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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Little Wooden Stand

The Little Wooden Stand

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the BBC

This is the BBC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the garden at The Athenaeum

In the garden at The Athenaeum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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