William Smith Williams

William Smith Williams
With great great nephew in Kensal Green Cemetery

Friday, 6 October 2017

Who was this man, William Smith Williams, who discovered Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte described him as pale, mild, stooping man of about fifty.

We know, or can infer, that his schooling brought him into contact with boys, including Keats, who would go on to careers as significant thinkers and writers. We know that his social group included or was close to some of the most exciting thinking of his time: people such as Ruskin, Thackeray and Elizabeth Gaskell.

He grew up close to theatre land and both had a great love of theatre and a deep knowledge of it. He had a love of painting, Turner in particular; he wrote on the place of Art in Design. He worked for many years for a ground breaking Lithographer, Charles Hullmandel and he wrote on the techniques and impact of Lithography.

Yet, his emergence into the public view was from a position as a book keeper, and it would seem not a very good book keeper.

But who really was William Smith Williams?

The book I am researching sets out to trace whence he came and whither he went to paint a picture of this incredibly creative time in our history which included the groundbreaking shift in the English novel that was Jane Eyre.
WSW's tomb in Kensal Green Cemetery

Monday, 2 October 2017

Lincoln Book Festival 2017 - a personal reflection

The Mona Lisa and the Pre-Raphaelites; Victorian Body Parts and The mysterious Mr Black and the Rooks; Powerful Queens and Medieval Saints; the Battle of Bosworth and the Tudor Myth; Historical Romance, the Fascinating story of The Huntingfield Paintress, and Gothic Revival at Scott's St Nicholas Newport. All this and the wonderful gothic flash fiction pieces and local history.

We have drunk deep and drunk very well.

High points? They all were.

If you click on the links you will be taken to some great pieces by Young Journalist, Ellen Lavelle.

Some 350 people wrote a gothic story in exactly 50 words; well most of them did. As I said, in some cases literacy was ahead of numeracy. The quality was high in each of the three classes: Primary, Secondary and Adult. As well as hearing the winners of our competition we heard wonderful pieces by the students of First Story. Well done to all concerned, not least the hard working English teachers and First Story's Writer in Residence, Kerry Drewery.

I move quickly to Dianne Setterfield

Dianne spoke very openly about her gothic novels and what gothic means to her. Two short quotes I will keep with me:

"Death is the counterpoint that enables us to take joy in life"

"I've got no time for Scooby Doo and the ghosts that turn out to be the janitor in disguise"

With Dianne, and Romance writers Janice Preston and Jenni Fletcher,  my understanding of gothic and romantic fiction and how they relate to each other has advanced leaps and bounds: subtle intermeshed depths.

“Romance would not be so enduringly popular if us writers failed to display the freedom and equality of women today”

I unashamedly relish David Starkey's irreverence, and how great to see teenage boys queueing to take a selfie with him. He dug back into medieval England to find the thin line of legitimacy for the tudor dynasty but then exploded it all as a carefully crafted myth.

“The myth is there from the very beginning, they didn’t just win at Bosworth, they won the ideas”

Kirsty Stonell-Walker's stories of the Pre-Raphaelite women, set alongside Kathryn Hughes entertaining survey of Victorian body parts, helped me to see much more clearly a hugely creative time in our history.

Alison Weir and Sarah Gristwood , strong women talking of strong Queens has to be a winner with comments like:

"I'm an Elizabeth Girl all the way - Take your side, Mary or Bess!

"It could never be said that these queens were mere cyphers"

Janina Ramirez held her audience in the palm of her hand as she unpacked saints and sainthood. On my bookshelf are the six volumes of Butlers Lives of the Saints. Yet I walk the coast of Northumberland and Cornwall and feel beneath my feet the prints of saints who have gone long before. I now see that sainthood digs much deeper than two millennia; our saints go back to our very beginnings.

The penultimate event was a morning on Local history revealing yet again the riches of Lincolnshire.

Topping and tailing the festival week were Martin Kemp's fascinating insights into who the Mona Lisa actually was, and the Fascinating story of The Huntingfield Paintress by Pamela Holmes.

Gilbert Scott's St Nicholas Newport was the perfect place to finish with an afternoon on Gothic Revival.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Patrick Bishop at Lincoln Drill Hall 3 October 2017

I am lucky enough to have been invited to introduce Patrick Bishop when he speaks at Lincoln Drill Hall on Tuesday 3 October.

I first read Patrick ten years ago when I was staying in Kent. I found Fighter Boys in my host's bookcase. I couldn't put it down. To make the experience complete, I could hear the scream of a Merlin engine as a Spitfire was put through it paces nearby.

Bomber Boys was next, some years later when I was researching MacRobert's Reply. It was chilling and I could begin to understand what Don Jeffs had gone through as the sole survivor of the crashed Stirling bomber that bore the name MacRobert's Reply.

When I heard about Air Force Blue and knew that it would be a must read. I can't wait to hear him speak. Click here to book.

This is what his publishers, Harper Collins, have to say

In a return to sweeping social history of wartime, Patrick Bishop – author of bestselling Fighter Boys and Bomber Boys – explores the lives and wartime experience of thousands of men and women who served in all units of the airforce. To mark the centenary of the RAF in 2018.

Air warfare was a terrible novelty of the modern age, requiring a new military outlook. From the beginning, the RAF’s identity set it apart from the traditional services. It was innovative, flexible and comparatively meritocratic, advancing the quasi-revolutionary idea that competence was more important than background.

The Air Force went into the war with inadequate machines, training and tactics, and the early phase was littered with setbacks and debacles. Then, in the summer of 1940, in full view of the population, Fighter Command won one of the decisive battles of the struggle. Thereafter the RAF was gilded with an aura of success that never tarnished, going on to make a vital contribution to Allied victory in all theatres.

Drawing from diaries, letters, memoirs, and interviews, Air Force Blue captures the nature of combat in the skies over the corrugated wastes of the Atlantic, the sands of the Western Desert and the jungles of Burma. It also brings to life the intensely lived dramas, romances, friendships and fun that were as important a part of the experience as the fighting.

Air Force Blue portrays the spirit of the RAF its heart and soul during its finest hours. It is essential reading for the millions in Britain and the Commonwealth whose loved ones served, and for anyone who wants to understand the Second World War.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Lincoln Book Festival 2017 - the story

The Lincoln Book Festival emerged in the early summer from a long winter, paralleling the blossoming of soaring gothic architecture from the dark ages…possibly! It actually emerged from a period of hard work seeking out interesting books and more importantly interesting authors who enjoy talking about their work.

This year, the 800th anniversary of one of the pivotal battles in English history, demanded attention. Its date of 1217 would also have witnessed St Hugh’s gothic cathedral towering majestically over hundreds of small dark dwellings in the town. This contrast between light and dark begs a gothic theme.

For the battle, I spoke to David Starkey and he suggested a broader theme of battles and dynasties. The battle though speaks also of strong women and temped us toward a look at influential queens. The thirteenth century gothic of the cathedral invited a glimpse into the gothic revival architecture of the 19th century, Sir George Gilbert Scott and our own St Nicholas Newport. That gothic revival in turn beckoned us into 19th century and later ‘scary’ gothic literature. 19th century tempted us into the Pre-Raphaelites and painting back to the Mona Lisa.

But, why history?

When we revived the Lincoln Book Festival a few years ago, we debated long what its theme should be. We had to do little more than look out of the window of the room where we were meeting to see some of the city’s Roman remains. Over the road was the Gothic Cathedral and on through the Georgian Minster Yard was the Norman Castle.

Lincoln is a place where history seeps from every stone.

The city’s origins are owed to the Romans – whose ancient city can still be seen today – and ‘Lindum Colonia’ has played an influential role in English history ever since.

In 1215, an original of Magna Carta was brought to the city and today Lincoln Castle is the only place in the world where the great charter can be seen side-by-side with an original of the 1217 Charter of the Forest. This year with the added attraction of the Doomsday Book.

Thousands of years of history can still be seen in the fabric of the city, known as the ‘Birthplace of the Tank’ due to its engineering heritage from the early 20th century.

So, history chose itself. To be honest, so did gothic as this year’s theme.

Yet, for all our wonderful speakers, what I looked forward to most was reading the shortlisted pieces of our flash fiction competition. We invited people of all ages to write a piece of gothic fiction in just fifty words. At the first evening of the Festival we will hear the winners. I can’t wait.

Details of the Festival can be found on the website 
Tickets from Lincoln Drill Hall

The Lincoln Book Festival is in many ways remarkable. Some years ago it was in effect run by the local authority and was really quite big. Then its funding vanished and a dedicated group of people fought to keep it alive. Many are still trustees and without them it simply wouldn’t be here.

Festivals need money, as indeed do charitable arts venues like the Drill Hall 

In the early days of independence the Book Festival received vital support from the Lindum Group. Since then there have been a number of wonderful and loyal sponsors.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Lincoln Drill Hall Autumn 2017

When I called into the Hall in August this was what I found
The space had been cleared for some much needed rewiring and updating of equipment and seating for which we had obtained grant funding. There is still work to be done, but we are seriously up and running.

Over the week ending 17 September we welcomed more than 2,000 people through our doors. The Gin Festival had been a sell out as had Russell Watson and we had great comedy with Phil Jupitus. The remainder of the autumn offers yet more great performance. There are full details on the website.

In the last week of September we are hosting two events of the Lincoln Book Festival: David Starkey on 27th and Alison Weir and Sarah Gristwood and Janina Ramirez on Friday 29th. All the Festival Events are on its website.

To complete the audience experience we now have wine list comprising a range of wines so that everyone should be able to find something to their taste. I have sampled them all, in the line of duty.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

One year on and my heart is still broken

I shall never forget waking on 24 June 2016 to discover that the electorate had voted to leave the EU. It broke my heart.

For me, it was never about money; it was a matter of principle: we have avoided war by working together. I have spent many hours researching and writing about the two world wars and the thought that these would never be repeated mattered massively. The EU was the child of the peace process following the end of WW2. It was, it is something of immense value and the electorate voted to leave it.


So we could regain control? My argument always was that the EU is governed by a democratic process comprising a directly elected Parliament and a Council of Ministers from each member state. There is a civil service, the Commission, but it is answerable to the democratic bodies. The EU does those things that are better done together rather than 28 times over. It made, it makes sense. The EU together can tackle the major problems we face; countries can't do it alone.

I have friends who voted to leave. For them it was immigration. Interestingly it was immigration from middle eastern countries, which to my knowledge are not members of the EU.  They were angry; they wanted their country back. Voting to leave the EU will not make a bean of difference. If we do leave, they will be disappointed; actually they will be furious. They will be all the more furious when they can't get the NHS treatment they need because of a lack of skilled staff and when they see living standards fall.

The economic picture straight after Brexit looked OK. The Stock Market had risen, so all was well. Shh. The Stock Market rose because company profits earned in currencies other that sterling were suddenly worth 20% more, because the pound tumbled. Since then the negative impact of the fall in the pound has been felt with inflation caused by imported goods costing more.

This whole Brexit thing is a total nonsense.

How I wish we had an opposition brave enough to say this out loud!

Sunday, 18 June 2017

The Blame Game

It seems that there is nothing for which Mrs May is not responsible. This is profoundly dangerous scape-goating and risks hiding the real issues.

Taking a very broad brush, the tragedy in Kensington, the Brexit vote and the state of the NHS all have in common the results of austerity. Buildings seem to have been maintained on the cheap and millions have seen their living standards eroded and it seems that there is simply not enough money to pay nurses properly or provide the health service we need. There has grown up in government a mind set that says all that matters is not spending money. It is a fear that if ministers do so they will be outed for sacrificing a sacred cow.

We don’t have enough money.


The immediate reason was the need for government to pay out many millions to save the banks which were on the point of going bust in the financial crisis of 2008. Banks going bust mean countless millions losing savings. It mattered.

Having saved the banks, the Labour government set about trying to balance the books. Millions had been borrowed and, if only to pay the interest, millions had to be found. There is a choice: borrow more, raise taxes or reduce public expenditure. Borrowings already looked terrifying, raising taxes risked impeding enterprise, or upsetting core supporters, and so public expenditure was chosen. The Coalition and then the Tory government continued on the same path.

The result is the denuded public services we now face and ministers closing their ears and eyes to the evidence of experts on the safety of tower blocks, for example.

Who was to blame?

Blame must focus on the banking crisis. Unpicking the strands, we had a situation where financial institutions were struggling to keep the interest rates paid on people savings at the levels they had become used to. World interest rates were falling, largely as a result of monies flowing out from China. The backroom boys at the banks set to work to devise products that would offer high interest rates to the people and pension funds hungry for them, that is you and me. One way of doing this was to lend money at high interest rates to people probably unable to borrow otherwise – high risk lending. These loans were bundled together in such a complex way that, when they were offered as an investment, the inherent risk was hidden. These were the sub-prime mortgages. First in the USA and then at Northern Rock amongst others people began to see that ‘the emperor had no clothes’, that millions of pounds of investments were worthless. Banks had invested heavily in them and so they faced disaster. The government stepped in, borrowing massively to do so.

Who was to blame? Was it pensioners demanding high interest rates, pension schemes struggling to meet their obligations to retired workers, evil bankers who without question made a fortune in the process? A bit of each. What is certain is that it was not the NHS, it was not occupiers of high rise flats and it was not millions of people whose jobs had disappeared over the decades with technological advances and third world countries entering the market. It wasn’t the EU.

Governments, including the EU, should have applied tighter regulation and still must. De-regulation goes back to the time of Mrs Thatcher but it continued under governments of all colours since.

What do we do?

We can’t go on with austerity. We have to have and pay for proper public services as Polly Toynbee argues in her book, Dismembered. So we have no alternative than to raise taxes, from everyone not just the rich, but the rich should pay proportionately more. The LibDems were wrong suggesting a penny in the pound from everyone; but Labour were also wrong in saying the rich must pay. We are all in this together, but those best able should shoulder the greater part of the burden, not by threats but by seeing their role in a cohesive society.

Probably the major part of the deficit arising from bailing out the banks should be left and no attempt made to repay it. Adair Turner, in his book Between Debt and  the Devil, suggests this. Investment financed by new borrowing should now be made in infrastructure and in education and training to encourage enterprise which is the key to a strong economy.

We need to look very carefully at the wisdom of an economy based on individual borrowing to finance consumer spending.

We must remain in the EU for access to their markets, for the immigration we desperately need and to work with other countries to face the challenges together.

We have to accept that we have been living beyond our means and so can’t have new cars on finance every few years. We have to share out the national cake more evenly: another point that Turner makes. This will benefit the economy as a whole since the current polarisation of wealth means that millions lie unproductive in property.

It is not only Mrs May, but equally she is not the leader we need to get us out of this complex mess.