An occasional recurring theme in my book On the Moor is the idea that ‘life is good at finding new ways’.
The level at which evolution occurs is a hotly debated subject, but I like to keep things simple: genes mutate; individuals are selected; species evolve. The majority of the times I use the phrase life is good at finding new ways, I'm referring to the evolution of species. But sometimes I'm referring to something else: how individual organisms find themselves in strange new places, but somehow get by (which can occasionally be the first step in the evolution of new species).
In the first chapter of the book, I write about how certain individual plants have found themselves growing on top of some of the fence-posts that bound the Moor. I write about one fence-post in particular, which I nickname the Niche, on account of its being an interesting new niche in which plants have somehow found themselves. (I go on to discuss the somehow, obviously.)
Last week, walking on the Moor, I spotted an even more unusual niche: an old milk bottle. It was packed with moss, grass and ferns, which seemed, if anything, to be thriving:
I don't know how long this second, perilously fragile Niche will survive, located as it is in a moorland gateway on top of a millstone grit set (paving stone). But, unlike us, the plants living in Niche 2 don't have any choice in the matter: they're stuck with the hand life has dealt them, and are simply getting on with being plants.
And yet, over the last couple of weeks, the Bank of England has been severely criticised for its decision to replace Fry with Churchill on the fiver, as it means that, the queen excepted, there will no longer be any women on any of its bank notes. Finally, having been put on the spot last week, the bank's outgoing governor, Sir Mervyn King, hinted very strongly that Jane Austen could soon replace Charles Darwin on £10 note (he actually said Dickens, not Darwin, but we knew what he meant).
To be honest, I've been bracing myself for the inevitable loss of the Darwin tenner. Having campaigned to have Darwin celebrated on a bank note, I'll be very sad to see it go. But it's only a piece of paper. When it comes to imminent extinction events, there are far more important things we should be worrying about.
It's not just women who are in short supply on our bank notes. There are no representatives of ethnic minorities. There are, as far as I know, no gay men or lesbians. There is no one from the North of England (by any northerner's definition of the North of England at least). There are no Welsh. There are, however, two Scots (James Watt and Adam Smith)—even though Scotland has its own banks and bank notes. Go figure. To add insult to injury, once Darwin goes, there will be no beards—although, if you ask me, Her Majesty is starting to show a hint of five o'clock shadow.
But it's a moot point: how on Earth do you decide who deserves to go on the next bank note? There's no right answer.
But… JANE AUSTEN?!!!
Oh, for Pete's sake!
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that not a single man in possession of a Y-chromosome is going to want such a misfortune. Yes, yes, I know, Jane Austen is superb. She must be: everyone says so. And they all say so because they all heard so from someone else who hasn't actually read her. Or, if they have read her, it's only because they were forced to read her for English Lit., when they had to say she was superb to avoid getting an ‘F’. And they probably didn't even read her then; they probably just bought the study guide, and watched the latest TV series/movie on DVD (Amazon: uk | .com). Trust me, kids, you really can get away with stuff like that in English Lit.—I write from personal experience (grade A ‘O’ Level, 1981, and I still haven't read two of the books).
True, Jane Austen did come a magnificent 70th in the 2002 BBC 100 Great Britons national poll—a mere 66 places behind Charles Darwin, and a mere 67 places (I kid you not) behind Diana, Princess of Wales. So it seems only fair that Austen should grace a bank note before the likes of Captain Cook, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Sir Cliff Richard (or any of the 55 other people who came ahead of her in the poll, but who also haven't yet appeared on bank notes).
Not that I think we should decide such important matters by way of specious TV celebrity beauty contests, you understand. No, if it were down to me, I would do away with the notion of one denomination, one note. Why not have twenty different fivers, thirty different tenners, and so on? The countries in the Eurozone seem to manage perfectly well with lots of different versions of the same note. That way, everyone wins: we could keep Fry and Darwin; introduce Austen, Pankhurst, Franklin, Stopes, and loads of other women; and keep the bolshie northerners happy with the likes of Cook, Turing (honorary northerner), Cobden and Carter. And why stop there? Who says bank notes have to have people on them? Why not a robin, Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall, Durham Cathedral, Mallard, or even scenes from Shakespeare and Tolkien?
But, if it really does have to stay one denomination, one note, and if Darwin really does have to go, and if it really does have to be a female author of superior chick-lit who replaces him, try this for Persuasion… Forget Jane Austen; let's put the Brontë Sisters on the tenner! Perfect! There were three of them! That would almost redress the male/female (and north/south) imbalance in one fell swoop! The Brontë Sisters: a frankly brilliant, far less Austentatious choice!
I went for a walk on the Moor this morning. I've posted a few words and photos on my natural history blog. Before I began my main walk, however, I made a short detour to take this photograph:
It hardly seems worth the trouble, does it? A nondescript patch of heather and a bit of grass. But look more closely. Do you see anything unusual? I have to say, I would never have noticed it, had I not been actively looking for it. Have a good look before reading on...
Do you see how the heather in the foreground curves away to the right, almost out of the frame, then loops back in the middle-distance, crossing over and disappearing out of shot to the left? Try to imagine a bird's-eye view of what you're seeing. If you can't, have a look at this aerial photo, courtesy of Google Maps.
What we have here is a huge circle of heather, 30-or-so metres across. It's hard to tell from my photo, with all that bushy heather concealing the underlying terrain, but the circle is an elevated embankment, one or two feet in height.
What we're looking at is a Bronze Age urnfield: a prehistoric cemetery, where our ancient predecessors interred the cremated remains of their loved ones. The place is a listed ancient monument, but you could easily walk right past it without even noticing.
This urnfield features in chapter two of my book, On the Moor. As does the seventeenth-century polymath and sceptic Sir Thomas Browne, who wrote a famous book inspired by an urnfield very similar to this one. In his book, Browne muses on the fickle nature of posterity. As do I, in my own way, in one or two chapters of On the Moor.
I first came across Browne in an essay by one of my favourite writers, Stephen Jay Gould, in which he describes how Browne debunked a number of popular fallacies, or, as Browne called them, ‘many received tenets and commonly presumed truths’ (which scholars usually shorten to Browne's far more pithy phrase ‘vulgar errors’). Many years later, I re-encountered Browne in W.G. Sebald's masterpiece, The Rings of Saturn. So, you can imagine my delight when I learnt, shortly after I began work on my book, that my local moor has a tenuous Brownean connection.
Come to think of it, quite a lot of my book is about tenuous connections.
On a walk around the local lanes yesterday afternoon, Jen and I popped over to our friend's farm to admire her new lurcher puppy, Eddie.
The farmer had heard via Jen that I've written a book about our local moor. She asked if I would like to borrow her copy of A Spring-time Saunter: Round and About Brontë-land by Whiteley Turner. I had never heard of the book, but of course I'd love to borrow it!
It turns out that A Spring-time Saunter is something of a local classic. First published 100 years ago, in 1913, it describes a four-day walk that Turner made from his home in Mount Tabor near Halifax over the moors to Haworth. Not having read the book yet, I'm not sure why such a journey would take four days, but I'm guessing Turner took a round-about route to take in some of the local attractions. Which would make it a far more satisfactory walk, as far as I'm concerned.
As a lad working in a local woollen mill, Turner lost his right arm (and, therefore, his job) in a carding machine in 1878. He was eight years old. He went on to sell newspapers and tea, delivering the latter for miles around on foot. He also eventually began to write articles for the Halifax Courier. A series of pieces published in the newspaper between 1904 and 1907 was later adapted into A Spring-time Saunter.
Initially supported by subscription, the book went through three editions during Turner's lifetime. The third (1915) edition of 3,000 copies failed to sell as well as the earlier editions, until someone had the clever idea of distributing them to injured local soldiers to remind them of home. These copies, of which my friend's is one, were paid for by the Halifax Courier War and Prisoners' Comforts Fund.
Turner died in 1921, age 55. He is buried in the Wesleyan chapel yard at Mount Tabor. Perhaps I'll pop over that way some time to pay my respects. And perhaps, once I've read his book, I might join him on one or two of his walks.
Some of the best evidence we have for human evolution is found in the biological features we inherited from our non-human ancestors—especially those features which are of little or no use to us. Goose-pimples, for example. Our hairy ancestors raised their fur in cold weather to keep warm; we no longer have fur, but we still try to raise it when the weather turns chilly. Darwin was right: ‘Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin’. Goose-pimples no longer help provide insulation, but they remind us of our common ancestry with other mammals. That alone is enough to make them worth celebrating.
Like species, cultures also evolve—though not in the same way. Some of the best evidence of our cultural ancestry lies in the roots of the words we use. Conclave, for example, from the Latin for ‘with-key’: the 115 cardinals who elected the new Pope last week were, both literally and etymologically, in a locked room.
Wednesday, 13th March, 2013 A.D. was a big day for the Roman Catholic Church. But consider that date: Wednesday, Woden's Day, commemorating a Germanic god; March, named after Mars, the Roman God of War; 2013, the (miscalculated) number of years since the birth of the Christian messiah. Our calendar reminds us of Western Europe's diverse cultural heritage.
There are other calendars, of course. But our calendar, named after the new Pope's sixteenth-century predecessor Gregory XIII (which itself evolved from an earlier calendar, named after another of his predecessors, Julius Caesar), has become the Western (and de facto international) standard. And long may it remain so!
Standards are a good thing. They enable people to avoid misunderstandings; to share information. Imagine the confusion if we couldn't agree dates. As ever, though, we Brits were late on the uptake of this sensible European initiative, only adopting the new, improved calendar in 1752—170 years after the majority of our Catholic neighbours. By that time, our old, less accurate, Julian Calendar was out of synch with Pope Gregory's by eleven days. The change in calendar wasn't universally popular. Some of us Brits stuck, quite literally, to our guns: the British grouse-shooting season still starts on the so-called Glorious Twelfth of August, not on the pre-1752 Glorious First.
As a secularist, I don't have a problem with our calendar's being based on the names and supposed dates of Germanic, Roman, and Christian deities. On the contrary, I believe the shared European cultural heritage it demonstrates is worth celebrating. But could I please endorse one minor tweak?
Yes, by all means let's keep the Germanic and Roman days and months, and the Christian years. They are, after all, indelible stamps of our cultural origins. But our culture continues to evolve. Pope Gregory's prime driver for revising the calendar was a religious one: he wanted to ensure that Easter fell at roughly the same time each year. But his calendar has now been embraced by Christians and non-Christians alike.
So can we at least drop the Anno Domini? Many—perhaps the majority—of the people who use the Gregorian Calendar today do not accept Jesus as their dominus: their master. Internationally, we no longer set our clocks by parochial Greenwich Mean Time, but by Universal Time (even though they're the same thing). So can't we do the same for our dates?
Let's celebrate the international, secular adoption of Pope Gregory's calendar, as many academics already do, by dropping the parochial A.D., referring instead to our secular Common Era: C.E.
Having put the completed third draft of my book to one side for several months (like you're supposed to), I re-read it a couple of weeks ago with fresh eyes, and decided a fourth draft was in order.
I've had a change of heart, you see. Early on, working on my first draft, I realised that I needed to make a decision about the general style of my book. Specifically, should I use formal language, or less formal? For example, as the book is written in the first person, should I use the formal I am, or the more chatty I'm? I plumped for the former. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
But, re-reading my third draft, I decided my book comes across as a bit too formal in places. The formal language sounds like an affectation at times. Which it is, I suppose. I'm not writing a dissertation, for Pete's sake! I'm supposed to be writing about a place I love, and about subjects which fascinate me: science, history and nature. It's hard to sound enthusiastic when you're being formal. I want my book to sound a bit more like me.
I blame my fancy education. They took the English language very seriously at our school. From Day One, they had us parsing sentences, separating subjects from objects, adverbs from adjectives. They taught us how to punctuate: the correct use of apostrophes, parenthetic commas, Oxford commas, and semicolons. And heaven help you, should you start a sentence with the word And, or, as I once did, refer to a refrigerator as a fridge!
The worst crime, though (with the possible exception of ending a sentence with a preposition) was to write a sentence that wasn't actually a sentence. Like this. And this. Try that in your homework, and expect to see the abbreviation N.A.S. (complete with full-stops, obviously) written in large, red letters alongside it in the margin: Not ASentence.
I'm very grateful to have been taught English so rigorously at school. These things are important. But, at times, my education gets in the way. I know the rules, and I'm loath to break them.
But then it occurred to me, re-reading my third draft, that I don't worry about using informal language when I write to friends. I've written over 600 letters to my good friend Stense over the last twenty-three years. I don't agonise over grammar when I'm writing to her. Well, I do, but nowhere near as much. I just sit down and write. It's easy. I've had lots of practice. And I always end up sounding like me.
So I've started my fourth draft, making it a little less formal. I've taken to writing I've instead of I have when it seems appropriate—which is most of the time. I'm trying to cut back on my beloved em dashes and semicolons—wonderful punctuation marks, but often, in my case at least, just a lazy way of breaking up over-long sentences. I'm trying to make my sentences shorter. Even if, sometimes, they're no longer proper sentences. I haven't thrown the rule book out the window, but I'm treating the rules more like guidelines these days.
And, the good thing is, I think my book is reading better for it. So far at least.
Now, if only I could stop agonising over the relative merits of it's not versus it isn't!
I recently wrote to The London Review of Books in response to an article by the classicist Mary Beard (@wmarybeard), in which she describes the ‘well-known conundrum’ of big, porous jars set into Ancient Roman bar counters. In my letter, I hypothesise a possible solution to the conundrum. I give a fuller account of my hypothesis, including a photograph I took in Pompeii of such jars, on the Friends of Charles Darwin blog.
Mary Beard describes the conundrum of the big storage jars set into the shop counters of Pompeii and Herculaneum: they were unglazed, which would surely make them unsuitable for the storage of food or drink (LRB, 3 January). In some hot countries, such as Spain and India, porous pots are still used to cool water. In a process similar to human sweating, water stored in the pots slowly seeps to the surface and evaporates, thereby cooling the pot and the water that remains inside. In a more modern, African take on this old idea, glazed food-storage pots are placed in wet sand inside larger porous pots to make solar-powered ‘pot-in-pot refrigerators’. Perhaps Mary Beard’s enigmatic jars were the Roman equivalent of wine chillers.
From p.171 of Off the Record, the wartime diary of the author and journalist Charles Graves:
May 30th. 
Took Peggy to H- on the 1.15 a.m. from Paddington. […]
H- has the best beach for about 100 miles in any direction, and is directly opposite Ireland. H-is full of evacuated children from Merseyside, Liverpool University students doing theses, various foreign refugees, and others who have skipped from danger areas, like London. The greens on the [golf] course were in good condition. Local regulations about showing lights are not very strict. This despite the fact that the German Bomber Command aircraft always go up Cardigan Bay to attack Liverpool, and thus get a “fix” on the naked lights visible in various parts of Merioneth, including H-. H- has had no bombs nor sirens. Found four evacuee kids at Erinfa—Leslie the blonde, Norman the brunette, David the red-head, and Edwin just mouse colour. As a test of observation for them I hid eight pennies, three sixpences and a shilling round the terrace of the house. Leslie the blonde found practically all of them. Played penny bridge, and went to bed to the hoot of the owls. Thank goodness there are none of that much over-praised bird the nightingale round here.
Erinfa was the Graves' family home, where Charles's mother—a German—Amalie Elizabeth Sophie von Ranke, was doing her bit for the British war effort by taking on the four ‘evacuee kids’;
the blond evacuee, Leslie, is my Uncle Les (then aged 7);
the brunette evacuee, Norman, is my dad (then aged 6).
I managed to track down a second-hand copy of Off the Record a few months back, and, yesterday, left it as a surprise Christmas present at my dad's. By a strange coincidence, unaware of the present, Dad was reminiscing about his days as an evacuee over whisky on Sunday evening. He is planning to pump his older brother for more reminiscences over Christmas lunch at my sister's place this afternoon.
I don't know the Lake District particularly well. I've taken a handful of short holidays up there over the years, but, to be honest, I've always thought of the place as a bit touristy and—dare I say it?—twee. Don't get me wrong, it is an undeniably stunning part of the world, but I always preferred the more rugged, less crowded Yorkshire Dales.
But the Lake District will always hold a special place in my heart thanks to one particular lake. Well, no, not a particular lake, but the imaginary amalgam of lakes that comprises 'The Lake' of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons series of books.
I loved the Swallows and Amazons books as a child. I never got to read them all, because not all of the books were available in my local library, but I did read all the ones set in the Lake District, and a couple of the others. I was so jealous of the Walker, Blackett and Callum children, who were allowed to go off on adventures, climb mountains, and sail boats without any need for adult supervision. Best of all, though, was their being allowed to make camp and cook on open fires. And the best campsite of all was, as anyone who has read the books will know, 'Wild Cat Island'.
And there the island was, exactly as I imagined it when I first read Swallows and Amazons three and a half decades ago:
I can't begin to describe how ridiculously thrilled I was, finally to set eyes on this small, tree-covered islet. The natives would have you believe that it is named Peel Island, but there was no mistaking Ransome's Wild Cat Island: I could even make out the rocks concealing the secret harbour, where the eponymous Swallows moored their boat.
Sadly, there was no sign of any Amazonian pirates. Doubtless they were anchored in a secret cove somewhere, planning their next attack.
In the latest edition of The London Review of Books, James C. Scott reviews three books about China's disastrous 1958–61 famine.
How can you possibly convey the horror of a famine which led to the deaths of an estimated 30–45 million people, and whose primary cause was the political ideology of an all-powerful leader (Mao)? Scott takes a leaf out of W.G. Sebald's book by including an understated anecdote that gives us pause for thought:
In the Great Leap Famine, the Entomological Research Institute of China's Academy of Sciences helpfully supplied lists of the protein and fat content of many insects: dried larva of the corn borer, dried fly maggot, dried dung beetle, termites, locusts and silkworm pupae, together with recipes for their preparation.
This sentence, complete with Sebaldian silkworm reference, could have been lifted straight out of The Rings of Saturn. In many ways, a matter-of-fact aside about bureaucratic advice on maggot and silkworm nutrition tells us far more about the famine than detailed descriptions and statistics ever could.