A Christmas Carol, Byers' Choice, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Philadelphia
Sunday 8 November was a transition day during which I relocated from Omaha to Philadelphia – no shows, no appearances, no work.
After such a successful day’s performing on Saturday (indeed, I would go so far as to say that it was one of the best day’s performing that I can remember), I found it very difficult to get to sleep when I returned to the Element. My head was buzzing and the adrenaline still flowing late into the evening. I sat up eating Mario’s beautiful food and watched one of the later Harry Potter movies (I’m not sure which – possibly The Order of the Phoenix), before I drifted to sleep. Unfortunately I was awake again at 1, and then again at 3, which was extremely frustrating. To add to my woes the clocks went back an hour, so when I woke for a third time at 5am, it was actually only 4! (The clocks went back a week ago in England, so I’d already been through this once)
There was not much to be done – no lines to rehearse or costumes to collate, so I read for a little before getting up and starting to pack my cases ready for my flight out of Omaha, which wasn’t due to leave until 1.30 pm. When I dressed I made sure that I put on some of my brightest and most colourful socks (from the perfectly named Happy Socks company), so that when I removed my boots at the airport later that day I may bring a smile to the TSA agents and my fellow passengers.
At around 7.30 I had breakfast and then returned to the room where I watched a little more Harry Potter (one of the channels was running a Potter weekend, showing all the films back to back over and over again).
As 11 am was check-out time, I left room 615 and went to the lobby where I boarded the hotel shuttle bus, driven by the effervescent Ray, who regaled me with tales of other guests and passengers, some of whom had dared to criticise his driving style…..I kept quiet. The drive to Ebbley Airfield is only about twenty minutes, and soon I was pulling my cases into the small airport. At the baggage drop counter the lady not only took my large blue suitcase (which I was relieved to discover came in under weight for domestic travel), but also suggested that I checked my smaller roller case as well, as the planes I would be flying on were small and were fully booked meaning that overhead bin space would be limited. Usually I keep the small case with me at all times, as it has a costume in it, meaning I can go on stage even if the large case is lost, but as on this occasion I had no performances scheduled for a couple of days I decided to trust Delta Airlines and therefore gave myself an easier journey through the airport.
The line at security was long and I was glad that I didn’t have my roller case, as a little metal cleat holding the shoulder shoulder strap of my leather satchel (a gift from Liz l, embossed with my initials) had broken meaning that I was having to carry it under my arm, rather than slung casually and rakishly over my shoulder. Sadly my bright socks didn’t garner any attention or raise any smiles – but I tried!
Ebbley Airport is not a large hub so there was no long walk to my gate where I settled down and waited. I had a small salad for my lunch and read some more of my book, and watched people until we were called to board. The flight was indeed very busy but everyone dutifully observed the mask rule in our little sealed petri dish. The first flight lasted only an hour and took me into the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St Paul – a conurbation that is very well known to me, having performed in the area many times. As we flew in I could even recognise the apartment block where Liz and I had lived when I performed ‘To Begin With’ a few years ago.
The layover at Minneapolis was only a short one, so I had to make good progress through the airport from concourse C to F. I had time, though, to stop at a store and purchase myself a new water bottle (having left mine at home in the UK), and a small metal carabiner which was the perfect item to effect a repair to my bag.
I arrived at gate F1 just as boarding was commencing and once again the flight was packed to capacity. I would be flying to Philadelphia and this plane was larger and more modern, boasting seat back video entertainment. I scrolled through all of the choices available to me and in the end decided to re watch the movie version of Downton Abbey – it was very strange to know that I will be performing A Christmas Carol in that very house in just a few weeks time. The film is all a bit silly, but fun nonetheless.
Outside the window a most beautiful transition from day into night was occurring, with a red and gold sunset shrinking from a bright midnight blue in the centre of which Venus shone brightly next to a slim crescent moon.
Having admired the scene I turned my attention back to the film. Here is a very curious trivia fact about the film of Downton Abbey – did you know that the running time is exactly the same length as a flight from Minneapolis/St Paul to Philadelphia? You didn’t? Well, you do now! The closing credits were rolling just as our wheels touched down on Pennsylvanian soil.
As I walked through the airport I discovered why all American passengers are so diligent at wearing their masks, a recorded announcement reminded us of the fines imposed for violation – $1,500 for the first ‘offence’ and $3,000 for a second or subsequent infringement. That’s steep.
At baggage claim I was met by Bob Byers for the first time on this year’s trip – Bob and his wife Pam have managed my American trips for many years and are very good friends, as well as colleagues. This year’s trip had of course been planned around the Pandemic and it was inevitable that some venues would fall by the wayside and that was the case with a contract out in California, which should have occupied these few days. Unfortunately the venue in question didn’t feel that it could provide a suitably safe environment for their staff and audiences and regretfully cancelled the booking. This left Pam with a rather large hole to fill, but the Broad Street United Methodist Church in Burlington New Jersey leapt at the chance of having me back, hence my journeying to the East. Bob and Pam have an apartment in Philadelphia and had very kindly offered it to me as a base during these days. Burlington is not far from Phily, so I could easily drive there on the show day (using Bob’s car – more of which on another blog post), and I could play tourist on my free days.
When Bob and I arrived at the Condo, right in the very heart of the City, Pam was waiting for us and had cooked a delicious dinner – much needed – and we all sat and chatted and caught up with each other’s news.
There was a lovely surprise waiting for me too, for on the kitchen counter lay a copy of ‘Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biography of a Rail Crash.’ My book! My very first book! And it looked like a book, it felt like a book: it was real! Dickens and Staplehurst was actually published on October 28th, but the publisher had not yet sent me a copy, so this was the very first time that I had actually seen it. I felt a surge of pride holding the volume in my hand.
Now, like any author, the writing of the book is only half the job – I have to sell copies too, so here is the commercial: When I perform ‘The Signalman’ I have always introduced the piece by talking about Dickens’s involvement in the great Staplehurst rail crash that took place on 9th June, 1865. Dickens was truly fortunate to survive and wrote many letters detailing the shock he suffered in assisting with the rescue effort – 10 people were killed and many more seriously injured. I have always been fascinated by the many stories behind the accident – how did it happen, how could it have been averted, who was involved and what was learned? And a couple of years ago I started to dig more deeply and researched more diligently, and now the results of that research are available to all.
Copies of the book are available via a link on my website geralddickens.com, or if you would like a personalised signed copy you can order them direct from me by sending me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back in the apartment Bob and Pam made sure that I had everything I needed, said their goodbyes, and drove to their main home in Bucks County.
I lay in bed thinking that I could now add ‘author’ to ‘actor, director and producer’ in my publicity materials and with that happy thought I drifted off to sleep