And so my week of celebrating came to an end as Monday 7th February dawned – 210 years since Elizabeth Dickens gave birth to her second child Charles. It is sometimes reported that Elizabeth and her husband John had been dancing at a party the night before the birth, thus imbuing the infant with a love of entertainment and fun.
My birthday celebrations would involve driving to London to be present at a dinner to honour the event, hosted by the Central Branch of The Dickens Fellowship. My brother Ian, who is currently The President of The Fellowship had a busier day in store, as he travelled from his home on The Isle of Wight, and attended celebration events in Portsmouth, the city of Charles’ birth. Firstly a visit to the Charles Dickens Birthplace Museum and then onto the UK’s only statue of the great man where a garland of red geraniums were placed over his head (Charles’s not Ian’s!).
My journey to London began after I had taken my daughter to her dance class, and as I was getting on the road straight away I was the best dressed dad there, looking rather like James Bond in my dinner jacket and hand-tied bow tie (no clip-ons here!). The traffic to London was light and I had booked a parking space ahead of time, so I would not have to trawl around the city centre, panicking that I would be late for the dinner. As it happened I arrived almost an hour before the reception was due to start, so I simply sat in my car and read for a while, until it was time to make the short walk through the Waterloo district of London, to The Union Jack Club where the dinner was to be held. The main road in the area is Waterloo Road which is a busy, bustling thoroughfare filled with buses, taxis and bikes. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands as they dash across the road to reach the huge Waterloo railway terminus, rather risking being struck by a car than missing that all important train home. But running parallel to Waterloo Road is Cromwell Road and that is quiet and peaceful street, lined with a terrace of elegant Victorian houses, now much sought after and no doubt eye-wateringly expensive, but presumably built as mass housing for manual labourers, maybe those who built Waterloo Station. It is a lovely part of London, and surprisingly very peaceful and it was along Cromwell Road that I walked from my car to the club.
The Union Jack Club has no Dickens connections, but exists for the use of servicemen and veterans. It was first built on the site in 1907, but was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and eventually (in 1975) a new building was erected on the same spot.
The Fellowship dinner was being held in small dining room, and we had 46 attendees. Paul Graham, the Hon Gen Sec of the Fellowship had not been sure how many members would actually attend this first meeting since lockdown restrictions were eased, but it was a goodly crowd who gathered. Ian, in his role as President was hosting the event, and it was lovely to hug him and his wife Anne when I arrived.
There were many old friends and familiar faces in the room and we all chatted until Ian called the evening to order and recited the traditional Dickens Grace:
‘In Fellowship assembled here; We thank thee Lord for food and cheer; And through our saviour, thy dear son; We pray ‘God Bless Us, Every One!’ We all joined in the last line and then took our seats to dine and converse.
Many of the guests had watched my streamed performance the night before, and were kind enough to compliment me on it. Cindy Sughrue, from the museum, was also there and told me that the feedback from the event had been very positive, which was immensely pleasing.
Ian, Anne and I shared our table with Adrian Wooton OBE, the Chief Executive of Film London and The British Film Commission. Adrian became involved with the Fellowship in 2012, when we celebrated the 200th anniversary of Dickens’ birth, by curating a series of events based on Dickens in Film and has been an active member ever since, he was due to speak at the end of the dinner, and was a marvellous companion. Ian and I in particularly relishing a shared love of Formula One motor racing!
Dinner was delicious, consisting of a smoked salmon and horseradish starter, a steak with mashed potatoes and broccoli for main , and a crème brule for desert. At one point, when the steak was served, Michael Eaton, another table mate, was spooning mustard onto his plate. Unable to shift the thick yellow paste he knocked the little silver spoon against the china plate sending a ringing retort throughout the room, which was immediately followed by a pushing back of chairs and a silence descending, for everyone thought it was time for the speeches!
Ian hosted the dinner with such grace and ease, moving everything along, and speaking effortlessly whenever he needed to. When desert had been cleared and coffee cups filled he announced a 5 minute comfort break and when all were gathered once more it was time for me to do my party piece. At such events it is the job of The President to introduce the speakers, and this usually involves quite a bit of research to create factual and witty remarks to welcome the guest. On this occasion Ian just had to talk about his baby brother, and did so with such a sense of pride that I got rather emotional.
I had decided to speak about my own personal milestones in my relationship with Charles Dickens, and spoke about becoming aware of his importance to our family at the age of 6 when I shared a pew with the Queen Mother in Westminster Abbey. I recalled being made to study Oliver Twist at school (quoting Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ along the way), and I recounted the story of my first ever performance of A Christmas Carol in 1993, and how Dickens’ brilliant descriptive text helped me morph into the characters. I finished by telling the story of visiting the site of The Staplehurst Rail Crash and sinking up to my neck in muddy water. When the bemused farmer saw this bedraggled man trespassing in his field, and listened as I explained that I had been visiting the site of the rail crash, instead of taking a pitchfork to me he said simply ‘Charles Dickens’. I wound up my talk by saying that ‘he didn’t know I was there to research a book. He just knew of the celebrity who had been at that exact spot 154 years before. And that says everything about the long shadow that Charles Dickens has cast across our globe – much longer and more influential than just 21,307 days of life. He left a legacy that can never be measured in seconds, minutes, hours, days, months, or years. Charles Dickens’ influence over our society is timeless.’
I invited the guests to stand, charge their glasses and I proposed the toast to the immortal memory of Charles Dickens.
It seemed to be well received, and there was some nice applause as I sat down. The truth is that I really feel uncomfortable giving speeches, it is not where I am happy, and I feel exposed and vulnerable. Give me some voices and contorted facial expressions to hide behind and I am relaxed as anything, but put Gerald Dickens in a dinner jacket and ask him to stand and talk…..
I was relieved when I was finished, and envious as I listened to the naturalness with which Ian and Adrian spoke, but it was a great fun evening and it was wonderful to meet so many old friends.
In closing this quartet of birthday blogs I would like to point out a remarkable coincidence: Charles Dickens died when he was 58 years old, in fact he lived for 21,307 days (hence the reference to that number in my speech). On Tuesday 8 February, (the day after I spoke in London), I was also 21,307 days old.
It was a wonderful week and I will conclude by once again offering a birthday wish up to Charles Dickens, and to thank him for making my professional life so unbelievably exciting.