Thursday, 8 December 2016

6000th book sold

It was a year ago today that I headed off for my interview with Jeremy Vine, having no idea of what mayhem was about to unleash. Now a year later I have sold my 6000th book. Incredible. It's been a real up-and-down ride. 3600 of those books were sold in the first 10 days after the interview and I was immediately pitched into the world of mass distribution (& mass communication!) & organising reprints & trying to integrate into the book trade. I thought I'd cracked the selling books thing and that I would keep selling my large volume in large volumes. The truth is that I was in an amazing fantasy land that is experienced by few independently published authors and it didn't continue at that level for very long. Meanwhile I had paid out large sums for reprints and when my sales dipped I wondered if the bubble had burst and I was going to be left with large amounts of books unsold (in which most of my profit was tied up). And so I have become a relentless publicity hound - and though I've not seen the same surge in sales again despite some fantastic media coverage and plaudits (again in the fantasy land that I couldn't have dreamed of), I've been ticking over and it's quite something to say that in the last year there are only 39 days when I haven't sold a book (and half of those were in the Summer when I think there is a slump in most book sales except for beach reading). I've still got a load of books to sell, but it's quite something to have sold my 6000th and to be making something of a profit (and to be able to support the International Tree Foundation as a result).

As a result of William Boyd's great write-up in the Guardian, I've been on a bit of a wave of sales and have noticed various things I hadn't seen before on Amazon - their bestseller lists and "most wished for" lists. For a while I was the No 1 bestseller in Heraldry - which makes you wonder what their definition of "Heraldry" is - especially as I was in competition with various books of baby names and also a book with The Very Hungry Caterpillar on the cover (it turned out to be a book for recording all the family for a new baby). I made it up to No 2 in Genealogy and at one point was No 8 in First World War. The bestseller lists are continually changing based on sales hour to hour, but the "most wished for" lists are slower to change, being based on what customers have put on their wishlists (either to remember for later or to encourage other people to buy for them) - and in these lists I'm No 1 in Genealogy and was No 4 for a while in First World War. And yesterday I had my 24th 5-star review see (a really lovely one)  - which makes my book the 2nd highest rated in First World War based on customer reviews. It's really quite something - and none of it would have happened without Jeremy Vine getting the snowball launched down the ski-jump and giving me the confidence to carry on in the way that I have. 

Finally I've got to finish with a big Thank You to everyone at Healeys
who've not only done my printing but been fantastically helpful with the distribution of my orders. They've been an essential mainstay of my year.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

William Boyd review in the Guardian!

I'm thrilled to report that William Boyd has picked 'A Group Photograph' as one of his books of the year in the Guardian - see It means a huge amount to read these words from a writer of his stature, whose work I so admire. He is so obviously fascinated with the human condition, with the choices we have to make, how those choices can have repercussions through the rest of our lives and those of our families, and the possibility that extraordinary things can happen, good and bad, at any time, which can fundamentally change our circumstances and outlook. Personally I have a lot to thank him for because his book 'Any Human Heart' provided an oasis for me during a very difficult time when staying in hostel in Adelaide on my research trip out in Australia. There have been times when I have wondered whether I've been on the right path and that book was one contribution to me realising that life can throw all sorts of things at you whatever you do, so you might as well do something you believe in.

My adventures within the book business have continued. I got suspended by Amazon (again!), this time over an admin error - and can only thank BT for the vast experience of unthinking & incompetent "customer support" when I was running my home computer support business over a decade ago. The only solution is to be regularly insistently persistent. It is frightening though how such a small number of businesses have such power over our lives, and that they don't have the impetus to become better because either they have a virtual monopoly or all their major competition is similarly huge and unwieldy and geared for their own convenience rather than that of their customers.

I've also been having quandaries about the pricing for my book. The reason it is not getting into bookshops (unless people order it in) or into the main Amazon web store (where you get the full Amazon marketing support as opposed to Amazon Marketplace through which I'm currently selling) is that I'm not offering a big enough discount to distributors and book sellers - but if I put the price up to allow for that discount, the book will appear unaffordable to a lot of people - and I don't just want to sell to the well-off, particularly when the likes of Amazon then use their discount to undercut any competition. It's so difficult, because I have quite a stock of books which I want to sell both for myself and to raise money for the International Tree Foundation (see the article on p13 of the latest edition of their Trees Journal  In the end though, I'm not going to change the price just yet. I think I have to play the long game. I have so many things going for me - each good review or piece of publicity adds to the snowball and I have things happening that can only increase visibility. My game plan for next year is to publish my next book (about the experience of doing this whole project) but my immediate focus is on exhibiting.

The first exhibition on the horizon is at the Forum in Norwich for 3 weeks from 13th March. My work is going to be part of a bigger exhibition entitled "Who Do You Think They Are?", which is based on the idea of looking at all those old photographs featuring unnamed people. Luckily I know who the people are in my photograph but I'm going to be showing what sort of thing you can do with old photographs. What I will be showing is an animated photomontage that shows all the photos of these men building up over time, so that you can see those who grow old alongside those who grew not old. I went for a test session last week and seeing it projected at not far off life-size was fantastic.  There's still a lot of work to do, but over the last few months I've cut out my men from the 1250 photographs they're in and after a bit of development work on the style and process, it should be a case of mechanically ploughing through it all.

To finish up, I'd like to tell you the story of something that has had a huge impact on me personally. On my book page on Amazon I was having a look at the list of "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" items. As well as the obvious First World War books  and Good Boy Dog Treats Chewy Twisters with Real Chicken (!) and 'Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness' (which by a bizarre coincidence is illustrated by Pugh the cartoonist and grandson of Mervyn Pugh from my group photograph), there was 'The Blood Sugar Diet' by Michael Mosley. Some of the things in the book description stood out for me (especially as there is a history of Type 2 diabetes in my family), so I decided to buy it - and then I decided to do the diet and the exercise that goes with it - and 5 weeks into it, I have lost 21 pounds in weight (i.e. nearly 10 kilos) and am feeling fitter than I have done in years. Quite honestly, it has been rather a struggle since I finished the chemo three and a half years ago - and this year in particular I've been feeling pretty rubbish a lot of the time. I had pretty well given up hope that I would ever be properly fit again, but now I'm actually getting my teeth into planning another long walk (see for the previous one). Something to look forward to as I'm labouring through the animation...

Saturday, 8 October 2016

With Jeremy Vine at the Appledore Book Festival

Having only previously spoken to Jeremy Vine whilst he was interviewing me on Radio 2 in December and January it was a great pleasure to finally meet him at the Appledore Book Festival last weekend. He's a patron of the Festival and it was through his suggestion that I was booked to appear - and I was lucky to spend a lot of time with him over the weekend as we also met up with our mutual friend Helen who had brought my book to his attention in the first place. Although they'd stayed in touch, they hadn't seen each other for over 30 years and there was some hilarity as, when he first saw me, he was interviewing an author on the stage at the same time as trying to work out if the white-haired woman sitting next to me was really Helen - only later in the pub discovering that Helen hadn't arrived before the event and actually she is still flame-haired and remarkably youthful-looking considering she has teenaged children.

When you spend time with Jeremy you can see why he is so successful. He is genuine and interested in people and the world around him, and is always thinking and noting down ideas to follow up later. I also saw at first hand how he is adored by his Radio 2 audience, with people coming up and offering to buy him a drink, inviting him to a housewarming party, and asking to have selfies with him. He took it all in his stride, even when the selfie-taking was an extended palaver because the selfie-taker was of a generation where they weren't entirely in control of their smartphone. Luckily I had my own personal photographer (Helen) so I didn't have to embarrass myself trying to get my personal technology to work:

Another thing with Jeremy is that he knows that his celebrity enables him to do things for good. He wasn't being paid to be at the Festival but he was fully committed to it, wanting to help in any way he could, preparing professionally for the interviews he was hosting, and doing what he can for a small village book festival that is punching well above its weight, with 78 events including some very big names, some of whom came because of his patronage.

Appledore is a friendly place and I can recommend a visit at any time of year, but particularly when the Festival is on - keep an eye out on for details of next year's Festival. I would also recommend The Seagate as a place to stay, eat & drink - they really looked after me, and it was a real treat to find somewhere that bent over backwards to accommodate my various food difficulties.

My event was sold out and chats with various friendly folk beforehand (including one who had come all the way down from Warwickshire to hear me speak) meant that I was nicely relaxed and gave one of my best shows - and was rewarded with a lot of interesting questions afterwards and Jeremy saying it was one of his highlights of the Festival. Now, onwards to shows in Herne Bay and Newbury this week - see

Monday, 19 September 2016

Christmas Stunts and Time Travel

It's the middle of September so it must be time to start thinking about Christmas (please don't pelt me with things). Actually since I became an internationally selling publisher, I've come to realise how important Christmas is in the selling of books. Certainly summer is not great - for some reason it would seem there is some resistance to the idea of taking large format art/history books to the beach. I've still been getting a trickle of sales (just about to drop off the latest batch for posting) but I'm starting to think about how to raise awareness for the Christmas present buyers out there. Despite all the fantastic publicity and reviews, there are still a lot of people out there who have never heard of 'A Group Photograph'. I don't think I'm going to get many more of the traditional opportunities so I've decided it's time to go out into left field - I'm going to paint my bottom blue and sky-dive off the Shard trailing tinsel in the shape of Santa. Obviously there are some logistical difficulties to get over first (not least in finding enough blue paint), so in the meantime if anyone's got any better ideas (unlikely, I know), then I'd be glad to hear them. In any event, I hope that I've got enough books this time that I'm not in the position of organising a reprint in December again!

My plan earlier in the year was to get my next book (about the experience of doing this whole project) out there in time for Christmas. I've managed to get a long way with the writing but was just thinking it wouldn't do it justice to rush things just for the sake of a quick buck when I got distracted by preparations for a meeting about hosting my exhibition at the Forum in Norwich. The layout means that it won't be the same as it was in Ypres, but they have facilities there that make it possible to develop some of my ideas further and it's a fantastic opportunity to reach a different and wider audience (possibly even in terms of making it into a touring exhibition). We're talking about doing a taster in March 2017 (alongside an exhibition on making the most of old photographs for family & local history) and then a full exhibition in November 2018 for the Centenary of the Armistice.

The Forum has a very high-tech gallery space that will enable me to create something I wasn't able to do in Ypres - an animated photomontage of all the photographs I've got of these men (over 1200 of them) - something that takes that one moment in time in the original photograph and gives it depth and life. It's going to take a lot of work but will be extraordinary to look at when it's done. At the moment I'm going through cutting out and re-sizing and positioning and blending in each of the photographs - and this is what I'm going to be doing for some time yet.

I've got a few presentations coming up (1st October: Appledore Book Festival, Devon - 10th October: Herne Bay Historical Society, Kent - 13th October: The Friends of Newtown Road Cemetery, Newbury, Berkshire - see for further details) and I'm sorry I haven't followed up on other requests but I'm wanting to concentrate on creating artwork at the moment. I hadn't created anything new for a year and although what I'm doing is laborious, it is great to be so totally absorbed in something again. It seems to be a feature of so many forms of art that they force you to look at things more closely and in so doing you see things that you would not otherwise notice. Looking so concentratedly at old photographs is like a form of time travel. It is hard to imagine that the people pictured are not still alive - as I cut round a child's sandals I can imagine the wriggling as their mother helped to put them on, things that were habitual become special because the moment was captured - a cigarette smoking between fingers, a cup of coffee being drunk, a beer being poured - I can almost smell these things and hear the chatter around them - and when a pair of eyes look directly at me via someone-else's camera it is as if they are with me now. We can get so absorbed in the busyness of life that we miss the magic in the everyday.

A few things have helped me recently. Firstly there was this little video: - and that has made me realise how lucky I have been - that though I've had a lot of people not take the time to notice that I've done something original, not everyone has said "No!" - that there are people who have said "Yes!" and given me fantastic opportunities and I must make the most of them. Secondly, a friend suggested I work out what my goals for my project are. This year I've been so bound up with selling books and the difficulties that go with that and that has led to me losing focus on what's important to me. I never did this to make money, yet the times that I have had to struggle with next to no money have sometimes risen too high up in my memory and led to worry which is not helpful. I want to open people's eyes to new ways of looking at life and the world around us and so I must concentrate on getting people to see what I've created. The book tells only part of the story - my artwork shows more. And thirdly another friend responded with such enthusiasm to my animated photomontage idea that when I expressed my worries about how I was going to make a living whilst doing it, he said, "Well, you've made it this far, just get on with it and it'll work out". So that's what I'm doing (though don't be surprised if something large, blue and tinselly is reported airborne near the Shard).

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review in Summer Reading List for MPs

My Member of Parliament, the Rt Hon Keith Simpson MP, has just sent me the Summer Reading List he puts together for his fellow MPs (you can see it here). It includes a good mention of my book and not only that but it features on the same page as John Harris’ ‘Covenant with Death'. That really is quite something given that I rate that to be one of the best books about the First World War that I have read.  It had an enormous impact on me when I read it in my teens (a very long time ago!), and was indirectly an inspiration for my project.

I've also just had the best review I could wish for from one of my customers on Amazon (though it's in the reviews section for my customer service rather than for my book):

"Deeply moving accounts of each man given in such a way that the reader recognises that the accounts speak for every man and his family involved with war. A book, in my opinion, which should be studied by every child at some point in their school life." 

I hope that I find a way to make that happen - and in the meantime my book is available from (whether it's ordered there or on Amazon, I end up organising the dispatch - though it’s cheaper to buy through my website and then I don’t end up losing such a chunk to Amazon).

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Writing the next book

It amazes me that it's 2 months since my last blog post. A lot has happened in that time but I'm fully into writing my next book and so I'm going to try and keep this brief ("Fat chance!" I hear those of you familiar with my newsletters say!).

Well, the first news is that I've had a bit of a break. I was really feeling burnt out and, with things having quietened down a bit, I took the opportunity to go on a road-trip to see friends in Dresden. On the way back I stopped in at the Museum in Ypres and photographed all the items belonging to the Berlein brothers before they are returned to the family in South Africa. I'd seen most of the items before, but it was good to be able to take my time and have a better look at everything - and in the end I took 1707 photos in 2 days. Here are a couple of them:

A postcard sent from Charlie to his brother Leslie from Nuremberg in 1903:

I'd actually briefly visited Nuremberg on my road-trip (and whilst I remember, something I was lucky not to fall foul of is that, if you're driving in most German cities these days, you need to an environmental badge: see

And this is the fold-away lantern that still has the soot and candle from the last time that one of the Berlein boys used it in 1915, when they were in the trenches facing the soldiers of the country of their father's birth:

On my return home, I turned to reading 'The Lost Tommies' by Ross Coulthart. I had been pointed to this by my Dad who sent me the book review from the Sunday Times with the suggestion that it might be a good idea to send my book to the reviewer. John Carey has been the chief book reviewer for the Sunday Times for over 30 years and this is part of what he wrote to me:

"Endlessly fascinating and profoundly moving. It brings the past to life with matchless vividness."

Quite a review, especially considering that he has a reputation for not saying things unless he truly means them. I get the impression that he doesn't get to choose which books he reviews for the Sunday Times so I'm not holding my breath for them to print anything - but still it is something to hold on to as I work on my next book.

Back to 'The Lost Tommies', and it shows the most amazing cache of 4000 glass plate negatives from the First World War that was found in the attic of a French barn a few years ago. They really are the most fabulous photographs - standing up in their own right as beautiful portraits even without the context in which they were taken - and you can get a flavour of them at There was so much of the story of the search that chimed with my own research but the big difference is that none of the soldiers in the photographs are named and the only clues as to who most of them are just in the badges of their regiments - most of them will probably never be named. That said, I spotted some things I thought I might be able to help out with - and even though it seemed like it might be a bit of a red herring from what I was supposed to be doing, it appears to have been a very good thing to do. Firstly, it reminded me how much I enjoy doing this sort of research (something that I haven't really been doing since I started working everything up for the exhibition and then was consumed by the book-selling monster). I've managed to identify one of the men, am hopeful of identifying two more, and have got ideas about another which might lead to an interesting adventure when I next need a break. And secondly, the red herring has turned out to be nothing of the sort. In fact it has been a reminder that it's a good idea to follow where your nose leads you, as, in following up some leads, I ended up going to the National Archives in Kew for the first time in a couple of years. Whilst I was there I tried to give a copy of my book to a member of staff who has been there ever since I first started visiting Kew over 22 years ago. I say "tried" because I discovered that staff are not allowed to accept gifts, but she was appreciative of the gesture and the book ended up as a donation to the library. Discussions in National Archives bookshop also led them to not only take on my book for sale but has generated a great deal of interest in terms of my giving a presentation there or maybe even some form of exhibition. Watch this space.

Another great boost has been taking part in the Chalke Valley History Festival. I really wasn't sure what it was going to be like, and what sort of audience they were going to be able to generate for me given that I was one of the first people on on the day and they were charging £10.75 each for my talk and I'm not exactly as well-known as many of the speakers at the Festival. My fears were unfounded and I spoke to at least 100 people and had a fantastic response, not just in terms of the comments and questions when the microphone was passed round the audience at the end, but also at the book-signing in the Festival bookshop afterwards - and my book was joint top seller for the day with Andrew Roberts' new book on the Battle of the Somme, 'Elegy'. The atmosphere at the Festival was warm and interested in a way that the rain and the mud could not dampen, I particularly enjoyed the anachronisms that were apparent in every direction - ancient Britons walking between Second World War US Army trucks, not being allowed into the First World War trench because it was too dangerously authentic, having a lovely chat with a cook in her Tudor kitchen but not being able to taste her food because she didn't have a hygiene certificate.  I went to some fantastic talks, and (let the name-dropping begin) I really enjoyed the opportunity to have lunch with Terry Waite, supper with Ian Hislop, Charlie Higson & Justin Pollard (writer on QI) amongst other people who were at the Festival to speak on an eclectic variety of interesting subjects. I also have the great honour to announce that I was able to point Alice Roberts to the nearest loo. The icing on the cake though was being able to shake Melvyn Bragg's hand and personally thank him for providing the ringing endorsement that saw me on my way when I was starting to promote my book.

I'm still in the incredible position of selling books most days (there have only been 5 days in the last 7 months when I haven't sold a book). There are a few bits of book promotion coming up (I've just heard that there is a glowing review that's just come out in 'Stand To!', the journal of the Western Front Association), and I'm setting up some presentations for October, but I'm aiming to spend the next 3 months writing. I enjoy meeting and talking to people at my presentations but it is such emotional material that it does take a lot out of me and I'm looking forward to having a quieter time.

Sales from my first book have enabled me to just make a significant donation to the International Tree Foundation's campaign to save the Kafuga Forest, an important buffer zone vital to the survival of one of only 2 colonies of mountain gorillas left in the world (see and if you can make a donation via that would be greatly welcomed). It's not only about saving the forest, it's also about protecting the environment and livelihoods of over 18,000 people who live in that area. It’s good to have an positive incentive beyond just getting the message across of the effects of the First World War (but then, given the latest twists in politics, that’s pretty important too).

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Making the Centenary relevant

It amazes me that more is not being made of the Centenary of the First World War in relation to the world we are living in today. On 23rd June the UK is voting on a referendum on whether to stay in the European Union. 8 days later will be the ceremonies to commemorate the Centenary of the disastrous first day of the Battle of the Somme. When they were growing up, none of the participants in that battle can have imagined the horrors they would have to face, and after the War ended many imagined that no-one would choose the possibility of facing them again. But as has been shown time and again, human memory is often short and one-eyed, and we are not immune to catastrophe. It seems impossible as I look out of my window at the blue sky of a sunny day that anything bad can ever happen but that is no reason for complacency.

2016 is different in so many ways to 1916, but there are a lot of similarities. There are people for whom life is all about the pursuit of material gain. There are people who believe they are better than other people for all sorts of abstract reasons (where they were born, where they went to school, what their religion is). There are big organisations who have lost sight of individual human needs. There are large amounts of the media more interested in spectacle than progress. There are people who think that the solution to problems is separation and/or violence. And there are people who don't think.

The human problems don't go away and particularly not when we focus on the differences between us rather than the fundamental truths we have in common. We all arrive in the miracle of birth, we all live in a world of much unexplained mystery, and we all die (for the truth of that, see the list of memorials I've just put up for each man in my group photograph - see That's what a lot of those who met up in the Christmas Truce saw when they met up in No Man's Land - not just someone classified as "the enemy" but people like them trying to survive in a world beyond their control.

So what to do in this world where so often it seems we are presented with Hobson's choice, a rock or a hard place, a frying pan or a fire, a Trump or a Clinton, an EU or a Brexit? As my fount of paternal wisdom says "We live in an imperfect world". In the end, you have to pick the option with the least lunatics - and there is a lot to be said for trying to bring about change from within an organisation. Believe me, I know from my own experience that it's awfully hard to get anywhere if you're on the outside. But oh, the waste. All this money and time and effort being spent on arguing. The phrase "fiddling whilst Rome burns" comes to mind. The biggest problem we face is how to share this world of limited resources when population continues to expand and use those resources.  The current economic model is based on continuous expansion and consumption. Given that the World is finite, at some point that is going to break down. So if the big organisations aren't committed to addressing this problem, what can we as individuals do?

Well, something one can learn from the First World War is that Route One frontal assault on entrenched positions tends to be costly for everyone involved. Fighting against big organisations and focusing on what is wrong is a recipe for despair. I know I spend a lot of time in angry frustration. And that doesn't get anyone anywhere. So, it is time to think laterally. Most people in the Western world have more choice now than ever before, and yet we often don't exercise that choice - and there is so much we can do that shows we care, whether it be on a small or a large scale.

In my project I was inspired by the life of Donald Stileman and the tale of "The Man Who Planted Trees" - it is in my book and you can read it in the book extract on my website. His epitaph was "Greatly Loved - Man of the Trees". The beauty of the Internet is that I have discovered the story of a man who also served and was wounded three times in the First World War and then went on to found an organisation that has since led to the planting of an estimated 26 billion trees worldwide. His name was Richard St. Barbe Baker and the organisation he founded in 1922 was called 'Men of the Trees'. That organisation has since become the International Tree Foundation and not only do they plant trees but they are dedicated to finding ways of those trees supporting the communities in which they are planted, providing a balance of environmental and economic benefit. My talents do not lie in horticulture (as anyone who has seen my garden will attest) but I can earn money from what I do and I have decided that this is the cause I will support. In addition to donating the fee the Daily Mail paid me for my part in their article, I will donate 10% of the profits from my books. And I say "books" because I have started work on my next book telling of the experience of doing this project - of how I went from an unemployed Chemistry & Computer Science graduate to having an Art & History exhibition in a major museum.

I've recently been feeling rather bogged down in the re-telling of the First World War. It feels good to have a purpose other than reminding people of the awfulness.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Upcoming events

I'm planning to build tours of presentations around these last 2 events.

The WDYTYA? experience - and onwards

Well, I was pretty dead by the end of Who Do You Think You Are? Live - things were really full-on for 5 days and this last week has been about recovery and processing all that happened, some of which was difficult to handle. I know it's traditional these days to be relentlessly upbeat in these sorts of communications but I feel the need for a bit of honesty - there were positives (and I will come on to them) but it was also the case that certain issues I've had to deal with throughout my project have reared their heads and I feel that maybe talking about them will lead to someone getting back to me with an idea to sort them out.

Firstly I have to say Thank Goodness that Jacob was there along with me - not only for all the work he did, but also for the laughter that got us both through it. On Tuesday we picked up the van in Norwich then went to Ipswich to pick up a load of my books before heading off to our hotel in a quiet village just 10 minutes this side of the NEC. Trial One was going out to the hotel carpark on the Wednesday morning and discovering that one of the van's rear tyres was completely flat - we were then faced with the sort of Command Task which I have rarely been faced with since I stopped doing things with the Army - Ford have been very cunning in their space-saving and security-conscious stowage of spare wheel and tools and it took a couple of phone calls to the van office plus a lot of rolling around on the tarmac and much sweating to get everything swapped over and ready to go. We were exhausted before we'd even started (and at the end of the day I had to pay £114 for a new tyre given that a substantial nail had put paid to the old one).

We spent the rest of the day unloading and setting up the stand. I had a rough idea of the lay-out beforehand but had to think on the hoof to make adjustments given the actual practicalities that we were faced with - getting the power socket moved so that the cable didn't cross over where I was projecting onto and rigging up some kind of ceiling to stop odd shadows criss-crossing my projections on the back wall of the stand. With a few signs I printed out overnight, this is what we ended up with for the opening on Thursday morning:

It wasn't the most professional-looking stand, but there was a title board running around the outside of the stand to identify us, there were pages from the book on display left and right where people could read them if they wanted to have a look without committing to talking to anyone, and I thought the projections were different enough to arouse curiosity (one projection zoomed in and panned around the faces of the men in the group photograph and gave their names, and another scrolled through the panorama of all the tree drawings). I also knew that the 8-page feature was coming out in WDYTYA? magazine and I thought that would also lead people to want to seek us out.

One of my earliest visitors was a prominent genealogist who I'd met at one of my previous presentations. I thought we'd got on OK before so I was surprised to hear,“Oh, I see you’ve got your nice little book with you” (whilst making no effort to actually have a look at it) and “I see you’re showing your funny trees – it’ll be interesting to see what people make of them”. I'm not quite sure what to make of that except that I have a feeling I'm not doing genealogy the proper way. It wasn't a great start but we were soon getting stuck into enticing people by smiles and hellos onto our stand - and that's when the hard work really began. OK, there were people who knew about me (including some who'd already bought my book and wanted to meet me and shake my hand), but there were a lot of people for whom it was all new and the most common thing we were asked, usually in mid-sentence as we were introducing the book, was "so what unit was this?" - and it was a constant effort to try and shift people from the idea that this was a standard history book about a specific unit. OK, the specific stories of these men and the 8th Royal Berkshires are important but for me this project has always been about taking those specific stories and turning them into something universal - looking at the long-term effects of the War on all of us, exploring what it means to be a human being, our place in history and our place in memory, and what we can learn from the past to make the future better. And I just haven't found a way of getting that instantly across before a lot of people have already made up their minds that this is standard military/family history - so some people don't bother really looking at the book, or don't come to my presentations - and often those people who do read or do come are surprised by what they find. 

At the other end of the spectrum, when a lot of people see my animated film or my tree drawings without any introduction, it's not what they're used to and they can switch off without engaging with it. In the exhibition in Ypres, there were films in the different sections which introduced the new concepts (well done to Piet & Klaus & Manu for working out these films were the way to do it - they really held the whole exhibition together and made it work) - but on my stand at the NEC I couldn't show these (not only would the sound have interfered with what was going on on stands around me, but I would have needed a theatrical licence to show them). So it was a case of Jacob or I explaining things to everyone who came to the stand - and boy is that tiring - but given that I was not given a slot to give any sort of presentation, that was the way it seemed it had to be. 

It was only really at the beginning and end of each day that we had significant quiet periods with no visitors, and in between there was a fairly constant and varied stream. There were some exceptionally rude people we had to deal with. One man cut me off to tell me that despite what I was saying actually my book was of very narrow interest (and this after he had only just set eyes on the cover) and when I asked him whether he thought Jeremy Vine would have so wholeheartedly recommended it if it was of such limited appeal, his mouth twitched as if he'd just chewed on a very bitter lemon (with perhaps an electrode and a wasp in it) and he flounced off without another word. A woman came onto our stand and both Jacob & I thought her shouted query was for where the "death stand" was - Jacob replied that he'd seen Deceased Online (a website with searchable cemetery registers) just around the corner and started to point her towards it when she shouted even louder "NO, THE DEAF STAND!" - and then stormed off still shouting, leaving her husband to chat apologetically with us even to the extent of making vague suggestions he might buy a book. We later found the stand for the British Deaf History Society nearby - sadly the British Rude Society has had to close due to customer service failures.

There were also a lot of people who were completely fixated on their own stories and their own research - some were very nice and had interesting stories to tell or showed me old photos which I'm always a sucker for and did my best to spot clues in, but some were just looking for an ear to bend and launched into a monologue that no doubt I didn't end up being the only audience for at the NEC. It reminded me of certain times working in the library. With all that said, I'm incredibly grateful that it was all leavened by some lovely conversations with interesting and interested people who had come to the NEC with open and enquiring minds. My great support from Family Tree magazine continued (see for yet more promotional work they've done for me (I seemed to have improved at doing pieces to camera since the time I made the films with Klaus & Didier last year)). I also had good chats with folk from WDYTYA? magazine, the  Imperial War Museum (including someone who was at university with a great-great nephew of Cyril Thorne from my group photograph), the Surrey History Centre, the Western Front Association, & the Ordnance Survey (whose representative was familiar with Donald Stileman's grandson who also works for them). I also enjoyed visits from members of the families of Alf Dobson, Douglas Tosetti, Henry Hewitt, & David Glen (the latter including 2 young ladies who volunteered to put their John Lewis experience of 35 years previously to use on my stand). Another visitor was David Allen Lambert who was over from the States and who obviously really made an effort to check out everything on display, including interviewing me for his show on Extreme Genes, a family history radio show that has tens of thousands of listeners.

One thing I observed about WDYTYA? Live was that most of the focus was on how to do the research or giving historical context to our families' stories, but there was very little that I could see that was about presenting what was found in new ways. My favourite memories of the show are of talking through my family tree drawings with interested listeners and almost seeing the lightbulb come on in their eyes as they got the concept and saw what I was trying to show with all the variety of human life and the magic that can grow from it - and hearing one man say that it was the best thing he'd seen at the show. I hope I can hold onto that because in material terms the exhibition was not a success for me - we managed to sell 56 books over the 3 days and overall I made a loss of over £500 (expenses included printing costs of the books, electricity & furniture hire for the stand, van hire & fuel & a new tyre, hotel & meals, pay for Jacob, and that's not including a credit card reader and paper bags & other stationery that I bought and which I now have for future events) - and that was with being given the stand for free - the fees for that stand would normally be nearly £4000 and that is something unaffordable for a miniature businessman like me.

So, what next? Well, having prepared very well, I now have thousands of books available for sale but all my recent "big" bits of publicity have not had a particularly dramatic impact and so I am left having to pay for their storage. I remain eternally grateful to Jeremy Vine who got the ball properly rolling and everything in terms of book sales has built from that. I'm still selling a few every day, and in fact there has been only one day since 8th December when I haven't sold a book. I'm still regularly receiving lovely emails from grateful buyers of the book, and all 17 Amazon reviews are 5 stars. The next things I need to do are:
  • target bookshops and widen the distribution of my book
  • organise presentations and get out on the road (news coming soon on that)
  • find a UK venue for my exhibition. 
This last item on the agenda really came home to me from my experience at the NEC. Showing components of the exhibition in isolation really doesn't work - it was the integration of them all along with the intro films that really made it into a coherent whole. If I can get that to happen in a venue that is big enough and in the right place to ensure visitors and that has the infrastructure in terms of construction/security/publicity, then people will really see what this is all about. You can see the scale and content via and there are video introductions (including the first film from the exhibition, which the Daily Mail nabbed for the online version of their article) at - including these interviews that show what the exhibition meant to visitors:

Any ideas on how to break down the barriers and get potential venues to pay attention to what my exhibition is really about in terms of style and content will be gratefully received.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Events tickets

A couple of things coming up for which I have just got ticketing information:

  • I have 7 complimentary day tickets left (normally £22 each) for the Who Do You Think You Are? Live Exhibition that is on at the NEC in Birmingham from 7th to 9th April (i.e. this Thursday to Saturday). If you would like any please email me today (Monday 4th April) on and I will post them out 1st class on a first-come-first-served basis.
  • I am giving a presentation at Dauntsey's School at 7.30 p.m. on 19th April - seats are free but please let them know if you are coming by email or telephone 01380 814500

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Next!: Who Do You Think You Are?

I'm not going to dwell on the Daily Mail article, but I think it was neatly summed up by one of the comments online which ran something like "well, now I've read all that, I don't need to buy the book". I've had some reaction but it was more of a ripple than a tidal wave. And that is what I expected when I saw the article on Saturday morning and realised that their definition of a "snippet" about each man was slightly different from mine, and that there was nothing to entice people to look further, that this was part of a bigger project, that the book was full of so much more, of pictures and letters and poetry, and that the feature writer had told me it was the best book she'd ever read.

One doesn't get many shots at national publicity so it was a bit frustrating, but I'm reminded of what happened when I took part in Open Studios in 2006. I went to a huge amount of effort, getting marquees, having display boards built, printing up and framing loads of work, setting up my shed cinema, painting signs & putting them on all the roads leading to me, booking a band for the opening party - but a combination of appalling weather (which led to the band only just being able to play with freezing hands, and then one of the marquees taking off and nearly performing a loop-the-loop, luckily after all the artwork had been removed and re-displayed inside my tiny house) and poor publicity from the central Open Studios organisers meant that I had hardly any visitors who weren't already familiar with my work and virtually zero sales. But, and it's a very big 'BUT', that Open Studios was vital on the path that led to where I am now with my Group Photograph project. Not only did one of my visitors to my shed cinema become an enthusiast who is still sending me encouraging emails 10 years later, but another booked me to give a presentation in my village, which led to a presentation in a library, which led to all the other presentations I've given. I had had a long lay-off from my project and not only did this re-awaken my interest but I also saw that what I had done actually meant something to other people, that it wasn't just my magnificent solitary obsession. One has hopes and plans, and though those hopes and plans may appear to be dashed, one just never knows what hopes and plans the world has got for you. The important thing is to keep getting out there, making what you do visible and then things happen, often in ways you could not imagine.

And it's been easier to write that because my next hopes and plans are already in motion. Next week from Thursday 7th to Saturday 9th April, I'm at the NEC in Birmingham for Who Do You Think You Are? Live 2016, the biggest family history exhibition in the World. It's all rather happened at the last minute, but I've been given Stand 332 and in the last week I've booked the electric hook-up and furniture and a van to take a load of books and am currently making checklists of things I need to take. I've also had the great good fortune to find a friend to accompany me who has experience of being on a stand at the NEC and who is able to run the whole thing with me, along with some other kind helpers who I've heard from today. On a 4 metre x 5 metre stand I'm not going to be able show much from the Ypres exhibition, but I have set up some projections to throw onto the back wall and am looking forward to talking to people about various aspects of my project. And the big news is that Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine are running an 8-page spread about my project and I think it might even be going on the cover - and it's coming out to coincide with the opening of the exhibition at the NEC. It's all very exciting and I can't wait to get going with it.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

The waiting is over

The promised feature in the Daily Mail has appeared today: - it looks like I'm not going to be in for a quiet Easter! At least I'm better prepared than when I went on the Jeremy Vine Show - there are books in stock and a bulk fulfilment plan to send out any orders this week.More later...

Thursday, 10 March 2016

A cunning plan (among many)

Firstly, apologies to those people who specially bought the Daily Mail last Saturday based on my last blog post only to find no mention of 'A Group Photograph'. I am learning about the fluidity of the newspaper business. Here is what happened. On Friday morning I heard from the feature writer Amanda that she hadn't heard back from her boss as to whether it was going in. At midday I set off to drive the 190 miles down to Sussex to give a presentation (of which more later). Thinking that I needed to be next to my computer early on Saturday in order to be able to react to what was happening from the gazillions of people reading about my project, I left to drive back up to Norfolk immediately after packing up my presentation kit. At 10 p.m. Amanda texted me to say that she still hadn't heard anything (which maybe meant her boss was away for the day) and would be looking online in the morning. At somewhere around midnight I pulled into the salubrious environs of Bishops Stortford services to have a nap and eventually made it home at 2.30 a.m..

Waking at 8 a.m. I soon discovered that there was no trace of my project on the Mail website, and was glad to be able to re-enter dreamland and end up somewhat fresher by the time I arrived at the memorial service that afternoon for Donald Stileman's daughter Elizabeth. The church was full with so many people whose lives had been touched by Elizabeth, and that her husband and children were all able to speak so movingly and joyfully of her was a testament to their love for her and the strength of her faith. It was great to see so many members of the family again in the Village Hall afterwards, even if I was the butt of some good-natured ribbing about all their purchases of the Daily Mail that morning. And so I have come to realise that I have been the unwitting agent of the Daily Mail's cunning plan to increase their circulation (!). I have since heard from Amanda and she has advised me that she will eat her hat if they don't run my feature at some point - they have again told her that they really love it, but given that it is not attached to a particular date, it is just the case that it gets bumped out when something of more time relevance comes in. Last Saturday, there was a feature on the 20th anniversary of the Dunblane school massacre and I can understand why they wouldn't want to include another piece that was also about a terrible event and how it effected the families of both the victims and the survivors.

On Monday, I headed back in to BBC Radio Norfolk in Norwich, this time to be interviewed by Paul Ross for BBC Radio Berkshire. The tiny broom-cupboard of a studio on the ground floor that I'd been in for the Jeremy Vine interview had been taken over by Farming Today so I actually found myself promoted to a huge studio upstairs, surrounded by screens and buttons which I did my very best not to touch. I was taken aback by Paul's introduction in which he made it clear just how much my book meant to him, including saying, "One of the most moving books I think I've ever held in my hands" and "I can only think of half a dozen books that have actually reduced me to tears, and this book is one of them". It was also apparent from the specific nature of his questions (many of which I had never been asked before) that he had really looked at the book in detail. You can listen to the whole interview at

I've had a good turn-out at my recent presentations in Mickleham, Jarrolds in Norwich, and in Firle, with several people driving long distances to come and see me, and I was delighted to see members of the families of Louis Klemantaski, Thomas Lawrence, Cyril Spartali, & David Glen, some of whom I'd never met before and some who I'd no idea were coming and whose presence was a wonderful surprise (including 2 very very recent additions to Cyril Spartali's family tree who I'm sure were doing some kind of call-and-response with the babies' cries in my animated film). I've now got further details about exhibitions/festivals I'm going to be involved in as follows:

  • Who Do You Think You Are? Live at the NEC in Birmingham have given me stand 332 for all 3 days: 7th, 8th & 9th April, to coincide with a major feature that is coming out in the next issue of Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. The exhibition organisers are different from the people organising the speakers for the presentations and with the latter not being aware of my involvement, I will not be giving a presentation, but I will be making some projections to display on my stand, and of course will be available to chat about my project and research.
  • Chalke Valley History Festival (at the end of June) haven't got a sponsor for a light-fast tent this year so I won't be able to do any projections, and quite honestly it's very difficult to scale down other aspects of my exhibition, particularly for an outdoor site, so I'm not going to be exhibiting there this year. I'm still hoping to give a presentation, but their standard slot is an hour so I won't be showing my animated film as I usually do.
  • Appledore Book Festival (patron: Jeremy Vine) (late September, early October) have invited me to give a full presentation and will be getting back to me with a date.

Now that I know that I won't have to do any large-scale exhibition building this year, that gives me a lot more leeway with respect to organising tours of presentations as requested by 50 people so far, and I will be looking at how to programme that very soon (as well as organising some form of holiday - it's been a full-on couple of years!).

And finally, two last bits of news. Firstly, Findmypast are running a competition to win a copy of my book which they started today along with posting a guest blog from me: see &, so yes, you lucky people have got two huge bits of waffle elegant prose from me in one day.

And secondly, my favourite comment of recent times has come courtesy of a friend who's a teacher in a girls' school: "Everyone loves the book and I have to lock the Library copy up when I am not there to prevent it from disappearing. The only other book that has this distinction is a glossy one about the filming of Poldark." !!

Friday, 26 February 2016

The edge has moved

I’ve just heard from the feature writer at the Daily Mail and they love the piece she’s done so much that they don’t want to cut it, but that means it won’t fit in this Saturday, so instead they’re running it next Saturday, 5th March. On the one hand, at least I can enjoy my weekend off, but on the other, that’s another week on tenterhooks!

Standing on the edge...

On Monday night I heard that the Daily Mail had decided to run a feature on me and my project, and I have discovered that when they make a decision they don't hang about. So this Saturday 27th February, look out for the Group Photograph and at least 2 pages of story. The feature writer heard me on my second appearance on the Jeremy Vine Show and it's been fabulous how she has so completely connected with my project, and wants to tell the world about it (thank you, Amanda!).

On Wednesday a photographer came up from Slough to take my picture. In the time that I've been working on this project, any DIY on my house has taken a back seat (!) so in order to have a chance of a nice background we met up at my old workplace, Fakenham Library. There was a slight look of bemusement on his face as he had been briefed to tread carefully and do the best he could because I was "old & frail & shy" - hilarious! - I think some wires got seriously crossed on the picture desk and they thought I was one of the men from the group photograph! Luckily for him, I am reasonably able-bodied and we also managed to get outside on a beautiful day and take some other shots in other locations around Fakenham.

There are final checks currently being made for the article, and I am making sure everything is in place to deal with any surge in demand for my book. It is taking a while to get things sorted out with the book trade (in terms of getting it into bookshops), so I am still mainly selling through my website at I am much better prepared than before I went on the Jeremy Vine Show - I have a decent stock of books and a company that is ready and waiting to fulfill all my orders. They have already filled a load of book wraps in preparation for posting, and there is a system in place to enable them to print the labels to send them out to everybody. They are also ready to take on the next reprint, should it be required, which will save time compared to when the printing was being done in Belgium.

It's so difficult to know what's going to happen. Over 1.5 million copies of the Daily Mail are sold every day, and over 15 million read it online. That said, people are not going to be buying Christmas presents (unless they're exceptionally well-organised) and I've discovered that a lot of people think of books as luxuries these days. Whatever happens, I don't think I'm in for a quiet time. I feel as if I'm standing on the edge of a cliff, but I draw strength from some wonderful things that have been said or written about my project recently:
  • I gave a presentation about my project in Fakenham Library last Thursday. Not having stood up in front of people to talk about my project since the beginning of October, I was a bit rusty starting off but I soon got into my stride when I saw the interest on the faces of my audience, and it was lovely to hear their responses when so many came up to talk to me afterwards.
    (And whilst I'm on the subject of presentations, I'm still having difficulty working out how to organise a programme of future events. I've been asked to take part in Who Do You Think You Are? Live in April and the Chalke Valley History Festival in June, and there are still details to be worked out of what I might be exhibiting (and therefore of how much work I'm going to need to do to prepare for them). As soon as I have a clearer idea of that I will be getting in touch to make plans with everyone who's asked. I've got 3 presentations in the next week that were set up before the Jeremy Vine Show, in Mickleham (Surrey), Norwich (Norfolk) & Firle (Sussex) - see for more details.)
  • Patrick Miles has given me a great deal of encouragement ever since he saw my animated film in my shed cinema during Norfolk Open Studios 2006. An article in the Times prompted him to write this post on his blog:  - scroll down to the heading: "Watch this Space 10 February 2016" - not only showing his typically enthusiastic response to my project but also some thoughts about the First World War Centenary commemorations. 
  • Helen Tovey, the editor of Family Tree Magazine, has written the most fantastic review of my book - see It was an absolute joy to see how she so completely got what I've been doing with this project.
  • A friend who read the book last weekend, as well as awarding me the honour of an invitation over for cauliflower cheese, wrote to me saying, "I notice it has the effect of making me want to be a better person.  Not in a good/bad kind of way but in a more honest and relational way to self and others." It’s extraordinary to me to think my book has had that effect, but beautiful. 
And that brings me on to some sad news of someone who showed great kindness and support to me. I first met Donald Stileman's daughter Elizabeth 17 years ago when I visited her to hear her memories of her father. I can picture her with a twinkle in her eye at the welcoming reception for the Gathering of the families in Ypres just before my exhibition opened in September last year. She was so excited to be there and thrilled for me having seen how things had developed over the years. She was the only one of the children of the men in the group photograph who was able to be there, but the fact that she looked fitter than me belied her nearly 85 years. It was terrible news to hear the next morning that she'd fallen on her way back to the hotel and broken her hip, and absolutely typical that she and her husband Tony should think of others when telling me they didn't want everyone-else in the Gathering to know lest it cast a pall over events. I visited her in hospital in Ypres and again typically she was more concerned with how I was bearing up under the stresses of the occasion than about her own situation. I next saw her in November when I met up with her & Tony for lunch in Fakenham and it looked like she was well on the mend, but only a week later she was taken ill with something even more serious and last Wednesday she died. She lived life to the full and was absolutely dedicated to her family who I am sure will miss her terribly. It is shocking how quickly such a vibrant life can be taken away and a reminder to get on with things whilst the going is good. My very best wishes to Tony and her family.

Monday, 8 February 2016

2nd reprint is here

The 2nd reprint arrived on Wednesday 3rd February. I now actually have a stock of books in this country and can start doing some publicity again. I didn't think it was right to do any plugging when I didn't actually have any physical books to sell, so I've done no promotion since my first appearance on the Jeremy Vine Show on 8th December (except going on his show again on 14th January, and how could I turn that down?).

Firstly what I'm doing is sorting out the administration of this whole business. I've hooked up with a new company who are taking over the storage + fulfilment of orders + distribution to booksellers etc, and who will also be doing any further reprints.

The arrangement we're going with at the moment for orders from my website is that they are being sent out weekly – I send them a listing of names & addresses on the Friday and they process the orders and get them in the post on the following Monday. That’s the way it’s got to be at the moment in order to try and keep the packing and postage costs down to a reasonable level. Even so, there are costs associated with getting other people to fulfil my orders and so I've increased the price of the book by £1 on my website to try and cover some of this.

I've now put online recordings of my appearances on the Jeremy Vine Show:
It's amazing what just a few minutes of speaking on the radio has led to, and I've had to deal with all sorts of things that I just did not envisage 2 months ago:
  • The Sterling/Euro exchange rate.
    For the whole of my life up until now I've only really thought of exchange rates in terms of getting money for foreign travel. I've now come to realise what a huge factor it must be for businesses who are trading across borders, how they are just at the mercy of foreign exchange markets over which they have very little control. My books have been being printed in Belgium and if I had been billed at the end of December it would have cost me about £2000 less than when I paid at the end of January. In the first two weeks of this year, the Euro went from being 73p up to 77p, and every penny difference was costing me over £450. By the time I realised this it was too late, and then it was a case of looking at what the markets were doing and guessing when a good time to jump into paying my bill. This was not easy to decide (understatement!), not least because the forecasters really don't know what's going on either. The Governor of the Bank of England announces an unscheduled speech, everyone gets jittery, the pound slides, he says nothing very important, the pound recovers. In the end, it sounded like things were only likely to get worse so I decided to pay as soon as possible - and that has been a weight off my mind (but the predicted dive of the pound against the Euro hasn't happened, even if it is binging up and down between 75p & 77p on a daily basis). I also discovered that there is a way round the rubbish exchange rates offered by the high street banks - I used a foreign exchange dealer called HiFX and they dealt with things efficiently and securely.
  • Problems with Royal Mail delivery.
    Considering the thousands of books that have been posted out, it really has gone remarkably smoothly - but even though the number of problems has been small, each of those takes time and energy and multiplied up it takes a good chunk of effort to sort them all out. Royal Mail estimates that 98% of 2nd Class post arrives within 3 days. That's still 2 in every 100 that doesn't and I have to deal with emails from people concerned as to when their books might be arriving (over Christmas, five for Blackburn postcodes ended up taking 3 weeks to arrive), a few books have just disappeared into some kind of postal whirlpool, 7 have come back to me in the last week having not been collected from sorting offices (and in most of these cases the intended recipients have said they didn't get cards put through their doors to tell them there was something to collect - and I then have to pay the postage back to them), 1 was found in a garden shed where it had probably been for a few weeks without any notice from the postman, 1 was found in the dustbin just a day before it would have disappeared in the refuse collection, 1 was left behind the house's postbox where it became rain-soaked, and the winner is 1 which was thrown by the postman over an 8-foot-high gate into a garden where it was shredded by a dog before before being abandoned to the rain (I have the pictures to prove it - I am not getting them framed). And in the end, according to the Royal Mail, if the book doesn't arrive in pristine condition then it is my responsibility to ensure the customer gets another one or a refund, and then I have to make the claim with all the form filling etc that that entails. As I said, it's a small number of cases, but maybe you can detect a hint of frustration at the brain freezes that some postmen seem to undergo.
  • Deciding when & how many to print.
    OK, so I've now got a stock of books - but how long is that stock going to last? Orders are still trickling in despite the fact that I have done no publicity, but I have irons ready to wiggle in a number of PR fires and once the wiggling happens, who knows what could happen in this Internet Age. 3000 went in a week in December - yes, it was in the lead-up to Christmas (and interestingly a lot of people seem to only buy books when they are to be presents for other people), but with the reviews and feedback I've been getting, I think there are a lot of people out there who would buy immediately if they knew about it. And if I wait until there is the demand, I could be faced with running out again and it'll take 3 weeks to reprint, but if I reprint now I will have a bill for many thousands of pounds and also need to pay for the storage of the books. Hmmm. You can't prepare for everything in life, and it looks like I'm going to be taking it day by day for a good while yet.
In the middle of January I went over to Ypres in long-wheel-base van with my Dad and picked up what remained of the exhibition. There wasn't really that much, given that a lot of the exhibition furniture belonged to the Museum and quite a lot of the displays were made of stickers and projections, and in particular the stained glass windows installation was a one-off build that couldn't be re-used except for the individual window panels (which I have got). The tree drawing panels and the banners were awkwardly over-sized (hence the need for a long-wheel-base van) but the majority of the load space was taken up with Belgian air that we imported to Surrey. Over the next week I returned the items that had been loaned by the families, and now all that is left is go back over to Ypres to photograph the belongings of the two Berlein brothers before they are returned to South Africa, and to take everyone involved with the exhibition out for a drink to thank them for what they have done for me. I still haven't got a UK venue for my exhibition, but I have faith that if I keep getting myself out there, then things will happen.

I've got a few presentations coming up (see for the current calendar of events), and once I've got a few more details sorted out with book admin side of things I will be getting in touch with all the people who've expressed an interest to organise some more.

Yet again, I am thankful for the thoughts and support of so many people. I can't pretend I've found this easy and there are times when I'm entirely uncertain of what the best course of action is and whether I'm doing the right thing - and then an email will pop into my inbox that reminds me what this is about. One of my favourites was from an Anglican priest in a notorious loyalist estate in Belfast who plans to use my book in his sermons. There is something I never thought would happen when I set out on this - and maybe it won't have any effect - but you just never know, and if it does, that would be a beautiful thing. This project has never been about the money, and it's certainly not about trying to improve this country's postal service - I just have to remember what it is about for me and what it can mean to other people - and then stick to it.

PS For a fantastic piece of recent inspiration for me see 'The Red Tree' by Shaun Tan

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Another chat with Jeremy Vine

Well, Thursday was another one of those days where the World stands on its head. In the morning I went for a meeting with the manager of Jarrolds, the biggest independent bookshop in Norwich. That was very encouraging and gave me some insights into the book trade, which is still a very new business for me. On leaving him, I was walking towards Norwich Cathedral (he'd mentioned they had an exhibition space, and I thought I'd check it out) when I discovered that someone had left a voicemail on my mobile. It was very difficult to hear the message but I picked up something about wanting me to ring the Jeremy Vine Show. I had not a clue about what it might be for and I couldn't hear the number clearly enough to ring back (and the number wasn't on my phone because he must have rung when I was in one of Norfolk's many blank spots). So I thought I'd continue to the Cathedral and have a look (nice exhibition space, but too small and too difficult to black out for my installations) before heading back to check my home phone. I'd started walking along the river to where I'd parked my car when my phone rang, and indeed it was a researcher from the Jeremy Vine Show - they were doing a feature on internet businesses and knowing that I had had a bit of an overwhelming demand situation (!), wondered whether I might come on to talk about how I dealt with it. This was just before midday and they wanted to talk to me at 1.30, so I continued the walk back to my car, calmly drove home and in arriving back at 1.10 I was able to get a bite to eat and listen to a bit of the show before they rang.

The show is up on iplayer at and the segment that involved me starts at 1:39:08. And having been talking about dealing with a rush of orders, I then had to deal with a rush of orders. I sold out of what was left of the 1st reprint, and changed my book web page to show that it was now going to pre-orders for the 2nd reprint: the 2nd reprint is arriving on 2nd February and being posted out in the first week in February. This second interview has also led to some national press interest. That, and the fact that I am getting the most amazing emails from people who have read the book, tell me that there are still legs in this yet.

I've also been getting emails asking about arranging for me to give presentations. I've now got 41 requests and I'm just working out how to handle that, given that I'm not entirely in control of my calendar at the moment, and also that these requests are coming from around the country, including many places that are not exactly close to my home in Norfolk. I want to be able to keep costs down for people booking me, so I'm trying to formulate a plan that involves me doing mini-tours in various areas - and I will be getting in touch with everyone about that soon.

This week I've got a meeting with the company who've been sorting out the packaging and posting out of my book orders and I hope we are going to come up with solutions as to how to handle everything better - and then I'm heading over to Belgium with a van to pick up everything from the take-down of the exhibition. Here's hoping that it doesn't end up being too much of an adventure, but with all this snow about, it may be that providence has different ideas from me as usual!

Sunday, 10 January 2016

All pre-Christmas orders out - and the next phase...

The most important news is that I am very pleased to say that all pre-New-Year orders were posted out by the fulfilment company by 7th January, and I've been getting some fantastic emails from people who received their books yesterday. It is a relief to have been able to deliver on my promise to everyone who had faith in me with their orders, and also a spur to get the idea that this is not a one-off peak that is just going to fade away, as can be seen from these testimonies:
  • "I feel that I am 'living' your book not just reading it."
  • "There are hundreds, if not thousands, of new publications for the Great War centenary and very few of them stand out as innovative and different.  One that does is Joe Sacco’s 'The Great War — An Illustrated Panorama',  a sort of ‘Bayeux Tapestry’ (a 24 foot long cartoon panorama) of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme, folded into book format, accompanied by historical notes and observations, and another is your 'A Group Photograph'. Both are superb ‘one-offs’."
  • "It is fascinating. My husband hasn't put it down since it arrived." 
  • "The only thing on the radio that has ever inspired me to buy something was when I heard you on the Jeremy Vine Show. No regrets. Great value for money considering the years you put in to creating what I can only describe as a work of art." 
  • "My husband has been reading it since he opened it and it's been page by page, cover to cover. ( I've never seen him do this with a book before, normally it's flicked through then read when he has time)."
I've still got a lot of work to do to get on top of everything and this has not been helped by various real-world practicalities that do not get instantly fixed however much one may wish them to:
  • I've ordered the 2nd reprint but with all the printers and paper mills having been shut for 2 weeks over Christmas and then needing time to get going again, I'm going to have to wait till the beginning of February for it to arrive - meanwhile I have 100 books left and it's not going to be long till I'm in the situation of having to take pre-orders again (but this time everyone will know from the outset).
  • In order to be able to sell through UK bookshops I have needed to take over publishing of the book from the Museum (who were the original publishers). To do this I've had to set up a publishing company, register with Nielsen Bookdata, and get a new ISBN for the book. This also means that I'm having to deal with the practicalities of organising all the printing, storage & distribution - and paying for it all! It's just not as simple as saying "I'm going to get an enormous print run" - especially if one has no idea of how many are going to sell, and whatever is printed has to be stored somewhere whilst it's waiting to be sold.
  • I'm also discovering the realities of the book trade - that a lot of booksellers order from publishers via distributors (who take a 10-15% cut), and then the booksellers expect to take from 30% (for some of the independents) up to 50% for Waterstones or 60% for Amazon. It's a wonder that anyone bothers writing or publishing books when the returns are so meagre. I've just read of an author who had a US bestseller and his paycheck at the end of it was $12,000. It's shameful that the big name sellers don't realise that their profits are based on the creativity of their authors and that they need to do more to support them.
  • It's very difficult to plan ahead at the moment when so much is up in the air, and I'm having to handle such a large amount of email. I'm having a meeting with the creative agency who have helped sort out the fulfilment of my orders to see how I might do things better.
  • I have various ideas for further publicity, building on my appearance on the Jeremy Vine Show, but I'm holding off doing anything major until I've got a decent stock of books and a plan to handle any further surge. The funny thing is that I am still very much under the radar - if I had sold all these books via normal retailers my book would have been right up there in the bestseller lists over Christmas, but actually I'm only really known to Jeremy Vine's listeners and otherwise I've not heard from anyone-else in the media or publishers or agents.
  • A number of people have been asking me about doing presentations and I'm working on a plan to be able to handle the fact that most people are a long way from where I am in Norfolk and I don't want to end up charging the Earth.
  • I'm also getting offers to host my exhibition but a lot of people don't seem to realise just how big the exhibition is. In its current form it fills an area 2 full tennis courts in size, and it is not something that can easily travel about - not least because I would not get permission for loan of all the families' memorabilia for such an undertaking, but also because two of the most important parts are large installations that take some building. That said, I am working out a plan for doing something smaller and more transportable that still contains the essence of what makes this project original and unique.
The last month has been quite extraordinary (certainly a Christmas I will never forget). It's rather caught up with me in recent days and I've just had to spend a lot of time sleeping to get over some seasonal lurgi, but I'm starting to come out of that and I'm looking forward to finding solutions to everything and getting my work seen and read in 2016.