Interview with David Beckett
Interview with David Beckett
British expat David Beckett first laid eyes on Amsterdam during a business trip in 1993, and moved here five years later. In May he published Amsterdam...The Essence, a love letter to his adopted city. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Beckett about his fascination with Amsterdam and how this led to publication of his first book.
During his first trip to Amsterdam, Beckett was in his mid-twenties, working for Canon and intent on seeing the typical tourist sites and celebrating his birthday.
"When I moved to live here in 1998," he explains, "I realised that expat life is not about following the tourist tracks, and more about discovering unusual sides about the place you live in. I gradually came to know new aspects of the city and its people."
With the exception of a short period living in Vienna, Beckett has spent the years since his arrival doing exactly that: getting to know the unique aspects and unusual characters of Amsterdam. Three years ago Canon underwent a reorganisation, with Beckett's job reassigned to the UK; rather than relocate, he decided to stay.
"I developed so much as a person by being faced with the daily challenge of being in another country and by meeting such a variety of people from around the world. Being faced with that backward step (being pulled back to London) pushed me to make a decision, and I chose Amsterdam over Canon."
Unsure of precisely what he would do next, Beckett embarked on a nine-month trip around the world. He had thought about writing a book on Amsterdam for quite some time, yet he wanted it to be more than a travelogue. It was while in Buenos Aires that he came across a book written by the Irish author and expat Sally Roddy; its photographs and stories on Argentinian tango seemed to capture the soul of the city.
He began educating himself about book publishing and marketing, and with the title in mind, returned to Amsterdam to begin writing. However, it was a fluke meeting on Koninginnedag last year that changed the structure and approach of the book. Beckett happened upon a young woman, Lark Montgomery, playing guitar in a Prinsengracht first floor window while her friend sold Montgomery's CDs nearby. A quick look on the singer's website told him that her view of their shared city differed from his, and he asked to interview her.
"By the end of that talk, I realised that Amsterdam’s essence is in the different points of view, whether you have lived here all your life or came here a few years ago from Texas (as Lake did)."
Beckett began a list of interesting people he had encountered from all walks of life to talk with; the more interviews he completed and the more he talked to others about the book, the longer the list became. Eventually he was able to interview influential city mayor Job Cohen, whose participation and support helped open even more doors.
To capture the visual spirit of Amsterdam and the interviewees, Beckett enlisted the assistance of two others: Joost van Manen, a professional portrait and fashion photographer, and Pim Kops, keyboardist for the popular Dutch band De Dijk and accomplished amateur photographer.Beckett credits them with contributing greatly to the cohesion and sense of timelessness of the book.
"The key thing about the book’s development is the people who have been involved and given their time," he offers. "It became a truly collaborative project as I asked opinions about the text, design and branding from everyone I could think of."
The book is sold on The Essence website, in more than a dozen bookshops in Amsterdam and other stores. Meanwhile he continues work on distribution arrangements, with an eye on expanding to Waterstone's and other chains in the UK.
"Already a wide range of outlets is selling it - from Fame Megastore through to Rood and the Radar Gallery, as well as the big bookshops such as Waterstone’s, Selexyz and Athenaeum," he continues. "I expect the book to appear in museum shops soon."
Publishing a book about the city in which you live can alter the way you see that place. When I posed the question to Beckett, he paused to reflect. Certainly the interviews conducted are deeply etched in his mind, indistinguishable from his previous memories of the city.
"Sometimes I walk through the city and feel I’m walking through the book," he muses. "There's a Laser tag (graffiti), next street is where Fya Hopelezz began her protest, that's the place Paul Spies described, there's the bar I interviewed Bas Kosters and Shirley Hart…"
Despite his recent success, Beckett considers himself a sales and marketing guy first, a writer second. He still works out of a shared office at Tussen De Bogen, west of the Centraal Station, under the train tracks.
He is also a business and presentation coach, and the combination of all of these skills and his experience have led to his current venture: helping small businesses with their branding and websites, applying lessons learned during the development of The Essence as not only a book but an entire brand, as well as Canon.
"My aim is to keep the habit of writing alongside my knowledge of entrepreneurship and business in general, to help small companies become bigger," he says. "Equally, I keep the dream of The Essence as an international brand firmly in my mind, and am working every day to make that happen, even if it takes years. My dream is simple: I believe the concept of The Essence could be transferred to any major city in the world."
"I’ve met the most interesting people here," Beckett says, looking back on his original decision to move to Amsterdam, "I've made friends with fascinating people from numerous countries, and I doubt I would have done that in Woking or Basingstoke, back in the UK. I love Amsterdam!"