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A detail from the magnificent mosaic was discovered in a field in the village and dates from the 4th century AD.

A detail from the magnificent mosaic was discovered in a field in the village and dates from the 4th century AD.

YESTERDAY was my birthday, an occasion for me to trot out that old cliché “I’m too old for birthdays” – and at the same time get as excited as the child in me as I opened each card and thoughtful present.

A cheque from my mother offered up the annual opportunity for a little self-indulgence. This year I decided it should be a year’s membership of The Art Fund, a cause close to my heart and a passport to exhibitions that will excite and enthral me, as long as I can get to them from all the way down here in Dorset. Most are, of course, in London, but an occasional awayday is not impossible.

I applied online for my membership and ticked the box to receive email news bulletins. How exciting, and what a lovely present I’d chosen for myself.

An hour or two later I headed for Hinton St Mary, about nine miles away, to meet my sister for an evening talk and demonstration on The Horse Boy method of helping children with autism. The ticket for the event was one of the cache of birthday gifts chosen for me by my sister, since both of us are suckers for anything to do with horses. It was, of course, as wonderful and inspiring as we knew it would be.

Our surroundings were sublime. Dorset’s glorious landscape provided the backdrop as we sat on straw bales in the evening sunlight to watch the method explained by its founder, Rupert Isaacson, and demonstrated by the world-class event rider William Fox-Pitt. Later, we moved into the ancient Tithe Barn for a talk and questions, rounding off an exceptional evening.

Today, I received my first email newsletter from The Art Fund. Well, they didn’t hang around, I thought. Twenty-four hours a member and I’m already made to feel one of the gang.

The first item I chose to click on was headed ‘Incredible places to see mosaics’. I don’t know why I chose that over all the other enticing items, but for some reason I did.

This is what I read, with the hairs gradually standing up on my neck:

British Museum, London

Free to all

The British Museum is a trove of rare and beautiful mosaics, including examples from across England, Italy and North Africa. Perhaps the most famous is one discovered in Hinton St Mary, Dorset, in 1963, depicting a clean-shaven man – possibly the earliest known image of Christ. The picture is accompanied by the Greek letters chi [X] and rho [P] – the first two letters of Christ’s name – and when placed together as a monogram they form the symbol for Christianity at this time. If it is Christ, then this is the only such portrait on a mosaic floor from anywhere in the Roman Empire.

As I researched and read about it, I realised it was familiar to me and I had even listened to the BBC Radio Four broadcast of A History of the World in 100 Objects when the mosaic chosen by the British Museum’s director Neil MacGregor.

bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/VfupdXVjTM6crACGDU-6uA

This link reveals much more about this mosaic and even includes a comment by a man who remembers his father unearthing it Hinton St Mary in 1963.

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MICHAEL Bearcroft, a passionate reader and collector of books, bought half-a-dozen paperbacks to take with him on a Mediterranean cruise.

After a few days he’d finished the first two, but had not enjoyed either. He complained to his wife, Sue, about how disappointing he’d found them.

“Write your own, then,” she countered. “You’re always saying you want to write a novel, so now’s your chance to do it.”

Michael, 67, of Park Road, Henstridge, recalls how he bought up every notebook on the ship and wrote happily all the way back to port. The writing continued long after the holiday, as the tale he’d been yearning to tell poured itself out on to page after page, in unruly longhand.

Sue converted the chaos into a tidy, typed, manuscript and Michael contacted a literary agent. He barely expected a response, let alone a positive one.

“I was stunned when the agent said he thought the book could make it,” Michael says.

Two years after that first sentence of Dangerous Score was written in the middle of the Med, the thriller – a tale told through 100 tumultuous days of a soccer player’s life – has been published. With the subtitle ‘Murder, intrigue and the beautiful game’, the book also shines a light into the dark and troubling world of human trafficking.

Advance copies have attracted an enthusiastic response from readers of both sexes and from football fans and those with no interest in the game, so both the author and the publisher, Dynasty Press, are confident it will find its way on to the bookshelves of all lovers of a gripping, pacy, page-turner.

Michael’s own life story makes a cracking read, too, his interests and skills having led him into a variety of roles that no careers teacher could ever have predicted for him.

Brought up in Sheffield and a mustard-keen footballer, he was talent-spotted as a lad by a Sheffield United scout and played with club’s youth teams through his teenage years. The Blades let him go at 17 – “I wasted my opportunity,” he recalls. “I messed around and didn’t take it seriously enough.” However, that footballing experience was to stand him in good stead in later years when he became chairman of Corby Town FC. Along the way, he made many friends and contacts in the higher echelons of the game.

Michael continued to enjoy playing football as a semi-pro in south Yorkshire while an aptitude for sales led him into a successful career in marketing and management. At the age of 50 he took a bold leap into acting, using the same agent as his wife, who was a dancer at the London Palladium and major UK theatres, as well as television and commercials.

A keen Western rider, Michael took roles in a variety of TV dramas, including Peak Practice, Casualty, Dangerfield and The Bill, before training as a theatre director and director of musicals.

In 2008 he was named best director in the south-west region by the National Operatic and Dramatic Association, an accolade that confirmed how far he’d come from the world of soccer.

After touring a successful murder mystery production company called Murderous Liaisons, Michael franchised it and then sold it to help fund the launch of the musical stage show he created, Back to Broadway, whose tour of UK venues has included The Exchange at Sturminster Newton, where it was a sell-out.

With Sue, Michael now runs summer musical theatre schools at venues all over the country.

Since their move in 2010 to the Somerset-Dorset border, where Michael says they are “extremely happy in such a lovely village”, life has taken a bumpy turn. Ill-health has brought Michael into close touch with the NHS at Salisbury, Bristol and Yeovil hospitals, all of whom earn his praise for superb care.

Now recovering from a triple bypass, following a heart attack in August, Michael is turning his thoughts to a sequel to Dangerous Score. “I have some other books in my head at the moment, too,” he admits, “but I think the sequel must come first.”

In the meantime, Dangerous Score was formally launched at GoodisonPark, Everton Football Club’s ground at an event attended by many of soccer’s big names.

Royalties from sales of the book, through Amazon, bookshops including Waterstones and other outlets such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s, will be shared with the Hillsborough Family Support Group, a cause close to the hearts of so many, especially anyone who cares about football and human rights – two of the dominant themes of Dangerous Score.

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SAY the words ‘war poet’ and the names of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and their First World War contemporaries come instantly to mind.

But what of the Second World War? Who were the writers who gave us a poetic legacy from that tumultuous period of our history, but who, curiously, seem to have been consigned to the shadows?

Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, who were both killed in 1944, are probably the best-known, but there is a third, John Jarmain, who has remained largely unsung but who could well be worthy of a place in the top rank.

He too was killed in 1944, aged 33, in Normandy, after a long campaign in North Africa – he fought at El Alamein – and further action in the invasion of Sicily.

Jarmain, who taught Italian and Maths at Millfield School, wrote more than 150 letters home to his wife in Dorset, many of them containing his poems written by the light of the moon.

Not long after his death, a slim volume of his poems, which, with their gentle, understated nature, are in many ways untypical of war poetry, was published. Also published posthumously was his only novel, Priddy Barrows, about a boys’ school in the Mendips. Both books were widely acclaimed and Jarmain’s talents lauded. Vita Sackville-West wrote, in 1946: “Among the poets lost to us by the war, John Jarmain must take a considerable place. A real loss.”

He was also referred to as “One of the truly great but neglected poets of the Second World War” in the anthology, Oasis into Italy (pub. Salamander Oasis Trust, 1983).

That first collection of Jarmain’s poems, the one that was published in 1945, has now been republished in a beautiful hardback edition, complete with critical essays, historical notes and Imperial War Museum photographs, setting his words and work in admirably detailed context.

‘Flowers in the Minefields’ (Flagon Press, £14.99), has been edited and researched by James Crowden, the Somerset-based writer and poet. Appropriately, he launched it on Remembrance Sunday, 11th November, at Sladers Yard in Bridport as part of the town’s annual literary festival, where his guest, Ptolemy Dean, the architect, son of Jarmain’s friend and battery commander Joe Dean, will read an essay written by his father in celebration of the poet’s life and work.

A second launch was held on 24th November at The Dorset Bookshop, East Street, Blandford.

James Crowden is currently engaged in writing Jarmain’s biography, which he aims to publish next year.

Crucial to both projects relating to John Jarmain has been the input from Jarmain’s daughter Janet Coward, who lives in Queens Road, Blandford. The elder daughter from the poet’s second marriage, to Beryl Butler, of Broadstone, near Poole, Janet was born in 1942, just before the Battle of Alamein, and can only recollect her father through the written memories of his contemporaries, the body of work he left behind him, and, remarkably, a cache of love letters he wrote to Beryl. These Janet discovered after her mother had been killed in a road accident near Swanage in 1990, but it was to be 10 years before she summoned the emotional courage to read them.

Subsequently, a chance meeting with James Crowden gave her the opportunity to mention the existence of the letters, and now they have helped bring Jarmain to literary notice again.

Beryl Jarmain, with whom the poet had fallen in love after his first marriage foundered, was seven months’ pregnant with twins when her husband was killed. The little boy was to die later, aged 10, while the girl twin, Diana, became a Buddhist nun and lives in a community on the Holy Isle, off the west coast of Scotland.

Jarmain had two other children, Mark and Joanna, from his first marriage, to a talented artist, Eve Houghton. Only Joanna survives and she lives on Vancouver Island where she is a published writer of prose and poetry. Her book of poems, A Summer Father, is a poignant portrait of her absent father and her own childhood, marred by her war. She was six years old when her father was killed.

A facility with words may have been passed down from their father, Janet Coward says, but she claims it didn’t settle on her. She is now retired after a career in teaching Latin and English at Millfield, where she was employed by the same head, Jack Meyer, who had taken on her father, and at schools in Sherborne and Swanage.

Janet Coward acknowledges her father’s poetic brilliance and is pleased by this fresh awakening of interest in his work, sparked by the imminent book-launch and by the interest in the Battle of Alamein in this 70th anniversary year.

She says: “He was very talented, gifted even, and was always an emotional poet.”

His great love of the natural world, of bird life in particular, is evident in many of his poems. “I know he and my mother used to love bird-watching and they would spend whatever time they could out walking together,” Janet says.

She adds: “I now find that the poems have greater meaning for me because I am looking for the man behind the poet – and I find glimpses of him. Those that in some small way relate to my mother and their relationship are particularly poignant.”

Here she refers specifically to the final two lines of a poem written on board SS Duchess of Richmond, the troopship that in 1942 carried John Jarmain, his battery and 5,000 troops of the Highland Division from Liverpool via Cape Town to Port Tewfik in Egypt.

SLEEPING ON DECK

I lie and look at the stars that rock and sway

In a swinging arc beyond the pointer mast

And stiff black spars; I hear from far away

The quiver of the engines’ humming song.

And nearer the wave of the white wash hissing past.

Warm as your breath, and fresh, and blowing strong,

The smooth wind fans my eyelids and my hair

And faintly flaps the blankets of my bed.

How still it is! O, my heart has need of you here,

And the hollow of your arm to lay my head.

James Crowden hopes that ‘Flowers in the Minefields’ will go some way towards belatedly shedding light on the talents of Second World War poets.

Comparing them with the First World War poets, he says: “They fought a very different but just as bitter war, and many of the poets in the WesternDesert were killed.

“We can still learn so much from those that were embroiled in such major conflicts of conscience, bravery and hardship. Jarmain’s poems were shaped by solitude and the desert. As one of his lines says: ‘And the desert will live within us when war is ended’.”

Tim Kendall, Professor of English at ExeterUniversity, says that John Jarmain’s “small number of significant poems belong among the finest of the war”. He considers this one, written at Mareth, Tunisia, in March 1943 and containing the line from which the newly published book takes its title, to be his masterpiece:

EL ALAMEIN

There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;

Yes, flowers in the minefields now.

So those that come to view that vacant scene,

Where death remains and agony has been

Will find the lilies grow –

Flowers, and nothing that we know.

 

So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,

Bells which we could not hear:

And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,

That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?

– Not the murk and harm of war,

But their hope, their own warm prayer.

 

It will become a staid historic name,

That crazy sea of sand!

Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame

Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,

On us a fleck of glory to the end:

And there our dead will keep their holy ground.

 

But this is not the place that we recall,

The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,

The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,

The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;

The tanks, the guns, the trucks,

The black, dark-smoking wrecks.

 

So be it: none but us has known that land:

El Alamein will still be only ours

And those ten days of chaos in the sand.

Others will come who cannot understand,

Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires

And find there – flowers.

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(A condensed version of this feature was published in May 2012)

THE first swallow of the season swoops and skims over the glassy surface of the River Frome at Pallington Lakes, dipping its beak to refuel after the long flight up through Europe.

It is sighted and noted by Simon Gudgeon, who takes a proprietorial interest in all new arrivals on his 26 acres at Tincleton, six miles west of Dorchester. For the record, that swallow arrived on the 2nd April, sand martins on the 1st, and the first of the family, the house martins, on the 26th March. Nothing is missed, everything is appreciated and accorded due honour.

Here, deep in the Dorset countryside, with lakes, ponds and the river threading through the land, Simon and his wife Monique are happy hosts to 93 different types of bird – so far. More will surely come as the lakes, formerly a coarse fishery, continue their rehabilitation and complete their return to natural splendour.

The swooping barn owl, the statuesque bittern, the curve of a wing, the angle of a beak – all of this is not just food for the soul. In Simon’s case, the wildlife around him feeds his inspiration, too, for he is one of Britain’s foremost contemporary sculptors and his main subjects are birds.

He made his name as a wildlife sculptor, but in recent years he has moved away from smaller-scale animals to create monumental bird-forms to stand majestically in such spaces as Hyde Park and the sculpture trail at the National Museum of Wildlife Art of America, Wyoming. The birds, some figurative, some more abstract, some that reference myths and legends, others that combine with exotic flora, are displayed on home turf, too, where they draw visitors from every corner to the Gudgeons’ countryside park, Sculpture by the Lakes.

Simon is the only living sculptor to have had two works commissioned for display in Hyde Park. He sells throughout the world and he is represented by the Halcyon Gallery in London. In short, he has arrived. It may be a crowded scene, but he is at the very forefront of the stage.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, to discover that he has been making a living as a sculptor for only a relatively brief period. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 40, he picked up a piece of clay and turned his back on the ‘trial’ occupations he’d been engaged in, starting with law and continuing through commercial photography, landscape gardening and house-sitting.

After meeting Monique, also a successful career-changer – from London-based PR executive to fully trained plantswoman – he decided to pursue what he really wanted to do, which was to make things with clay.

He has never had a lesson. He is not from an artistic family. He just knew that when he had that lump of clay in his hands it felt good and he had the urge to turn it into something beautiful.

The astonishing result, with many of his pieces, large and small, now in the homes, gardens and grounds of private collectors, and with national and international acclaim regularly coming his way, may bring him satisfaction and reward but he is always striving for something more, different and, in his eyes, even better.

“I’ve got to keep moving forward and be challenged and inspired and excited,” Simon says. “I can’t stay ‘safe’. I believe that as an artist you have to paint or make things you are passionate about, and if you are not passionate then it’s futile.”

His aim is to create something skilful, beautiful and profound. “If you can achieve two out of those three, that’s good. All three is perfect,” he says.

The evidence of that pursuit of perfection is all around at Sculpture by the Lakes, its waterside setting surely unique among the country’s many sculpture parks and gardens. Simon’s sculpture, majestic within such a landscape, where Monique’s block planting is so thoughtful and so effective, moves the viewing of art into a totally different dimension, an experience that enthrals and excites. Sometimes a piece is glimpsed from a distance, perhaps through trees or tall grasses, the aspect changing until it is finally revealed, more beautiful even in its proximity and, sometimes, doubled in magnificence by its reflection in a lake.

Now that Pallington Lakes is no longer a fishery, visitors are able to spend as long as they wish, strolling and relaxing and picnicking. There are boats for crossing to an island where Eve and the Fallen Apples lie in wait, and many lakeside seats at different levels to allow appreciation of the sculpture from alternative angles – one seat, strikingly, made in wood by local furniture maker Simon Thomas Pirie, and another a two-man copper swing by Hampshire metal artist Steve Myburgh. It all adds up to what Simon wants it to be: “A place of reflection and quiet contemplation.” That is why no more than 30 pre-booked visitors are allowed at any time, and why children under 12 are not allowed. “An exhibition should be an experience, not a ‘viewing’,” Simon adds.

With head gardener Marcus Smith and the grounds maintenance team of Lin Hambidge, her partner Ian McLuckie and his son, apprentice Sam McLuckie, Simon and Monique have planted 2,000 trees and shrubs, among them a wood of 460 silver birches and large numbers of oaks and willow as well as a dozen rare black poplar. “This is a lovely spot,” Simon agrees, “but you are always driven. There are always changes to be made, a whole range of things to work on. You don’t get time to relax. It’s like art. Art is a creative imperative. You can’t not do it. The more ideas you have the more driven you become.”

The drive is propelling Simon down undiscovered roads, into painting – “big, juicy oils, playing with colour” – and abstract kinetic sculpture, which he plans to exhibit next year.

The restless creativity explodes in dramatic vignettes wherever you look. There’s a beautiful, productive vegetable garden in parterre style close to the house, a hen enclosure with a des-res henhouse, a hard-landscaped sitting area where two old dogs lie commemorated, a long, winding woven willow arch, hand-made by Monique, and the ‘wise walk’, an arcade with quotations and uplifting or amusing aphorisms carved into the paving. In fact, les mots justes abound, surprising with their appearance in a stone wall or in metalwork springing up from the edge of a lake. Shakespeare is of course represented, but the selection is extremely catholic and includes Kipling and Edgar Allen Poe.

All of this, even the newly dug ponds, has been created in just four years since Simon and Monique first set eyes on Pallington.

They’d been looking to move from their rented two-bedroom cottage south of Salisbury and close to the New Forest because Simon couldn’t cope any longer with working in an old Nissen hut. “I couldn’t make anything over seven feet in height,” he says. “It was restricting both physically and creatively.”

Online searching of properties for sale, focusing on houses with barns in Devon, suddenly threw a curve ball – PallingtonLakes in Dorset. As Simon wryly recalls, it failed to fulfil any of their requirements. “Scarily, it was also twice our budget, so as first-time buyers it was an altogether hopeless proposition.”

However, he and Monique were intrigued enough to view it – and the rest is history. Freed from the confines of the Nissen hut into two huge, high, studios, Simon’s sculpture has grown exponentially. He’s thinking big, making big and has big plans to match.

A first musical event at Sculpture by the Lakes last year has encouraged him to grow that side of the business, so that this summer there will be three, all on a large scale. Stretch marquees will accommodate the crowds but the hope is that balmy evenings will mean everyone can wander the candlelit paths and picnic by the lakes.

PallingtonLakes may have been Simon and Monique’s first house purchase, but it is also their last. They don’t plan to move on anywhere else. “We’ve chosen where we’re going to be buried – our Île des Morts,” says Simon, gesturing out across the 26 acres, where the flashes of kingfishers suddenly illuminate the lake’s edge.

• Find out more about Simon Gudgeon’s work and the musical events at http://www.sculpturebythelakes.co.uk and http://www.simongudgeon.com

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There were so many well-wishers and friends at the opening of The Valentine Gallery on 19th May 2012 that it was impossible to get through the crowds and take a better photo. This one shows Annabelle and her partner, Vlad.

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(Published December 2011)

BLANDFORD artist Annabelle Valentine swapped her oil-paints and brushes for tools of a different trade to transform a town centre shop into her own studio and art gallery.

Working alone, and often in difficult and dangerous conditions, Annabelle spent eight weeks carrying out a major facelift on the listed Georgian building at 45 Salisbury Street.

The Valentine Gallery will open next spring, but meanwhile Annabelle is painting in the light-flooded studio where the large ‘shop-front’ windows give passers-by a wonderful view of her working on her portrait commissions.

“It’s turned out to be a remarkably sociable way of life and so different from being shut away in the room I used at home, where I was completely on my own. Here, people wave as they walk by or call in for a chat or to ask about my work and commission me to paint for them. They find it fascinating to watch me work, and I’m lucky that I don’t find it all distracting. I can work while I talk. It’s a lovely way to make friends with strangers.”

Over the weeks, some of them would have grown used to the unlikely sight of a young woman high up on scaffolding, brandishing various tools, brushes and buckets of lime mortar. However, Annabelle says there were sometimes raised eyebrows when she emerged at the foot of the ladder. “I think people expected some burly builder to be doing the work,” she says.

Annabelle, who is also engaged in restoring her Georgian home in nearby Orchard Street, bought the former shop and cellar, with the freehold to the whole building, and knew that if she wanted the work of transforming the premises done within her budget and exactly as she wanted it, she would need to do it herself. “I’m a perfectionist,” she says. “I don’t cut corners, and I haven’t just slapped paint on. I’ve prepared every surface meticulously, learning how to do certain things where necessary as I’ve gone along.”

The toughest day was spent signwriting, hanging over next door’s roof in a howling gale.

After that experience, Annabelle admits “it’s easier to paint a portrait than a vertical line while hanging upside down.

“All the letters were sloping and I had to spend ages straightening them up. I also had to make two stencils as the first one turned to papier mâché in a torrential shower just before I had time to trace it out.”

She also suffered with lime burn thanks to a hole in her glove, and a lot of aching muscles.

The words ‘In loving memory of Daphne and John Valentine’ appear over the door. “Thoughts of my dear parents have helped me get through each day,” Annabelle says. “The purchase of this building was partly funded by an inheritance from them, so I really wanted it to be a project that they would be excited by. They were always so supportive of my art. To have dedicated this to them is a great motivator for me.”

Her mother, a writer and watercolourist, was a descendant of the eminent Victorian portrait and landscape painter John Linnell, and she taught Annabelle to draw at a young age. Like Linnell, Annabelle has made her name in portraiture and now a passion for the countryside – in her case, the glories of Dorset, which she loves – is encouraging her to extend her repertoire. The trees at Badbury Rings, in particular, have caught her fancy and she is making a season-by-season study of them.

“I started off in South Devon as a painter of trees,” she says. “I opened a tiny gallery in Chudleigh which I funded by working as a distributor of vegetable boxes for Riverford Organics.”

Her art training was at colleges in Portsmouth and Exeter and she loves the fact she continues to learn and developing her skills, not least those which are enabling her to turn the shabby old shop floor into a thing of beauty. For this she will be laying an area of new floor, using floorboards reclaimed from the former Blandford parish rooms.

The Valentine Gallery will officially open in 2012 in time for Dorset Art Weeks (26th May–10th June) with a new exhibition once the interior is completed.

The gallery will mostly display Annabelle’s own work, but she says she plans to be quite ambitious and tempt in some of her favourite and well-known artists from time to time.

Annabelle, who has allowed herself only two days off since July, says: “Although it has been well worth the effort, I am very glad that the bulk of the work is finished and I can now concentrate on all my art commissions which are on order for Christmas.”

See Annabelle’s paintings online at http://www.thevalentinegallery.co.uk

RS

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(Published April 2012)

 Rosie Staal meets John Were, innovator, entrepreneur and owner of an independent publishing house

BOOKS mean different things to different people. To some, they are for transient ownership, for distraction on a plane or train, for relaxing with on a deckchair, never mind if suncream and sand decorate the pages. For others, they are objects of desire and delight, to cherish, to excite the senses of sight, touch and smell, and, best of all, to be entertained by and to learn from.

To John Were, a graduate of English literature (Trinity College, Cambridge, 2000) books mean all of those things – but they also mean words in digital format, as eBooks, on Kindles and other e-readers. For much of his life, but especially for the past year, books both physical and digital have been John’s consuming and fabulous passion.

This is thanks to a life-changing move out of London to a rural home near Yeovil with his wife, Amelia, a GP in the town, which triggered a latent entrepreneurial streak. He has become that rare thing nowadays, an independent publisher. But because this is the 21st century, his company, Xelsion Publishing, has a twin focus – traditional book format side-by-side with innovative digital publishing.

There’s a twin focus to his working life, too, as the publishing venture is an offshoot of Xelsion (www.xelsion.com), his digital media company.

What to publish first was a decision that came easily: it was to be a manuscript written by a friend from university days, Will le Fleming.

“Will kept on almost getting published, but would fail at the final hurdle for some reason,” John says. “It was a shame because everyone who’d read this particular manuscript really rated it.”

There followed a long and very busy period through 2011 that could best be described as a roller-coaster ride of discovery as John learnt everything he could about the publishing industry, from front cover to back. Author Will played an important role, too, researching typefaces, coming up with cover designs and pitching in with ideas and support as the venture moved slowly forward.

Will also influenced the decision on whether the book should be a hardback or a paperback. “Books furnish a room,” he told John, firmly, and so Xelsion Publishing’s first book, and Will le Fleming’s first published novel, Central Reservation, is a hardback volume of impeccable standards with a high-quality feel about it.

John recognises his business venture was born partly out of what he calls “a naïve optimism,” but adds: “Without it we’d starve little and sleep better – but learn less.”

Now there’s another whole new world that he’s had to get grips with, because receiving the first consignment of books from the printers was only the start. There’s marketing, pushing for reviews in influential literary publications, the big launch in London, negotiating with Amazon, persuading booksellers to stock it (come on, Waterstones), making that critical decision about a repeat print run, getting the message out to book groups that they can have a discount – all those things and many, many more occupy John as the campaign goes on to get Central Reservation into more readers’ hands.

At the same time, John is busy expanding into e-publishing, using the internet for communicating with enthusiastic writers and readers, making the creation of a book a collaborative process whereby signed-up supporters on Will’s website (www.willlefleming.com) influence the way they’d like a plot or a character to develop between each instalment.

There’s serialisation of fiction, too, something that chimes so well with people’s bite-sized take on life nowadays. Serial-sized chunks of everything hold great appeal for people with time constraints and shorter attention spans.

To mark the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth, Xelsion started on his birthday, February 7, publishing Great Expectations in its original serial format, but this time in a blog. Alongside the text each instalment has a brief synopsis of the story so far. Chapters are available to download as a Kindle blog. (Go to www.charlesdickens.xelsion.com to find out more.) The blog also has a piece by Will le Fleming on how Dickens has influenced his writing.

It is both interesting and remarkable that John has an interest in both sides of the current hot debate about the future of books and whether e-Books are taking over.

On one hand he’s an advocate of ‘furnishing rooms’ with real live books with all their expressive physical qualities, and on the other he’s happy to evangelise about e-ventures and the ease and comparative low cost of e-reading.

While the war of words continues, he’s content to push forward with both, his business head ensuring a measured progress. To this end, he’s already negotiated an option to publish Will le Fleming’s second novel, Perpetual Motion.

John’s willingness to take brave steps into the world of innovation and originality is perhaps not surprising, given his family background.

His father, as a new graduate, embarked confidently on a career in software programming as long ago as 1980 because he could see that business would become more reliant on computers. His prescience, of course, proved correct, and the rest is history.

But it is John’s grandfather who takes the prize as the family’s most unusual yet most dazzlingly unsuccessful entrepreneur.

John, who regrets never having met him, explains. “He had this idea to turn a couple of decommissioned World War II torpedo boats into cross-Channel craft. They could do 50 knots – it was quite mad.

“But it didn’t matter because it didn’t work, unsurprisingly, and he lost a lot of money. At this point he took the family, including my father, who can still remember it, on the Queen Mary to start a new life in Canada. They travelled out first-class and three months later they came back, second-class.”

As entrepreneurs go, John’s grandfather simply didn’t. He ended up selling ice-creams from a van at the foot of Haytor, on Dartmoor. But that desire to try and do something different and an insistence on taking entrepreneurial strides life from the left field has obviously influenced John – not least in his choice of location for his marriage proposal to Amelia. It was, of course, Haytor.

Summarising his attitude to business life, John says: “There is always a smarter way of doing things and constant effort should be made to get smarter every step of the way. It takes a lot of time, but the idea is if you do it long enough you start moving slightly faster than everyone else – and if you keep doing it you stay ahead.”

A good read on many levels

AUTHOR Will le Fleming’s first book is a lot of things: a ghost story, a tale of emotions stripped raw, a commentary on rural life as it is exposed to the barest bones of survival. But first and foremost it is a great read quite beautifully written by someone clearly at ease with words and the complexities of language and its rules.

In such safe hands, no reader could fail to be beguiled by such superbly skilful story-telling.

Central Reservation is set during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001 when rural communities suffered so terribly and the gap between town and country widened to a chasm. Within this context, 13-year-old Holly must come to terms with a future without her twin sister, growing up on her mother’s farm where the stench of death lingers and where nothing can ever be the same again.

Will le Fleming knows about the countryside, having been brought up on a farm in the West Country. Although only in his mid-30s, he has led a colourful life so far, working as a stringer in Ecuador, a croupier in New Zealand and a sword-fighter at the Tower of London. He has also shot arrows and wrestled for money, and worked as a paid impersonator of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He’s now settled in London, writing and teaching English.

RS

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(Published February 2009)

THERE are people all over the world who are passionate about animals and want to make life better for them.

There are countless charities, too, that exist for the same reason. But put the people and the charities together and too often the result is nothing more than a mountain of good intentions sadly hampered by a lack of resources.

In the developed world, those resources – medicines, equipment and knowledgeable advice – are easily come by, in fact so much so that there is often a surplus.

Directing that to where there’s a dearth and where it’s most needed seemed like a very logical idea when young vet Luke Gamble, of Cranborne, first thought of it six years ago.

His lightbulb moment resulted in the founding of Worldwide Veterinary Services (WVS), an animal welfare charity that links people and supplies to other charities in parts of the world where resources are severely limited.

On average, three volunteer teams a month travel to destinations worldwide on projects ranging from neutering expeditions and mobile health clinics to welfare education programmes and conservation projects. WVS teams consist of vets, veterinary nurses, veterinary students and non-veterinary volunteers with a range of experience.

In addition to these teams, WVS sends out veterinary supplies and equipment donated by pharmaceutical companies and individual veterinary practices to charities in need. By the end of this year, WVS expects to have sent out more than £400,000 worth of supplies.

The logistics of such an organisation are in the hands of Tessa Pollard, a 25-year-old animal lover with the title of International Projects Manager for WVS. She handles the admin, organises fund-raising and publicity, keeps track of medicine and equipment parcels, links volunteers to opportunities abroad and oversees travel arrangements, as well as coping with the 1001 other things that add up to what she describes as her “absolute dream job”.

“I feel very lucky,” she says. “It’s great to be involved in such a worthwhile charity that can make such a difference.”

Tessa, who lives in Wimborne, had always wanted to work with animals and studied animal care at college after leaving school. Job opportunities were limited, though, so, with her ambitions thwarted, she took office work as a temp. It was then that she first heard about WVS and so volunteered to help with the admin and with fund-raising.

“When it got bigger and they needed more help,” she says, “Luke asked me to do the job. That was nearly three years ago, and the charity has grown and grown.”

Travel abroad – in Tessa’s case to Fuerteventura, the Ukraine and Malawi – is one of the attractions for the charity’s volunteers, who do not always need to be trained vets or nurses. “A lot of our projects have spaces for non-specific people,” Tessa says. “It’s a great way to travel and to see other countries in a way that you would never get to see them as an average tourist.”

About 30 different countries are visited each year and, so far, Luke and WVS have helped more than 170 charities across every continent.

Support for WVS comes not just from volunteers, such as vets or veterinary nurses with a fortnight or so to spare, but from fund-raisers and, crucially, pharmaceutical companies.

They donate medicines that may be short-dated or about to have their packaging or branding changed. “Their help really improves the welfare of animals,” Tessa says. “Parcels come from all over the country, and from vets’ practices too.”

These may end up, for example, at an animal refuge in India, where a de-worming programme has been carried out on hundreds of cows and buffaloes, or in Afghanistan where flea and tick treatments have improved the health of local dogs.

The possibilities are limitless. And it all happens thanks to the well-oiled wheels of an organisation in a little office at the back of what used to be a family shoe shop in a Dorset village.

Rosie Staal

• Worldwide Veterinary Service, 14 Wimborne Street, Cranborne BH21 5PP. 01725 551123 http://www.wvs.org.uk.

Charity bookshop funds the WVS office

TO cover the overheads involved in running the charity’s office, Luke Gamble came up with the idea of opening a second-hand bookshop in Cranborne from which all profits go direct to Worldwide Veterinary Service.

Once it was open and starting to grow, he didn’t have to look far for someone to run it full-time. Linda Packman, long-time resident of the village and former owner of Janes general stores and newsagents in Castle Street, where Luke’s veterinary practice is now based, was an obvious choice.

“I was about to leave my job running the Cranborne Stores and was looking forward to slowing down a bit,” Linda says, “but this seemed just too good an opportunity to miss.”

As merchandise and marketing manager for WVS her main 9-5 role is receiving, sorting, stacking and selling donated books – a job she absolutely loves.

The premises, formerly a hairdressers but for generations before that a shoe shop run by the Cranborne family of Adams, could not be more ideal, Linda says.

“I don’t think any of us would be happy if we were trying to sell books against someone else’s retail book business in a town, but out here it is perfect and no-one could possibly accuse us of pinching their livelihood.

“We are also incredibly lucky to have so much local support. People are fantastically generous.”

Since the bookshop opened a year ago – “with five books and one bookshelf,” says Linda – it has grown into a fully-fledged mecca for bibliophiles, its thousands of volumes covering every possible subject, from autobiography through to zoology.

As well as generous donations from villagers and supporters from further afield, books come from Waterstone’s, which although in as-new condition, may have been handled by customers or be slightly marked in some way.

“Unsurprisingly,” Linda says, smiling, “Luke was the one who persuaded Waterstones to pass on these books to us. He’s very on the ball like that. Besides, it’s for such a good cause.”

Linda processes some of the more rare, antiquarian volumes that are donated and sells them on online auction sites such as eBay, sometimes for £30 or £40 apiece. There is also an antiquarian section in the shop.

Hardbacks, many of them in pristine condition and therefore suitable as gifts, sell for £2.50, and paperbacks for £1.50. Booker Prize winners and celebrity chefs are as well represented as authors of more timeless classics, and there is a children’s section that runs the gamut from nursery rhymes to Harry Potter.

The WVS Bookshop is a valuable resource for villagers and visitors for all sorts of reasons and not just as somewhere to recycle their books. There are DVDs for sale (£3 apiece) or to hire (£1) and there is a comfy sofa for curling up on while dipping into and testing first chapters.

Thanks to two of the younger customers, Cara and Nadine, there is a pair of children’s chairs, too. Their thoughtful donation means that other young browsers can sit while making their choice from the shelves in the junior section, just as the two little sisters like to do themselves on a regular basis. 

• Contact the WVS bookshop on 01725 551123. Opening hours are Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Luke is poised for TV stardom

THE founder and chief executive of Worldwide Veterinary Service is Luke Gamble, a young man so blessed with energy and enthusiasm that he could probably run the country too – if only he had the time.

He visits about 30 countries a year, liaising and working with the animal charities and non-profit organisations registered with WVS.

He also has his own veterinary practice, Pilgrims, in Castle Street, Cranborne, and he runs a pet export company and an out-of-hours emergency vets’ service in Bournemouth and Poole.

Needless to say, when he does snatch time off he spends it with his family – wife Cordelia and toddler son Noah – at their village home on the Dorset/Hampshire border.

At the age of 32 Luke has achieved more than many might hope to at twice his age. He has even completed the Marathon des Sables, the six-day, 156-mile (254 km) ultra marathon, held annually in the southern Moroccan desert and regarded as the toughest foot race on earth. His aim, of course, was to raise money for his charity.

And now fame beckons. Luke is starring in a new series of 10 hour-long programmes called Luke Gamble’s Vet Adventures on Sky1 and Sk1 HD.

Many predict that the style of programme will give Luke the type of exposure that will make turn him into a celebrity, a status perhaps inevitable for someone so camera-friendly, so articulate and so good with animals.

Filming has been taking place in locations such as the jungles of Asia, the pampas of South America and the plains of Africa, featuring animals ranging from tigers and orang-utans to household pets.

Look out for Luke – but he’ll take some spotting because, like many of the animals he tends, he’s a fast mover. 

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