I have just finished writing a 6000-word article on the part of my family history that relates to the city of Lichfield - a piece 18 years in the making as it was an Edwardian postcard collection from Lichfield that came into my possession in the 1990s that started me off down my own genealogical rabbit-hole. Lichfield was my Mum's birthplace, so it has been the story I most wanted to uncover, and is the most interesting to me personally. Some of that Lichfield history relates to the Lees family of Haughton in Staffordshire, and it is one of these Lees that is the subject of this post.
Charles John Lees was born in Richmond Road, Derby, in December 1884. His father, John Lees (1857-1940), worked as a coachman and groom, and his mother was Eliza Jane Reeder (1851-1923), from Norfolk. He had one sibling, a brother, George William Lees, two years younger (1886-1960). Charles married Lucy Flower, the daughter of an iron moulder, in 1909, and a year later they had a daughter, Doris. In 1911, aged 26, Charles was described as an 'engineer's pattern storekeeper' - custodian of the moulds for use in an iron foundry. Two more children would follow - Herbert, in 1913, and Hilda in 1915.
Not long after Hilda's birth, with the flames of war now burning hot, Charles enlisted at Derby with the 16th Battalion Sherwood Foresters, also known as the Chatsworth Rifles. They landed in France in March 1916 and saw fierce fighting at the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and more. In October 1917, after heavy action at Shrewsbury Forest and during some downtime at the Wakefield Huts Camp at Locre, in between a number of matches of inter-platoon football, Charles wrote an informal (but official) Will, leaving everything he owned to Lucy. By now he was a Lance Corporal.
Just over a month later, in November 1917, the regiment found themselves serving several duties in the Polderhoek section near Gheluvelt (West Flanders). The action was consistent but not heavy, with 2 or 3 casualties from the unit a day. The Battalion war diary for the 19th November is typical for the month and reads ...
"The day was fairly quiet - intermittent shelling along the Menin Road and vicinity. Snipers were active from direction of Lewis House. Machine guns were very active at night traversing the front line and all approaches to the front line. 2 killed."
One of those two killed was Charles John Lees, dying on the day of his wife's 32nd birthday. The other was Private Henry William Blackwell, age 36. Whether either of them died from the shells, the snipers or the machine guns, I don't know.
Lucy would live on until the end of 1970, dying in Derby aged 85. Their three children would all marry, with the youngest, Hilda, dying in 2007, aged 91.
The game's author, Peer Sylvester, wrote a nice introduction to its creation over at Spielbar (in German, English Google translation here), and I thought I'd write a little bit about the art side of things.
I was contacted by Duncan Molloy from Osprey Games in March 2016, though due to technology getting the better of my initial replies perhaps it was a close-run thing that I was involved at all. Thankfully we overcame our computers' resistance and I got started on the cover at the end of July. Here are some of the early sketches ...
And below is the finished cover illustration, including box sides. Osprey's final design has featured a Tintin-style title graphic, which, along with my (not quite) clear-line artwork, seems to have resulted in it pushing the right buttons to give off that lovely high adventure vibe.
Next came the characters. At one point, early on, it was discussed (perhaps not too seriously) whether this could be a Julius Chancer game, which - although tempting - I wasn't in favour of. Firstly, it would probably limit the game's audience and, secondly, The Rainbow Orchid had been finished for four years and was now, naturally, seeing a decline in interest and sales.
As an aside, this was not the first time that Julius Chancer and his chums had been considered for a board game. In 2013 my publisher, Egmont, had a visit from the game designer Reiner Knizia and he expressed an interest in my book, the result being that they agreed to adapt his board game Tal der Abenteuer (Valley of Adventure) into a Julius Chancer game. Lots of possibilities come and go when you have a book, but this one got pretty far along, I think, before it petered out and entered the graveyard of dreams, where all the other might-haves and could-have-beens now lie.
Anyway, it was the right decision for The Lost Expedition because the characters that Osprey settled on are fantastic - they are all based on real people and I probably used up far too much of my time on research as they have such a fascinating backstory each, and there's some welcome diversity within the group as well. Here are my initial character sketches ...
In the game you only play three of the characters (though all six are involved in competitive mode), picking one with navigation expertise, one jungle specialist, and one with camping skill - there's male and female of each. My six-year old's favourite is Bessie, and I like her too - it's always a little more painful when she meets some grizzly end in the jungle, so try not to get too attached to them!
Illustrating the deck of adventure cards was the next phase, and probably the most daunting. Sixty-five cards in all (yes, I know the game only includes 56 ... so watch out for some bonus promo packs out there!) and the biggest workload of the project - but enormous fun, even if, sometimes, the research involved looking at some rather nasty stuff! I think initially the cards were intended to be smaller, my original brief mentioning 'poker-sized' cards (63.5 x 88.9 mm), but they've ended up being larger, at 78 x 119 mm, which seems to have had a largely favourable reaction from the gaming community.
The adventure cards are the engine of the game. The mechanics are fantastic and can, at times, be quite brain-taxing, but another big part of the enjoyment of The Lost Expedition is creating a narrative and telling the story of your explorers' jungle trek as you go along, and I like to think the illustrations play a big part in bringing that aspect to life for the players.
For instance, in the trail pictured below we find our adventurers risking the danger of a steep path, causing some serious injury but avoiding the lair of the looming crocodile in the process, and then finding themselves further on in their journey than they thought. They are then caught in a sudden tropical storm, meaning they have to set up camp quickly! When it's over they find the path they had intended to follow has been transformed, perhaps for the better - perhaps not. Hook worms - actually avoided thanks to the torrential rain in this example - must normally be dealt with either by having to stop and camp, taking damage from the infection, or using up valuable ammunition to burn them out. A nest of swarming insects means a sudden change in direction, using up navigation resources, missing the next encounter, and gaining new expertise of your surroundings. If the last card had come into play, then the vantage point would have been a bit of struggle to reach (loss of health) but would have allowed you to change upcoming events to your advantage and gain new knowledge of the terrain. You perhaps also spot something tasty for lunch - though you'd have to shoot it first!
The final component of the game for me to illustrate was the map cards. Although I had a basic idea of what the game was about, I didn't know the rules, so I was a little unsure about how to do these at first. At one point a miscommunication meant that I spent over a week drawing the cards in the wrong orientation (landscape instead of portrait). Osprey, kindly trying to accommodate, were going to look into adapting the artwork somehow, but I didn't want my art out there, on my first game, to be compromised or even fudged in some way (though I'm sure, with their standards, Osprey would have made it work), so I took a deep breath and redrew them - the right decision!
When you play The Lost Expedition you can play an easier game with seven map cards, or do the full trail with all nine. The cards are numbered on the back, and you place them in order, with number nine featuring the ruins of the lost city you're aiming for. But, actually - on the redraw - I designed the cards so they can go in almost any order (in pairs), and still match up.
1 and 2 always need to start, and 9 must always go at the end. 3-4 and 5-6 must always stay as pairs to match up, but they, along with 7 and 8 on their own, can be put in any order. So, you could go 1-2, 7, 5-6, 8, 3-4, 9 (pictured below). It doesn't make any difference to the mechanics of the game, but you can produce some different landscapes with it. (Incidentally, working out the card edges and the bleed for this system almost fried my brain on several occasions!)
I've played the game a handful of times now, in all of its modes, solo, cooperative, and competitive, and greatly enjoyed them all. I know I might be biased, but this game is right up my street anyway. I think Peer and Osprey have produced a really fine game with a ton of replayability.
The rulebook is available for download here (and even in Chinese, here) and Watch It Played did a great video overview here. With the UK Game Expo and Origins largely out of the way (it's the last day of Origins today), a few reviews are starting to creep out too - see here at Co-op Board games, here at Geek Girl Authority, here at Go Fatherhood, and here at Geek and Sundry for starters.
Go and grab yourself a copy - but be careful ... it's a jungle out there!
Edit: There is a short interview with me over at More Games Please about The Lost Expedition.
I landed an hour late at Flughafen München where I was met by two festival representatives, who then drove me into Munich. I'm not usually able to see much of the city on these trips, and often my most touristy experience is the lift from the airport! On this occasion the autobahn took me past the infamous 1972 Olympic Stadium and the Allianz Arena (each a former and current home of FC Bayern Munich).
I had a bit of a comedy of errors introduction to the festival - pointed to the wrong hotel and then left at the Bier Oktoberfest Museum (dating from 1327) where the comic creators and guests were to dine that night, with no idea quite who I was supposed to be attached to or where they were. Luckily I was rescued - first by Spy vs. Spy artist Peter Kuper and his friend Tony - we enjoyed the beautiful Munich evening with a little stroll to Marienplatz and the town hall - and then by the Danish comics delegation, who very kindly invited me to sit at their table for the evening. I'd only just seen them in February in Copenhagen, and it was lovely to see them again. I was also able to say a quick hello to Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury, who I hadn't seen for a few years.
Towards the end of the evening I was discovered by Michael Gref from the Salleck crew, and was able to join them for an adventurous journey back to the hotel - involving getting lost at the central station and a number of visits to 'Platform 2'. But it's a good way to get to know your new fellow travellers!
The (right) hotel, Hotel Krone on the Theresienhöhe (opposite the famous Oktoberfest grounds of Theresienwiese), was eventually reached, bang on the stroke of midnight, and the impossibly fluffy pillows were very welcome. Perhaps less welcome was the early wake-up due to the huge windows having very thin curtains and the 5.30 am sunrise - but I'd had a decent sleep and felt ready for my first day at the festival (which had actually already been running for two days).
The Kongresshalle was just a 10-minute walk from the hotel and my first signing session was 10 'til 1. I was kept busy throughout and, once again, German comic readers proved themselves to be among the most friendly and welcoming of comic fans. This festival saw me drawing in more sketchbooks than books, I think, each with their own paper thickness, tooth and size. It wasn't too kind on my pens - which usually get used on the more glossy paper of my books - and they only just made it to the end of Sunday where the whole lot were starting to dry out.
The festival had a really nice atmosphere and was compact, though of a decent size. It never felt crowded, and the gorgeous weather with an outside beer garden, public square, and nearby park made for very pleasant 'time outs'. There was also a wonderful set of exhibition rooms - including a comic stamps display (the collection of Jason, one of my chauffeurs from the airport), and galleries of work by various artists - my favourites being Olivier Schwartz, Isabel Kreitz, Klaus Voorman and the work of the Danish creators, who were the festival's special international guests.
On Saturday night the Salleck posse walked to Pettenkoferstrasse for a lovely outside meal at Lenz, and then it was back to the hotel for a much-needed slightly earlier night. I had excellent company throughout - including the Salleck crew, most of whom I had met on previous trips, but it was also a treat to meet and spend time with Eckart's two Spanish guests, El Torres and Jesús Alonso Iglesias, who had produced the excellent Gaudi's Ghost together. It was also a treat to meet the incredible artist Herrmann Huppen, and the prolific Pica (Pierre Tranchand) and his wife Annie, who I had last seen in Erlangen.
With such a meeting of so many terrific European comic creators and publishers, it was perhaps inevitable the topic of Brexit would come up. The universal opinion seems to be that the Brits are crazy to leave the EU - that it's an act of monumental self-harm, something I can only sadly agree with and which the facts tends to support. Apart from that, it was lovely to escape the current toxic atmosphere of Brexit and the General Election, and enjoy the temporary hospitality of a far more enlightened and forward-looking country.
Sunday was another mix of a couple of signing sessions and wandering around the festival. Over breakfast, at the hotel, I had a nice conversation with Taiwanese comic artist Sean Chuang and his translator, and lunchtime saw my 'most German' meal, seven small Bavarian sausages on a bed of sauerkraut, accompanied by a huge pretzel. At last the end of the festival came, and it was time for me to make my way to the airport. I was seen off on the airport train by my friend, Wolfgang Klingel, who I've now had the pleasure to meet on three trips, and bided my time at the airport by reading (Dickens' Oliver Twist) and people-watching. The flight was delayed by half-an hour, and I got home at about half-past midnight, and my first cup of tea in three days.
A very big thank you to my generous publisher, Eckart Schott, and to Heiner Lünstedt and the festival for having me in Munich. As ever, I was so well looked after and I always enjoy meeting my fellow German comic readers, as well as comic creators from across Europe - it's an honour to be a small part of such a friendly and interesting community.
Created by Peer Sylvester, The Lost Expedition sees you leading a team of three explorers in an attempt to reach the ruins of El Dorado (or 'Z'). To win, all you have to do is reach the lost city with one of those explorers still alive! You can play solo, collaboratively, or head-to head. The box contains six character cards, nine map cards, and 56 adventure cards, as well as playing pieces and various tokens - plus the rule book, of course.
I will blog about it in more detail closer to the release date, but for now you can get a good idea of how the game runs with this video review from The Dice Tower, this comprehensive guide to the rules from Watch It Played, or this blog review from Geek & Sundry. I'm relieved to see that the art has received a mostly positive reaction - you get so close to these things that you lose all objectivity pretty quickly. Osprey have done a lovely job in the presentation.
Something to leave you with ... I wonder if you knew that Colonel Fawcett appears in The Rainbow Orchid? Can you find him? At the time I'd just finished reading The Lost City of Z by David Grann, which has more recently been adapted into a film starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson and Sienna Miller.
The Lost Expedition is released on June 18th 2017.
The audio adventure will be released on June 16th 2017, but pre-order now and you can get a taster track in advance. It will be available on double CD or as a digital download.
The Scarifyers, created and produced by Simon Barnard and co-written by Paul Morris, follows the 1930s adventures of D.I. Lionheart (the late Nicholas Courtney), Harry Crow (David Warner) and Professor Dunning (Terry Molloy) as they investigate mysterious goings-on and attempt to foil plans concocted by dastardly occult-dabbling villains. It's absorbing, exciting and very funny - give it a listen!
Today, 26 April, sees the 100th anniversary of the death of Alexander Maxwell Smith, age 24, and the son of my ggg-auntie Ann (née Rough). Alex was a private in the 9th Black Watch and was killed during the regiment's attack on Cavalry Farm, near Guemappe, during the Battle of Arras. His father, John Robb Smith (also Ann's cousin), was killed ten years later after being struck by a train at Brucefield Bridge, Blairgowrie. John's brother-in-law, George McHardy, was also killed in a train accident after he fell from an express train in 1915, in Argentina. And his son, Stewart John McHardy, was killed in Egypt in April 1918 while serving with the 7th London Regiment.
April 1917 also saw the death of 2nd Lt. Andrew Smith Birrell of the 6th King's Own Scottish Borderers. The son of a school teacher, he was killed in action to the north-east of the River Scarpe during the battle of Arras, on 9 April 1917. His grandfather was my gggg-uncle, Andrew Birrell (1838-1907).
Going back a little further, and March 2nd 1917 was the date of death of James 'Jimmie' Ewing, a private in the 3rd Seaforth Highlanders with a rather tragic backstory. When he was just eight years old, his father, Alexander Ewing, a grocer by trade, took his own life by laying down on the tracks in front of an express train. His mother died of old age during the war, in 1916. Almost exactly a year later, James himself was dead - he developed meningitis after recurrent shell-shock on the front line, and was buried with his parents in his home town of Burntisland. Three weeks later his elder sister died of heart failure, leaving just one sister, Isabella, from the whole family to see out the war (she died in 1954, having never married).
That's not the end of the 1917 family casualties, but it takes us up to April. See the family war memorial for further details.
And while you're in a history mood, check out my fellow comic writer Jason Cobley's new blog (and book in the making) on his distant relative, Robert Gooding Henson of the Somerset Light Infantry, who was killed at the Battle of Arras on 22nd April 1917. Jason's just been out to Arras to see his gravestone.
Since the early 1990s I've kept a fairly detailed diary, so it's interesting to read what was going on back then. I was living with my brother and a friend in a rented house while my girlfriend (now wife) was away at university. I worked weekends at a mushroom farm (and I was just about to start a second job as an early-morning cleaner at a local health club) and spent the weekdays attempting to get my illustration career off the ground - at the time I was doing little bits and pieces, including inking some of Tony O'Donnell's pencils for Football Picture Monthly. I was in a production of Twelfth Night, playing Sebastian, and also working with my brother on a new fanzine called Baleful Head.
I drew the first panel of The Rainbow Orchid on the 13th March 1997, and the following weekend I attended the UK Comic Art Convention (UKCAC 97). On the 24th March I went to the cinema to see the new release of the Star Wars Special Edition. I had no internet at the time (I'd get it later the same year), so went to the local library for all my research. A few weeks later Labour would get into power after 18 years of the Tories, and things were looking ... hopeful.
Many things have changed since then, and some haven't. If you happen to have visited Amazon UK recently to try and buy The Complete Rainbow Orchid, you may have noticed that Amazon no longer stock it and it's only available from resellers. The last of the stock was sold off after a rather nice mention by Tanita Tikaram on the Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London at the end of March.
The Rainbow Orchid really has lived its long life now (well, almost ...). Honestly, it's time I got on with something new, isn't it?
Volume one had come out in June 2015 (see my report here) and while there had been a few delays and problems with the follow-ups, it's thanks to the dedication and tenacity of my editor, Michael Larsen, that the set has now been completed.
The Friday had started off on a sombre note as I attended the funeral of a friend who died far too early in life - a sad but beautiful service. A taxi to the airport (my wife was away with the car and children for the weekend) to catch my afternoon flight, and by 7pm I was at Copenhagen airport and, after getting the train into the city, I was in my hotel room within an hour. Anticipating I'd be too tired to go out for a meal I'd brought sandwiches, so sat and munched and watched a bit of Danish TV before collapsing into bed. It's a glamorous life!
After a hearty breakfast (I'm never certain if I'll have any lunch, or a late one, at these events) I met Michael in the lobby of The Scandic and we made our way to the Øksnehallen and the Tellerup stand. The books seemed to sell well - the first book I had to sketch and sign in was for a friend of Michael's, and halfway through doing it I had my first customer. I didn't get to finish signing that first book until the very end of Sunday.
Saturday was particularly busy - I was drawing all day, with only a break for lunch and also an interview as part of the festival programme. Unfortunately this was rather poorly attended - just a handful of people. I don't know if that's because I was on at the same time as fellow UK artist, the brilliant Tom Gauld, or - more likely - I'm just not at all well-known! Honestly, I didn't mind - I was interviewed by Danish comics creator Frank Madsen, who asked some interesting questions, and I enjoyed the chat very much. A big thanks to those who did come along.
On Saturday evening Michael and I attended a dinner given by the festival for the international guests, and we were in some pretty fine company. I was able to meet Tom Gauld for the first time (I especially enjoyed his Angoulême/Rammstein story), and was also seated opposite French artist Sébastien Cosset and Swedish artist Kim Andersson. Seated just outside my own conversation zone was an artist I really admire, Boulet - perhaps good that I didn't get to speak to him in case I ended up as an anecdote ("the dull British artist") in one of his web comics!
Much to my shame and some embarrassment, I hadn't realised I was sitting directly opposite one of my very favourite comic creators: Sébastien, I discovered the following day, was one half of the creative team known as Kerascoët. I love Miss Don't Touch Me (especially volume 1) and I thought the more recent Beauty was stunning - one of the few creators whose work I seek out and buy when it's available. But again, perhaps it's best I didn't realise it was him behind the nom de plume so I didn't end up fawning over him all evening! All were good company and I had a lovely evening with some interesting food (I passed on the course that consisted of skewered duck hearts ...)
The Sunday was another busy day, though not quite as manic as Saturday. I had another interview scheduled, this time with a bigger audience as it was with Jakob Stegelmann, the host of the famous Danish TV programme Troldspejlet. This interview kept me on my toes - it's been a while since doing publicity for The Rainbow Orchid, but most of my facts and stories are still in there - Jakob asked me about eyebrows, languages, inspirations, and whether it matters that modern children won't get many of the historical references in my story (short version: no, I don't think it matters). You can watch the unedited footage here and the full episode here.
It was great to meet so many of the Danish comic creators that I'd met on my first trip here two years previously, and it was also nice to meet the British contingent (Colin, Scott and Dave of Accent UK), Canadian John Anderson of Soaring Penguin, and the Irish contingent, Cliodhna Lyons, with her table-mate and fellow animator/comic artist, Benedict Edward Bowen).
After Sunday, Michael and I, with the Accent UK chaps, retired to a nearby restaurant for food and drinks, before it was back to the hotel to pick up our bags, and then to the train station where we said our goodbyes before I went on to the airport. My return flight was very busy, and delayed by about half an hour, but it was a good (if windy) flight home, and I got in my front door at about half-past midnight.
Thank you, as ever, to everyone who came by the Tellerup stand and bought a book or two or three (or who gave me one, thank you Ingo Milton!). Denmark is particularly nice to visit, and I had a lovely time. This was also, in large part, thanks to my editor and translator, Michael Larsen, who was again excellent company and has been vital to the existence of Jagten på Regnbueorkidéen. I must also thank the book's designer, Rasmus Kronholm - Michael and he have made, I think, my favourite edition of the book.
I had a busy week of work when I got home, and on the following Thursday it was World Book Day, which saw me give four hour-long talks at my old school - Imberhorne. It's been about 35 years since I was a student there, though I do teach karate there twice a week, so it wasn't a total shock to walk its corridors once again! The staff and pupils were lovely, though, and I enjoyed the day very much. A special thanks to John Pye of The Bookshop on the High Street for his part in the organisation.
It will be my second visit to this wonderful city, and I'm looking forward to it. You can even come and see me interviewed by comics creator and illustrator Frank Madsen (on the Saturday at 1.30 pm), plus I'll be signing and sketching at the Tellerup stand.
This is very likely to be one of my last appearances at an event related to The Rainbow Orchid (I may have promised one more) as, though these are new translations, I have been promoting the book for over 8 years now and I've run out of steam on it. While I'm still proud of the book, it's old work to me - I haven't actually looked at it in a couple of years and I've still not been able to bring myself to read the story all the way through. It's time - way beyond time - for something new.
In the meantime, I'm excited to see the story finally completed in Danish, all thanks to the efforts of my editor and advocate, Michael Erik Nøhr Larsen, without whom it would not exist. So, if you're in Copenhagen, come and say hello to us!
Notes (top row to bottom, left to right):
'The Mighty One' by Steve MacManus (Steve's autobiography of his time at IPC and 2000AD); 'The Osamu Tezuka Story' by Toshio Ban and Tezuka Productions (manga biography of the great Osamu Tezuka); 'The Story of Life in 25 Fossils' by Donad R. Prothero' (fascinating account of the development of life on our planet, I'm a big fan of Mr. Prothero).
'Warring Clans, Flashing Blades: A Samurai Film Companion' by Patrick Galloway (a great 'dipper-in', I really want the first volume too); 'The Attention Merchants' by Tim Wu (had to buy this after reading a recent interview with Mr. Wu); 'Moments of Adventure: Collection One' by Colin Mathieson (great to see a new publication from Mr. Mathieson - and in full colour too, really enjoyed it - get it here!).
'Ambassador of the Shadows' by Mézières and Christin (limited edition hardback from Cinebook of this terrific Valerian and Laureline adventure, in anticipation of the upcoming Luc Besson film adaptation); 'The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen' by Jorge Zentner and Rubén Pellejero (loved these stories when I read them in Heavy Metal in the 80s, wonderful to have them all together); 'Explorers' Sketchbooks: The Art of Discovery and Adventure' by Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (a nice surprise Christmas present from my brother, a real treasury of adventure inspiration).
'William Simpson's Afganistan: Travels of a Special Artist and Antiquarian During the Second Anglo-Afghan War 1878-1879' edited by Peter Harrington (where my interest in adventure and the Afghan war meet, a very splendid book); 'The way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano and His Students' by John Stevens (I don't do Judo (karate for me) but am fascinated by Kano, in particular because he was an influence on Gichin Funakoshi and his development of karate into a budo); 'A brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in Our Genes' by Adam Rutherford (can't wait to dive into this!).