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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: August 2011

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Work-Write Balance

The last ten days have been further practice for me in how to squeeze research and writing time around work and home life; something which people often me ask about.  I'm getting quite used to it now.  The main thing is to get straight down to writing whenever you have a slot available, and to identify and schedule those slots in advance.  I agree with what Lucy Worsley, Chief Curator of Royal Palaces, says in this video: if you have a full time job to do which doesn't include working on your book, then you simply don't suffer from writer's block.  In fact, you're bursting to write down things as soon as you have a free minute.  Here's how it went.

With Mr D away last weekend on a minibreak of his own, I had a couple of days free at home to start the final edits on the book and  to deal with other elements required - plans, front matter, bibliography.  I spent the time drawing up two maps by hand, armed with six 0.2mm pens and a pile of tracing paper. In some respects this was tedious; in others fascinating, as drawing everything out several times over really enabled me to get to grips with the maze of streets in the slum west of Westminster Abbey known as The Devil's Acre. I have also drawn a map of London from Chelsea in the west to Rotherhithe in the east, showing the principal buildings and streets mentioned in the text. I used various maps to do these from City of Westminster Archives service (Greenwood of 1827); the Horwood/Faden map of 1813 from The A-Z of Regency London; plus the Stanford 1862 map of Westminster (only for the position of Westminster hospital, built 1834) from the web; and after much searching - also on the web - I located Paris Street in Lambeth (from a really useful list of online historic London maps), which I needed for an eyewitness's location. Once submitted, the OUP typesetter will take my plans and make them look beautiful and clear.  I hope.

After the weekend I turned to editing the text on Monday (when I unexpectedly ended up at home due to train cancellations completely knocking out the rural line which I use to commute to London).  This was an amazing bonus. The two anonymous readers from OUP had sent in some suggestions for changes and I began working through those. They mainly comprised difficulties with the digressions in the book and a few comments on continuity. I've dealt with most of those (a few I disagree with) but there was one narrative lurch I continued to find a problem to resolve.  I got through about 50 pages of 253.

No more action until Wednesday, when I was due to travel to Cardiff by train to give a lecture on the 1834 fire for work.  I had planned to do at least two hours on the train, there and back, continuing the edits, but this was derailed by train cancellations which left me hanging around at Bristol Parkway and not in a suitable mood to concentrate.  I made it to my own talk only a few minutes late, but a bit frazzled. The lecture at Glamorgan Archives went well, though.  I was particularly pleased as the presentation I used, rejigged from a talk to the Westminster village and then made suitable for an external audience, now feels right to use with local history groups when the book is launched.

Then yesterday, Saturday, Mr D was giving a concert in Worcestershire.  Having dropped him off to rehearse in the morning, I went into the city to find a quiet spot to continue the revisions.  I finally found it in the Worcestershire History Centre which was a real haven of peace and quiet.  I got to page 77 and found what I thought was a nifty resolution to the worst narrative lurch.  Still more to do, though.  Tomorrow is the bank holiday (another lovely whole day), and then I will have another weekend free in a few weeks' time when Mr D is away at a conference to get down to some solid work.  Why don't you work on your commute, some people ask.  The answer is, I'm either doing work for work, as it were, or I'm sleeping because I'm so tired...and the house is a tip, too.

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Monday, 22 August 2011

John Rickman, Census Man

22 August marks the 240th anniversary of the birth of John Rickman (b. 1771). Successively Speaker's Secretary and Clerk Assistant of the Commons, Rickman was a brilliant polymath: a proto-statistician, founder of the UK Census, reforming Parliamentary official and friend of Byron, Charles Lamb and Telford.  He is also a key figure in the story of the 1834 fire at Parliament.

This year has of course been census year in the UK: possibly the last one ever.  Amid all the publicity about it, few remember Rickman's original vision.  His interest was piqued by the contemporary debate about population growth and the causes of poverty.  In 1798 the political economist Thomas Malthus (1766–1834) had published An Essay on the Principle of Population which sought to identify the causes of national prosperity and personal happiness by linking population trends with the availability of food.  The view at the turn of the 19th century was that the British population was falling, and Malthus considered this a harshly utilitarian inevitability:  a series of checks such as war, famine, delayed marriage, contraception and so on, would  (by a form of natural selection, though it was not called this at the time) lead ultimately to a more sustainable and content populace, less likely to revolt.  Rickman, however, believed that the population had continued to rise without ill effect, and created the Census to collect the necessary data to prove whether this hypothesis was true or not, and to aid the government in military recruitment and the continuing discussions over reform of the old Poor Law.  In fact he had first put forward his proposals in an essay written in 1796, two years before that of Malthus whose views he continued to oppose until his death.  The 1801 Census was passed by Act of Parliament after Rickman came to the attention of Speaker Abbott (and was subsequently his private secretary).  He continued his work on refining and testing out new questions in the 1811, 1821 and 1831 censuses, also back-projecting population trends for the 18th century based on parish registers, which turned out also to be pretty accurate by modern standards. 

Rickman portrait
© Parliamentary Works of Art Collection
But it is as a senior Parliamentary official (number two in the administration of the House of Commons) that he appears in Conflagration.  When fire broke out at the Palace of Westminster in the early evening of 16 October 1834, he was snoozing at home after a good dinner with some friends at his club, The Athenaeum. His account of the disaster, and those of his wife and feisty daughter Frances (on whom more in a later blog post), are some of the most thrilling eyewitness descriptions which survive, because the family watched the fire as it headed right towards them in their house in the Palace precincts as they frantically packed up all their belongings. Their letters and notes provide the backbone of several chapters in Conflagration. So what happens to them, their servants, their possessions and their lovely home? My lips are sealed until publication day...

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Saturday, 20 August 2011

More Corners of Old Westminster

A few more pockets of old Westminster, snapped on a lunchtime walk yesterday.  And by Westminster, I really mean Thorney Island, or the area within half a mile's radius of Westminster Abbey, rather than the modern borough. For some other blog posts on pre-1834 Westminster, you can also see here and here.

Street scene in Old Queen Street, by the Two
Chairmen pub.As well as these great buildings,
 I like the pub sign of two men carrying a sedan chair.

Fancy black and white doorway in Old Queen Street

Surviving gateway of the early 17th century
 Westminster Bridewell,  or House of Correction. 
Later known as Tothill Fields Prison, the remnant was
relocated here at the rear of Middlesex Guildhall in
1969 by the GLC.  The plaque over the door reads
 "Here are Several Sorts of Work for the Poor
 of this Parish: of St Margaret's Westminster. As also
 the County, according to LAW and forsuch
 as will Beg, and live Idle in this City and
 Liberty of Westminster. Anno 1655."


Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Looooooooooooong 18th Century

I recently enjoyed a little lunchtime flurry on Twitter after asking about when the "Long" 18th century ended, in people's opinion.  That's because Conflagration makes the case for 1834 as one of the possible dates when the 18th century comes to a halt for various reasons.  (In fact, I also argue that 1834 is the last gasp of various institutions and practices from the middle ages).

In his book Waterloo, Andrew Roberts describes the battle as the exclamation mark at the end of the century, but I think it's much later, even though traditionally 1815 is often the end of school and university courses in the UK.  Dates which Twitter correspondents came up with included 1820 (end of Regency), 1830 (death of George IV, revolutions), 1832 (Great Reform Act), 1837 (accession of Victoria), 1848 (more revolutions) and even 1850.  And working backwards, the eighteenth century might even begin in the 1660s (or even the 1640s!) for some.  In the USA, 1812 is seen as the end of pro-British aspirations.

The whole periodisation issue is a bit of a red herring anyway, and obviously artificial.  After all, we don't go around thinking we're living through the dying days of the long 20th century.  People today might be tempted to view 9/11/2001 as the "end" of the 20th century - but will it really be seen as that in 250 years' time? I doubt it.  In Europe we're still living through the fallout from the Cold War: the point is, to contemporaries of any time or place, right now and before right now is seamless.  So it's all relative.  But still fun to play around with - many thanks to all the tweeps who sent in their ideas!

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Monday, 8 August 2011

One Year On....

Hooray! This blog is celebrating its first birthday!

In the course of the last year I have completed my book, which found a great agent, who found me a great publisher, and as an added bonus I met lots of like-minded folk on Twitter. Thank you all for reading this blog or tweeting me with ideas and suggestions. If you're doing something similar yourself then here's a book I wish had been around when I started; it's been invaluable and I recommend it to anyone writing narrative non-fiction (or any other sort of book) that you'd like to make money from.  Harry Bingham, the author, really knows his stuff, is brutally realistic and unlike many other books on publishing for newbies, it's often hilariously funny.

Conflagration won't be published until the autumn of 2012, but who knows what the next year will bring...?


Monday, 1 August 2011

What the Dickens...?

Charles Dickens
Dickens in the 1830s, looking a good deal
 more glamorous than in later life
Filling in the publicity form, one question which came up asked about anniversaries or other events which could be used as a hook to promote THE BOOK. There's the fire itself of course (16 October every year - 178th anniversary in 2012). More topically, there's the 2012 Olympics in London which will feature lots of aerial shots of the new Palace of Westminster during the marathons and the beach volleyball in Horseguards. 2012 is also the 200th anniversary of the assassination of Spencer Perceval, the only British PM to have been murdered in office (in fact in the lobby of the Commons,and which plays a part in the book)...and finally it's the bicentenary of Charles Dickens' birth next year.

Dickens appears four times in Conflagration. Surprised? You shouldn't be. He began his writing career as a journalist a couple of years before the 1834 fire, and was in fact a Parliamentary reporter. He wrote for the Morning Chronicle, one of the main newspapers I used in my research, and his sketches of London life "by Boz" came out less than two years after the fire, followed by his first - serialised - novel in 1836: The Pickwick Papers. He clearly knew the old Palace and Parliament well, including some of its personnel.  Expect
2012 to be the year of Dickensmania...

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