at the bar, two had baseball caps on back to front, whereas the other wore his the right way round, and I wondered if there were any hierarchy involved, or if the one guy didn’t want to conform the stereotype of the other two. Actually, of course, it was just three guys wearing hats, but the musings passed a little time!

When I returned to the hotel it was windy and there was a little rain whipping about in the air, but soon I was inside and and settled down for the night, ready to perform twice at The Country Cupboard store on Tuesday.

An afterthought: when I arrived at the hotel I was chatting to Liz online, and she asked me to tell her a joke. Not able to think of anything on the spur of the moment, I quickly searched online and, among a few others, I found this: Q: What did Charles Dickens keep in his spice rack? A: It was the best of thymes and it was tye worst of thymes!

Perfect Preparation? Perhaps Not!

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Sunday 5 December saw my second day in The Berkshires and with one show at 3 o’clock it meant that there was a quiet morning in store. Maybe I could take a drive into the mountains, maybe I could explore some of the delightful neighbouring towns and villages, maybe I could breathe in the cold, clear, unpoluted air. No! There was a Grand Prix to watch! The TV coverage from Jeddah would begin at 11 am, and I had a little bit of housekeeping to do before then. Having bought breakfast (a yoghurt, granola and fruit collation, along with a muffin, orange juice and coffee), from the little Starbucks Cafe that the Courtyard hotels favour, I piled a load of laundry into a machine, and then took the car to a nearby grocery store to buy myself some lunch, as well as picking up a few other essentials.

As I drove back to the hotel, I noticed a signpost to ‘The Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve’, and apart from immediately breaking into my best Monkees impression, I thought that it sounded like a perfect way to spend a day off, as I would have on Monday.

I moved my laundry into the dryer, had another coffee and then settled down to watch the Formula One coverage. I know that this blog isn’t a Grand Prix fan site, but the events from Saudi Arabia did dominate my morning, so I can’t skip over it completely, but I promise I will not turn into an F1 journalist. The tension and excitement for the race, and the championship (this being the penultimate weekend) was obvious as soon as the coverage began, but before any action occurred there was a very moving tribute to the former team owner Frank Williams, who died last week. As all of the drivers and team members gathered around a large photo of Williams on the track, and a video compilation of his extraordinary career was shown, it was as if the current combatants were being told ‘honour him, perform to the standards that he would have performed to: win, but win well.’ It was a lesson that they should have heeded.

As the race time got closer, I popped my chicken and pasta dish into the microwave and settled down to watch. The start of the race passed without much incident, with Britain’s Lewis Hamilton leading easily and his great young Dutch rival, Max Verstappen stuck back in third, but then another driver crashed, and the race was stopped. Due to various decisions made by the two main teams, things were about to get spicey and at times downright dirty. Unfortunately for me, the delays to the race meant that I wouldn’t be able to watch it to its conclusion, as I actually had a show to do!

I continued listening to the coverage via my phone, until I once again pulled up at Ventfort Hall, where in the parking lot I was greeted by an audience member, who had arrived very early, saying ‘You must be Mr Dickens, I recognise you from your picture. Good luck today!’ That was very nice way to arrive and reminded me that I was there to entertain.

In the house Hayley and Chris were making the preparations for the afternoon and I checked that all of the furniture and props were in the right place, before retiring to my spacious dressing room, where I once again put the race coverage on as I dressed. Eventually, Lewis Hamilton emerged triumphant, with Max in 2nd place, but it didn’t sound a nice race with everyone playing every underhand trick that they could to gain an advantage. There was dangerous driving, there was bizarre driving, there was winging from the teams to the race director, who, in turn, sounded confused and weak, bartering with the Red Bull team over the severity of a particular penalty. Although incredibly exciting, it didn’t show F1 to the world in a good light. The final upshot was that Lewis and Max go into the final race next weekend absolutely level on points.

Fortunately, the race finished at around 2.20, which meant I had time to re-adjust my priorities and to become an actor again. Having got into costume and checked all of the things that had to be checked (watch wound, penny in waistcoat pocket, etc) I went and sat on the landing, looking down into the hall as the audience gathered. There was a very obvious sense of excitement and plenty of noise, and I soaked it up.

At 2.55 I creaked down the wooden staircase and Hayley confirmed that everyone had arrived, and that we were good to go. Chris sat at his laptop, ready to play the music cue, and Hayley welcomed everyone before starting the show. Straight away I could tell that this was a fun audience, they responded to everything from the very start (the first moment in the script that I can tell how a performance is going to go is when the narrator says ‘mind, I don’t mean to say that I know what there is particularly dead about a doornail….’ On this occasion they took the hint and laughed, obviously understanding that they were expected to be, and allowed to be, part of the show). We all had great fun, and it was a very satisfying performance. I had, quite naturally, been worried that my build-up to the show was not a conventional one and I might not have prepared myself well, but my fears were unfounded – I did a good job!

The Q&A was also fun, and there were some very good questions and lot of to-and-fro conversation, that makes sessions like this such a joy. After a while I became aware of Hayley hovering at the back of the room and knowing that pots of tea had been brewed and would be in danger of getting cold and stewed, I started to bring the session to an end, but there was one last question: ‘Is this your first time to The Berkshires?’ ‘No, it is my third visit, and I love it here!’, which got a loud round of applause and was a perfect time to sign off. There is indeed something very beautiful about the area, not just the scenery, but the community as well: it is a special place, and I would very much like to return during the summer months to perform some of my other shows: The Signalman would work well at Ventfort, as would Marigold and Sikes & Nancy. I know other venues would be interested in ‘out of season’ shows, so it would be lovely to try and put something together one day.

As the guests piled their plates high, I returned to my upstairs room and sat at my little table to eat my tea, before changing. I gathered up all of my belongings and went downstairs where I found Hayley and Chris to say goodbye, and to thank them for being such amazing colleagues over the last two days, and then I drove back to the hotel.

I had a quiet evening in, and at around 7 I logged on to my Uber Eats app and ordered a pizza from a nearby restaurant. I love going out and dining in restaurants, but the importance of remaining healthy and safe is paramount at the moment. It looks as if things are ramping up in Britain again, and the government has changed the regulations for entering the country yet again, meaning that the second Covid test, the PCR, that I purchased last week is also now redundant and I will have to have a test in the USA before I am allowed to fly home. With no idea as to how to get a test here I had earlier emailed Bob Byers, who had replied that he was looking into it on my behalf. It looks as if we will have to book something on my route from Lewes, Delaware to Byers’ Choice in Pennsylvania (the test has to be done within two days of flying), and this just adds a new logistical challenge to the end of the tour.

I watched a bit of TV, but felt myself nodding off, so retired for an early night.

On Monday I have a travel day with no shows and no commitments, and I think that the Pleasant Valley Nature Reserve sounds like an excellent way to relax!

The Thin Blue Line

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I woke up in my Comfort Inn in Manchester not at 3am, or 4am, but I actually made it to 6 for the first time on the trip! I had been woken to the sound of a car alarm sounding in the parking lot, and I vaguely had a memory of hearing a similar alarm at a previous hotel which rather worryingly suggested that it might have been my car.

Saturday morning would be taken up with driving to The Berkshires, the beautiful mountain region in western Massachusetts, and it looked as if it were going to be another amazing day to drive, with clear skies and a light frost on the ground. Before leaving I had time to watch some more practice from the Grand Prix and as soon as the session was over, I checked out and got on the road.

For audio accompaniment on this trip, I listened to a series of podcasts about the forthcoming Ashes cricket series. I hope that my English readers will forgive me for a moment, while I explain about The Ashes. The greatest rivalry within the international cricket calendar is that between the Australian team and the English team, which dates back to 1882 when the Aussies first beat England on British soil. On the next day an obituary to English cricket was published in The Times newspaper and the wooden bails (part of the equipment used during the match) were burned and the ashes placed in a tiny ceramic urn. Ever since that little urn has been the trophy that the two nations have played for. An Ashes series only comes around once every few years, alternating between England and Australia, and in the winter of ’21, ’22 the series is being played in the Southern hemisphere, where England have only won once in the last 34 years. The podcast was made by the BBC cricket correspondent and delved into all of the preparations inherent in sending a team to the land down under and was a very interesting listen.

My route took me back towards Boston and then skirting to the west of the city I drove straight back through Worcester where I was just a week before, and once again admired the beautiful old railroad station with its twin white towers making it look like the old Wembly football stadium in London.

Worcester Railroad Station
The Old Wembly Stadium, London

The views as I progressed west became ever more spectacular, with dark lakes shimmering with a thin skim of ice on the surface. The traffic became less, and the mountains appeared on the horizon. After two and a half hours of driving I left the freeway and took the route signposted for ‘The Berkshires’ and soon was driving through the pretty town of Lee and on towards Lenox. By this time the final qualifying session for the Formula 1 Grand Prix was starting, and I was able to listen to the radio coverage, via the F1 App on my phone connected to the car’s audio system: it is amazing what we take for granted now and how technology has advanced during my years of touring (remembering the old days of trying to connect a large heavy laptop to a modem, and enduring the whining, beeping and screeching of the dial-up connection). On the final miles of my drive, I listened to the first two thirds of the action until I pulled up outside The Courtyard by Marriott in Lenox.

As I unloaded my bags, I suddenly realised how much I have relied on Marriott during this tour. Not only have I stayed in hotels run by the company in Long Island, Nashua and now here in Lenox, but also my PCR Covid test was conducted in a Courtyard hotel in Oxford, before I left England.

I checked in as quickly as I could and then rushed up to the room to catch the final moments of qualifying on the TV, and I wasn’t to be disappointed as it came to a thrilling climax, with one of the two drivers still fighting for the World Championship crashing out at the very final corner of the very final lap.

I didn’t have much time in the hotel as it was now 1pm and I had to be at my next venue at 1.30. I quickly ate a chicken salad (which Joe had bought for me before the show in Manchester, but which I had not eaten, and it had remained well refrigerated in the car overnight), gathered my belongings and hurried out, not forgetting to take the little carboard sleeve that my room keys were held in, for I have reached that time of the trip where I struggle to remember not only the number of my room, but even the floor I am on!

My venue in Lenox is Ventfort Hall, a beautiful mansion built at the end of the 19th Century for Sarah Morgan, who was the sister of J Pierpont Morgan, which is an interesting connection in itself, in that the original handwritten manuscript of A Christmas Carol was purchased by Morgan and is annualy displayed in the library bearing his name in New York City. I have performed at Ventfort on two previous occasions, and it is a great venue, with the ambience of the small and elegant room really adding something to the storytelling – actually, it is very simmilar to the General Crook House in Omaha. In previous years we have seated an audience of 80 in the little parlour, packed hard in with not an inch of space left. But this year, due to Covid, the audience numbers had been reduced and the seats spaced out. I was greeted by Haley who looks after the running of the house and who has a background in theatrical stage managegement, and she ran through the precautions with me. The audience would all be masked and would all be required to show their vaccination certificate before admission. On the stage, or at least, on the floor at the end of the room where I was performing, she had stuck a line of blue tape, which marked 6 feet from the front row, and that was my ‘acting line’. I placed the props, having changed a very elegant and obviously antique chair for one that I could stand on. When the stage was ready, I introduced to Chris who would be operating my sound cues. Chris had also supplied the wooden stool for the set, from his own home, so I asked him if it was ok to knock on it with my wooden cane, for that tends to leave little indentations, and he said he would be delighted and honoured to have such a souvenir of the show in his house!

The view from the blue line, with Chris’s stool in the foreground.

It was getting towards 2.15 now and some of the first guests were beginning to arrive, so I retired to my ‘dressing room’, which is in fact the room where Sarah Morgan dressed. I had a chaise longue at my disposal, and a table laid with a bottle of champagne and a plate of strawberries (all fake, unfortunately!)

I changed into my costume and waited for the 3pm start time, and when Hayley gave me the word, I went into the great hall ready to walk through the audience and to begin.

It was strange experience to be in a room of fully masked people without wearing one myself, and I half wondered if I should have done the show masked, but there is no way that could have worked. I made sure that I remained behind my blue line as much as I could (which led to a somewhat linear performance).

The audience were a little quiet at first, maybe sharing my uncertainties about being in this confined space together, but soon the atmosphere began to lighten, and laughter filled the little parlour, and at the end as I took my bows the 50 strong audience stood and cheered.

We had a short Q&A session and then the audience left the room to have an elegant tea at tables spread throughout the house. Usually I would join them, but this year I returned to my changing room, where I noticed a plate of cakes, sandwiches and fancies had been left for me – they were on the table next to the champagne and strawberries, so I had to check that they were, in fact, real; and they were, deliciously real.

I changed back into my normal clothes and slipped out of the house in as inconspicuous manner as I could manage considering I was wearing a bright red Christmas sweater, and drove back to my hotel admiring the Christmas lights which decorated the town of Lenox.

I was due to be taken out to dinner in the evening and Hayley had offered to pick me up at 7 o’clock. There was light snow flurrying in the air and my beanie hat and gloves were still in the car, which sat glowing richly in the winter night.

Fully wrapped up against the chill of the evening I waited for Hayley who arrived bang on time, and we drove to the nearby town of Great Barrington where we joined Alice, Patrick and Stephen in ’10’, a restaurant specialising in steaks. We have all met and dined together before and it was great to get together once more and pick up where we left off, two or three years ago. The food was as fine as the company, and we shared a convivial evening with plenty of laughter, although perhaps inevitably the conversation continually returned to Covid issues.

After the last of the desserts had been finished, we left 10 and said our various goodbyes. Patrick and Stephen would be driving me back to Lenox, as Hayley lives in Great Barrington, and as we drove we talked about the power of American Equity, the actors’ union, as well as the benefits and frailties of the British National Health Service – not bad for a thirty-minute drive!

Back at The Courtyard I checked my little cardboard sleeve to confirm where my room was and retired for the night.

The Dana Center, at St Anselm

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Friday saw me moving on once more, although this time only twenty minutes away to the city of Manchester and as my only show was not until 7.30 that night, I had plenty of time to relax in the morning.

Fortunately for me, a chance to remain in the hotel coincided with the first practice sessions from the brand-new Grand Prix in Jedda, so I made sure that I had my breakfast and was back in my room before the action happened. When practice finished, (and it was truly scary to watch, being a very high-speed track, running within a tunnel of walls and no room for error), I started dealing with the increasing number of emails relating to my forthcoming performances in England, and in particular, on that morning, the ones scheduled for December 20 and 21 at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Carnarvons and also the setting for Downton Abbey. Before answering their questions about arrival time, length of the show, sound cues, and would I be bringing any guests, I allowed myself to wallow in nostalgia and recalled my first performances there two years ago.

I delt with a few other inquiries until it was time to pack my cases and continue my itinerant lifestyle. Although sunny there was quite a wind blowing, and as I drove along the freeway, I could feel my little car being buffeted; I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be driving one of the huge high-sided jaggernaut lorries (or semi-trailer trucks) that pound the roads of America every day.

Soon I was in the city of Manchester, with the beautiful, broad Merrimack River running through it and the old, red-bricked mill buildings well preserved along its banks. Before heading to my new hotel, where I hoped I could get an early check-in to allow me to watch the second Formula One practice, I made a detour to a nearby Walmart store, to stock up on a few essentials, as well as to buy a salad for lunch.

I was booked to stay at a Comfort Inn, and sure enough there was a room available for me, so I was able to catch the last half of the practice session which was eventually terminated when one of the drivers inevitably lost control and had a huge crash.

As the afternoon progressed, I was also able to call home again and have a lovely video chat with the family, who excitedly told me all of their news, until it was time for their baths and bed.

And I just relaxed.

During the afternoon an email came in from Kimberly at the Mid-Continent Library Service, who wanted to share some of the feedback from the guests who had attended my shows back at the beginning of November, and oh, were they wonderful to read. So positive and exciting and humbling, I found myself growing quite tearful and emotional as I read.

Darkness fell outside my window and soon it was time to drive to the evening’s venue: The Dana Center for the Humanties, at St Anselm College. St Anselm is a private school founded in 1889 and is based in a beautiful campus which includes a fully active Benedictine abbey.

I would be performing in the Koonz Theater, which was another new venue to me, although during the days of lockdown last winter I was able to deliver a Zoom lecture for the school, talking about my career and how I bring the works of Dickens to the stage.

As I pulled into the gates of the college, I followed the well-lit, blue signs along a variety of roads, until I found the Dana Center building. On entering I was instantly greeted by the sound of piano playing, as a recital was being given in one of the studios, the piece came to an end and appreciative applause broke out. On the walls were large posters advertising the many cultural programmes that are coming up, including one promoting my show that evening.

I soon found the theatre itself where I was greeted by Joseph Deleault, the Director of the Center, who had arranged for my Zoom event last year and who had been so keen to have me perform live, Joseph was working alongside a young man who was introduced as Aiden, and who was, as he put it, the ‘sound and light monkey!’ I had been in touch with Joseph over the past few days and had sent him all of the details of the show and the requirements for the staging, sure enough there on stage was the chair, stool, coat rack and table that make up my set.

Meanwhile Aiden was working through the script, and we spent plenty of time discussing lighting and sound requirements which he carefully programmed into the respective desks. Nobody had mentioned a microphone, so I tentatively asked if I would need one, Aiden replied that they could give me one, but the theatre had excellent acoustics and I really probably wouldn’t need one. I went up onto the stage and tried a few lines and got confirmation that I would be fine without any electronic aids, which is always my preference, and besides that, it seemed somehow disrespectful to come into a venue so dedicated to perfection in the performing arts and not to perform ‘unplugged’.

The next question to be resolved was whether I was going to do a one or two act show? I had sent both scripts to Joseph in the week and told him that as I had performed both versions within the last week, I could do either, as he wished. Now was decision time, and after a brief discussion we decided to go for one act. Both versions have their benefits: the one act performances builds and maintains the atmosphere right up to the end, whereas the two-act script allows Jacob Marley especially to have much more time in the limelight (maybe that should be ‘the lobster light’). Joseph made his decision: one act it was.

When Joseph, Aiden and I were fully satisfied that everything was ready, I went downstairs into the Green Room, where I relaxed until it was time to prepare for the show. I got into costume, and took a dark, brooding, arty picture of myself in the mirror, and then went up into the wings of the stage, from where I could hear the audience gathering. I find that staying in a remote dressing room is not a good way to ready myself for a show, I feel cold and detached; I much prefer being on stage feeling the flutter of nerves as I try to gauge how the audience are going to respond.

At 7.30 Joseph came to check that I was ready and then he walked onto the stage to welcome the audience and introduce the evening’s events.

As I described a few days ago, when I was on Long Island, performing for a new audience is always an interesting experience, for they don’t know what to expect from the show, and many of the little ‘asides’ are included in the script to reassure them that it is ok to respond, that we are on this journey together: don’t be intimidated. And in that effort I succeed, for the audience were soon laughing, calling out and enjoying themselves immensely. I was enjoying myself as well, for it is always such fun to perform on a large stage, looking out into the darkness and hearing the reactions. For his part Aiden did a brilliant job with the lighting and sound, gently fading between the cool mysterious tones that accompany Marley’s ghost and the warm joyful atmosphere of Mr Fezziwig’s ball.

I slipped a few extra lines in from the two-act script, but felt confident that Aiden would trust in me coming back to what he had in front of him, and sure enough he hit every cue perfectly.

At the end I took my bows to another, this time quite raucous, standing ovation, and left the stage with the cheering still filling the auditorium. I had agreed with Joe that I would do a Q&A session, but he had forgotten to mention it in his welcoming remarks, so when I returned to the stage everyone was gathering their coats and getting ready to leave, but Joe calmed them all down and said if they would like to remain then I would be taking questions. A few left but most resumed their seats, and soon the questions started coming from all sides of the house.

Eventually everything wrapped up at around 9.30 and this time the audience left for good while I went back down to the dressing room, elated and energised by a very succesful evening.

While I was packing up my things, Aiden came down to say that some audience members who had seen me perform before, had a gift for me, so I put my mask on and returned to the theatre where I was greeted by a couple from Salem who presented me with a hand-made, miniature witch’s besom, so that I may brush evil spirits away from the various hotel rooms that I would be staying in for the rest of my trip. I remembered the couple well as being immensely kind and generous and it was lovely to catch up and chat for a while.

With that it was time to leave, I thanked Aiden for his brilliant performance on the desks, and shook Joseph’s hand warmly, as we agreed that a repeat performance next year would be something that we would both enjoy very much. I loaded my car and, on my way back to the Comfort Inn stopped at an Applebee’s restaurant to pick up a takeout bowl of fish and chips, with coleslaw and tartare sauce, which I consumed in my room as the adrenaline slowly subsided, and I relaxed once more.

Mr Scrooge, Mr Marley, Mr Cratchit and….Mr Jackson?

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After a couple of quieter days, Thursday saw me back performing twice as I returned to Nashua, New Hampshire for the 11th time. Not only would Mr Ebenezer Scrooge and his colleagues take to the stage once more, but Mr Jackson would also make a return, having been silent since I left Kansas City almost a month ago. ‘Who,’ you ask, ‘is Mr Jackson?’, well, that is a good question, and I shall furnish you with the answer: Mr Jackson is the narrator of The Signlaman. Although he is not actually named in the ghostly tale, readers of the collection of stories known as Mugby Junction (of which the famous ghost story is a part) are introduced to ‘The Traveller’ in the first tale entitled Barbox Brothers.

Thursday morning passed as most mornings do, with plenty of coffee and writing. I was also in email communication with the venue for Friday’s show, confirming various technical and arrival details with them. Having finished my administrative duties, I took the opportunity to rehearse The Signalman a couple of times, until it was time to leave for the theatre.

For the last few years in Nashua it has been a tradition that I perform a lunchtime show in the city’s Senior Center, and these shows have always been great fun, however, in 2021 because the tour was so late being confirmed (thanks to doubts as to whether I would be granted a visa due to Covid travelling restrictions) the center was unavailable, so a new venue had to be found, and the search produced The Court Street Theater. I would still be performing on behalf of The Senior Center and as I arrived the first person I saw was Judy Porter who has always looked after me there. In no time the theatre’s door was opened from within and a young man who introduced himself as Tyler welcomed us into the spacious lobby. While Judy and her colleagues began to settle themselves into the box office, I made straight for the performing space, and what a great space it turned out to be. The ‘stage’ is actually the floor, while the seating rises up on three sides, meaning that the performer is almost surrounded by the audience. It is the sort of space that lends itself to one-man performances and I instantly felt very at home there.

Whilst I was taking in my new surroundings, Jody Gage, of the Fortin Gage Flower and Gift Shop (my Nashua sponsor) arrived, bringing in the various items that are required for the set of The Signalman, specifically a desk and a lantern – and I added to it by finding a couple of old wooden stools in a storeroom (you can find almost anything in a theatre’s storeroom). When I perform in England I also have a small table around which the two characters gather, apparently in front of the fire, as they talk. Jody had sourced a rather elegant round table with a shiny marble top, which to my mind looked too impressive for the rustic signal box, so I reluctantly discarded it, much to Jody’s disappointment, for he had borrowed it from a local antique store and was very proud of it!

On the stage Tyler was checking the sound system with another young man, who was soon introduced to me as also being called Tyler, which made things much easier (I may be good at remembering 90 minutes’ worth of script, but when it comes to names, I am hopeless, so having a single name to cover the entire theatre staff was useful). Having ensured that the microphone was working correctly Tyler #1 fitted the unit over my ears and asked me to run a few lines of the script, including the full vocal range, so I spent a few minutes going through various passages, including the moments of torment as the signalman himself teeters on the edge of insanity. With the sound check completed, and lighting set, I left the stage and started to get changed in the little storeroom where I had found the stools earlier. My costume for The Signalman is my usual frock coat but with a black waistcoat and cravat, and as I would be performing in front of a huge black backdrop, on a black floor, the effect would be particularly menacing. If I had known the theatre before, I would have asked for a stage light on a stand with a red gel in it, shining towards the audience to represent the danger light at the tunnel’s mouth, which features throughout the story, but even without that little embellishment, the atmosphere was perfect.

As the 12.30 start time approached, I emerged from my room and loitered in the lobby, chatting with Sandy who would be making my introduction, and Amber, a member of the Fortin Gage staff, who was helping in the box office. Jody joined us and we all checked our watches, worked out how any latecomers could be directed to their seats in the darkness and then agreed that we were good to ‘go’. I returned to the area behind the stage, while Sandy walked onto it and welcomed the audience and introduced me. Unfortunately, the crowd wasn’t a huge one (due, Jody thought, to continued nervousness about Covid and the lateness of being able to promote the shows), but still they were an enthusiastic bunch and welcomed me warmly.

I began by talking about the circumstances surrounding the Staplehurst crash, not forgetting to shamelessly plug my new book ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash’, and despite there not being copies available at this particular performance, I did remind the audience that the book was available through Amazon, or from my own website, Geralddickens.com (did I say shameless?) But soon it was time for Mr Jackson to tell his story.

The atmosphere built beautifully, although I was slightly distracted by a cufflink that had come loose, meaning that a shirt cuff flapped loosely and annoyingly, but the show was as dark and intense as I had expected it to be in that setting, and built to a superb climax

After I had closed the show with the spooky revelation that Charles Dickens died exactly five years to the very day after he survived The Staplehurst crash, which was greeted with a suitably impressed gasp, I opened the floor up to questions, and once again had an enjoyable time connecting with the audience. After twenty minutes or so of banter, the session came to an end and after taking an extra round of applause I returned to my dressing room.

It was almost two when I left the building and I wanted to get back to the hotel to make contact with home. Sandy had very kindly offered to give me some rice and chicken soup for my lunch, which I could heat up in my room’s microwave, so I followed her to her house where she ladled a goodly portion into a plastic dish, and then I returned to my hotel.

Other than talking to Liz, I spent the afternoon relaxing and resting. Although The Signalman is a very short show, especially when compared to A Christmas Carol, it is a particularly tiring one, because it is so emotionally intense, and I always feel exhausted after performing it, so I needed to regain my energy levels for the evening’s performance.

A Christmas Carol was due to be performed in another new venue to me, The Sky Meadow Country Club. Once again, the lateness of the the tour’s confirmation meant that Jody’s first choice of venue (the college auditoiruim where I had performed in the past), was unavailable, but it was Jody’s ex-wife, Jill, who suggested that the Country Club, where she now works, would be a great setting.

I left the hotel at 5 and stopped to fill up my little Rogue with petrol, before driving to the other side of Nashua where eventually, after a few wrong turnings, I found Sky Meadow sat on top of a hill. It was an impressive venue, actually very similar to The Field Club where I have performed in Omaha, and as soon as I walked in the staff were extremely helpful and welcoming. A ballroom had been set up as the theatre and at one end temporary stage had been erected. There was a chair on it, and a table with a lamp. In no time, Jody appeared with a coat rack, and asked ‘Do you need another table, next to the chair?’ ‘No, the one we already have on stage is fine.’ I thought I was saving him some trouble until he asked me, almost pleaded, if we could use the little circular table with the heavy marble top, that he had found at the antique centre that morning. I of course I agreed.

‘Do we have a stool?’

‘Oh, damn! I forgot the stool! Yes, it’s fine, I will find a stool’ and while I made preparations on the stage, I could hear Jody asking various members of the staff if they had any kind of stool anywhere, and each time I also heard a negative reply. After a while Jody disappeared, and I suspect he drove all the way back into the centre of Nashua to pick up the original one, for later when I came to check the stage for the final time, there was an old rustic wooden stool on the set.

My sound was being operated by Chip, who not only did a sound check but also agreed to run all of my cues. He downloaded them onto his laptop, and I got Jill to print a copy of the script in her office. We didn’t have any time to rehearse the cues but Chip exuded confidence and I had no doubt that he would do a fine job. The only downside to the venue was the lighting, which was either too dim, or very harshly bright. On another occasion some temporary theatre lighting would improve the ambience in the room, but for Thursday evening we had what we had.

My dressing room was the room usually used for Brides to prepare themselves, as Sky Meadow is a popular wedding venue, and prominent in it was a large barber’s chair. I wondered for a moment if I shouldn’t give a performance of Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber or Fleet Street, instead.

Outside I could hear the audience gathering, and I started to get into costume. I was still feeling weary and was a little nervous that somehow I wasn’t going to give a particularly good performance, I didn’t feel in the right mindset, and was having negative thoughts about the whole thing. I opened the door to my room and discreetly watched the audience arrive and there was such a sense of excitement and anticipation in the crowd that I, as dear old Doctor Marigold says, ‘thoroughly shook myself together to do what was right by all’.

Shortly after 7.30 the audience were in their places and Jody stood up on the stage to welcome them all and to introduce me, and I made my slow entrance down the central aisle towards the stage.

Despite my negative feelings, the show went extremely well, and I found energy from the script and from the audience. Soon I was giving one of my strongest and most energetic performances of the tour. Jody’s small round table also made an impact: during Jacob Marley’s scene when Scrooge is taunting him as having ‘more of gravy than grave about you’ I turn and roar and wail, sending Ebenezer flying back into his chair in horror. At this point, at Sky Meadow, the chair slid backwards with my momentum, trapping my fingers between the arm that I was tightly gripping and the heavy marble top of the table, making me wince in agony.

In the end, despite my initial misgivings, it was a wonderful show, a really exciting one, and the audience responded rigorously and loudly.

During the Q&A session we covered the truth behind Mrs Cratchit’s pudding panics, favourite movie versions, direct lineage from CD to me, and a few other topics, but one intersting question came from a lady who admitted to having seen all of my shows in Nashua (as many in the audience had) and pointed out that it has changed over the years, and could I talk about specific decicions I had made to bring about those changes. Some alterantions have just evolved and come to me over time, often during a performance, while others, such as using the red shawl to represent Tiny Tim and to include the scene when Bob Cratchit kisses his son’s face as he lies dead in the little bedroom, where more consciously considered. The major change in recent years has been to the pace of the show – I had got myself to a place where everything was too ponderous – I was trying to find drama and effect in every syllable which slowed the whole thing down. So, I have been making strenuous efforts to bring the pace back. I asked the lady what changes she had noticed over the years, and she said that ‘Topper has become a lot more flirtatious!’

Eventually it was time to end, and as the crowd filed out into the night, I returned to Sweeney Todd’s boudoir and got changed.

I was invited to the bar for a celebratory glass of wine and was introduced to the owner of the club who had loved the show and was very keen to bring me back in the future. However, that tiredness that had been upon me all afternoon was now returning, so I politely said my goodbyes and drove back to the hotel, where I purchased a microwavable Chicken Alfredo from the lobby pantry and had a late-night TV dinner.

It had been a very successful day, and even my squashed fingers weren’t aching too much now!

A Quiet Day

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Wednesday was another travel day, and to be honest for the most part it wasn’t a particularly thrilling one! I was reversing the journey that I had taken two days previously, for I was returning to New England to continue my tour in New Hampshire.

I took a leisurely breakfast and then, having caught up with some emails and admin, watched TV for a while. I had decided not to leave until after 10am to give the commuter traffic into New York time to clear. The weather outside looked beautiful, with a bright sun in a clear sky, it was to be a perfect day for driving.

I packed up my bags and at 10 on the dot I checked out and loaded up my car. I set the SatNav for the good old Beechwood Hotel in Worcester, so that I could retrieve my two costume shirts, and then started North. The Great Gatsby was still playing through the audio system, and as I rose up onto the Throgs Neck Bridge to leave the Island, and looked at the skyline of Manhattan to my left, a quote from the book which had appealed to me the day before came back: ‘The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.’ When I crossed the bridge two days before the skyscrapers had been hazy, backlit by a setting sun, but now they were clear, sharp and starkly defined. It seemed impossible that there was an inch of space left on Manhattan and quite how that little strip of land can support the sheer weight of concrete, steel, and glass is beyond my unscientific mind!

The traffic was pretty clear, and as I left New York City behind me the driving seemed to become less aggressive and intimidating. Gatsby came to its conclusion, and I instead started listening to the soundtrack of The Blues Brothers, which is an excellent soundtrack for a road trip.

After a couple of hours on the road I found a Panera Bread, at Berlin CT, and had a lovely, leisurely apple salad and a coffee, before driving on towards Worcester. When I was driving in Massachusetts a few days before I had noticed that all of the road intersections have been renumbered, so every exit has not only the official green sign informing the driver what junction this is and where it leads to, but also a smaller yellow one reading ‘Old Junction…’ and then whatever the number may have been. I had first assumed that this change in numbering had only been on the route between Worcester and Sutton and was the result of some new construction, but it seems to be a state-wide phenomenon. You may suppose that there may be some logical reason behind it, that all of the new junction numbers would be two different from the old ones, for example, but no: sometimes new junction 13 was old junction 10, whereas further along the road the new junction 25 was the old junction 11 – very curious, and I wonder how long the signs will need to stay until everyone is confident with the new system.

I pulled up at The Beechwood and in just a few minutes had been handed the bag with my two shirts, so was able to continue my journey on towards Nashua, New Hampshire. There is something beautifully familiar, and yet confusing, about driving to New Hampshire, as so many of the town names come from old England: signs for Bolton, Southampton, Dunstable, Manchester, Billarica, Tewsksbury and many others paint a geographically challenged map of Britain.

Soon I had arrived at my hotel and as I walked from the car to the lobby with no coat on, I recalled that last time I was here in 2019 it was snowing heavily and at that time I was glad of my all-wheel drive car, whereas this year it has so far seemed to be a rather redundant luxury.

Jody Gage, my event sponsor in Nashua, had reserved a very nice hotel room for me, a mini suite with a separate bedroom, which felt very grand.

I didn’t have long in the hotel, as I had been invited to supper at the house of an old friend, Sandy Belknap, who has worked on my Nashua appearances for many years and who also worked with Bob Byers and me last year to promote my film version of A Christmas Carol.

Although it was relatively early, it was dark as I drove to Sandy’s neighbourhood and colourful Christmas lights twinkled on houses and in gardens. It was a lovely evening, and so nice not to be in a crowded restaurant or bar, not knowing who is close by.

Sandy rustled up an extremely flavoursome chicken dish and salad, followed by some homemade chocolate chip cookies, and it was a very pleasant, relaxing evening.

Back at the hotel it was still early, but as my body clock is still playing tricks with me and I am continually waking at silly hours of the morning (although it is gradually getting better), I was ready for sleep and the episode of whatever detective drama I had started to watch played on unseen

Thursday promises to be a busier day!

New Connections

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Tuesday morning saw the first of what, as regular followers will know, is an important ritual on my tours: laundry. Having woken and written my blog and made my first coffee of the morning, I emptied the two bags of clothing that needed cleansing and sorted them into coloured and whites (the latter pile comprising mainly of the shirts I have been wearing in the show), but with the dilligence of an accountant, I discovered that my numbers were out: I had performed over two days at Vaillancourts, meaning that there should have been be four shirts, but there were only two. I let my mind wander back and remembered that I had hung two shirts to air in the closet at The Beechwood and must have left them there.

You may remember in yesterday’s post I made a big point about sweeping through my room multiple times to check that I hadn’t left anything there, and you may (quite justifiably) imagine that I wrote all of that already knowing that I had left the shirts there, ready to reveal my folly for comic affect today, but that is not the case! I had genuinely thought that I had everything with me, and that for once I hadn’t left a trail of belongings in my wake, but sadly a leopard does not change its spots so easily, and there were my shirts back in Worcester.

At the Marriott hotel in Uniondale I am situated on the 7th floor, and the guest laundry is in the basement, so early in the morning I bagged up what I did have to clean and made my way to the lift which took me down the eight floors and opened to reveal a warren of corridors, with no signs to guide me to the laundry. As if I were in a maze at some large stately home I started to explore, turning this way, then that, following a direction and discovering it led nowhere, until at last at the end of a long corridor I discovered a lost subterranean city comprising a salon, a gym and the laundry room.

I had a bag of quarters with me, which I collect during my travels for such circumstances, but imagine my surprise to discover that these particular machines didn’t take quarters, they actually had terminals for credit cards.

My emotions at this point were conflicted, on one hand there was an amazing realisation that this innovation meant that the days of hauling bags of loose change around the country will soon be behind me, but on the other end of the scale was the sheer frustration that my wallet was up in room 768! Back through the corridoors, back up the lift, back to my room, collect my wallet and back down again. Soon two machines were spinning and splashing whilst I went up to the lobby to have some breakfast.

The restaurant at The Marriott is spread out around the spacious ground floor, and diners were dotted here and there lost in their own worlds. I was greeted by a lady dressed in jeans and a sweater who I had taken to be a customer, but who asked me if I would like orange juice and coffee, and then I attended to the impressive buffet. As I sat at my table another guest came in, an older man with a white beard (no, not HIM!), and a t shirt, it soon became obvious that he is a very regular guest as almost every member of staff came up to greet and converse with him, and he had a gentle charm with each, asking about their Thanksgivings, and their families, discussing their jobs and their lives. Quite how he had time to eat is beyond me, but he gave everyone as much of his attention as they needed, and did it with good grace. A very impressive individual who just by being in that restaurant, where everyone else sat at anonymous little islands, spread happiness and made people feel good about themselves. OK, on reflection, maybe he WAS that guy with the white beard, after all!’

After breakfast I returned to the laundry and loaded my clothes into the drier, which after another swipe of the credit card, started rumbling away, and I went back to my room to be lazy for an hour.

By ten o’clock my morning chores were done and I could go out for the day. As I was on Long Island, I had decided to visit the area which had inspired one of my favourite American novels, and ater a little research I set my sat nav to take me to Great Neck, better known in the literary world as West Egg, the home of Nick Carroway and Jay Gatsby. I had even downloaded an audiobook version of The Great Gatsby to accompany through my travels.

The first part of my drive took along one of the parkways that run the length of the island, and which apparently act as a guide to the international jets flying into JFK airport, for a constant stream of Boeings and Airbuses flew low over me with landing lights blazing and wheels down. Eventually I reached Great Neck, and drove to a neighbourhood that seemed to be the sort of place where Gatsby could have stood in his grounds gazing at the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock across the water. Unfortunately, I could’t say for certain, for there was no way to get to the water’s edge, all of the properties privately protecting their own stretch of ocean front. The best glimpse that I got was through the locked gates of a yacht club.

I drove on, still listening to the book. I had studied Gatsby at college but I have either forgotten, or never realised, how funny parts of it are, and I found myself laughing out loud in the car. Of course, a student will never find a book funny, especially if a teacher says: ‘Now make a note of this, this is the author using humour for effect, this is a very funny passage…..’

My drive took me further east to Port Jefferson, where I alighted and strolled around a nature reserve and said hello to a family of swans who glided curiously up to me, and deciding that I was of no interest, glided away again.

The weather was cold, so I didn’t walk for long, but returned to my car to cross the island to the south shore and then ‘home’. Whilst I drove, I called the Beechwood Hotel and inquired about the two white shirts and to my amazement they said yes, they had them, and could I pop by and collect them? By a fortunate quirk of this year’s tour, it so happens that I will be driving straight past Worcester again on Wednesday, so a slight detour will not affect me at all. It is amazing when the stars in the universe all align and everything works out.

Finding the ocean at the south shore proved to be as difficult as finding it in the North had been and as flurries of snow were starting to swirl, I decided to head back to The Marriott. I had a couple of hours before I needed to go out, so I flicked through the TV guide to see what was on and to my delight discovered that Apollo 13 had just started, so I wallowed in nostalgia for a while – nostalgia for the events themselves, and for the film, which I remember watching for the first time in one of the large London cinemas and feeling the whole floor trembling during the lift-off sequence. The TV channel that was screening the movie gave it a rather uninspiring description that really didn’t do justice to the bravery and ingenuity of the characters involved, it read: ‘April 1970. Astronauts try to return alive.’ Not thrilling. I wonder how the same TV company would describe A Christmas Carol? ‘December 1843. Man sleeps and wakes kinder.’

As I watched the film, I also did some research into new Covid regulations that have been announced this week in the UK and discovered that I now have to take a PCR test on my return and not a LFT one. These tests have to be booked and paid for before a passenger returns and I had already booked the previously acceptable Lateral Flow Test kit, but now I had to spend another £50 for the PCR. These tests (one prior to each of my departures from the UK and 2, now 3, for my returns) have considerably added to the expense of this year’s tour!

As Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise came back to Earth, I gathered a costume shirt and black socks for the evening and made my way to the East Meadow Public Library where I was due to perform. On entering the building, I instantly felt at home, for it was like returning to one of the branches of The Mid Continent Public Library in Kansas City. I was greeted by Jude, who had kindly treated me to supper the evening before, and she showed me to a room downstairs which was to be my dressing room. Boxes of pizzas and a bowl of salad sat on the table for the staff to grab as they made preparations for the evening.

The actual performance was to be in a small auditorium on the main level and when we entered, the floor was covered with leads and cables as the sound system was being set up. The acoustic in the room sounded pretty good but we tested the microphone anyway, and my sound man (whose name, I am ashamed to say, I never caught), did a fine job in balancing the levels. We then went through all of my sound cues, rehearsing each one so that he had an idea as to how to bring the effects in and how to fade them out again, and when I needed to speak over them. He was very diligent and as I left the room, he began to clear his equipment away and tape down the cables.

Jude had sourced items for the set from a prop hire company and so Scrooge had a very nice chair and table, but unfortunately, we didn’t have a hat rack to hand, so I simply placed another table behind the chair, on which I would be able to lay the hat, cane and scarf as required during the show.

Back downstairs I set to signing copies of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst’ which had been pre-ordered, and when I had finished that, changed ready for the 7pm start. It is always an interesting challenge coming to a new venue – the show doesn’t change of course, but the atmosphere around presenting it does. For example, at somewhere like Vaillancourt’s or at Byers’ Choice the whole team has done this so often that we all know exactly how it is going to work. Likewise, the audience at those venues is usually made up with a large percentage of people who have attended multiple times and know the style of what they are going to see and are excited to see it again; their anticipation also gives a sense of confidence to the ‘newbies’ in the crowd. But in a venue such as The East Meadow Library it is all new, so there is a sense of heightened consciousness and even nervousness in the build up.

Just after 7 Jude welcomed the socially distanced and masked audience and then handed over to me. The music started and I walked onto the stage. As was to be expected, the audience was quiet at first, not knowing if they were going to see a simple reading, or a rather dry Brit reciting a Victorian novel (albeit a much-loved one), but soon they began to warm up and I began to relax, meaning that the show got better and the audience became even more involved. It was a great shared experience for us all and by the end we were the best of friends!

Having taken my bows to a standing ovation, Jude turned the auditorium lights on and we started the Q&A session. There were quite a few children in the audience and their questions were especially good, one asked me ‘What is your real voice like?’, whilst another inquired ‘What is your favourite Christmas food?’ Other questions took us into the world of the minor characters’ back stories and of course favourite movie choices. But soon it was time to wind up and after taking another bow I returned to my dressing room as the audience left the building.

By the time I had changed it was just the library staff left and they congratulated me on the show as we all packed our things up.

A new connection has been made on Long Island and hopefully it is one that we can extend to future years and, maybe with restrictions eased, we can fill the auditorium to its capacity and really have a fun party. You never know, I may even be able to find the ocean…..

I said my goodbyes and drove back to the hotel where I had a delicious plate of grilled salmon and rice, before rising to floor 7 once more and bringing the day to a close.

Following in the Footsteps of CD

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Monday was to be a day of travel, with no performing commitments at all as I moved from Worcester to Long Island. I had only stayed at The Beechwood for three nights but it was beginning to feel like a permanent base and I would have to sweep the room a number of times to ensure that I had left nothing behind.

After breakfast (a simple continental which to avoid providing a large buffet table which would encourage people to congregate, the kitchen had plated up selections of pastries, yoghurt, cereal and fruit), I returned to the room, finished writing and began to pack. Because my costumes and props were hanging in the car, the case was a lot lighter than usual, which added to the feeling that I must have left something behind, but I checked and checked and re-checked until I was certain that I had every charger, lead, pen, document, book and magazine, before finally closing up my bags and leaving.

It was a clear but cold morning and I was soon on the road heading south. There was a dusting of snow in the woods and on the fields as I drove which sparkled in the morning sun and gave a very festive feel to the journey. Through the car’s audio system, which I had paired to my phone, I was listening to the audio book recording of Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of the city of London, recorded by fellow Dickens one man performer, Simon Callow. It was strange to listen to, actually, for Ackroyd was responsible for one of the most comprehensive biographies of Charles Dickens and Callow has become the voice of Charles over the years, so it was very difficult to remember that this was not a book about Dickens! However, the story of London is a fascinating one and the miles passed by easily.

As I drove, I pondered my route south, taking me from Worcester to Hartford, New Haven and on to New York, which would take up a little over three hours of my day, and I suddenly realised that I would be travelling in the footsteps, or at least in the rail tracks and wake, of Charles Dickens in 1842 when he made exactly the same journey. He had arrived in Boston after a particularly rough sea crossing from Liverpool, and had spent plenty of time there, visiting the mills of Lowell and meeting lots of friends before preparing to travel. Early in February he set off by railroad from Boston to Worster, which he described in American Notes as being ‘a very pretty New England town’. He stayed in the city with the State Governor for two days, before continuing on the railroad to Springfield.

On my journey my thoughts were less on the beauty of the scenery, but more on the sight that filled my mirror, for it felt like I was being terrorised by a truck, as if I had stepped into Stephen Spielberg’s movie Dune. For a while I had been driving in the company of a huge black Peterbilt truck, the faceless driver of which was being incredibly agressive (not just with me, he was trying to own the entire freeway). In my mirror the two towering exhaust pipes on either side of the cab looked like the horns of a devil (the effect enhanced by the black and red livery), whilst the great square radiator grill, looked as it were opening in preparation to devour my little red car. Every time that traffic contrived to separate us, I breathed a sigh of relief, but in no time I would hear the deep gutteral growl as the diesel engine revved and he swept back by me again.

We left Massachusetts and drove on into Connecticut and soon I could see the unmistakable skyline of Hartford to my right. On Charles Dickens’ journey in February1842 he had left the railroad at Springfield and, as The Connecticut River was relatively free of ice, he would continue to Hartford by water.

‘The captain of a small steamboat was going to make his first trip for the season that day (the second February trip, I believe, within the memory of man), and only waited for us to go on board. Accordingly, we went on board, with as little delay as might be. He was as good as his word, and started directly.

It certainly was not called a small steamboat without reason. I omitted to ask the question, but I should think it must have been of about half a pony power. Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might have lived and died happily in the cabin…’

‘I am afraid to tell how many feet short this vessel was, or how many feet narrow: to apply the words length and width to such measurement would be a contradiction in terms. But I may state that we all kept the middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over.’

In contrast to the lovely clear winter’s day on which I was travelling, Dickens also pointed out that ‘It rained all day as I once thought it never did rain anywhere, but in the Highlands of Scotland.’

Having reached Hartford Charles enjoyed the space of a comfortable hotel and continued towards New York that night by railroad again

I think that, even despite the predatory truck which still stalked me, I was happier in my little cherry red Rogue, than Charles had been on his tiny steam boat!

As I had no particular time agenda, I decided that it might be fun to do a little exploring, and when I saw signs for the town of Wallingford, I decided to leave the main route and see what I could see.

I had chosen this particular town because it bears the same name as a small town close to us in Oxfordshire, and it felt like a nice way to make a connection with home. I found a parking spot outside a small grocery stop close to the railroad which passes through the town, and as I alighted from the car, I was rewarded with that most American of all sounds, the clanging of a crossing bell and the hooting of a train as it approached the crossing, actually two trains, and my senses were assulted as they passed each other.

I walked around the streets of what was obviously a very close-knit community, and eventually found a large and very old cemetery, the notice at the gate informing me that it had been opened circa 1683. I am always fascinated by the stories that a cemetery has to tell and spent quite a while just walking along the rows of old stones, picking out particular family names that spread across generations: relations who had never known each other in life but who were now united in that place.

One thing that I always look for for among grave stones is for someone who shared my birthday, and I almost found it in Wallingford, but on close investigation the date was a day out – the gentleman in question having been born on October 10 1818, whereas I was born on October 9, it was close enough though and imagine my surpise when I stepped back and looked at the family name: Jeralds.

It was getting a bit cold now and I walked back to the car to continue my journey towards New York, passing signs to New Haven, where Dickens had stopped for a night, commenting on the beautiful old Elm Trees that abounded in the city.

As I got closer to New York, entering The Bronx, I hit traffic. Heavy traffic. Stationary traffic. I looked at my phone and managed to find an alternative route, but I was very glad that I did not have a show scheduled for that evening, for I would be beginning to feel very nervous. My new route took me through some elegant neighbourhoods, where Christmas decorations were hung and sacks of leaves were waiting to be taken away, which was a very nice, albeit brief, constrast to the strip malls and factories that line the main routes. Traffic cleared, I motored on and now it was time to leave Charles’ journey, for he had headed into the heart of New York City whereas I turned to the east and follwed signs for the Throgs Neck Bridge which took me onto Long Island, and it was as I crossed the great green suspension bridge that I caught my first glimpse of the Manhatten skyline, almost ghost like as the winter sun was low in the sky behind it. It was an amazing view of an amazing city.

I continued on until I reached my destination, a large Marriott hotel in the town of Uniondale.

On Tuesday I will be performing A Christmas Carol at the nearby Public Library, but during the day I will have the opportunity to explore Long Island and maybe make a literary pilgrimage!

Bonus Blog: Dickens at the Parker House

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Shortly before I left England to fly to Boston I received a tweet asking me if I had ever performed at The Omni Parker House in the city? The answer is yes and I have had some very pleasant times there.

When Charles Dickens travelled to America in 1867 to perform his readings of A Christmas Carol it was at The Parker House Hotel on the corner of Tremont Street and School Street where he stayed. In fact he made it his base for the five months duration of his stay in the country, taking a suite of rooms to which he would return having travelled to New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia and the other cities where he performed. On his arrival he wrote to his daughter Mary, telling her that ‘This is an immense hotel, with all manner of white marble public passages and public rooms. I live in a corner high up, and have a hot and cold bath in my bed-room (communicating with the sitting-room), and comforts not in existence when I was here before. The cost of living is enormous, but happily we can afford it’

The Parker House, circa 1855

The situation of The Parker House was perfect for Dickens’s purposes because it was situated right next door to the Tremont Theatre where he would perform when in Boston. He could remain in the comfort of his rooms until the last moment before making the short walk to the venue and delighting the audiences.

By 1867 Charles Dickens was in poor health and the winter in the North East of America was a particularly harsh one, with freezing rain, strong winds and heavy snow all combining to keep him suffering a permanent cold in the head as well as infections to his feet that he would complain of up to the time of his death. In 1869, two years after his stay in Boston, he wrote in answer to a social invitation:

‘I am very sorry that I cannot have the pleasure of accepting your kind invitation. But I am occasionally
subject to a Neuralgic (or whatever else it may be) attack in the foot, which originated a few years ago, in over-walking in deep snow, and was revived by a very hard winter in America; and it has so plagued me, under the dinings and other engagements of this London Season, that I have been lame these three weeks, and have resolved on an absolute rest in Kent here, and an avoidance of hot rooms, and an unbroken quiet training, for some months’

During his first visit to America in 1842 Charles had been rushing about everywhere, seeing everything, but by 1867 he largely remained in his hotel unless travelling or performing, so the comfort and ‘excellent cuisine’ was important to him.

The Parker House that Dickens stayed in was actually not the one that stands on the same site now, as it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1920s, so his actual suite doesn’t exist any more, but the hotel were sensible enough to save the door to his rooms, as well as a large wall mirror in which it was reputed that the great man would rehearse; this assumption is probably correct as Dickens always used mirrors to check his facial expressions whether as part of his rehearsal regime or even when writing his novels.

I have been fortunate to visit, and stay in the Parker House on a number of occasions, the most memorable occasion being in 1999, for that was the year in which I was booked to perform in the same Tremont Theatre that Charles himself had graced 132 years before. The show was presented by a collective involving some leading lights in Boston’s professional theatre scene, and was very well promoted. My first duty was to host a press conference in ‘The Dickens Suite’, and having regaled the journalists for half an hour or so, I was passed into the hands of their photographers. I don’t remember how many there were, but they all wanted me gazing far into mirror, as if I were somehow connecting with my ancestor. One photographer, from The Globe, I think waited until last and confided in me that he didn’t want to do the mirror shot, as every one else was using it, so he took me to somewhere else in the hotel and did his own thing. The day had gone well and I returned to my room to relax, but within the hour my phone rang, it was the photographer from The Globe, who had been told in no uncertain terms that the paper MUST have the mirror shot, so could he come back and pose me as all the others had?

Looking on line now it is strange that non of the mirror pictures seem to have been archived, whereas the first one that the Globe photographer had taken, still exists showing a VERY young Gerald Dickens being looked over by a huge portrait of Charles.

The day of the show at The Tremont was extraordinary, it was a huge crowd. As Charles had done I remained in my Parker House room until shortly before the show and just as I was about to leave the phone rang, it was one of the journalists ‘How are you feeling about the show, hey, you must be REALLY nervous!’ Well, if I hadn’t been before, I certainly was now!

The performance itself was one of those events that will stay in my memory for ever. I watched the audience fill the hall, from a little niche near to the stage, and the atmosphere was infectious and remarkable. When everyone was seated the lights dimmed and I walked onto the same stage that Charles Dickens had walked onto, and looked at the same auditorium that Charles Dickens had looked at. I paused, and then said the same words that Charles Dickens had said: ‘Marley was dead to begin with…..’

I would love to repeat that experience, for my performance is now more suited to a large theatre and I think it would be an amazing event, and if I did do it again I would certainly make sure that I stayed at The Omni Parker House!