A Christmas Carol, Bayeux Tapestry, Charles Dickens, D56, Earl Grey Tea, Ebenezer Scrooge, King George III, Norman Rockwell, Ventfort Hall Mansion
Lenox in The Berkshires is a lovely place to be, a small town in beautiful scenery. I have been here when there has been thick snow on the ground, and I have been in here in clear bright sunshine in a cloudless blue sky, indeed I have been here when there have been both of those things together. Wednesday in Lenox, however, was less New England, more old England, as the skies were leaden, and the rain fell constantly.
I had an almost full day before me, as I didn’t have to be at the venue, Ventfort Hall, until 5pm, but the idea of driving into the mountains and maybe hiking a little suddenly didn’t appeal very much. I unpacked my costumes and hung them on the rail, and at around 7.45 went down to the lobby for breakfast. I took a bag of my regular day-to-day clothes to put in the laundry but was somewhat dismayed to discover that both washer and drier were full. I took the laundry bag to a table and then went to the counter where I ordered some French toast and strawberries, with orange juice and coffee. As I sat, I noticed a lady at another table, with a large plastic bottle of laundry detergent next to her and knew her to be my victorious competitor.
As I ate, another customer went to the bar and asked for some tea, to which the assistant asked, ‘just plain old Early Grey?’ This seemed rather dismissive of what is rather an elegant blend, seen by some to be traditionally drunk by the more respectable classes of society. In England if it is just a ‘plain old..’ cup, we tend to say, ‘builder’s tea’. Curious as to who Earl Grey was, I took at my phone and did a little research and discovered that the tea is probably named in honour of the 2nd Earl (although nobody seems quite sure for certain), who was born in 1764, and rose to become prime minister of Great Britain in 1830. In his early career he resigned as Foreign Secretary over a disagreement of policy by King George III, who had had his own troubles with tea in the past, most particularly in Massachusetts. It is suggested, in family lore, that the 2nd Earl (christened Charles, but not the Charles Grey who would go on to blow Blofeld in the James Bond films) had engaged a Chinese mandarin to create a perfect blend of tea to counteract the taste of the water at the family seat in Northumberland, which was rich in lime. The addition of bergamot into a black tea created the taste the Earl desired, and so was established the beverage that had just been ordered in Lenox, MA.
I finished my breakfast and, checked in at the laundry, where both machines were still spinning, so returned to my room. There was no great rush, although I did have a radio interview coming in at 10am. After a while I went back to the laundry, and found that the washing machine was now empty, although the lady from the breakfast room stood guard over the drier. We chatted for a while, and she asked me what I was doing in town, and was I here with the other Brits who were at the hotel? Apparently, there are a few of us here, maybe the others are part of a tea-checking delegation.
As 10 came around I called the number that connected me with a radio station in New Hampshire, and instantly I was talking with the morning show, hosted by Greg Kretschmar, and his team which included a gentleman by the name of Roadkill. I think I have been interviewed by a Greg before, but never by a Roadkill, I am quite sure of that!
After the interview, I pottered around for a while, finished the laundry and got everything ready for the evening’s show, and decided to get out for a little bit, despite the weather, to stave off the onset of cabin fever. In past years I have driven into the nearby town of Lee, and I decided to do the same and explore some of the antique shops there. The weather was getting worse, so a gentle stroll through the streets was not really an option. I parked right outside Finders Keepers and made the dash from road to store, without getting too wet. An antique is something that is over 100 years old, and there wasn’t a great deal in the shop that qualified, but there was some interesting stuff, nonetheless. One stall featured lots of ceramic houses made by Department 56, a company with whom, I used to work, mainly because they produced a range called Dickens Village. When I started touring in the 1990s D56 villages where the complete rage, people collected manically, and each Christmas would create whole towns, with streets and rivers and people in order to display their collections. Desirable pieces fetched huge amounts of money and the world of D56 was quite an industry, but, seeing them in the store, dusty, unloved, at bargain basement prices, told me everything about the decline of the company in recent years.
Elsewhere in the shop there was a surprising amount of other Dickensiana, including a toby jug in the shape of Sam Weller and a couple of Norman Rockwell prints, one featuring Mr and Mrs Fezziwig dancing, and another of the beaming face of Mr Pickwick. There was also a lusterware jug with a scene from the Bayeaux Tapestry (which is not a tapestry, but an embroidery, and was not made in Bayeux, but in Canterbury), the famous 70-meter-long cloth depicting the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – a date that every English child knows. All in all, I felt quite at home in Finders Keepers!
I walked up the street to another antique store, but the weather was really starting to close in now, so decided to get back to the car before I got completely drenched.
I drove to a large grocery store and picked up a salad for my lunch, then returned to the hotel room and sat at the little desk to eat it. Throughout this time, I was exchanging messages with Liz back home and with the girls about to have their supper, it seemed a good time to have a video call. They told me about what they had been up to at school, and about the trip on Thursday to watch a pantomime in Oxford, which they were excited about. Soon it was time for their meal, so we all sadly said our goodbyes, and clicked the little red button to close the call, which always seems very brutal.
I spent the next hour or so catching up with some admin, emailing back and forth with upcoming venues, both in America and England, as well as providing information to my publishers about my new book, which will be available during next year’s tour.
When my work was done, I switched on the TV and watched an enthralling match from the World Cup, Argentina against Poland. I have never particularly been a football fan, but with our eldest daughter playing, and loving the sport, I have become more aware of what makes a good team, and can appreciate great play, and oh my, was there some great play in that match!
Late afternoon was drawing in, and the weather was too, with heavy winds now whipping the even heavier rain around. I collected my costumes and roller bag (I had put my hat and cane in the car earlier when I went out) and made a dash across the parking lot for the Santa Fe. Even in that short run I got completely soaked.
The drive to Ventfort Hall was only a few minutes, and in no time I was turning into the little driveway which led me up to the red mansion that had been built in 1891. This was my fourth visit, but it seems as if Ventfort has been part of my tours for much longer than that, for it feels very friendly and welcoming. I rang at the door, which was opened by Haley, who has looked after me during all of my visits. The dark panelled hallway was decorated for Christmas, with green garlands and white lights abounding. I took my things up to the lady’s boudoir, which is my sumptuous dressing room, and then returned to the library which for the evening would be my theatre. There was not a lot to sort out, as I do not need to use a microphone in such a small space. Haley introduced me to Leah, who would be looking after my sound effects. We ran through the script together, and it was obvious that she knew exactly what she was doing: I would be in safe hands. I took an opportunity to just sit in the parlour for a while, soaking up the atmosphere ready for the evening ahead.
Soon, the first of the audience were arriving, so I took myself upstairs. The format of the show at Ventfort was slightly different this year. In the past I have performed my show, and then the audience had been served a lavish tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches, cakes and other fancies. This year the decision was made to serve the tea first, at 5.30, and then my performance would be at 7. In previous years the tea has doubled as a signing session, with me just drifting through the crowd, chatting to audience members, and posing for pictures and giving autographs, as requested, and Haley had the same idea this year, but of course prior to the show.
I got into costume ready to meet n greet. I currently have two black frock coats, one has Velcro strips attached to the lapels which allows me to become ‘all black’ for the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, and therefore the coat I need to wear throughout a one act performance, but which would look odd during tea, so I put my other coat on, and so as to remember to change before the show, draped my scarf over the Velcroed version.
When I was sure that there were plenty of guests gathered, I went down and circulated through all of the first-floor rooms – It was very nice to meet people, and there were plenty of audience members who had seen me before, and not necessarily in Lenox, but somehow, without having had the show, it was a bit stilted and awkward – nobody, myself included, quite knowing what to say. When I was in the hall, I was swept up by board member Mary-Frances, who took me in hand and went up to every table with the ice-breaking gambit of ‘How are the cookies, Mr Dickens has said if the cookies are not good, he won’t come back, so we are checking up!’ It was an effective ploy, and allowed everyone to engage in conversation, without the social uncertainty of how to begin a dialogue.
After I had chatted for a while, I went back upstairs to relax before the performance itself. I sat in a chair next to a fireplace and could hear the strong wind whistling and moaning down the chimney, as if Jacob Marley himself were about to appear. At around 6.45 I returned to the hall and Haley confirmed that most of the audience were in, although there was a long line for the restroom, but soon everyone was gathered and Haley welcomed them all to Ventfort Hall, and introduced me. It is still the policy at Ventfort that all visitors and guests wear a mask, so I was the only person in the building without one, which felt a bit odd, and I think also made the atmosphere a bit formal, as it had last year, but I carried on and soon there was laughter in the little parlour. This was the first one act version I have performed since I arrived back in America, so I had to concentrate hard on the script, and make sure that I didn’t go off on any tangents, thereby confusing Leah and Haley, who would not be suspecting that 70 people would want refreshment! I kept to my proper script, and by the time Mrs Cratchit was panicking about her Christmas Pudding, there was lots of laughter in that small room.
The show came to an end, and I exited through the central aisle to the back of the room, and when I returned everyone stood and applauded me, with a few be-masked shouts thrown in for good measure. I wished everyone a final ‘Merry Christmas’ and stood in the large hall and chatted and posed with and for anyone who wanted to, and there were plenty who did.
It was a round 8.45 when I changed out of costume and was able to leave everything in the Green Room, for I was due to return at 9 the next morning for an interview and photo shoot. The rain outside had eased a little, but it was still windy and very cold, Haley warning me to watch for icy roads, and I drove back to the hotel, where I had a microwaved pizza for my supper, which maybe was the least English thing of my day!