Monday, April 25, 2016

Meandering through London's other world and a meeting with a special blog pal

Going to London last week wasn't only about the London Book Fair; it was also an opportunity to do what Koos and I do best - canal walking.

London is blessed with a number waterways that most people rarely notice unless they use them for cruising, cycling or walking. When I was a child, we just used to head for the Thames. My father loved to take us to the docks or to the Embankment where we could see ships of all shapes and sizes loading, unloading or just lying at their moorings. As a former naval man, he was drawn to the river and I remember well that on frequent Monday evenings, he would go down to the Thames to join his former seaman buddies on one of the Admiralty ships that lay off the South Bank. I forget its name now, but the one he went to was used as a kind of club. Oddly enough, though, the canals were never an attraction for him. Not that I can remember anyway. In those days, I honestly think they tended to be just somewhere for people to dump rubbish and old shopping trolleys.

With the resurgence of interest in canal boating, however, the canals have come back into their own and they are now places where people escape from the press and stress of city life. On the second afternoon of our stay, and once I'd finished at the LBF, we took a bus east, eventually getting off at Mile End, right by the Regent's Canal. Our bus route had taken us through the colurful eastern districts of Whitechapel and Stepney Green which have traditionally always been populated by an eclectic mix of people. They are busy, multi-cultural and lively, but when we stepped down to the canal towpath from the A11 main road, just next to the Queen Mary University of London, it was like stepping through that wardrobe door in the Narnia stories into a different world. It really was. The noise, traffic and fumes of the city streets vanished and peace descended. Sure, we had to watch out for the commuter cyclists who sped along the towpath as their chosen route, but almost without fail, these were gracious in their thanks for our consideration. It's as if a gentler spirit comes over people when they are close to the water, isn't it? So as we wandered north between the array of narrowboats that lined the canal side to our left and Mile End Park to our right, the tranquillity was incredibly therapeutic.

At the end of the park, we came to the Regent's Canal junction with the Herford Union Canal that led off to the north east, so of course we had to follow that. According to the map, this section runs between South Hackney and Bow, and I was sure I recognised images from Walter Steggles' paintings of the canal at Bow. I may be imagining it but it all looked familiar and as if nothing much had changed since this great East London artist painted his memorable works in the 1930s. Just exchange the working barges for a few run down narrowboats and the scene is just the same,

 At some distance along the Hertford Union Canal, we sat on a bench and chatted to a charming chap complete in city suit who was enjoying a smoke in the evening air. He told us quite a bit about the area and how it was becoming 'gentrified' at the expense of the local people. I wasn't surprised to hear that although developers are obliged to build a quota of social housing, there is still considerably less than there was before. As usual, then, the original locals can no longer live in the areas in which they grew up. There is simply not enough affordable housing as the private properties are way beyond their means...beyond anybody's I would have thought. The average price for a canal side apartment? Somewhere around GBP 1 million!

A little further along and under another bridge, the canal joins the Lea River, at which point we decided it was time to call it a day.

The next aftenoon, being Thursday, I left the LBF and met Koos at Tower Hill underground station. From there, we went down to the river at Wapping to see some friends of ours who have their barges on the Hermitage Moorings. We spent a lovely couple of hours with them, but in the end the motion of the rocking barge on the Thames got to my stomach and we had to retreat to the shore. All the same, we had another great walk through the old redeveloped docklands to Shadwell Basin, another haven of stillness right next to the tourist trap gone mad that is the Tower of London and its famous bridge. It's amazing how quiet and peaceful it is there, and yet the wall to wall tourists are just a couple of streets away. I can only liken it to being in the unreal calm of the eye of a storm.

Shadwell Basin: The calm eye in London's tourist storm 

On our final day, we left London and caught the train out to Southend which was where we'd flown into. One of the reasons for choosing this destination was that I'd particularly wanted to see an exhibition of paintings by The East London Group (see ref Walter Steggles earlier) that I knew was on at Southend's Beecroft Gallery. We'd also planned to meet up with a couple of long term blog pals. For me, it was the chance I'd been wanting for years to meet the very special and truly lovely Fran of the blog Bonnie of Clyde fame. For Koos, it was a reunion with a blog friend of old too. 

What a terrific day that was. The exhibition was great, but the meeting with Fran was just the highlight of my trip. We had so much to talk about and as we both knew we would, we got on like a house on fire straight away and I am now on a promise to take a ferry over and visit her on her barge, something I am looking forward to doing immensely. So to finish off this rather long (okay it's me) post, here are a couple of photos to prove it. Have a great week everyone and I promise, yes, I really do, that my next post won't be as long as this one!

The wonderful paintings of  The East London Group

Fabulous Fran from Bonnie of Clyde

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Experiencing The London Book Fair

What a week that was!

I've just come back from a few days in London, during which I spent an afternoon and two mornings at The London Book Fair where I was helping out at the Sunpenny Publishing stand - number 5C138 as we all came to know it. For those of you who don't know, Jo Holloway, Sunpenny's managing editor and director, published two of my books, but this was the first time I'd met her, so it was a special occasion for me on that score.

Actually, I don't think I really helped anything very much other than to dispense coffee and leaflets, but it was so good to be there as there were many of the other Sunpenny authors there too. For me, the best part was meeting these lovely people with whom I've only ever connected via Facebook, Twitter and email and I can't tell you what a difference it made to us to talk, chat, laugh and even hug each other for real.

Firstly, I have to mention the Hat, which became a symbol of our stand. This hat was a glorious, red, sort of pillar box crossed with a cloche and was borne aloft by Michelle Jayne Heatley, our social media wizz-kid, who is as sweet as she is clever and who struck upon this absolutely genius move of being the walking mascot for our stand. Michelle's lovely book, Fish Soup, is a literary novel of unusual lyrical beauty.
The Red Hat
Apart from this, it was just great to meet the others, one of whom had come all the way from Seattle to attend. This was Sonja Anderson, whose delightful children's book, Sophie's Quest, is doing well in the States and elsewhere. Sonja is enthusiastic and passionate about encouraging children to read and she seems to have immense energy. I realise now that I never got a photo of her as she was so busy attending talks and really making the most of the occasion!

Then there was Julie McGowan from Wales, whose novels, Don't Pass me By and The Mountains Between, and short stories, Close to You, are great favourites of mine. She is just terrific and I am full of admiration for her energy and talent. She includes nurse, pianist, actress, production company owner and writer among her gifts, talents and skills, not to mention a lovely, bubbly personality, sparkling wit and a great sense humour. I honestly don't know how she fits everything in and still manages to be so organised and fun with it too!

Julie McGowan with Michelle
Another author who I've had really good contact with on the internet was Tonia Parronchi who came over from Italy. Her sailing memoir, Whisper on the Mediterranean, is full of the flavours of her Italian home. Sadly, I only saw her for a few hours, but I know for sure we will meet again. We have so much in common and so much to talk about; a real darling as I knew for sure she would be.

Tonia Parronchi
Closer to home was Christine Moore, a truly lovely, gentle lady who I spent most of the time with on the Wednesday and who I also think I will have more contact with now. Christine's book, Going Astray, is one I've read and admired. It deals with what can happen when a church becomes more of a cult organisation than a place of faith. It's riveting stuff and Christine, an academic scientist by education, writes about the subject very convincingly and so well. We spent much of the morning walking round hall dishing out leaflets and just talking about everything and anything.

Checking the intricacies of the coffee machine pads with
Christine Moore

Christine Moore again. Double checking!
And then there was Jo herself. It was a huge pleasure to meet her, and what a sweetheart she is (may I say that, Jo?). She is knowledgeable, skilled, talented and authoritative about publishing as well, so I was pretty impressed watching her and Julie work as a team in their negotiations with publishers, agents and rights buyers. 

Jo in discussion with an illustrator

For the rest, the London Book Fair is quite awe-inspiring. It is huge and is entirely devoted to the industry, so the stands represented publishers both large and small, national and international. It also had an extensive range of agents, printers and translators. There were talks and events going on all the time throughout the day at various locations throughout the vast Olympia hall and interspersed with these were coffee bars and snack stalls. There were also people doing massages on stools up the centre aisle, so when the negotiating got too much, relief was close by and in the healing hands of this group of green clad masseurs. 

And it was busy! My goodness! I was a little overawed at first, but got used to it eventually. Our stand was easy to find being straight up the centre aisle and then turn right at the Book Bus...but I'll say more about that another time. Suffice to say, with all the authors, with Michelle, Julie and Jo, it quickly became 'home', and on Thursday, I was genuinely sad to say goodbye.  

Koos and I outside Olympia
The fair was a great experience and I'm so glad I went. It was impressive to see the event, but it was even more special to meet my fellow authors and our leading light, Jo. If I ever have the opportunity to go again; if Jo decides it's worth a repeat performance and we are invited, then I'll be there. Thank you, Jo, and thank you Michelle and Julie. You were all fantastic!

Friday, April 08, 2016

Close encounters of the interesting kind

I love it when I meet interesting people out of the blue, don't you? Just recently,  we've had two such encounters and they've left me feeling refreshed and charmed in equal measure.

The first one was when I was taking our fire extinguishers to be checked in the harbour here in our southern getaway. I was on my own (other half being off on a Polish-ing trip), and so I arrived at the marina office huffing and puffing somewhat as I was carrying two rather hefty fire blasters (or brandblussers as they are called here).

My type of
fire blaster

A burly individual met me at the entrance and kindly helped me down into the bowels of the boat that serves as the harbour office. Unfortunately, he had such a strong Zeeland accent, I couldn't make out a word he said. Everything that came out of his mouth sounded as if it had been through a tumble drier first before being ejected. Still I got the message that I should ask the man 'through there' (this was ascertained by means of a pointy finger - his, not mine) how long it would take.

Following the line of the finger, the man 'through there' proved to be a very congenial soul dressed in reliable blue overalls who told me I could safely go shopping and come back later for my extinguishers. He even found me a felt-tip pen to write the name of our boat on them, which I thought was very decent of him.  Throughout this exchange we had been conversing in Dutch, but then he came very close to me and whispered "Can I hear that you are English?", "Yes" I whispered back conspiratorially. And from then on we were best friends.

My new bosom buddy switched immediately to English and proceeded to tell me he was a member of an Irish Celtic music group and that he'd been to Ireland about forty times to perform there with his band. I was duly amazed and genuinely impressed that a Dutch band playing Irish Celtic music should be invited to perform in Ireland. Not only that, he told me they'd been asked to go to America and perform there too, the American fans not actually realising they weren't even Irish. Well, I was tickled pink by his story and we shook hands and parted with big smiles, good cheer and promises to see each other at their next concert.

Sea-going ships docked near Terneuzen

Another encounter occurred a few days ago when we took a drive to the dock areas at Terneuzen and met a man there who was barge spotting just as we were (one of our favourite pastimes). It transpired he came from a skipper's family like Koos and the two of them had very similar backgrounds and educations. The funny part of it for me was that they both recognised each other as Skippers' 'children' from Skippers' families immediately. The Netherlands is a small country with a small population, many of whom are connected to the barging world which tends to remain within certain families.

This is something I find fascinating as it's like being part of a fraternity and this kind of 'recognition' happens pretty frequently. Many is the time Koos will give his name and his conversation partner will ask "Are you one of the X Fernhout's? From the Skipper's world?" And then they will find loads in common and chat like brothers. It seems this man was quite a linguist too as he spoke about seven languages including Afrikaans, which he tested out on me. I didn't like to tell him my Dutch is a whole lot better than its South African equivalent. He was also a musician, a technician, an artist and traveller - quite a surprise for someone who looked as if he'd be quite at home on a commercial fishing vessel... I know - books, covers and all that.

Barge & boat watching on the canal near
So that was it: two meetings that gave me a smile and a new insight into the breadth of knowledge, creativity and experience you can find quite unexpectedly in the most unlikely looking people. But then this is one of the things I like so much about this country. You can't make assumptions about anything or anyone.

Maybe it's part of why the Dutch really are different. Or maybe it's just true everywhere if people are open to each other.