Excess Baggage

ReadingGlasses1Or 6 essentials for the writer on holiday

Wondering if you can possibly be without a book or a notepad for even a week? And what about the laptop? What’s the wifi like at your palm-fringed idyll or your remote retreat in the woods? It’s a two-edged sword, having no wifi does release all those wasted Facebook hours, but without that vital piece of Googling you’ll be unable to write a single word of the short story you’ve been nurturing for a month.

So, what are my top six takes?

  1. The laptop is a must, even if it does extend the airport security nightmare while you untangle the nest of cables. If there’s wifi in your shangri-la then set an alarm as a reminder to Stop Wasting Time looking at pictures of cats being cats and dogs being treated as children. It’s meant to be a break from the norm. If there’s any chance you will actually write a few memorable words, take a memory stick for back-up.

  2. A dictionary, preferably a good one with usage notes. Convincing a non-writing partnerPenguinEDcropped of this can be difficult, especially if your choice tips the scales at more than 2kg, as does my all-time favourite The Penguin English Dictionary (3rd ed. which has such a perfect seaside picture on it). What!? A fat paper dictionary when there’s the web with everything you need? To which the answer is a) what if there’s no web? and b) nothing else comes close.

  3. OxfordLandrangerA map of the place you’re about to spend time in. Good maps are hard to find, so do your research on this and don’t be scared to spend a little extra. For the UK accept nothing less than the latest OS (online and in bookshops). And as for GPS, Google Earth etc, see comments above re The Penguin.

  4. Spare reading glasses. Sod’s law says if you don’t take any, you’ll need them.

  5. A book you’ve had for a while and never quite got round to reading. It can be fact or fiction – although fiction can be difficult when also trying to write it. Be prepared to return with the book still unread. SpivetSelectedWorksNo matter, it will be available again for the next trip. There are several on my bookshelf ready to play the part, but The Selected Works of TS Spivet will probably be the volume of choice this year. I was seduced once again by the meaningless words “New York Times Bestseller”. Bestseller it might be, but who’s actually read it?

  6. A good pen and paper to write on. Sounds so simple doesn’t it, there are ballpoints by the million, but few that sit well in the hand or are a pleasure to use. Likewise a right-sized notebook of creamy pages with a willing surface. Current favourites are a classic Parker retractable with a black gel refill and a hardback 7×9 journal. Both are guaranteed a place in my bag.ParkerGelBlack3

In my household there’s a further discussion about the merits or otherwise of taking the printer, but that’s not something that need delay most people . . .

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Don’t Judge a Book . . .

SoulofaWarriorCoverPicSurprise, surprise! Don’t judge a book by its cover. It’s an old saying but one that never dates. To be clear from the beginning, this is not a story that I’d have normally chosen. The genre is completely alien to me, but I was lucky enough to be given a copy. And I was lucky enough to persevere through what seemed an unsteady and unpromising opening to finish what turned out to be a worthwhile read. Yes, Soul of a Warrior is flawed, but then it is rare for a first novel to be anything but. It seemed to be less in need of better writing than more diligent, perhaps harsher, editing and a few thousand words being cut. The author, Denna Holm, has been ambitious, winding together a gritty slice of life from today’s familiar world with all manner of science fiction and fantasy. Not content with vampires, werewolves, aliens, and interplanetary transportation, she has added the spice of interspecies romance. This may all seem a bit too much and yet Ms Holm carries it off far better than the description might suggest. Indeed, the story is carried along well by the relationship between the main protagonist Kimberly and her unlikely alien suitor/mate. Despite some slightly predictable outcomes, the author has also left enough room for both a sequel and the currently fashionable prequel. As might be expected, the themes offer abundant opportunities for descriptive passages painting the strange colours of other worlds and other beings. Although these are well handled, they could if anything have been a little more graphic, the imagination could have been allowed an even freer reign. Perhaps the story was most enjoyable, most authentic, when it touched upon areas of personal interest. The idea of there having been previous – albeit rare – interbreeding between humans and aliens, was well handled, and gave a firm base for the fantastic. The sprinkling of details from family and social history gave credibility to the fiction. If science fiction, fantasy and romance is your idea of a good read you’ll enjoy Soul of a Warrior a lot. I enjoyed it far more than expected, which proves yet again that I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover – or even its genre. The book is available in several formats but here’s the link to the Amazon kindle version Soul of a Warrior

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Sharing the Pleasure

AgricolaStreetLogoA warm welcome on a freezing night and the discovery of superb Apple & Gin sorbet.

It had been a dramatic, even traumatic, week. It was coming to a close after a Friday spent traipsing round used-car dealers in the biting cold with Halifax’s streets piled waist high with snow. Deeply weary, our greatest need was to sit somewhere other than a car, relax into some coffee and non-fast food. But where? A friend’s recommendation came to mind, a newish place on lately fashionable Agricola.

Few diners visible, an immediate and warm welcome at the Agricola Street Brasserie, but argh! It’s Friday! Of course – the tables are fully booked. No matter, we could eat in the lounge (a misnomer really), at the bar or the kitchen counter to watch the preparations. We chose the lounge, quieter we thought, a high table with high stools and better for conversation. It was not the best spot in the restaurant, but we had chosen it and would make the best of it. We sipped the promptly delivered coffee while considering the main event – food. Then, as luck would have it, a table has cancelled, would we like it?

This is a good space, interesting and well done without dominating the experience of being in it. By clever design (or simply good fortune) the acoustics are good. It’s easy to hold a conversation across a table without being drowned out or distracted by music or other diners, which is not always the case in a popular restaurant. And ASB – it’s already become an acronym – was certainly popular. In no time at all it filled with diners and a happy Friday night buzz.AgricolaStreetDinnerCropped

The warmth of the initial greeting was followed at every stage by genuinely smiling faces, people doing their jobs with apparent pleasure, happy to advise about the menu, pleased to bring the chosen dishes, sharing the pleasure we had in eating them.

That menu is not vast. This may be a strength rather than a weakness since it allows the kitchen to concentrate on what they do well. And they are doing it very well. Our sample of the menu included the lamb shank and the scallops followed by mille feuille and my own favourite, apple & gin sorbet which is outstanding. The food is excellent and not expensive, especially when you consider the quality, the service and the location. Eat very well indeed for under $30 (+tax).

ASB is doing a lot of things right. It would be so easy to become a regular if you live in the area or even an hour away. That may be important for the future of the business, since Agricola is not really on the tourist trail, especially in January. It will be Haligonians who make the restaurant a long-term success or otherwise. That said, visitors should definitely put it on their map, but call ahead and get a reservation, don’t rely on our luck.

Agricola Street Brasserie 2540 Agricola Street, Halifax, NS B3K 4C5 902-446-7664 agricolastreet.ca

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Last Lap

On the road againLeaving Yarmouth, it’s back on the road, which in Canada often means one thing.

Followers of these journeys through Nova Scotia will have noticed that they are regularly punctuated by food stops. The less pleasing (very few) are not mentioned, while the best are recommended. And yet only now, with the last few miles of the series about to be recorded, do I realise that one place, or rather one chain of places, has never been hinted at, and yet it is a Canadian institution. Yes, fast food, drive-thru coffee-to-go; yes, ‘have a nice day’ (or more often great day); yes, sticky doughnuts and wraps on wipe-clean tables and tubular steel chairs; and yes, scorned by some. Tim HortonsBut the coffee is good, the food may be formula but it’s fresh and tasty and very inexpensive and there’s a genuine friendliness about the places. So finally, step forward Tim Hortons, for a long overdue mention.

Now, back onto the #3 heading south, a Timmy’s safely stowed in the cup-holder, I drifted down through Arcadia, Plymouth, Tusket, Glenwood, Argyle and the Pubnicos, all the time playing hide-and-seek with the water. Not lakes here, but long fingers of the ocean, slicing the land into peninsulas and hump-backed islands. This is beautiful countryside, touring country, cycling country perhaps, with gentle gradients and the chance to do more than snatch a view between the trees.

One apparently unpromising place to stretch the legs is right on the county line where Yarmouth becomes Shelburne. Away across the mouth of the great sea-loch which is Pubnico Harbour is Pubnico Point, the sometimes controversial home to 17 giant turbines harvesting the wind straight off the ocean. A road leads down to a shingle spit at the end of which is perched another of those endearing Nova Scotian lighthouses. It’s worth wandering down the track and pausing to take in the sights and sounds of the water. Here the world turns a fraction less quickly.

Shag Harbour is the most southerly point of the journey, and almost of Nova Scotia. That honour goes to Cape Sable Island, which is not to be confused with that isolated arc of sand Sable Island, which is about 400km east of here, way out in the Atlantic. Now a trip there would be something to write home about . . .

And so to Shelburne. What do we really know of a place with only an hour or two spent in it? Well, we know it’s at the head of another great inlet, Shelburne Harbour; we know it’s at the mouth of the Roseway River; we know it’s pretty and historic and a delight to walk around; we know it’s a tourist centre but doesn’t feel like it; we know it’s strong on heritage without ramming it down everyone’s throat. Charlotte LaneAnd we know what a welcome feels like, we know when a place feels at ease with itself.

Which is all probably no more than a writer’s rose-tinted imaginings, but the welcome is real enough, probably nowhere better than at Charlotte Lane. A wonderful place to eat, with some of the best food of any found on these travels. At the back are a couple of tables on a patio. Sitting surrounded by greenery, the sun dappling through the trees, empty plates that didn’t tax the wallet, it was hard to leave. The exit is – as ever – through the gift shop. And worth it too, for some better-than-average items.

A stroll round the town to let the digestion work was interrupted by another discovery, one that will hardly surprise the regular reader: a book shop. But not just any book shop, the Whirligig Book Shop, a bookshop that describes its visitors arriving “either by automobile or boat.” Simply wonderful.
Lockeport, one of many beautiful spots around the coast of SW Nova Scotia

Dozens of other beautiful places and welcoming communities dot this coast, but for this trip I wanted to feel the sand between my toes at least once. Hurrying a little more than usual and leaving the winding #3 in favour of the more direct route gave just enough time to catch the last heat of the afternoon sun on Summerville Beach, another magnificent stretch of uninhabited white sand. Perhaps it is crowded on a hot day in the season, there’s parking for hundreds, it’s clean, it’s accessible, the sea is lazy and gently shelving. Summerville BeachBut wait, this was a hot day in the season: with the aid of binoculars it was possible to see 6 other people on maybe a kilometre of sand.

And so to the final stop of this series of journeys around the province. There can’t be many better places to watch the soft pinks and purples that follow a stunning sunset over a placid sea than The Quarterdeck. The food was excellent too, but the by now expected good service had an extra twist. The QuarterdeckDespite the passing of 3 years and thousands of guests, waitress Kristina not only recalled the previous visit but the table and the order.

Quite remarkable, but by now, who’s surprised?

This concludes the series of travels round the province, a series which started way back in Halifax in Jan 2012 with Nova Where? and has been a wonderful journey of discovery. I’ll return to Nova Scotian themes in the future, hopefully with more depth to particular places and people.

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Little Gems

Little Gems 2Kejimkujik National Park has featured here before and remains a favourite. But on this trip it’s the start rather than the destination for two days of discovery round the south-west coast of Nova Scotia.

My mother used to say all journeys should start with a good breakfast, (actually she said everything should start with a good breakfast), and mostly she’s been proven right.

The Wilder

Good food and a growing reputation

She’d have thoroughly approved of starting the day in Maitland Bridge at The Wilder , the old eating place with the new look and the bright new owners on the #8 near Keji. Shannon and Lekas are in their first year of running a restaurant, but you wouldn’t know it from their good food or their growing reputation. Sitting on their little patio in the morning sunshine, an empty plate in front of me, it would have been all too easy to linger.

North from The Wilder the highway heads to Annapolis Royal  which is also an old favourite, so on this trip the #8 was left behind, branching off on a lesser road through woods and tiny settlements to Virginia East, and from there across rolling farmland to Bear River. This is home to artists of all kinds, and in the season the town bustles with activity and visitors, but with the coast beckoning, this was not the day to stop and enjoy all it has to offer.

Bear River

Beautiful Bear River is worth another visit and an article all to itself.

From Bear River a mainly dirt road runs virtually straight for 30km to Weymouth. In the dry summer heat any car, regardless of speed or care taken, kicks up a huge plume of dust that hangs like a vapour trail to mark the journey. At length the land falls away on the approach to Weymouth beside the mighty Sissiboo – it’s a big and beautiful river but only mighty here because its name seems to demand such an adjective.

Heading south on the old #1 out of pretty little Weymouth, the landscape instantly transforms from hills and river valleys to the gentle coast of St Mary’s Bay, now hidden in thick mist, now glittering bright and blue across the 10km to Digby Neck. And another transformation has also occurred in less than a few turns of the road: a new flag is in evidence.

This is the Acadian Coast where 'Bienvenue en Clare' flutters alongside the tricolore from every lamp post.

This is the Acadian Coast where the tricolore and ‘Bienvenue en Clare’ flutters from every lamp post.

With thoughts turning to a lunch stop, The Roadside Grill at Belliveaus Cove was a convenient stopping point. It’s more than convenient, it’s surprisingly bright and light, unsurprisingly welcoming, happily bi-lingual, and has great views to the ocean. Oh, and it serves excellent food – typically North American in quantity – at modest prices, just as it has been doing for many decades. A a little gem of a diner.

Travelling on, there is a sameness to much of the road, gentle rises and falls, and seemingly endless small communities of low rise buildings, now scattered, now clustered together. A notable exception is Église Sainte-Marie, visible from miles around – as befits the tallest wooden church in North America.


Once a 7 room hotel, this fine old building has been reduced to a crumbling tackle-store at Cape St Marys

Before you realise it the tricolore has vanished, replaced by the red and white of the maple leaf. Every little cove, and there are many, has its picturesque harbour and collection of working boats, but there can be few more rewarding to wander round than Cape St Marys (webcam view from Cape View Motel). Like so many tiny ports, the signs of decay and former glories abound, yet look closer and you’ll find there’s life here and livings still being earned from the sea. The lobster boats bristle with technology as they wait in the harbour with the water gently slapping their hulls, the whole scene drifting in and out of focus as the mist ebbs and flows on the slightest of breezes. If you have the chance to chat with a local resident as I did, you’ll hear something of the history of the place along with stories you’ll hear nowhere else. The flag may have changed but the welcome is the same.

Not Amused

Worst nose-job ever. Her Majesty remains unamused in Frost Park, Yarmouth

Overnight in Yarmouth could have been a disappointment, it is not the loveliest of towns. The economy – indeed that of the whole of the south-west – suffered a big dent with the closure of the international ferry service to Maine. Recovery still seems a distant prospect. Today the dock, the terminal, the loading ramps, not to mention the nearby hotels and businesses, all stand idle, holding their breaths while waiting for a day which may never dawn.

Yet it is difficult to find anywhere that has no redeeming feature and at least one business appears to be thriving: Rudders is a harbourside pub, nothing very clever in that, even if it does have the now-familiar Nova Scotian service and tasty food. So what’s special? Beer. Excellent beer brewed on the premises. Beer that looks and tastes like beer is meant to.

Which makes Rudders another little gem to round off a day that started at The Wilder all those kilometres ago.

Next: #1 becomes #3 following the Lighthouse Route round the tip of the province to the other end of the #8, through Tusket and Argyle, Pubnico and Shelburne to Port Mouton and Summerville Centre.

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puddleSometimes events line up in a most surprising way, stretching coincidence to the very limits of credulity.

The statisticians will tell us that it’s all pure chance, the probabilities can all be calculated and that one day the lottery draw will be 1,2,3,4,5 and 6. And yet we poor humans cannot comprehend the statistical facts and will be amazed and astounded when it happens, despite it being just another random event.

A few days ago I started a little series of coincidences by doing something utterly out of character and habit: I picked up a piece of litter as I was walking to buy groceries. It had rained and the paper was half in a puddle and clearly soaked. Yet I paused in my stride and bent to pick up the white folded sheets. As I did so I saw that it was not one but two soggy pieces of A4. It was so waterlogged I thought to drop it again quickly.

I’d decided to walk that evening because I’d grown tired of reading and assessing an unpublished novel submitted to Askance. Once I’d done with the novel I knew there were many short stories waiting to be read and reduced to a short-list for the latest writing competition. Last year I’d had the good fortune to edit the 2013 collection and have been invited to do so again for 2014.

Editing marksInstead of dropping the random piece of litter, I carefully peeled the sheets apart and was astonished to find myself reading a short story, one with the notes of an editor neatly written in the margins, along with meticulously detailed corrections of grammar and punctuation.

Once I’d got the paper home and squeezed the water from it, I was able to read it properly. As a story it was interesting without being remarkable, but the writing was powerful if a little immature. It is not mine to reproduce here, so you must take my word for it. The notes at the end revealed its origins: this was a piece of school work, a piece of creative writing, the editor was an English teacher. That teacher had lavished such care and time on the story it reminded me of how my own teenage writings had been treated more than 50 years ago. And now as then, I couldn’t help but disagree with some of the comments, with the insistence on grammatical correctness and avoidance of taboo when creativity demands freedom of expression. Perhaps there is time enough for that.

guardian-logoAs it turned out, the chain of coincidence did not quite end there. The story had a name attached to it, and it was a matter of minutes to discover via Google that the author of Zoe’s Friend, with a Golden Smile (for that was the story) is barely into her teens and yet is already a published writer, a reviewer of books, already passing comment on others’ work, just as I had been doing before I decided on a walk after the rain.

So if you are reading this, ZM and would like your A-/B++ story back, please get in touch, I have it properly dried out now.

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Elixir of Youth

The days tick byFeeling jaded? Lost the edge? Here’s an old remedy rediscovered.

The days tick by and pile up into weeks and months ever more rapidly. Reminders of age and mortality come by more often – pension choices, higher premiums for travel insurance, even one or two untimely deaths of those with fewer years on the clock. All manner of professionals – not just the policemen – suddenly seem far too immature to be offering legal, financial, medical or spiritual advice.

If you let it get to you, it could really be quite depressing.

In recent weeks there seems to have been so little to inspire. We all need that moment, that look, that magic spark across the synapse to fuel the drive, to open our eyes to possibilities once again. Five young drama students did exactly that recently with a twenty-five minute show to an audience of family and fellow students.

Sex and scandal, lies and betrayalThere was no one moment, no look or expression, no special word or improbable note, rather it was the whole joyful performance. The subject matter struck a chord right from the off, a theatrical take on the Profumo Affair, a scandal that rocked the UK establishment back in the 1960s. These five had researched the event and its context, written the script, the music and the songs, designed the dances and rehearsed endlessly. All that is creditable enough but not unique, given the standards demanded of our sixth-formers nowadays. But these five The iconic image of Christine Keeler, taken in 1963 by Lewis Morley.brought it all to life – the spies and sex, the death and betrayals – with great verve and perception and a sparkling performance.

What shone through was that these young people had no sense of limits. For them anything is possible, not in a naïve way, for they are intelligent, well-read and well-educated. Smart and savvy as they might say. Perhaps it is simply that they have yet to suffer repeated knock-backs that life so often gives, perhaps they’ve yet to have their sharp talents and abilities blunted by refusal and indifference. Maybe they hide their self-doubt – that evil twin of creativity – beneath the fizz and bubble of performing.

the elixir of youthWhatever demons may lurk in their private moments, for now that passion, that first confident flush, that creative energy, is electric, contagious and inspirational. Just witnessing their enthusiasm, their pleasure at displaying what they’d made, was not only a pleasure but a timely reminder that life remains full of possibilities, from whatever age it’s viewed. So if you’re feeling jaded, feel you’ve lost the edge, or even worse – started classing yourself as over the hill, then tap in to the art and energy of those who are barely into adulthood. Give yourself an inspirational tonic by taking a long draught of the Elixir of Youth.

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