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A little under two thousand days ago (is it really that many?), I snapped my wage slave chains and took early retirement from the public service. It hadn’t been planned, though I was of an age to leave, but it was a sudden opportunity that presented itself that was just too good to ignore.

Even on that last day in service, as I strolled the streets of Paris with my birthday girl of a wife on a balmy spring day, I gave little thought to what I might do next, to what my “second career” might be. After all, I was only fifty six – “nobbut a bairn” as they’d say in Yorkshire.

Cue excuse to post a gratuitous photograph of myself on that fateful day.

Do I look happy?

Relieved?

Too young to retire? (Don’t answer that one).

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And now I am about to return to gainful employment for the first time since.

But more of that later.

There was no rush to find alternative employment at the time – I had a decent occupational pension, though hardly the golden handshake that many believe awaits anyone, irrespective of finishing grade or length of tenure, that leaves the civil service. And it would be another eight and a half years before I was eligible for my state retirement pension.

But I received an income that supplemented my wife’s continued full-time salary (she would have, barring a lottery win, another eight years before she could follow suit). Once a handful of debts had been paid, the residual lump sum could sit in a savings account growing ever fatter with a 0.5% interest rate.

Although the process of offer, acceptance and departure was a swift and painless one, there were sound personal and professional reasons for my decision. I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the commercial and less caring direction in which the organisation was moving, and felt unappreciated by immediate line management and employer alike. When I added in twenty three years of long distance commuting, I’d had enough.

It “helped”, if that’s the right word, that my father was not in the best of health, and I could now devote more time to his care. And my wife would have her dinner on the table every night when she got home from a ten hour day.

But back to the question of what to “do” next (as if caring and maintaining a home were “doing” nothing).

My preferred part-time job would have been working in a bookshop, but they were already dropping by the wayside in the face of the economic downturn and e-book onslaught.

Book selling had been a long shot anyway, but surely, working in travel and tourism, for which people told me I had a passion and aptitude, would be a better bet?

So I wrote to around twenty travel agents in the area, extolling the inestimable benefits I could bring to their company.

No response.

My education in what happened in the brave new, recession-ridden, non-governmental world of work was expanding daily as my letter box grew rusty with misuse.

I soon realised that, in order to compete for a career in tourism at any level, especially given my age, I would need to “go back to school” and acquire some vocational qualifications. Time was too short to embark on a three year degree course to become a tour guide – for which there were few openings anyway – so I plumped for working towards a prestigious professional diploma from the Home Learning College.

Within a year, I had passed with distinctions in all three elements of the course.

But jobs were still at a premium.

And, by then, having prepared fourteen dissertations, I had rediscovered a long term itch that screamed to be scratched – writing.

There was nothing else I wanted to do. It wasn’t going to pay, at least in the short term, or possibly ever, but it would be the most fulfilling and satisfying thing I could do with my time. I started a blog on New Year’s Eve 2010, focusing principally on my affection for San Francisco, which I maintain to this day – the blog and the affection of course.

In 2013 I published, along with Martin Moseling, my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, which received critical acclaim, but modest sales, in the admittedly niche world of cricket writing. My next book, Smiling on a Cloudy Day, which will attempt to articulate my love for the City by the Bay, is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2015.

I believe that, on the whole, I have managed my time away from the world of “working for the man / woman” over the past five and a half years fairly effectively. And I have certainly never been bored. In fact, how did I ever find the time to go to work?

Do I regret having “retired” when I did?

No.

Have I missed the social interaction, the camaraderie of working in a team, the sometimes unbearable stress?

Maybe, sometimes.

But now an opportunity has arisen that has made me reconsider whether my fierce commitment to customer service, a trait known only too well by my wife as she listens to yet another Victor Meldrew-like rant on the subject, might yet have an avenue of expression outside the home.

Which brings me neatly back to the new job.

A high-end, award-winning cookware company is opening its new state-of-the-art branch in Bluewater, Europe’s largest shopping centre, in October, and I have been successful in securing a part-time position as a sales assistant. As with my early retirement, the process of sending my CV, being interviewed and offered the job took just three working days.

It’s not my first venture into retail – I worked for six months in a local charity shop in 2010 which I enjoyed immensely, though I acknowledge that this will be a far more intense working environment.

Although I had essentially given up on returning to such work, I find myself intrigued and not a little excited at the prospect.

It will mean, of course, managing my writing and other responsibilities more rigorously. And spending less time on Facebook can be no bad thing can it?

But my wife will have to make her own dinner when I’m on an evening shift.

But oh to be back in Paris in 2009! (Another gratuitous photograph).

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Shortly after the publication of my first book, A Half-Forgotten Triumph, I outlined my initial thoughts on what was already being referred to as “the San Francisco book”:

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

At that time, I was considering various options on its subject matter and format:

  • standard travel diary;
  • guide book;
  • reflections on aspects of life in the city;
  • features on some of its larger than life characters; and
  • analysis of the British influence on the City.

A year on, all of those options still appeal to me, and I would fully intend to tackle them all in the future. But if I am to make progress with this first book in the series, the time has come to set aside doubts and decide which course to take.

I keep returning to the idea of a combination of the first three options. Indeed, the material that I have written already has adopted that approach.

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The book will follow an English couple on a month long vacation in the City. From their rental cottage in Bernal Heights, they will explore both the most celebrated and lesser known locations, reflecting, not only on their experiences, but also the issues affecting tourists and residents alike in modern day San Francisco.

Those reflections will inevitably carry an English flavour, similar to the style of both my blog and the Tony Quarrington: An Englishman’s Love Affair with San Francisco Facebook page.

I have had an acceptable working title for some time – Smiling on a Cloudy Day Some readers may recognise the direct quote which, I think, reflects neatly my habitual engagement with the “City by the Bay”.

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I’ll confess that even reaching this point has not been easy, and progress has been slow.

Perhaps it’s laziness, perhaps lack of imagination – or, more likely, both – but I struggle to write authentically about San Francisco when I am domiciled most of the time more than five thousand miles away.

There is so much support material available online – not only websites and other resources, but hundreds of videos online on every aspect of life in the City.

Want to ride the Powell and Hyde cable car line?

Click on the one of several YouTube videos.

Want to know what it’s really like living in the Mission district?

Click on one of the many “vox pop” interviews with residents on YouTube.

Want to absorb yourself in one of the many festivals that abound in San Francisco on almost any given weekend?

I think you know the answer.

Easy then isn’t it?

No. It’s very hard – well, at least for me.

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James Joyce may have been able to capture the essence of daily life in Dublin despite only occasionally, and then briefly, returning to his native city a handful of times after first leaving it in the year in which Ulysses is set.

It helps, of course, if you have spent the first twenty two years of your life in that environment. Being a genius and a master of the English language too are hardly handicaps.

I can claim neither of those advantages.

So I’m left with memories from a dozen visits, bolstered by notes and blog articles at the time, and those YouTube videos to convey the spirit of life in the city.

Ultimately, the readers will be the judge of how successful I have been.

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Finally, there are a number of practical decisions to make over the coming months as the book comes together, notably the projected publication date and form the book will take (print or e-version).

On timing, my current plans are to publish midway between my planned trips to the City in May and September of next year, enabling me to promote it locally.

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

 

 

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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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So, 2,325 miles and 17 days later, was the road trip worthwhile?

Absolutely.

It could not have gone any better:

  • check-in was courteous and efficient at every hotel /motel, and most rooms were spacious, comfortable and well furnished;
  • the planned itinerary for each day delivered us to the right place at the right time;
  • the hire car was completely reliable and a pleasure to drive;
  • we encountered very little traffic;
  • the weather was fabulous;
  • all the attractions we had planned to visit lived up to or exceeded our expectations;
  • most meals were excellent, including those on the road itself;
  • most people we met were extremely friendly and interested in our journey; and
  • WiFi was reliable in all locations, with only occasional gaps in connection; and
  • we never fell out, other than briefly on one occasion over directions to the hotel.

There were some irritations of course – the noisy room in Kayenta and the abstemious culture of southern Utah – but these were minor.

We did not manage to get to every sight we would have liked, notably Dead Horse Point State Park and stretches of Route 66, but we did visit others that we had not planned. And besides, it means we have a ready made itinerary for the next trip!

The main disappointment – and one that had no overall impact on our enjoyment of the trip – were the two hour delays each way perpetrated by Virgin Atlantic.

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Some friends and colleagues had actually been worried on our behalf about the prospect of the trip. Wouldn’t it be dangerous, just the two of you, alone in remote areas of a foreign country, a proudly gun-owning nation with a history of gas station hold ups and crazed killers mowing down hordes of people in schools, shopping malls and cinemas?

We had never given this a single thought.

Nor was our safety ever compromised on the trip.

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Most aficionados of the road trip advise that the way to enjoy it most is to just jump in the car and drive, staying when and where the mood takes you. Above all, don’t plan.

I understand that, but we decided to plan everything – from accommodation to daily itineraries – and it worked beautifully. But in future we might live just a little more dangerously and leave some of the lodging stops to a whim.

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So would we do it again?

Absolutely. We’d do it tomorrow if we could.

There have been other trips in the U.S. we would like to do – Highway 61, the prairies, north west, cowboy country – to which we can now add several variants of the one we have just finished.

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Sinatra sang that “it’s nice to go travelling” but “it’s oh so nice to come home”. And who can forget Dorothy clicking her ruby slippers whilst reciting “there’s no place like home”? They both have a valid point.

And the road can be tiring. Nobody has ever claimed that they enjoyed living out of a suitcase. And caravans, RVs and even the most luxurious of Winnebagos are not the most comfortables place to sleep, eat and relax in.

So why would anyone want to spend any more of their time than is necessary on the move?

Freedom, or as Richard Grant put it in his wonderful book, Ghost Riders, in which he travelled around with diverse groups of nomadic Americans:

the only true freedom is the freedom to roam across the land , beholden to no one.

The open road, the big skies, the ever-changing landscape, the excitement of who and what is awaiting you around the next corner or in the next town, discovering new cultures and pursuits, stopping when and where you want to eat and sleep.

Aren’t these – rather than engaging inanely via social media, gawping at lowest common denominator TV or moping around a shopping mall collecting things you neither need nor can truly afford – what make life fulfilling?

Life is about movement – physical and spiritual. What better way to experience this than to “get hip to this timely tip”? Hit the road!

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Finally, my thanks to Allen Manning who not only encouraged us to take the trip and designed our original itinerary, but also patiently answered all my uninformed questions along the way. It was fun too to compare notes via daily e mail from our respective trips whilst we were both in the land of the free (his tour included Tennessee, Kentucky and Texas).

Allen, you have a lot to answer for!

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