For the past two years I have been absorbed in researching, writing and laying out a new book. It has been another typical Andrew Tatham project where I've started out with what is on the face of it a simple idea and it has morphed into something that has required an enormous amount of legwork and taken over my life. The simple idea was to present a book of the letters of Charles Bartlett, my great-grandfather's second-in-command from the Group Photograph. Charles Bartlett is a larger-than-life and rather roguish character and the letters are almost completely uncensored and full of incident described with directness and bluff humour. I'd had the idea of making a book from them almost from first sight nearly 20 years ago but it had had to be on the back burner as I focused on what I was doing with the Group Photograph as a whole in the lead up to the exhibition in Ypres. When I turned my attention back to the letters, I thought it would be interesting to see what I could find out about the people he mentions in them, that that would give more of a feel for the wider landscape in which his life was being lived. The thing is that he mentions some 300 people in the letters, but never one to be daunted by idiotic challenges, I set up a spreadsheet and off I set.
What could have been a chore turned into a constantly surprising voyage of discovery into the past. Charles Bartlett had worked as a private secretary in the Theatre before the war and his wife was an actress and singer on the West End stage. Names in the letters that at first sight meant nothing to me turned out to be some of the biggest names in Edwardian Theatre with larger than life stories to match. Being in the war-time Army brought him into contact with all sorts of people from many walks of life who he would otherwise never have met, and being a senior officer meant that that included a full spectrum from private soldiers up to generals. As with my first book, I wanted to turn the names into human beings and kept digging until I found something that evoked some kind of uniqueness in the lives being led. And the stories that kept popping up were incredible, with people who were noted for their heroism or eccentricity or
insubordination or complicated love lives (or combinations of all of these), to
men avoiding conscription, to spies, royalty and a newspaper magnate. Through it all, I wanted to give voice to the
variety of war experiences and show how families dealt with their losses and
what the survivors did with the rest of their lives.
When it came time to start writing and laying out the book, I decided I wanted to make it visual to give an atmosphere of the times and places and people of the letters. Key to that was using scans of the originals with their handwriting and the feel of the writing papers with all their different colours and textures and shapes. Still, I wanted it easily readable so after experimenting with ways to overlay the letter transcriptions and combine them with the visuals and the notes about the content, this is what I came up with:
Believe me, doing that for a whole book with over 300 letters was not a small task. It took me months. In the end, though, I felt the effort had been worth it. Of course that meant nothing if it didn't speak to anyone else and it was with some trepidation that I sent it out to my first readers. My first first reader was my friend Patrick Miles (author of 'George Calderon - Edwardian Genius'). His response was beyond enthusiastic and can be measured by the fact that he asked me to confirm that he was indeed
the book’s first reader because he
thought his descendants would be proud as he was sure it would become a
classic. I am so lucky to have had that to hold on to as I face the hurdles towards publication.
With the feedback from my first readers showing that I was on the right track, I then did some editing as well as cleaning up the visuals (painstakingly cutting out the edges of the letters from the scans took three months on its own). In the background whilst I was doing all that, I was also looking at how I could get my book to stand out so that it might have a chance to catch the eye of publishers and prospective readers. Interesting content is not enough, particularly if neither the subject nor the author is a household name - and on the face of it a collection of First World War letters might not seem of more than niche interest. How could I show there was more to it? I'd seen other books with esteemed people writing the Forewords so I set to finding my Esteemed Person.
William Boyd had chosen my first book as one of his Best Books of 2016 in The Guardian and I thought he would be the perfect person because his novels are full of acutely observed human beings with all their foibles, and his attention to detail in his historical research is matchless. It is also obvious that he has a keen interest in the First World War given that he wrote and directed ‘The Trench’, starring Daniel Craig. To my absolute delight he agreed to write the Foreword. He was involved with the end game of his latest novel as well as TV and theatre projects, so he couldn't address this immediately but I'm looking forward to seeing what he writes about Charles Bartlett and his letters.
I then sent my book out to a few other Esteemed Persons in the hope that they would give me some useful feedback. Some got back to me to say that they didn't have time to read more than the few pages I'd printed out for them (I knew it was a big ask to expect them to read the PDF of the whole thing from a memory stick) but still, even in their busyness, they took the time to say some really helpful and encouraging things. Three who did read it have given me a huge leg-up.
Professor Ian Beckett had helped me out with some research questions I'd had with this book and not only did he read the whole thing and point out what he thought was of particular value and interest but he gave me a an confidence-boostingly small list of minor corrections to make. It will mean a lot when approaching publishers to be able to say that someone so eminent has effectively peer-reviewed the military and general history of the content.
Helen Tovey, editor of Family Tree magazine, responded with great enthusiasm, saying that the letters made 'compelling reading' and that even though she had no connection to Charles Bartlett she found his story 'absolutely intriguing' on a human interest level, and as an example that 'all our lives are more complex and nuanced than they might seem at first glance'. It is that sort of idea that is at the heart of what I do, that by looking at the specifics of other people's lives we can see universal ideas that we can apply to ourselves.
I wrote to Sir Michael Morpurgo more in hope than expectation and was beyond thrilled when I returned home from a trip away to find a postcard from him on my doormat, thanking me for sending him the book and saying that I could use his words when contacting publishers - and his words were 'moving, powerful, important'. If that doesn't catch a publisher's eye, I don't know what will. And even if it doesn't, it's going to open up all sorts of possibilities when self-publishing.
The First World War Centenary may be over but it
seems that reminders are still needed of where prejudice and aggressive
rhetoric can lead. Maybe my book won’t change the world, but I’d like it to have a chance to do its bit. I hope it won't be too long before you see a book which might look something like this:
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.