Saturday November 21
My alarm goes off and I wake feeling ever so slightly jaded. Maybe my evening of great conviviality with Stephen and Sarah Jane was a little too convivial.
The lobby of the hotel is very quiet, populated only by a desk clerk and the parking valet attendant, who disappears to fetch my Ford Focus. I settle my bill, making sure that Nauticus do not end up paying for my dry cleaning, and drive into the night.
The journey is quick, and I am soon at Norfolk airport, returning the car with a full tank of fuel (not because I’ve filled it, just because I haven’t used it). There is a short walk to the terminal building, which is surprisingly busy for this hour. I buy a bagel for breakfast and go to my gate, awaiting the flight.
Today is one of those silly ‘fly-over-your-destination-to-a-hub-then-back-again’ days. I am flying from Norfolk, Virginia to Charlotte, North Carolina and then to Greensboro. For my first flight I am seated in an exit row, and take a great deal of time to study the card, which instructs me how to open the door. In my mind I run through the emergency scenario and try to imagine how I will address my fellow passengers, as I guide them to safety. I will be controlled and ordered and command respect, and will inevitably be honoured for my bravery. I am sure that the reality would be somewhat different, and I’d be elbowed out of the way in the initial surge.
Another episode of House of Cards passes the time nicely, and soon we are making our final approaches over the beautiful woods, rivers and lakes of Charlotte. I used to perform here many years ago, and it is a friendly, modern, thriving city.
Charlotte also boasts one of the nicest major airports in the USA. It has a large central atrium, with trees growing, and white rockers: It’s similar to a grown-up Knoxville airport, actually.
My second flight departs from E concourse, and as I walk towards my gate I notice that the planes are getting smaller. The Airbus A320s and Boeing 737s giving way to regional jets and propellered puddle-hoppers. As the planes get smaller so the destinations get more charming, for these little craft are taking passengers around the southern states: Mobile, Augusta, Savannah, Hilton Head, Charleston, Fayetteville, Birmingham (with the emphasis placed firmly on the HAM) and Pensicola. The last named Floridian city reminds me of a conversation many years ago, when I was told that ‘Florida is not in the south. The south is further north!’
As the boarding time for my flight to Greensboro approaches an announcement is made to say that there is a mechanical issue with the plane, and boarding will be delayed. I have a horrible sense of déjà vu of the day in October when my flight from Philadelphia was cancelled, and I missed a show.
Fortunately the trouble is soon remedied (Control-Alt-Delete and switch it off and on again) and we are allowed to board for a 20 minute flight at an altitude of only 9,000 ft.).
For once I am not renting a car, but staying in a hotel within the perimeter of the airport. I am only here for one night, and am performing this evening in a private club in the city of High Point.
It is only 10.30 when I check in and I am able to have a bit of rest and a bite of lunch until I get ready for the show. The order of events today is all a bit skew-whiff. Originally the plan was to perform in the club to a public audience at 4pm, then do a signing session, which would include the arrival of the second audience made up of the club’s members who were to have an exclusive evening show.
In this way, all of the signing and posing for photographs would be done in one fell swoop, thereby meaning that I could leave as soon as the late show was finished.
A few days ago, however, the club cancelled the first show, but left the arrangements much the same, meaning that I need to be on site at 4pm, for a sound check; ready to sign at 5.30, before the guests have dinner prior to the show at 8. The result of all this is that I am being picked up at 3.30 for an 8 o’clock show.
My chauffer is Michael, the husband of Nicky McLaughlin who is the general manager at the String and Splinter Club, and who has arranged the booking.
Michael turns out to be excellent company: he is a blues guitarist and spent years on the road, most particularly in Shanghai, so understands the routine of flights and hotels. His 7 year old son Joe is in the back, intently studying a book on the Minecraft online game. Every now and then our conversation is interrupted by completely surreal interjections: ‘Daddy, if I call my sheep Jeb it will have rainbow wool’; and ‘If I collect skeletons I can grow mushrooms!’ A different world, which I suppose is the whole point. It is far removed from the flickering black and white tennis game that astounded us so much in the 1970s.
As we reach the city limits of High Point Michael explains that the community exists purely for the furniture manufacturing business. There are massive warehouses everywhere, and for a week in the spring, and another in the autumn, the whole town is packed for the furniture shows. Outside those weeks it is almost a ghost town.
We arrive at the String and Splinter Club (named after the city’s historic industries of fabric and woodwork) and Nicky is there to greet us.
I have worked with Nicky in different venues in the past – indeed last year she was the manager at a country club in Wilmington NC, and looked after me then. She took the job at the String and Splinter in April and is trying to encourage the members to have more events. The String and Splinter is a typical city club and is mainly used for business lunch meetings. Only comparatively recently did it open its doors to female members
As soon as I walk in I can feel the history, and tradition oozing out of the walls. It is very Dickensian and the Pickwick Club would feel quite at home here.
The staff is professional and attentive and the dining room, where a stage has been erected is elegant. I ask if all of the furniture is locally made: ‘Oh, yes. If it is local and very expensive, they buy it’
I am shown to an upstairs room to change in. It is, in fact a restroom, but is furnished with tables and a sofa, and the decor is relaxing. It makes me think of one of my very first tours, in 1995, when I came to do a book signing in a store near here, and had to change in a McDonald’s rest room: my, I have come a long way since then and how my restrooms have improved!
I change and return to the ground floor for the signing session. The guests arrive gradually and as I sign their programmes they tell me how excited they are to see me. They are the senior elite of High Point society and remind me how genteel the southern aristocracy are. They are all immaculately dressed, with impeccable manners, and beautiful (oh, so beautiful) accents.
At 7 o’clock I return upstairs and leave the guests to their dinner, before returning ready to begin performing at 8. The last of the plates are cleared, coffee is served, wine glasses are re-filled and everybody sits back to watch the show.
The audience in the String and Splinter Club have to be the quietest audience I have ever performed to! There is no reaction to anything. No titters, no laughter: nothing. Actually that is not quite true, and one table in particular are laughing in a very polite, genteel way, but as a group they are so quiet.
I abandon any form of audience participation (ie the gasp at Mrs Cratchit’s goose, or Topper flirting with a demure young girl.) Rather than panicking I take comfort from the remarks of one of the students at yesterday’s event in Norfolk, who had gushed ‘you are great at telling a story!’ I heed his words, and concentrate on telling these good folk a story, nothing more.
For that reason it is a rather nice show, and at the end there is generous and polite applause. The guests shake me politely by the hand and purr their appreciation.
It is a good reminder that there is more than one way to skin a cat, and A Christmas Carol does not necessarily have to be the big theatrical show that it usually is.
I say my goodbyes, and shake firm hands, before Michael brings his car round and we drive back to the hotel, where I have a late supper and get to bed.
Tomorrow will be back to normal but for today I have dropped into the south, not only geographically but socially too. It, like Minecraft, is a different world.
String and Splinter Club: http://www.stringandsplinter.com/