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: www.patrickmileswriter.co.uk/calderonia/. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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 - http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04tlt62 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).