Monday, 18 April 2016

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.

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