After the adventures of Christmas I have had a relaxing few weeks at home, recovering from the rigours of daily travel and performance. For a short while it is lovely to be so leisurely, but soon I began to feel as if I needed to get back on stage again, and my first opportunity of 2017 came last Friday.
I had been asked to perform in the North-East City of Newcastle upon Tyne, which is a city that I do not know well, so I greatly looked forward to my trip. I set off on my 4 ½ hour drive, leaving early so as to leave me plenty of time for whatever the British road system should throw at me.
It is extraordinary how much longer a 4 ½ hour drive in England seems, compared to one of the same length in the USA. On the whole our roads are narrower and twistier, so a great deal more concentration is required.
I have commented before that the level of anger on the roads is much greater in Britain, where we are supposed to drive in the left-hand lane, unless we are overtaking another vehicle. Good lane discipline is key to making our system work and that is something that we sorely lack: so many cars just sit in one of the middle lanes, dawdling along completely unaware of what is happening around them. Faster cars get bottled up, and the delayed driver becomes angry, either swooping by on the wrong side (‘undertaking’), or flashing headlights, sounding the horn and gesticulating as he eventually passes. In America, where you may overtake on either side, everyone just makes progress in their own lane at their own speed and the whole thing seems to work just fine.
My route took me up the spine of England on the M1, before branching off onto the A1, roughly following the route of the old Great North Road, which is the historic trunk route between London and Edinburgh. The Great North Road has a legendary status in the UK, as Route 66 does in the US, although without the rhyme and lyrical quality of its America cousin (‘You may be slowed on the Great North Road’ doesn’t really compare with ‘Get your kicks on Route 66’).
I passed many cities that are familiar to me thanks to my travels and as I got further north so the scenery subtly became more rugged and wild. I passed signs for Doncaster before crossing the river Don, which set me to wondering ‘what does caster mean?’ A little research after the event told me that the suffix comes from the Roman ‘castrum’ which means a military camp or fort, so Doncaster was the site of a fort protecting the River Don.
Onwards. I passed Sheffield, Huddersfield, Leeds, Harrogate and York, following the road as it ran between the two great Yorkshire National Parks, the Dales to the left of me and the North York Moors to the right, (‘….and here I am stuck in Middlesbrough with you…’ Americans, you have to trust me, but that is an incredibly clever geographical joke).
Finally I passed the signs to Durham and Gateshead before Newcastle, with it’s amazing bridges and football stadium, was laid out before me. I drove across the Tyne and to my hotel in the very heart of the city. The weather was cloudy and wet as I alighted from the car, and is it was dismay that I realised that I had forgotten to bring a warm or waterproof outer garment with me: perhaps I had misremembered the old adage and thought that it was bad form to take coats to Newcastle.
I had been invited to perform for the Newcastle Lit & Phil, which is Britain’s largest independent library outside London, and holds over 160,000 books on its shelves and in its archives. Originally founded in 1793 as a conversation club, the membership was 1 Guinea and the volumes were either the ancient classics, or scientific tomes. Literature was rather scorned and looked down upon within the hallowed portals, and works of fiction was not permitted for many years, and then only grudgingly.
Charles Dickens never visited the Lit and Phil itself, although he did travel to Newcastle on many occasions to perform both with his theatre company the Guild of Literature and Art, as well as on his own reading tours in the 1850s and 60s. The city is a bustling one, and I am sure that Charles must have thoroughly enjoyed staying there.
I was greeted at the grand front door by Kay, who had booked me, and after taking a look at the room where I was to perform, she gave me a quick guided tour of the library itself, which is magnificent: shelf-lined walls towering up to the glass-domed ceiling, with quirky iron spiral staircases linking the levels.
My dressing room was another library room, and somehow I felt very at home surrounded by so many wonderful volumes, whilst an old wall clock tick-tocked reassuringly in the silence.
The audience was a good one, numbering around 100 and which satisfyingly filled the room. I was performing my double bill, which features two short stories from Dickens’ magazine ‘All The Year Round’, The Signalman and Doctor Marigold. Of the two, people tend to know The Signalman better, and that is what I performed in the first half. Actually the show felt rather at home in this venue, as I have always imaged that the narrator is telling his story to a gathering of fellows at a society of the paranormal.
During the interval I had a chance to chat to some of the audience members and it became apparent that there is a keen following of Dickens and his works in Newcastle. There were some members of the Dickens Fellowship from nearby Durham, where I performed a few years ago, as well as a gentleman who deals with post-traumatic stress disorder in his work, and recognised the unmistakable signs of the condition in the history of Dickens and the Staplehurst rail disaster. This is the second time that the same observation has been made to me, and apparently Dickens’ reaction to the crash is quoted in a textbook as being one of the first recorded accounts of the condition.
In the second half I performed Doctor Marigold and really nailed the early fast sales patter. As usually tends to be the case the majority of the audience were not familiar with Marigold and Charles Dickens pulled their emotions this way and that as the story unfolded. The performance was not perfect, however, as I gave the crowd a perfect opportunity for an extra snigger, which they politely passed up, when I managed to spoonerise the phrase ‘Put the horse in the cart’, saying instead ‘Put the arse in the court’
All in all the evening was a very enjoyable and successful one and I would very much like to return to Newcastle soon. Dickens spent quite a bit of time in the North East, with shows in Newcastle, Durham and Sunderland. He visited Gateshead, as well as making his famous trip to the nearby town of Bowes to research Nicholas Nickleby. Maybe a collection of events celebrating Dickens’ connection with this region is something that I will think about creating.
Saturday morning dawned even mistier and wetter and the drive home would be made in horrible conditions, but before I headed south on the Great North Road, I wanted to pay a brief visit to The Angel of the North, the remarkable steel sculpture which towers over the road just outside Gateshead. The figure, with its giant spread wings, was completed in 1998 and is the work of sculptor Antony Gormley; it is made of raw steel and the rusted colour gives the figure an industrial feel fully in keeping with the traditional industry of the area.
On the morning of my visit the heavy rain was blown horizontally across the hillside, so I did not spend long in its shadow (not that it had one, of course), but the prevailing conditions seemed perfect to witness this magnificent structure.
As I drove away the 20 meter tall figure disappeared into the mist, but the 54 meter wingspan seemed to be saying ‘come back soon, you will be welcome’, and I certainly hope to.