A GROUP PHOTOGRAPH - Before, Now & In-Between
A GROUP PHOTOGRAPH - Before, Now & In-Between

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Andrew Tatham

When I wrote my last post in November last year, I knew 2020 promised an interesting ride but it appears that I underestimated just what that could mean. I was only thinking in terms of how difficult it was going to be to get my book published, but it seems that the world felt the urge to add to that.

So, firstly, I couldn't find a publisher to take on my book. I knew it was going to be problematic. Those publishers who took unsolicited submissions had limits on file sizes that meant I couldn't send in more than a few pages of this graphics-heavy book so they were unable to judge the full scope - and then there was the fact that it was going to be an expensive book to produce, being full colour with lots of pages and in a large format and therefore of limited profit margins. I was also up against my perennial problem of getting people to look below the surface and see that this wasn't a traditional military or family history book, that there was more going on. Still I was not quite prepared for one response which included the line ‘Even if you are unable to find a suitable publisher, and I hope you will, your account will no doubt be of great interest to family and friends’ despite my having told him that Michael Morpurgo had called it 'moving, powerful, important' and William Boyd was writing the Foreword. I hope my measured reply has persuaded the person in question to drop that phrase from their rejection letters. I recognise that publishing is a difficult business full of risk and with many aspiring authors clamouring to get noticed, but still it’s very frustrating to have doors continually being closed in your face. It didn't take me long to realise that if I was going to get this book to see the light of day, I was going to have to do it myself.

In January I met with the printers who did the reprint of my first book and things seemed set fair for being able to print whenever I wanted to proceed, and the price seemed about what I had estimated. I returned home to get on with adjustments to the book that came out of the meeting (including re-sizing to ease readability, and with 464 graphically-laid-out pages any change like that is not a short job). I also had another go at the cover and here is the outside of the whole thing (including flaps inside the front and back covers):

By the beginning of March I was fully committed to publishing the book myself and I got back in touch with William Boyd to see when he might be able to get his Foreword to me. In July last year when he’d agreed to write it, he said he was busy with other projects for the rest of the year (including finishing his new novel Trio which is coming out this October) but that 2020 looked clear. Things were already starting to get interesting on the Covid-19 front when he agreed to a deadline of 1st May to send me his Foreword and then three days later we went into lockdown.

Given that I spend a lot of time on my own in my hermitage working on my stuff, lockdown was not a huge change on the face of it – though, being somewhat rebellious, when I was being told I had to spend time on my own I then didn’t want to do it! But like so many of us, do it I did and I recognised that I am luckier than a lot of people in being able to continue with my work mostly safe from the risk of infection and finding solace in the natural environment around me on my officially sanctioned walks.

One of my jobs at this time was sorting out permissions for some of the pictures I was using in the book. For the most part I have aimed to use pictures that are out of copyright or for which relatives had given me permission but that wasn’t possible for all and I could only fully sort out permissions for the rest when the decision was made about publishing. Some institutions recognised the fact that I was self-publishing by waiving their fees in return for a copy of the book, but still I had to pay out a total of £342 for the use of 6 of their pictures from the National Portrait Gallery and Imperial War Museum who aren’t much interested in helping out the little guy. It’s a wonder that any book is produced that has pictures in it, given the cost and difficulties concerning permissions.

At the end of April, William Boyd sent me his Foreword. To give you a bit of background: I have read every single one of William Boyd’s fifteen novels, starting with ‘Brazzaville Beach’ which was given to me by my sister for my birthday some time in the 1990s. In particular ‘Any Human Heart’ has a special resonance for me. I remember reading it in a hostel in Adelaide during my research trip to Australia in 2003. I was having a difficult time and it enabled me to escape into another life, but it wasn’t just escape reading – I connected with its whole life story of sudden ups and downs, the attempts to navigate a path guided by ideas learned from family and public school and by urges and feelings often not understood, and it gave the idea that ‘anything is possible’ which would later come to me as the most important learning from my Group Photograph project. And now here was William Boyd writing the Foreword to a book of mine and not only that but being bowled over by what I had done and praising it to the hilt. You can read the whole Foreword in the sample pages from ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ but one comment that is not in there is ‘No professional publisher could equal what you’ve done here.’

It is often hard to gauge the value of one’s own work. Family and friends may be biased or not want to discourage you with unwelcome truths, and criticisms can cut deeper than they should though they may be the view of only one person, but there is no way that William Boyd would have written what he did without meaning it and his saying that I had ‘really created something remarkable’, along with the prediction of a great success, was the most colossal boost.

With confidence high, I went back to my printers to start the ball rolling only to be faced with the new not-normal of most of their staff being on furlough, and not only them but also their binders. In the first instance I ordered a bound blank copy, just with the cover printed so I could see how it all fitted together with the paper I had chosen. In the event, even just that took a month to get through, but in another example of unwished-for things turning out to be for the best, that delay led to me deciding to do one final run-through of the whole thing, checking and editing, and with so much having been unread for many months that enabled me to approach it with a (nearly) fresh eye and make some changes that made me feel at last that it was the best that it could be.

I ordered proofs of the whole book and ironed out the issues that arose from them (there’s a short sentence for a not entirely straightforward process) and then there I was, ready to set dates for printing. On 9th October I will tell my printers how many copies I want and then on 11th November this book will be published and ready to be posted out. Sounds simple but boy is this venture full of risk involving sums that are not remotely comfortable to me (to get an idea of what is involved see this document about the economics of it all). In the end I’ve decided on a price of £29.50 (inc P&P) – not cheap but then this is a large high-quality book and not a bad price for what is basically a time machine (and you’d certainly pay more for a similar book from a book shop). You can pre-order your copy now from here, which also includes the option to get your name in the book as a supporter and get access to my artwork films from my Group Photograph project.

Starting my campaign to take pre-orders has been nerve-wracking but as always I’m sustained by the kindness and generosity of people who really support what I’m doing – and in another example of things happening that couldn’t be predicted, William Boyd put me in touch with a longstanding and very well-respected publicist friend of his who is now working on my campaign (as in this press release). I couldn’t be in better hands as I embark on this next adventure.

PS If you’re not tired of my writing, you can see more thoughts and stories from ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ in this guest post for my friend Patrick Miles’s blog.

Andrew Tatham
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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:
Andrew Tatham
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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 andrew@groupphoto.co.uk 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.
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