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