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 …

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.

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!

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

To judge a book by its cover?

I’ve sent off a possible cover design for my forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys which I pulled together in a few minutes using a cheap software programme.

I didn’t plan to do this but an opportunity came up for a free assessment by a cover designer so I thought I’d give it a go.

I found a template with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it and then played around a bit with the title and my name. Of course for this book the structure could be one of many towers, depending on how I want to represent the Barrys visually without just sticking their portraits on the cover.

They say you should trial a range of different cover designs with audiences to see which ones work best, but I don’t have the budget for that.

What criteria do I think should be important for a potential reader?

  • Confirmation that they are looking at the right category of book e.g. historical non-fiction about buildings and their builders
  • Sense of pleasurable expectation of an experience that opening the cover might lead to.
  • Hint of quality of a product that can’t be touched before purchase as it will be marketed electronically, and you can’t get refunds on books you don’t enjoy reading, caveat emptor.

I will reveal the design stages later down the line.

On solving difficult structural problems

I’ve had the privilege of working with leading civil and structural engineers over the period since early 2016.

I am not one of them, in the sense that I don’t have their knowledge, understanding and skills in the technical requirements of civil and structural engineering. However, I do understand much better some of their key attributes and motivations.

One that stands out is their approach to solving problems. If a building or a bridge falls down killing and injuring people then the first question asked is: who built it? There may be some context for this, in the sense that if the structural failure was due to an ‘Act of God’ such as an earthquake or tidal wave, then some leeway is given to the identified responsible person. However, if as in the Grenfell Tower inferno, or the collapse of the Morandi Bridge in Genoa, there is some sense that the blame was entirely linked to human neglect, then the repercussions can be very severe for those found wanting.

On the other hand, progress through technical advances is only really made as a response to a crisis of some kind. If we had no crises then life might appear easier for all of us, but there would be costly consequences. Society would become stale and complacent, more susceptible to potential threats that could have much bigger impacts for larger numbers of victims. There are difficult choices to be made with pros and cons each way.

Civil and structural engineers therefore solve problems as ‘scientifically’ as they can, based on hard evidence of past failures and successes, but also with due acknowledgement to present circumstances and future possibilities. The professional standards they set for themselves assure that this is the case, and if the public is not sufficiently convinced then Government legislates as a further safeguard.

The 19th Century Barrys, about whom I am currently writing, faced these same issues as builders of structures. They also tried to guide the conversation through their involvement with developing professional bodies in architecture and civil engineering. Charles Barry junior and John Wolfe Barry were both Presidents of their Institutions (RIBA and ICE) and Sir Charles Barry won a preeminent Royal Gold Medal from Queen Victoria for his professional services to architecture.