Monday, 31 January 2011

The Map of the Road

Now that I had the geographical location of my grandfather’s birthplace and early home, I spent a lot of time looking at maps of that area and of the whole of Poland. Which way had he gone? It was unlikely that he would have walked westward to the North Sea, especially as, from the beginning of 1870, the Prussian army had been massed along the border with France and then the Franco-Prussian War had broken out. There was, I guessed, very little likelihood that he would have made his way through the battlefields of that brief but bloody war. Of course, it was tempting to suggest that he did – it would be quite some story. But though, in the absence of any firm facts about his journey, I had full licence to make up what I wanted for the purposes of the book, I did want it to be credible and to follow, as far as possible, the likely route he had taken.

So the most probable thing he would have done is to have headed north to the Baltic Sea. And the nearest big port was Danzig (modern Gdansk). The more I looked at the map, the more convinced I was that Danzig had been his destination.

Click on map to enlarge it

So how would an 11/12 year old peasant boy have found his way there? The answer was obvious. He would have followed a river, certain that it would eventually bring him to the sea. And there was only one real contender for the river he would have followed. It is a river known at the time by its Prussian name, the River Weichsel, though more commonly to the rest of the world as the Vistula, although its proper Polish name is the River Wisła. It is the longest river in Poland, flowing out of the Silesian Beskids, the mountains on the western end of the Carpathian mountains. It runs from the south of Poland, 651 miles across the country to the north coast where it flows out into the Baltic Sea near Gdansk

And in order to get to the river, I saw quite clearly on the map, he would have left his home in Wilhelmsdorf, walked the few miles to Nakel (nowadays Nakło nad Notecia), then followed the Bromberg Canal eastwards  to Bromberg (now known as Bydgoszcz) and thence on to the river to make the journey north to Danzig.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

2nd Step Along The Road

For nearly fifteen years the story of my grandfather leaving home when he was a young boy stayed at the back of my mind while I wrote other things. From time to time the idea would surface for a while and I would play with various possibilities before tucking it away to wait for the right moment.

The moment came once I had finished my book TIME BOMB. That book was the first time that I’d directly drawn on my own life. The plot was entirely fictional but the setting – 1949; a street in South East London with a large bomb site; a group of boys who spent all their time out on the street or playing on the bomb site – was based very closely on the world I had grown up in. It took me nearly a year to write TIME BOMB and during that time I vividly remembered the sights and smells, recalling in great detail things that I had forgotten. That long trip into my past set me thinking about the family I had never known; in particular, my Polish grandfather. The English ancestors from my mother’s side didn’t interest me very much at all, except for the fact that when I was young I always thought that her father – in the few photos I’d seen of him – looked like a dead ringer of how I imagined Jack The Ripper. On top of which, he’d been working in Deptford as a doctor, the supposed profession of the Ripper, at the time of those infamous killings which took place just across the River Thames in Whitehall. A perfect suspect.

My maternal Grandfather

But, him aside, the one who really intrigued me was my father’s father, that intrepid 11 or 12 year old who made his way alone from home across Poland and into the unknown.

I did a bit of research about Poland at that time and was reminded that the country hadn’t existed as such in 1870. It had been divided among three powers – Russia, Austria and Prussia. And in that year Prussia went to war with France. Even more intriguing. Had my young grandfather tramped across a land at war? And, because no one knew any more than the bare facts of his leaving home, walking to the sea and getting on board a boat, I began to see the possibilities for inventing a story of adventure and daring. But still it would be interesting to know just a little bit more of his real life story.

I went back to grill my sisters for any detail that they might have forgotten. And my sister in New Zealand came up with a name. The family, she recalled, had lived on a smallholding in a village called Wilhelmsdorf. The parcel of land they worked went down to the River Netze. At last, something to go on. Wilhelmsdorf and Netze sounded very Germanic and I correctly guessed that they were probably to be found in the area that had been occupied by Prussia. The problem, though, was that these names were the German names and not to be found on any current maps where the names were in Polish.

I began searching on the internet and eventually came up with two new names – Polichno, was what Wilhelmsdorf was now called. And the River Netze was now known as the River Notec. And now that I had the modern locations I began the long search on old maps for the original place names.  And found them. The River Zetze ran into Nakel and then was channelled into the Bromberg Canal. And Wilhelmsdorf -  was there, just over the river from Nakel. I stared and stared at the maps. That was where my grandfather had lived.

Click on the maps to enlarge.


Thursday, 20 January 2011


My father died in 1989 at the age of 96. I was 47 at the time – so I was two years younger than he had been when I was born. There was much more than a large age gap between us. He was a child of the late Victorian period and I was born during the second world war and destined to be a child of the rock‘n’roll era. I must have seemed mysterious to him with my love of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley - "Put him out of his misery," he used to say when I was playing the music of my heroes . He certainly remained a mystery to me.

His generation didn’t talk much about themselves so I learned almost nothing about his early life: his years in Brazil and Argentina where, in his late teens and early twenties, he worked as a telegraph operator; his decision to come back to Europe in 1915 because his twin brother had enlisted and my dad felt that he couldn’t let his brother fight alone; his years in the trenches; how and where he met and married my mother. All of this remained largely unspoken to me. And perhaps I was not curious enough to ask and insist on answers. I suppose it all seemed so impossibly long ago and far away. If he’d been a Second World War RAF pilot, or had been captured and held in Colditz Castle perhaps I would have plagued him to tell me all about it.

                                          My dad in uniform during World War One

And then, when he died, I wanted to know everything – too late, of course. I asked my three sisters, all much older than me, and they knew more, much more. I had known that he liked women –he was much more obviously chatty and at ease with my wife than he was with me, for example – but now I was hearing suggestions about possible affairs. A more astonishing revelation, though, was to hear that he had been sent to prison sometime in the early1930’s. Even my sisters didn’t know the full story but they told me that he had apparently pilfered a small amount of money while working as a clerk in the Post Office. He was charged with ‘Theft as a Servant’ and sentenced to three months in Wormwood Scrubs. Even more shocking, in a way, was the news that the ‘breakdown’ that he had necessitated him going away to hospital when I was twelve was, in fact, a failed suicide attempt. He had tried to gas himself.

Suddenly this man whom I had taken for granted as my old, rather uninterestingly ordinary father, turned out to have a complex past. I wonder what he must have felt when he read my book, BUDDY, in which the young Buddy’s father is sent to prison. Did he wonder if I knew about him? And did I, in fact, know about it at some subconscious level, having heard whispers as I was growing up? How I wished to be able to talk to him about it all. Why had he taken the money? Was it because it was during the Depression and he needed it to support his family? What had driven him to try and take his life? He would have hated having to answer questions like that, I’m sure, and would have clammed up and kept it all locked away inside him.

But having found out all these things about my father, I now wondered about his family. His father, my grand-father, I vaguely knew had come from Poland. He had died ten years before I was born and, perhaps because of that, I had, again, been totally lacking in curiosity about his life. When I asked my sisters about him, they were able to tell me their memories of him as a man – warm and funny and friendly - and a few things about his life in England but very little indeed about his life in Poland. But what they did tell me really aroused my curiosity. Apparently he had left his home in Poland in 1870 when he was twelve. He had walked alone to the sea – a journey of nearly 200 miles. He had got on a boat, had gone round the world a couple of times and then, at about the age of fifteen, he had landed in London.

What a fabulous story! One which begged many, many questions. Why did he leave home? How long had it taken him to walk to the sea? Where had he caught the boat? But when I asked, no one could give me answers. A few guesses – poverty had driven him out. As the eldest he had taken the decision to go in order to leave one less mouth to feed. But just guesses.That was it. A few tantalising facts and nothing more. How could the details of such an adventure have been forgotten in just one generation? Or had they never been told? Had my grandfather, like my father, been a secretive man?

Whatever the reason for the lack of detail, the spine of the story - a twelve year boy alone on the road – was fascinating. And over many years, while I wrote other stories, I kept thinking that one day I would use it as the basis for a book.

Thursday, 13 January 2011


I'm delighted to say that my new book, WALK THE WILD ROAD, has just been published in the USA by Sourcebooks. Over the next few weeks I'll be writing about why and how I wrote the book.