I did it!
On 13 January I sold my 1,000th ebook of Amsterdam Rampant, breaking the target I set at the outset of my epublishing project. On 8 February I will reach the one-year anniversary of publication by which time (at current run rate) I will hopefully have sold more than 1,100. December sales were strong and momentum continues to build in January, averaging slightly more than 6 ebooks per day…
I’m even appearing pretty high up on Irvine Welsh’s “also bought” Amazon profile for Trainspotting prequel Skagboys which is one of my highlights of the century so far:
Over Christmas and New Year we had our usual epic trip around Europe to see family. My wife Anna had gone on ahead, and I followed a week later. These trips are intensely nostalgia-inducing for me, because I have the rare chance away from work and study to read books, look out of the window on long journeys, and generally think about things. Dangerous, really.
The journey to Poland started with an early morning bus ride out of Luxembourg. It was just getting light when I reached the German steel town of Saarbrucken, the sprawling rust-red plant – a tangle of pipes, towers, and gargantuan machinery – looming at the side of the autobahn like some nightmare from a surrealist painting.
I jumped the train to Mannheim, and connected for Berlin. On those long hours coasting through Germany I ploughed through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries – occasionally looking out the window onto Germany, then returning to 19th century New Zealand on my Kindle. It was around five o’clock by the time I reached Berlin, and I killed time before the next connection walking round the station and then sinking a cold glass of Berliner pilsner in a plastic and chrome wurst bar. The final two hours of the journey were spent on a local train on the spooky fringes of eastern Germany, the train windows revealing little of the poorly lit train stations and shadowy villages. Finally my 12-hour journey came to an end and I reached Anna’s home town of Szczecin.
Szczecin has always fascinated me. Before World War II it was part of Germany and known as Stettin. In the closing months of the war most of the German population fled westwards away from the advancing Red Army. The ghost city was then resettled with Polish refugees, mainly from Vilnius in modern day Lithuania or Lviv in modern day Ukraine.
Anna’s grandparents were from Lviv and upon arrival in 1945, the city was still in chaos – much of it was rubble, and the corpses of German soldiers were piled in one of the city’s main squares, awaiting disposal. The family were allocated an apartment in a grand tenement on one of the city’s grand Parisian-style boulevards. A few weeks after moving in a German woman turned up on the doorstep with her daughter and explained she used to live there, and would like to collect a doll they had left behind.
Szczecin still carries the scars of the war – swathes of Soviet-era concrete map out the routes of the British bombers, and most of the older buildings are pock-marked with bullet-holes and shrapnel damage. Yet the city carries its scars well – the economy is buzzing and there is a sense of energy and industry, reflected in the glittering ultra-modern malls and the SUVs backed-up at the traffic lights. A bizarre urban myth is doing the rounds, popular among taxi drivers, that the city is riddled with underground tunnels which reach all the way to Berlin, and when the Germans inevitably return they will emerge from below the ground and re-take the city. These taxi drivers watch too many zombie movies. Ironically the invasion seems to be happening peacefully the other way round – local Poles are buying property across the border in Germany because it’s cheaper.
One evening my mother-in-law, Agnieszka, showed me what she’d dug up in her garden. The family has had the same allotment since the early days of arriving in the city, a patchwork of gardens behind the train line which were initially allocated to Flemish railway workers in the late nineteenth century. Last year, Agnieszka was digging in the garden and uncovered a toy soldier and a coin. I examined the coin through a magnifying glass and could make out the word ‘Stettiner’ on its time-worn surface. The toy soldier yielded more clues. We googled German army uniforms and saw that his tunic, belt, and helmet matched the standard First World War uniform. Agnieszka told me (through our usual mix of her few words of English, my few words of Polish, sign language and the ever-patient translation of Anna) that one time her father went to the allotment to find a large hole dug in the middle of the garden. The story went that the German residents had been instructed to only take one suitcase with them when they left, and had buried valuables wherever they could, and then returned years later in the dead of night to reclaim their heirlooms. The toy soldier and coin had perhaps been part of such a booty.
During my time in Szczecin I usually have a bit of time on my own when Anna catches up with her mum or with old friends. One afternoon I tramped past the city’s old gate down to the harbour area, wandered by the monument to the victims of the unrest of 1981, and ended up in a steakhouse/bar called Colorado. I sat by one of the windows looking out onto the port, candle flickering at my table, and sketched out some ideas for the next novel. Away from the pressure of work and study, my writer’s brain thaws from hibernation, and ideas tumble in.
Next up was Scotland.
We flew from Berlin to Edinburgh and spent a few days with my parents in North-East Fife. It was my first time back for a year, and as I get older Scotland’s beauty astonishes me more and more, catches me off guard and leaves me breathless. We walked the beach at St Andrews most days, the sun catching on the breakers, the hard-packed sand glistening with seawater and stretched shadows.
The view from my parents’ house looks onto Tentsmuir forest, which by bizarre co-incidence is where Anna’s great uncle most likely spent several months on training exercises with the Polish Free Army before jumping into Arnhem in 1944. Many of my schoolmates in Fife had Polish surnames, descendants of those exiled soldiers, the lucky survivors of Monte Cassino and the Netherlands campaigns.
Most evenings in Fife we went up to the village pub to drink and chat to the locals. One night my dad told me a story I’d never heard before, about his time doing national service as a military policeman in Berlin in 1961-62. One night he was called out to an incident on the wall, and arrived with his partner in the immediate aftermath of a shooting of an attempted escapee. The young man’s body was crumpled in the space between the two zones; the East German guards were smoking, guns at ease, the deed done. My dad and his partner watched as they collected the body.
We moved on to Edinburgh to catch up with my brother and some old friends. One afternoon I had a spare hour and walked down the Royal Mile, past the old soldiers’ home where my great-grandfather, a London-Irishman by the name of Isaac Dunn, spent his final years. The clouds cleared as I strode down the hill, the hard blue sky and glaring winter sun spilling light onto the granite buildings. I walked down past the Scottish Parliament and felt a pang of regret that I had missed the referendum experience. Europe is, as always, disintegrating and reforming like a half-frozen loch. I walked back up Holyrood Road, past my old teacher training college, the nostalgia intensifying.
Later that night I wound up on the same street with my brother Ian in an old favourite pub, once the Holyrood Tavern and now Holyrood 9A. We sat at the bar and drank pale ale and reminisced about the late 90s when we’d been regulars. Back then it was a wonderfully odd boozer – dark wood and beaten-up old sofas, an amazing jukebox and excellent beer, and a clientele of old men, teacher training students, and transvestites. Somehow it worked. The kilted landlord had wild long greying hair and a goatee beard and would noisily chuck anyone out who told him he looked like Billy Connolly (he did). Our night ended at a takeaway, thick-cut chips drowned in salt and sauce, and the next morning I said farewell to Scotland.
Next was London. Anna wasn’t feeling too well so I had some Neil-time in the afternoons (in the evenings we explored the Thai restaurants of Holborn). Just like in Poland I put my Kindle in one jacket pocket and my Moleskine notebook in the other and headed off into the city to walk and observe. On the first day I wandered the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and ended up in a pub near Trafalgar Square called The Chandos, which I frequented back in the early 00s on visits to see old friends. Sitting in the corner of the pub, I read an ancient draft of my Lithuania novel (perhaps seventeen years old, then called Sea of Tranquillity) and sipped my pint of bitter; golden light dappled through the coloured glass windows, the raw and scrappy novel triggering all sorts of long-lost memories.
The next afternoon I headed in the other direction into Covent Garden, cut through the Seven Dials (where I spent a boozy day in 2002 with my Swedish pal Daniel, both of us at a crossroads in life and debating the meaning of it all) and wandered around the streets aimlessly, before settling in The Prince of Wales. The barmaid heard my accent and wanted to talk about Edinburgh; still high from being back in that city of dreams, I was happy to. I picked a corner table again and scribbled more notes on the next novel. I decided to go to one more pub before returning to the hotel but it was already close to five o’clock on a Friday, and the pubs were bursting at the seams with post-work drinkers. Eventually I found a quiet place near the hotel – The Dolphin Tavern, in a building which took a direct hit from a Zeppelin bomb in 1915. At that moment, nearing the end of my break, it seemed that our triangular journey had, as always, been stitched together by a shared European history of war and renewal, destruction and rebirth. At those moments, trying to make sense of a Scottish-British-Polish-Dutch-Luxembourgish-European experience, I tend to flounder, but marvel at the fact that we have had 70 years of peace in Europe. And agonise that it may not last much longer.
The first couple of weeks back in the host country is always tough. Luxembourg experiences hard grey winters, even more so than Scotland (at least the grey skies there blow over once in while). Even if you’re not an expat, the January blues bite deep, but as an emigrant there is a sense of dislocation and confusion, of waking up in the mornings and for the first thirty seconds not remembering where you are. Then gradually you remember the life you have built in the new country – work, friends, an altogether different view out the window.
And this year, I have something that makes me smile on those icy and dark January mornings – more than one thousand copies sold of Amsterdam Rampant, a book that prompted one publisher to tell me “I just can’t see who would buy it.” Well, my friend, one thousand people have bought it, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.