on margate sands

On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with nothing.
The broken finger-nails of dirty hands.
My people humble people who expect
Nothing.

la la

To Carthage then I came

there is a victorian pavilion in margate where ts eliot wrote the third section of his most famous poem, ‘the waste land’. it’s the sort of poem that seems to draw people to it, although it is also among the most complex and least understandable poems ever written. i was certainly taken in by it when i first read it during a high school british lit class i won’t say how many decades ago and have been trying to understand it since. i mostly still don’t.

my time in london has got me closer, for much of ‘the waste land’ is about life in london. like me, ts was a yank in london – a fact many seem not to realise about him – and lived long in this city; long enough to have absorbed the futile shuffle of city workers across blustering london bridge every morning and how, somehow, there is still beauty in that.

london also drove ts mad, as it will do any person who lives here long enough. he captures the sort of love-hate that every londoner feels at some point, almost alluringly referring to the city’s ‘violet hour’ just before vitriolic adjectives about ‘the human engine’ and the river thames ‘spewing’ oil and tar and drifting logs. like most londoners, ts loved this city, and yet he sometimes felt it was killing his soul.

margate is a seaside town on the southeast coast of england in kent, which had its heyday during the victorian era just before the turn of the 20th century. queen victoria thought open-air bathing and sea-salty oxygen were good for the health (which…obviously). until rather recently, margate was on a mostly downhill trajectory since that time.

ts went to margate in 1921 to recover from a ‘nervous breakdown’; as far as i can tell, this just means he just went a bit mad for awhile, and haven’t we all. when ts arrived there, it likely would’ve still been busy with cafe-goers, electric trams and swimmers polka-dotting its crescent beach. over the decades, these were replaced by gaming arcades, greggs and wetherspoons.


a friend of mine – a self-described london dilettante and the sort of person who can be relied upon to think up these kinds of odd and wonderful excursions – suggested a day out in margate recently, and we happily obliged, thinking first of the sea air and rumours of a revival of pubs, particularly the ‘micro’ variety, selling good ale and nothing else. yes please.

it wasn’t until i started reading about margate that i discovered the ts connection, in particular, the seaside pavilion where he sat writing ‘the fire sermon’ (drawing on saint augustine at some length) and looking at the sea. i expected to feel something special here, or at least see what ts saw when he penned such mighty and difficult-to-comprehend language.

the sun was dropping to the west and we were almost to running late for our train back to london when we paused at the pavilion, after a day on the ales following a rather random group of morris dancers around margate’s excellent selection of small pubs. the sky was an ethereal grey-blue of the sort where the colour is washed out by a brilliant, dusky almost-evening light. the sea was steely and shimmering, but calm.


inside, the pavilion has a bunch of fold-down, cinema-style seats facing the water, where i imagine ts must’ve sat during his long days recovering and writing. but that day, in one corner, stacks of stained cardboard boxes, used tesco bags, grubby blankets and empty bottles surrounded a small group of homeless people holding cans of cider and looking menacingly at anyone daring near their makeshift residence.

what of that. i am not sure. the pavilion was designated a grade II listed building by english heritage in 2009. because of that it still stands, and it is indeed magnificent with wide views out over the north sea. add a high salt breeze and it seems almost anyone would be penning poetry under its latticed gables. too, it would be easy to compare the state of things there now to ts’s uneasy state of mind as he embarked on writing ‘the waste land’s’ tumultuous part III – downtrodden and eroded by too many days in london (a condition most londoners will still report with semi-regularity today). but even that metaphor seems too forthcoming for such a work as ‘the waste land’.


what i can say is go to margate. drink some ales. if you are unafraid of the cold, have a swim.

look at the sea from ts’s vantage, and you will feel something – possibly inexplicable. i did.

a year of poetry

at the end of last year, i decided to make 2016 my ‘year of poetry’. not quite sure what that meant, really, i just knew i wanted to spend more time reading, thinking about and writing poetry.

i don’t consider myself to be a poet. but i do, and have, written poetry, since i was about 16. a rather wonderful high school english teacher of mine pushed me in that direction. i once presented her with a folder of hand-written verse after a particularly engaging class on 20th century poets during which i found an immediate connection with the swirling sonnets of edna st vincent millay. her handwritten feedback a few days later was obviously trying to encourage my girlish and awkward attempts at writing about things beyond my emotional age. she told me i had a recurring motif. i was hooked.

it took a hiatus for some years. came back when i got my heart broken. i dabbled in songwriting, at which i was never particularly skilled (partially owing to the fact that i didn’t inherit my father’s incredible musical talents). and over the past year, i’ve found myself yearning for more verse in my life.

some goals for the year include completing two poetry MOOCs. one is through the california institute of the arts. it’s a more hands-on writing workshop, and it’s stretching my writing bone, forcing me to write one or two poems per week to prompts and using different devices than i’d normally reach for. the other is a yale literature course on reading and understanding classical and modern poetry.

in april, i’m going to try to write a poem a day to coincide with national poetry month in the us. this will, interestingly, also coincide with a three-week trip to gansu province in western china, so writing should come easily and inspiration will be found on desert bluffs and dune sunsets, i hope.

i’d like to share some poems that i write here, if nothing more than to air them. i cannot promise they will be good. or even finished.

boy and busker on Grafton Street Dublin

on 2012 and things to come

i don’t often get sentimental about new year’s eve. i rarely, if ever, make resolutions. in our house, this night is more about hunkering down, having a nice glass of champagne and going to bed early, resting in the knowledge that tomorrow is just another day.

the louvre, paris, july 2012
the louvre, paris, july 2012

this year, however, things are a little different. yes, we are hunkering down for a homemade dinner and the compulsory glass (or three) of champers and an all-night movie fest.

Sexy Sea Lion - New Zealand
Sexy Sea Lion – New Zealand

but this year, i am in a reflective mood. i have been thinking a lot about the past 12 months and a lot about the 12 months to come. in january, i will be starting a new job with what is perhaps my dream company. the MOTHER SHIP, as it were, and since this change is also marking a new year, it’s easy to reflect on the past and future.

Homage to Ansel Adams - Queenstown, NZ
Homage to Ansel Adams – Queenstown, NZ

2012 was, in many ways, a year of financial health, for me. it was a year in which i transitioned from freelancing to full-time work and it was the first year in too many to count that i’ve actually not had to worry about money.

Shadow of a cat - pub in Reading, England, 2012.
Shadow of a cat – pub in Reading, England, 2012.

with it, though, came a creeping realisation that i was, in some ways, sacrificing my physical health (2011 was my year of kick-ass health) for my financial health. long hours, lack of a proper place to eat lunch (hence eating crap for lunch) and zero exercise have not been good to my body. it was a sacrifice i made very willingly, knowing that 2012 was my year of financial health.

London Eye and the Thames.
London Eye and the Thames.

i want 2013 to be my year of freedom. a year where i can have both financial and physical health. a year where i have the time to do things i love in addition to my work. things like updating this blog (the single post from 2012 can attest to how dry my writing life has been) and writing irishjaunt. a year to regain connections and rediscover my creativity, but this time, without sacrificing financial health.

Snow falling on London - February.
Snow falling on London – February.

2013 is going to be a year of travel. bill and i have already begun planning and dreaming the many city breaks we hope to take, which may or may not include galicia in northern spain, croatia, mexico and boston. we’ll see.

The drawing room at the Wallace Collection.
The drawing room at the Wallace Collection.

also, we are so happy in london, we’re staying. can you believe it? 18 months and counting in the same place. i think that’s a record.

Hasidic Jews - London crap.
Hasidic Jews – London crap.

finally, friends, i will leave you with this photo i snapped on grafton street in dublin over christmas. i want to be as inspired and in awe of the world and life as this little boy.

boy and busker on Grafton Street Dublin

the photos in this post are a selection of my favourites that i snapped in 2012. you can see them all at my flickr photostream.

bread and butter

with the el paso guide done and sent, i thought i would have plenty of time to sit around, watch alias reruns and drink margaritas. turns out, having two guidebooks under your belt means there is no shortage of freelance work available. currently, i’m writing another article for unearthing asia‘s second issue. i’m also penning a series of 3k word city guides for a danish travel agency’s website and i’m handling the blog for uk hotel map. i’m also working on a new study abroad ebook for a client that hired me via elance, which is due at the beginning of may, and i’m trying to keep up with my examiner gig, as well as exploring the worlds of demand studios, seed.com and textbroker and, of course, Continue reading “bread and butter”

the new wave of travel writing: 9 essential skills

travel writing used to be very different. even 10 years ago, it was a travel writer’s job to take people where they couldn’t otherwise go. to describe scene and place. to be flowery and good with adjectives and to write long, exponential pieces about the world the way others didn’t, and perhaps couldn’t, see it. that’s all changed now. i am about 15 years too late in saying “this internet has changed everything”, but it’s especially true of travel writing. and it has changed fast. Continue reading “the new wave of travel writing: 9 essential skills”

5 great albums for travel writing

as a traveler, music is an integral part of the experience of a journey. having the right song playing on your ipod can completely enhance your surroundings, make a terrible train ride just a little bit better, drown out those awful chinese lorry horns and get you through long, long airplane hours. but as a travel writer, i am picky about my musical selections.

i believe that a good travel writing album must be a complex coupling of driven music that is also not terribly distracting. you need to be inspired by the melodies while still able to ignore the words as you write. so, i’ve compiled what i think are five great albums to listen to while writing about my travels. Continue reading “5 great albums for travel writing”

it takes a year to make a travel writer

being the guide in shanghai, april 2009

2009 has been a busy year of traveling, traveling and more traveling. some of it was travel for pleasure, other trips were induced more from need to get away. in fact, in many ways, 2009 was a banister year for me.

‘this is china, a guidebook for teachers, backpackers and other lunatics’ was finally released in july, after a long, unfortunately drawn out contract finally came to a painful demise when my publisher, duffie books, went bust. i got my first real foray into the world of travel writing at sites like the circumference, your 24 and unearthing asia.  this time last year, bill and i were surviving a cold, wet irish winter in our tiny basement flat in rathmines. now we are spending our days writing and computing from a cozy albuquerque apartment. i guess it takes a year to make a travel writer. [tweetmeme] Continue reading “it takes a year to make a travel writer”