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It's Out

A writing exercise:

The exercise: Your challenge this week is to find an old photo and tell us about the character, in a 'biographical' manner.

What do we actually mean by ‘in a biographical manner’?  The writing should have the following characteristics:

·      describes the life of a real person – and relates to other people and events of the time in which that person lived

·      based on factual information

·      draws on events, dialogue, newspapers, journals, diaries, letters, tv/radio interviews etc using first person accounts where possible

·      makes the reader relate to the person as an individual, either good or bad

I chose this photo:  <Isambard Kingdom Brunel>

                                                                                    Lady Wellingford
                                                                                    16 Beaufort Place

                                                                                    18th June 1843

My dearest Emmiline,

I am deeply grateful for your kind and considerate enquiries and felicitations, and that you continue to recall that such a being as myself exists for I feel that I cannot appear to deserve it.  I had really begun to despair of my being able to receive at home, or of returning into civilised society.   Now, however the affliction is no longer upon me, and am able to resume some level of civilised normality, it is my my deepest sorrow and pain that my business engagement are so incessant that I can only thank your Ladyship’s for recollecting me and I must live in the hope that next month I shall be back in town and I shall then be able to pay my respects to you.

I remain forever your most dedicated, devoted and friend


* * *

It’s out !

It is with a great sense of relief that this
correspondent may now report that the
gold two pound coin, swallowed by Mr
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, more than six 
weeks ago, has now been successfully removed 
from Mr Brunel’s windpipe and is now residing, 
as it should, in Mr Brunel’s pocket. The tracheotomy 
performed by Sir B  Brodie, assisted by Mr Aston Key on 
the 27th ultimo, with the intention of extracting the coin 
by the forceps, having not produced the desired result 
and subsequently similarly failed when repeated on 
the 2n inst, could not be persevered in without 
danger to life as the introduction of the forceps was 
attended with so much irritation, that Mr Brunel
required a week to recover from each attempt.  After 
much consultation and conference on Saturday, the 13th, 
Mr. Brunel was again strapped to a stiff board which 
could be rotated by the means of a apparatus of Mr Brunel’s own invention, 
the body then inverted, and the back gently struck. After two or 
three coughs, Mr Brunel felt the coin quit its place on the right 
side of the chest, and in a few seconds it dropped from his 
mouth without exciting in its passage through the glottis any distress 
or inconvenience.Mr Brunel was then noted to breath a deep 
sigh of satisfaction and celebratory bottle of porter was shared 
between the happy participants.

The Times, 29th May 1843

* * *

                                                                                    John Thompson
                                                                                    Works Manager
                                                                                    Great Eastern Dock

                                                                                    24h June 1843


I have the greatest of concerns with respect to the latest report of the quality of the wrought iron in the under deck framework of the main promenade deck, as detailed in your report of the 23 inst.  I would require and request you to press, with the utmost urgency, the foundry foreman to recast girders 1034, 1035, 1091-1123, and all those after frame 17.  It is of the utmost importance that these comply with the necessary toughness criteria.  Although temporarily confined to my bed, I will if necessary, even at my personal risk, travel to Bristol, if my personal supervision is required.    Do your utmost to respond favourably by the end of the week.

Your respectful servant

Chief Engineer, Great Eastern Steamship Company
112, Albermarle Crescent

Sitting in the library at the Brunel Centre in Bristol, I gazed at these documents, and the many others I had been reviewing as I researched my PhD thesis.   The Victorian world seemed a million miles away compared to my present time in 2020, but the passion, drive and commitment of Brunel remained preserved, unabated – a lesson to modern times in the dry and dusty archive.

I struggled somewhat with this exercise.  I definitely needed a lot more than 250 words.  I was trying to show that in biographical writing that although you have apparently factual sources, eg letters, newspapers, there is always different, possibly conflicting aspect of the same event.   Brunel was performing a magic trick for his children, by making a gold coin vanish.  He swallowed it by accident and it lodged in his windpipe/lung.   Despite breathing difficulties, coughs and bringing up blood, he continued to work normally and indeed participated actively himself in getting the coin out.  Eventually he managed it after 6 weeks.  I made up the 3 documents, and since they are Victorian documents tried to write in a Victorian voice - but did use Wikipedia etc for some factual background and stole some quotes directly.  And then I added a 21st century perspective/narrator.

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