My Weekend: Richard Taylor

Times Online, April 20, 2007

Richard Taylor, author of the best-selling How to Read a Church, can well remember what he describes as his “one and only entrepreneurial moment”. The IP lawyer recalls: “I was reading Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love, a beautifully written account of the church of Saint Agnese fuori le Mura in Rome. Visser looks at the church and tells its story as representative of all churches, everywhere. This is true, but it struck me that the chances are that I, like many other people in Britain, would be unlikely to visit this church. The idea came to me then of a book that decoded many well-known and accessible Christian churches.”

That was how he came to write How to Read a Church, a book that Taylor envisaged as “likely to sell a few hundred copies, if that”. The truth proved radically different: Taylor, a partner in DLA Piper’s Sheffield practice, has sold over 70,000 copies to date in five countries and his book, first published in 2003, has been translated into Chinese, Polish and Dutch. Indeed, so successful was it that Taylor was appointed by Random House as series editor for a tranche of “How To” books.

“The next one was How to Read a Country House, then How to Read an English Garden,” says Taylor, who co-wrote the latter. In the offing is How to Read a Village, and one suspects that this niche genre has a long way to go before exhausting itself. Taylor, though, remains a modest man, one who seems as surprised by his success as he is passionate about churches. “I was as stunned and startled as the next man by the way the book took off,” he says.

A committed Christian churchgoer, Taylor had for years been intrigued by the hidden meaning of a church’s images, signs and symbols. A twin passion was writing – Taylor graduated from Oxford with a degree in English Literature before becoming a lawyer – and the two interests blended serendipitously following the prompt from Visser’s inspirational narrative. “I would often talk to friends about the way in which churches and cathedrals are packed with meaning,” he says. “Both churchgoers and non-believers alike were as fascinated as me, and once Visser had lit the spark in my mind I set out about committing pen to paper.”

His skills as an IP lawyer came in handy: “Intellectual property requires a powerful sense of the visual. Concepts such as design rights, passing off, patents and copyright are difficult to comprehend without this. Familiarity with these things was a great help in setting about decoding churches, as was the lawyer’s ability to marshal and pick apart vast quantities of material. It’s a little like The Da Vinci Code, I guess.”

The similarities do not stop there. As Taylor readily allows, the massive interest in Dan Brown’s symbol-infused tale may well helped fuel sales of How to Read a Church. Not only that but Taylor’s regular column in The Law Society Gazette on all things IP has been known to be pregnant with dual meaning, not least when he came to write about the result of claim by authors Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh for copyright infringement against Brown. “I wrote it with a hidden code,” chuckles Taylor.

Sales of over 70,000 copies of one’s first book are, I suggest, more than enough to warrant a career change. Has Taylor contemplated saying farewell to life as an IP lawyer in favour of full-time writing? “I enjoy writing and derive great pleasure from it, not least from legal writing, which can be very rewarding. But I’m not sure that a writer’s life would be for me. I think I might find it rather lonely. I do relish the cut and thrust of the life in a busy legal practice.”

That said, Taylor is currently “scribbling some fiction. I’m not sure if it’s any good but I’ll keep going with it.” Such self-deprecation seems typical of a man who has less of the stereotypical lawyer and more of the writer about him, though albeit that Taylor is happy where he is now, it is not difficult to imagine him swapping professions in a few years. Meanwhile, what price How to Read a Law Firm, coming soon? You heard it here first.