My Top Ten Writing Haunts
- a place frequented by a specified person.
“the bar was a favourite haunt of artists of the time”
hang-out, stamping ground, meeting place, territory, domain, purlieu, resort, den, retreat, favourite spot;
For any author, finding somewhere to write can be of crucial importance, doubly so for authors such as myself for whom writing is something that sits half way between a hobby and a job, and which has to be squeezed into the cracks of a life otherwise occupied by a family and full-time, mortgage-paying employment.
It was Albert Einstein who first observed that space and time are interwoven into a single continuum known as space-time, and no-where is this more true than for a writer’s writing haunts. It’s true of course that you want the places you write in to inspire you, to provide the kindling to your creative fire – and if they can serve you a good coffee that’s an added bonus. But a haunt is as much about time as it is about space. It’s about a place that you can escape to, free of the calls of every day life. A place with no dishes waiting to be washed or laundry waiting to be hung up. A place that will give you not merely a space in which to write, but the time in which to do it.
Moving twice in the current year, first to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, and then to Littleborough in Lancashire, has given me a renewed appreciation for the role that my various writing haunts have played in my writing “career” thus far. As Joni Mitchell sang, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I’m on the lookout for new haunts now, but that search and the thoughts it’s aroused have inspired me to write this.
My top ten personal writing haunts.
#10 Paul Robeson Theatre Café Bar
The café of Hounslow’s Paul Robeson community theatre makes it into my top ten list not because it was one of my better writing haunts, but because it was my first. This was back in around 2003, when I got my first laptop, a cheap reconditioned Hewlet Packard which I used to supplement the Dell desktop that at the time was still my primary writing machine.
The café wasn’t a particularly great place to write at. And since this was before the widespread introduction of soya milk into UK coffee shops and the resultant availability of soya lattes (a development which has frankly played an embarrassingly large role in my development as a writer), I was restricted to black coffees. (I’m not any kind of coffee aficionados out there, but I do like my rocket fuel to have a little frothed milk to help it slip down).
This wasn’t where it started: I was already started, having been writing on and off since I was a child. But the Paul Robeson cafe bar helped me move to a productivity model where I could write on a continuously enough basis to actually start producing the novels I’d aspired to write. And for that reason it makes my list.
#9 Coffee Cali
Coffee Cali’s a funny entry, one that’s almost snuck onto this list, because when I was thinking back on all the places that I’ve written in I realised that although I felt no huge emotional link to this place, I actually spent quite a lot of time over the last year writing in it.
It’s a curious place, which in some ways comes across as a small independent coffee shop trying to feel like a corporate chain, and which sometimes appears to be staffed entirely by look-a-likes (there’s a Tina from Coronation Street, and a rather good Rylan from X-Factor). But I like it because its reasonably large upstairs seating area offers me a secluded space to write where I don’t feel like I’m taking a table away from other, potential customers. And despite what I’ve said, it’s nice place, which offers a lovely view of the bridge that gives the town its name.
Now that I’ve moved away, and my Hebden writing is confined to the occasional Saturday excursion, it’s actually Coffee Cali that I most often end up in. So for that reason alone, it deserves a place on this list.
#8 Various Piccadilly Line Carriages
From the time I acquired my first laptop around 2002 until we moved to Brighton in 2009, the majority of my writing took place on my Piccadilly Line commute to and from work. It’s where I wrote most of my columns for Mongoose’s Signs and Portents gaming magazine. And it’s where most of my first novel Game Night was written. Along the way I replaced the Hewlet Packard with a G4 Macbook, and then replaced that with an Intel Macbook after one-too-many trips through the bumpy express section between Acton Town and Hammersmith destroyed its hinge.
The seats weren’t always comfortable and the view varied between mundane and literally non-existent. But it gave me a time and a space to write, and for that I will always be grateful.
#7 Villa Källhagen Lobby Bar
The Källhagen (which is actually pronounced something like “Shallhagen”) is where I always stay when I visit my company’s Stockholm office.
(With one exception when the Källhagen was booked out one July and I had to stay in a rather cheap and nasty place. Since then I always say, only half joking, that the worst jet lag I ever had was a week in Stockholm in July in a hotel with cheap, thin curtains. By the end of the week, having been woken up every night at about 2am by the light flooding into the room, I was so wrecked that I fell asleep sitting bolt upright while the plane home was making its final approach into Gatwick. This was during a period when I made three trips to Singapore in four months. As I spent that weekend walking around like a zombie, concerned friends were asking “Have you just come back from Singapore, again?” and then being a bit perplexed when I replied, anguished, “No! Stockholm!”)
The Källhagen has good curtains.
But more than that it has a lovely ambiance, especially in its lobby bar which with its log fire and restrained decor is far more cosy than any lobby bar has a right to be. It’s just a nice place to crack open your laptop on an evening and get a bit of writing done.
#6 Caffé Nero
There are actually three Caffé Neros in Brighton, all of which I’ve drank at. But the one that I spent quite a bit of time writing in was the one on the corner of Preston Street and Western Road, just a few minutes walk away from our house. (It was also where Violet and I would chill out over a soya latte and a soya babychino, but that’s another story).
It wasn’t particularly funky, and its parent chain are a tad Starbucksesque on the tax front, but the staff were always friendly and they were always kind to my dog.
#5 Verano Lounge
Okay, here’s the thing. I don’t like pubs. Now maybe it was because I was raised a Methodist during an era when pubs were drinking places for adults rather than the pub-themed restaurants they’ve now mostly become. Or perhaps it’s a result of an incident during a sixth form pub crawl when I was seventeen where having randomly encountered my family’s milkman, he got it into his head that I was making fun of him, threatened to kill me, and then shoved me up against the glass frontage of the local Tesco and held a knife to my throat as a demonstration of his intent.
Or perhaps it’s just that not having any particular taste for alcohol, I usually end up drinking flat coke from the tap machine and cursing the non-availability of coffee. Whatever, the point is that I don’t like pubs. I don’t feel happy in them. I don’t feel comfortable in them. And I don’t feel particularly safe in them. If there’s a pub vibe, it’s one that entirely passes me by.
So for me, Verano Lounge was like a perfectly genetically engineered fusion of a bar and coffee shop, combining the opening hours of a bar with the relaxed chilled out vibe of a coffee shop.
Late in the evening, when all the coffee shops were all closed, I could get Violet to bed and then head on out to the Lounge, get out my laptop, and enjoy a nice soya latte, on my own, without feeling like an out-of-place, no mates, freak.
(It was also a good place to go to when my wife and I had managed to sneak out on a rare date and she wanted to go to a bar and I wanted to go to a coffee shop, but that’s also another story).
#4 Genoa Coffee Shop
The Genoa was not a good place. Hell, given that it was a mock American diner set a stone’s throw from the historic waterway of the Golden Horn, you could almost argue that it’s very existence was an affront to history, architecture, and plain damn common decency. And with soya milk a mere dream in most of Istanbul, I was back to the black coffees.
But it’s made it to number four on my list because it appeared at a point in my life where I’d found myself becalmed in a manner that was not so much writer’s block as life overload. I hadn’t written anything for months, and then I found myself spending a week in Istanbul, not in the out of town executive box that my later Istanbul visits for my day job took me to, but at a hotel right in the heart of the city just across the water from the old town.
After a day spent conducting software training (professional pride and ex-programmer’s snobbery compel me to point out at this point that I’m actually a business analyst, but being rather multi-functional I dabble in training on the side) I’d grab something to eat and then wonder down to the Genoa, flip open my laptop, and enjoy a view across the Galata Bridge at the old town and the Yeni Cami (New) mosque.
To be in such a place was inspiring in a way that’s hard to describe. I spent five nights in Istanbul, soaking up the layers of history like a desert absorbing rain, and then poured that into the writing of a short story, Constantinople. (Which I might one day publish on Wattpad).
#3 Various Southern Railway / Thameslink Carriages
Brighton, London, and Points In-between
From the summer of 2009 until early 2016, this was where most of my writing took place. From 2009 through to 2013, when I was commuting into Farringdon, I had an hour and a half each way, or up to fifteen hours a week of guilt-free writing time. Even after we’d moved offices and I was commuting into London Bridge, I still had a little over an hour each way.
I write two complete novels and most of a third on these trains: If Pigs Could Fly, an unpublished time travel novel, and the Sleeping Dragon, which will hopefully be published at some point this year.
My writing career went through some life-related ebbs and flows during this period, and there were plenty of false dawns, but as I said in the dedications of If Pigs Could Fly, the seats were usually comfortable and the views were often superb.
Mooch was basically my favourite hangout in the world, ever, and it’s perhaps unfair that it hasn’t made it to the number one spot on this list. Located just a stone’s throw away from our temporary rented house in Hebden, and opening until seven or eight most evenings, I could squeeze in a quick hour or so after finishing work and still make it home in time to put Violet to bed.
Like the Verano Lounge, Mooch occupies that space some way between a bar and a coffee shop, but where the now-closed Lounge was part of a chain and just a little bit corporate, Mooch has the wonderfully funky, independent vibe that you’d expect from a place situated in a town, Hebden Bridge, that is itself sometimes described as the “fourth funkiest place on the planet.”
I’d settle down with a soya latte and a toasted tea cake, listen to whatever record was playing on the bar counter’s slightly retro record player, soak up the vibe, and write.
I miss Mooch.
#1 Le Méridien Etiler Rooftop Bar
And so we come to the number one, which makes it in not for quality of the coffee, nor for any regular repartee I had with the staff, nor necessarily for the vibe. This wasn’t a quirky out of the way place in the historic centre of Istanbul, but the lounge bar of the thirty-four story executive box to which all my later work-related trips to Istanbul have taken me.
No, what pushes this bar to my number one spot is one thing. That view. When we Western Europeans think of Istanbul we think of the old city, of ancient Constantinople and Byzantium. But this is the modern twenty-first century Istanbul, the largest city in Europe. Home to more than fourteen million people, a population that has expanded ten fold in just sixty years. From the Le Méridien’s thirty-fourth floor I could gaze over an urban landscape so vast, and so plain damn cyberpunky that it damn near took my breath away.
It was the sort of vista that makes you want to write the next Neuromancer, but as it was, a week of post-work evening writing sessions at that penthouse bar back in early 2015 got me through a particularly difficult period of structural edits on If Pigs Could Fly.
It’s no secret that Turkey’s going through a tough time right now, both in terms of its domestic discord and the regular terrorist attacks. When my colleagues and I now travel to Istanbul our company’s security procedures (sensibly) prohibit us from travelling outside of either the hotel or the client’s site. For most of my colleagues this is an irksome restriction.
But not for me. Because after a day’s work on-site all I want to do is get a bite to eat, grab my laptop, and head to the thirty-fourth floor.
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I’m going to share this post on twitter with the hashtag #writinghaunts. If any of you writers out there feel like sharing some of your writing places, I’d love you to do so under this hashtag.