Monday 14 March 2022

Guest review by Ignaty Dyakov-Richmond: FROM GAS STREET TO THE GANGES by Simon Wilcox

"This is not an ordinary local history book, albeit written by a professional journalist with a degree in History. This is more like The Thousand and One Nights ..."

Ignaty Dyakov-Richmond
wears several hats (apart from a deer-stalker and a faux-fur Russian hat). A Chartered Linguist, he has authored a series of unconventional Russian and ELT textbooks, which help students learn grammar and vocabulary through fun-to-read detective stories. They are now used at universities and schools all over the world, US, UK and France being the biggest markets. Ignaty is currently on the Management Committee of the Society of Authors, where he also chairs the Educational Writers Group.

In recent years, after he qualified as a life coach and Ayurvedic consultant, he has set up a health and wellbeing coaching practice in the Midlands. He works on a one-to-one basis, delivers talks and workshops and writes articles on a holistic approach to health, complementary therapies and coaching methods. More information can be found on or on Facebook

In his spare time, he loves writing and reading short stories, walking, vegan cooking and a bit of DIY.

I must admit this wouldn’t be a book I would look for in bookstores; in fact, I wouldn’t seek to search books on this topic, not at this stage in my life. It was just that at a chance authors’ meet-up in a cafe I saw Simon Wilcox giving a copy of this book to someone else. I had finished conversing with a fellow writer and thus had a moment to look around and try to catch what others were talking about; that’s when I spotted the first words in the title, From Gas Street to the Ganges, and the cover. The cover did it for me: two pictures - one of warehouses along the canal and the other of a splendid, yet clearly vacant Oriental palace on a river bank. I knew then that I wanted to learn about the connection, the reason why these two pictures were placed next to each other.

This is not an ordinary local history book, albeit written by a professional journalist with a degree in History. This isn’t a Wikipedia-style collection of facts, albeit it has lots of facts and lots of references, methodically noted. This is more like The Thousand and One Nights - an easy-to-read collection of stories, stories which once happened but of which we might not have known all the details if not for the research coupled with the imagination and experience of the author. These stories always start in Birmingham and then take us on journeys to far-away countries. We meet protagonists, like James Chance of glass-manufacturer Chance Brothers, John Sumner of Typhoo Teas, or indeed Ron Wilcox, journalist and Simon’s father. We follow them to India, Sri Lanka, or Australia; we can almost see these places with their eyes, through the imaginative writing of Simon Wilcox. I find this is the best way to learn history - through personal history. Through emotions you might understand and remember the past better.

The book starts with a brief insight into Simon Wilcox’s biography, his childhood in Birmingham and then his escape into the open world, then coming back to see his birthplace decades later. I cannot deny that I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t understood and who had disliked Birmingham. My wife, who lived in Harborne, Birmingham, when we met four years ago, says to everyone that one of my first questions on our first date was, ‘Why on Earth do you live in Birmingham? Let’s get out of here!’ I am glad that having now read Simon’s book I understand the place better and look forward to coming back there and exploring it further, checking on all those places I have now read about.

We then proceed to learn about various prominent people and buildings in the city and the connections they have with other countries within the Commonwealth. Each chapter is dedicated to one country or territory: from Sri Lanka, to India, to South Africa, to Gibraltar. I like how the author weaved in his father’s story and journey to Australia towards the end of the book, almost as if all the research he’d done led him to appreciate his family history more and got him back to his roots – a great circle starting from himself and then bringing him to the generation before him.

Was there anything of note to improve? Well, we all know that publishers these days have to cut down on everything to ensure that a book can still be priced attractively so I can only feel for the time-pressured editor as some paragraphs seemed disjointed from others which disrupted the flow of the text at times. There is only so much that even the most thorough author can notice in their own writing and that’s why publishing a book has always been a team effort. Yet overall, it is a solid work based on good research that mostly reads very smoothly and with ease.

I would also like to learn more about social history and lives of ordinary people in Birmingham and their families in far away lands, so perhaps the second tome would be great to have (no pressure!).

Overall, I liked From Gas Street to the Ganges very much and would definitely have it in mind later this year when the Midlands will be hosting the Commonwealth Games and I might be asked for reading recommendations.

Did I judge this book by its cover? To a degree perhaps, as every time I was ready to read from it, I would spend a few moments looking at the photos and feel how I was transported deep into the past and far into the distance, a good feeling. So yes, I am as partial to the cover as I am to the title, and yet there is so much more inside the book too which makes it a good and educating read.

From Gas Street to the Ganges is published by The History Press.

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