Friday, 8 December 2017

An anniversary, and a comfort to the sick

Today is the second anniversary of my first chat with Jeremy Vine on the radio. The funny thing is, though, that I have only just recently realised that today is also a very significant anniversary within the story of my project. When I was speaking on the radio about the marriage of Will Bissley to his childhood sweetheart Mu, I was unaware that it was 100 years almost to the hour that their wedding took place. It's amazing that the wedding ever took place. Mu was born in Shrewsbury, 120 miles away, and only moved down to Will's home town of Maidenhead when she was nine, after the death of her father. Even when she joined the church choir and her eyes met Will's the path of true love was not clear. They were of different social backgrounds (her father had been a vicar and his father was a local builder and developer) and in those class-bound times, they were not allowed to talk to each other. They got round this by exchanging little notes via his cassock pocket hanging up in the vestry, and by whispered conversations through her garden fence - and eventually by the time of the War things had developed so that they were able to get married. I have told the story many times of their brief marriage and the miraculous growth of their family in his absence after the Battle of the Somme, but on their anniversary today I think it is worth remembering the possibilities of life as shown by their family tree (see description below):

After Will was killed, you can see his daughter growing to the left and then all the shoots of new generations growing above - 26 lives that couldn't have existed but for their chance meeting.

Our lives are changed by the people we meet along the way and some of those meetings only show their true significance long after they occur. In 2006 I took part in Norfolk Open Studios. I remember being frustrated by the small number of visitors who came but in the long term I have grown to realise that it's not how many but who it is that counts. Patrick & Alison Miles were up in Norfolk on holiday and I'll never forget Patrick's reaction as he emerged into the light from my shed cinema having watched my animated film based on the Group Photograph. He was clearly moved and fully engaged with what I had done, and that initial enthusiasm carried over into us staying in touch over the years. He wrote a lovely review of my book on his blog early last year, and since that time we've been geeing each other along through our attempts to navigate the publishing world. And then out of the blue I got an email saying that he and Alison had decided to give my book as presents this Christmas and could I organise a bulk order. I'm not giving anything away to any of his family and friends as Patrick has already let the cat out of the bag on his own blog where he has given full expression to his enthusiasm: So many people seem to live their lives without the curiosity and enthusiasm for the new that is Patrick's trademark, and I am glad that he found me. (And if you would like to make your own bulk order, a box of 10 signed books is £180 including delivery, a saving of £38 on ordering individually - send me an email on and we'll sort out the arrangements).

None of what I've written so far explains the "a comfort to the sick" part of the title of this post. Well, last week I had a text from a friend saying that her son (who is 13 years old) was home from school with a sickness bug and was asking for water and a copy of my book (!). Unfortunately she'd loaned out her copy and could she buy another one for him, and when could I bring it round? Of course I dropped everything and drove round (what author wouldn't?) and was even more touched when she told me that he insisted on not seeing me as he didn't want to pass on any bugs to me. I don't know how significant my book was in his recovery, but everything about this episode in our lives made me feel better.

I'm currently playing the long game. All these books I had printed up are selling at a trickle but I am fully absorbed in researching and writing my next two books and, if I do it right, those two books will lead people back to my first book. I am given confidence by the amazing stories my research is uncovering and the love that people still show for my first book.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Saved by a six-year-old

On Sunday morning, a little boy and his mother came into the gallery where I'm exhibiting. They looked a bit uncertain so I went up to them and asked whether they knew what they were looking at. On receiving the answer "No", I gave them a little introduction. At first I wasn't sure how interested they were but they sat down and started to watch the projection. As they were looking at the lives of the men in the group photograph unfolding on the screen, they started asking me questions - and in the discussions that followed it turned out that just that morning the boy had been talking about wanting to do his family tree. Given that he can't have been more than six or seven years old, that was amazing enough but what was even more amazing was that he had decided that when he was labelling his tree, if someone had died in a war he would mark them in red and if they had survived he would mark them in blue - and that was the colour coding I have used in the projection that he was watching. I was so impressed with his interest and enthusiasm at such an early age that I decided to give him a copy of my book. He and his mother looked a bit stunned when I handed it over to them and I wasn't sure what they had made of that when they left. About half an hour later, I went up to another woman who'd just come into the gallery and asked her if she knew what she was looking at, and she said, "Yes, I've been pulled in here at the insistence of my grandson" and there standing behind her was the little boy from earlier. She thanked me for the book (and for the opportunity of lugging it around in her bag!), and with that I asked if I could write an inscription to him. He was called Wilfred, a good old name shared by two of the men in my group photograph, and I would love to know what he ends up doing. Interest and enthusiasm are such important keys to life and I hope that he gets the opportunity to make full use of them.

Wilfred certainly made an impact on me. I must admit to finding exhibiting difficult. I spend vast amounts of time working away on my own in my hermitage to produce exhibits - and then suddenly my work and I are propelled into the public eye where we are open to scrutiny (and also vast waves of indifference as so many people continue oblivious to anything not on the busy tracks of their lives or that requires a longer attention span than the blink of an eye). Coupled with exhaustion from the efforts of trying to get things done in time for the exhibition opening, I'd rather been struggling but that interaction with Wilfred knocked me out of my groove and I ended up having a really good day. I went up to anyone who came in and had interesting conversations with people originally from Brazil, Ethiopia, China, Lithuania (and even some from Norwich!) - and re-learned the truth that if you engage with people and ask them questions your eyes are opened to a whole different world as experienced by others.

I was also surprised by visitors who had come a long way to see the show, having bought my book online, swapped a few emails with me and followed my blog. Both had come up to Norwich just for the day and left lovely messages in my comments book. Maggie had come up from Surrey and wrote:

"What a superb achievement! I was as moved by the changing group photograph in this exhibition as I was by the book itself."

Lesley had travelled with her husband from Warwickshire and wrote:

"The photomontage is quite brilliant - very well worth all your effort in its creation."

It was a joy to meet them. The exhibition continues at The Forum in Norwich every day, 10 a.m. till 4 p.m., until Saturday 1st April. I will be in the gallery at least on Saturday 25th, Sunday 26th, Monday 27th, and Saturday 1st - and maybe on other days next week. Come and see what Wilfred saw.

Monday, 13 March 2017

"That is powerful" & on the radio again

The exhibition at the Forum in Norwich is open (& will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day until 1st April ). I've got to say that after all the struggle of the last 8 months putting together this new animated photomontage, I am extremely satisfied with the final result. Even just seeing the group photograph projected life-size is quite something, but to then see each of them growing through life towards their fate is moving even though I am beyond familiar with the material. There is one particular moment late on in the film that physically affects me every time I see it, almost as if my heart is being raised in my body. Amazing that a picture on a screen can achieve that - and not only for me. I've stood and watched it with another artist involved in the exhibition who without prompting said "That is powerful". Each of the artworks I've made (the animated tree film, the family tree drawings, the photomontages, the stained glass portraits, the new group photograph) give a different angle on this group photograph, but this is the one I personally find most moving and which would stand on its own without explanation in a gallery anywhere.

There were points in the last few weeks when I wondered whether I would get there. Firstly there were the tribulations with my video editing: the original video editor was taking 3 hours to render 1 minute of video (i.e. 60 hours to output the whole 20 minute film) and even then the quality of the images and transitions was poor. Moving to the new version of the software fixed those problems (it only takes 4 hours to output the whole film and the image is sharp as sharp and requires less computer storage - amazing). I then needed film of the field where the original group photograph was taken - so just a week ago I headed down to Wiltshire. I wasn't exactly sure what I was after but I arrived at ten to eight in the morning to weak sunshine and a bit of breeze with the air full of birdsong - and it was that which made it into the final edit. Given the grey and rain that poured on the days either side, it was almost as if I was being watched over (something I've felt at other times during this project). I hung around for a bit to see if I could improve on what footage and sound recordings I'd already collected but the weather just got worse (and I ended up being very grateful that the farmer's wife let me warm myself up next to her aga).

Then this last week I edited the soundtrack. If I ever do this again, I hope I will have the wisdom to go on some kind of course beforehand - but I didn't have time this time and made up for knowledge and experience with trial & error (lots of error) and some quality swearing - and it has worked.

It'll be interesting to see what the public makes of it. There hasn't been a big push on publicity for this, so we're mostly going to be depending on people visiting The Forum being curious - and at lunchtime I was interviewed by Matthew Gudgin for Drive Time on BBC Radio Norfolk. Sorry for the short notice, but he said it would be going out at 16.40 this afternoon (if you miss it, it'll be available on iPlayer to listen again - is what I think will take you there).

Hope to see you at the exhibition - I'll be there both days of this coming weekend (18th-19th March).

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Coming soon: Exhibition in Norwich & presentations

12 days to go until the 'Who Do You Think They Are?' exhibition opens at The Forum in Norwich (details are here - it's on from 13th March to 1st April) and I've just got the banners signed off to go to the printers. Having to make something eye-catching that is tall & thin when the Group Photograph is short & wide presented an interesting problem, and in the end I decided to take a slice and present two views of it which alluded to the multidimensional nature of what I’ve been trying to do - going from monochrome soldiers into human beings in all their complexity. Here's what I came up with and I think they're going to look great when they're printed 2 metres tall (and you'll be able to see the details in the photomontages):

I've also made good progress with my animated photomontage. In the end I bit the bullet and upgraded to a less recalcitrant version of my video editing software - and the result was a vast increase in speed and quality, and less swearing (there will always be swearing with computers - as one problem gets fixed, others pop up completely unanticipated - I just have to keep reminding myself that it's amazing any of it works at all). Here is a still from the film in the early days before the War:

Imagine that being project at over 2 metres high and being able to see those who grow old alongside those who grew not old. I did a projection test a couple of weeks ago - I imagine those watching it with me must have been rather concerned as to what they were going to say if it didn't work for them after my spending 8 months working on it. I'm happy to report that the response was that it's likely to have a huge impact on visitors. Relief all round. I've still got some finishing touches to make, and I'm also putting together displays for a couple of touchscreens, including one where you can touch each man in the group photograph and see some details for each of them (and rather than just replicate the book, I've chosen other pictures that show different aspects of the men's stories).

There are also a couple of presentations coming up:

  • Wednesday 15th March, 18.00 at Wellingborough School, Northants, NN8 2BX - free entry and no tickets required
  • Monday 20th March, 18.00 at The Forum in Norwich - free entry and tickets via Eventbrite

Just to say that I am not going to be with the exhibition all the time it is on, but If anyone's planning to make a special trip to Norwich and would like to meet up with me, please get in touch. Currently I'm aiming to be there on Saturday 18th & Sunday 19th March, and then on the Monday for my presentation in the evening. I'm looking forward to getting all this work done and starting to have some kind of social life again!

Finally, my plan to get onto Only Connect has stumbled for now. I applied as an individual and was introduced to my new team-mates five days before the audition. Despite getting on really well together and surpassing our expectations at the audition we were told last week that we haven't made it on for the next series. The door was left ajar, though, as we were encouraged to apply again next year - and by that time we will have had the opportunity to do some serious training and get to know each other properly. And if that comes off, it'll be going on in the run-up to the full-scale version of my exhibition at The Forum in November 2018...

Sunday, 5 February 2017

A bleak midwinter + the joy of surprises

I've just had a phone call from Martin Middlebrook. His book 'The First Day on the Somme' was a key inspiration in my wanting to find out more about my family's involvement in the First World War and so last year I had sent him a copy of my book. Unfortunately he was in the middle of a house move and as well as complications with getting the book released by the Post Office, a helping hand had packed it into one of many boxes and it was only now that he had discovered it during the unpacking. It was a light on a grey day to hear him say, "I give you my highest level of congratulation. It's a beautiful piece of work" - and it prompted me to think I might do some writing today, given that I haven't done an update since early December.

I'm currently working away at the animated photomontage as described in previous posts. It has been very laborious and fiddly, and as per usual I have been testing the limits of what my computer can do. Sometimes this leads to incredible frustration as my video editor decides not to play ball and either falls over or produces output different from that which it shows in its preview window - but I seem to manage to find get-rounds to the problems and it is gradually coming together. I've got the backbone of the thing done, and now I am tinkering to get the look and the feel right. Not long to go now until the exhibition in Norwich (see p.10 of I've got an idea to include film of the empty field in which the group photograph was taken, and plan to head down to Wiltshire at some point - and am currently on the hunt for a camera capable of shooting 4K video if anyone's got one they can lend me?

I've been spending long winter hours at my computer with varying degrees of belief that it will work out, whilst trying not to think too much about the fact that I'm not really selling any books at the moment. I sold 357 books in the month up to Christmas but in the 6 weeks since then total sales have been 39 (which includes 10 sold at the presentation I gave in Fakenham in January). I have a long term plan that I think will work out and I'm trying to hold onto that idea as I wrestle with my recalcitrant video editor. That said, I've had ideas for variations to my current plan. Firstly, I'm coming round to the idea that I should put some effort into finding an agent and then a publisher for my next book rather than continuing to try doing everything myself. And secondly I'm wondering if there might be mileage in approaching the Arts Council or other funding body to see about organising getting copies of my book into the hands of history & art teachers & into school libraries.

Another more left field strategem I've been putting into action is an attempt to get onto a TV quiz show. I can't give more details at the moment, but I had the audition yesterday and it went really well. My previous attempt at similarly raising my profile was certainly an adventure if nothing else (see and there are some people for whom that still has more significance than anything-else I've done (!). Whatever, it's good to have other things on the horizon to dream about.

Back to Martin Middlebrook and it really was a joyful surprise to find him on the other end of the phone today. It's brilliant that things can just come out of the blue to brighten one's world view, particularly given the power of the internet to share and make connections. Here are a few other recent joyful surprises:

And finally, I must share what someone said about animated film after the presentation I gave in Fakenham. He said it made him feel "both mortal and immortal at the same time" which has got to be one of the best things that anyone has said about it. Being a human being is full of paradoxes and the idea he expressed is central to so much of what I do. I've got to say it was also priceless to see the open-mouthed astonishment on his wife's face, as if he had never before said anything so profound and she was wondering if he was indeed the man she had married.