From writing about history to publishing fiction

When I started this website in mid-2017, it was to promote information about Sir John Wolfe Barry I had collated over many years. I was anticipating a formal launch in January 2018 to commemorate 100 years since Sir John’s death.

Three years on and a soft launch took place, coinciding with the start of the Year of Engineering and a number of related campaigns to promote engineering as a worthwhile career for young people.

Then, in early 2019, I began writing a book about Wolfe Barry, his family and the Brunels. This was self-published at the end of that year as ‘Building Passions’ (long title Brunel, Barry and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture) with a special website set up to promote the book at www.buildingpassions.co.uk .

The book launch coincided with the placing of an English Heritage Blue Plaque on the Chelsea house where Sir John had lived and died. I had started the application process for this at the end of 2015.

I have now moved on to writing fiction, an area in which I now feel relatively comfortable. I need to thank a group of local writers based in and around Canterbury, England for this. My second book, to be made available to readers soon, is about the fictionalised story of my grandfather who was a spy for the British in Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (or was he?).

I am currently drafting a third, fourth and fifth book as a fictional trilogy of novellas. These will be published during the course of 2020 I hope. I’m also collaborating with my local writing group on a murder mystery.

I have just created a new website (www.ashfordpublishing.co.uk) for all of my books, whether published or not. The plan is to transfer my sales platform to it in due course, but feel free to bookmark already.

This website will be an archival resource, with a new website about Sir John Wolfe Barry, Tower Bridge and other structures available as soon as possible under the transferred domain name for this site.

I may continue to blog occasionally here …

NHS Nightingale Hospital and IK Brunel #buildingpassions #beatthevirus #NHS

The National Health Service in the UK is opening a new emergency hospital today in London to handle the growing number of COVID-19 cases – it’s called the NHS Nightingale Hospital after the famous Victorian nurse with her lamp, a symbol of the Crimean War which had so many military casualties, many from diseases spread amongst the besiegers of Sevastopol.

I have visited the Crimea twice (prior to the illegal occupation by Russia) and seen the magnificent Panorama of the siege of Sevastopol. I’ve also been to the small port of Balaklava, better known for the woollen headgear named after it, where the British were based during that war. I haven’t yet been to the site of another temporary hospital, which served the needs of the ill and wounded many miles away on the other side of the Black Sea.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was asked by his brother-in-law Sir Benjamin Hawes in the War Office to design a prefabricated hospital in Turkey – supposedly to placate Florence Nightingale who was pressing Hawes for more support. This he did rapidly and it was shipped out to Renkioi in the Dardanelles and assembled there.

Medical experts have since said that the unique modular design had an influence on the development of all hospitals subsequently. You can read more about the project at Brunel’s SS Great Britain website – the vast ship was used to transport troops to the Crimea. For more on Brunel read my book ‘Building Passions‘ which from today is available for only £2.00 as an e-book in the UK for all April (different prices for other countries covered).

Temporary or emergency hospitals have been pivotal in helping society to deal with major crises such as viruses and wars. When I worked at the Institution of Structural Engineers we developed a learning resource for students based on a military engineer’s rapid construction of an Ebola hospital in Africa.

Stay safe!

Read a book while you self-isolate #buildingpassions #BUILT

I’ve not blogged yet about the current pandemic facing the world. It didn’t seem appropriate for my typical themes.

However, now that people are wondering what to do with themselves as they self-isolate (the word of 2020?), it does seem appropriate to encourage them to read more books.

Not only will they derive more pleasure and knowledge, they may learn a few tricks. Equally, they will help authors and smaller publishers such as myself. I would strongly recommend reading ‘BUILT‘ by my structural engineer friend Roma Agrawal, which inspired me to write my own book.

In the case of ‘Building Passions‘, all you need to do is look at the website and then decide if you want to read more. You can only buy the e-book via Kobo.com as a print copy is too risky currently to mail.

I’m also looking into remote casting talks about the book and its related topics, which cover the 19th-century Brunel and Barry families and ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. I know a fair bit now about the highly decorative ‘Art Nouveau’ architecture of the later 19th and early 20th Centuries, as I’m planning a PhD in that area once things have calmed down.

Above all, be wise and stay safe for your sake and everyone else’s.

How much should a book cost you? #buildingpassions

I published my first book ‘Building Passions‘ electronically in September 2019 and then in print in November 2019. It covers the story of the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects.

At the time I wasn’t fully aware of European book pricing regulations. It turned out that they vary by country (so much for an EU!) and in some cases you are not allowed to offer price reductions for up to 18 months.

The UK is more flexible and this is an area where Brexit will have little impact. So I have been able to run UK sales on the book at appropriate times linked to promotional events.

That said, I am still keen to know how to come to the right book price if you are a self-publisher. ‘Building Passions’ e-version is priced at £4.50 in the UK based on a minimal return per download and the print version then adds on £9 to cover printing related costs (could be lower if you print bigger batches). Some e-books are available free of charge, simply to promote the print or audio version. Big publishers can afford to cross subsidise, and some of them have few qualms about cutting down forests to print vast numbers of less costly books, or pay celebrities large (fixed?) fees to record their narratives.

The market needs to be only lightly regulated. This can happen with some form of agreement between the small and the large operators. Will this emerge? Perhaps after life has readjusted post-virus …

Anticipating more public speaking #buildingpassions

I’m giving a talk on my book ‘Building Passions’ tomorrow at my local library in Ashford, Kent.

I’ve adapted it a bit from the previous one in Canterbury before Xmas. It will be longer, as my friend Tom won’t be demonstrating how to build a model bridge, so I’ve had to add in some extra content.

I still feel a bit nervous about public speaking as you never know what’s going to happen – from the slides not functioning properly to an audience member asking you questions to which you don’t have answers, or telling you they know more than you about your topic.

However, what matters is that we enjoy ourselves as a group and feel that the time spent has been worthwhile. If people want to buy a copy of the book they are most welcome to, and they will get a personal dedication and a discount, as they have to pay a nominal ticket price to come along (which doesn’t go to me).

I will cover the main personalities in the book, so the Brunel and Barry engineers and architects who I write about, as well as some of my favourite structures such as Tower Bridge and Hotel Tassel. I’m assuming you know the former, but may not know of the latter.

Hotel Tassel, in Brussels, was designed by a Belgian architect called Victor Horta in the early 1890s. I will be visiting it for the first time towards the end of March and am already getting excited about this. Why?

Because it is a landmark in the new style of architecture called ‘Art Nouveau’ which suddenly appeared in Europe at that point in time. The style disappeared equally rapidly before the outbreak of WWI. Fortunately we still have many of the original buildings which have been restored in a number of significant cases.

But what is the link to ‘Building Passions’ you may ask? The book examines the influence of the Brunels and Barrys on ‘modern’ Victorian architecture. It concludes by noting the importance of novel approaches to design and materials in the late 19th Century. This had a global impact, such that in Chicago for example, it led to a unique type of high-rise architecture using steel frames and glass panes which is still with us to this day.

The built environment changes over time, with new design styles emerging according to developing tastes. It is an evolutionary process which sees the fittest options spreading, and the less fit ones sticking to safe niches which either adapt and survive or disappear completely.

Writing fiction is a matter of dialogue #buildingpassions

I am writing a novella based on the life story of my grandfather, who was a spy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, we think.

I started the process with scoping the story back in the summer, and then some preparatory drafting until November, when I started writing proper. This coincided with NaNoWriMo which is held every November around the world to encourage novel writing. I met a group of local writers and we have continued to engage since then.

I thought I could write fiction as easily as non-fiction, having completed my book ‘Building Passions‘. As it turns out, fiction is equally difficult. While you don’t rely on the accuracy of historical facts, for example, you do need to now how to build a close, personal link to your readership.

The big learning curve for me has been writing dialogue. I found this a challenge as it wasn’t a strong point for me. I’m good at narrative. However, my writing group has helped me develop these skills, so now I feel more confident. I can turn narrative into dialogue fairly easily, though know I must resist the temptation to write a screen or theatre play.

“Tell me John, why do you not want to be an architect like you father and brothers? Why a civil engineer?”

“I like sketching and designing, but I’m more interested in the maths behind those structures first proposed by myself or others. I have no ego about creative proprietorship. I just want to be sure buildings and bridges stay up for ever.”

Such might be a fictional dialogue between a young John Wolfe Barry and a Victorian contemporary.

Perhaps I should write more such exchanges?

Dulwich College #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Dulwich College is an independent school in South London, England.

It is best known for producing Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic Explorer, and PG Wodehouse, the writer of the amusing Jeeves the Butler series.

More recently, it has been in the news for educating Nigel Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party in the UK. It isn’t known for schooling me, but yes, I did go to it for almost four years in total, split between two stays.

Why, you might reasonably ask, is it on my list of 10 favourite structures from my book ‘Building Passions‘? The answer is simple: I love it as a building complex, and it was designed by Charles Barry junior in the 19th Century.

The structure was an Italianate homage to the Houses of Parliament, designed and built by his father Sir Charles Barry, with assistance from his other son Edward Middleton Barry, as well as the famous Gothic Revival designer Augustus Welbin Pugin.

I particularly like the beautiful Great Hall with its hammerbeam roof also reminiscent of medieval Westminster Hall, now the main entrance route to Parliament for the public.

Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the architecture while at the school – at least I’ve finally come round.

Wouldn’t It Be Loverly #10favstructures #buildingpassions

If you are fans of the musical ‘My Fair Lady’ you will recognise the song in the title of this post.

It is sung by Elisa Doolittle, the flower seller, as she dances around Covent Garden marketplace in London more than a century ago. The movie actress was Audrey Hepburn, who by the end of the film transforms from a chirpy Cockney to a posh high-class lady.

Covent Garden is still a big London attraction and the Royal Opera House and Floral Hall to be found there, also feature in ‘Building Passions‘. This is because they were built by the architect Edward Middleton Barry, brother of John Wolfe Barry.

I particularly like the Floral Hall, designed as it was in a miniature form of the Crystal Palace, another favourite structure in the book. When the Royal Opera House was renovated at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the engineers managed to raise the next door hall up on stilts and create a beautiful metal and glass venue for opera goers and other guests.

The structure still exists as a world centre of song and dance, which is fitting as we approach the festive switch from 2019 to 2020.

Have a happy one!

The Leviathan #10favstructures #buildingpassions

Many years ago when I was a child, I remember watching a TV programme about the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The programme covered his early life and construction of tunnels, bridges and railways. But the achievement that most appealed to me was his realised ambition to build the largest steamships in the world.

The first such ship was the Great Western, followed soon by the Great Britain, both designed and built in Bristol. However, it was Brunel’s final project, the SS Great Eastern that most stood out for me. Here was a truly gargantuan vessel which would eclipse others for many decades to come.

The monster ship was launched with much difficulty on the River Thames in London. Brunel also fell out with investors and his notoriously difficult collaborator John Scott Russell. Finally, there was an engine room explosion on the maiden run.

IKB never lived to see what happened to his ‘Leviathan’. His civil engineer son Henry kept an interest in the ship and replaced his father as a close personal mentor with the famous naval architect Sir William Froude. The ship’s greatest role was to lay the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

The Great Eastern therefore features on my list of favourite structures in my book ‘Building Passions‘ as the only ship. It raised all kinds of technical issues as a vast iron structure designed for many people. Up-ended it would have represented a skyscraper far ahead of its time!