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Sunday19 December was a birthday. A 178th birthday. Charles Dickens first introduced the characters of Ebenezer Scrooge, Jacob Marley, Bob Cratchit and his family, the various ghosts, Belle, Fred and all of the others to the world on that date in 1843 and so began one of the most extraordinary literary success stories of all time, for the book has never been out of print from that day on.

My birthday celebrations began with an early breakfast at The Shankly Hotel in Liverpool, as I had to get onto the road by 9am for a drive across the country and north to Tynseside, leaving one great shipbuilding city on The Mersey and travelling to another on The Tyne.

The morning was a foggy one, a very foggy one, and all of the cars on that Sunday morning had both front and rear high intensity lights shining so that they glowed like, as Charles Dickens says, ‘ruddy smears on the palpable brown air’.

As the morning went on my route took me eastwards on the M62 and gradually the fog began to clear, and a bright morning sun shone to my right. I was listening to the coverage of the second cricket test match from Adelaide (a day-night match), and it was extraordinary to hear the commentators describe the sun setting in the west, while I watched the same celestial body rising in the east. The clearing of the weather had less to do with the fog lifting but more to do with my climbing to a greater altitude. Various signs informed me that I was crossing Saddleworth Moor, a name which strikes repulsion and loathing into British minds, but which is also one of the most beautiful tracts of countryside I have ever seen. The low-lying fog nestled in the valleys whilst the hills were illuminated in a golden morning glow. I drove onwards and upwards until another notice proclaimed that I was at the highest point on the UK motorway network meaning, inevitably, that I was soon descending back into the thick fog once more.

Eventually I joined the A1-M road, one of the main North-South routes, and I was back on familiar territory as I headed towards the North East.

I was due to perform at The Word – the National Centre of the Written Word, in South Shields, where I had last appeared at the end of October, just before my A Christmas Carol tour commenced. At that time I had been talking about my new book, Dickens and Staplehurst, as well as performing The Signalman, but I hadn’t yet received copies of the book from my publishers, so had none to sell. Even though the book had sold so well in Liverpool, I had kept a few back so that any audience members in South Shields who had seen my previous performance could buy them.

The journey took around three hours and I pulled up outside the extraordinary circular building at the edge of the market square on the stroke of 12. I called June, who was looking after this event, and soon all of the furniture for A Christmas Carol had been unloaded and was being taken up to the third floor, while I took the car to a nearby car park next to the large theatre in the town, The Custom House.

The room where I perform at The Word is not a theatre, it does not have great stage lighting, and doesn’t have any of the history or atmosphere of St George’s Hall, but somehow performing A Christmas Carol in a venue dedicated to the written word was the perfect way to celebrate the birthday and honour Charles Dickens, so the room was excellent!

While I prepared the stage I chatted with June who admitted that she wasn’t sure how many people would actually attend – the library had received a few cancellations, due to the growing fear of the spread of the Omicron variant of Covid 19. I was also worried about the effect of the virus on my final week of shows and fully expected some cancellations along the way, either due to stricter government regulations, or simply because audience members would make their own decisions based on their levels of caution or fear.

At 1.30 the doors were opened and the audience began to arrive, all masked, and by 2 everyone who was expected had arrived. June formally welcomed them and when she mentioned the fact that we were honouring 178 years of A Christmas Carol there was a loud gasp of excitement.

The show itself was very different from those in Liverpool, as I didn’t have the same space to roam, and with the bright fluorescent lights shining brightly, I could see the audience clearly, but the effect of that amazing story was every bit as powerful as ever. The audience laughed, and sobbed and shouted and clapped with every bit as much enthusiasm as their Merseyside cousins and when I took my bows they stood and called out their appreciation. When the applause had died down I returned to the stage and spoke briefly about Dickens’s writing process of A Christmas Carol, and how it came to be published on the 19th December.

When I had finished I pulled on my mask (the Christmas Carol one that I had been given in Pennsylvania a week before) and went to the little merchandise table with its scanty stock of books. Soon they were all sold and signed, and the audience made their way to their homes, while I changed and packed up again. I walked to the car park to retrieve the car and noticed that at The Custom House it was interval time. I could tell this because huddled in the cold outside the front door was a group of audience members smoking, while on the other side of the building, at the stage door, were huddled a gropu of actors smoking! On the pavement outside The Word June helped me to load up my props and a little after 4pm I was driving again, this time heading south through drizzly rail towards the city of York, where I would break my journey home to Oxfordshire, with an overnight stay at The Elmbank Hotel, which has become my traditional staging post for this journey.

I had spent a great deal of the day driving to perform for a small audience in the far north eastern corner of Britain, but it had been well worth it, for in that little room at the very top of The Word we had given ‘A Christmas Carol’ a very good birthday party!