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Archive for February, 2012


There are few more relaxing spots in which to while away an afternoon in San Francisco than the man-made Stow Lake in the centre of Golden Gate Park.

It’s frequented more by residents than tourists who are rather drawn to the heavily promoted, and undeniably impressive, adjacent attractions of the de Young Museum, California Academy of Sciences and Japanese Tea Garden. Yet it is only a few minutes walk away.

We stumbled upon it purely by accident on our second trip to the city thirteen years ago. Venturing west from those headliner venues, you quickly come across a pathway and stairs that lead to the south side of the lake. In the dense trees on the island opposite you soon encounter the charming Chinese Pavilion, a gift from the people of Taipei, shipped in 6,000 pieces and reassembled in 1981.

As you stroll along the path that encircles the lake you gain an immediate impression of both serenity and bustle. Young families, pushing strollers and trying to contain excited children, compete with joggers, dog walkers and cyclists for the narrow path. Ducks, gulls and other bird life glide along the placid surface, scanning for potential feeding stations wherever humans congregate by the water.

For now, pass the rustic stone bridge on your right and continue along the path  that leads to the boathouse where you will be able to rent paddle boats, row boats – new, I believe, this year – bicycles, and in-line skates. Restrooms, picnic tables and a surprisingly well stocked snack bar greet you here also. Indeed, it has the distinction of being the first place in the U.S. where I tasted a vegetarian hot dog (whilst Janet ate ice cream!).

On a bright day you may be lucky enough to observe a row of turtles sunbathing on the rocks and logs alongside the boathouse.

For the more adventurous there is the short but relatively steep hike up to Strawberry Hill, the 430 foot high artificial island in the middle of the lake, which rewards you with fine, slightly tree obscured views across the western part of the city, and even as far as the Farallone Islands 26 miles out to sea.

You can either retrace your steps from the boathouse and access the island across the stone bridge, or you can approach it by crossing the second “Roman” bridge which appears shortly in the opposite direction. Be sure not to miss Huntington Falls which cascade down into the lake close to the Chinese Pavilion.

Encircling the entire lake and climbing Strawberry Hill amounts to around two and a half miles.

So if you want a few hours respite from the frenetic environs of Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown or Union Square, take a bus out to Golden Gate Park and visit Stow Lake, grab an ice cream and paddle gently for an hour in the civilising company of ducks and turtles.

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It’s four months now since I entered my sixtieth year on this blessed, blasted planet. In fact, 2012 is a rare year for major anniversaries – the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, the five hundreth anniversary of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and last, and definitely least, there’s lil’ ol’ me.

So how do you “celebrate” such a feat of stamina? Big family party? Trip of a lifetime? Crawl into a corner and curl up into a ball? Well, my 40th was spent in Amsterdam and my 50th in Paris, whilst my wife’s corresponding birthdays were played out in Paris and Venice respectively. Bit of a clue there then (though Janet also wangled a not inexpensive party for the latter in the boardroom of the local football league club)!

But I think you get the picture – we’ll be spending it somewhere other than home.

Janet has been “encouraging” me for months to decide where I wanted to spend the occasion. Unfortunately, I am no nearer making that decision than I was on my 59th birthday, though I have narrowed it down to a handful of candidates (feels a bit like I’m deciding on where the next but one Olympics or football World Cup will be held).

One trip that has been on my wish list for much of the past decade is what is known as the “Blues Highway”, effectively tracing the migration of blacks from the deep south to the north following the Civil War, and, in the process, reliving American musical history.

The tour starts in New Orleans, with extended stops at Nashville, Memphis, St Louis and eventually Chicago. Visits to such iconic venues as Graceland, Sun Studios and the Grand Ol’ Opry, would be essential, and we would also want to sample cajun and zydeco music in their locales.

A tour through blues history would not be complete without a pilgrimage to Moorhead, Mississippi where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog or Dawg, the spot where the “father of the blues”, W.C. Handy, heard “the first blues song” in around 1903, or the crossroads (there is much dispute as to its location) at which the “king of the delta blues singers”, Robert Johnson, apocryphally, sold his soul to the devil. And an evening at the Ground Zero Blues Club, owned by Morgan Freeman, in Clarksdale, Mississippi would not go amiss.

But in August 2005 Hurricane Katrina put a temporary end to that dream.

The other front runner at present is the national parks and canyons of the American south west, notably Monument Valley, Bryce and Zion Canyons, the Arches and Canyonlands. Even this trip would have some musical resonance for me in the form of the great Jackson Browne / Glenn Frey song Take It Easy, popularised by The Eagles:

Well, I’m standing on a corner

In Winslow, Arizona

And such a fine sight to see

It’s a girl, my lord in a flatbed

Ford, slowin’ down to take a look at me

Come on baby, don’t say maybe

I gotta know if your sweet love

Is gonna save me

We may lose and we may win though

We will never be here again

So open up, I’m climbin’ in

So take it easy

When I first started to ponder this, our adopted second home of San Francisco figured strongly in my plans. The timing would have enabled us to attend a Giants ball game or two on their last homestand of the regular season against the Pittsburgh Pirates. But since then, in an increasingly common fit of weakness, we have succumbed to its allure and – for us – late booked a two week trip to the city in April. And we have succeeded in purchasing tickets for two of the first games of the season – against the Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies.

This has had the added advantage of granting me a stay of execution on the fateful decision on the birthday break, though I know that I cannot hide behind that excuse much longer, hence this post.

The downside is that it may now necessarily be shorter than we had originally envisaged – two rather than three or four weeks. But we shall see.

I should also mention another U.S. option – that of staying at a friend’s condominium in Tampa, Florida – because I know he will be reading this!  He has very kindly offered to accommodate us at any time, and we will certainly take him up on that offer, though perhaps not this year. So, Melvyn, you have been spared – but only for now!

And finally, I have begun to pine again for Italy, our favourite holiday destination before the United States colonised our travelling consciousness. So I would not rule out Rome, Tuscany or Sicily at this stage, though they remain dark horses.

Or perhaps I should just take my lead from Ellen de Generes’ grandmother “who started walking five miles a day when she was sixty.  She’s ninety seven now and we don’t know where the hell she is”.

So what would you vote for?

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Anyone with the merest acquaintance with this blog will observe a strong bias towards the city of San Francisco in it. If the heading of “A Golden Gate State of Mind” and accompanying photograph did not immediately give it away, the preponderance of posts on the city certainly will.

So what, you ask, is the attraction of what San Francisco based Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti called “this far-out city on the left side of the world” to a cricket loving, warm beer drinking Englishman?

Well, that is a very good question (I do wish you hadn’t asked it).  It’s not sufficient to say it is because I “love” it.  After all, there are many things that I love – my wife, my father, my football team, my favourite rock band, skiing, fish and chips, and the BBC Breakfast presenter, Susanna Reid (I’d be grateful if you didn’t tell my wife about that one) – the list goes on.

But “love” – like “great” – is an overused – or rather over abused – word today. In fact, I may have proved this conclusively in the preceding paragraph. Everyone will have places that they “love”, whether it be Paris, Rio de Janeiro, New York or even Leysdown-on-Sea. Few of us would deny “loving” their favourite holiday haunts, particularly if they return to them time and again.

So I think you deserve a more substantial explanation than that. After all, it took me nearly 43 years to finally feast my hungry eyes on the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz, even though I had venerated the city from afar for nearly three decades before that. So what do I find so special about it now?

Before I answer it – and I’m not prevaricating, honest – I think it is worth considering what it is about a place that makes us become attached to it. After all, isn’t it nothing more nor less than a collection of natural features and man-made buildings?

I suppose that many of us, including myself, claim that we “love” the place in which we were born and / or raised. It is this emotional attachment, linked to childhood memories, that, I believe, is the crucial factor here. And the acknowledgement of that attachment may not manifest itself without the aid of age and distance.

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “there’s no place like home” may be cliches but they still have a sturdy ring of truth. James Joyce – that incomparable chronicler of place – could not, as he himself admitted, have written so profoundly or entertainingly about Dublin had he stayed there instead of leaving it to work and live in Trieste, Zurich and Paris.

My last post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/walking-with-our-mutual-friend/) conveys my affection for my own home town of Rochester in Kent, and an earlier one (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/03/to-my-home-county/) describes the pride I have in being a Man of Kent, a grateful product of its rich embrace of coast and countryside.

So our attachment to place begins, as with so many of our passions, with our childhood experiences.

But I digress. We’re not in Kent(as) anymore, Toto. You want to read about why I “love” San Francisco. Well, I presume you still do or you would have given up by now. So here goes.

I could cite the stunning beauty of the bay and its glittering “bracelet of bridges”, the gorgeous skies, the cute, clanking cable cars, the abundance of fresh seafood in its classy restaurants, the diversity of its music and theatre scene, the richness of its ethnic neighbourhoods, the thrilling exploits of the Giants and 49ers, and, of course, its renowned tolerance and reputation as a haven for the otherwise discarded and disaffected – all of these are part of it.

However, thousands of other visitors have been equally captivated by most, if not all, of these qualities. It is not for nothing that many leave their heart in San Francisco.  But their “love” is invariably on loan, perhaps until the next trip or another geographical gigolo snatches their affection. Mine is permanent, organic, forever.  

So what is it about this place that has lured this individual into spending what time he can’t reside in it dreaming and writing about it?  Why has this place gotten hold of my heart” where other cities I delight in visiting, such as Venice, Florence, Barcelona, Dublin and New York have not? And why, with relatively little time left, and  just as I am about to resolve to go somewhere else, does it sing its siren (or is that sea lion) songs to me, steering my boat back into the dock of the bay?

For much of my life it was a platonic, long distance affair.  It started with the Summer of Love (1967) when San Francisco snared the imagination of many people across the globe, including one 14 year old English schoolboy an entire continent and ocean away. Intrigued by the love and peace mantra, he was inspired by Scott McKenzie and the Flowerpot Men to commit fashion suicide by wearing paisley shirts and, on at least one occasion, flowers (almost certainly plastic) in his hair, to football matches that year – fortunately, it pre-dated the skinhead era or he may not have been given such an easy ride!

Three years later, the music of the Bay Area, in the form of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service began to fill my head. “Everyone’s favourite city” had become the epicentre of my cultural universe. However, another two and a half decades passed before I set foot on San Francisco’s ever shifting soil.

And, for me, Haight-Ashbury, from whence that dazzling music came, still represents, more than any other location in the city, MY San Francisco, and where I gravitate to on every trip, however short. Free concerts by the Dead on flat bed trucks in the Panhandle and Golden Gate Park, tie-dye shirts and the pungent waft of marijuana smoke remain enduring images of that time.

And there is just enough of that atmosphere – at stores like Positively Haight Street, Haight-Ashbury T-shirts and Pipe Dreams, as well as Sami Sunchild’s Red Victorian (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2012/01/06/great-san-franciscan-characters-14-sami-sunchild/) – to keep me enthused as I saunter down Haight Street today.

That is not to say that other parts – the Tenderloin and Civic Center no less than the trendy neighbourhoods and tourist honeypots – are not equally “real” embodiments of the modern city, all too real some might say. Though I embrace them all, the Haight remains the heart of my San Franciscan experience. Its only failing is that it does not aford bay views!  Or does it? I really must check on my next trip!

Another earlier post (www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/10/27/my-san-francisco-top-ten/) summarises those parts of the city that captivate me most, so I will not bore you by repeating them here.

It’s not just the physical sights and sounds that appeal, but the literature (Armistead Maupin, Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Dashiel Hammett, Jack London) and history (the Barbary Coast, the earthquake and Great Fire, the cultural movements of the fifties and sixties) that fascinate me too.  And has there been a better chronicler of a city anywhere than Herb Caen(www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2011/02/07/great-san-franciscan-characters-6-herb-caen/), renowned columnist of the San Francisco Chronicle?

Indeed, it was Caen who wrote half a century ago in one of his many ruminations on what made a San Franciscan:

I don’t think that place of origin or number of years on the scene have anything to do with it really. There are newcomers who become San Franciscans overnight – delighted with and interested in the city’s traditions and history. They can see the Ferry Building for what it represents (not for what it is), they are fascinated with the sagas of Sharons, Ralstons, Floods and Crockers, they savor the uniqueness of cable car and foghorn. By the same token, I know natives who will never be San Franciscans if they outlive Methusalah. To them a cable car is a traffic obstruction, the fog is something that keeps them from getting a tan, and Los Angeles is where they really know how to Get Things Done.

I like to think that I fit into Caen’s San Francisco “newcomer” category, though I’ll settle for being the “sophisticated tourist” who is “charmed and fascinated” by the city.

I have used the word “home” in a number of features on San Francisco, and that, I think, is the key here. That is not to say that it replaces the town in which I was born and raised – though, equally, it might – but rather that the city engenders those same feelings, not just of comfort and security but also of confidence and pride that allows me to engage with it on all levels. Venice and New York do not. Nor even does “dear, dirty Dublin”, despite my Irish ancestry.

Back where we started then.

And my wife and I have deliberately fostered this feeling in recent years where, by staying in apartments in different neighbourhoods – Hayes Valley and North of the Panhandle, and for our upcoming (ninth) visit, Noe Valley – we aim to “live like locals”, whilst continuing to take in the traditional tourist sights too (our stays are still too short to omit them, even if we wanted to). It is another of San Francisco’s virtues that we can do both.

How many of us can say that anywhere, at least beyond the place in which we live, that we can call it “home”?

Do you have any place that exercises that same grip on you?

I’ll end with Herb Caen again:

thank God or Allah or whoever it was that blessed this small, special, annoying, irresistible place at the tip of a peninsula and the end of the world.

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What better way to spend the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens than to stroll the streets of the town in which he enjoyed both his formative years and the last 14 years of his life, and from which he drew the inspiration for many of his finest characters and works, including The Pickwick Papers, Great Expectations and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Rochester in Kent also happens to be the town in which I was born and educated, and remains no more than a 10 minute drive or train journey away. It is less than three days since the first snowfall of the winter, and whilst the relatively mild temperatures since have provoked a slow thaw, this morning had dawned bitterly cold and foggy.

But as I disembark from a London bound train at 7.50am, the sky is brightening and the sun is making a brave effort to combat the cold. Across the street the Medway Little Theatre’s production of The Inimitable Dickens all this week is the first indication of the connection between the area and our greatest novelist. But it was not always so.

When I attended Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School in what was then still a city (its status has subsequently been forfeited due to a shocking oversight by the local authority), the crucial impact of tourism on the local economy was not as well appreciated and, aside from the societies dedicated to celebrating his works, the relationship was little exploited.

Dickens based the fictional town of Cloisterham in his final, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, on Rochester and, as I turn into the high street this morning, I am minded that he wrote “So silent are the streets of Cloisterham”, and remarked also on its “oppressive respectability”. But a steady procession of pedestrians – commuters heading for the station in one direction and King’s School pupils shuffling towards the Cathedral precincts in the other – creates an impression of bustle.

As the bitter chill takes hold, I am gratified to see that the Rochester Coffee Company, a fine, modern cafe with art and TVs on its walls and comfortable leather sofas and chairs, is open. It currently stands opposite  Eastgate House, ” a venerable brick edifice” built in the reign of the first Elizabeth. The owner explains to me that she is moving to larger premises opposite the War Memorial in the Cathedral precincts in a couple of weeks. It is heartening to learn that an independent coffee shop is doing so well.

I pass a municipal car park, skirted by a fragment of roman wall, the only remains of the school that was already over a century old when Dickens first walked this street with his father in 1817, and which had the pleasure of my company 150 years later. The presence of snow reminds me of my, depending on your point of view, most glorious, or nefarious, performance at school when I earned a Saturday morning detention, and instant hero status, for lobbing snowballs at the Latin teacher.

The Dickens influence is everywhere in the names of retail and refreshment outlets – Peggotty’s Parlour, Mrs Bumble’s Tea Rooms, Oliver’s Wine and Cocktail Bar, Topes Resturant, A Taste of Two Cities (Indian), Dickens House Wine Emporium, Copperfield’s (antiques), Pips of Rochester (greengrocers), Little Dorrit (retro clothing and accessories), Ebeneezers (gift shop) and Sweet Expectations. And I am sure I may have missed one or two.

One of Rochester’s great servants and benefactors is the splendidly named Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral of the Fleet and MP from 1695 until his death in 1707, but there is no reminder of that name as the dawn mist has now completely disappeared to reveal a brilliant, pale blue sky with a glaring if tepid sun. With so few people around this is the perfect time to wander around the environs of the Castle and Cathedral to take photographs.

It is difficult to take a bad picture of either of these magnificent buildings (though you may think differently). The Cathedral, second oldest in England (AD604), and the Norman keep have stared, sometimes smiled, at each other for more than a thousand years, and look at their loveliest in this light. King’s School preparatory boys, complete with matching grey blazers, shorts and boaters are being marched into the former for morning service, whilst their elder brethren amble into the array of school premises adjacent to it.

The Castle Gardens are deserted, apart from myself and a couple with a brown and white spaniel spraying snow everywhere in his excitement at being let loose. Walking back through The Vines I stop to admire Restoration House, inspiration for Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Great Expectations and the “finest pre-Civil War town house in England” according to Simon Jenkins.

A gloveless hour spent pointing the camera has removed virtually all feeling from my fingers, so it is time to warm up. A mid-morning pot of tea and toasted teacake are, therefore, taken in Peggoty’s Parlour, a traditional English tea rooms overlooking the High Street, with Dickens art on every wall. It doesn’t take long before I get into conversation with several other afficionados of the author on the benefits to the area of having such a famous son. I discover that one of them was the organiser of the inaugural Dickens Festival (when the town was still a city) in 1981.

The narrow high street is becoming busier as the morning wears on. My first sighting of a film crew occurs opposite the award-winning Visitor Centre where BBC South East Today is setting up. ITV Meridian is also here. Parties of animated French schoolchildren are being led around by guides in Dickensian costume. One is now standing outside the Six Poor Travellers’ House, the one with the “queer old door” that inspired one of Dickens’ shorter stories. Another group can be seen wriggling up Two Post Alley for a tour of the Cathedral and Castle Gardens.

A number of events are being held in the area to commemorate the bicentenary. Eastgate House is the venue for many of these, starting today at 11am with an exhibition on Dickens’ connections with Medway and a display of his autographs. In addition, merchandise – notebooks, pictures, keyrings and fridge magnets – can be purchased to pay for the restoration of the Swiss Chalet, where Dickens wrote his later novels. It was once domiciled in the grounds of Gad’s Hill, but now resides in the gardens of Eastgate House, though is in a state of disrepair. There is a raffle too for a lock of the writer’s hair and portrait.

After a short delay to accommodate BBC Radio Kent and other media groups, 50 of us are escorted up creaking stairs for a reading of the storming of the Bastille from A Tale of Two Cities. There are further readings during the week, including Wackford Squeers in full flow in Dotheboys Hall from Nicholas Nickleby, David’s journey to Dover to meet Aunt Betsey Trotwood in David Copperfield and Pip’s first meeting with the convict, Magwitch, in Great Expectations.

Shortly after lunch at Tony Lorenzo’s (a cafe, unusually in this Dickens obsessed place, named after the owner rather than one of the author’s characters), the fast sinking temperature deters me from venturing into Chatham for “readings, anecdotes and memorials and the laying of flowers to remember members of the Dickens family” in St Mary’s Church in Chatham. And, after all, as the birthday boy said: “Every traveller has a home of his own, and he learns to appreciate it from his wandering”.

In conclusion, an understandably low key but civilised celebration for the great author in his spiritual home. But there will be many more events later in the year, notably at the ever-popular Dickens Festival, commemorating its own 32nd anniversary in June, and Dickensian Christmas at the beginning of December.

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