Mid year report

It’s getting to the mid-year point and here’s a quick summary of what has happened in 2019 in connection with Sir John Wolfe Barry.

I started the year with concrete plans to write a book about John Wolfe Barry, and probably his father and brothers as well.

To focus 100% on writing I quit my full-time job in February.

In March I restarted the book with a new structure to it.

In April I expanded the title to include the Brunel family.

In May I submitted my finished text to my editor who has just returned it with tracking.

Separately I commissioned a cover designer to start producing concepts for the book. We should have this finished by end June. One issue has been the title which has changed many times!

I’ve spent months thinking about and sourcing illustrations for the book. This was a bigger challenge than I had anticipated due to copyright law. The system seems weighed heavily against first time self-publishers, with some notable exceptions led by Creative Commons.

I started some marketing using social media and this website with the hashtag #buildingpassions . Once the book cover is complete I can do much more.

I’m still aiming for at least an e-version to be available before end September and I’m thinking more about a hard copy launch in early November at a suitable venue.

Next weekend Tower Bridge will be celebrating its 125 years. Not sure if I will be there in person, but I certainly will be thinking about the Barry-Brunel team that built the structure.

18 days, 125 years #buildingpassions

The last time I ran a countdown on this website was for the 100th anniversary of John Wolfe Barry’s death in January 2018.

This one is for the 125th anniversary of the first opening of Tower Bridge to the London public on 30 June, only eighteen days away.

I was hoping to publish my forthcoming book about JWB, his family and close friend Henry Brunel, son of IKB, by now. It will happen by the end of September latest.

The good news is that I have had more time to adjust my text to address a broader readership and write more about the famous Brunel family. While the Barrys rightly got the credit for Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament, they couldn’t have achieved this without the legacy and contribution of others.

In addition to the Brunels the book covers Augustus Pugin and a little on his father, from whom he inherited his incredible gothic drawing talents. It also looks at William Arrol’s contribution to the building of Tower Bridge and the more structurally impressive Forth Railway Bridge.

Which shows that there are stories behind stories behind stories. Meeting recently with former work colleagues, providing the ‘back story’ to key issues was one area we felt had been part of our career learning.

The trick is to find the key stories, dig up enough relevant detail and communicate this to your intended audiences.

#buildingpassions is about rebranding the built environment sector

#buildingpassions is the tagline for my forthcoming book about the Brunel and Barry families of Victorian engineers and architects.

Why I have I chosen it?

Firstly, because I like the play on words similar to the #buildingstories tag used by Roma Agrawal for her ‘Built’ podcasts.

Secondly, because no one else seems to be using it currently so it ticks the U in USP (unique selling proposition if you didn’t know, a marketing term).

Thirdly, because while my book is mainly about the history of architecture and civil engineering, it references the wider built environment in which they belong. This is the key sector which visibly and materially transforms our towns, cities and landscapes, generally for the good.

The nouns ‘building’ and ‘builder’ don’t always have great press currently in the English language at least, as they are mainly connected to the construction industry. This is just one part of the built environment sector, and not always the most reputable bit due to the ‘cowboys’ who operate for lower prices but with a higher risk of serious problems later on.

The worst recent example that comes to mind is the 2016 structural collapse of a church in Nigeria where building regulation corruption is rife – 160 people died! Similar issues have arisen with houses in earthquake zones in Nepal and Ecuador, for instance.

So we clearly need a rebrand with a strong positive feeling to it and I hope #buildingpassions can somehow contribute to this.

Have a look at a revamped website

My former employer the Institution of Structural Engineers has revamped its website into something much more user friendly and welcoming.

Have a look!

It now explains structural engineering in simpler language to a global audience of experts and non-experts.

My key audience when I was there was young people. In fact I still feature on the revamped website in a blog post about an exciting programme getting teenagers into structural engineering and architecture.

There are plenty of students out there who don’t fully understand their university and career options. In many cases this may be fine, but for some it could also mean the difference between a happy life and one where you are struggling to find your niche.

My major piece of careers advice to anyone considering their employment choices is to use any reasonable and ethical means available to find out the truth about a profession – this may include becoming a member of a body or tracking down and speaking directly to graduates and apprentices within a sector. Fortune favours the brave and employers will reward initiative with an opportunity to prove yourself.

Finally, there are always second chances and I am currently grasping one for myself by writing my first book much later than I had hoped to. This won’t be my sole occupation but an important part of who I am. It took me a long time to get here but it has been worth it.

NB: the image of the Forth Rail Bridge in this post reflects one of the banner images on the IStructE’s new website and is the iconic 19th Century structure built from the same Arrol steel used on Tower Bridge.

From writing to editorial and design: next stages in my self-published book

So, I have finally submitted my book’s text to a freelance editor to start what is called a developmental edit combined with a copy edit. My impression is that this will combine general comments on content and style with language and other corrections. I look forward to receiving the end product and somewhat masochistically would prefer a lot of tracking to not very much.

At the same time I’ve commissioned a freelance designer (based in Italy) to start researching concepts for the book cover. We have discussed my feelings about this and she will try to capture them in some alternative designs. We hope to end up with an attractive proposition which will appeal to my target audience. I’ve hinted at possible titles and sub-headers previously.

Once I have a better idea of progress in these two key areas, hopefully by the end of June, I will be ready to start bringing things together with cleared images and final adjustments to text. The plan is still to publish electronically by end September latest. Hard copies are likely to be print-on-demand.

I have started to think about marketing and indeed my lovely teenage daughter has volunteered to help me with social media. This website is currently the main platform for information about the book, but when I fix a distribution contract I will benefit from whoever runs that, less their cut of any sales revenue – still not sure if I will go for the big players or try someone smaller, more niche, or just plain different.

A mental note is to think about a suitable launch date and venue from mid-October to end November during the Xmas lead up period. It’s likely to be in London and may well link to one of the structures in the book. But it would be good to surprise people …

35 days to go

On 30 June 2019 London and possibly the world will celebrate a day that commemorates 125 years since the opening of a well-known bridge.

No, not the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, opened in 1883, nor the Forth Railway Bridge in Scotland opened in 1890, though both deserve special mention for their uniqueness as huge structures, still in use, which employed steel in a ground-breaking way.

This bridge is of course Tower Bridge.

Not everyone knows that the two famous towers which encapsulate the bridge are also made from steel. It is the same Scottish steel used to build the Forth Bridge first, and then almost immediately shipped down to London for the next big project.

In the case of Tower Bridge, the steel framework was clad in stone, which while acting to protect it from corrosion, was also needed to meet the architectural requirement that the bridge blend with the medieval Tower of London next to it. There was much controversy at the time about this.

The enormous bascule leaves, which still open and shut for river traffic, were a wonder to behold for the royals and public who attended the opening ceremony and were only surpassed in length a few decades later in the United States. I write about them in my forthcoming book on Sir John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel (the civil engineers for the bridge), which will also cover their famous fathers Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Sir Charles Barry.

Footnote: Dan Cruikshank, the TV broadcaster specialising in architectural history, has presented programmes on Tower Bridge which are sadly no longer available via broadcast networks. But for an intro to the history of London’s bridges see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8n15w-s1qIM. Tower Bridge itself start from 47:30 minutes in.

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 …