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15 July, 2021 - 21:55 By Tony Quested

Cambridge businessman turned author publishes first novel at 82

Cambridge businessman turned author Bill Matthews has published his first novel at the tender age of 82!

‘The Venetian’ is an historical novel – the story of a young doctor, Nicolo Barbaro, who leaves Venice to avoid marriage. 

He accepts the Doge’s offer of a job in Constantinople which combines medical practice and spying on the Ottomans. He arrives in Constantinople in 1453 just as the Turks are preparing to lay siege to the city and the forces of Islam and Byzantine Christianity are locked in a bitter struggle. 

The Turks break into the city and the blood of the dead and dying runs down the cobbled streets. Barbaro flees for his life deserting his friends, patients and his loyal servant. He cannot forgive himself for his cowardice.

Later his ship becomes infected with the pneumonic plague. Will he find the courage to stay on board and tend the dying crew if staying on board could cost him his life? 

Matthews, once one of the city’s premier accountants, has also done sterling advisory work for Cambridge Enterprise, the University’s technology transfer arm.

He tells Business Weekly: “On one level ‘The Venetian’ is a history of those far off times and the lives of people who lived through the siege. On another, the book holds up a mirror in which we see a reflection of our own world and its failings.

“After reading you might conclude that little has changed in the sufferings of people caught up in war zones – nor in our ability to protect ourselves from recurrent plagues. Most of us do not face such stark challenges as the people of Constantinople but the same conflict between Islam and Christianity threatens. 

“The readers of Business Weekly can settle for a quiet life in business well away from bloody battles, swinging battle axes and our personal courage is not put to the test. Instead of warfare, we become Chartered Accountants!”

When Bill was a young man an uncle urged him to become an accountant as a way of earning a good and secure income: “There are always jobs for accountants” were the words he used, reflecting the insecurities of jobs after the Second World War.  

So Bill laid to one side his love of writing and literature to train as a Chartered Accountant in which thirty pieces of silver are paid monthly on time. It was the rational choice which served him and his family well over the years.  

For the next fifty years he pursued a career in financial management, consulting and venture funding. He lived in Turkey, Italy and Canada before moving to Cambridge to join Sinclair Research as finance director then moved on to other companies and professional organisations. By the early 2000’s, he was manager of the Cambridge Enterprise Seed Fund investing in University start-up companies.

In Cambridge in the last 30 years, there have been many exciting initiatives and opportunities and Bill Matthews has played his part. In the early nineties, he helped established what initially were known as the Anglia Business Awards scheme in partnership with Business Weekly. 

One of the early category winners was the Mint Marketing Company which later became Hotel Chocolat and is now a quoted company. That business was started by Angus Thirlwell and Peter Harris – two inspiring entrepreneurs whose potential was clear to Bill Matthews and Business Weekly when they first met them.

Another initiative in the 1990s was starting the annual Chariots of Fire relay race which has raised in excess of £1 million for local charities. Most of the teams entering the September event are Cambridge businesses reported in Business Weekly. Fortunately, the organisers should be able to physically resume the Chariots of Fire this September.  

The Cambridge Enterprise Seed Fund invested in some 25 startups during Bill Matthews’s tenure as fund manager. Many of the investments earned good returns for the University.  

For example, the University’s investment in BlueGnome, an IVF diagnostics company, brought handsome returns when it was sold to Illumina. The profit on the sale to Illumina was ploughed back into the seed fund. Like Hotel Chocolat,  BlueGnome was started by two talented young entrepreneurs – Nick Hahn and Graham Snudden – whose capabilities were identified early by the fund managers.

Bill Matthews was a non-executive director of BlueGnome until it was sold to Illumina. So perhaps his uncle had been right in suggesting accountancy as a career since it had proved rewarding and stimulating on many levels.

The disruptions of last two years , caused by Covid, have provided new opportunities for both Cambridge businesses and aspiring writers. It has given some people the chance to take on or return to creative activities that were set aside in earlier years. 

Matthews says: “The pandemic has cleared many desks and has encouraged us to till the neglected acres of underused talents. During the last two years there has been time to do other things – things long consigned to the lost aspirations of our youthful selves.  In my case the ambition was to become a writer.

“Surely there must be many readers of Business Weekly who have re-discovered their wish to do more creative work in arts, education or to re-explore career opportunities down paths that earlier they did not take for whatever reason.

“It may be that the time is right for them to look at new career paths and new ventures – like writing a novel for example!”

Bill’s debut effort has been published by SilverWood Books who describe it as a “stunning first novel.”  He says that the research work and writing of ‘The Venetian’ took three years, much of it spent in the “awesome Cambridge University Library where the coffee is excellent and aspiring writers bend over their piles of reference books and tap away on their laptops.”  

Bill says: “Yes, writing is hard work but so is a career in consulting or financial management. Business reports may seem the antithesis of creative writing but they hone the skills of precise writing, brevity, ordered thought and logical argument.”

Bill claims to have learned how to write in Toronto when he was a consultant with Price Waterhouse working on client reports. The discursive ramblings of Dickens learned at school were not good models for a writer of either business reports or novels, he says.

“Simple rules like using the active tense and avoiding words with more than three syllables are very effective checks against wasteful use of language. As a writer you eliminate the dross by reading and re-reading every sentence then getting the book reviewed by a skilled editor. Historical novels are a mixture of the facts and the imagination of the author.  

“However, you could say much the same of business plans written to attract investment. The skilful use of the English language is essential to make a writer’s meaning clear in novels as well as business plans.

“The novelist draws heavily on his/her personal experience of life. Living and travelling around the world is a good start. For example, in ‘The Venetian’ I mined my five years of working in Istanbul and Italy in trying to recreate the atmosphere of Constantinople and Venice in the novel.

“Business people accumulate experience and knowledge over the years which can be useful when writing novels and other books. Perhaps, one day you too could use all that experience in business to write your own book! If not now, when?” 

• Paperback copies of ‘The Venetian’ can be ordered through Amazon and SilverWood Books at £9.99 each. 

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