A Christmas Carol, Bill Bryson, Charles Dickens, Dickens and Staplehurst. A Biogrpahy of a Rail Crash, Ebenezer Scrooge, Notes from a Big Country, Revelation Arts Centre, Revelation Ashford
The weather in Birmingham early on Wednesday morning was wet – very wet. As I woke in my lovely apartment, I could hear the rain lashing down outside the window. I got up and went to the kitchen in order to make myself a cup of coffee, and then remembered that my ‘welcome’ email had mentioned that there would be no milk or bread, but they could easily be bought at the Tesco shop just down the street. I checked on my phone and discovered that it had opened at 6.30, so I threw on some clothes, descended 6 floors in the lift, and dashed through the rain to a surprisingly busy shop. I decided to buy some things for my breakfast too, loading my basket with some granola, fruit, orange juice and a pain au raisin, as well as the milk.
Back in the flat I worked out how to use the Nespresso pod coffee maker, sat at a stool at the counter and began work on my blog post for the day. After a while I had my breakfast, warming the pastry in the oven, and then took a shower, which was immensely powerful and completely energising. Outside the clouds were clearing now and even the sun was beginning to break through. I wrote some more, and then began to pack my things away ready to leave at 10. I had received strict instructions on how to leave the apartment, so as not to incur extra charges, and I made sure that everything was in order, and that I had all of my belongings.
At 10 I bade farewell to my lovely flat, taking my two bags, and I walked into the streets. Birmingham has a reputation in Britain for being a somewhat dull city – it was heavily bombed during the war and much of the architecture is dull and uninspiring, but oh, my goodness, there are some beautiful historic buildings hidden away between the office blocks, and even the recent additions have been designed with a great flair, meaning that the city centre is a fascinating and inspiring place to walk.
I arrived at the car park, loaded everything into the back, and set my map to take me to Ashford, in the county of Kent, which would take me around 3 hours. I had missed the rush hour, but the Aston Expressway was still heavily loaded for incoming traffic. The road is a 6-lane highway, with no central island, but overhead warning lights to let you know which lanes are open or closed. On Wednesday morning only two lanes showed green on the way out of the city, whilst four showed a red cross above, and there was a steady flow of traffic entering. I have always thought that this system seems incredibly dangerous, but it seems to work – at least it did on that morning.
I approached the Gravelly Hill Interchange, where many trunk roads meet and entwine, but got into the wrong lane and took the wrong strand of spaghetti, meaning that I found myself heading north up the M6, instead of south. This wouldn’t normally have been a problem, for I would simply drive up to the next intersection double back around the roundabout and continue on my way, but on that morning, there had been an accident on the southbound carriageway and the traffic was at a standstill. My map suggested an alternative route, which I accepted, and soon I was on a clear road, speeding towards Kent. For a long time, the map suggested that I returned to the previous route telling me that it was ’57 minutes longer’ and that it involved tolls. It would seem odd to decide to select this option, what would I be thinking? ‘Oh, there’s a thought, I could always go back and sit in stationary traffic chatting to other disgruntled drivers for an hour, and pay for that privilege, or should I continue my free, uninterrupted route to my destination? Hmmm, a tricky one!’
The journey was uneventful, and I passed the time by listening to the end of Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes From a Large Country’ which had me laughing out loud in the car – especially as he described his clumsiness and awkwardness as a traveller, so much of what he said I could relate to, especially the need to go to hotel front desks to ask them to remind him what room number he was staying in – I have done that often. Also, the moment on a plane when he bent forward to retrieve something from his bag at the exact moment that the passenger in front reclined their seat, meaning that he was caught, as he described it, in an inadvertent brace position, from which he had to be released by the cabin crew!
I stopped for lunch at around 1.30, then continued to Ashford where I arrived at my hotel an hour later. As I checked in, the clerk at the desk said, ‘You have a very big room for just yourself!’ and when I arrived at number 32 I saw what he meant! It was a huge room in its own right, with lots of space around the bed, but there was an arch that led to another bedroom complete with bunk beds, and also a sofa which could pull out to give me yet more sleeping accommodation – I could have brought the whole family and some of their friends too.
I had arrived quite early in order to record a radio interview for one of the forthcoming events in America. At exactly 3.30 the station called, and I was patched through to the presenter. The programme was arts based one, and the questions focussed on my particular adaptation and performance, which was really fun to discuss. It was also a lengthy chat, meaning that I could go into quite a bit of depth with my answers, rather than the usual quick-fire questions crammed into a 2-minute slot (another Bill Bryson story came back to me, he was talking about radio interviews on one of his extensive book promotion tours, and on one occasion the interviewer said ‘So, Mr Bryson, you have a new book?’ to which Bill answered, ‘Yes, I do’, the interviewer then concluded the chat, ‘well that’ great! Now folks, join me tomorrow when my guest will be……’). My interview was much more fulfilling, and it was good to remember how this adventure had all began back in ’93.
As soon as the chat was finished, I had to get into the car to drive to The Revelation Arts Centre in Ashford, where I was to perform that evening. Revelation is a regular stop for me, indeed I am a patron of the theatre, and it is always fun to go back. But this year, I had concerns about the evening. Debra, the manager, had wanted to stage a double bill of Mr Dickens Is Coming, and a one act version of A Christmas Carol, which seemed a very long show, especially as the venue had a curfew of 10.30. I just couldn’t see how it was going to work. We had spoken about it on the phone earlier in the year, and it seemed like a possibility then, but now I thought about it I wondered if I had misled Deb with the timings, or I had said the wrong length for A Christmas Carol: Even if I managed to reduce Mr Dickens is Coming to only 45 minutes, and made sure that the interval was only 15 minutes, and not a second longer, I would still only have an hour to squeeze the Carol in, and that would be a VERY pared back version of the show, which would be very disappointing to what has become a loyal audience.
I have to admit I was a LITTLE bit Diva-ish when I arrived, telling all and sundry that the timing was going to be tight, mentioning to John, my superb technical guy at Revelation, that we would have to go through the script and cut a lot of the scenes (he looked rather crestfallen at this, having already programmed all of the lighting and sound cues into his computer). Eventually Debra came up with a timing sheet for the evening, and said ‘are you sure we have to cut the show? and carefully went through the evening hour by hour. And then it dawned on me, I felt completely foolish, and quite elated, for I realised that in all of my calculations, that I had been running through my mind all day, I had mislaid an entire hour somewhere! Even doing the full 1-act version of A Christmas Carol we would be finished before 10! I apologised to everyone, and looked forward to the night with a greater sense of excitement than I had previously.
John and I went through the complete script and checked all of his cues, I loved seeing the names he had given each one, especially ‘Warm Fezzis’
Soon the audience began to arrive, so I retreated to my dressing room, and nibbled at the sandwiches and fruit that had been laid out for me. The Revelation Arts Centre is based in a church, and the two organisations share the building. The stage, with the huge stone columns to either side is truly imposing, whilst my dressing room is used on a Sunday by the vicar to robe in. It is a remarkable place.
At 7.30 I was given the nod, and John faded the house lights and brought the stage lights up. I walked on and immediately got a round of applause, which was a nice way to start. The venue is a perfect one for Mr Dickens is Coming, as it is very intimate, the stage being only 2 steps high, and the audience close. They enjoyed all of the silliness: the Micawbers, Uriah Heep, Queen Victoria and James Bond, etc, and the first act rushed past. I brought the show to a close with the thought that now the audience had heard how Dickens came to perform A Christmas Carol, it was time to see it for real. I left to lots of applause, and I waited a few minutes for those who were going to the bar to leave, and then quietly went about rearranging the stage for the second half. When all was done, I returned to the dressing room, changed waistcoats and made sure that I was in the right state of mind.
I have performed The Carol at Revelation for many years, so it was with a sense of familiarity that I took to the stage. It was a lovely performance and, despite the audience being very cold (the Church’s heating system has been rather temperamental of late, and most people were wrapped in coats, scarves, hats and even thick pink blankets that Debra had bought and placed at the end of rows), they responded warmly and increasingly enthusiastically.
Despite my earlier misgivings, this was a most enjoyable evening, but the highlight was yet to come. When I came out of my dressing room, I was met by a gentleman named Tony, who congratulated me warmly, and said that when I had finished chatting with others, he had a little bit of Dickens memorabilia, that I may be interested in. He hovered until I finished and then produced a white envelope. I took it from him and was surprised by its weight, he directed me to read what was said on it, and the true story of what was within was revealed: ‘Coachscrew or Chairscrew or Dogscrew, 1860. Found at Staplehurst railway, site of accident.’ The heavy piece of ironwork had been found in the fields around the small viaduct over the River Beault by a railway surveyor who was engaged on repairs to the bridge a few years ago, and found it deep in the mud. I don’t know how he aged it, or if it was actually discarded on that memorable afternoon in 1865, but to hold it in my hand and to imagine that this had come to me from a day that I have written so extensively about was remarkable and moving. I thank you Tony, very much.
I packed up all of my furniture, props and costumes, and Deb and John helped me to load them into my car, I said my goodbyes and I drove off to my hotel where I fell asleep very quickly. And that is the end of my brief time in the UK, on Friday I return to America for the main part of my annual tour.