Tuesday, 31 July 2012


Our combined fund-raising total has just cruised by the £1,000 mark and our blog has been read more than 1,000 times. OK, so it might not be troubling the 1 billion people who tuned in for the other major athletic event taking place in the UK, but we’re deeply appreciative nonetheless.

Thanks to clever Google, we can see that followers in the USA, Russia, Netherlands, Canada, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, South Africa, Japan and the Isle of Man (in that order) are joining a significant audience from England, Scotland and Wales. To all those who have taken a look and pledged a donation so far, thank you.
We set ourselves a target of £10,000, so there is still a long way to go. That sum looks about as daunting as the 75 miles that stretch ahead of our rather unfit bodies, especially as work has forced me to slump back in to my 50 yards a day as I walk from car to desk and back again. Gerry has done rather better (youth is on his side of course) and I read of his nine miler last Sunday as I walked the 500 yards back from Sunday lunch at the pub.
He has a reason for ensuring tip top Olympian fitness though, because at the end of a long day on the road, he will don his stage outfit and deliver a free performance from his exceptional repertoire of one man Dickens shows (www.geralddickens.com). Like travelling Troubadours, we will sing for our supper in return for discounted support from our overnight stops in Godalming and Rowlands Castle. Well, Gerry will throw his all in to one hour of energetic emotion while I’ll exhaust myself by introducing him and passing round the top hat for donations at the end of the show.
If you live near the Inn on the Lake in Godalming, or The Robin Hood Inn at Rowlands Castle, the performances on the evening of August 6th and 8th respectively, are absolutely free. The owners of the establishments will be grateful for your custom, so please arrive both thirsty and hungry. But keep back some cash – preferably the type that folds - to help us towards our ambitious total.

Legendary character actress Miriam Margolyes OBE is the latest to lend her support for our efforts, especially as we raise cash for the National Literacy Trust as well as the Charles Dickens Statue Fund. The star of Blackadder, Harry Potter and Wicked, is a life-long fan of Dickens and is currently touring her brilliant Dickens’ Woman show around the UK and America. She writes; “Nothing would have been closer to Charles Dickens’s heart than the National Literacy Campaign and it is wonderful that his great-great grandsons are walking in Nicholas Nickleby and Smike’s footsteps to raise money for this great cause. All who cherish Charles Dickens’ memory will want to give generously as the boys walk towards Portsmouth where the great man was born.”
The Daily Telegraph has confirmed that they would like to write ‘a colourful feature’ on our challenge and both the BBC and ITV will join us at various stages of the walk. BBC Radio Solent will feature live updates every day from Monday 6th August and Portsmouth’s daily paper The News is another strong local supporter.
With such media interest, we wonder if Danny Boyle is looking for a new challenge to launch us on our way this coming Sunday. While we don’t have the £27,000,000 he had access to, it is clear our project is attracting a global audience and with a packet of sparklers and a box of party poppers, we should be able to make quite an impact in Golden Square as we step out at 9.30am.
If you can’t be there to cheer us off, please do the next best thing and pledge your support to help us towards our target. And if you can share this link amongst your own contacts - wherever they may live - then even better.
TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: http://www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk

Friday, 27 July 2012


Creating a statue of Charles Dickens is easy. Get a large lump of clay about three metres square, deposit it in an attractive studio on the edge of the Cotswolds - and then remove all the bits that don’t look like one of the world’s greatest authors.
Sculptor Martin Jennings has several buckets of the stuff in his studio which looks nothing like Charles Dickens. But on a large platform with industrial sized casters, there is an amalgam of phyllosilicate minerals containing trapped water within its structure (clay to you and me), that looks extraordinarily like the great man.
Of course, I’m making light on the talent of a sculptor. The 7’ tall ‘Boz’ whose creative mind has already delivered characters that will become known and loved globally, sits quietly on a chair. His mind is brooding on achievements to date and firing on all cylinders as characters and plots pace around his creative brain. And as he considers the structure of ‘Our Mutual Friend’ or perhaps ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, he is also pondering the audience beyond a curtain who have gathered in their thousands to hear his words.
This appearance will not just be a reading but a theatrical performance of incredible energy and passion. He knows that if he doesn’t get at least fifteen women fainting at his lurid and sweat flying delivery of Bill Sykes smashing the life out of good hearted Nancy, then the performance will have been a failure.
As he considers the performance, Dickens finds it hard to sit still and the book in his hand falls against his knee as he looks you in the eye, juts out his impressive beard and makes to unstick his clay body from his clay chair in order to share a sudden and important thought with you.
This is a complex Dickens. A Dickens of compassion and of creative intensity. A family man who loved his children, yet a man who despite his fame, embarked on an affair with a pretty young actress and did the dirty on the wife who bore him ten children. A man who represented the down trodden and put upon, a man who embarrassed society in the way it exploited the poor, a man who lampooned the pompous and the self-important, a man who generated laughter, tears, and an awkward short sharp look when his readers looked at themselves in a mirror.
And importantly, this is a Dickens that Dickens does not know yet. He doesn’t know that 200 years after being born, his words will continue to resonate. He’d be thoroughly thrilled to find that none of his novels has yet to go out of print. Thrilled that a new-fangled medium is delivering his message through technologies called television, radio and cinema and as a result, audiences are continuing to laugh, cry and be moved by the simple morals that flowed from his quill.
He won’t know that when he dies, there will be queues of weeping fans waiting to file by his grave in Westminster Abbey for day after day as they mourn their hero, the man who represented them and gave them hope. He won’t know that in 2012, the world celebrated his achievements and the gifts he gave us, in a frenzy of media adulation. He would be touched beyond belief and those hooded eyes would be smiling and vibrantly alive in response to such outpourings.
So this is much more than removing the bits of clay in order to deliver a Tussaud’s style facsimile of a dead Victorian author, and it is here that Martin Jennings truly earns his crust. As the first ever statue for Dickens in the UK (and most are amazed to discover that fact) the responsibility to communicate all of the above emotions – and many more besides – is an onerous one.
An artist’s genius is all about applying a firm and clear brief on the journey they wish the observer to make. A constant review on every single brush stroke, every single element of colour and - for the sculptor - every tiny swish of clay either contributes to the narrative they want to tell, or delivers an irrelevant confusion to the core message.
And Martin has focused on hundreds of tiny elements that communicates all of the energies of Dickens, while at the same time delivering a piece that will stand the test of time. Too easy to amplify a single core quality in a frenzy of modernism, only to see it look dated in a decade or so.

The stack of books at his side, the great swathe of cloth around the chair, each button, every fold and flick of his tail coat, every crease in his waistcoat, every hint from his shoe clad feet to the top of his wild and tousled hair are all contributing to the energy of the piece. A large pin board takes a prominent place in the studio and has numerous engravings and photographs of Dickens to act as a guide. Descriptions of the man from his best friend John Forster, from his son Henry Fielding Dickens’s memoirs, even from the latest biography by Claire Tomalin adds to the understanding and influences whether the clay is consigned to the bucket, or added to the steel and wire skeleton as a vital part of the narrative.

The full size masterpiece is close to completion and almost ready for a mould to be made. But not an ounce of molten bronze can be poured by the foundry until the Charles Dickens Statue Fund has reached its target. And until that happens, Martin Jennings’ brilliant interpretation of this literary colossus will remain under wraps.

I’ve been privileged to stand on that platform and come face to face with my illustrious forebear. It would be a travesty if millions of visitors to Portsmouth were unable to do the same. It spurs Gerry and I to do our very best with our fund raising walk and we urge you to do the same by clicking on the link at the top of this blog and being as generous as you can.
TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: http://www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk

Sunday, 22 July 2012


It’s time to hit the road. Or maybe the bloke that sold me the boots.
Desperate to get some miles on my legs and reassure myself that walking more than 500 yards is indeed possible, I begin with a plan to pound the streets of Portsmouth. I’d gone no more than a mile (and still had a good view of our apartment) when there was a strong urge to call a cab to take me home.
The strapped on brand spanking new boots felt like they were doing a spectacularly good foot binding job so favored by the ancient Chinese. But I wasn’t a concubine looking for a dream husband in the Ming Dynasty. I’m a bloke who wants to be able to cover 75 miles when we head off on August 5th and the ache in my feet was immense. Of course, I know that after breaking in the newness, things would improve but it was an uncomfortable start. By the way, do you suppose the Chinese official who gathered such virginal small footed girls was known as a Concubine Harvester? Just a thought.
It was midweek, so the sea front was left to the occasional Mum and toddler, along with quite a few runners. Being an athlete in training myself, I attempted to bond with my fellow exercise takers but got blank looks in response. Those who run make it look like an utterly miserable, tortuous way to get the heart pumping and I have never seen a jogger with a smile on his or her face as they embrace ‘the burn’.  Still, with my aching feet, I fear I returned their grimace with a gurning scowl of my own.
Further on, a branded mini-bus revealed that its precious cargo came from a school with learning difficulties. Despite the grey and cold Solent, the kids were all in the sea, splashing around while their nervous carers were locked in a constantly repeated head count of goosebumped bodies. Were Smike alive today, he wouldn’t be allowed to walk the lanes from London to Portsmouth with Nicholas Nickleby. He’d have been made to travel in a mini-bus wearing a day-glo tabard, staring out of the window above the sign that read ‘difficulties’ and ensuring all those on the outside world felt duly warned by his disability.
To take my mind off the feet I found myself reading branding on coaches as well, when a huge white bodied 75 seater slipped by. As a marketing man, I’m flummoxed by their claim ‘The future of travel in Basingstoke’. It bothers me that their vision only extends to the city limits. It bothers me they wish to suggest that Basingstoke has the monopoly on a Dan Dare world. It bothers me that no matter how you sell it, a charabanc simply can’t be the future of travel in 2012 unless Basingstoke is lagging spectacularly behind the rest of the world. And it bothers me that the claim tells me nothing about why I would wish to ride with them. Judging by the bored looks of those on board, they weren’t too bothered either.
I started to take in the shops around me, musing over the viability of the various tiny businesses and the late night tossing and turning of the owner, struggling to make a crust in these trying times. Judging by their dated window display, Passion Lingerie looked like the passion walked out some years ago. The Southsea Health Shop didn’t look especially healthy with a distinct lack of custom and while Hong Kong City and Indian Cottage suggest a whiff of the exotic east, the darkened windows told the real story. An emporium that specialised in selling wooden hinged structures that create swinging barriers between rooms showed no sign of life either. It amused me that the door shop wasn’t open – or even ajar. And if that amused, so did the daft shop names too – Woks Wong Chinese takeaway, Lock Stock & Tackle for a fishing shop and Posy Parker florists at least all tried to engage the passing punter with some humour.
All this musing and I realized my feet had stopped hurting (although I could feel the start of a blister forming) and the miles had rolled by. My muscles had warmed and I was striding along, enjoying the surroundings and the acres of thinking time my 3.5mph effortlessly delivered.

OK, so it was only ten miles in total but a goodish start nonetheless. The blister needed some attention though, so I dropped in to a chemist on the way back for some plasters. And without a hint of irony, it was Boots who supplied the dressing.


TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


Having thought through the idea of walking from London to Portsmouth, sounded out my brother, looked at maps, zoomed in on Google Earth and talked to the statue fund raising committee, this is definitely going to happen.

We need to arrive in Portsmouth by the evening of August 9th, which means leaving London on Sunday 5th. Day one will be six hours of pavements, taking all day to shrug off the sprawling 'urban-ness' of London. Sunday is a good day to start, as devoid of office workers and eager shoppers, we should pass through Soho, Pall Mall, Sloane Square, the Kings Road and Putney High Street without too much bumping and boring. And we won't be short of choice should we fancy a Grande, skinny double shot, Macchiato with a sprinkle of cinnamon along the way.
After that, it will be a mix of parkland, bridleways, footpaths and country lanes with a decent hill or two to climb and we need to be properly attired.

I imagine Nicholas and Smike didn’t dwell too long on the lack of Gortex breathable fabric, Himalayan walking poles, perfectly balanced trekking backpacks and lightweight kagools to speed them on their journey. Dickens was an inveterate walker himself, often covering 15 miles in one night and in the damp London air, a thick woolen cloak covering a tail coat, waistcoat, starched collar and cravat would have been de-rigeur.
His great great grandsons have other ideas. In any case, there is nothing more exciting than visiting a specialist shop, full to the brim with ‘how could I have ever lived without one of these’ hanging from rack, shelf and mannequin.
If fishing is your game, emporiums with every type of rod, reel, line, float, lure, fly and hook wait for you to bite. For golfers, the pro shop is crammed with drivers, wedges, putters, yardage calculators, tees and jumpers that would not look out of place in a 1970’s episode of ‘A question of Sport’. If, like me, you enjoy getting out on the water, than a Chandlery is right up there with GPS units, foul weather clothing, sacrificial anodes, reels of rope, fenders, twee fender covers, plastic wine goblets and Breton caps with ‘Skipper’ embroidered in gold above the peak.

For walkers, it’s the same and a visit to Snow & Rock can get you kitted out for an assault on the north face of the Eiger. Ice axes, crampons, climbing harnesses, belays, hefty boots, tents that can be sited on a mere whiff of a ledge at 5,000’ and sleeping bags that would have stopped Evans from ‘going outside for a while’ are all there, seducing you to spend.
Footwear is now much more than trying on a shoe, wiggling your toes and heading to the till. My feet were measured length wise, width wise, the foot arch studied and my posture analyzed before the expert dude (they are always dudes, the next Ranulph Fiennes, in these shops) went off to make his selection.
With clumpy boot attached, there’s a handy assault course of inclines and ‘rocky paths’ (made from plastic lumps) to battle over. The incline lasts all of two paces before one is back to the safety of the shop floor, but having taken on the challenge, we review the result.
Some slight slippage at the heel and a minor rub at the toe and it’s insole time. In Dolcis, this used to be a slim bit of rubber that helped them flog you an ill-fitting pair of school shoes but in a hiking shop ready for the roof of the world, it’s more specialist. Obviously.
I get the issue of collapsing arches explained to me and by the end of the pitch, it seems like a sound idea. Heck, the boots with their breathable fabric, supported soles, bouncy air filled heels and hi tec lacing systems are a bargain at £160, so two small insoles seem a snip at £49. Especially as they are bespoke, trimmed to your unique shape at a high tec workbench. Then there’s the breathable shirts, the lightweight quick dry trousers, the mid layer fleece and the over jacket in case the British Summer lives up to expectations.
The socks bring clothing technology to a whole new level and the combination of Merino wool, padded panels, anti-blister support pads and sweat reducing weave should get me to Guadalupe, never mind Godalming. But if you thought one pair would do the trick for our five day preamble, think again. Duddie Fiennes recommends a pair a day. At £25 a pair.
Then there’s the back pack. Smike would have had all their meager provisions wrapped in a large hanky knotted at the end of a stout stick and according to the book, their thirst was quenched from a tin of milk mixed with Rum that they carried. For us, it’s a bright red perfectly balanced waterproof number with enough zips to make an ardent punk happy. And in one of them, it will be Red Bull and a nugget of Kendal Mint Cake that will keep us pacing
Maybe we should have simply valued the cost of all the kit and made that our donation to our two worthy causes, but where’s the challenge in that? Besides, my brother and I are adamant that we will tip a nod to the 19th century as we spend our five days walking through 21st century England.
We've decided to wear top hats and if you donate, we'll doff our toppers in your general direction. Who knows, it may start a whole new trend when we walk down the Kings Road.

TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: http://www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk

Friday, 6 July 2012



Like many good ideas, this one arrived out of the blue and without prompting.

Well almost. There was a vague and distant simmering of a thought to raise some cash for a special charity and to do more than plunder savings by just signing a cheque. The fact that the charity’s aim is to raise funds for a statue to my great great grandfather probably helped. There was also a vague and simmering thought that I urgently needed to take much more exercise than my sedentary life currently offers (walk to car, drive to work, walk from car park to desk, sit at desk all day, drive home again). My guess is that a week’s total of all that walking might just about stretch to a breathtaking half a mile (or around 20 minutes), while the seated section totals over 60 hours.

Not good.
And I need a new adventure. In a life dictated by a rather frustrating work place, my brain has become dulled. It’s been over a year since I sailed a racing yacht back to the UK from the Azores. Over a decade since I raced a yacht around the world. And almost two decades since descending the Cresta Run, learning to fly and racing my MG to the Arctic and back.
Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the birthplace branch of the Dickens Fellowship along with Portsmouth City Council, a statue for Charles Dickens – the first ever in the UK – is going to become a reality.
£66,000 has already been raised but a further £54,000 is needed – and urgently too if the statue is to be unveiled in the bicentenary year of Dickens’s birth. Which is why this subliminal simmering idea started to steam and come to the boil.
‘The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby’ was Charles Dickens’s third novel. In chapter 22, Dickens has the hero and his friend Smike walking from London to Portsmouth (they were too poor to take a stage coach), where they hoped to find work. Their walk is clearly documented and after leaving Golden Square, they headed to Godalming via Kingston, where they spent their first night, having ‘bargained for two humble beds and slept soundly’.
On day two, they were back on the road early, routing round the Devil’s Punchbowl at Hindhead before tackling the South Downs just south of Petersfield. They rested overnight in a wayside Inn ten miles from Portsmouth, before completing the journey in the company of the glorious Crummles Theatre Company, delivering some of the funniest scenes in the novel.
In Portsmouth, Nicholas and Smike found lodgings ‘in two small rooms up three pairs of stairs, or rather two pair and a ladder, at a tobacconist’s shop, on the Common Hard: a dirty street leading down to the dockyard’ and went to work with the Crummles touring show at the Portsmouth Theatre Royal.
I live in Old Portsmouth and drive by the site of the Theatre Royal every day (it’s now the highly acclaimed Portsmouth Grammar School). The Common Hard with its tobacconist shop is still there, facing out to the grand spars of HMS Warrior with a line of rather faded buildings housing pubs, fish and chip shops, convenience stores, a Chinese take away and a mini cab office.
Every day, I hurtle up and down the A3 on my way to and from work, giving little thought to the countryside that flashes by and busying my mind with the frustrations of yet another white van hogging the outside lane. But outside the window, the wayside Inn is still there, the Devil’s Punchbowl with its roadside stone marking a grizzly murder is still there and the paths, tracks and bridleways that link London to Portsmouth are still there, out of sight, out of mind and overgrown.
I doubt many of those crouched behind the wheel get home and in response to an enquiring ‘good day at the office dear?’ respond with ‘The ground seemed elastic under their feet; the sheep-bells were music to their ears; and exhilarated by exercise and stimulated by hope, they pushed onward with the strength of lions’.
So the idea – like all good ideas - was an obvious one. Walk in Nicholas and Smike’s footsteps and make the 75 mile journey a fund raising initiative for the statue fund, become 'exhilarated' by exercise and allow the counties of Middlesex, Surrey and Hampshire to reveal themselves through leafy bridleways, quiet country lanes and lengthy vistas.

Dickens, of course, had his heroes penniless hence their need to cover the distance in just over two days. As my bank balance is slightly less pecuniary, our journey can be stretched a little longer with a decent hotel as an incentive at the end of each day. And by stretching the journey, the 75 miles can be broken down in to a much more comfortable 15 miles a day. We plan stops in Esher, Godalming, Petersfield and Rowlands Castle, arriving in Portsmouth for the opening day of the annual global Dickens Fellowship Conference. If that sounds easy, consider my current regime of half a mile a week and it’s a decent enough challenge.
Nicholas had Smike as his companion and who better for me to walk with than my brother Gerald. Which of us is playing the part of Nicholas and which one Smike in our walking partnership? Sadly, I fear the answer is clear.
Nicholas Nickleby is described a young man, so I guess Gerry, as my younger brother, wins that one (he’s still just on the right side of half a century, whereas I passed that milestone six years ago). Ralph Nickleby, the evil uncle, thinks Nicholas will never amount to anything but we can’t hang that one on my sibling as he has forged a successful career as an actor of global repute.

Perhaps the decision to quit my job allows me to inherit that quality, as well as taking on some of Smike’s characteristics which include a ‘crippled deformity’. By the end of our five days on the road, I’m pretty certain I’ll have that part off to a T.

But if it raises plenty of cash for the statue fund and allow future generations to be inspired by one of the world’s greatest writers (we are also raising cash for the National Literacy Trust), then I don’t mind in the least.

TO SUPPORT THE NATIONAL LITERACY TRUST, GO TO: http://www.justgiving.com/Dickenswalk