NEWS

September 17

As we were being encouraged to go out and spend money, I decided in August to spend a few days in West Kent, visiting a few sights and taking some pictures I was missing. What a treat! It worked out so well that, when the present Indian summer started, I thought it would be fun to do the same in East Kent. That was a delight, too, but in very different ways that made me appreciate what a fantastically varied place Kent is for visitors. One place after another down the east coast was a pleasure with its own particular flavour: Dover Castle (despite a grid-lock), Walmer, Deal, Sandwich, Richborough, Ramsgate, Broadstairs. And then there were several inland villages I hadn’t known that also impressed. No wonder Kent came out so well in that recent nationwide study of seaside resorts.

One place I haven’t mentioned is Margate. When I was a boy, Margate was my favourite place in all the world. I used to go there every couple of weeks, and loved every minute. I’ve heard its name taken in vain so often over the decades that I was looking forward to seeing the recent improvements that won it ninth place in that study. The honest truth is, I was horribly disappointed. First off, the much vaunted Turner Contemporary was closed, for no reason anyone could tell me. Apparently it was able to stay open all summer for a temporary exhibition that ended on September 6th, but will not re-open this year. Worse, the adjacent area stank so overpoweringly of rotting seaweed in the harbour that I had to beat a hasty retreat. That’s when I witnessed the rest: the litter, the graffiti, the peeling paintwork, the unkempt recreational spaces, the numerous ‘closed’ signs, the din from boy-racers on Marine Terrace… I suddenly knew why, in a recent ‘Which?’ opinion poll among readers who presumably had actually been there, Margate was ranked the worst resort in Kent.

None of that prepared me for the unkindest cut of all: the Winter Gardens. They were built a century ago as a symbol of Margate’s civic pride. What I saw looked halfway to dereliction: the gardens a mess, the buildings crumbling away, the walkways strewn with broken glass, and the only other visitors young kids up to no good. It gave the impression of a town that’s lost self-respect. The man at Dreamland told me that a grant of £25 million has been made available, and ideas are being invited on how to spend it. I think we can all guess how that will work out. Here’s my suggestion: devote every last penny, without exception, to sprucing the town up. Pay an army of proud Margate citizens to clear out every last vestige of rubbish, repair every last broken railing, paint every peeling and besloganed wall, mow every lawn, weed every flower-bed. Start with the Winter Gardens, and work westwards. And, for heaven’s sake, clean out that putrid harbour.

Margate still has the charms that used to draw half of London to it. They just need a chance to shine, and the visitors and their money will come back. Come on, Margate. You used to be a jewel in the crown. Don’t let the team down.

August 30

I posted the final part of Instalment 12 last night. The last two instalments have been completed in 21 days, which is a lot faster than the previous best, although the instalments are of course growing smaller as more sections get completed. Apart from a few outstanding entries that still lack a picture, four of the eight sections are now complete. ‘A Cradle of Sport’ and ‘Land & Lore’ won’t take much longer to finish, but ‘Came to Stay’ and ‘Paid a Visit’ will run on for a little bit yet. After all, Kent is a popular place to come to!

The latest instalment would have been very quick indeed if not for a four-day break I took in the middle. Since a lot of tourist venues are now open again, I decided to book a few days’ B&B at a pub in West Kent. There were three reasons: to get a break from five months’ house arrest; to put some money into the local economy; and to take a bunch of pictures of venues to be featured in ‘Ideal Homes’ and ‘Must See’. It worked out a treat, not least because the weather was so kind for a change. What was disappointing, however, was to see some big attractions still firmly shut “on HM Government’s advice”. Just up the road, there’d be other venues not only open for business but doing a roaring trade, despite being subject to the same official advice. Work that one out.

August 9

Yesterday I posted the last part of Instalment 10. That completes the original complement of 800 entries I planned. I’m now moving into the equivalent of extra time: the heap of additional entries I’ve thought of, or had suggested to me, after starting work. The nature of the work involved is still the same as before, but there’s a very different flavour to it. If the work so far has been like running a marathon, this feels more like the warmdown.

It’s nice that, despite the current heatwave, people are still visiting OBKP every day. We’ve had visitors from 18 different countries so far, mostly English-speaking, of course, but with some surprises like South Korea and Turkey included. There’s a regular visitor from China, who first tuned in just after an expatriate Maidstonian living in Hong Kong had a good read. It’s marvellous that our county sparks so much interest so far away, so let me just say 欢迎回来.

July 14

Writing three entries concerning the Rolling Stones yesterday reminded me of an incident the best part of two decades ago. It might have been in 2005, when London was applying to host the 2012 Olympics. The Evening Standard ran a front-page piece bragging of all the many celebrities who were Londoners. There at the centre of them was Mick Jagger. I wrote to the Editor to point out his error, Kent not yet having been relieved of Dartford, as far as I was aware. I opened it with “Hey, you, get off of our Mick!” which I thought might be slightly more eye-catching than the usual “I wish to point out that…” To be fair, my letter did get published in their letters column. However, I was distraught to see that my moderately witty opening line had been ‘improved’ by the Letters Editor to, “Hey, leave our Mick alone”. Where do they find these people?

July 11

I posted the last of Instalment 8 yesterday, which means that the last two rounds took a total of 24 days. That’s quite a bit faster than in the early days, and testifies to the value of dictation over typing. It might have been even faster if not for having two migraines – yes, that again – as well as a second drain on time, which I’d been expecting. As we get into the C20 in the chronological sections, I’m having to spend extra time checking that my pictures are not copyright-protected. It’s already clear that I will have to acquire some from a stock library, but I’m parking most of those topics for the moment in case alternatives turn up. Nevertheless, it is heart-warming to be writing at last about people who have been alive in my own lifetime. It’s been a bit of a marathon getting here; but, as our fact-checker Keith said yesterday, “The end is in sight!” Let’s hope that the final run to the stadium will all be downhill.

June 16

I was relieved to get Instalment 6 completed yesterday in under a fortnight. My eye has continued to be a pain, so that dictation is now the norm. That in itself provides new challenges, such as weeding out all the differences between what I said and what Microsoft thinks I said. But the most significant distraction has been taking advantage of the relaxed restrictions to get out and about in the sunshine. I’ve usefully managed to pick up a whole bunch of the pictures I was lacking, although it does eat up a lot of work time. All things considered, though, I can’t complain about the rate of progress.

Now that we’re over halfway through, it’s time I put in a word for Keith Rylands. He has been assiduously checking every entry for errors, typographical or factual. He’s the ideal man for the job, and not only because he is thoroughly Kentish. He has the eagle eye of a lawyer, and is an expert quizzer who travels a lot. He doesn’t miss much, and tells me with glee when he finds something. He doesn’t get paid for this, so he’s owed thanks for his daily conscientiousness.

June 2

I’ve now posted the fifth instalment, ahead of schedule. This is a minor miracle, because the eye problem I mentioned last time blew up into one that had my doctor telling me I needed to see an optician quickly. Easier said than done, as it turned out. Although this is an advertising-free zone, I must put in a good word for Specsavers, who were terrifically helpful in finding time to see me. It was a surreal experience, having to explain my way past the security guard at the deserted shopping centre and then negotiate a warren of security barriers that made it feel like a military zone. After a reassuringly thorough investigation, the eye problem turned out to be permanent but not serious if I keep taking the treatment. I have however had to keep to a strict regime of relaxing my eyes regularly amid all the computer screen work.

As so often in life, however, necessity has proved the mother of invention. I’ve worked out a new way of working that involves dictating text straight into emails on my smartphone which I then send to myself, open on my PC, correct in Word and copy directly to the site. The mistakes made by the dictation app can themselves be entertaining; for example, “Robert Southey” came out as “robot selfie”. But it’s turning out a lot more efficient – and easy on the eyes – than the way I had been working. From some of the anecdotes I’ve been hearing, it’s just one small example of the way that the blight currently upon us is helping people learn or devise more efficient ways of dealing with life.

Having reached Round 6 of 10, we are now officially into the second half of the original project, although the bunch of other topics that have occurred to me since I started writing means there will be extra to add on the end. Since we’re this far advanced less than two months after I posted the first instalment, I can’t complain about the progress. One major development in the last week has been the re-opening of certain Kentish attractions. It’s meant that I’ve been able to get pictures of some of the sights I was missing. It has also been an excellent excuse for getting out to see more of the particularly lovely blooms and blossoms we’re having this year. And isn’t the birdsong great?

May 21

The fourth instalment is now complete. That means 320 pieces have been posted, equating to nearly 50,000 words – not bad going, I think, in about two months.

Visitor numbers were at a very high level until the heatwave started. With people wisely preferring to up their dose of Vitamin D over staring at a computer screen, visitor numbers to the site are running markedly lower. Since I’ve been suffering bad eyestrain, I’m going to take it as an excuse to ease off for a bit. I plan to start writing at a more leisurely pace, and at night only. Rest assured however that the project goes on to the finish!

It was pleasing to see that one Kent man already featured in OBKP was in the news this week: the very first European samurai, William Adams. His supposed grave in Japan was dug up recently, and a DNA test showed that the remains were indeed those of a western European from the right period. It could only have been him. This year is the quadricentenary of his death; so what better way to commemorate him?

May 8

The third round of pieces was completed last night, bringing us up to 240 posted so far. It was more or less on schedule, and could have been earlier but for one factor: the phenomenon of being a victim of one’s own success. The three days of heavy rain last week coincided with a huge spike in visits, which was great. It did however bring with it an increase in correspondence. It was all good stuff – either suggestions or requests for further information – but I hate to leave messages unanswered, and that inevitably created some diversions. Not that I’m complaining: your involvement via the Comments page is all part of the project.

Although a lot of Round 3 was great fun, there’s one reason why I’m relieved to have completed it: we’re now leaving the Tudors and Stuarts behind. It’s not that they were boring; on the contrary, there’s almost too much history packed in there. It was just very hard work to do the copious background reading and then think of ways of distilling stacks of information into the 150-odd words allowed. There’s also the fact that most of the history of that period concerns royalty and religion. Looking ahead on my spreadsheet, I can see that, as we get into the 18th century in the chronological sections, people from more varied backgrounds start to dominate. It will make a refreshing change to study characters who achieved something by merit, rather than monomaniacs whose job was wearing a crown or mitre and shouting, “Burn him!”  

April 27

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley. My original idea was to complete each instalment of ten items in all eight sections before posting. It meant that I’d be able to make an announcement whenever it was time to take another look at the site. What happened when I posted the second instalment, however, was in retrospect rather predictable. Most of the people who’d kindly put the word about when the first instalment went up said this time, “Thanks, but I don’t think I can tell everyone again without being a nuisance”. As excuses go, it’s a very good one. It did mean that the second instalment didn’t get the same huge immediate spike in numbers as the first. Nevertheless, the daily visitor numbers have remained strikingly consistent for the last week. Obviously people are deciding when it suits them to look, rather than fitting in with my less-than-cunning plan.

My conclusion is that there’s no point in my persisting with posting by instalments. I might as well post each section as I complete it, and leave visitors to take a look whenever they’re ready. In fact, I’ve just put up the third chunk of ‘A Cradle of Sport’, which all went very smoothly. The tasks of picture selection and posting were certainly much more bite-sized. The only downside is that, without a reminder, previous visitors risk forgetting to check in, missing a lot of new material, and so having too much to catch up on. That’s where word of mouth comes in. If everyone reading this can think of one or two friends to nudge, plus of course a few potentially interested people to forward the link to, we can keep numbers up sufficiently to justify the effort. Thanks!

April 23

The second instalment was posted yesterday. I owe the fact that it was a couple of days early to two factors: fanaticism, and luck. The first comes as standard, but was turbo-charged by the continuing lockdown leaving few other distractions. As for the second, the improvised anti-migraine regime worked, making me a lot of extra time. The traditional remedy for blisters – a dab of honey – also fixed the other ailment, taking the sting away well enough to get my index fingers back into commission, even if the tips do still feel like cardboard.

It also helped that the work itself ran pretty smoothly. The amount of time it takes to get through each section depends heavily on how many sticking-points I run into. I can research and write an entry, and find a picture for it, in not much more than an hour. If there’s a sticking-point, however – a complex story to tell, a lack of available information, conflicting evidence, no photograph – that hour can turn into several. It just so happened that I didn’t run into many this time.

It might be interesting to know how I’m tackling this task, which initially looked quite Herculean. I started about a month ago by drawing up a list of topic areas equating to the eight sections now on the site. I then created an 8-page spreadsheet and started filling it in. To begin with, it was all from memory, then brainstormed with my wife on our long daily walk, and finally fleshed out from reference books and the internet.

In the end I had over a hundred topics on each page, amounting to around 900 in total. I tried putting each item in date order on its page, and where that was irrelevant they went into alphabetical order. I then set about writing text and finding a picture for the first ten topics in each section. It took nearly three weeks, and I posted it all on April 5th

I’ve now got into a pattern that makes the whole thing feel more manageable. On each round – a set of ten items for each of the eight sections, totalling 80 – I work through the topics as they appear on the Menu, i.e. in alphabetical order. So I always start with ‘A Cradle of Sport’, and finish that before I’m allowed to move onto ‘Born in Kent’. No cheating! After two rounds, it’s already feeling like a familiar cross-country dog-walk. I’ve come to know and expect the quick saunter downhill, the trudge through the marsh, the long slog uphill, and the gentle flat section with the nice view.

After my Maidstone Museum experience, I find writing the Sport section an easy opener. The two biographical sections that follow are always hugely interesting, but a challenge insofar as I have to think hard about how to condense a sometimes complex biography into 150-odd meaningful words. If those two are of average difficulty, the fourth section, ‘Ideal Homes’, is maybe the most gruelling. Often there’s little information easily available other than lists of owners and renovations, and pictures can be hard to come by – a real problem when I’m not allowed out to take my own! After that, ‘In The News’ is agreeably easy, and ‘Land & Lore’ a delight, even if it demands a fair bit of time-consuming research. The last big hurdle is ‘Must See’, where I have to find something of interest to say without sounding like a tourist guide. Then it’s one last set of biogs to finish.

To continue the dog-walk analogy, the challenge is to get home without encountering any mishaps with unruly dogs, road traffic, or stuff you might tread in. You know you’ll always get home in the end; you just don’t want to take all night about it.

Time for Round 3…

April 14

The site has now been up and running for a week. We’ve had over a thousand page views in that time, which goes to show either how much interest there is in our Kentish heritage, or else how much time we all have on our hands right now; or maybe both. I’m now nearly halfway though the second instalment of material (out of ten). I’ve been working till after 2am every night, which those of you who know me will not be surprised by. What’s made the challenge slightly tougher is the fact that too much screen work is not great for eyes. Migraine auras stopped me working three times last week, and the following headache is not exactly what you’d call ideal for work. So, being determined not to slow the pace, I’ve introduced a new regimen that involves resting my eyes completely for a bit after completing each section. So far, it seems to be working. I was feeling pleased with myself until, at lunchtime today, I mistakenly picked up something baking hot from the oven, and now have a lovely blister on the tip of each index finger. I’m typing this with my two middle fingers, which is an interesting experience if you ever have to try it. Anyway, provided that I don’t do anything equally daft, I hope to be posting the next instalment by the end of next week. Meanwhile, stay healthy!