Douglas writes his first post for 2019 in his “Writing and Reading for Pleasure” series detailing how grieving for a sentimental attachment from childhood has kept him busy writing differently since February 2019.
Sunday 1st June 2019 marks the same date nine years ago when I started writing. A few weeks ago I reviewed the Allrighters website, redesigning the front page to reflect what has happened to me on writing, to show what can be achieved once one makes a start. I chuckle when I hear friends say: “I must write a book,” who I recall said the same many years ago and have still not put pen or pencil to paper. Of course I did have the huge spur of one person saying: “You will never write a book!” which became the title of my first and only published book – “Ywnwab!” Setting and keeping to a daily writing word target also made a huge difference.
I reflected before I started writing this post on the fortunes of ten of my writing peers from 2010 who I followed or worked with. One, Russell Blake, is a successful multimillion word writer and ebook publisher with what seems a huge number of published books. I like his blunt no-nonsense views on the practicalities of being an author expressed in his blog. Two others have been successful in writing and publishing with over ten books each. Another six have written and published up to three books each by self-publishing or with mainstream publishers before fading. One, alas, has joined the great writing establishment in the sky.
At the beginning of 2019, I set out with New Year resolutions to carry on my momentum of completing and self-editing the rest of the fiction books I had started as part of my million-word target to 2014. So far I have failed completely in this aim.
The first reason was that many of the domestic things which had fallen on to the second or later pages of my “to do” lists suddenly had to be done! By the middle of February I had restored order and was about to restart my fiction writing when I just happened to be browsing and found the following picture.
Just an old building being torn down you might think. Of course this was not any old building to me but a friend with whom I have had a sentimental relationship for nearly seventy years. A newspaper headline might read.
“Writer’s lavatory window view destroyed.”
After a post on my blog about the building, I searched the web for “lavatory window view.” I found a page full of references to the fact the new small Airbus airliner, the A220, is unusual in having a window, without frosted glass, in the toilet where one can view the world from 30,000 feet.
North London in my childhood and now is not exactly a Mecca for finding and admiring interesting or well designed buildings. In 1949 I could just about clamber up on to the toilet bowl at home in Finchley and open the cracked glass window and be greeted in winter with an icy blast from the north. On the skyline I would see the copper roof and two chimneys of the National Institute for Medical Research building on the Ridgeway Mill Hill. The building in our home was crudely called the “Lavatory window view.” In 1950 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth formally opened the building and I recall a picture at home and a buzz about the event. On recent searching of the internet I have found a copy of this picture. In later years this viewpoint was always impossible to replicate because of trees in the way.
In June 2018 I asked the son of my old next door neighbour to see if he could take a photograph of the NIMR from their house. He reported that he could not perhaps because of vegetation. I realised in February 2019 the reason to be: the NIMR had been knocked down.
I had chosen the NIMR building as the subject for an essay I needed for a course going towards my Open University degree in the early 1980s. After an initial rebuff I managed to find history and access to the building for a site visit.
My interest in buildings, steam trains, planes and cars came from my father. We went as a family to see the Festival of Britain site on the south bank of the Thames in 1951. I recall vividly standing by the Dome of Discovery and the Skylon, both pulled down by a new government coming into power.
Further browsing produced to me many more sad and distressing pictures of the NIMR being demolished. I knew the NIMR was being relocated to a new building next to St. Pancras station, The Francis Crick Institute.
I had contacted NIMR in 2014 to be told by the director that the building site would be sold for housing. I had followed intermittently the site marketing and disposal to Barrett homes and the long planning approval process with the London Borough of Barnet and the Greater London Authority. I understood the main building was going to be renovated rather than pulled down.
You are probably thinking: what has all this to do with a post on writing. The answer is in an attempt to overcome my grief at the building being pulled down. I decided to produce a scrap-book collecting together as much new information as I could and also updating my 1982 Open University project. I contacted the last director of NIMR again and he facilitated an interesting visit to the Crick and provided information and leads for me to progress my non-fiction book. He has encouraged me to “keep digging”. The Crick in 2019 is as pristine and new as the NIMR was in 1950. Since 1950 the building had been extended and had sprouted numerous ugly ducts and pipes for laboratory ventilation all leading to a decision to pull the building down rather than renovate and convert. The unlisted building provided extensive views over London and was a landmark on the skyline. City of London towers can be seen in the distance in the top right of the next picture.
Since mid February I have spent far too much time on this non-fiction task and nothing on my fiction books. Apart from biographical works and writing about writing, I have not written much non-fiction before. I thought I would share some observations and thoughts on the process.
1. The first is that I have found writing non-fiction much harder than writing fiction. When stuck on what happens next in fiction, one just makes the next event up. Well, that is what I do! In non-fiction one has to dig and search which is very time-consuming and not always successful. The process requires lots of collaboration and interaction with others and so it is less lonely than fiction writing.
2. The internet is not the safe depositary for historical information I thought it to be. Websites come and go and only the contents of a few dead sites are archived. In 1982 I found lots of information about the Public Health Laboratories building in Colindale. This also designed by Maxwell Ayrton, the architect for the NIMR, Wembley Stadium and the Lea Valley and Twickenham Road Bridges. Only the latter survives. Now searching for the Colindale building, it is almost as if the building had never existed. I feared the same might happen to the NIMR.
3. Although I have collected a huge amount of information, any thought of publishing beyond a few draft copies is tempered by the very time-consuming need to check and obtain © Copyright approvals for written and pictorial data.
4. Although I am not a great fan of research, the work I have done on the NIMR has brought me into contact with lots of people who are interested in what I am doing. Since February I have found another person working on similar tracks and realise there may be others. By writing this post I hope I might find others.
5. On my view, based on Goethe, that making a start always opens new doors again has been proved correct for me since February on NIMR. While digging one thing has led to others with chance remarks opening up new avenues and roads to be looked down.
6. Controlling and managing the task requires at times more discipline in keeping records and not losing data and website links than I have the patience for these days!
7. At the end of March 2019, I aggregated all the data I had collected and requested Doxdirect to print up a couple of copies of a 366 page A4 draft scrap-book. Quite expensive but a good move. They did a nice job.
8. Since then, more data has been collected. Reviewing my work to the end of March, I realised it was all jumbled into the six collection pots I had defined when I started. My own connections, my Open University essay and update, a picture gallery, move to the Crick, Barratt Homes proposals and progress and other. I had varying amounts of data in each. 1960 to 1980 being a period of change which is little documented. Pictures of the building under construction in 1938 – 1940 would be as gold to me. I realised I had not gathered enough personal thoughts from people who worked at NIMR about the building.
9. I have now prepared a slimmed down 160 page draft version, which is more ordered using a smaller typeface and smaller pictures. I have also carried out a hard self-edit removing any duplications and some good but relatively less good than other surviving data.
10. For fun I have also given the building a voice which forms a working title for the book. “What if a building could talk?” I am sure that despite accumulating lots of information I have only scratched the surface and, if the building could talk, there would be many stories to be told. Other writers have told the story of the people who worked at NIMR and their enormous medical science achievements which have probably helped me lead a healthy life. Making the links between scientific discovery and day-to-day benefits is not easy.
11. Trying to transfer one’s own enthusiasm for a task to others who are busy but have information you want is – to me – difficult, as I found in 1982. Not having worked at NIMR I accept I am an outsider and an intruder into their life experiences. Like the people who write war books who have never experienced the horrors of war, it may take an external view of events whether right or wrong to record history. I am in contact through a third-party with a 97-year old who went through the building in 1943 when it was used for training Wrens. I suspect some of her recollections will have been lost to history, but for me… digging. However, as the first law on holes is “to stop digging” I will have to stop soon to get on with my fiction writing.
I hope this different kind of post to my normal ones has been of interest and if you know anything about the NIMR please let me know. This venture into non-fiction has certainly been challenging and on the whole enjoyable, meeting my objective of writing for pleasure. Various observations on writing I have collected this year will need to wait until December. By the end of 2021, providing plans are not changed, a replacement “look-alike” main block should have been built by Barratt Homes. So a similar copper roof to NIMR will again be a landmark on the North London skyline. An opportunity has also been lost to make a public viewing gallery for views over London at the top of the building. However, to me, any new building will not be the same as my NIMR friend on the skyline from 1949!
Douglas Burcham started writing on 1st June 2010 and self-published under the Allrighters’ name a storybook ‘Ywnwab!’ in September 2013. A million words of draft writing reached satisfactory completion in January 2014 split between 900,000 words of fiction and 100,000 words of non-fiction. The latter being about writing and memories of buildings, trains, boats and planes. Since then after a slow and aimless start to 2017 better progress now continues to be made in converting draft writing into final manuscript proof printed copies ready for potential publishing. These as short and long story-books under the Allrighters’ name. He contributed a regular post to TIPM up to June 2016 and has carried on at six monthly intervals since. He has recently updated his website www.Allrighters.co.uk and made a few new blog posts.