Reality has moved off stage right #buildingpassions

The good news, which is real, is that I’ve been offered funding for my PhD in architectural history starting in September at the University of Kent. Really looking forward to that! I’ve previously posted about the research topic.

The not so good news is the ‘Cummings Effect’. Not the fact that Twitter filters the name Cummings because it has a rude word in it. It does that to Scunthorpe and other words with the same content.

No, this is the Dom Cummings saga of how best to handle your family affairs during a lockdown. Many think he got it wrong as the UK Prime Minister’s senior adviser. Be that true or not, the effect has already been quoted by one newspaper as a reason to ignore lockdown laws. You couldn’t make it up!

It has been a moral dilemma with some families applying the rules strictly and not even seeing loved ones who have died from the virus. Cummings believed in herd immunity so you might argue he was happy to see the virus spread from London to Durham, but just wanted to make sure his own children were safe. Double standards? Not for those involved in the murky world of politics, I’d suggest.

Looking back in history, there have always been challenging times when the behaviour of individuals has been questioned. Even IK Brunel, now lauded as the 2nd Greatest Briton after Churchill, had some dubious practices. Some blame him for the huge numbers of deaths caused by building his epic Box Tunnel near Bath. You can read more about Isambard and his family in my book ‘Building Passions‘.

Personally, I like Brunel and Churchill as truly outstanding historical figures of global interest. I just wish some of our current leaders had similar attributes about them during these difficult times.

Dictatorship vs democracy

The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of issues about how societies run themselves.

I have been exploring democracy as part of writing a trilogy of novellas. The basic premise is that a long-lived, family dictatorship is finally coming to an end, but the people need to be prepared for transition to democracy.

You can’t just throw it at them if they’re not ready for it!

There are plenty of dictator analogies in real life and fiction. States where the supreme leader has moved to a status of leader for life, or pretty much there. The most famous early historical example was Julius Ceasar taking out the Senate, for which retribution came back inevitably on the Ides of March. But his nephew Augustus went on to found a dynasty of emperors. Napoleon is another case in point, from general to leader to emperor – once again he met his downfall. Then of course Hitler more recently and Kim Jong-Un currently.

The transition to democracy is more fraught with troubles, witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and failed attempts in Libya and Syria. As I write my second novella, I show how anti-democratic forces can be manipulated to defend the status quo, if needs must. A bit of bloodshed can help incite civil war, irrespective of whether either side has really thought through the logic …

I’m on the verge of starting the final book in the trilogy – I intend it to be full of hope, since that is the kind of message we all need currently amidst the lockdowns. But it will also look forward to a calmer future when society has hopefully picked up a few pragmatic lessons and, hopefully, reacted positively to a temporary but repeatable crisis.

In the meantime, chill out and read my book covering the history of architecture and engineering during the Victorian era: ‘Building Passions‘.

Experiments in writing

My first book was non-fiction and specialist (‘Building Passions‘). It was self-published in 2019 and then I moved on to fiction.

My second book is almost finished. The text just needs a final proofing and the cover is designed for the e-book. The printed version may be print-on-demand. It is historical fiction based on the true life story of my grandfather.

My third project is a trilogy of novellas within the same theme about dictatorship versus democracy. All pure fiction but related to politics and philosophy.

My fourth book is a collaboration with three other writers. It’s a murder mystery where we have created our own individual characters and are writing from their different points of view.

I may need to restart the cycle with some non-fiction. This depends how things develop with my historical research. If I get PhD funding then it will relate to that topic within architectural history. If not then I will go wider to consider other areas.

I enjoy writing and experimentation with different genres makes it even more worthwhile – they all have their challenges and surprises.

We all have the right to write #buildingpassions

I blogged a while back about writing. It is what I do.

My current writing is in fiction, in fact a trilogy of novellas is in the works.

The theme is dictatorship versus democracy, which raises interesting issues about people, society and freedom. We are experiencing a stress on our current democratic systems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

I have set the trilogy in a fictional nation somewhere in Europe. The context is about a family that has been in sole power for many generations. Something is beginning to stir and its name is democracy. But it’s the family itself which is doing the stirring!

I’m hoping to self-publish the whole trilogy by the end of the year in three stages, each separated by at least a month. That gives me an overall target of about 60,000 words split into three. I’ve already written the first book and have started the second one. Once you get into a rhythm then it makes drafting a lot easier, and I always review what I write immediately afterwards.

Which brings me to the title of the post.

In a truly democratic society we have the right to write what we like, even thought those in power may not like it. Many states are parodies of democracies for this very reason and may just take everyone through the motions as a public relations exercise. Let’s not even talk about voting!

Do we ever learn from the past? #buildingpassions

I sometimes wonder if we ever learn from what has happened previously in society?

There are so many cases of people blatantly ignoring the fact that their idea or project has simply been recycled. They crave intellectual originality in some form. They deny credit to those who have gone before them. Or conveniently misinterpret the lessons of past mistakes, so it appears that there were no previous errors.

Our political leaders are the worst examples of this. So why do we not use history to point it out to them? Sadly, even highly expert historians can be manipulated by others with unethical intentions. All academics are vulnerable to this. Egos can easily be massaged.

Is there a solution?

I’m not sure really. But we should continue to research and write about history as independently and accurately as we can. There will be differences of view about interpretation, but these should be accepted in good spirit. Each effort to explain the past should build on the work of predecessors. When we make new hypotheses, we should be confident that the evidence we have accrued is sufficiently supportive. This may mean changing our own perspectives. So be it.

Grenfell Tower: some pointers from #buildingpassions #grenfelltower

Today the first report from the official inquiry into the Grenfell Tower tragedy was published.

Its conclusions were leaked yesterday by the Daily Telegraph, despite being asked by the inquiry to wait. This pretty much sums up some of the media nowadays. The focus of resulting headlines was on the perceived inadequacies of the London Fire Brigade when dealing with the blazing inferno. Easy target …

Also today, Boris Johnson is as I write leading a short House of Commons debate about the report, in between keeping an eye on the House of Lords as it passes general election legislation.

This is all of interest to me because I write about Grenfell Tower in my new book ‘Building Passions’. This is in the concluding chapter, where I try to reflect on the wider issues that impact on our built environment.

The book is about the achievements of 19th-century families and individuals in building structures that have become iconic, such as the Houses of Parliament and Tower Bridge in London, or the Clifton Suspension Bridge or Box Tunnel in the west of England.

Grenfell Tower was by no means iconic when it was designed and built in London, but it has become a huge symbol of the frailties of modern society, which is gradually moving more and more away from community-based decisions to globally-determined ones.

The Government’s response to the report can only be fully actionable when UK politics has returned to something near normal after the Brexit hiatus, and when the second part of the inquiry has fully investigated the technical issues around the cause of the inferno, which completely surprised the brave firemen and -women who tried valiantly to tackle it.

In the past similar disasters have led to changes in the law and remedial actions by industry – this time the response needs to be considered and permanent, in so far as politicians are able to engineer long-term change for the good of all citizens, with the support of communities, the built environment sector and those whose job it is to rescue us from dangers to our life and limb.

Now is the winter of our discount tents #buildingpassions

The pleasure of writing your own blog is that you can do what you like with it, even add in the stupid play on words that is in this one’s title.

If you haven’t recognised the phrase, it’s an adaption of the opening line of Shakespeare’s Richard III spoken by the Duke of Gloucester, who would eventually become king. But it’s the way he does it that has attracted attention in history and portrayed him as an evil schemer.

The parody or pun was used by the Sun Newspaper in 2012 to describe a funny story about a tent, but I suspect it originated much earlier, possibly by the Goons or similar.

What has any of this to do with Sir John Wolfe Barry or my forthcoming book about him, his family and the Brunels, ‘Building Passions’?

Not much really.

I’m just excited by the fact that this Autumn will be a busy period for both the book and the country I live in, the United Kingdom, with Brexit probably happening, worst case with no deal agreed with the European Union by 31 October.

The last ‘Winter of Discontent’ was in 1978-79 just before Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of the UK. It was a period of extreme industrial unrest matched with extreme cold. The ‘Iron Lady’ began her all out fight with Arthur Scargill and the British Trades Unions, which only one person was going to win …

What will happen this winter is anyone’s guess. All historians like myself can do is point out potential lessons from the past and hope that current players take heed. In terms of the built environment, this will continue to develop new architectural styles and find new ways of supplying and then applying the necessary materials and skills.