A brief pause before the writing really begins

I’m using this blog to share my thoughts about issues related to the life and impact of Sir John Wolfe Barry, 19th Century civil engineer and builder of Tower Bridge.

I’ve been in a pause phase as I’m now committed to writing a book about John’s father and brothers and their relationships with him and each other. I’m planning the book project as I wind up full-time employment commuting into Central London which I have been doing for the last 17 out of 21 years (there was a four year hiatus).

The key goal is to write words!

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

This is sooner said than done. Words don’t come easy, to quote a song lyric. I’m setting up an environment where I can focus 100% on writing without distraction. My chosen location is the rear bedroom in our house which overlooks the garden. I will remove the temporary bed there and set up a desk in front of the window. It doesn’t get direct sunlight until the afternoon so I will start early and write until lunchtime.

I will somehow need to avoid referring too much to my many sources as this will hold up the flow. Blogging has probably helped with this. The key is to establish a good framework for the text and themes and then fill the space with words.

I know I can do it. I may review the product of my first draft but I must avoid perfecting things continuously as I go along – this just serves to slow down momentum and lead to self-doubt and questioning. Wish me luck!


Welcome to Sir John Wolfe Barry’s site

He built Tower Bridge

This website tells the story of Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Who was he?

He was the civil engineer who built Tower Bridge. He doesn’t get as much credit for this as he perhaps deserves. So the purpose of the site is to tell his story to mark the centenary of his death on 22 January 2018.

The site is split into blog posts and content pages which connect with each other and external links.

If you want quick snapshots then read the blog posts – use the category cloud to help you find things you are interested in e.g. Tower Bridge.

If you want to read the story of JWB (as I call him) then use the top menu for sections of content which all link to each other in the same order.


How (not) to review (parts of) a book you refuse to reach

This is new for me but I needed to blog about a book I refuse to read. The title and image refers to a famous ad about a beer ‘refreshing the parts other beers cannot reach’,

Let’s imagine that a well-known politician has just launched a book about a dozen characters from Victorian Britain. For context, the politician has right of centre views and is identified with his passionate arguments for a ‘No Deal Brexit’. It is possible that he may have a biased approach to history?

Coincidentally, two of the characters he includes in his book feature in my forthcoming publication, though not as prominently in my case.

One of these is Queen Victoria, about whom much has been written and put on our screens of late. Difficult to be objective possibly?

The other of more immediate interest to me is the architect and designer Augustus Pugin. My book will look closely at his working relationship with Sir Charles Barry in the building of the New Palace of Westminster. Others have already researched and written about this, and a new, long-awaited biography of Barry may eventually appear by the end of this year.

Not wanting to give away my conclusions before publication, let’s just say that I attempt to provide a balanced view between the two extremes presented by Pugin’s and Barry’s sons in the later 19th Century after their fathers had died. One end of the scale suggests Pugin should get all the credit for this iconic structure, the other end goes for Barry. Somewhere in the middle seems more sensible, but like politics that doesn’t always prevail.

Hence my keenness not to read where Mr X stands on things, if indeed this is mentioned at all …

Some last minute picture research

We were on a mini road trip of parts of England for a few days. More than 1000 miles clocked up at least.

We dropped in on a Barry and Banks Jacobethan manor hall in Norfolk and a Nash Italianate villa built in Shropshire in 1802. We also saw Gothic Ilam Park in the Peak District and the amazing St Giles Roman Catholic Church in Cheadle by Pugin.

In between we admired the beautiful Lake District countryside where Wordsworth, Ruskin and Beatrix Potter all lived.

For me it was a reaffirmation of the treasures that can be found in my home country. Some of these I will write about in my forthcoming book. More importantly I will be able to include current day images of them.

You will have to wait until publication to see these, so in the meantime I have included a classic Lake District scene for you to contemplate – who knows it may inspire you to go there?

The end: you will know when you’ve got there

I’ve just about reached the end of drafting the text for my book on the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects.

I started in January of this year but only got into it properly from 12 February after I had stopped full-time work in London and the commute that went with it.

So it’s been about 3 months of writing with two restarts in March and April. The first one was on the back of an editorial assessment and the second when I decided to extend the remit to include the Brunel family. Until then it had focused on Sir Charles Barry and his son Sir John Wolfe Barry.

Where do we stand now?

Not as many words as I’d hoped for, but those there have been extensively self-edited and fact-checked – the problem with writing non-fiction rapidly I guess. Fortunately I had prepared some of the way with this website, as well as previous research, articles and talks.

I’ve also learned that finding minimal cost images for non-fiction publishing is a tricky exercise – in fact it makes me rather annoyed that some (inter)national museums, galleries and institutions are raking in large amounts of cash for image rights, when they should be serving an educational purpose through disseminating these as widely as possible, hence also luring people in to see the real exhibits. Enough said!

Next steps are reviews by trusted people and then the text goes off for a developmental edit by start June. At the same time I will start working with a designer on the cover. I’m still on plan to deliver as scheduled.

One upcoming date to note which is highly relevant to this website is 30 June, when Londoners will celebrate 125 years since Tower Bridge was first opened to the public. You can find out here more about activities this special year.

Editing as you write (EAYW) and patios

What is your writing style?

Mine is to edit as I write which I suppose is the luxury of using word processors. Is there an electronic version of the typewriters I once started with, where you can only write and then cover your e-paper with handwritten scribblings?

The problem with the EAYW approach is that you can get bogged down in the minutiae of grammar, spelling, language and facts. This grinds free flowing creativity to a standstill.

Since my book is about engineering and architecture let’s try a building analogy.

If you build a new patio in your garden you have a big choice of finishes you can use: slabs, stones, bricks, concrete, gravel, timber etc. This will be influenced by aesthetics and maintenance.

But what matters before you can appreciate the end product is using the right type and amount of foundations. Without these your finished patio may look superficially great, but over time will lose its beauty and function. Too little support or drainage and slabs will tilt or sink …

Of course people are only going to remember the top layer. So no point perfecting the foundations and then covering them with a cheap finish.

Like many things in life it is about achieving the correct balance between form and function. People who build have always struggled with this and since their finishes are often viewed by many, they open themselves up to public critique as well as adulation.

Read more about this on the blog and eventually in the book.

Building stories, building passions

This a quick post to promote Roma Agrawal’s new podcast website called ‘Building Stories’.

I have listened to the first three casts on it which are all fascinating and ‘build’ on the stories in her amazing book BUILT.

I particularly like the one on the Shard, so some highlights:

  • Roma explains how she helped build the Shard and a colleague tells her how the steel in it was first developed in Sri Lanka in the 3rd Century BC and industrialised in 19th Century Britain.
  • Roma was born in India like my brother and I! One of her skyscraper heroes was a structural engineer/architect, born in Bangladesh, who designed the ground-breaking John Hancock Centre and Sears Tower in Chicago. You will have to listen to find out more …
  • The legacy business of my favourite civil engineer (hint: this website is about him!) helped construct the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa.

Finally, I’ve called this post ‘building stories, building passions’ because the second part is in the subtitle of the book I’m writing – for my latest post on progress see the previous one to this.

Are there enough words?

This was the question I asked a friend recently about my draft text for the book I’m writing.

He has published himself, though not in my genre of historical non-fiction/biography/architecture. Nonetheless I was still interested in his answer.

He told me that for his first book he had written as much as he could and this had ended up at 70,000 words. However in retrospect for his next book he would be happy with just 30,000 words. What matters is quality and whether you have got your main messages across in the text you have written.

This all makes sense to me and I have reached a point where I kind of know how much more I’m going to write. The final amount will depend on a number of factors in my case:

– whether I fill in gaps in content or simply remove a topic

– how many images I include

– how many words I think my editor should be allowed to play with

– what feels just right to me

The last criterion is important as I’m writing the book for myself ultimately. I do want others to enjoy it, but ultimately I am the one who has to be happy with the end product. If I write another book then perhaps my motives will change and my approach will be different. But that’s a whole different story.

Self-publishing: your help needed!

I decided a while back that I would self-publish my forthcoming book on the Brunel and Barry families.

This has meant foregoing current earnings to spend time writing and there is no guarantee how I will do with my first (and possibly only!) book.

I have also spent money on an editorial assessment and buying image rights, plus I am committed to further payments for editing, proofreading and design and marketing costs. Since I don’t know what sales will be like, it’s difficult to estimate future income from publication. This also depends on the cover price and whether I market it only as an e-print or also as a hard- or softback.

That being said, the people I am writing about were very familiar with the concept of risk. Isambard K Brunel’s father Marc was thrown into debtors’ prison as poor cashflow held up his ground-breaking projects. It was only the threat of him returning to the old enemy France that precipitated action at the highest levels to release Government funds. Sir Charles Barry and his son Edward Middleton Barry were consistently at loggerheads with Parliament over delayed payments for building the New Palace of Westminster.

So, it would help me greatly to know what interest there might be out there for this book. The current favoured title is “Barry, Brunel and sons:
Builders to the British Empire”. My only concern is there is too much alliteration going on in it. What do you think? Tell me in a comment below.

To get a flavour of the book please look at the content of this website – it develops from the main focus here on John Wolfe Barry, to a wider scope looking at his father, brothers and close relationship with Henry Brunel, hence brings in the latter’s famous father IK and grandfather Marc. It also makes connections between Victorian architecture and engineering and modern day structures such as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in the UAE.

P.S. The illustration of Big Ben is made from a photo I took of it at night time before the current renovation works. Another Barry structure!