Back to the History Books

Last  week was been spent preparing for two days of performing.  Both venues were new to me, which tends to bring its own pressure and waves of nervousness.

On Thursday I loaded the car up with the set required for A Christmas Carol, and set my satnav for the Alderwood School in Hampshire.  It was a lovely drive although traffic on one of the motorways prompted my phone to suggest an alternative route, which I duly took.  The roads were narrow, pretty and the houses large suggesting a well to do area of the country.  Suddenly things began to look familiar and I couldn’t quite think why until I drove past a sign informing me that I was entering the town of Hartley Wintney.

Many many years ago, in a time before Dickens one man shows, I used to be a partner in a small company that specialised in corporate theatre.  We wrote and performed murder mystery parties, we provided open-air children’s theatre for tourist attractions and we provided actors for training purposes, most particularly for the Police Force.

We worked in two major training centres, one in Maidstone which was close to home and the other at the Hampshire Constabulary’s training facility in Hartley Wintney.  As I drove through the town so many memories came to mind.

We would be sent 5 minute scenarios and the candidates, at an early stage of their training, had to follow certain proceedural routes as we provided them with carefully scripted answers to their questions.  On one occasion the test was to breathalise a suspect drink driver, and when the officer had ascertained that there was reasonable grounds he was supposed to use his radio, clipped to his lapel, to ‘radio base’ and request a breathalyser kit.  At this point the senior training officer would hand over a sealed and sterile breath test unit, and the candidate would continue, asking the correct questions and following the correct proceedure.

On one occasion a rather flustered young officer came in and reached the point where he should have radioed in, but in a complete panic he forgot what he was suppsoed to do.  Realising he didn’t have a breath kit at hand he decided to improvise and stuck one finger straight out and asked me to blow into it.  The senior office, desperate to help, hissed softly ‘use your bloody radio!’  Our candidate’s face cleared and with relief he unclipped his radio, pushed the stubby aerial towards me and said ‘blow into this please!’  As the poor lad left the room the training officer sighed ‘and there goes a future Chief Constable!’

Wallowing in nostalgia I drove on until I turned into the gates of The Alderwood School where I was greeted in the car park by Glenn Christodoulou who was responsible for booking me.  Glenn used to teach at another school at which I performed every year and we became good friends but a few years ago he retired to Devon.  However the siren song of education was too compelling and now he is back teaching in Hampshire.

Having seen me signed in and issued with a lanyard (ensuring that the students were perfectly safe) Glenn showed me to the hall where I would be performing.  I arranged my furniture on the high stage and Glenn experimented with the lights until between us we were ready to go.

The year ten and eleven students are currently studying A Christmas Carol and, as with a few other schools recently, I had been asked to perform my show as well as giving the students some idea as to the context in which the book was written (the latter forming a large percentage of the available marks in the examination).

What Alderwood School had provided me with was time – plenty of time to talk, plenty of time to perform and plenty of time to answer questions.  I had two hours for each group which was positively luxurious.  My first performance was for the year tens, who will be sitting their examinations next year.

Glenn took me to the English department’s office which had been appropriated as my dressing room and which seemed to welcome me as it was furnished with a large stack of A Christmas Carol books on the table.

20190509_155346

Peeping out from behind books on shelves were various Christmas decorations and trees which made me feel even more at home.

20190509_105355

For the first time in three months I got into my costume, checked cufflinks, tied my cravat, wound my watch, slipped it into my waistcoat pocket and time travelled back to 1843.

In the hall a few members of the English department were around and pointed out to me that a lot of the students in this group were now not studying A Christmas Carol but Jekyll and Hyde, and could I gear my presentation towards that instead. Um?  No!

As the school bell rang the group made their way in and took their seats and awaited their morning session to start.  I was introduced (a distant relative of Charles Dickens) and walked up to a lectern on floor level to begin.

The first part of my presentation was given over to describing Charles Dickens’ early experiences in London and explaining how he saw poverty, neglect and vice at first hand as a 12 year old wandering the streets whilst his father was incarcerated in the Marshalsea.  I talked about what a prosperous and great trading nation Britain was and how with such great prosperity comes great poverty also (I assumed that this would be useful to students of Jekyll and Hyde too!).  I moved on to Dickens’ tireless campaigning work, his efforts on behalf of the ragged schools, and then to his speech in Manchester on October 5 1843 where the first glimmers of an idea that would become A Christmas Carol started to glow.

To conclude my discourse I talked about The Tale of the Goblin who Stole a Sexton from The Pickwick Papers which would form a basis for the plot and pointed out the important differences between the two pieces (Gabriel Grub is a completely evil and violent man within whom there can be no real hope of redemption, whereas in the Carol Dickens is careful to paint Scrooge as a mean man, but never a villainous or vicious one)

When the forty minute talk was complete I went up onto stage and began the show itself.  It was good to back, every movement, every gesture, every voice seemed reassuringly familiar and soon I was becoming completely surrounded by a world that has become part of my life over the years.

Thanks to my previous performances for him Glenn was familiar with the script and was having a fun old time on the lighting desk: dimming them, flashing them up, creating different atmospheres as the story moved from time to time and scene to scene.

The audience of students certainly were attentive and reacted well throughout the show.  I had 70minutes to fill, which was so much better than the hour long ‘greatest hits’ version of the show that I usually do in schools.  The extra ten minutes allowed for the charity collector and the carol singer (which was important as I had compared Scrooge’s and Gabriel Grub’s reaction to their respective carol singers in my initial talk – whereas Ebenezer threatens and scares his away, Grub inflicts actual bodily violence).

There were a few other chops and changes, Marley doesn’t get a full outing, and neither do the Cratchit family, but Topper gets a little look in although he is not allowed to play at blindman’s buff with the niece’s sister.

I came in bang on time, leaving some 15 minutes for questions of which there were plenty – thoughtful, inquisitive and intelligent questions.

When the group had left I got back  into my normal clothes so that I could have a very quick lunch before preparing for the year 11s in the afternoon.

Unfortunately the rain has set in during the lunch break and the students had not been able to get outside, also it became clear that some did not realise that the session would take them past of the end of the school day.  There was a degree of dissention.  The staff asked if I would be able to cut everything shorter, but I was loathe to do that seeing that this particular group would be sitting their A Christmas Carol exam in just a few days – this was the group who would get most out of the history and the story.

at 1.50 they slouched in.  I decided to get as much information across as I could whilst aiming for a 3.30 finish.  I didn’t stint on history and context, and I didn’t cut much out of the show, I just did it all an awful lot quicker.  If you had heard a recording of the performance on that day you might imagine that I’d sucked the gas from a helium balloon before speaking!  I managed to get the show finished at my target time, and most students bolted for the door as soon as they were released.  A few stayed for the Q&A session and I was able to furnish them with a couple of extra quotes and anecdotes that their less committed classmates would not be party to.

The rain was heavy by now and once I was changed Glenn and I got soaking wet as we loaded my car up.  We said our goodbyes and I headed off into the murk, towards home.

After a relaxing Friday  I was on the road again on Saturday, this time driving the length of the country.  My show was to be made up of Mr Dickens is Coming, which requires my facsimile of Charles Dickens’ reading desk, a chair, a hat-stand, a table and a screen; and for a second act The Signalman, which uses the large clerk’s desk, my new block signalling equipment, a chair, a table and a stool.  All of this meant a logistical exercise of supreme efficiency to fit the set into the back of my Renault Scenic.  I think that this combination is about the most I can manage without having to hire a van.

20190510_193127

20190510_193116

I was headed for Jarrow in the far North East of England and it is a drive I know well thanks to my regular appearances at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle.  As I drove I re-familiarised myself with the scripts that I was due to perform.  Mr Dickens is Coming is so familiar to me that it didn’t need much work, but I needed to change the end to include a passage from Great Expectations, and that transition needed some attention.  The Signalman is fairly secure in my mind but it was good to run through it once on my drive.

Apart from rehearsal much of the drive was taken up spotting Eddie Stobart lorries, the cabs of which are all painted with the names of the driver’s wives or girlfriends above the front wheel arch.  As I pounded northward on the M1 and then later the A1 I logged Sarah, Elaine, Cassandra, Rebecca, Marion, Charley, Kimberley, Holly, Susan, May and many others.  What a simple way to pass 4 and half hours!

My journey continued through Yorkshire and on towards Tyneside, soon there were signs for Sunderland, Durham, Gateshead, Newcastle and Jarrow the last of which was to be my destination.

Jarrow is one of those English towns that is known to most purely by its place in the history books.  Anyone of my generation could glibly trot out ‘The Jarrow March’ without having any idea what we were talking about.  The facts were that following shipyard closures and a general decline in the industrial landscape 200 workers embarked on a crusade to London, where they presented a petition to Parliament.  The Jarrow Crusade lasted for the whole month of October and although it didn’t achieve anything specific, in that the issue was never debated,  the crusaders took their place in history.

So to me the name of Jarrow summed up a long dead, neglected, industrial dinosaur of a town and I was slightly nervous as to how my show would be received there.  Certainly as I approached the town the signs to the colliery and the shipbuilding yard tied in with the stereotype but within minutes I was parking on the banks of the Tyne with a busy bustling market behind me.  Far from my prejudiced imaginations Jarrow showed itself to be a lively energetic and modern town.  The riverside was dominated by two impressive buildings, one the Custom House Theatre which unsurprisingly is situated in a magnificent Victorian or Georgian building and according to the posters outside is a thriving venue, and opposite it a brand new gleaming white circular structure stood proudly looking out to sea.  This was The Word, and would be my venue for the afternoon.

I parked my car in the loading bay and made my way into the main entrance where I found myself in the centre of a huge spiralling atrium alive with life, energy and bustle.  The Word is a library, but it is so much more for it appeared to be a hub for the whole town.  As I took  in my surroundings I saw that there was a gift shop and a café.  In the centre of the atrium a small stage had been set up and prizes were being awarded for a short story competition.

20190511_123822

I made my way up the spiral staircase to level one and there discovered lots of smaller areas and meeting rooms, one of which was proudly called ‘The Charles Dickens Room’

20190511_123841

I was met by my contact for the day Gemma and together we started to unload my car. My performance space was on the third floor, so that meant numerous crowded rides in the lift.  The room itself was white, light and airy with a large circular ceiling feature which is a motif repeated throughout the building.  The window looked out across the Tyne.

20190511_132904

Once all of my set was in the room I bustled around putting it all in place on the small temporary  stage.  My dressing room was a store room just behind the stage area and funnily enough it reminded me of being at the Woodneath Library in Independence, Missouri – a very similar establishment to The Word.

Before I knew it 2 o clock was approaching and the audience was ready to be let in;  actually so was I, for I had popped out to the bathroom and the door to the performance room clicked shut behind me, consigning me to the hallway with the waiting crowd until Gemma returned with her security pass to let me back in.

The crowd was a good one, and I stayed in the room to chat as they came in.  One gentleman wore a Green Bay Packers cap and I was able to tell him about the time I visited the stadium.  Another lady was a huge fan of Dickens and had attended the festivals in both Rochester and Broadstairs.  When the room had filled I took my cue from Gemma and made my way to the stage to begin.

Mr Dickens is a well grooved show and soon the audience were chuckling over the Micawbers and squirming with Uriah Heep.  In no time I arrived at the part where instead of talking about Sikes and Nancy I diverted into Miss Havisham and Estella, as rehearsed in the car on the journey up.

As soon as I mentioned Charles Dickens friendship with George Cooper Apps who, if you remember, told a story of a relative who was left standing at the altar, there were nods of affirmation in the room.  South Shields is proud of its connection to one of the greatest characters that Charles created,  but the looks of pride turned to concerned looks of doubt as I started to suggest that maybe it wasn’t Apps who was the inspiration for Miss Havisham, perhaps it was Miss Dicks from the Isle of Wight, or Eliza Donnithorne from Australia.  However  relief returned to the faces when I pointed out that Mr Apps was the only one to stop his clocks, and therefore must be the true Miss H: South Shields had stakes its claim!

The Great Expectations passage brought me to the end of act one, and I announced that we would have a 10 minute recess while I changed the set for act two.  As people stretched their legs and ran downstairs to buy a coffee, I removed the reading desk, the screen and the hat stand, I brought the clerk’s desk to the stage and proudly fitted my signalling prop which was making its debut.  I put the little wooden chest next to it, and the bell on the top and before I knew it I had my signal box.  Just time to swap my colourful waistcoat for a black one and it was time for Act 2.

20190511_150105

 

The Signalman held the audience in its grip – the dark, brooding, claustrophobic nature of the story surrounding them all. We were all so involved in the narrative that there was an audible gasp when my little bell suddenly slid from the little chest and fell to the floor with a clang!  I hadn’t touched it, I hadn’t been near it as it moved.  Was this a poltergeist, the spirit of Charles Dickens reaching out to me?  Or maybe I just need to pack some Blu-Tak next time.

The show came to its conclusion at around 3.30 in the afternoon and the audience gave me a warm and long round of applause.  It seemed wrong to disappear into my ‘dressing room’,  so I stayed and chatted to everyone as they left, until it was just me and the staff from The Word remaining.

As I changed Gemma and her team fetched a cart and started to load my furniture onto it, so we could get everything back downstairs again, and soon I was trying to remember the intricate jigsaw that would allow everything to fit back into the Renault.

I said my goodbyes and headed back south collecting more Eddie Stobart lorries on the way.

On the following morning a Twitter feed popped up with an image from a local newspaper describing Charles Dickens’ Jnrs visit to the town of Jarrow in 1886.  Apparently the audience had been sparse and Charlie had ‘stormed out because he was annoyed at the poor attendence and the masses of people promenading along German Ocean Rd and not listening to him’

I must state that 2019 Jarrow afforded the Dickens family a much warmer and more generous welcome and I hope that I shall return often!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recalled to the Stage

As May begins so my career as an actor is reignited.  I haven’t worked since February and there is nothing unusual in that for this is the usual rhythm of my year.  It is nice to have a few months away from the rigours of travelling and touring, and just to enjoy my life at  home,  but now it is time to re-focus and prepare for the week ahead.

On Thursday I am due to travel to a school in Hampshire at which the students are studying A Christmas Carol for their GCSE English exams, so this week I need to make sure that the script is still nestling in the region of my brain that has become its home.

The challenge is not necessarily remembering the lines, but remembering which lines to say.  My full performance of A Christmas Carol runs to 110 minutes and my shortest version stops the clock at 60.  The school would like a 70 minute version, so I have to work out how best to edit the script to come in on the hour, ten mark.

Not only will I be performing the show itself but I am also required to talk to the students about the context in which A Christmas Carol was written.  Charles Dickens of course was a great campaigner for reform and was horrified about the situation in which the poor found themselves.  In his second novel, Oliver Twist, he laid bare the horrors of London life, including the issues of parochial corruption, crime, disenfranchisement, prostitution, legal ineptitude, squalor, covetousness, alcoholism and many others.  With each successive novel he returned to the same subjects, adding others along the away,  and was soon seen as a mouthpiece for the downtrodden.

In October 1843 his attentions were focussed on the children of the poor and the necessity of providing them with a basic education.  He argued that if society didn’t look after ‘the poor man’s child’ then the country would soon founder.  He gave speeches and wrote pamphlets on the topic but as The Christmas season approached he realised that by writing a special story embracing his concerns he could reach a much wider section of the population (and the potential income would come in handy, too).

This is how I shall introduce the Carol to the students at the Alderwood School in Aldershot on Thursday and I shall read them passages from The Pickwick Papers (where the plot, in its earliest form, first appeared), and from Oliver Twist in which the description of East London mirrors that of Old Joe’s shop.

It should be a fun day.

After a day off I am due to drive to Jarrow in the North East of England to perform Mr Dickens is Coming and The Signalman at – to give it its full title – The Word, the National Centre for the Written Word. You will recall that the centre was keen for me to introduce a passage from Great Expectations into my performance as one of the inspirations for the character of Miss Havisham came from the region.  With a bit of cutting, pasting, shoehorning and tenuous linking I have come up with a script that fulfils the brief, and will also ensure the popular vote by stating categorically that the Tyneside Miss Havisham (actually a Mr) must have been the true inspiration as he was the only one of the contenders to stop his clocks!

So the first act is in place and ready.  At this point in a regular performance I would usually retire to my dressing room for 20 minutes or so and prepare for the second act, but in Jarrow time is slightly limited so it will be a case of changing the set as the audience patiently waits, swapping my colourful waistcoat for a black one and then launching into The Signalman with barely time for breath.

I am excited about performing The Signalman next Saturday because a new prop will make its debut.  I mentioned in a previous post that I had found the block signalling equipment in our local preserved railway centre and was keen to try and reconstruct it for my set.

20190331_113857

My first task was to track a wooden box with some age to it and I was fortunate to find on ebay an old oak cutlery box.  The lid had a recess set into it, which suited my purpose because it meant that I could paste an image from a genuine piece of equipment in, thereby creating the ‘dial, face and needle’ without resorting to clumsy artwork.

s-l1600

I took another trip to the historic railway for the purpose of taking close-up images of the face and used a graphics package to make sure the picture was the perfect size for the aperture.  At the base of the original equipment was a piece of wood on which a Bakelite knob was fixed.  To either side of this large switch were metal panels, one showing a red square signifying that there was a train on the line, and on the other a white square showing that the line was clear.

I created this look by cutting a piece of tongue and groove cladding to size and colouring it to the correct hue it with a dark oak stain.  But how would I create the metal panels and the Bakelite switch?  The solution to the latter problem came to me, quite literally, over a cup of coffee.  As I sipped I gazed at the glass pot which held the instant coffee and noticed that the lid  was large, circular, black and perfect.

20190504_200328

All I had to do was drink a lot of coffee in less than a week, and once I had liberated the lid paint a white arrow onto it.

The metal panels created more of a headache until I visited the Oxford branch of Hobbycraft.  As I queued up waiting to pay I saw that there was a large basket of little plastic cards, the same size as credit cards, which once activated become a membership card to the Hobbycraft Club.  The cards were free.  Hmmm, with some silver paint from one of my Formula 1 model kits they would look like perfectly cast pieces of metal.

20190503_124055

During the past week I have started to assemble this creation and I am rather proud with the way it looks.  It is the wrong size and proportion and anyone with any knowledge of railways will probably shake their head in disbelief, but as a prop for a theatre show it works admirably, and it will look fine sitting atop my clerk’s desk, upstage left.

But the picture was not yet complete, for next to the block signalling machine there should be a bell mounted on a small wooden box.  The bell is not only a vital part of the signalling equipment but also of the story itself, for the ghostly apparition that haunts the signalman supernaturally rings it as a precursor to tragedy.

A bell I had.  A small box I did not.  If only we were to pay a visit to some old friends, and if only they had a tiny wooden chest of drawers in their spare room.  If only I thought about asking them where it came from and what it was and if only they said ‘please borrow it and use it!’  If only that unlikely sequence of events where to occur.

With very grateful thanks to our friends Martin and Nikki I am now the temporary custodian of said small wooden box, and my bell sits on it perfectly and the set is complete.

20190505_184816

All I need to do now is create a structure that holds the box to the top of the desk so that it doesn’t fall embarrassingly as I move around a stage.  For this I shall approach my neighbour who lives for wood!  He is always in his garage sawing, planning, jointing or sticking.  He will have a practical and simple solution to my request whereas I am sure that I would over think and over engineer it.  I will need  a structure that can be assembled at the venue, so that the whole thing can be transported in my car along with the reading desk, the clerk’s desk, a chair, a table, a hat stand and all of the other paraphernalia that I need.

20190505_184749

For the rest of this week I shall be muttering lines as I pace around the kitchen and generally getting myself back into the routine of being an actor. It is good to be back!

 

 

Easter Memories from Tunbridge Wells

Last week we spent a sunny Easter Sunday at home.  We ate roast lamb in the garden, we had an Easter egg hunt, we went for a walk.  As always happens on such occasions my thoughts wandered back to my own childhood and the memories of Easter days gone by filled my head.  So this week, rather than delving into the world of Charles Dickens, I thought I would be more self indulgent and share my memories with you.

As we came downstairs to breakfast the table would be groaning under an impossible weight of chocolate eggs.  It makes me positively ill now to think about how much there was.  There were luridly wrapped eggs from Cadbury’s containing buttons, and there were beautifully crafted chocolate animals wrapped in transparent cellophane.  The sound of that cellophane rustle was like no other, and comes clearly to me now, all these years on.

58442365_2331138676906197_6722594090006872064_n

Breakfast itself was made up of ham, toast and boiled eggs but before we could eat the latter we would decorate them.  Each of us had a tea towel so as not to burn our fingers and then as soon as the eggs were out of the boiling water we would scrawl patterns on with felt-tipped pens.  Some of us decorated them in the style of a wrapped Easter egg with colourful chevrons, circles and stripes, others created faces representing those who sat around the table (dad with his big red beard was easy!), others drew countryside scenes with trees, fences and soaring birds in the sky.  My brother Ian was always the most artistic (he would go on to study photography at the Medway College of Art and Design).

Either mum must have had a brilliant sixth sense about the cooking of eggs, or we drew very quickly, because by the time we had finished our masterpieces and had proudly shown them to the rest of the family amid guffaws of laughter, the yolks inside were never over done and oozed glutinously to obscure our artwork forever.

After breakfast (and I imagine we were allowed to make a start on the chocolate, even at such an early hour), we would set to carefully decorating more eggs, this time hard boiled, ready for the next part of our day – the pace-egging ceremony staged in the Calverley Grounds.

Tunbridge Wells is an interesting town whose fluctuating historical fortunes are displayed in a geographical timeline.  The first iteration of a settlement came in 1606 when Dudley Lord North, a dashing young nobleman from the court of King James 1, stumbled over a natural spring which stained the soil around it red.  With a knowledge of the sciences Dudley recognised this as an iron-rich spring and having taken a long draft of the cool water realised that this would be a perfect spot for the London gentry to spend their summers.

Over the next hundred years or so the wells near Tonbridge grew in popularity and a town grew up that rivalled Bath in its respectability.  However when the Prince Regent built his magnificent Pavilion in Brighton the nobility decided that sea bathing was much more efficacious and the little spring at the bottom of the hill fell into obscurity.

The village of Tunbridge Wells bumbled on until a dashing high flying- architect decided to reinvigorate it. Decimus Burton had already made his name by re-designing the great London Parks as well as creating The Marble Arch which would eventually form an impressive gateway to Buckingham Palace.  His plan for Tunbridge Wells was to ignore the original settlement in the valley but to build a brand new town at the top of the hill with large villas, elegant town houses, impressive crescents and a beautiful park.  The whole development was called the Calverley Project and the park became The Calverley Grounds.

 

Making use of the hillside the pleasure grounds boasted formal gardens at the top and a bandstand in the bottom of the natural amphitheatre.  Generations of respectable folk strolled in the gardens and sat in deck chairs on a Summer Sunday listening to brass bands playing.

thTY1NGFVO

The Calverley Grounds also were a perfect setting for the annual Pace Egging ceremony which was organised by the local morris dancing side, The Royal Borough Morris, which soon became part of our Easter tradition.  The crowds would start to gather around the bandstand at around 10am, and soon after the first dances would begin.  White hankies were waved and rustic sticks cracked together showering the audience with splinters.  A terrifying hobbyhorse made out of a genuine painted horse skull crept up behind unsuspecting watchers and snapped its jaws shut with a loud ‘CLACK’ eliciting screams and laughter.

When the first set of dances were complete the egg games would begin.  Firstly any children with a decorated egg would be invited forward and the individual judged as the best would be declared the winner and awarded a chocolate egg (more chocolate!).  I was fortunate to win on one occasion and the victory pose was recorded on film:

59524758_639746663180227_2500909982732517376_n

 

After the eggs had been judged it was time for the main event, the egg rolling competition.

Egg rolling has its routes in a pagan ceremony welcoming the spring and celebrating re-birth but the tradition had also been adopted by the Christian faith to represent the rolling away of the stone from Jesus Christ’s tomb on the day of his resurrection

Such historical detail meant nothing to the children in the Calverley Grounds as all of the participants climbed to the top of the hill, stood behind a rope and on the shouted command ‘GO’ rolled the eggs.  It may sound simple but there was quite an art to the egg rolling.  The prize went to the egg which went furthest so the sensible thing to do was to throw it as hard as possible, but the rules specified that the egg had to be largely unbroken, so a gentle roll was maybe the way to go.  The winner was somebody who could balance these two techniques, who could send the egg skimming over the grass in a  sort of Barnes Wallace bouncing bomb style.

As soon as the eggs had been rolled or thrown we all rushed down the hill trampling our rivals’ efforts on the way.  With my grown up head on now I cannot imagine how difficult the task of cleaning up after the event would have been, or how detestable the sulphurous odour of rotten eggs must have been in the weeks following.

58883165_665016570616061_6098395845655265280_n

Once the winner had been announced and they had been awarded with, guess what, a chocolate egg, so the Mummers play would be performed in front of the bandstand.  We loved the stock characters of good St George, the doctor and the evil Turk.  When George was slain the doctor would try to revive him by pouring an elixir (ale)  into his throat via a large funnel and length of rubber tubing.  When this treatment proved unsuccessful the doctor decreed that the only cure possible was the kiss from a princess and he would run into the crowd and pull out some young beauty who would be encouraged to place a kiss on the lips of the patient.  Naturally George would wake and all of the other characters would fall flat on their backs, necessitating a kiss for each from the poor girl.  It never changed and we loved it.

8261216208_f12731838f

After some more dancing we drifted home and got ready for our Easter lunch of roast lamb and all the trimmings.

I remember that one year my eldest sister Liz indulged me by agreeing to perform a special morris dance for the rest of the family.  Unfortunately all of the chocolate that I had consumed during the morning was having a most unfortunate effect on my tummy and instead of the traditional accordion and fiddle accompaniment I seemed to have provided an entire flatulent brass section complete with rather unpleasant odours to boot.  When Liz complained I reassured her: ‘don’t worry, it only happens when I’ve eaten chocolate and when I jump up and down!’  Morris dancing on Easter Sunday wasn’t the perfect time to test this theory….

Sadly it seems now that The Calverley Grounds is to be redeveloped once more.  The beautiful slopes down which we rolled eggs, the bandstand around which we gathered, the Victorian pavilion that served teas are all due to be flattened to make way for a brand new council office block.  Of course progress is inevitable and I am sure that Decimus Burton’s Calverley Project plans met with an outcry too, but this will be a tragic loss to the town which I will always regard as home.

In the afternoon came the Easter egg hunt.  Whilst we made inroads into yet more chocolate the curtains would be closed and Dad went into the garden to hide hundreds of mini eggs.  He loved it when Easter fell later in the spring because there were lots of flowers in bloom within which he could cunningly disguise the prizes.  There were standard places that we knew and would instantly head for: the bumper of the car and the plastic handle of the wheelbarrow.  A curled piece of hosepipe was perfect as was a little stack of terra cotta flowerpots.  But each year there would be new hiding places and fifty-odd years on I now realise how seemingly lazily untidied rubbish had in fact been carefully laid in place weeks before in readiness for the great day.

When the hiding was complete we would be led to the back door clasping bowls and with our eyes closed (maybe even blindfolded) until the starting order was given and there was a rush to pick up the first egg.

My sister Nicky always won.  Always.  Every Year.  If we were to hold a family Easter reunion and stage another egg hunt I am sure that she would still win.  How did Nicky do it?  Well quite simply she was more focussed, more competitive, more stealthy than the rest of us.  There was never any hint of cheating, or barging her competitors out of the way as they headed for an egg.  Nope, she was just brilliant at finding tiny foil-wrapped eggs.  And playing card games.  And board games.  The same qualities and her attention to detail have turned her into an astounding businesswoman who has created the most amazing bar and restaurant in Ireland.

58978540_990265284509476_6125916965295882240_n

In preparing this piece Nicky kindly sent me pictures from her photo album, the above one captioned ‘Me winning Easter egg hunt’ was sent four times just to make sure I had it.  That competitive drive still runs deep!

And so our Easter day drifted from afternoon into evening and I cant recall any specific details of that time but I am sure that it involved yet more consumption of chocolate, if there were any left.

On the Easter Monday we would pack a huge picnic (mum’s picnics were extraordinary creations!) into our mustard yellow Hillman Hunter estate, or later into our midnight blue Chrysler Alpine, or later still into our gold Vauxhall and head off to the local point-to-point races, where we would park right next to one of the jumps and watch as powerful horses with brightly attired jockeys on their backs thundered past throwing great clods of earth into the air.

The state of the weather was immaterial and if the wind blew and the rain lashed down dad simply rigged up some old sheets of tarpaulin on some cut tree branches (tied with knots perfected during his days in the Royal Navy), onto our car thereby fashioning a shelter for our feast.

58781513_438641603560763_8754921113521225728_n

58441853_675842652869234_4182255955309756416_n

 

When the racing started we would study the listings for each event and chose our favourites to cheer on based purely on a name we liked.  We were even occasionally allowed to place a 50p bet with one of the bookies who stood in front of their little stalls waving their arms about using the traditional tic-tac sign language to communicate.

The race was held on farmland and the toilet facilities were basic in the extreme meaning that many people preferred to use a nearby Bluebell wood for quick relief.  One year a member of our party attending the races for the first time decided that she would do the same and disappeared among the trees, only to hear an indignant voice barking at her in the tones of a retired military officer ‘Excuse ME!  Don’t you know, this is the GENTLEMAN’S wood?!’

Such happy memories from more innocent times.

 

Thanks to Ian and Nicky for the  pictures and in loving memory of Dad, Mum and Liz

 

 

 

 

 

It Was the Best of Times…Losing Heads and Hearts

Last week the eyes of the world were focussed on Paris, and many feared that they were watching the death of an 800-year old (or 859 year-old from the pedants and 1,000 year old from the sensationalists) cathedral. There was a feeling of desperation on Monday night as the spire and roof collapsed and a sense of euphoria on Tuesday morning when the main structure, including the great bell towers, was seen to be still standing.

 
Instantly social media went into overdrive with pictures of a single golden crucifix among the charred remains being posted as proof of divine intervention or socialist horror being expressed at the amount of money instantly pledged by major corporations as poverty continues to wrack our societies.

 
In many ways it was a news story of our time played out in less than twenty four hours on our phones, tablets and computers. Beginning, middle and end: move on.

 
In the world of Dickens thoughts turned to another great Parisian fire which raged in 1789 at the heart of the Bastille and which would bring inspiration to Charles in 1859 for a new novel: A Tale of Two Cities.

 
But exactly what was it that created the world of Lucy and Doctor Manette, the Defarges, Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton? What led Dickens to dip his pen into the ink and scrawl: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..’?

 
Well, as was the case with the various Miss Havishams that I spoke of a few weeks ago, the truth lies not in a single source but in many, the most famous of which is Thomas Carlyle’s ‘The French Revolution. A History.’ written in 1837.

 
Carlyle inherited the work from his friend John Stuart Mill who had been commissioned to create a history of the Revolution but had been unable to meet his commitments. Mill suggested that Carlyle may be the man for the project and handed all of his research over. The Scotsman took to the project enthusiastically and worked for over three years until his masterpiece was completed. The style of the book was far from the staid, factual, dusty fare usually offered up by historians, Carlye often used a first person perspective thereby putting himself and the reader in the very heart of the action and creating a real sense of danger and drama. It was this style that Dickens loved and he carried a copy of ‘Mr Carlyle’s wonderful book’ with him as he worked on A Tale of Two Cities.

 
As well as dedicating A Tale of two Cities to Thomas Carlyle and praising him in the preface Dickens also paid tribute to the work by holding it when he sat for the photographs in the garden at Gad’s Hill Place. Dickens would have chosen the pose and the prop with great deliberation so this was a major honour for Thomas Carlyle.

Dickens and daughters

 
But Dickens was not only influenced by Carlyle’s work for there were other works that dealt with the same subject and the similarity of A Tale of Two Cities to one of them almost landed Dickens in court.

 
Through the 1850s Dickens had delighted in staging ‘Amateur Theatricals’ alongside his friends from the world of the arts. He formed the ‘Guild for Literature and Arts’ which was ostensibly an organisation to raise money for the impoverished families of writers. However the group really existed to satiate Charles’ need for the stage and he took little notice when the family of deceased actor Douglas Jerold pleaded with him that they really were NOT impoverished and would rather that a their perceived plight was not broadcast to the world.

 
One of the leading lights of the Guild was Wilkie Collins and it was he who created the script for ‘The Frozen Deep’ a drama that told the story of a doomed polar expedition and was based on that of John Franklin who had gone in search of the North West Passage in 1845, all the members of which perished.

 
In reality it was reported that the last survivors of the team resorted to cannibalism in their efforts to survive, but in Collins’ script the final scenes were much more uplifting – more British, indeed!

 
Dickens played the lead role of Richard Wardour and as he lay in the arms of his beloved Clara and with his last breaths delivered a moving soliloquy explaining how he was sacrificing himself to save the other members of the expedition, he must have realised what a powerful plot device this was – in the moment of death his thoughts were on those who would be spared. ‘It is a far far better thing I do….’

dickensfrozendeep2

Following a particularly successful performance of The Frozen Deep the entire ensemble decamped to Brighton for fun and frolics.  Whilst in Sussex the group were entertained by the actor Benjamin Webster as he read them the script of a play in which he been appearing in London.  The play was called ‘The Dead Heart’ and had been written in 1857 by Watts Phillips.  The plot of the play certainly has a familiar ring to it being set in the heart of the French Revolution and culminating in the hero changing places with a condemned man as he prepares to mount the scaffold to meet Madame Guillotine.

The play was staged in London 10 days before the final episode of A Tale of Two Cities was published and suddenly the city was awash with scandal – Dickens supporters swore that Webster had changed the ending of The Dead Heart to ‘scoop’ Dickens’ own denoument, whereas those who were in the Phillips camp were outraged that the great author should have stolen such a moving plot.

Watts Phillips’ sister went to her grave convinced that A Tale of Two Cities actually represented the brilliance of her brother.

The final gap in the jigsaw is filled by an Edward Buller Lytton shaped piece, more specifically his 1842 novel Zanoni. Bulwer Lytton and Dickens were close friends and indeed the Guild of Literature and Art used Lytton’s home Knebworth House to stage some of their ‘fundraising’ events.  A few years later it was Lytton who would convince Dickens to change the end of Great Expectations, feeling that the original was too downbeat (the replacement isn’t a bundle of laughs it must be said).  It was clear then that the two men were familiar with each other’s work.

In Zanoni the titular character is immortal but can only retain that happy state if he does NOT fall in love with a mortal.  Guess what?  A young opera singer called Viola (daughter to a violinist who presumably had hoped that she would follow his own musical path) comes onto the scene and of course Zanoni loses his immortal heart to her.  Despite warnings from his master, Zanoni marries Viola and they conceive a baby which spells the end for him.  Sure enough Zanoni loses not only his heart but his head too for his days on earth end in 1789…in Paris….beneath the guillotine.

A Tale of Two Cities certainly uses elements of all of these works but the whole is greater than the sum of its parts for it is the Dickens work that has survived the test of time and  remains a much loved volume on many a book shelf, whilst the others have faded into relative obscurity.

 

From the Rev Awdry to Capt Rich RE in a Week

Two weeks ago we went to our local ‘Day out with Thomas’ day at the Didcot Railway centre, our local preserved historic railway.  It was a fun day with everything you’d expect from such an event, with a jolly Sir Topham Hat (aka The Fat Controller in less PC days) taking control of proceedings whilst his assistants Rusty and Dusty performed a series of slapstick comedy routines which also involved the might of a GWR diesel train shuffling up and down a short length of track.  Thomas himself was smilingly giving rides on another stretch of line.

20190331_115248

Along the platform were bookshops selling volumes that only the most committed of railway enthusiasts would understand, there were engine sheds in which one could gaze up in awe at the majestic pieces of engineering that are steam locomotives and there was a museum that displayed signalling equipment from the nearby town of Swindon.

As I walked in the door to view ‘The Swindon Panel’ exhibit I was faced with something that immediately resonated, for on a shelf I saw: ‘a telegraphic instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of which he had spoken.’ These words of course come from The Signalman which is a major part of my repertoire.

I have often wondered what the inside of the signalman’s box would be like and how the solitary man went about his duties through the long hours of his shifts.  He talks about there being little manual labour, and of the bell which sends and receives messages from the nearest station and which is his constant companion as well as his tormentor when it is supernaturally rung by the malevolent spirit that haunts the line.

20190331_113857

I studied the equipment on display and was delighted to discover that it was actually wired up and when the little handle was pushed a bell on the other side of the museum rang.  A helpful young man showed us how a signlaman would set the dial to ‘Train on Line’ and ‘offer’ that train to the next signalbox by pushing the little lever which rings the bell.  The other signalman then accepted the train by returning the message and then everyone set their signals accordingly.   Both dials showed ‘Train on Line’ and in theory there could be no risk of a collision until both boxes went through the system of messages again and set the dials back to ‘Line Clear.   Each bell had a different tone so at very complicated junctions an expert signalman would know instantly which stretch of line was busy or clear’.

In the week following the visit I emailed The Swindon Panel organisation and asked if the equipment on display would have been similar to that used in Dickens’ day and I received a very helpful reply from a Mr Robert Heron confirming that it was.  With a rather nice touch Mr Heron opened his email by pointing out that he was familiar with my work having seen me perform on the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway a few years ago.

Now I have new levels of knowledge and have discovered that the equipment that Dickens describes is in fact a Block Signalling system and that I can buy a complete one, including the bell, from a dealer in railwayana for around £700!  I think that my next project is to source some oak display boxes and mock one up for my set.  At least I know where I can go to confirm the exact measurements and details of the device.

The discovery of the signalling equipment brought ‘The Signalman’ very much to the forefront of my mind and I decided to undertake a little more research into the circumstances of the Staplehurst rail crash of 1865 which is generally supposed to have inspired Dickens to write his most intense ghost story.

The basic facts of the story have long been known to me and indeed feature in my performance:  A viaduct over the River Beult was being repaired and so a stretch of line had been removed.  The train travelling from Folkestone to London arrived at the scene unexpectedly and the resulting derailment killed ten and injured forty.  Charles Dickens had been travelling in a first class carriage with Ellen Ternan and her mother and had assisted in the rescue operation.  In a letter to his close friend Thomas Mitton written just a few days after the crash he described he scene, naturally embellishing it with his delicious prose:

‘This is precisely what passed.  You may judge it from the precise length of the suspense: Suddenly we were all off the rail, and beating the ground as the car of a half-emptied balloon might.  The old lady cried out ‘My God’, and the young one screamed.  I caught hold of them both (the old lady sat opposite and the young one on my left), and said: ‘We can’t help ourselves, but we can be quiet and composed.  Pray don’t cry out.’  The old lady immediately answered: ‘Thank you.  Rely upon me.  Upon my soul I will be quiet.’  The young lady said in a frantic way, ‘Let us join hands and die friends.’  We were then all tilted down together in a corner of the carriage, and stopped.  I said to them thereupon: ‘You may be sure that nothing worse can happen.  Our danger must be over.  Will you remain here without stirring, while I get out of the window?’  They both answered quite collectedly, ‘Yes’ and I got out without the least notion what had happened…’

Dickens then clambered out and assisted the workforce and the train guards in pulling the dead and wounded from the wreckage.

‘No imagination can conceive the ruin of the carriages, or the extraordinary weights under which the people were lying, or the complications into which they were twisted up among iron and wood, and mud and water.’

The scene was somewhat fancifully illustrated by the popular press casting Dickens in the role of a super-hero.

penny-illustrated

All that I know about Staplehurst has been derived from various biographies of Dickens but I had heard that there was a transcript of the full Board of Trade investigation into the accident available and I was very keen to read it.

After a little hunting around on the internet I tracked the report to Leicester University and was able to download a four page document which had been written by Captain FH Rich of the Royal Engineers and which had been originally published on 21 June 1865, just 12 days after the crash.  It made fascinating reading.

I have always understood that the foreman of the works (the foreman of platelayers, to give him his official title), had incorrectly read the timetable book which dealt with the vagaries of the boat train which, because of the tides in the English Channel, arrived in the vicinity of Staplehurst at a different time every day, and this fact was confirmed by the report:

‘When at breakfast on the morning of the 9th inst. he informed some of the men sitting near him that the tidal train would not pass till 5.20pm that day.  He had the time service book in his hand at the time, and was seen to refer to it, but he mistook the time the tidal train would be due at Headcorn on the 10th June, for the time it was due on the 9th, and read the time as 5.20pm instead of 3.15pm, about which time it arrived.’

But what I hadn’t known until reading the report is that this mistake should not have allowed to happen, for a second timetable book given to the leading carpenter could also have been checked and the foreman’s error would have been seen, however the carpenter’s book had been…

‘…cut in two by a wheel passing over it, and as he was working under the orders of the foreman of platelayers, who had a similar book, he did not consider it necessary to ask for another, in place of the one that had been destroyed.’

There then follows a great deal of technical information regarding baulks, chairs, sleepers, beams, girders, sleepers and ballast all of which relates to the nature of the repairs that were being carried out, but then the Capt. Rich talks about the next failsafe that was incorrectly observed.  Whenever there was a breach in the line the South Eastern Railway Company had a regulation that a labourer would be sent 1000 yards up the track to display a red flag in the event of a train unexpectedly using the line.  On 9th June 1865 John Wiles was given the flag and sent on his way.  I have always believed that the method of measuring the 1000 yards distance was to count a certain amount of telegraph poles, and that outside Staplehurst the poles were placed too close together meaning that the requisite distance was not reached.  The report however makes no mention of the placement of the poles but does suggest that Wiles rather lazily decided that 10 poles was probably about right and set himself up there.  The reality of the situation was 10 poles only took him 554 yards from the breach leaving a speeding train no space to stop.

The final check that failed was the presence, or non-presence, of the inspector of the railway from the South Eastern Railway Company.  In the case of a ‘protracted repair’ the inspector should have visited the sight regularly to ensure that all of the procedures were correctly followed.  Even though the repairs to the Beult viaduct took over ten weeks the foreman did not regard it as a protracted repair, his reasoning being that each day of work was a separate project.  Captain Rich strongly disagreed with this assumption.

With so many procedures ignored or incorrectly carried out it was inevitable that the tidal train from Folkestone to London should meet its doom on June 9th 1865.  Captain Rich takes up the story again:

‘The train passed Headcorn station at 3.11 pm about two minutes late; she reached the viaduct about 2.13 (this must be a typographical error for as far as I’m aware Headcorn and Staplehurst are not in different time zones!).  The speed at which she reached the viaduct appears to have carried the engine over that part of the road from which the first length of rail on the bank had been removed…..Her right wheels remained between the up line of rails; and the left wheels between the up line and the boundary fence of the railway.

The tender remained attached to the engine and stood across the up line.  The van next to it was unhooked, but remained on the bank standing across the up line, in an opposite direction to the tender.  This van remained coupled to the second-class carriage next to it, which had its leading wheels on the viaduct and the hind wheels suspended over the bed of the river.  The first-class carriage next behind hung by its front end to the second-class and the other end rested in the dry bed of the river (this was the one that Charles Dickens and his companions were in).  The next first-class carriage was turned bottom upwards in the dry bed of the river.  The five next first-class carriages were in the mud and water…..

‘The train consisted 80 first-class passengers and 35 second-class.  Seven women and 3 men were taken out dead and 40 others with injuries of various kinds, some of them very serious…..

Seven of the carriages were completely destroyed from falling over the viaduct….’

I have visited the site of the accident and the ‘viaduct’ is not high, and at the time of the crash the speed of the train was low, although Capt. Rich didn’t trust the driver’s testimony:

‘The driver of the tidal train….states that he had reduced his speed from 45 or 50 miles per hour to 10 or 12 miles per hour when he reached the viaduct.  I consider that his estimate of the speed  to which he reduced his train is erroneous; and considering the time that would be lost before the brakes came into action, and the rest of the catastrophe, it appears probable that he had not reduced the speed of the train below 30 miles per hour, when he reached the viaduct.

The driver had shut off steam and realising that he was not losing sufficient speed had whistled to the guards in other vans to apply their brakes too.

‘None of the guards perceived the “danger” signal before reaching it.  Their first intimation was the driver’s whistle, and they state that they immediately commenced to apply thwir brakes….’

‘…The train had probably got over half the distance between the signalman and the viaduct from which two rails had been removed, before the brake came into action.’

A small drop into a muddy river bank and a relatively low speed but the devastation of the tidal train was horrendous, and Dickens was truly lucky to have survived.

Cz4PwBCXcAADqsm

The effect of the accident on him was profound and often the memory of it came back at the most unlikely times.  I have been told that modern experts have identified Dickens’ reaction to Staplehurst as  one of the first recorded cases of post traumatic stress disorder.

His daughter Mamie later described how Staplehurst continued to haunt Charles:

‘But my father’s nerves never really were the same again after this frightful  experience.  At first it was natural that he should suffer greatly, and we have often seen him, when travelling home from London, suddenly fall into a paroxysm of fear, tremble all over, clutch the arms of the carriage, large beads of perspiration standing on his face, and suffering agonies of terror.  We never spoke to him, but would touch his hand gently now and then.  He had apparently no idea of our presence; he saw nothing for a time but that most awful scene.’ 

Adding to his terrible associations with the railway Charles’ beloved dog Turk was run over and killed by a train not long after the crash.

dickens-and-turk

In his considered and unemotional conclusion to the official report Capt. Rich points out that the train ‘…would have reached London safely had the rules of the South-Eastern Railway been adhered to.

‘It appears however that for the last ten weeks these rules have been daily disregarded.’

‘The result of the coroner’s inquest is a verdict of manslaughter against the foreman of platelayers and the district inspector of permanent way.’

It seems certain that Staplehurst must have influenced the writing of The Signalman, although Dickens probably also knew the details of another crash four years earlier in which two trains collided in the Clayton Tunnel near Brighton and which resulted in a much greater death toll than on the River Beult viaduct.  Certainly the Clayton Tunnel matches the scene in the story much more closely than the flat open marshland of Staplehurst:

‘On either side, a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous, depressing, and forbidding air’

1200px-Clayton_Tunnel

It has been an interesting week of research which has taken me from the famous creation of the Rev. W Awdry through the personal recollections of Charles Dickens and his daughter to the sober and factual account by Capt. Rich.

I have  thoroughly enjoyed learning so much more about subjects that I have spoken about for many years.

 

 

Sources:

The Swindon Panel Exhibition at Didcot Railway Centre

Letter from Charles Dickens to Thomas Mitton

Charles Dickens by his Eldest Daughter, by Mamie Dickens

The Invisible Woman, by Claire Tomalin

The Board of Trade Report compiled by Capt. FH Rich. RE

Jarndyce and Jarndyce: A Story For Our Times?

Although A Tale of Two Cities always takes the plaudits with its ‘It was the best of times,   it was the worst of times’ opening, I think that it is Bleak House that boasts the greatest, the most intriguing and the atmospheric introduction of any Dickens novel:

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

And then the fog – the fog that shrouds everything and renders any form of navigation or direction impossible:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls deified among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.

Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time — as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.

From a city shrouded in fog Dickens then leads us to the heart of the story:

The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

It could equally be the seat of government on the bank of the Thames.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.

The High Court of Chancery ‘most pestilent and hoary of sinners’.  That is how many look upon our present parliament!

And what is being heard in Chancery?  What is it that is causing the court to grope and flounder?

Jarndyce and Jarndyce drones on. This scarecrow of a suit has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means. The parties to it understand it least, but it has been observed that no two Chancery lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises. Innumerable children have been born into the cause; innumerable young people have married into it; innumerable old people have died out of it. Scores of persons have deliriously found themselves made parties in Jarndyce and Jarndyce without knowing how or why; whole families have inherited legendary hatreds with the suit. The little plaintiff or defendant who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled has grown up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors has come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the court, perennially hopeless.

How does the World view Great Britain now?

Jarndyce and Jarndyce has passed into a joke. That is the only good that has ever come of it. It has been death to many, but it is a joke in the profession. Every master in Chancery has had a reference out of it. Every Chancellor was “in it,” for somebody or other, when he was counsel at the bar. Good things have been said about it by blue-nosed, bulbous-shoed old benchers in select port-wine committee after dinner in hall. Articled clerks have been in the habit of fleshing their legal wit upon it. The last Lord Chancellor handled it neatly, when, correcting Mr. Blowers, the eminent silk gown who said that such a thing might happen when the sky rained potatoes, he observed, “or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce, Mr. Blowers” — a pleasantry that particularly tickled the maces, bags, and purses.

Have those in power become so wrapped up in their own procedures and conventions that there can never be a solution?  Never be an end? Will the case simply go on and on and on until the real reason for it is obscured by the fog of legality?

In 2019 Britain I need say nothing, for as ever Charles Dickens has said it all before.

 

 

This week….

The week since my last blog post has been a quiet one and subject matter for a new essay has not readily presented itself to me.  I realised yesterday that I missed a trick on Monday and should have written an April Fools post, describing how I had discovered the handwritten conclusion to The Mystery of Edwin Drood in an old suitcase – I could have had lots of fun with that and may tuck the idea away for another year.

Instead I decided to look at Charles’ reading tour schedule and see what he was doing, and where he was doing it, during the week commencing Monday 25th March in years gone by.  It would be interesting to see if any of the venues brought to mind any particular memories;  it maybe that the pieces he performed have a relevance to me, or it maybe that I have never performed them and need to investigate.

This is what I discovered:

26 March

26 March 1858.  Edinburgh Music Hall.  A Christmas Carol.

Of course A Christmas Carol has meant more to me than any other work by Dickens.  Since 1993 I have been performing my one man version of The Carol each Christmas and this ‘ghostly little book’ has taken me all over the world.  By now you would think that I know everything there is to know about the story and yet each year I discover something new.  This is not to say that I discover passages that I have never read before, but what I search for are new slants.  By slightly changing the emphasis in a sentence it can completely alter how a character feels or acts in a scene and thereby effect the tone of the whole story.

The interesting thing about Charles’ 1858 performance in Edinburgh however is that it came at a time when he was making wholesale changes to the script.  Edinburgh was one of his final ‘amateur’ charity performances before deciding that he should tour professionally.  There is a whole world of difference between giving a reading for charity, when the audience are sympathetic to ones motives and are willing to forgive some flaws in your performance, and how they might react when they have parted with their hard earned cash and are demanding to be entertained.  Dickens knew that there was a huge potential income from the readings which would most likely also result in increased sales of his novels thanks to a resurgence in his visibility, but it had to be successful – he had to get it right.

By the 26th of March Dickens must have already tweaked his script and come up with a version that he was satisfied with.  Originally his reading took in most of the book and lasted an eye-watering (or eye-closing) 3 hours.  Charles Dickens was at heart a theatrical man and knew that a commercially viable show would have to be tighter and shorter not only for the audience’s sake but also for his own health.  He edited and adapted the script so that by the time he stepped onto the professional stage it was down to 2 hours.  By the end of ’58 he made more tweaks to bring it to 90 minutes, which is coincidentally the length of my current show.

On that evening in March Dickens walked to the centre of the stage in the Edinburgh Music Hall  and saw 2,000 faces looking up expectantly at him.  Surely he must have felt a surge of adrenaline within him as he began and when the audience stood and cheered him at the conclusion of the performance he must have known that he was ready to realise his longest held ambition: to become a professional actor.

When I stand on a stage at either the St George’s Hall in Liverpool or the Mechanics Hall in Worcester Mass I always feel an amazing sense of connection when I think that across the centuries Charles and I are looking at the same view and I always silently ask him to look after me!

 

26 March 1867.  St James’ Hall, London.  Doctor Marigold & The Trial from Pickwick

By 1867 Dickens had established himself as a performer par excellence and indeed his tours were now his main source of income for he hadn’t written a major novel since Our Mutual Friend which had been completed during the Summer or ’65.  Although he hadn’t performed much between ’62 and ’66 he was now on the road almost constantly and his tours had slotted in to a well-oiled groove.  A tour would typically start in London at The St James’ Hall and he may well take the opportunity to introduce a new reading which would generate plenty of publicity and excite the audiences in other venues around the country.  He had done this in ’66 with the introduction of Doctor Marigold, would do it again in ’67 with The Barbox Brothers and The Boy at Mugby Junction and most famously in ’69 with ‘Sikes and Nancy’ also known as ‘The Murder’.

The performance on 26th March did not come at the start of a new tour however, but was just one date in the middle of a flurry of travel.  Since the 15 January (when the tour DID begin at St James’)  he had performed in – take a deep breath – London, Liverpool, Chester, Wolverhampton, Leicester, Leeds, Manchester, Bath, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, York, Bradford, Newcastle, Wakefield, Dublin and Belfast.  The performance on the 26th March must have been a chance for him to metaphorically wash his socks and to figuratively sleep in his own bed.

What interests me about this date are the two pieces that Dickens chose to perform for I have widely differing experiences of them both.  Regular readers will know of my love affair with Doctor Marigold which has become a major part of my repertoire.  Back in 2014 I wrote a blog post entitled ‘Dad and Doctor Marigold’ which can be found at:

https://geralddickens.wordpress.com/2014/06/22/dad-and-doctor-marigold/

I love the joy it brings to modern audiences and how much I feel every conflicting emotion of the fast-talking market cheapjack. Last Summer I performed the piece in a peaceful Oxfordshire garden in front of an old gypsy caravan as the audience sipped drinks and sat on bales of straw – it was one of the most memorable settings of my career and brought Marigold alive even more.

20180629_100943

But the other reading on 26 March 1867 is one I just have never felt comfortable with.  ‘The Trial, from Pickwick’ or ‘Bardell and Pickwick’ is a short comic piece that brought a Dickensian evening to a riotous and hilarious conclusion (this was the way that Charles worked – one major reading, a short break and then a much more light-hearted performance that would send the audience home with smiles on their faces.)

The Trial was the reading that Charles performed more than any other and featured throughout his reading career.  He first performed it in 1858 and it was also on the playbill at his final farewell performance in 1870.  The scene is in court as Mrs Bardell, encouraged by her solicitors Messrs Dodson and Fogg, is suing Mr Pickwick for a breach of promise of marriage.  It is Dickens poking fun at the legal profession at his absolute best.

The chapter in the original novel is brilliant and filled with fantastic characters.  Quite apart from the central protagonists we are treated to Mr Justice Stareleigh who is a perfect stereotypical judge who dozes through much of the evidence, is unaware of popular culture and is unable to discern whether Mr Winkle’s real Christian name is Nathaniel or Daniel:

‘Have you any Christian name sir?’

‘Nathaniel, sir’

‘Daniel, any other name?’

‘Nathaniel, Sir – my Lord, I mean’

‘Nathaniel Daniel, or Daniel Nathaniel?’

‘No, my Lord, only Nathaniel – not Daniel at all.’

‘What did you tell me it was Daniel for then, sir?’

‘I didn’t my Lord’

‘You did sir.  How could I have got Daniel on my notes unless you told me so, sir?’

It is great stuff!  Then we have Serjeant Buzfuzz who argues on behalf of Mrs Bardell, and who twists and turns every action of Mr Pickwick to suit his case:

‘Two letters have passed between these parties, letters which are admitted to be in the handwriting of the defendant, and which speak volumes, indeed……. Let me read the first: “Garraways, twelve o’clock. Dear Mrs. B. — Chops and tomato sauce. Yours, PICKWICK.” Gentlemen, what does this mean? Chops and tomato sauce. Yours, Pickwick! Chops! Gracious heavens! and tomato sauce! Gentlemen, is the happiness of a sensitive and confiding female to be trifled away, by such shallow artifices as these?’

And so it goes on.

My problem with the Trial is not that it is unfunny because it isn’t – it’s brilliant comic writing – my problem is that I have never managed to do it as well as it deserves.  I don’t feel natural and relaxed when I perform it.  Perhaps a reason is that I still give it as  a reading whereas other items such as Marigold or The Signalman are now performed ‘off the book’ but I committed to learning both of those pieces because they had been successful as readings, so that argument doesn’t work.

Perhaps the reason can be found in Philip Collins’ introductory notes to the script in his book ‘Sikes and Nancy and Other Public Readings’:

‘Since 1837, this had been a favourite comic episode, often adapted for the stage, and ‘done to death’ in Penny-readings and other such performances.  Every public reader, amateur or professional, had it in his repertoire.  Dickens’ rendering topped everyone’s, it was generally reported, both in narrative powers and in characterizations less hackneyed and more credible than those of platform-tradition.’

Collins then goes on to quote the Bath Chronicle from 67:

‘Those public readers or actors who have read or performed this scene have unavoidably given it an air of burlesque or farce.  Mr Dickens, with the privilege of the author, has done what no one else has ventured to do…..The humour is still exaggerated but it no longer runs riot with excess of caricature’

Maybe that is what I do, I allow the characters to become too big thereby missing the actual joy of the writing.  I have performed it at a legal dinner where there was a collective gasp of horror when the verdict of guilty was announced and an even louder one at the severity of the damages awarded, so it is believable and it does work.  Maybe there is no problem at all and the issue is in my perception of the performance rather than the reality.

The Trial has frustrated me for too long and having left it at the bottom of a drawer for years I think it is time to look at it with fresh eyes and try again!

 

31st March 1868.  The City Hall, Portland.  USA.  A Christmas Carol and The Trial

The rest of the week shows Dickens performing on the 27th at the Ashford Railway Institute in ’55,  London in ’62 and in New Bedford in ’68.  On the 28th he was in London again in ’61 and in Cambridge in ’67.  After the Cambridge show he travelled to Norwich and performed there on the 29th.  But the date that jumps out at me and means more to me than any other is his performance in Portland Maine on 31st March in 1868.

Dickens was in the middle of his exhausting American tour and to ease the pressure of performing at  huge venues in New York and Boston he had taken bookings in smaller halls along the way, of which the City Hall in Portland was one.  The city was full of excitement as the day of the great event arrived and crowds flocked to the hall on a cold, snowy evening to witness the great man perform.  But in a truly Dickensian scene there was one small girl left outside. In the darkness her face must have had a yellow glow as she stood on tiptoes and peered in at a window hoping for a glimpse of her hero.

The girl was called Kate and she adored everything that Charles Dickens had written, even naming her pets after her favourite characters (her dog was called Pip and his companion Pocket).  Even the family sledge had been christened ‘The Artful Dodger’!  On the evening of 31st of March Kate’s mother was inside the hall listening to Dickens but the family could not afford an extra ticket so Kate shuffled sorrowfully home to her bed.

On the next morning Kate and her mother boarded a train to Boston and when they stopped at a station along the way Kate noticed Mr Dickens standing on the platform talking animatedly.  Dickens was on the same train as her!  This was far too wonderful an opportunity to let pass and in no time Kate had slipped into Dickens’ carriage where she stood staring at him.

This excitement would have been enough for most little girls but Kate wanted more, so when she saw that Charles was alone for a moment she rushed through the carriage and sat down next to him!

What followed was recalled by Kate when she wrote a reminiscence of her journey and called it ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’  It is a most charming story and one that I perform on occasion and beacause it is not by Dickens but about Dickens it gives me a sense of seeing him through another’s eyes, which is fascinating.

On my book shelves is a slim volume of A Child’s Journey and on the title page Kate has actually signed it: ‘I was the child. Kate Douglas Wiggin’ and it is one of my most treasured volumes.

20190403_064836

It has been fun meandering through a random week in the life of Charles Dickens and it has brought a lot of things to mind, not least that I HAVE to nail The Trial once and for all!

 

 

 

 

Who Was Miss Havisham?

Last week I talked about adapting Mr Dickens is Coming to include a passage relating to the character of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations because the venue in the North East of England believes that Charles Dickens may have been inspired by a local story.  This week therefore it is time to investigate that story and possibly to introduce you to the real Miss Havisham.

Charles travelled extensively throughout his career and wherever he stayed he would work, that is why so many old coaching inns have notices boasting that ‘Charles Dickens wrote such-and-such here’.  Working for Charles involved not only sitting at a desk writing, but also observing and researching.  Everywhere he went Dickens insisted on being shown prisons, hospitals, mills, factories, police forces, docks, workhouses and institutions of every description, and from these observations came the squalor or Oliver’s London, the detail of William Dorrit’s imprisonment, the tragedy of Dotheboys Hall and the World of inspector Bucket.

Then there were the characters: The eye that never sleeps was the slogan for the Pinkerton Detective Agency but may equally be used to describe Charles Dickens, for nothing or nobody, escaped his gaze.

When the reading tours began in 1858 Dickens performed in Sunderland and Newcastle and again in the latter city the following year and maybe it was on one of these visits that he stayed with his old friend George Cooper Apps at Cleadon House.  Apps was a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle (I now perform annually at the Lit & Phil which makes the connection even more interesting to me), so must have enjoyed many stimulating discussions with the great author.  Cleadon House was a large red-bricked building although in appearance was less like Satis House in Great Expectations but more like Gad’s Hill Place, Charles’ Kentish home that he admired since childhood and had recently purchased , so maybe that attracted him there too.

000615:Cleadon House Front Street Cleadon South Tyneside around 1900.

It seems on one occasion, let’s say as the two gentleman sat down in front of a roaring fire and sipped a glass of brandy or port, George decided to tell Charles of a family legend which may interest him:

A relative, a male relative, had been preparing for his wedding day and everything was laid out in readiness.  The dining room was still as it had been the night before when the couple had shared a celebratory meal.  Our un-named relative was ready to leave for the church when he received notice that his bride was abandoning him at the alter.  Seized with grief and passion our jilted hero rushed through the house stopping all of the clocks and forever consigning the dining room to the state it had been during their last dinner together (WHAT did he say to her over their oysters?)

I wonder if George noticed a faraway look in Charles’s eye as he recited his story and I wonder if Dickens took in the ramshackle nature of the house in which he sat, with papers and books piled high everywhere and the hugely overgrown garden outside the windows.

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Newcastle and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result.  I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a man who became a recluse and whose clocks were stopped as they looked over the remnants of the last happy meal of his life.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and these details come from the work of Newcastle historian John Joe Cox who sadly passed away in 2010.  Cox’s work on the history of Cleadon was taken up by Michael Bute who lectured on the subject.  Bute is also dead and for now the subject lies dormant, but the coincidences of circumstance and timing make it easy to believe that in the North East of England Charles Dickens heard a story that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

Unless he heard it on The Isle of Wight.

A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my brother and as we drove past the little town of Bonchurch our conversation turned to our great great grandfather, for he had stayed in the town during the summer of 1849.  Almost as a postscript to our chat Ian said ‘did you know that Charles might have based Miss Havisham on a lady who lived on the island?’

‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’ I replied,  and Ian proceeded to tell me that a mutual friend of ours had suggested that a close read of Richard Hutchings ‘Dickens on an Island’ would throw new light on the subject.

I am fortunate to be the temporary custodian of that little volume (generously lent to me a year ago by my friend David Hawes , and woefully overdue for return for which I apologise), and as soon as I returned home speed read until I found the relevant chapter.

The story ran thus:

In the town of Ventnor, close to Bonchurch, is a house called Madeira Hall which was purchased by a Mr AG Burt in 1848.  Understandably interested in the history of his new house Mr Burt started to do some research and uncovered an article published in ‘The Idler’ in 1902 by John Eyre and titled ‘Ventnor as a Health and Pleasure Resort’.  Burt must have felt a sense of excitement when he saw the name of his new cottage mentioned:

‘Madeira Hall is worthy of notice, as it is described in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and its then proprietor was Miss Dick, who is supposed to be the Miss Havisham in that work.’

According to the two ladies who had sold the house to Mr Burt Miss Dick had been jilted on her wedding day (this in turn recounted to them by Miss Dick’s doctor).  Distraught, she left her wedding feast untouched and drawing the shutters never again let the daylight into her house until her death in 1879. She was only 52.

However in 1849, when Dickens stayed at Winterbourne House in Bonchurch Miss Dick had yet to move into Madeira Hall and would not in fact take ownership until 1860 so Charles could not have heard of the story during his holiday, and according to his friend  John Forster never returned to the island so would have been unlikely to discover this little gem.

However Mr Hutchings, the author of Dickens on an Island, did a little more digging and discovered that a Mr and Mrs Dickens actually visited Ventnor for a few days in November 1860.  The details of that visit are intriguingly shrouded in mystery, thanks to the fact that ‘Mr and Mrs Dickens’ had separated two years before, but there are enough ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’ to make it possible that Dickens heard the story of Miss Dick and thought ‘how perfect for my next novel!’

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of references, I would travel to Ventnor and search through parish records to find out where bans had been read with no marital result. I would find the copy of ‘The Idler’ and I would be able to gradually build a picture of the life of a woman who lived in Madeira Cottage and became a recluse and whose shutters were closed for the rest of her life as the remnants of her wedding feast remained untouched.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment but it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens heard a story on the Isle of Wight that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

Unless he heard it from Sydney.

Eliza Donnithorne arrived in Sydney in 1846 to join her elderly father Judge James Donnithorne who had retired there heartbroken following the death of his wife and other daughters in the 1832 cholera outbreak in Calcutta, where he had been stationed with the East India Company.

The judge died in 1852 and the bulk of his estate was left to Eliza who instantly became quite a catch.  Four years later Eliza was betrothed to George Cuthbertson and the wedding was to be held at St Stephen’s Church, just across the street from Camperdown Lodge, Eliza’s home.  One would imagine that the wedding of such a woman would draw quite a crowd so there must have been widespread shock and scandal when Mr Cuthberston failed to arrive.

Eliza waited and the clock ticked on, and on, and on.  The guests became more restless and indeed hungry until a few decided to make a start on the lavish wedding breakfast laying in wait across the street.  With the realisation that her fiancé had stood her up Eliza ran back to Camperdown Lodge and threw the gluttonous guests out.  Eliza’s staff were forbidden to clear away what remained of the feast and it was left on the table in case George should return.  It has also been recorded that Eliza remained in her white wedding attire which gradually became rotten and threadbare.  Children would run past the house terrified of the ghostly woman in white (maybe Wilkie Collins was also inspired by this particular tale?) within.

A local clergyman recalled visiting Eliza in her later years and noticing how decrepit everything was.  He remarked:

‘There wasn’t a decent bit of furniture in it. Everything had gone to wrack and ruin; even the tablecloths were rotting and falling to pieces….’

That certainly sounds like Satis House.

How would Charles Dickens have heard about this particular legend,  after all unlike Newcastle and Ventor he never visited Australia.  The most likely answer is from the Australian Social advocate Caroline Chisolm who’s husband was also attached to the East India Company at the same time as Judge Donnithorne.  Both families left India and headed to New South Wales within two years of each other so it is more than likely that they would have become friendly.

Dickens met with Caroline Chisolm in 1850 when she had returned to London for a short spell, and he was astounded by her non-existent housekeeping and the dirty faces of her many children.  It seemed that Caroline was so busy being an activist on behalf of emigrants that she neglected her own family.  A year after Dickens met her he created the character of Mrs Jelleby in Bleak House.

Dickens was always a champion of social activists and would have remained in contact with Chisolm, despite his literary lampooning of her.   If the case of Eliza Donnithorne was as scandalous as I imagine it must have been there can be no doubt that she would have passed the news gleefully on.

If I were researching this more completely I would trawl through Dickens’ letters in search of his correspondence with Caroline Chisolm.  I would travel to Sydney and delve into the archives of newspapers to find contemporary accounts of the scandal until I found full details of that fateful wedding day.  I would try to find out more about Miss Donnithorne’s mysterious maid Sarah Bailey who guarded her mistress’s secret to the end of her days.

Sadly I am not able to undertake such research at the moment and all that I have written is thanks to a blog posted by Pauline Connolly  to whom I apologise for what borders on plagiarism.  But it is easy to believe that Charles Dickens was told a story from Sydney that led him to create one of his most famous characters.

I have outlined three very plausible stories, any one of which could have influenced Dickens, but I am sure that the truth lies in all of them.  The nameless Apps ancestor stopped his clocks.   Miss Dick shut out the daylight.  Miss Donnithorne remained in her wedding gown.  Miss Havisham did all three.

I don’t know the figures, but I can make an assumption that in an era when divorce was so much more difficult and scandalous than it is today the instances of people getting cold feet on the morning of a wedding must have been more common place, leaving a whole list of potential Miss Havishams around the globe.

If I were able to research this more completely it would make a fascinating book and if anyone would like to fund that research, I am ready to go!

 

 

I am indebted to the following:

Geoff Woodward for his information on the Newcastle connection

Richard J Huthchings for his work on Miss Dick on the Isle of Wight

Pauline Connolly for her research into Eliza Donnithorne

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Old Friends

With no shows for a couple of weeks my attentions turn back to preparations for the year ahead.  On one hand this means trying to fill my diary up and I have meetings with various new venues, as well as shoring up dates with some old friends.  On the Wirral Lynne Hamilton is working hard to book events on the run up to Christmas whilst in the south I am busy talking to the folks at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Highgate Cemetary and the Ffestiniog & West Highland Railway about returning to their respective venues.

Another conversation is with representatives of various venues on the Isle of Wight (also the home of my brother Ian ), with a view to spending a couple of days in September performing there.

Apart from filling my diary I am also revisiting a couple of my oldest scripts with a view to modifying them for the specific needs of two bookings that are fast approaching.

In May I will be visiting The Word, The Museum of the Written Word in Jarrow and have been asked to perform Mr Dickens is Coming, but with a new section added referencing Great Expectations.  The changes have been requested because the museum is launching a special exhibition telling the story of a possible local inspiration for the character of Miss Havisham (more of which to come in a future post), and wanted to link the show to that particular novel, which will pose an interesting and welcome challenge for me.

My first performance in 1993 was, as you know, A Christmas Carol and the following year I was invited to give a reading from Nicholas Nickleby, for which I used the version that Charles Dickens had edited for his own tours (Nicholas at the Yorkshire School), but I very soon realised that I needed a one man show that got away from being a ‘literary reading’ which held all the wrong connotations in my mind.  My fascination with my great great grandfather lay in his love of the theatre and I realised that this was a shared passion that I could utilise.  By creating a show that described Dickens’ various theatrical exploits I could include some of his most extraordinary characters.  I sat down to write.

The script included the writhing, ugly, conniving, contorted Uriah Heep from David Copperfied, as well as Mr and Mrs Micawber from the same novel (Mr M being a rather cruel portrait of John Dickens, Charles’ improvident father).

As a running gag I continually returned to my great great grandfather’s numerous refusals to meet Queen Victoria (on one occasion informing her that he did not perform for ‘individuals’ a quote to which I rather cheekily added the word ‘mere’ to increase the sense of impropriety).

As well as the well-known characters that are performed in every Dickens one man show you will ever see I wanted to include some more obscure passages and to this end I dug up ‘The Tale of the Bagman’s Uncle’ from The Pickwick Papers.  The tale is told by a bagman to the members of The Pickwick Club as they rest at an inn (one of those moments in Dickens’ early career when he needed extra pages to complete his monthly commitment, you can spot them a mile off: ‘gather round and I shall tell you a tale……’  The stories have nothing to do with the plot itself but fill a few extra pages).

The bagman’s uncle is a swashbuckling fellow who rescues a beautiful young lady by fighting off two villains who are attempting to abduct her.  The story has everything that a good adventure story should and culminates in a fight of flying furniture and flashing foils (oh, I do like a bit of alliteration!).  Whilst our hero is struggling with one rival, so the beautiful and resourceful girl takes care of the other by driving a sword ‘through him and the panelling right up to the hilt’ Eventually the bagman’s uncle emerges victorious by making  ‘his adversary retreat in the same direction, and plunging the old rapier into the very centre of a large red flower in the pattern of his waistcoat, nailed him beside his friend;’ and the conflict is done.

As I first read these words I realised that I was reading a James Bond adventure, albeit one written 100 years before Ian Fleming ever sat at his Imperial typewriter.  Having brought the fight to an end the central character even delivers a light hearted quip, as if to camera, noting that this is the surest way he knows of killing an enemy, although he objects to it on the grounds of cost as it necessitates the loss of a sword for each enemy!  Roger Moore would have raised an eyebrow and straightened his tie at this moment.

I used the Bagman’s Uncle to imagine how Dickens may have written if he had been working in the 20th century, embracing the film industry as he surely would have done.

I had to find a away to open the show and the solution came from a desire to show the audience that it would be OK to laugh and that I wouldn’t be lecturing them, as well as a wish to prove how knowledgeable I was. At that time most of my readings were for the Rochester and Chatham branch of the Dickens Fellowship (I am very proud to be the President of that branch now), the chair of which was a lady of supreme Dickensian knowledge Thelma Grove.  Thelma knew everything about every novel – every character, every scene, every quotation and so I decided that I wanted to start with the show with a passage that she didn’t know, which of course was an impossibility.  The only answer was to make up my own quote to catch her out.

I would walk onto the stage, solemnly greet the audience and then say these words:

Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen. It is such a privilege and honour to be standing here in this wonderful theatre and to be talking to you about the life of my great great grandfather, Charles Dickens. And there is no better place to tell you his story, as the theatre was his first love, he never felt happier than standing on a stage and before I begin tonight’s programme I’d like, if I may, to read to you the words of Charles Dickens:

I then picked up a small volume (GK Chesterton’s biography of Dickens) and read
‘Throughout my lifetime, as boy, youth and man I have derived a love of the stage. Today I am fortunate to stand upon the stages of the great theatres of the world and read from my own works. I pray, that when my lifetime is done, my characters may still live on these same stages. This, then, is my legacy to my family; The audience would be quite, listening intently, sitting up.  I continued: ‘…those members known to me today and those descendants whom I shall never meet.   The atmosphere would now be electric, for this was a letter written directly to me from my great great grandfather.  ‘May they take the pleasures that I have taken from the institution of the theatre.’

I wood slowly close the book, wipe a tear of emotion from my eye and let the full significance of the words settle in the auditorium.  Then would add:

As I said, those were the words of Charles John Huffham Dickens….unfortunately for me, he never actually used them in that order, but they were all his words at some stage or another!

At the first performance Thelma was in the audience and the effect was everything I had wanted it to be.  As I started she sat up looking confused, then curious, then suspicious and as I delivered the final line she looked me in the eye and burst out laughing!

I had my opening.

The script came together very well with a nice mixture of original text mixed with humour and anecdote, and it took the audience from Charles’ childhood, through his early forays into the world of theatre and on to his hugely successful reading tours.  But over the years I just couldn’t find a satisfactory way of bridging the gap between the start of the touring life and Dickens’ death on 9 June 1870.

At first I described his American adventures using the pithy criticisms from American Notes which, although funny, was written during his 1842 trip and therefore had no connection to his performing career which, after all, was the theme of the show.  Next I tried performing the charming story ‘A Child’s Journey With Dickens’ which at least took place during his 2nd tour to America, but somehow the tone didn’t fit in with the rest of the script.

My next choice was to perform the most famous of Dickens’ readings, the brutal murder of Nancy from Oliver Twist.  When Charles performed it he judged the success of an evening purely on the amount of women who fainted as he bludgeoned the poor teenage prostitute to death.  In this version of the show I actually performed the end of the reading, but although it was dramatic it made the act too long and ponderous.

The current version of the script retains my description of Sikes and Nancy without the actual performance and it is has remained in that state for a couple of years now.

So the final quarter of the script is perfect for change and if it so happens that a venue wants something specific then there is the natural place to include it and so it will be for The Word in Jarrow.  Miss Havisham is a wonderfully theatrical character and the scenes in which she is described could be from a stage play, so the scene should slot in to the script with the greatest of ease, and the fact that Dickens may have been inspired by a local character will add anecdotal interest.

I don’t think that Miss Havisham will take up permanent residence in my show, but I rather like the idea that she can make a guest appearance now and again.

The other script which needs a little work is The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby which I originally performed as a one act show at around the same time as I wrote Mr Dickens is Coming.  The script follows Nicholas’s adventures to Yorkshire where he meets not only the villainous Wackford Squeers but also the pathetic Smike.  Having given Squeers a heroic beating Nicholas and Smike return to London, before heading to Portsmouth where they encounter the larger than life Mr Vincent Crummles and his theatrical troupe.

The script was written as a whistle-stop tribute to the RSC’s 8 hour epic from 1980, but now I want to extend it so that it stands on its own two feet as a 2 act play.  I am due to perform it at the Market Theatre in Hitchin later this summer, so work needs to start now.

The problem with extending a Dickens novel is that by including one scene it inevitably means returning to those characters later in the plot and that gets unwieldy, so I need a few stand alone scenes to introduce.

One that springs to mind is when Nicholas, seeking employment, goes to the politician Mr Gregsbury.  Having ascertained that Nicholas is not a rival or from the press Gregsbury outlines a secretary’s duties which involve doing everything!  Nicholas would be required to write speeches, listen to debates, table questions, scour the newspapers for stories about which a caring member of parliament can pass comment (such comments written of course by Nicholas).  In addition Nicholas would be expected to lounge anonymously around in the lobby and talk in a  loud voice about how marvellous Mr Gregsbury was and point him out to those who may not have noticed him.  All of this for 15 shillings a week.  Nicholas not surprisingly declines and goes on his way.

It is a short self contained scene and is a delicious satire on the world of politics which in our current climate is under greater scrutiny than ever before, and doesn’t seem to have moved on an awful lot!

Mr Gregsbury is one scene that can be used, and one of the other changes I want to make involves the ultimate fate of Mr Squeers who at the moment just disappears from the story without comment.  The conclusion of the Squeers story more difficult to achieve because in the book he becomes involved with a fraudulent plan initiated by Ralph Nickleby, to discredit Nicholas.  Unfortunately the plot is very complicated and involves a whole new cast of characters which would be incredibly confusing for an audience, so I need to sit, think and experiment with that section for a while before actually writing anything new

It’s just as well I have time on my hands!  I will you keep you posted with progress over the coming months.

Next week I shall return to Great Expectations and try to find an answer to the question ‘who was Miss Havisham?’  It is a question that will take me around the world.

 

 

World Book Day

Dickens and Dahl

Thursday March 8 was designated as this year’s World Book Day, on which it is traditional for school pupils to dress up as their favourite book characters for the day.  The idea is to think about books and possibly do some research into the actual character although the reality is often that children sport a costume based on a film adaptation.

One of our local primary schools decided to be more specific in their advice and suggested that the students should chose a costume from their favourite Roald Dahl story, which still gave them plenty of opportunity to raid their dressing-up boxes.  As the school day started there were plenty of Matildas, Miss Trunchbulls, Willy Wonkas, Oompa Loompas and Fantastic Mr Foxes. Danny and George were there, as were a few Twits and Witches.  Also there were the normal children: Charlie, Sophie and James, for many of Dahl’s protagonists are so splendidly ordinary that the reader can believe that the amazing adventures could actually happen to them.

As I watched this parade of imagination fill the pavements it set me thinking about the many connections between Roald Dahl and Charles Dickens and the influence each had on their readership.  Dahl was once asked in an interview why so many of his central characters had lost one or both parents, and in his answer he compared himself to Dickens, saying that he had ‘used a trick to get the reader’s sympathy’  In his list of favourite authors, and those which influenced him in his writings Dahl always named Charles Dickens first, so it is no surprise that great great grandad pops up again and again in the Dahl canon.

When the BFG wanted to learn English it was a copy of ‘Nicholas Nickleby’  that he borrowed from a bedside table,  ‘by Dahl’s Chickens’ he proudly tells Sophie.  What an interesting use of spelling and the apostrophe too.  Dahl doesn’t directly spoonerise the name as Darles Chickens but instead uses his own name to make the sound of the name  – the apostrophe almost gives him ownership.

Like the BFG when a 4 year old Matilda asks the kindly librarian Mrs Phelps for advice as to which grown up book she should try the answer is:

‘Try this’, she aid at last.  ‘It’s very famous and very good.  If it’s too long for you, just let me know and I’ll find something shorter and a bit easier.’

Great Expectations,’ Matilda read, ‘by Charles Dickens.  I’d love to try it.’

Matilda devours the story of Pip, Estella and Miss Havisham in just a week and returns to the library:

‘I loved it,’ she said to Mrs Phelps.  ‘Has Mr Dickens written any others?’

‘A great number,’ said the astounded Mrs Phelps.  ‘Shall I chose you another?’

And so Matilda embarks on Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist before surfing a wave of literature that includes works by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Mary Webb, Rudyard Kipling, HG Wells, Ernest Hemmingway, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, JB Priestly, Graham Greene and George Orwell.

Later in the book Matilda enrols at the local primary school and again the influence of Dickens is evident, although not in such a positive persona.  The  nightmarish headmistress Miss Trunchbull is teaching the class of the delightful Miss Honey and is barking at pupils and teacher alike:

‘Oh, do shut up, Miss Honey!  You’re as wet as any of them.  If you can’t cope in here then you can go and find a job in some cotton-wool private school for rich brats.  When you have been teaching for as long as I have you’ll realise that its no good at all being kind to children.  Read Nicholas Nickleby, Miss Honey, by Mr Dickens.  Read about Mr Wackford Squeers, the admirable headmaster of Dotheboys Hall.  He knew how to handle the little brutes, didn’t he!  He knew how to use the birch, didn’t he!  He kept their backsides so warm you could fry eggs and bacon on them!’

Miss Trunchbull is the perfect embodiment of her hero; the two schools both boast suitably foreboding names: Dickens uses Dotheboys (Do the Boys) Hall, whereas Dahl places The Truchbull at  Cruncham Primary.  Both headteachers regularly bully and abuse their charges to an extent that they are in mortal danger (starvation and beating in Nickleby, hurling high by into the air by pigtails and force feeding chocolate cake in Matilda.)

In Nicholas Nickleby our hero is employed as a young teacher and encounters the pathetic character of Smike whom he befriends as Miss Honey befriends Matilda. At the conclusion of both novels the teachers effectively adopt the children as their own.

A more obscure work of Charles Dickens is ‘The Tale of Captain Murderer’ which is one The Nurses Tales published in All the Year Round, and which is based on Charles’ own infant memories of a drunken nurse would try to terrify him to sleep.  Captain Murder is a splendidly gruesome story of piratical cannibalism culminating in our villain being poisoned from within by one of his victims – the effect on him is bizarre, terrifying and, to students of Roald Dahl, surprisingly familiar:

‘…and Captain Murderer had hardly picked her last bone, when he began to swell, and to turn blue, and to be all over spots, and to scream. And he went on swelling and turning bluer, and being more all over spots and screaming, until he reached from floor to ceiling and from wall to wall; and then, at one o’clock in the morning, he blew up with a loud explosion.’

Step forward and take a bow Violet Beauregarde!

I am sure there are many more Dickensian references in Dahl’s work and if anyone knows of them I would be fascinated to hear them.

 

King Alfred School

My own World Book Day took me to the King Alfred School in North London to perform The Signalman to the Key Stage 3 group who have been studying the gothic novel in their English lessons.

I had visited the school last year and then I had driven through heavy snow falls to get there.  This year it was rain and strong squally winds that accompanied me; maybe one year I will motor down in warm sunshine and a soft breeze.

I arrived at the school with 45 minutes to spare before I was due to perform and was given a parking space right outside the hall meaning that I could get all of my ‘set’ unloaded with a minimum of fuss.

The school is a well-to-do and artistic sort of a place with many of the students being children to well-known singers and actors.  It is surprising therefore that King Alfred’s does not boast a state of the art performance space, but the show was to be on the stage in the ‘main hall’ which at the time  of my arrival was doubling as the lunch hall.  As I lugged the clerk’s desk, chair and table onto the stage so the school staff packed away tables and swept up bits of potato, cabbage and sponge pudding which are the staple of the British school luncheon.

Having changed into costume I found myself alone in the hall and thought that I would do a little rehearsing before the audience arrived.  When I performed The Signalman in Henley I had got a little tangled up with a few of the lines towards the end, so I wanted to run them through.  As I rehearsed so the wind outside battered the building, rattling the old windows and generally adding a very authentic feel to the words.

At 2.50 the first students arrived in a trickle, which turned into a stream and then a flood so that by 3.00 the hall was full.  English teacher Alex made a short introduction and I was welcomed to the stage with a loud round of applause.

By way of introduction I talked about the Staplehurst Rail disaster, as is my wont, describing in detail the dying souls that Dickens came across in the wreckage: the man with ‘the moon-shaped gash across his head’ and the beautiful young woman in the unmarked dress who sat against a tree.  I pointed out how the press relished the story of the crash because it involved a celebrity- a celebrity, what’s more, who just happened to be travelling with the ‘wrong’ woman.

And then I started.

I got the first line wrong!  All of that rehearsal concentrating on the tricky middle section and I buggered up the easiest and most memorable line of the script.  Hey, ho.  Actually it was fine and I got back on track quickly.  In fact the performance became more and more intense as I went on and by the time I got to the part that had given me difficulties at The Kenton Theatre I was in full flow and really enjoying myself.  It was an energetic, physical and ultimately good performance.

When I finished I returned to the aftermath of the Staplehurst crash and told the students (who had been remarkably attentive throughout the hour) about the coincidence of Dickens’ death on the 5th anniversary of the accident – 9th June 1870.

And then it was question time: quite a few hands went up and there some very good enquiries, mainly about the train crash: was the lady in the untouched dress who died in Dickens’ arms the model for the lady who died instantaneously in the story?   (Almost certainly) Does the rail line outside Staplehurst go through a steep cutting and is there a signalbox there?  (No, the line it Staplehurst is over very flat countryside and in fact the bridge where the crash happened carries the line over marshland, rather than any sort of ravine.  However near Dickens’ home at Gad’s Hill Place there was a deep rocky cutting with a dark tunnel and this was his inspiration for the claustrophobic setting for the story).  What did everyone at your school think of you?  (Goodness, how do I answer that?!  Actually my school was not strong academically and nobody really cared less whether I had a famous forbear or not, apart from the moment when we started to study Oliver Twist and my English teacher helpfully pointed my ancestry out to the class.  At that point I think sheer hatred rained upon my head.).

Of course there was interest in ‘the other woman’ and I honestly told the group that Charles was travelling home from France in the company of Ellen Ternan and her mother.  Dickens has separated from his wife Catherine seven years before and had been involved with Ellen for a long time, but to protect his wholesome image the affair was kept secret, even though London was rife with rumour.  Image the joy of today’s press if a major incident occurred and it involved an uber, mega, superstar and he just happened to be in the company of someone with whom he had long been suspected of having an affair – the same was true in 1865.

At 4 o’clock so our session drew to a close and I received another, even louder, round of applause as I left the stage.  As the students left a few came up and asked other questions and one young man informed me that all of the depressing events I had talked about occurred on his birthday – June 9th.  I apologised but he airily replied ‘Oh that’s all right, it’s hardly your fault!’ With a firm shake of the hand and a cheery ‘goodbye’ he left with the rest of his classmates.

The English department helped me pack away the set into my car and I drove back onto the streets of North London still in costume.  Now it was my turn to celebrate World Book Day and I started to play a recording of a book that encouraged me to read when I was young and which shaped my childhood:  A Bear Called Paddington.

I drove home with a big smile on my face!