A chance encounter with history

I am lucky enough to have as one of my PR clients Chilcotts, an auctioneer in Honiton. Please put David Dickinson and ‘cheap as chips’ out of your mind, the world of auctions is actually a fascinating sector to work in. There are so many human interest stories to delve into, and abundance of interesting objects and artefacts to admire.

I recently visited Chilcotts to discuss a collection that has been given to them for their September Fine Arts and Collectors Items sale. Poignantly, due to the VJ Day anniversary celebrations, this includes diaries written by Devon man Lewis Burfitt, who was interned in the Weishien camp in China by the Japanese between 1943 and 1945.

The handwritten diaries give an intriguing insight into life as an internee, recording living conditions, sickness, deaths and births. They tell how the Chinese tried to help by smuggling supplies into the camp, eggs, chickens and even piglets – even though this put them in danger of punishment by the Japanese.

Eric LiddellThere were many who didn’t make it out of the camp, including Eric Liddell, the Scottish athlete who on principle wouldn’t run on Sunday. He was made famous in ‘Chariots of Fire’ but I’d never registered that he died a prisoner of war in China.

I spoke to BBC Radio Devon about the diaries, and they interviewed the nephew of Lewis Burfitt along with auctioneer Duncan Chilcott and Jenny Bell, who has been diligently researching the diaries.

As I was writing the press release, the story became even more moving when I realised that the writer of the diaries had lived and worked in Tiensin where the terrible explosions have just happened.

Getting involved in a story like this at this particular time was a real privilege, as was the opportunity to look through the diaries. It’s easy to feel very removed from the reality of a war that took place so many years ago, but this made me stop, think and remember.

The power of a good story

A couple of weeks ago I was chatting away on social media when a company called Barrel Top Wagons (great name) came up in my Twitter feed. They were very excited to have won a Theo Paphitis #SBS (Small Business Saturday) Award and wanted to make some noise about it. Last year, Lyme Bay Cabins had the same success and I’d helped them out with a press release and distribution which resulted in some local coverage and a piece in Devon Life. Lyme Bay Cabins’ owner Gary started tweeting at Barrel Top Wagons to talk to me.

I am always willing to help out a small business ‒ after all I am one – so I talked with Jo Henderson, who co-owns Barrel Top Wagons. She put together some information for me, which was a great starting point, and I tweaked this into a press release.

Barrel Top Wagons Theo Paphitis smlWhen the picture of Jo with Theo Paphitis at a winners’ event came through a few days’ later, we were set fair. I sent the story to my contacts in the regional press and I’m delighted to say the response was brilliant. Western Morning News popped it straight up online and featured the story in the Sunday edition, while Tom at the Okehampton Times took the trouble to email me to say it would be in the next issue. I spotted it in the Express & Echo Monday edition, too, and Jo at Barrel Tops said it was included in the North Devon Journal. (So that’s a ‘yay’ as I’m not yet immune to the thrill of achieving such extensive coverage!).

In truth, this news item was a gift for any PR; the story behind the company is genuinely interesting (read it here) and Jo had given me enough background to make it easy to write a press release that could grab attention. Match the story up with a photo of Jo and the former Dragons’ Den entrepreneur Theo and – well it’s not rocket science is it?

Good luck to the inspirational and ethical Barrel Top Wagons!