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Simon Winchester, Writer, on 7 March 2003
A Joint Meeting with the Bath Literature Festival
Victor Suchar introduced the speaker as the Author of this best-selling book, and thanked him for travelling from the United States to be in Bath for this joint session of the Bath Literature Festival and the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, attended by a full capacity audience. So much interest had been shown that another lecture was scheduled for the next day in the Guildhall.
Mr. Winchester explained how the origins of the William Smith story began primarily in the Bath area and then related how the book about him had come about. Mr. Winchester has previously written a book about a relatively little known figure, W. C. Minor. His publishers, somewhat surprised by its success, suggested that the ingredients of that book should be analysed in order to determine the elements of the book with the intention of trying to replicate its success. Four criteria were identified and Winchester left the meeting charged with finding another figure who would meet the four criteria.
Winchester had studied geology at Oxford and remembered the name of William Smith who also met his pre-established criteria and after some preliminary research, Smith became the subject of his next book. Early on, he contacted his Oxford tutor of geology, Harold Reading, who agreed to help in the project as Reading perceived Smith to be a great unsung hero. In appreciation for Reading's assistance the book is dedicated to him.
Winchester then read a section from his book illustrating how he, like Smith, had become interested in geology. To illustrate Smith's early fascination with geology, Winchester produced a pound of butter and a stone found in the Oxfordshire countryside. Local people believed the world had been created on a specific day and in his wisdom God had also supplied these stones realising how useful dairies would find them. Smith kept his very different ideas to himself.
The Enclosure Act had created a need for surveyors and Smith was employed as an apprentice. This line of work was to transport Smith to the Bath area. The demand for coal had led to canal building and the local Somerset Coal Canal employed Smith as surveyor and engineer. During this work Smith noticed patterns in the earth's layers leading to his ultimate idea for a map that would illustrate the ground below.
In pursuit of his grand idea, Smith left his regular work and travelled about England and Wales for 15 years gathering data for his geological map, which was finally published in 1815.
Winchester unveiled a large copy of Smith's map pointing out that this early map was both beautiful and largely correct.
Winchester than highlighted the sad plight of Smith as he fell into poverty and failed to gain the respect and credit he deserved until the very end of his life.
A very lively question and answer session followed:
1 Did Smith meet Erasmus Darwin? They didn't meet but he would have been influenced by ideas of evolution.
2 Does your next book contain the four essential elements? It does not as my next book is about an event.
3 How was Smith able to see in three dimension? Tricky for people to learn how and it was the genius of Smith that he without any instruction was able to make this leap of the imagination.
4 Has your writing changed with success? I believed I was good at being a story teller from the beginning but nobody was reading my books. It made me understand why publishing is so difficult.
5 Where is Oxford on Smith's map? Winchester pointed out Oxford and then explained the colours used in the map and how they were chosen by Smith and that they continue to be used by the Geological Society today.
6 Can you relate some stories about researching this book especially around Bath? It was a wonderful adventure. There were only a few books to help; one, by his nephew, BRLSI is planning to re-issue.
7 Could you read the map? Winchester selected an area in the southeast of England to illustrate how to read the map.
8 Did Smith arrive at his conclusion from the earth's surface? Mainly from inside the coal mines and from the sides of the newly dug canals.
9 Did Smith's lack of education give him the freedom to think in different ways? Amateurs were making discoveries in those days but more training and knowledge is required today.
10 You have changed your criteria with your new book, so will we be disappointed? There are plenty of good bits and adventure so I hope not. It is called 'Krakatoa'.
Victor Suchar thanked the speaker, on behalf of BRLSI and of those present, for his fascinating story about the writing of his book and about the ups and downs of William Smith's life.