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 www.environmental-badge.co.uk/en/environmental-badge.html).
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
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 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3LVxjjZghNQW2LJhx1SsX0t/the-lost-tommies. 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 http://internationaltreefoundation.org/itf-projects/biodiversity-for-kafuga-pocket-forest/ and if you can make a donation via http://internationaltreefoundation.org/save-ugandas-kafuga-forest/ 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).