A love letter to Amsterdam, the spiritual heart of my independent work-life
It’s a Monday morning in March at around 9am.
Monday mornings are notoriously challenging. The sobriety of being back at work after a weekend. The gloom of having to leave our personality at the office door and be serious again. But I’m lucky. Because I’ve carved out a work life based on something that’s sacred to me: my freedom. And I’m extra lucky because on this Monday morning I’m walking through one of my favourite cities - Amsterdam.
I only left my front door in Leigh-on-Sea three hours ago and now I’m strolling down Brouwersgracht. The canals are iced over, the sun is shining and there is that perfect combination of bright blue skies, sunshine and a crispness in the air. I feel like running down the street shouting with joy.
There’s something about Amsterdam. It’s a place that fuels me, where I feel most me. I must have been to this city twenty times, it’s a 35 minute flight from my local airport. On the one hand, the street names look so familiar. But with their Grachts and Straats, it also feels a world away.
I love the architecture and the canals. So many windows I pass seem to invite me in - they are open and bare from curtains or blinds. It’s a certain kind of confidence that’s on display. Residents happily get on with their lives, visible to passers-by: a child and her mother work at a breakfast bar on their respective laptops; elsewhere a woman brings a pot from the kitchen over to the table; a woman eats soup as she reads a newspaper. A cat watches the street scene from a bench; a dog snoozes on cushions in another.
Through these unshuttered windows I glimpse those signs of daily activity that are, to me, signs of a healthy and good life: bicycles, coffee machines, wine bottles, books, pictures on the wall and vases of flowers. This openness is so attractive. It mirrors my own desire for open, honest and authentic relationships in my life.
I first came to Amsterdam in 1986. I was eighteen and InterRailing around Europe with my friend Tad. We were on an adventure, a journey of following our curiosity. We had a small tent and an even smaller budget. A charity shop tape recorder, a journal, a camera. We discovered Firenze, Barcelona... and Amsterdam. We ate baguettes and drank beer. Blisters on our feet marked the miles we travelled.
A couple of years ago I found my InterRailing scrapbook. It was my first storytelling project: a collection of photos, postcards, a journal entry for each day. Those qualities I learned 33 years ago - a curious nature and thirst for stories - are hallmarks for me today. That teenage Ian, my 1986 persona, is present in the creative consultant and storyteller of 2019. And my teenage self is at the heart of who I am.
These days the city is a canvas for my working life. It fuels my creativity. Here I am inspired to come up with ideas, face challenges and be productive. And I do that by just being me and doing the things I love most. To wander around, explore, take photographs, scribble, watch, observe and drink black coffee.
I love Amsterdam for working on ideas and exploring new paths for my professional development. I bring with me a blank notepad, some books, a to-do list and - on this trip - my 36-year old Pentax K1000 camera. In Amsterdam I always feel there are no limits to my exploration. I walk the streets and canals without a map, arriving at junctions and just following my curiosity as to what direction to take. Free of constraints, I find I am similarly relaxed about where my ideas might take me.
Walking around and making up my route as I go along reflects how I am in all ways: I’m comfortable making my own path in life. I’d brought with me “The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are” by Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin. The authors had read my book, Mash-up, and had seen my blog post about my Parisian wanderings. This quote from their book reflects how I feel: “When you walk aimlessly you follow a trail that eventually leads to yourself.”
And having a camera around my neck helps me see things differently too. Taking photographs helps me frame my view, gives me a different perspective on things. There’s something about the manual interaction with the camera - it’s tangible, weighty, substantial. It gives me a licence to be curious — to watch people, observe, focus and have a new angle to look at the world around me. I’m just like my teenage self, collating stories for my scrapbook, taking it all in. As I play with my camera and thoughts in this way, I’m giving myself the stimulation I need that’s so vital to refresh myself and my work.
My career has taken a lot of twists and turns - it’s been quite an adventure and rarely straightforward. I’ve enjoyed plenty of success, realising early on my teenage dream of working in TV and radio. I became managing director of a radio studio business by the time I was thirty. I’ve written four books, been a contributing writer for the Financial Times and trained journalists at the BBC.
But there have been struggles too. A burnout that led me - via my doctor's surgery and a prescription for depression - to quit my job. Working freelance hasn’t always been easy. But the real breakthrough came when I started having the confidence to turn up the volume on the Real Me, on who I am and what I stand for. When I had the courage to share my real story, to put myself in my work - to stick like a magnet to who I really was and use that as a compass: that’s when it all started to come together.
Last year I turned fifty. My birthday gift to myself was to go and see Johnny Marr in concert at The Melkweg in Amsterdam, a venue I’d first been to on that InterRail trip back in 1986. I’d grown up listening to The Smiths. The teenage Ian would have been proud that in his middle age he’d be off to a gig in his favourite city watching Johnny play some of those songs he’d fallen in love with. Standing in the Melkweg by myself I didn’t feel alone. As the tell-tale bars of ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ started up, it sent a tingle up my spine.
I’ve sacrificed a lot since I walked out of my last proper job nineteen years ago to go independent. I waved goodbye to a big pay cheque, to status, to stability. But I have set myself free.
The morning after the Johnny Marr gig I sat in Café De Pels on Huidenstraat and wrote this in my notepad. “I do realise that it doesn’t get better than this. Designing a life around me, doing my own thing, jumping on a plane to see Johnny F***ing Marr in my favourite city.”
Later that day, over a double espresso at the city’s Dylan Hotel, my good friend Martijn looked across the table at me and said, “Ian, you breathe differently here than in London.” He’s so right. In Amsterdam, I’m in my element. I’m at my best.