A literary adventure in San Francisco


Poet Weldon Keys is best known for parking his car at the Marin end of the Golden Gate Bridge in 1955 and disappearing without a trace.

Two things hit me as I walked the streets of San Francisco recently. First, the sweet, strong, distinctive (pleasant) smell of Californian weed wafting its way through the air at pretty well every street corner.* Second, the realization that a Literary Tourist can have a lot of fun in this city.

I never really enjoyed smoking pot, too much hysterical laughter over nothing, and finding ordinary ideas profound. I do however love a well bound book. Hence, the first item on my San Franciscan agenda  was an interview with Anita Engles, Executive Director of The American Bookbinders Museum, “the only museum of its kind in North America!”

Early Saturday afternoon I made my way down – and I do mean down –

on the Powell Street cable car from the much storied Fairmont Hotel where we were staying – check out the foyer

famed publisher James Laughlin stayed here after a ski trip in Washington state in December 1936, the year he founded New Directions. Apparently he made himself ill eating the “marvellous” French cuisine at the Fairmont – to Clementina Street in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa/Yerba Buena District where the museum is located. Along the way I dropped into the Hotel Rex in the theatre district to admire some of

their author drawings

– the hotel is named after poet Kenneth Rexroth and is home to a library bar

that features literary-themed cocktails, live music and author readings; and John’s Grill,

only a few blocks away, close to Union Square. John’s was built in 1908, the first downtown restaurant to open after the city’s famed earthquake of 1906. John’s is renowned for hosting celebrities from around the world; more importantly, it’s where Sam Spade dined out in Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon. The same dish he ate is on the menu – Sam Spade’s Lamb Chops. Upstairs you’ll find a glass case displaying a first edition of the book, along with a statue of the black bird itself. Many have suggested that John Huston’s film, with its femme fatales and ‘shady sleuths’ marked the beginnings of film noir.

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Connecting with Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Statue (4503030408).jpg
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square, Dublin

I’ve just finished reading Richard Ellmann’s splendid biography of Oscar Wilde. Filled with telling detail about the man and his times, illuminating insights and deeply empathic passages, the work is one of the most engaging I’ve ever read. Here’s how it ends:

“His work survived as he had claimed it would. We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy. He belongs to our world more than to Victoria’s. Now, beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, and so right.”

Biography, when written this well, joins reader and subject in ways that only true-life friendships can approach. I felt a real void after finishing this book, and, to bring in literary tourism, a desire to explore the various places and books referred to in it. With this in mind, Dublin would be a pretty good starting point.   Dublin is one of 28 Cities of Literature around the world. It’s filled with all sorts of literary things to do and places to visit, including  Oscar Wilde House  and The Oscar Wilde Collection at Trinity College’s Manuscripts & Archives Research Library.

Audio: Novelist Edward Rutherfurd on Paris and Literary Tourism


One of 250 Bouquinistes by the Seine in Paris

Edward Rutherfurd was born in England, in the cathedral city of Salisbury. Educated locally, and at the universities of Cambridge and Stanford, he subsequently worked in political research, book-selling and publishing. Abandoning this career in the book trade in 1983, he returned to his childhood home to write Sarum, a historical novel with a ten-thousand year story-line, set in the area around Stonehenge. It was an instant international bestseller remaining on the New York Times Bestseller List for 23 weeks. Since then he has written (at least) six more bestsellers: Russka, a novel of Russia, London, The Forest, set in England’s New Forest which lies near Sarum, and two novels which cover the story of Ireland from the time just before Saint Patrick to the twentieth century. In 2009 New York was published, and in 2013, Paris.

Rutherfurd is the quintessential Literary Tourist. He ‘walks’ the cities he writes about, researches them, imagines them, and arrives at a personal understanding of them. We talk here about this process, about the importance of learning about the ordinary lives of people from the past, of ‘active learning’ and writing short stories about the places you visit, about James Michener and the fascination of historical and cultural roots,  about history as reconnaissance, as “finding out what happened to the last army that went there”, about the campfire and stories of the hunt, the Musee Carnavalet and Le Procope restaurant. Listen here


Photo of Edward Rutherfurd looking like a Parisian

Hay-on-Wye, where the Photographing is Easy

Over here in North America you can drive for days without seeing a bookstore, let alone mind-blowingly quaint ones, like these

Every time you turn a corner in Hay-on-Wye, the book-town on the Welsh/English border, another one pops

into sight.

Christ, even the ground here

is photogenic. And check out this green grocer:

If you fancy visiting Hay and attending the Festival here’s the tourism information you need.

Four Reasons why you should visit Literary Places

Top Withens, the ruin on the moors near Haworth that inspired Wuthering Heights

This from David Herbert’s paper LITERARY PLACES, TOURISM AND THE HERITAGE EXPERIENCE, published in the Annals of Tourism Research, 2001. Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Geography at University of Wales Swansea:

“In these places, a visitor can still walk out of a house and into landscapes which have barely changed since the writer drew breath from them and breathed literature into them… We walk in our writers’ footsteps and see through their eyes when we enter these spaces (Marsh 1993:xi, xv).

Second, tourists may be drawn to literary places that form the settings for novels. Fiction may be set in locations that writers knew and there is a merging of the real and the imagined that gives such places a special meaning. Fictional characters and events often generate the strongest imagery. Pocock showed that tourists to Haworth sought out the moors but emotions in crossing them were suffused “less with the excitement of treading in the Brontes’ footsteps, than with the thought that Heathcliff might appear” (1987:138).

Third, tourists may be drawn to literary places for some broader and deeper emotion than the specific writer or the story. Squire (1993, 1994) exemplified this with her research into Hill Top Farm, a former home of Beatrix Potter, in Cumbria. Many tourists were evoking memories and emotions from their childhood: their recall was of the telling of the stories and their bonds with home and family. In a similar way, G. Davies (1995) recorded the significance of the story Evangeline to the Acadian people of eastern Canada. For them, she argued, the story, as depicted in Longfellow’s poem, evoked memories of suffering and the loss of a home territory.

The fourth reason may be less concerned with the literature than with some dramatic event in the writer’s life. Van Gogh was an artist rather than a writer but Millon (Office de Tourisme, Auvers-sur-Oise, personnal communication in 1993) commented that many people visited Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris because of its association with the manner of the artist’s death rather than with his art.”

If you’d like information on Haworth and Bronte country, click here.