A Christmas Carol, American Notes, Boston, Charles Dickens, Dune, Hartford, London, Long Island, New Haven, NYC, Stephen Spielberg, Worcester
Monday was to be a day of travel, with no performing commitments at all as I moved from Worcester to Long Island. I had only stayed at The Beechwood for three nights but it was beginning to feel like a permanent base and I would have to sweep the room a number of times to ensure that I had left nothing behind.
After breakfast (a simple continental which to avoid providing a large buffet table which would encourage people to congregate, the kitchen had plated up selections of pastries, yoghurt, cereal and fruit), I returned to the room, finished writing and began to pack. Because my costumes and props were hanging in the car, the case was a lot lighter than usual, which added to the feeling that I must have left something behind, but I checked and checked and re-checked until I was certain that I had every charger, lead, pen, document, book and magazine, before finally closing up my bags and leaving.
It was a clear but cold morning and I was soon on the road heading south. There was a dusting of snow in the woods and on the fields as I drove which sparkled in the morning sun and gave a very festive feel to the journey. Through the car’s audio system, which I had paired to my phone, I was listening to the audio book recording of Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant biography of the city of London, recorded by fellow Dickens one man performer, Simon Callow. It was strange to listen to, actually, for Ackroyd was responsible for one of the most comprehensive biographies of Charles Dickens and Callow has become the voice of Charles over the years, so it was very difficult to remember that this was not a book about Dickens! However, the story of London is a fascinating one and the miles passed by easily.
As I drove, I pondered my route south, taking me from Worcester to Hartford, New Haven and on to New York, which would take up a little over three hours of my day, and I suddenly realised that I would be travelling in the footsteps, or at least in the rail tracks and wake, of Charles Dickens in 1842 when he made exactly the same journey. He had arrived in Boston after a particularly rough sea crossing from Liverpool, and had spent plenty of time there, visiting the mills of Lowell and meeting lots of friends before preparing to travel. Early in February he set off by railroad from Boston to Worster, which he described in American Notes as being ‘a very pretty New England town’. He stayed in the city with the State Governor for two days, before continuing on the railroad to Springfield.
On my journey my thoughts were less on the beauty of the scenery, but more on the sight that filled my mirror, for it felt like I was being terrorised by a truck, as if I had stepped into Stephen Spielberg’s movie Dune. For a while I had been driving in the company of a huge black Peterbilt truck, the faceless driver of which was being incredibly agressive (not just with me, he was trying to own the entire freeway). In my mirror the two towering exhaust pipes on either side of the cab looked like the horns of a devil (the effect enhanced by the black and red livery), whilst the great square radiator grill, looked as it were opening in preparation to devour my little red car. Every time that traffic contrived to separate us, I breathed a sigh of relief, but in no time I would hear the deep gutteral growl as the diesel engine revved and he swept back by me again.
We left Massachusetts and drove on into Connecticut and soon I could see the unmistakable skyline of Hartford to my right. On Charles Dickens’ journey in February1842 he had left the railroad at Springfield and, as The Connecticut River was relatively free of ice, he would continue to Hartford by water.
‘The captain of a small steamboat was going to make his first trip for the season that day (the second February trip, I believe, within the memory of man), and only waited for us to go on board. Accordingly, we went on board, with as little delay as might be. He was as good as his word, and started directly.
It certainly was not called a small steamboat without reason. I omitted to ask the question, but I should think it must have been of about half a pony power. Mr. Paap, the celebrated Dwarf, might have lived and died happily in the cabin…’
‘I am afraid to tell how many feet short this vessel was, or how many feet narrow: to apply the words length and width to such measurement would be a contradiction in terms. But I may state that we all kept the middle of the deck, lest the boat should unexpectedly tip over.’
In contrast to the lovely clear winter’s day on which I was travelling, Dickens also pointed out that ‘It rained all day as I once thought it never did rain anywhere, but in the Highlands of Scotland.’
Having reached Hartford Charles enjoyed the space of a comfortable hotel and continued towards New York that night by railroad again
I think that, even despite the predatory truck which still stalked me, I was happier in my little cherry red Rogue, than Charles had been on his tiny steam boat!
As I had no particular time agenda, I decided that it might be fun to do a little exploring, and when I saw signs for the town of Wallingford, I decided to leave the main route and see what I could see.
I had chosen this particular town because it bears the same name as a small town close to us in Oxfordshire, and it felt like a nice way to make a connection with home. I found a parking spot outside a small grocery stop close to the railroad which passes through the town, and as I alighted from the car, I was rewarded with that most American of all sounds, the clanging of a crossing bell and the hooting of a train as it approached the crossing, actually two trains, and my senses were assulted as they passed each other.
I walked around the streets of what was obviously a very close-knit community, and eventually found a large and very old cemetery, the notice at the gate informing me that it had been opened circa 1683. I am always fascinated by the stories that a cemetery has to tell and spent quite a while just walking along the rows of old stones, picking out particular family names that spread across generations: relations who had never known each other in life but who were now united in that place.
One thing that I always look for for among grave stones is for someone who shared my birthday, and I almost found it in Wallingford, but on close investigation the date was a day out – the gentleman in question having been born on October 10 1818, whereas I was born on October 9, it was close enough though and imagine my surpise when I stepped back and looked at the family name: Jeralds.
It was getting a bit cold now and I walked back to the car to continue my journey towards New York, passing signs to New Haven, where Dickens had stopped for a night, commenting on the beautiful old Elm Trees that abounded in the city.
As I got closer to New York, entering The Bronx, I hit traffic. Heavy traffic. Stationary traffic. I looked at my phone and managed to find an alternative route, but I was very glad that I did not have a show scheduled for that evening, for I would be beginning to feel very nervous. My new route took me through some elegant neighbourhoods, where Christmas decorations were hung and sacks of leaves were waiting to be taken away, which was a very nice, albeit brief, constrast to the strip malls and factories that line the main routes. Traffic cleared, I motored on and now it was time to leave Charles’ journey, for he had headed into the heart of New York City whereas I turned to the east and follwed signs for the Throgs Neck Bridge which took me onto Long Island, and it was as I crossed the great green suspension bridge that I caught my first glimpse of the Manhatten skyline, almost ghost like as the winter sun was low in the sky behind it. It was an amazing view of an amazing city.
I continued on until I reached my destination, a large Marriott hotel in the town of Uniondale.
On Tuesday I will be performing A Christmas Carol at the nearby Public Library, but during the day I will have the opportunity to explore Long Island and maybe make a literary pilgrimage!