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Rare town of Radnor and Rotunda,
Rowland’s rock shop and remembrance;
Even on this cold February morning
You have the power to enchant;
Strange Cargo’s Luckiest Place on Earth
Is not confined to the Central station.
Newly planted winter flowers,
Primrose and snowdrop, cyclamen and crocus,
Defy the bitter wind and freezing hail
On stately Leas and Kingsnorth Gardens.

Mouldering Martello wall,
Bonaparte’s mighty adversary,
Squints out across the grey blue sea,
Searching for our Cap Griz Nezbour;
While the cliffs, slowly, surreptitiously
Slide into the stirring sea below,
Where foreign fossil hunters trip
Among the seaweed and precarious rocks,
Exposed by low tide’s obligatory return.

Opening Day still six weeks ahead, the
Harbour Arm remains a magical spot;
“Gormley” winks across the harbour entrance
At doughty mermaid on dog-filled Sunny Sands;
Cormorants, gulls and a solitary fisherman,
Usurping the space where chairs and tables
For champagne drinkers will soon occupy,
Complete this noiseless, bracing scene.

Pieces of art, products of a reimagined town,
Embellish our streets and promenades,
Making honorary Folkestone folk of
Tuttofuoco, Coley and Tracey Emin,
Wallinger, Ruth Ewan and Yoko Ono.
The Living Advent Calendar and Pride,
Triennial, Charivari and Book Festival,
All further proof of energy and wit
That far exceeds its scale and reputation.

Food town no less than Art town,
Bridge breakfasts, Brew freakshakes,
And Beano’s griddled sandwiches
Tantalise my morning tastebuds;
While Alice’s and the Cliffe, Rocksalt and Follies,
Bloom’s, Luben’s, El Diamante and Cafeteria,
To name but just a tempting few,
Contend for my evening custom.

More than half a century your admirer,
Even through the tired, toiling times;
Recently reunited in joy and wonder,
I feel blessed to account you now my lover.

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One of these days I might manage to walk past this place.

But it’s not likely to be anytime soon.

For a start, you can’t miss it. The attractive magenta, cyan and yellow (you can tell I use Epson printer cartridges) frontage in itself will cause all but the most rushed tourist or day tripper to stop momentarily, smile and ponder whether they should while away an hour inside.

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Ready for the Big Switch On!

The huge picture window of the upper (magenta) level of this independent coffee house near the top of the Old High Street in Folkestone allows that unsuspecting passer by to peer more closely at the interior, and marvel at the walls crammed with books of all ages and sizes. They will also observe the VIPs among the clientele who have snagged the settee and armchair in that window. Despite the fact that many complain that they feel in a goldfish bowl once they are ensconced there, they are never in a hurry to vacate the space, and when they do, there is always a civilised clamour to assume residency.

And after all, it is the best people watching spot in Folkestone!

The scholarly feel continues when you place your order with the welcoming staff. You become temporary custodian of part of the book collection with a number on the cover to identify your order, a twist on the ubiquitous wooden spoon. This morning I am handed a copy of The Faithless Lover and other Poems by Leonard Ley – no intended reflection, I’m sure, on my character, but, nonetheless, I shall move swiftly on.

I take my seat at the small table behind the settee. This is the best place to write as it provides an element of privacy and just enough space for laptop, phone, coffee and plate. And there is a tasteful lamp for reading purposes and the beautiful double-sided screen made exclusively for Steep Street by Zimbabwean born local artist Thurle Wright to stare at for inspiration and worth the visit alone – perfect.

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Beautiful centrepiece

I await my ethnically sourced cappuccino and brie, parmesan and tomato quiche, just one scrumptious item on a menu that includes the most luscious cakes as well as tasty paninis, salads and sandwiches, all  prepared, baked and cooked on the premises. There are plenty of vegan options too.

I spot a small girl, maybe three years old, dressed head to toe in pink, hurtling excitedly down the cobbled hill, while her frantic father strains to grasp her hand before she rolls down into the harbour. Should he fail, I am at least reassured that it is low tide at the moment.

Civilised, animated conversation is another attractive feature of life at Steep Street, and today is no different as it reverberates around the split level layout. Leonard Cohen’s untimely death, announced earlier this morning, vies with Trump, Brexit and the imminent new series of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (I made this last one up) as the main topics of discourse. All is calm and unhurried. Even the background music (Paul Simon as I write this) is soulful and unobtrusive.

A bedraggled mutt (I think he must have been for an early morning dip in the Pent Stream) sidles up to me and engages in a couple of minutes’ foreplay that entails the licking of hands and coyly turning its head away when I try to stroke it, before settling at my feet and catching the crumbs of my quiche as they – accidentally on purpose – escape from my plate.

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Gates of Paradise!

Spotting the Grateful Dead lightning bolt and teddy bear stickers on my laptop, his owner begins to reminisce (as far as he can remember) about his involvement with the Deadhead community in the U.S. in the eighties. This leads to a conversation about his attempts to bring traditional Irish music to the town. We debate the respective merits as venues of the Leas Cliff Hall, with whom he already has a meeting arranged, and the Quarterhouse on Tontine Street. I assure him that there is an audience within Kent and recommend the latter as the more appropriate (and crucially smaller) venue.

On his departure, his place at the adjoining table is taken by the Member of Parliament for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, whom I had only come across the previous day at the Folkestone Jobs Fair. I introduce myself as one of his new constituents and exchange a few words about the recently launched business hub on West Terrace.

As a fellow devotee of Steep Street the man clearly has some taste, and his campaigning for Remain in the EU Referendum endears him to me still further.

But I wouldn’t vote for him.

A young couple with extensive facial piercings sit at the corner table and extract their laptops from their satchels, rendering the upper level a scene from an Apple interns’ breakout room. Or at least it would if Mr Collins, and especially I, didn’t double the average age.

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A great study space

As I stand and rummage in my trouser pockets for £2.60 for another cappuccino, one of the young women serving behind the counter informs me (and the customers around me) that the man that I had been talking to previously had, on leaving the cafe, paid for a large drink for me. I am delighted and humbled by the gesture, or at least I would be if I weren’t so darn embarrassed too.

The charming owners, Stephen and Alice, are committed supporters of the upcoming Folkestone Book Festival, sponsoring illustration, flash fiction and “short and tweet” competitions, as well as publishing a magazine containing the best five entries in each category. During the event itself, they are hosting creative writing and poetry workshops. In many ways they will be the epicentre of the entire festival.

Steep Street’s reputation as literary linchpin of a town increasingly defined by its artistic offering (the next internationally celebrated Triennial is scheduled for next year), is enhanced by the provision of “blackboard” tables upon which customers, primarily, but not exclusively of the milkshake rather than flat white persuasion, can chalk their own artworks.

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A rare opportunity to nab the best people watching seats!

The same pink-spattered child observed earlier had thankfully avoided a watery, or rather muddy, grave following her hair raising downhill run on the cobbles, courtesy of a relieved Daddy carrying her back up the hill. In celebration, she tips the tumbler of coloured crayons on the table and sets to work.

Witnessing the resulting, naturally pink (or is it magenta?), Christmas tree exposes my own artistic shortcomings and I resolve to offer to pay a surcharge next time I’m obliged to sit at that table. My signature art piece since the age of three, and still serving me well / ill (delete as appropriate) are matchstick men and women wearing top hats, and in the case of the latter, the additional, creative touch of equilateral triangle shaped skirts.

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My book is in there somewhere!

The self-styled Folkestone Poet stands stoically in his accustomed spot outside the Big Boys Fine Burger Co. restaurant directly opposite Steep Street. His sales technique entails whispering to passers by while waving three copies of his verse collections gently in the air, hardly likely to secure him a retail job, but quietly appropriate for his role in the town’s life . Most of those who stop tend to smile sheepishly and scurry off without making a purchase, deterred by a combination of price and content, but I find his work refreshingly direct, full of gallows humour and the most idiosyncratic spelling. And there are occasional flashes of heart rending poignancy.

My incipient bromance with Damian Collins attains a new level of intimacy as he buys a copy, though a cynical fellow patron speculates loudly whether he will claim the £3 back on his parliamentary expenses.

Oh ye of little faith.

But he could be right.

Regardless, I think he’s a “top bloke”.

But I still wouldn’t vote for him.

After two large cappuccinos and a (small) bottle of Pinot Grigio, I resolve to take advantage of the fast improving weather outside and drag myself away. My decision is rendered even  easier by the arrival of three young mothers with babies and associated paraphernalia who pounce on the settee / armchair combination in the window vacated by an elderly couple and begin to spread out.

It may be a long time before those coveted seats become available again.

Stephen and Alice

My final duty is to adjudicate among two middle aged ladies who cannot decide which of the enticing cakes adorning the counter they should indulge in. After some discussion about the relative merits of the blueberry vanilla sponge and raspberry and chocolate cake, they take my advice and plump for the lemon cheesecake, which, judging by the moaning and smacking of lips I hear as I open the door to leave, has been one of my better decisions.

If you live in or near Folkestone, are a young mum, aspiring writer or lady that lunches (other socio-economic groups are available), and have not tottered down the Old High Street in the past year, you are missing a treat.

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“Work is so busy”.

“I’m too tired in the evenings”.

“The kids take up all my time”.

“I just can’t think of anything to write”.

The list goes on.

Writers are society’s great procrastinators, forever finding excuses for not putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

And I’m no different.

Aside from (some claim unhealthy) daily absorption in social media, primarily Facebook, I have written little of consequence over the past eighteen months, in fact a total of twenty five posts on my blog, admittedly most of which were of considerable length.

But it is now three years since I published A Half-Forgotten Triumph with my late, lamented co-author, Martin Moseling, to some acclaim in cricketing circles. That was to be the – somewhat idiosyncratic – launch pad for a writing career that, frankly, was always going to be more likely to bring modest pleasure to a small proportion of the reading public than any riches to its author.

Based on a host of articles written on annual trips to San Francisco, I planned to follow Triumph up in 2015 with a book celebrating, from an English traveller’s perspective, the City by the Bay. By the time I’m writing this piece, I would have hoped to have published it.

Not so.

A significant chunk of Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco is still sitting on my desk in the nicely decorated binder I bought for the express purpose. Less developed is the manuscript of High Kicks and Red Rocks: A South West Road Trip which was the next planned work.

Now, this is where, in the classic writer’s fashion, I reel out my own excuses – deteriorating health and ultimate death of my father, which took a physical and mental toll, the passing of two other close friends, including the aforementioned Martin, two major operations for myself and, during this calendar year, the need to sell two properties and purchase another fifty miles apart.

Under cross-examination, I do believe I could make a case for partly justifying my inaction in respect of some of those issues, but, ultimately, my natural indolence took control of my writing energies.

But I can no longer cite them, or any other factors for that matter, as reasons for not getting “back on the horse”.

So it is time to dust off that nicely decorated binder and get to work on Cloudy Day, and following that, High Kicks. 

And I will.

However.

(I know – procrastinating again).

A slight spanner has been thrown into the works in the past few months which has had both a positive and potentially negative impact on my writing plans.

Folkestone.

My new home on the Channel coast has given me both a source of renewed inspiration and motivation. Without it, I doubt whether I would have been able to exorcise those demons I listed above.

It has been the subject of my four most recent blog posts, the last three alone written in the two and a half months since I arrived in the town that had generated so many happy memories from half a century ago.

But the danger, of course, is that its charms might divert me from the plans I have just outlined for those two books. I suspect that there may one day be a need to make Folkestone the main protagonist of another, more substantial, piece, but, for now, it has to be the light relief, the day job if you like. Aside from the requirement to sustain interest in the upcoming San Francisco book, ever more important as completion approaches, it will continue to be the primary focus of my social media activity.

Now where did I say that nicely decorated binder was?

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This is the third in a series of articles about the writing of my new book: Smiling on a Cloudy Day: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco. The previous posts were:

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2013/08/07/the-next-book/

http://www.tonyquarrington.wordpress.com/2014/07/07/smiling-on-a-cloudy-day/

The dates of those posts might already indicate that progress has not been as swift as I would have liked. There are a variety of reasons for this, not least my father’s fluctuating health over the past eighteen months and a recent, but now concluded, return to paid employment.

It is a similar story with the blogging – only sixteen posts, admittedly some of them quite long, since returning from San Francisco in April last year, compared to almost double that number in the preceding nine months.

But that is now in the past, and I am determined to publish the book this year. Indeed, I have been working on a draft for many months.

One illustration of progress is that dozens of disparate sheets of paper scattered over various surfaces have now been incorporated into a smart folder in which that working draft is now housed (see below). True to type, inspiration has been sought in the attachment of Grateful Dead and Giants logos.

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Part travel diary, part guide book, part history and part analysis of modern city life from the perspective of a regular foreign visitor, Smiling on a Cloudy Day follows the adventures of my wife and I during a month in early summer (if June in San Francisco can ever be considered summer). You will be able to follow us as we explore many of the most popular, and some less well-known, sights, chuckle and groan in equal measure at the antics of fellow passengers on public transportation, ramble round our adopted neighbourhood of Bernal Heights, and endure extreme temperatures at AT & T Park while still believing that the Giants will avert the run of dismal defeats that have coincided with our attendance.

Unsurprisingly, food and drink will feature strongly, and there will be plenty of music too at festivals and concert halls.

I intend to press on with the draft over the next four months before our next pilgrimage to the City in May. Those two weeks will feel as much a research trip as a vacation as I attempt to clarify facts and solidify themes.

Irrespective of whether I publish digitally or in print (though I remain inclined towards the former method), I plan to do so in advance of my second trip, this time for a full month in September/October.

I will continue to supply periodic updates and brief extracts on my blog in an effort to whet readers’ appetites as the book develops.

But if you would now excuse me, I need to get on with writing it.

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With my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, co-written with Martin Moseling, now in print, I am keen to proceed with the second. It will represent a significant departure from my first publication which explored in detail the fortunes of one sports team a century ago.  Not only will I be writing on my own this time but I will also be focusing on a subject that exceeds even my passion for cricket – San Francisco.

I am grappling at the moment, however, with the precise form that the book might take.  Initially, I envisaged writing a standard travel diary, based on my experiences over ten visits to the city, varying between three and twenty eight nights, during the past eighteen years. Of course, I would try to make it witty and interesting but it would still be a travel diary.

But there are other options.

I have written nearly twenty blog articles on San Franciscan characters and eccentrics, some famous, others notorious (the characters, not the posts). An expanded work on that subject – along the lines perhaps of “50 Great San Francisco characters” is still an objective. But perhaps not now.

I am intrigued by the unanimously thrilled reaction of my countrymen – and women – to their first acquaintance with San Francisco. Though many may never return, and certainly not as often as I have and will continue to do, they retain fond memories of their visit. The most recent figures from the San Francisco Travel Association show that, at 11.6% of the total of 15.92 million, the proportion of visitors from the United Kingdom only just falls short of those from Canada, the country unsurprisingly supplying the most.

The British have a clear affinity with the city, as witnessed by such literary luminaries as  Dylan Thomas (“you wouldn’t think such a place as San Francisco could exist”) and John Lennon (“we’re crazy about this city”), as well as countless thousands of tourists from its isles.

i think there may, therefore, be some mileage in assessing the British impact on San Francisco since Sir Francis Drake first landed the Golden Hind near the Golden Gate in June 1579, almost two hundred years before the city was officially “founded” by the Spanish. But again perhaps not yet.

Despite its popularity and the literature it has spawned, there are still aspects of the San Francisco story that have yet to be explored.

My final approach, and possibly the most likely at present, is a more fluid series of reminiscences and reflections on the everyday life and culture of the city. More challenging would be to convert that material into a fictional narrative, partly because I doubt that I have the skill to do so, but equally because I would have the massive shadow of Armistead Maupin standing over me. An English angle might mollify the challenge but it would still be a daunting task to set myself.

But in a sense, it doesn’t quite matter yet as I am currently pulling together all the pieces I have written on the subject in my blog over the past two and a half years. The strength – or otherwise – of that content might actually help me to identify in which direction I need to go.

So there is no immediate urgency to make that decision while I carry out the necessary research and review the existing material. Equally, however, I cannot afford to let it drift as I want to have some material available to present to prospective publishers towards the end of the year.

I will continue to use this blog to relay my emerging thoughts and perhaps trail some of the content.

Wish me luck! 

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Born in October 1952 on the day tea rationing ended in Britain (good timing that, given my mother’s obsession – and subsequently mine – with the brew) and, as an only child, I enjoyed a happy childhood, revolving mainly around football and cricket.  I had the good fortune of growing up during the sixties, the music of which provided a thrilling soundtrack to my that period.

I attained a BA (Honours) in English and European Literature at Essex University, writing my dissertation on the novel At Swim-Two-Birds by Irish novelist and journalist Flann O’Brien.  This was followed by studying towards an MA in Anglo-Irish Literature at Leeds, majoring on James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and W.B.Yeats, including writing a treatise on the novels of Patrick Kavanagh (The Green Fool and Tarry Flynn).

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Eventually, I exchanged academia – via portering in a major department store and “making” sultana cookies and other exotic (for the time) biscuits – for the last refuge of the modern scoundrel and joined the UK civil service in March 1980.  I subsequently spent 29 years in the Department for Work and Pensions and its many antecedents, latterly in human resources and diversity before poaching early retirement in March 2009.

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My interest in the subject led me to undertake a Level 3 BTEC Advanced Certificate in Travel and Tourism via home learning.  I completed the course in December 2010, achieving a Distinction in all three elements – understanding the travel and tourism industry, tourist destinations and tour operations.  My ambition now is to concentrate on writing and, hopefully, to publish on a regular basis.  I have been focusing principally on my passions of San Francisco, cricket and travel, though I am not able to resist on pontificating on life in general from time to time.

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This blog has now been active for nearly two and a half years. But I want to do more than that. At present, I am in the final throes of co-writing a book on the centenary of Kent County Cricket Club’s fourth County Championship title in eight years, and future writing projects include a series of short stories based in San Francisco and an expansion of our U.S. road trip diary of September / October last year.

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Aside from the above topics, my other serious interests are walking, skiing, baseball (a fan from afar of the San Francisco Giants), association football (a life long fan of Gillingham), music (principally folk, blues, country and West Coast rock borne of the original Summer of Love in 1967), going to the theatre and eating out.

I feel extremely grateful to have the health and energy to pursue all of those interests, as I am also for the support and encouragement of my wonderful wife Janet whom I married in Vegas on Halloween 2009 after 27 years together (that makes it 31 now!).

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I have been inundated lately with enquiries as to why I haven’t posted on this blog since before Christmas, and the overwhelming tumult has finally forced me to fess up.

Well, actually, nobody has asked me – not one individual.

Personne.

Nessuno.

Nadie.

Niemand.

So it is purely guilt that has forced me to explain myself now. And I for one am sick of opening the blog to find my ten favourite Christmas songs staring – and blaring – at me. And, by the way, I have already changed my mind about them (but you will have to wait another nine months to discover the details).

So why the silence?

Well, it’s not – as might be presumed – because I have contracted writer’s block, lost my muse (if I ever had one) or given up because it’s just got too difficult.

No, it’s because I am writing a book!

Not alone though, I have a co-author.

Having made the decision in early December I felt to do it justice, and the fact that there is time pressure on its launch, I would avoid the complication of posting blog articles at the same time. Focusing on a single aspect of your writing is not what the experts tell us is advisable, and had I not been collaborating with someone else, I might have attempted to do both in tandem.

So, anyway, what’s this book about?

At this stage, with seven eighths of the writing done, I’d rather not disclose any more information to the world (though friends and associates already know), other than to say that it is a non-fiction book about a niche subject, stretching to 300 pages with masses of photographs and other illustrations. A well established author and expert on the subject has agreed to write the foreword.

We hope to round up the actual writing by the end of March with a view to publication in early summer (we have been given quotes by several prospective publishers already, though we may yet self-publish).

I will blog again shortly on the lessons to be learnt from my first book writing experience (the three part novel about the little white bull, written at the age of seven, doesn’t count). Writing with another person who lives 150 miles away has posed additional challenges, though I have to confess that the process has been relatively painless.

With the writing complete, I will return to the blog with a vengeance. With a whole month in summer in San Francisco ahead of me I will be focusing once again on this endlessly fascinating subject.

There – what a relief, at least I won’t now have to look at that Christmas song list any more.

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