Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Coffee and Scribbles: My Ten Favourite Writing Cafes

Two of my greatest passions are coffee and writing. I thought it would be fun to share a selection of cafés and coffee shops with particular links to my work. Over the years, my writing has moved through several phases. For ten years (1996 through 2005) I ran Middle-earth Reunion (“The alternative Tolkien Society”). I designed and maintained the group’s website, and published our quarterly journal and newsletter. I wrote articles and short stories which explored the consequences of asserting Tolkien’s role as translator of authentic Middle-earth texts. You can find many of these writings on the Middle-earth Reunion website.

My next major focus was High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend’s Guide to Bipolar Disorder co-written with Fran Houston between 2012 and 2016. My blogging career began with the launch of Gum on My Shoe in 2013. I’ve written for many other blogs and organisations, including bp Magazine (Bipolar Hope), Mental Health First Aid England, I’m NOT Disordered, Bipolar Happens, and The Good Men Project.

I’ve listed my top ten writing venues in chronological order based on when I started writing there. All but one are in my home city of Newcastle upon Tyne. I’ve included website links and full addresses in case you’d like to visit. (Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Aimee Wilson for that suggestion!) If you’re interested in what I take on my coffee shop adventures, check out my Every Day Essentials for the Successful Blogger.


1. Blackfriars Restaurant and Banquet Hall

Friars Street, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4XN
www.blackfriarsrestaurant.co.uk

I started going to Blackfriars during a period of unemployment. At the time I was running Middle-earth Reunion and worked extensively there on my personal project The Tresco Manuscript and the Lore of Life, Leaf and Stone.

The ‘Tresco manuscript’ is named for Tresco in the Isles of Scilly, where it was reputedly discovered in the 19th century. It comprises the only documented link between Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth and our own, modern world.

Blackfriars provided a haven of calm at a time when my personal life and future were far from certain.


2. Boskoops

1 Eldon Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7JG

Situated on the second floor of the magnificent east terrace surrounding Old Eldon Square, and with commanding views of the square below, known locally as Hippy Green, Boskoops was a favourite of mine for a year or two.

My novella Playing at Darkness was inspired by the goths and other clans who gathered each Saturday in Hippy Green. There is more than a little of the author in the story’s socially awkward hero Malcolm.

Long before he knew her name he had watched Stitch with her people in the town square beneath the window of his favourite café; had gone back each week to watch them gather while he lingered over his breakfast and endless top-up coffees.

The title — Playing at Darkness — was inspired by a conversation overheard in another café, at Newcastle’s old central library.

For all the black leather and heavy makeup, for all that several professed allegiance to the Enemy in their attire [...] the Gothrim were children. Children playing at darkness. At least he had thought so at the time and it had almost turned him away from them. That wasn’t what he was looking for.

I’ve reworked Playing at Darkness several times, and retain a hope of publishing it one day.


3. Elula

13 Ridley Pl, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 8JQ
Facebook page

The downstairs café at Elula’s was a hidden gem. It was the setting for my short story gamma in the wrong place.

3pm, Saturday afternoon

Sat in the downstairs café in the Otherworldly crystal and incence shop. Less a café than a space for coffee. Small. Cosy. Spiral staircase from the shop above. Friendly. Pan pipe music.

Four six form students at a table across the room. Two adult women to my right. Mother and daughter? Maybe not. Students happy together but a bit loud. Women commenting on them (“product of the education system”). Two more women enter. [...]

Why did I come here? To sit. To scribble (having just bought this exercise book for that very purpose ...) To capture some thoughts. Looking for the muse. Is this the kind of place a muse would frequent? Maybe. Ellen might come here. (Ellen might work here).

Wandering today in the sunshine, I thought of the Green Fair. It is the kind of day to meet them.

Mention of Ellen and the Green Fair connects gamma to another tale from this period. Home Eleven describes my first contact with Ellen and Kai of the Ylfe (modern day Elves) at Newcastle’s Green Festival.

More or less directly across the clearing a kitchen stall boasted a fiercely vegetarian cuisine. Strung between branches overhead a broad shimmering silk banner proclaimed the legend “Home Eleven.” I wondered if it was the name of the kitchen or of the site itself. A strange name, in either case. The stall seemed to be manned by a tall good-looking guy in blond dreadlocks and a girl with long red-gold hair, a great figure and a loose purple dress.


4. The Grand (formerly Campus Coffee)

141 Percy Street, Grand Hotel Buildings, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU

Situated opposite Newcastle City Hall, Campus Coffee was my regular Saturday morning haunt for years until dwindling custom forced it to close at weekends. I wrote my diary there each Saturday, also letters and cards to friends. One of the staff was passionate about archery, which inspired my short story Kindling.

A sudden spark of light caught his attention. He walked across and knelt in the dirt to examine it more closely. By chance, the morning sun had struck upon what seemed to be a shard of silver buried deep in the heart of the wood and exposed only because of the ancient, time-wrought fracturing. What the thing was and how it had got there he could only guess. Heart racing now, he fetched the chain-hoist and canvas sling.


5. Rendezvous café, Whitley Bay

Dukes Walk, Northern Promenade, Whitley Bay NE26 1TP
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This iconic Art Deco café was built in 1930 and was originally called Garden Restaurant. Its name was changed to the Rendezvous Café in 1957. It has been described as a “perfect example of a traditional seaside ice cream parlour.”

I used to stop there on “me days” at the coast. I’d catch the Metro to West Monkseaton Metro station, walk to the sea front at Whitley Bay, then head north along the beach and promenade as far as St Mary’s lighthouse. The café was roughly midway and provided a welcome stopping point for coffee, a sandwich, and maybe a slice of cake or tray bake. One of my clearest memories is of sitting at the window one day in September 2005 writing a letter to my friend PJ who I’d known since university. She was very ill with multiple sclerosis and I had written every day for two years. I addressed and sealed the envelope but for some reason, I didn’t post it. A mutual friend phoned me the following evening to tell me PJ had died overnight.


6. Pret a Manger, Northumberland Street

142-145 Northumberland St, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7AG
www.pret.co.uk

Pret was my regular Saturday morning place for a while, although I’m struggling to recall exactly when or what I would have been writing at the time, aside from letters and my journal. It got busy sometimes and I never had a table I considered “mine” but the food was excellent, the coffee was good (and cheap), and the staff friendly.


7. Starbucks, Northumberland Street

137 Northumberland Street, Newcastle, ENG NE1 7AG
www.starbucks.com

For several months in 2009 I got into the habit of catching an early train into Newcastle each weekday morning. I’d spend an hour or so in Starbucks with my diary and notebook exploring what was going for me at the time, then catch my train into work.

One Saturday in May 2008 is captured in one of my notebooks. Five years had passed since my friend PJ’s death, and the network of friends I’d relied on since university days had dissolved. Beyond my immediate family I felt adrift and almost completely alone. I was also struggling to find any sort of creative focus.

Right now, I have perhaps the fewest number of people ever. Is this a delayed reaction to losing PJ? There is no one and nothing for me to identify with. When did I have a creative focus?

Tolkien / Middle-earth Reunion (website, people, writing, artwork).
Poetry — “Aye! I am a poet” (School, University, London).

When did I last make a difference?

What do I need? A creative friend. Someone to teach me. A muse. Someone I can help.

“... only she was tired and sad and human.”

Those notes (the quote is from William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer) are eerily prophetic of Fran, who I met exactly three years later in May 2011, and the close, mutually supportive, and creative relationship we enjoy to this day.

The line “Aye! I am a poet” is from And Thus In Nineveh by Ezra Pound. The poem affected me a great deal when I encountered it in high school. The title of my short story And Men Myrtles — which includes a café scene — is taken from the same poem.

He lowered the book and his fork and poured himself a cup of tea from the brown earthenware pot. As he did so he found himself staring at a small almost perfectly heart-shaped mark at the edge of the spout.

It was nothing: Maisie had chipped the thing putting it into or out of the dishwasher — or maybe it was a fault in the glaze. The mark could have no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless its shape — or William’s interpretation of it — felt as though it might be important. He had been noticing little things like this a lot recently. Ever since ... Ever since when?

He knew the answer well enough. Ever since that Sunday last September in Wolvercote cemetery. One year and a week ago. Something had happened that morning and though he had never met their like before or since he owed it all — his reawakening as he had come to think of it — to the motley group of visitors at Professor Tolkien’s grave.


8. Church Gallery, Kirkby Stephen

3-7 Market Street, Kirkby Stephen, Kirkby Stephen, CA17 4QW
www.churchgallery.co.uk

This is the only café on the list outside my local area, but it’s been a regular of mine for years when holidaying in Cumbria. Strictly speaking, it’s less a café than a self-serve area upstairs in the wonderful Church Gallery shop, but it is one of the cosiest places I know.

Over the years I’ve written many postcards and letters there. I worked on the book proposal for “High Tide, Low Tide,” scoured my diaries for content for the chapters covering Fran’s time in Europe in 2013, and agonised over who to include in our acknowledgements page.


9. Caffè Nero, Saint Mary’s Place

4–5 Saint Mary’s Place, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7AA
www.caffenero.com

My premier writing venue in recent years, Caffè Nero is located in a former post office building, as I describe in a blog post from 2017.

It’s hard to visualise, but this used to be the City Post Office. I’ve stood in line many times — where these tables are now — for postage stamps, or to send packages off all over the world. It looks so different now! And yet, there is a sense of continuity. I may have to go elsewhere these days for my postal services (as I did this morning, to buy stamps and to mail out a copy of our book) but it is here, a large black coffee to hand (“Would you like the extra shot?” “Yes please!”), that I write my letters, cards, and postcards.

It soon became my favourite place to meet up with friends, and played its own role in the development of High Tide, Low Tide.

Caffè Nero is my social hub these days. The staff have changed over the years but have always been warm, personable, and supportive of my mental health work and our book. If I am meeting someone in town, here is my first choice of venue, and I have made several new friends from amongst the other regulars here.

I had many fascinating conversations with staff and other customers as I worked away at our book week after week. When High Tide, Low Tide was published they graciously allowed me to display my contact cards and leaflets. That degree of support and encouragement meant a lot.

One Saturday I got talking with local poet, writer, and publisher Fred Lewis. Fred told me about Newcastle Literary Salon which met each month at Bar Loco. I performed my first ever book readings there and met a number of exceptional poets and writers. I wrote about my first visit to the Salon for the #BeReal series at HastyWords.

There was poetry, a great short story with a twist, the opening to a new novel which completely blew me away. Some pieces were more to my taste than others but what struck me more than anything else was how everyone was introduced, welcomed, and received with equal warmth and respect: as writers and performers, but most of all as people.

And it struck me this is another aspect of being real: the awareness and acceptance of our common humanity, no matter how different our individual situations and life experiences might be. Two pieces in particular summed this up for me: Angela J. Kennedy’s powerful poem “Women’s Work,” and Jenni Pascoe’s “One Day I Will Die.” I spoke with Jenni at the end of the event. We discovered a mutual love of hats and she told me she’d noticed her poems seemed to resonate with me. She was right. We connected.

You can watch me perform my book readings on our YouTube channel.


10. Costa Coffee, Kingston Park

Belvedere Retail Park, Unit 5, Belvedere Parkway, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 2PA
Facebook page

I’ve saved the best until last! I started going to Costa Coffee a couple of years ago. It is a ten minute walk from my home, and it soon became my favourite place to sit and write. Before covid struck here in March 2020 I was visiting Costa seven days a week: on my way into work, for a couple of hours on a Saturday morning as prelude to whatever else I had planned for the day, and on Sunday afternoons before doing my supermarket grocery shop.

The staff are wonderful and several have become good friends. I was genuinely devastated when Costa had to close at the start of lockdown, and was one of the very first customers to return when it reopened.

My daily journal, letters and cards to friends, social media posts and blog articles — all have been written at these tables. Appropriately enough, the idea for “Coffee and Scribbles” came to me at Costa, and I’m sitting here now at my favourite table by the window as I draw the article to a close.

 

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