Richard Carter A merged feed of Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters and Reviews from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Cuddy’ by Benjamin Myers Wed, 10 Apr 2024 14:30:27 +0100 ‘Cuddy’ by Benjamin Myers

I very much looked forward to reading Benjamin Myers’ multi-prize-winning novel Cuddy, having enjoyed his earlier novels The Gallows Pole and The Offing. I felt a particular connection with this novel, as the titular ‘Cuddy’ is the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon monk/bishop St Cuthbert, whose remains lie buried in the magnificent monument constructed in his memory, Durham Cathedral. I occasionally studied (but mostly drank) at Durham University in the mid-1980s, visited Cuthbert’s grave on several occasions, and once attended a fascinating talk about St Cuthbert by the historian Michael Wood, who had been more than a little responsible—along with J.R.R. Tolkien—for my interest in Dark-Age history (a far cooler name than the nowadays more acceptable term, early-medieval history).

I have to say, I was pretty blown away by Cuddy, reading it in two days flat during a birthday break in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s a highly experimental novel, feeling something akin to a multi-media experience, mixing poetry, prayer, play-script, journal entries, and prose. The four ‘books’ of the novel span a 1,300-year period, and are told from numerous viewpoints, including: a member of the entourage of the band of medieval monks who moved Cuthbert’s corpse around the North, trying to keep it safe from Viking raiders; a woman brewer who kept the stonemasons lubricated during the construction of Durham Cathedral; a Victorian antiquarian called to the inhospitable North to witness the opening of Cuthbert’s tomb; and a modern-day Durham lad trying to make ends meet while caring for his dying mother. Although the stories are fictional, they are set amid real historical events, and are loosely threaded together down the ages through familiar characters, who are presumably the descendants of people we met earlier.

As you will have gathered by now, Cuddy is extremely difficult to describe. It is also extremely good.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I live near Benjamin Myers, and have met him on several occasions. We also follow each other on social media.

Rich Text newsletter No. 34: ‘Out-of-date before I’d written a word’ Tue, 02 Apr 2024 16:00:00 +0100 Rich Text- compact

2ND APRIL, 2024


…from the Yorkshire Dales, where we’re marking my latest in an alarmingly long line of birthdays. I’m not much of a fan of getting older, but I suppose the alternative is far worse—and it’s a great excuse to re-visit some favourite haunts.

Dry valley above Malham Cove.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

  1. The women who found liberation in seaweed
    How a shared love of algae got a community of women hooked on marine science.
  2. Strike at the knee: Italy, 1943
    Despite not being particularly interested in military history, I found Malcolm Gaskill’s account of the gruelling Italian campaign of the Second World War absorbing—not least because of the quality of the writing.
  3. Last summer, I went on a philosophical guided walk with local philosopher Paul Knights. In a recent post, Philosophy of Landscape: narrative, ethics, welfare, Paul explores how philosophy can help deepen and enrich our understanding and appreciation of landscape.
  4. Geologists reject declaration of Anthropocene epoch
    After protracted, occasionally heated debate, the International Union of Geological Sciences has decided not to recognise a new geological epoch marked by our own species’ impact on the planet. But the term Anthropocene is unlikely to go away. For more analysis, see: Golden spike or no golden spike—we are living in the Anthropocene.
  5. How did the Big Bang get its name? Here’s the real story
    Astronomer Fred Hoyle supposedly coined the catchy term to ridicule the theory of the Universe’s origins. 75 years on, it’s time to set the record straight. (True story, my great-aunt and -uncle, Lucy and Fred, once bumped into Fred Hoyle while visiting Jodrell Bank Observatory. They recognised him off the telly. Apparently, he was utterly charming, chatting happily with them at length.)
  6. Einstein on the run: how the world’s greatest scientist hid from Nazis in a Norfolk hut
    How the physicist’s refuge from assassins on a British heath changed the course of history.
  7. Maria Popova’s vivid life in the margins
    The writer and editor discusses 17 years of The Marginalian website, and her ‘compassion for consciousness’.
  8. Collections: the journey of the Roman gladius and other swords
    It’s not just species that evolve; cultural artefacts can, too. This piece explores the evolution of the famous Roman gladius sword.
  9. The end of species
    This excerpt from a new book explores the importance and difficulties of assigning names to species.

Recent reading

‘Buried’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

Buried: an alternative history of the first millennium in Britain by Prof. Alice Roberts

A fascinating read, exploring various funerary rituals observed in first-millennium Britain, and the ways in which we might interpret them.

More book reviews »


I’ve written before about the unavoidably provisional nature of factual writing, of how you can never hope to write definitively on any subject, and of how new facts will continue to emerge. I take comfort from this: you can’t hope to cover everything about your chosen topic, so cut yourself some slack and get on with it!

My latest, spookily timely, example of new facts emerging came last month. In the most recent edition of my Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter, I wrote about an intriguing new study that finally seems to explain why moths and other night-flying insects are ruinously drawn to artificial lights. On reflection, I realised this would make an excellent topic to write about in my Darwin book. So I made notes on the scientific paper, linked in some other notes I’d made previously from other sources, did some more digging and note-making, and eventually put together a detailed chapter outline. As I sat down to start writing the chapter the next day, the very first post I saw on one of my social media feeds leapt out of the screen and slapped me in the face. It announced a new paper, published that very morning, describing how certain moths seem to be evolving to lessen the likelihood of their encountering artificial lights. It turned out the moths used in this study were the very same specimens that had been used in the paper I had mentioned in my newsletter. Furthermore, the person posting the social-media link to the new paper was one of the authors on both papers.

So, my chapter was out-of-date before I’d written a word of it! Which meant, of course, I had to read the new paper. Which led me down yet another research rabbit-hole. Which called for a complete revision of my chapter outline… Which, I’m glad to say, resulted in a far better chapter.

I can’t help feeling it would be a whole lot easier writing fiction!

And finally…

Thanks as always for making time to read this newsletter. If you enjoyed it, please tell your friends.

Take care, and see you next time.


Book review: ‘The Fran Lebowitz Reader’ Fri, 29 Mar 2024 13:23:17 +0000 ‘The Fran Lebowitz Reader’

Having watched (three times, in rapid succession) Martin Scorsese’s wonderful seven-part TV documentary Pretend It’s a City (Netflix) about his close friend the humorist and raconteur Fran Lebowitz, I was very much looking forward to reading this collection of her old humorous journalism pieces.

I have to say, I was pretty disappointed. The pieces have occasional laugh-out-loud moments—especially when Lebowitz is talking about smoking—but they come in nothing like the density of Pretend It’s a City. Lebowitz makes copious use of listicles, which are entertaining enough in small doses, but soon start to jar when read one after the other.

This is a fun enough collection, but I was hoping for and expecting better.

(But, if you haven’t watched Pretend It’s a City, do yourself a favour and do so immediately.)

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 21 • 1873’ Fri, 29 Mar 2024 08:37:53 +0000 ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 21 • 1873’

The twenty-first volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1873.

During this year, Darwin continued to deal with correspondence resulting from the publication the previous year of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. 1873 also saw him beginning to revise The Descent of Man with the help of his son George. But most of Darwin’s efforts during the year came from the resumption of his botanical studies into insectivorous plants and pollination.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1873 include:

  • Darwin expressing some scepticism over Francis Galton’s plans for a register of naturally gifted individuals, while stating ‘the object seems a grand one’.
  • Darwin (who was extremely prone to scope-creep in his projects) realising “I must remember that I am growing old, otherwise I shd. go on forever with Drosera as I did with barnacles”.
  • Darwin writing on the relative importance of external conditions and natural selection in causing new adaptations.
  • Darwin thanking Alfred Russel Wallace for reviewing The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals while standing his ground regarding Wallace’s criticisms. In reply, Wallace concedes he might be wrong on some points.
  • Darwin adding his name to a petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, urging that the herbarium and library at Kew Gardens not be moved to the new Natural History Museum (as proposed by Richard Owen).
  • Darwin defending his view that all existing human languages could be “derived from a common stock, far more simple or less developed than any one now spoken”.
  • Darwin forwarding an account to the journal Nature of a family of dogs all scared of butchers.
  • Darwin later sending Nature an anecdote of a coach-horse that had gone blind, but still stopped at public houses. He believes his own horse might have a homing instinct, and marvels at the homing instinct of turtles at Ascension Island.
  • Darwin describing Dionaea (the Venus fly-trap) as “the most wonderful plant in the world”.
  • Darwin asking John Scott Burdon Sanderson to investigate possible (nerve-like) electric currents in Dionaea. (Sanderson was so excited at detecting such currents that he telegraphed Darwin with the news.)
  • Darwin’s fan letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, commander of a ‘black regiment’ during the U.S. Civil War. (They had previously met, but Darwin hadn’t known about Higginson’s former role.)
  • Darwin, having discovered a women’s suffrage supporter intends to present a petition to the House of Commons on which Darwin’s is the only signature, asking for his name be erased unless other signatures are added.
  • Darwin writing to Marian Evans (George Eliot), asking if it would be all right for his daughter to call at her home. (In a postscript, he says his wife has complained that he hasn’t asked if they might call as well, “but I tell that I still have some shreds of modesty”.) See also Evans’s reply.
  • Darwin providing some information about giant tortoises collected from the Galápagos Islands during the Beagle voyage.
  • Darwin writing an affectionate letter to Thomas Henry Huxley, explaining that eighteen of Huxley’s friends have organised a collection for him to help him out of his financial difficulties.
  • Huxley’s overwhelmed, grateful reply, in which he admits he had been having a nervous breakdown, going on to say, “Have I said a word of appreciation for your own letter? I shall keep it for my children that their children may know what manner of man their father’s friend was & why he loved him.”
  • Darwin referring to himself as (recently widowed) geologist Charles Lyell’s “old & true disciple”.
  • In response to a questionnaire sent to noted scientists by Francis Galton, Darwin attempting to assess his own talents and influences.
  • Darwin being sent an anecdote of supposed spontaneous generation of life in rotten Easter eggs!
  • Darwin sending comments on a book about hay-fever, politely pointing out to the author that he might not be fully aware that wind- and insect-pollinated plants have different types of pollen. (See also. the author’s reply.)
  • Darwin’s son Francis sending an account of himself and his fiancée counting the nectar holes made in flowers by bees.
  • Darwin agreeing for his name to be included among patrons of a cat show, but jokingly advising against it on the grounds that “people may refuse to go & admire a lot of atheistical cats!”
  • Darwin’s famous letter to Karl Marx, thanking him for sending a copy of Das Kapital. (For more on this letter, see my FAQ article Didn't Karl Marx offer to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin?.)
  • Darwin writing to his son George, urging him to reconsider before publishing an essay on religion.
  • Darwin admitting, “It is precious easy to suggest experiments, & often most difficult, as I know to my cost, to carry them out.”
  • George Darwin’s account of attending a séance.
  • The new local vicar objecting to Darwin’s application for the continued use of the school room as a working men’s reading room.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Buried’ by Prof. Alice Roberts Fri, 22 Mar 2024 15:15:33 +0000 ‘Buried’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

My computer-based notes system takes a hammering whenever I read one of Prof. Alice Roberts’s books. She writes on subjects of interest to me which have little to do with my current major project, but which I suspect might crop up in future projects. So, while reading this book, in among my hundreds of notes about Charles Darwin, I found myself making notes about why ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a problematic term; how high levels of strontium in excavated skeletons can be an indicator that the people in question used seaweed for fertiliser; how the etymologies of the words ‘pagan’ and ‘heathen’ both refer to people who lived in the countryside; and how ancient DNA can be used to identify specific pathogens associated with different plagues. (I know, I probably should get out more.)

As with all of Roberts’s books, Buried is a fascinating read, exploring various funerary rituals observed in first-millennium Britain, and the various ways in which we might interpret them. Why, for example, would a significant number of Romano-British burials involve decapitation? And why were certain ancient burials accompanied by blingy grave-goods, and others not?

Roberts discusses various cultures associated with this period—Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon, Viking—and how archaeology has brought into question certain historical accounts and interpretations. In a fascinating section near the end, she explains how the long-standing ‘culture-history’ archaeological paradigm has been challenged by ‘cultural diffusion’ theory. In other words, are changes in material culture over time (artefacts, funerary practices, etc.) an indication of the latest ‘wave’ of new settlers arriving on the scene, or are they an indication of people adopting new ideas from elsewhere? Or perhaps, as seems more likely, is it sometimes one, sometimes the other, and sometimes a combination of the two?

As with its predecessor, Ancestors, Buried comes highly recommended by this reader. I look forward to reading (and making copious notes from) the final book of this trilogy, Crypt.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Tree House’ by Kathleen Jamie Wed, 13 Mar 2024 21:41:00 +0000 ‘The Tree House’ by Kathleen Jamie

I love Kathleen Jamie’s prose writing so much that I’ve even taken to reading her poetry. That’s right: me, reading poetry. As with her prose, I greatly enjoyed her poetry collection The Overhaul for its no-nonsense, unpretentious, unromantic take on the natural world, and our place in it. This earlier volume is more of the same.

As with The Overhaul, a small number of the poems included in The Tree House were in Scots dialect. These did nothing for me, although I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the target audience. But I enjoyed the other poems very much indeed. I particularly liked one about kittiwake feathers found washed up on a beach, and how studying individual feathers can't tell you much about the birds as a whole.

A lovely book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review:  ‘The Golden Mole’ by Katherine Rundell Sun, 10 Mar 2024 14:47:04 +0000 ‘The Golden Mole’ by Katherine Rundell

This is a lovely idea for a book: a collection of short essays on remarkable, mostly endangered species. Nothing too heavy or definitive; simply a few interesting facts about the species in question, some personal thoughts and observations, then on to the next species.

A few of the interesting facts that caught my attention:

  • wombats could out-sprint the fastest human, fight with their backsides, and have cube-shaped poo;
  • Greenland sharks can live for several hundred years, and eat their siblings while still in the womb;
  • hermit crabs queue in line in order of size so each can move into the next largest's vacated shell;
  • the first confirmation that birds migrate over great distances came in 1822, when a stork arrived in Germany with an African spear embedded in it.

An enjoyable, untaxing read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872’ Tue, 27 Feb 2024 13:35:56 +0000 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 20 • 1872

The twentieth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1872.

During this year, Darwin continued to deal with correspondence resulting from the publication the previous year of The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. 1872 also saw the publication of the sixth and final (and, at Darwin’s request, cheaper) edition of The Origin of Species (from which the prefix On was finally removed from the title), and the publication of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. It also saw the resumption of his studies into earthworms and insectivorous plants.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1872 include:

  • Darwin’s son William reporting measuring ridges and furrows and the depth of Stonehenge stones to assist in Darwin’s earthworm studies.
  • Darwin asking his niece Lucy Caroline Wedgwood to measure wormholes with knitting needles.
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker worrying about Thomas Henry Huxley, and thinking he should be put in charge of setting up the new Natural History Museum.
  • Darwin finally getting so pissed off with St George Jackson Mivart that he requests no further correspondence from him, later comparing the degradation of his relationship with Mivart to that with another former friend, Richard Owen. (For more on this topic, see Newsletter No. 18).
  • Darwin attempting to answer a complex question on butterfly mimicry, and a lengthy reply from Raphael Meldola, invoking both natural selection and sexual selection.
  • Bartholomew James Sulivan sending news of former HMS Beagle shipmates.
  • Darwin finishing updating the sixth (and final) edition of On the Origin of Species, being anxious the book should be cheaply priced, with its pages cut.
  • Darwin receiving a weird letter concerning the scientific mystic Andrew Jackson Davis.
  • Darwin providing a preface for a new French edition of On the Origin of Species, taking the opportunity to distance himself from Mme. Clémence Auguste Royer’s earlier editions.
  • Asa Gray, who knows Darwin so well, urging him not to get sidetracked into some new project until he has published his research on insectivorous plants. (Gray was America’s foremost botanist, so somewhat biased.)
  • Darwin agreeing with Anton Dohrn that “the cause of Wallace’s sad falling away” was his attempt to combine natural selection with spiritualism.
  • Darwin modestly suggesting that writing The Descent of Man was possibly as a mistake, “but any how it will pave the way for some better work”.
  • Friedrich Hildebrand pointing out that Darwin’s works have inspired questions and observations nobody would have dreamt of before.
  • Darwin claiming evolution (as opposed to natural selection) is now generally accepted throughout Europe, except in France.
  • William Darwin sending his father a holder for Russian cigarettes.
  • Darwin saying many British scientists disagree with his idea of female choice in sexual selection, thinking it absurd.
  • Darwin writing, “As far as I can judge, very few naturalists believe in [sexual selection]. I may have erred on many points, and extended the doctrine too far, but I feel a strong conviction that sexual selection will hereafter be admitted to be a powerful agency.”
  • Darwin advising his sceptical friend Thomas Campbell Eyton that, if he keeps testing facts, he’s likely to become a convert to the idea of evolution, if not natural selection.
  • Francis Galton reporting he has attended a séance and cannot explain what he saw, but describing spiritualism as ‘rubbish’—apparently, Benjamin Franklin put in an appearance! (A decidedly less sceptical Galton later invites Darwin to attend a séance, but Darwin declines.)
  • Darwin giving detailed instructions for drawing an aggressive dog.
  • Darwin receiving a bizarre letter about Burmese woman who allegedly became pregnant with an ape.
  • Darwin defending his views on human evolution, citing his former friend St George Jackson Mivart in support of our relationship with simians.
  • Roland Trimen writing about Richard Owen’s inconsistency on the subject of evolution, and his jealousy.
  • Darwin adding his name to a petition for a UK-US copyright agreement.
  • Darwin providing writing advice: “Few authors, I think, strike out half enough; & I am not half severe enough on my own writings.”
  • Darwin declaring “the subject of music is beyond me”.
  • Darwin being delighted with Fritz Müller’s similar thoughts to his own regarding bees and sexual selection. He encloses a paper he wrote concerning bees’ flight paths, of which only the version Müller had translated into German survives.
  • Darwin thanking Charles Lyell for sending a copy of the 11th edition of his Principles of Geology. Darwin differs with Lyell over his views of natural selection, observing: “And I suppose that you will admit that the difference in the brain of a clever & dull man is not much more wonderful than the difference in the length of the noses of any two men.”
  • A letter from Samuel Butler explaining that his novel Erewhon has been misinterpreted by some as a satire of On the Origin of Species.
  • Darwin asking his son to ask the London Zoo superintendent to put a snake in an enclosure with a porcupine to see how the porcupine reacts, and the superintendent’s reply.
  • Darwin’s great American friend Asa Gray quoting him as being a reader of ‘trashy novels’.
  • Darwin on recognising one’s own knowledge limitations: “I fear that a man is most apt to fall into error exactly where from his ignorance he feels no doubts.”
  • - Darwin writing to Alfred Russel Wallace: “I hate controversy, chiefly perhaps because I do it badly; but as Dr Bree accuses you of “blundering”, I have thought myself bound to send the enclosed letter to Nature;”
  • Darwin on his former friend Richard Owen : “I used to be ashamed of hating him so much, but now I will carefully cherish my hatred & contempt to the last day of my life.” He later confesses, “I long to meet him to have the pleasure of cutting him dead.”
  • (Too much information…) Darwin ordering a new enema, subsequently asking for one with a shorter nozzle!
  • Darwin being impressed by Francis Galton’s recent letter to a journal about the inefficacy of prayer.
  • Darwin’s publisher John Murray expressing surprise at the success of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, blaming Darwin’s modesty for misleading him.
  • William Duppa Crotch writing about a recent huge lemming migration in Norway.
  • Darwin sending his old university friend John Maurice Herbert a copy of The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, reminiscing about Cambridge days.
  • Darwin writing about his love for his dog Polly.
  • Darwin writing to Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll), thanking him for offering the use of Dodgson’s photograph of the girl Flora Rankin. (He did not make use of it.)
  • A correspondent reporting an anecdote about a young man who could vomit at will. (It sounds to have been something of a party-piece.)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘W. G. Sebald in Context’ by Uwe Schütte (ed.) Tue, 27 Feb 2024 07:32:50 +0000 ‘W. G. Sebald in Context’ by Uwe Schütte (ed.)

As something of a Sebald fanboy, I’ll happily read any book by or about the late W.G. Sebald.

W.G. Sebald in Context is a fascinating, outrageously priced collection of academic essays about Sebald’s life, work and influences. With a couple of exceptions, the essays were perfectly accessible to this non-academic, providing a nicely balanced collection. There were even occasional criticisms of Sebald.

I was particularly interested to read about Sebald’s admiration for non-conformists and eccentrics—a theme which, it had not occurred to me before, runs throughout his work. I was also pleased to see occasional referenced to Sebald’s humour, which I think tends to be overlooked.

This book probably won’t be of interest to the general reader, but is a must-read for all my fellow Sebald nerds.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Rich Text newsletter No. 33: ‘Pottering with pen and paper’ Fri, 09 Feb 2024 16:00:00 +0000 Rich Text- compact



I recently enjoyed Roland Allen’s entertaining book The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper (see Recent Reading below). One of my ideas for this year is to go a bit more ‘analogue’. I like the idea of having somewhere to potter with pen and paper, capturing passing thoughts and observations, playing with vague ideas, maybe producing the occasional fragment of text that might be developed further. Doodles might even be involved.

Almost two years ago, I treated myself to a gorgeous, long-coveted green leather notebook cover, ideally sized to enfold my notebook of choice, the hardback A5 Leuchtturm1917. But my perverse phobia of ruining notebooks by writing in them immediately kicked in, so my gorgeous notebook has been sitting unused on my desk ever since.

My notebook

To overcome this ridiculous mental blockage, I began to collect quotes about analogue note-making from favourite writers and musicians. The idea was, once I’d gathered a few inspirational quotes, I could transcribe them with uncharacteristic neatness into my notebook as a way of breaking the ice:

I sat on a damp rock, took my notebook from my inner pocket, made earnest notes:
—Kathleen Jamie, Findings

Then there are the scores of notebooks, their contents calling—confession, revelation, endless variations of the same paragraph—and piles of napkins scrawled with incomprehensible rants. Dried-out ink bottles, encrusted nibs, cartridges for pens long gone, mechanical pencils emptied of lead. Writer’s debris.
—Patti Smith, M Train

I sat at a table near the open terrace door, my papers and notes spread out around me, drawing connections between events that lay far apart but which seemed to me to be of the same order.
—W.G. Sebald, Vertigo

Notebooks out, plagiarists!
—Mark E Smith, The War Against Intelligence

It didn’t work, of course. My untidy transcriptions looked like a bunch of random quotations about note-making. So I reassigned that particular Leuchtturm1917 to some as-yet-unspecified future use, slotted a new one into my leather cover, and, after much agonising, on 1st January this year, finally scribbled down a few bullet-points about how I intend to use the notebook in future. I didn’t try to write anything profound—that was the whole point—but it was a start at least.

(I haven’t written anything in the notebook since, obviously, but it can only be a matter of time.)

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

  1. Can your diary be a bestseller? (audio)
    Talking of notebooks, an interview with author Amy Liptrot on keeping a hand-written diary, turning it into two memoirs, and having one memoir turned into a film.
  2. Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize awarded: we can read the scrolls!
    Thanks to high-tech scans, sophisticated software, and a lot of hard work, part of a scroll carbonised in the Vesuvius eruption on 79AD has finally been read.
  3. Ancient steppe herders brought higher risk of MS to northern Europe
    A study of ancient DNA shows the bronze age Yamnaya people spread a gene that was presumably useful to them, but which carries an increased risk of multiple sclerosis in their European descendants.
  4. Petrifying juices: fossilised
    On the history of fossils, how they were interpreted, how they’re formed, and how they’re looked after.
  5. The story of a drum
    My mate science historian Thony Christie on a Vietnamese Đông Sơn drum that came into his family’s possession.
  6. Science and history cannot afford to be indifferent to each other
    How scientists and historians would benefit from engaging more with one another.
  7. Learning to see goldcrests
    Scotland-based Irish writer Chris Arthur’s charming essay on Europe’s smallest bird.
  8. A sudoku secret to blow your mind (video)
    On the ‘Phistomephel Ring’, a hidden feature of all sudoku puzzles.
  9. Shadows & Reflections: Kevin Boniface (audio-visual)
    For Kevin Boniface, 2023 was a year of plastic union jacks, decorative aggregates and golfing sweaters.

Recent reading

‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen

The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper by Roland Allen
An entertaining history of notebooks, their uses, and their users.

More book reviews »

And finally…

Thanks as always for making time to read this newsletter. If you enjoyed it, please tell your friends.

Take care, and see you next time.


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Book review: ‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen Sun, 04 Feb 2024 14:21:47 +0000 ‘The Notebook’ by Roland Allen

As someone with something of a notebook habit, I expected to enjoy this book very much indeed. I was not to be disappointed.

Roland Allen has produced an entertaining history of notebooks, each chapter dedicated to different aspects of their development and use. He takes us from the earliest surviving example of a notebook—a Bronze Age wax-tablet affair recovered from a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey—through to more modern interpretations in the form of bullet journals and intensive care unit patient diaries.

We encounter many different types of notebooks, including papyrus codices, accountants’ ledgers, waste books, Florentine zibaldoni, common-place books, diaries and journals, recipe books, music books, police officers’ notebooks, artists’ sketchbooks, scientists’ notebooks, erasable ‘table books’, friendship books, and ships’ logs. We are also told some fascinating stories about numerous confirmed or likely notebook users, including French nobleman Nicolas Fouquet (whose notebooks were responsible for his ultimate downfall), Leonardo da Vinci, Erasmus, Michel de Montaigne, William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Samuel Pepys, Carl Linnaeus, Herman Melville, Albrecht Dürer, Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Béla Bartók, Ernest Hemingway, Bruce Chatwin, Patricia Highsmith, Agatha Christie, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan, Francis Ford Coppola, and, of course, Charles Darwin.

Me admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C
Peak geekery: a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’ and ‘notebook nerd’ admiring Darwin’s notebooks B & C.

In addition to these high-profile notebook users, Allen has also unearthed some less celebrated figures who either made good use of notebooks, or whose notebooks subsequently proved most useful to scientists and academics. For example, I was particularly interested by an initiative to trawl old ships’ logs to extract historical weather records. And as a fan of Sir Thomas Browne, I was also interested to learn about his daughter’s common-place book.

The Notebook: a history of thinking on paper is a fabulous read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen Sun, 04 Feb 2024 14:19:29 +0000 ‘Mansfield Park’ by Jane Austen

In 2022, to honour a drunken deal, my sister-in-law and I bought each other copies of books we greatly admire. So she received some Kathleen Jamie, and I ended up with the complete novels of Jane Bloody Austen. There was no way I was going to read all of those in one go, so I decided to read one novel a year. In 2022 I read Sense and Sensibility, and in 2023 I read the uncannily similar Pride and Prejudice. This year, Mansfield Park could no longer be avoided…

Mansfield Park is fine, if you like that sort of thing. ‘That sort of thing’ being a bunch of toffs constantly visiting each other, scheming about who is going to end up marrying whom, and some of them being scandalised at the others’ rehearsing a supposedly scandalous play. But everything is resolved in the end. Phew!

(For what it’s worth, I did think this novel was better than its two more famous predecessors. Or, at least, it was until the melodramatics over the amateur theatrics kicked in. But whether my opinion counts for anything when it comes to Austen studies, I’ll leave you to judge.)

Already bracing myself for Emma in 2025!

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf, vol. 1’ Sun, 04 Feb 2024 14:13:47 +0000 ‘The Diary of Virginia Woolf volume 1’

I read this first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diaries many years ago, but never got round to collecting the full set, which has been out of print for some time. Fortunately, all five volumes have now been reissued by Granta, so I decided to start again from the beginning.

Virginia Woolf was a natural diarist, although it took her a time to get going. She herself points out that the diary entries in the second half of what was to become this first volume are more entertaining than the first. But, once she finds her voice in the diary, she seems to unload on to the page. Here’s how Woolf assessed her diary:

it has a slapdash & vigour, & sometimes hits an unexpected bulls eye. But what is more to the point is my belief that the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practise. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses & the stumbles. Going at such a pace as I do I must make the most direct & instant shots at my object, & thus have to lay hands on words, choose them, & shoot them with no more pause than is needed to put my pen in the ink. I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my casual half hours after tea.

This first volume takes us from 1915 to 1919, involving, among many other things, wartime air-raids, suffragettes, trouble finding replacement servants, walks in the countryside, working on book reviews, visits to the music hall, political meetings, purchases of country homes, the typesetting and printing of pages for the Hogarth Press, and lots and lots of opinion and gossip.

Being famously part of an extended ‘set’, Woolf knew an awful lot of people, so her diary contains a bewildering cast of characters. Here lies my only real complaint about this book: its editor, the late Virginia Nicholson, did a wonderful job researching, compiling, and annotating Woolf’s diary entries, and explaining who each character is the first time they’re encountered; but there’s no way of looking up the nicknames and initials Woolf uses in her diary entries. It’s easy to guess sometimes, but not others, especially when the people concerned haven’t been mentioned for some time. Some sort of glossary of nicknames and initials would have been extremely useful.

I enjoyed this first volume of Woolf’s diaries very much indeed, and look forward to working my way through the rest.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871’ Thu, 25 Jan 2024 14:48:46 +0000 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 19 • 1871

The nineteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1871.

It was a busy year for Darwin. In addition to the publication of The Descent of Man, which brought plenty of correspondence in its aftermath, the year also saw him working on his next book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and revising The Origin of Species for its sixth and final edition. (In this edition, Darwin dropped the word ‘On’ from the title.)

Darwin’s decision to revise Origin seems to have been made at short notice, being largely driven by his wish to address recent criticism by zoologist St George Jackson Mivart, which I describe in more detail in edition 18 of the Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Below are listed some highlights regarding Darwin’s disagreement with Mivart, followed by some more general highlights from his correspondence for 1871.

Highlights from Mivart-related correspondence

  • Darwin telling his best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, he thinks Mivart’s book against him is very good, but unfortunately theological.
  • Darwin congratulating Mivart for summarising the many objections to natural selection very well, but informing him he has answers to most.
  • Darwin asking Mivart to remove accusations of dogmatism on Darwin’s part from any future edition of his book, and Mivart undertaking to do so, or to explain his reasoning.
  • Mivart admitting his religious misgivings regarding natural selection, saying, ‘Unhappily the acceptance of your views means with many the abandonment of belief in God. […] I am persuaded you only seek the promotion of truth though I regret you do not more protect against these unnecessary irreligious deductions.’
  • Mivart saying he fully accepts evolution, but cannot accept Darwin’s ‘exaggerated view of the action of “Natural Selection”’.
  • Darwin expressing his frustration about Mivart’s book to Alexander Agassiz: “There is not one new point in it though many are admirably illustrated. Mivart never racks his brains to see, what can be fairly said on the opposite side, and he argues as if I had said nothing about the effects of use or the direct action of external conditions; though in another part of the book on those points almost every illustration is taken from my writings & observations.”
  • Darwin explaining to his friend Alfred Russel Wallace: “You will think me a bigot, when I say after studying Mivart, I was never before in my life so convinced of general (i.e. not in detail) truth of views in the Origin.”
  • Darwin approaching his publisher regarding re-printing a recent American paper critical of Mivart’s book.
  • Thomas Henry Huxley informing Darwin he has written article highly critical of Mivart, being clearly amused to find himself having to defend Catholic orthodoxy against Mivart, but going on to say, “I am sorry to be obliged to pitch into Mivart, who has done good work & is by no means a bad fellow.”

Highlights from other correspondence

  • Darwin unsuccessfully petitioning his neighbour and friend John Lubbock, M.P. for a telegraph to be installed in their village.
  • Darwin being anxious to finish writing The Descent of Man, writing: “Good God how glad I shall be when I can drive the whole of the confounded book out of my head—”.
  • Alfred Russel Wallace, who had come to differ with Darwin on a couple of important issues, expressing relief at Darwin’s ‘tenderness’ in The Descent of Man towards Wallace’s ‘heresies’.
  • Darwin famously imagining the origin of life ‘in some warm little pond’.
  • The director of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum sending his observations of crying and laughter in his patients, and later on blushing.
  • Darwin receiving a poem written in the style of Robert Burns.
  • Physicist John Tyndall comparing humans’ hairy nostrils with firemen’s respirators.
  • Darwin receiving a highly eccentric letter from ‘A child of God’.
  • Darwin receiving another letter from a religiously motivated correspondent comparing his appearance to that of an ape. (Darwin was suitably amused.)
  • The Russian translator of The Descent of Man, having to go to court to try to overturn a publishing ban by the Russian government.
  • Darwin being very pleased with Wallace’s review of The Descent of Man, and responding to Wallace’s thoughts on protective coloration.
  • Darwin planning a gift of around £25–£50 to his daughter Henrietta as thanks for her work on The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s views on vivisection.
  • Darwin sending condolences to Robert Chambers’ recently bereaved daughter, saying he had under appreciated Chambers’ anonymously published work, Vestiges of Creation.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of Pangenesis in the journal Nature in response to a recent paper by his half-cousin Francis Galton.
  • Darwin providing advice to the members of a new American club on how to go about studying biology: the importance of speculation, observation, and being prepared to drop pet theories once they have been shown to be false.
  • Darwin claiming so many people have now changed their minds to his way of thinking since the publication of On the Origin of Species, he believes they are likely to do the same in ten years regarding The Descent of Man.
  • Darwin’s affectionate letter to his daughter Henrietta Litchfield after her marriage, and her equally affectionate reply.
  • Darwin on avoiding writing on religious matters: “Many years ago I was strongly advised by a friend never to introduce anything about religion—in my works, if I wished to advance science in England; & this led me not to consider the mutual bearings of the two subjects. Had I foreseen, how much more liberal the world would become, I shd. perhaps have acted differently.”
  • Darwin speculating to his son Horace on what makes someone a discoverer of new things: “As far as I can conjecture, the art consists in habitually searching for the causes or meaning of everything which occurs. This implies sharp observation & requires as much knowledge as possible of the subjects investigated.”
  • A field report from Darwin’s son George, who has been measuring ancient ridges and furrow with his brother Horace to assist with Darwin’s earthworm studies.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Rich Text newsletter No. 32: ‘Gannets’ nostrils’ Fri, 05 Jan 2024 16:00:00 +0000 Rich Text- compact



Welcome to the relaunched Rich Text newsletter. Apologies for the extended break, but a lot of other stuff got in the way last year. For those of you receiving this newsletter for the first time, it’s the sibling of my Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter, with a bit less emphasis on Darwin, and more emphasis on science, history and nature, and my attempts to write about them.

Yesterday, I completed the first draft of a chapter about gannets for my book Through Darwin’s Eyes. I’ve never made a secret of the fact that, for me, the most enjoyable part of writing is the research. I love finding stuff out. But the research is the easy part. The hard work begins when you try to combine all the stuff you’ve found out about a particular topic into something that’s actually readable. It’s taken me a long time to realise that, rather than trying to cram all your research into a single piece of writing, it’s often best to leave one or two things out. Of course, in addition to improving readability, one other benefit of leaving things out is it leaves you with more stuff to write about on the same topic in future.

One surprising thing I learnt about gannets during my research—surprising, because I’ve photographed many gannets and never even noticed—is that they don’t have any nostrils. Evolution through natural selection has filled them in! This might prevent seawater being forced into the gannets’ lungs when they plunge into the sea from on high in pursuit of fish. Conversely, it might also prevent air from being forced out of the gannets’ lungs too quickly during the impact. Gannets lungs are connected to a system of internal air-sacks, like the air-sacks in cars, that provide protection as they hit the water. As is so often the case, biological features which seem clearly to be adaptations have more than one plausible explanation. But who says there need only be one explanation?

Gannet in flight
A gannet (note the absence of nostrils)

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

  1. A national evil
    A surprisingly interesting article about goitres and other obscure medical conditions that once plagued Switzerland, how they were eventually cured, and how their cause went back as far as the last ice age.
  2. On chestnuts roasting on an open fire
    The Christmas edition of Eleanor Konik’s newsletter about why biological blights are a big deal. (Eleanor uses the same note-making system as me, and puts it to excellent use writing articles like this one. I hope to start putting some of my own notes to similar good use in future editions of my newsletters.)
  3. The only artist in the world to embed gold leaves in glass
    A fascinating video describing the development of a new craft from older disciplines. The section near the end where Japanese artist Yamamoto Akane describes numerous costly failed attempts as she experimented like a scientist, over and over again, to develop and perfect her new techniques is inspirational.
  4. Against Voltaire, or, the shortest possible introduction to the Holy Roman Empire
    An excellent, light-hearted introduction to a subject I felt I needed to know more about (by which, I mean know something about): the Holy Roman Empire.
  5. What whale barnacles know
    How barnacles on whales have, for generations, been recording details about their hosts and their ocean home.
  6. My friend Thony Christie published a typically in-depth, profusely illustrated series of posts, Magnetic Variations, on the history of magnetism. It comes in four parts: I: Setting the sceneII: The Borough BrothersIII: Robert NormanIV: William Barlow.
  7. I’ve been hugely enjoying astrophysicist Dr Angela Collier’s YouTube channel. Her low-tech videos are intelligent, well-informed and funny (especially if you skip the occasional technical bits when she encourages you to do so). For starters, I recommend her video-essays: The aliens will not be siliconDark matter is not a theoryHumanoid robots belong in the trash. But do check out her entire back-catalogue.
  8. One of my favourite writers, Ronald Blythe, died age 100 last year. The Slightly Foxed podcast published a lovely tribute: Ronald Blythe: a life well written. (See also ‘Recent reading’ below.)
  9. Dame Rosemary Cramp
    An obituary of the archaeologist who led excavations at the twin monastery of Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, home to the Venerable Bede. I attended lectures by Prof. Cramp while at Durham University in the mid-1980s. She was a daunting figure. I’ll never forget the time someone tried unsuccessfully to stifle a sneeze in one of her lectures, leaving everyone desperate (but too daunted) to laugh… until 30 seconds later, when Cramp could no longer stifle her own laughter. I was surprised to learn from this obituary what an interesting character she was.
  10. Wood-Wide Web: do forest trees really ‘talk’ through underground fungi?
    Do popular claims about the ‘Wood-Wide Web’ stand up to scientific scrutiny? (Spoiler: Only partially.)

On my website

Some highlights from last year:

  • LRB letter: ‘The reaction economy’
    I had a letter published in the London Review of Books on Charles Darwin’s use of photography in his book about human and animal emotions.
  • Cocker, the walk
    In took a short walk with naturalist and writer Mark Cocker to admire the natural grandeur of a small wood on my local patch.
  • ‘Lesser’ truth v artistic licentiousness
    In which I object to the suggestions that paintings are somehow more accurate than photographs, and novels more truthful than factual writing.
  • Unpolished words
    Inspired by a YouTube video, it finally dawned on me that it’s not just ‘OK’ for the first drafts of your writing to be unpolished; in some respects, it’s a positive advantage.
  • 2023: a year in photos
    My thirteenth annual video slideshow.

Recent reading

‘Next to Nature’ by Ronald

Next to Nature by Ronald Blythe
Pure comfort-reading: an anthology of pieces from Ronald Blythe’s long-running Wormingford series. It was published to mark the veteran country writer’s 100th birthday. Sadly, Blythe died a short while later.

More book reviews »

And finally…

Long-time readers of these newsletters will know I’d become increasingly unhappy with Twitter over the last few years—even before the narcissistic buffoon took over. Over the last year or so, we’ve seen social media fragment into a number of rival silos. I’ve been trying them all out (see links below), and will continue to use them, but my intention in future is to concentrate my efforts on communicating through my newsletters. So thanks for subscribing, keep watching this space, and, as always, please encourage your friends to subscribe if you think they’d like my stuff.

Take care, and see you next time.


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2023: a year in photos Mon, 01 Jan 2024 00:01:00 +0000 For the last thirteen years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2023 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year’s slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Funk & Disorderly, is also by Yours Truly. I don’t have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Book review: ‘Days Like These’ by Brian Bilston Fri, 29 Dec 2023 16:03:00 +0000 ‘Days Like These‘ by Brian Bilston

This is a fun idea for a book: a poem for every day of the year, each poem having something to do with the day in question. The poem might celebrate the birthday of a famous historical figure, or the anniversary of a historical event. It might even mark one of the (mostly) spurious national/international days of… so beloved of marketing departments, and media desperate for copy.

I’m no great judge of poetry, but I think it’s fair to say Brian Bilston wasn’t expecting to win any major awards for this collection, but was mainly aiming to entertain. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of these poems are humorous, with no serious message—and there’s absolutely no harm in that.

The poem that amused me the most in this collection was, perhaps, the shortest. Indeed, it was so short that I found I had inadvertently memorised it after a single reading. It was written to mark U.S. ‘National Battery Day’ (18th February):

Oh dear, what can the matter be?
My phone has run out of batt

I don’t expect the Nobel Committee will be calling Bilston any time soon, but, it might be argued, harmless fun like this deserves more recognition.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The World-Ending Fire‘ by Wendell Berry Fri, 29 Dec 2023 15:18:42 +0000 ‘The World-Ending Fire‘ by Wendell Berry

I had never heard of veteran U.S. writer Wendell Berry. Then, in the space of a single month, I encountered three separate references to his work in works by other people I very much admire. Taking this as a good omen, I decided to give him a try.

I wish I could say I loved this book. Berry seems like the sort of chap I would enjoy meeting. Indeed, I very much enjoyed some of the essays is this collection. Berry is a talented writer with a distinctive voice. Early on, I found myself highlighting passages that struck me as particularly well expressed. For example:

There is also the Territory of historical self-righteousness: if we had lived south of the Ohio in 1830, we would not have owned slaves; if we had lived on the frontier, we would have killed no Indians, violated no treaties, stolen no land. The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generations we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably. The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably. Not to know that is, again, to be in error and to neglect essential work, and some of this work, as before, is work of the imagination. How can we imagine our situation or our history if we think we are superior to it?

Thought-provoking stuff. But, a short way into this book, and things started to grate. Some of the early chapters were pretty repetitive. This might be the fault of the editor of the collection, the writer Paul Kingsnorth, but I suspect not: Wendell Berry has a number of hobby-horses, and he will keep climbing on them: the importance of soil, land-use, self-sufficiency, and local communities; and the evils of consumerism. Nothing much to disagree with it here, but what started to grate was Berry's writing from a mostly unacknowledged highly privileged position: there are almost 8-billion people on this planet, and most of them, unlike Berry, can never hope to grow their own crops and raise their own livestock on their own private smallholdings, supported by a strong and vibrant local community.

Berry's rather blinkered views on the best way to sort out the undoubted mess we've made of our home planet grated all the more with his scorn for the idea of big problems requiring big solutions. He clearly distrusts modern science and technology, and seems to relish expressing Luddite views.

On a related topic, what also irked was Berry's use of a particular wily rhetorical device when making an argument. He likes to coin new phrases to encompass, as he sees them, different sets of people or world-views (e.g. ‘the Rational Mind’ versus ‘the Sympathetic Mind’). He then discusses how these newly coined groups are either misguided (those he disagrees with), or enlightened (those who think like him). This is a devious device because, as he has coined the new terms, we, his readers, are not in a position to question what, if anything, they mean, nor which sets of people or world-views, if any, they truly encompass. Berry has, in effect, defined his own straw-men, which, as we might expect, he easily demolishes.

I genuinely expected to love this book, and felt guilty not enjoying large sections of it. I even found myself skipping to the end of certain essays when they began to irritate far more than they should. Perhaps I just read it at the wrong time, when I wasn't in the mood, and a re-reading in a few years' time might find me less tetchy. But somehow I suspect not.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Rich Text / Friends of Charles Darwin newsletters… a note for existing subscribers Wed, 20 Dec 2023 16:27:01 +0000 Hello!

This note is intended for people who subscribed to either or both of my newsletters before December 2023. Those newsletters are:

  • Rich Text: My personal newsletter celebrating science, history and nature writing, and related topics.
  • The Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter: celebrating Charles Darwin and the grandeur in his view of life.

Due to circumstances beyond my control, both newsletters have been conspicuous by their absence during 2023. But moves are afoot…

  • I’m bringing both newsletters out of hiatus, and am taking the opportunity to have a bit of a revamp.
  • The service I previously used for sending out the newsletters (TinyLetter) is being scrapped, so I’m moving both newsletters and their existing subscribers to another service, Substack.
  • Apologies, but by default you’ll now start receiving both newsletters—even if you’ve previously only subscribed to one. Unfortunately, I have no control over this—but you do…
  • Obviously, I’d be delighted if you give both newsletters a try, but, if you click the ‘unsubscribe’ link at the bottom of any of the newsletter emails, you’ll be able to indicate which of my newsletters you do and don’t want to receive in future.
  • Please note: Although Substack allows authors to charge for newsletters, both of the above will remain free.

Thanks. It’s great to be back, and it’s going to be fun!


Book review: ‘Writing Landscape’ by Linda Cracknell Sun, 17 Dec 2023 11:53:46 +0000 ‘Writing Landscape’ by Linda Cracknell

I thoroughly enjoyed this short book. This is, perhaps, unsurprising, given I’m not above writing about landscape myself. The book comprises a collection of essays by Linda Cracknell, a number of which were previously published elsewhere. Cracknell shares some genuinely interesting thoughts on writing, in conjunction with entertaining accounts of visits to particular locations.

I’ve always liked the idea that essay writers write to find out what they themselves think about particular topics. Cracknell makes the equally interesting point that writing about particular landscapes forces writers to observe more closely:

The act of writing calls us to refresh our tired ways of noticing, and a writer perhaps has to look as patiently as a scientist, visual artist or naturalist does.

As someone currently writing a book about how looking at the world through Darwin’s eyes enables us to observe the natural world in new and better ways, I very much liked the idea of observing landscapes through writers’ eyes.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Napoleon’ by David A. Bell Sun, 17 Dec 2023 11:53:37 +0000 ‘Napoleon’ by David A Bell

I’m sure I can’t have been the first to find wry amusement in a book about the famously diminutive Napoleon having the subtitle a short introduction. But, as David Bell informs us early on in this enjoyable read, Bonaparte’s physical stature, although somewhat smaller than average for his day, wasn’t quite as short as his British adversaries believed. The misunderstanding was due to a difference between pre-metric British and French units of measure. Napoleon was 5’ 2” in French imperial units, making him 5’ 4” or 5’ 5” in British units.

On a similar vein, I was amused to learn Napoleon actually crossed the Alps on the back of a donkey, rather than on the magnificent stallion depicted in the numerous official commemorative portraits.

There are a number of other unexpectedly amusing anecdotes in this book, which provides a whistle-stop account of Napoleon’s life from his birth in Corsica to his death on a far more remote island in the Atlantic Ocean. Clearly, in what is intended to be a short introduction, many events in Napoleon’s life are either glossed over or omitted completely, but Bell gets the level of detail just about right.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870’ Sun, 17 Dec 2023 11:53:29 +0000 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 18 • 1870

The eighteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1870.

Darwin spent most of this year continuing work on his next book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. During this period, he finally accepted that this would be a large (two-volume) book, and that his research into human emotions would need to wait for a separate book in its own right.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1870 include:

  • Darwin arranging to send duplicate and unwanted books to the Linnean Society.
  • Darwin expressing delight at the woodcuts for ‘The Descent of Man’, and later admitting he has been gloating over them.
  • Darwin groaning at his friend Alfred Russel Wallace (who had come to differ significantly from Darwin on human evolution) for writing ‘like a metamorphosed (in retrograde direction) naturalist’, despite Wallace having been ‘the author of the best paper that ever appeared in Anth[ropological] Review!’
  • Wallace, shortly before publication of ‘The Descent of Man’, subsequently joking, “I look forward with fear & trembling to being crushed under a mountain of facts!”
  • Darwin writing to his daughter Henrietta regarding her role proof-reading ‘The Descent of Man’: “I fear parts are too like a Sermon: who wd ever have thought that I shd. turn parson?” (Henrietta’s response is similarly light-hearted.)
  • An American correspondent sending Darwin an account of Canadian pond-weed invading Britain.
  • Darwin summing up his scientific education.
  • A correspondent predicting the migration of species between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea through the newly opened Suez Canal. (He originally intended this as a joke, but his prediction was taken sufficiently seriously to initiate a scientific expedition, and turned out to be correct. It is now known as the Lessepsian migration.)
  • Darwin congratulating his friend, near-neighbour and scientific protégé John Lubbock on being elected a Member of Parliament.
  • Darwin being pestered to provide content for new journal, ‘Academy’.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, advising him not to get wound up by William Thomson and other physicists’ claims that the earth was not sufficiently old for the current diversity of life to have evolved.
  • The sculptor Thomas Woolner sending Darwin a drawing of the small atavistic bump on the rim of the human ear, dubbed by Darwin the Woolnerian tip, but now known as Darwin’s tubercle.
  • Darwin receiving detailed observations of human emotions from the West Riding Lunatic Asylum.
  • A series of letters ( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) from Darwin’s second cousin Francis Galton describing blood-transfusion experiments performed on rabbits to test Darwin’s hypothesis of pangenesis.
  • Darwin humorously comparing himself unfavourably with Immanuel Kant: “the one man a great philosopher looking exclusively into his own mind, the other a degraded wretch looking from the outside thro’ apes & savages at the moral sense of mankind.”
  • Darwin writing to Wallace about their friendship: “Your modesty and candour are very far from new to me. I hope it is a satisfaction to you to reflect,—& very few things in my life have been more satisfactory to me—that we have never felt any jealousy towards each other, though in one sense rivals. I believe that I can say this of myself with truth, & I am absolutely sure that it is true of you.”
  • St George Jackson Mivart, a religious scientist, expressing his esteem for Darwin while making clear his irritation at how natural selection is being applied, and comparing Thomas Henry Huxley’s ‘Man’s Place in Nature’ to ‘obscenities’.
  • A medical officer at Sussex Lunatic Asylum partially blaming one unfortunate patient’s condition on masturbation.
  • Darwin declining to review an essay collection, saying, “it is an immense relief to me to be able to say that I never write reviews”.
  • Darwin reporting having met his old geology tutor Adam Sedgwick at Cambridge, and having been tired out by him: “Is it not humiliating to be thus killed by a man of 86, who evidently never dreamed that he was killing me.”
  • Darwin admitting that his latest book, ‘The Descent of Man’, is “as usual running to much greater length than I expected”.
  • Darwin requesting observations on vomiting.
  • Darwin describing his views on predestination and design to Hooker: “Your conclusion that all speculation about preordination is idle waste of time is the only wise one: but how difficult it is not to speculate. My theology is a simple muddle: I cannot look at the Universe as the result of blind chance, yet I can see no evidence of beneficent design, or indeed of design of any kind in the details.— As for each variation that has ever occurred having been preordained for a special end, I can no believe in it, than that the spot on which each drop of rain falls has been specially ordained.—“.
  • Darwin unsuccessfully attempting to have a question about cousin marriages included in the national census. (More here.)
  • Darwin making a clear distinction between the fact of evolution and the theory of natural selection that attempts to explain it: “I see in the last number of the Révue that M. Edwards is inclined to believe that existing species are the modified descendants of extinct species. Such an admission seems to me very much more important than whether natural selection has been a more or less efficient means of change; though for my own part I shd never have been able to admit the evolution of species, unless I cd have partly explained to myself how the innumerable & beautiful adaptations, which we see all around us, had originated.”
  • Darwin, on holiday in Torquay, joking, “I admire the beautiful scenery more than could be reasonably expected of an acknowledged descendent of an Ape.”

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Unpolished words Fri, 15 Dec 2023 19:42:07 +0000 One common piece of advice given to writers is not to tinker too much with your first draft. Your priority should be to get a first draft banged out as quickly as possible, then you should move on to the second draft.

This is a piece of advice I experience tremendous difficulty following. I can’t help tinkering with my first drafts, making them as good as I can. The problem with this approach is I could end up tinkering forever.

I realised my constant tinkering had become a problem when I was writing On the Moor. I eventually came up with a solution. It was a simple rule—what I though of as my golden rule… As I worked on each chapter, I was allowed to tinker with it as much as I liked, but, once I had moved on to the next chapter, I wasn’t allowed to go back and do any more tinkering with earlier chapters—or even to re-read them—until the entire first draft of the book was finished. I stuck to this rule, and it worked for me.

As I continue to work on my Darwin book, the temptation to tinker hasn’t gone away. I know tinkering slows me down, but I always try to justify it by claiming it will make writing my second draft far easier as it will require far less fine-tuning.

But this morning I watched a YouTube video by a Canadian student, Morgan, who has recently been struggling with her PhD thesis. Several minutes into the video, Morgan described ‘polishing’ the words of her first draft—which admittedly sounds far more professional than tinkering—and she said something that made the scales fall from my eyes:

It’s hard to rework already polished words. So I’m trying to leave my writing really rough and just, kind of, like, talk my way through it—it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, there’s repetitive words, etcetera—but I am getting, like, the arguments written down, in full sentences. Which I think is going to help me—but we’ll see.

It’s hard to rework already polished words… This was the bloody obvious point I’d been missing all these years! It completely invalidates my argument that getting my first draft as good—as polished—as possible will make writing the second draft easier. Au contraire, Richard, you idiot: having a highly polished first draft will make writing your second draft more difficult. You need to leave your future self plenty of slack. If you tighten up all the individual chapters in your first draft, it’s going to be much harder to chop and change them in later drafts. Your hands will be tied by your polished prose. You’ll find it more difficult to move stuff about; to make your chapters work together. By trying to get your first draft as close to a ‘finished’ product as possible, you’re painting yourself into a corner. That’s why it’s all right—or, rather, beneficial—to bang out unrefined prose in your first draft. That’s why you shouldn’t tinker with it.

The realisation that writing unpolished first drafts isn’t just about finishing them quickly, it’s about giving yourself more flexibility when it comes to the second draft, has got me buzzing. I’m not sure if it will help me kick my premature tinkering habit, but it’s an idea I’m going to do my damnedest to remember, and work to, in future.

Thank you, Morgan! And good luck with your thesis.

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869’ Tue, 07 Nov 2023 16:38:45 +0000 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 17 • 1869

The seventeenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1869. During this year, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human and animal emotions, and sexual selection. This would eventually result in two major books: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. During the year, Darwin also revised On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition.

The year 1869 saw a major about-face by Darwin’s friend Alfred Russel Wallace. Although Wallace had arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin, he began to entertain serious doubts that it could explain human intellect and morality without the involvement of some higher power. Darwin was deeply distressed by Wallace’s apostasy, although the two remained on friendly and respectful terms.

Highlights from Darwin’s correspondence for 1869 include:

  • A letter from a women’s suffrage campaigner about parrots.
  • Darwin being ‘disgusted’ at the number of changes required for the fifth edition of On the Origin of Species, bearing in mind the previous edition had been published only two years earlier. He later observed, if he lived another twenty years, he would no doubt have to modify Origin and his views a great deal, but “it is a beginning, & that is something”.
  • Wallace announcing he is dedicating what will become his most famous book, The Malay Archipelago, to Darwin. And Darwin saying this honour is something for his children’s children to be proud of. He later sent Wallace more feedback about the book.
  • Darwin wondering how news of new nectar spreads through bee-hives, but supposing it is not communicated by the bees. (How he would have loved to know about the waggle-dance!)
  • Darwin’s enthusiastic letter to James Croll regarding Croll’s hypothesis of asynchronous ice-periods in the northern and southern hemispheres.
  • George Henslow’s strange hypothesis that the colouration of offspring can be affected by what their mother saw while pregnant.
  • Wallace on the results of John Jenner Weir’s caterpillar experiments supporting Wallace’s hypothesis of protective colouration. (More here.)
  • Thomas Henry Huxley’s cartoon of himself as a riled dog.
  • Darwin summing up the main theoretical changes in the fifth edition of Origin.
  • Darwin answering a questionnaire, saying his education only really began aboard HMS Beagle.
  • Wallace warning Darwin about his forthcoming article expressing certain limitations on natural selection regarding human evolution, and Darwin’s joking response, “I hope you have not murdered too completely your own and my child”.
  • Darwin, having subsequently read Wallace’s article, declaring ‘[I] differ grevously from you’. He goes on to express his disappointment in more detail to their mutual friend and inspiration Charles Lyell.
  • Darwin’s thoughts on the term ‘struggle for existence’.
  • Darwin being full of praise for Wallace’s recent review of two new editions of works by Lyell, and reporting ‘a baddish fall’ from his horse.
  • One of a number of occasional letters to Darwin from religious nutters.
  • Darwin’s first correspondence from the head of a Yorkshire lunatic asylum regarding the expression of emotions by various patients. See also: here, here, and here.
  • Darwin asking his American friend Asa Gray to observe the colours of German men’s beards.
  • …and asking another correspondent to observe the expression of emotions in women who are in labour.
  • …and hearing from another correspondent who has provoked two Indian locals into a near-fight so he can observe their body-language for Darwin.
  • Darwin enquiring about efficacy of “Pulvermachers Volta-Electric Chain bands” in relieving dyspepsia and nervous weakness.
  • Darwin receiving a poem taking the piss out of teleology.
  • Darwin defending his provisional (and incorrect) hypothesis of pangenesis in the popular science press.
  • Darwin’s best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, being greatly disappointed by the new science journal ‘Nature’.
  • Hooker explaining his reluctance to accept a knighthood.
  • A correspondent suggesting a joint photograph be taken of Darwin and Wallace. Sadly, it was never to be. (Or maybe it was!)

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
A brace of raptors Wed, 11 Oct 2023 19:52:35 +0100 Jen spotted the local barn owl flying through our garden on Saturday evening. We hadn’t seen it for a while so kept an eye out for it the same time on Sunday. At one point, out the corner of my eye, I caught a split-second glimpse of something light coloured and owl sized shooting past the window. Or, at least, I thought I did. So I rushed outside. Sure enough, there was the barn owl perched about 200 metres away on a fence post on the far side of the field behind the house. I decided to stand perfectly still and wait, and was rewarded a minute later when the owl launched from its perch, flew directly towards me, then swerved and hovered about ten metres directly in front of me in search of a vole. After twenty seconds or so, it headed back across the field, perched on a different fence post, then, about a minute later, dived suddenly into the field on the far side of the wall. It did not re-emerge, so I’m guessing it had made a kill and was enjoying the proceeds. Close-encounters with a barn owls are always a thrill.

The following morning, Jen spotted a male sparrowhawk on our garden wall. It was tucking into some hapless victim that turned out to have been one of the local goldfinches. I managed to sneak outside with my camera. The sparrowhawk was clearly aware I was there, so I kept a discreet distance, inching along the patio to get a better angle. I had to deliberately over-expose to compensate for the horrendous backlighting, and remove a lot of grain in post-processing, but I was pretty pleased with the results.

A good reason not to write in books Tue, 03 Oct 2023 12:15:20 +0100 I spend a lot of time making notes from my reading. I’ve even made notes from my reading of books about making notes from one’s reading. Have I lost you yet?

Many people who write or otherwise opine about making notes from your reading say you should underline or highlight favourite or key passages and make brief personal observations in the margins. They claim defacing books in this manner is a sign you’re engaging with the text. Here, for example, are Adler and van Doren in their classic How to Read a Book:

Marking a book is literally an expression of your differences or your agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him.

I’m all for fully engaging with books, and for paying respect to authors—even authors with non-male pronouns—but writing in books is definitely not for me. I admit this is in no small part down to my having been brought up to believe only a monster would do such a thing. But there’s more to it than that.

My preferred method for making notes while reading physical books is to use an index-card as a bookmark and to make notes on that. I later write up these notes in more detail in my electronic note-making system. Conversely, when I read an ebook on my Kindle, I often use the Kindle’s highlighting feature. I tend not to make free-text notes on my Kindle as doing so is a total pain in the arse. When I’ve finished reading an ebook, I import my highlights and occasional free-text notes into my note-making system.

Laptop desk
Making index-card notes

The more time I’ve spent cross-linking and developing my electronic notes, the more it’s become apparent the notes I make from physical books are superior to those I make from ebooks. Writing on an index-card provides genuinely useful friction. Before I put pen to card, I need to decide whether it’s actually worth the effort—especially bearing in mind I’m eventually going to have to transcribe the hand-written note into my electronic system. In other words, the pain of having to write a note by hand then re-key it into my system provides an important element of quality control. Conversely, the ease of highlighting on my Kindle means I tend to highlight far too much, so my electronic system ends up being populated with extraneous notes.

None of which, I concede, is any sort of argument against making highlights and hand-written notes on the actual pages of physical books. But my different modes of highlighting and annotating, depending on whether I’m reading a physical book or an ebook, provide an interesting contrast when it comes to re-reading books.

Some people claim seeing your old notes and annotations when you return to a favourite book enhances the experience. I beg to differ. Whenever I re-read a book on my Kindle, I find myself constantly distracted by my previous highlights. Lovely chap though he undoubtedly was, I don’t want Former Me telling me which bits of the book are most noteworthy. It’s like watching a film with some bore whose seen it before who keeps blurting out, “Ooh! This next bit’s good! Watch this!” I’m not kidding: I almost abandoned a recent re-reading of what is a strong contender for my favourite book of all time because of all my previous Kindle highlights. They were totally ruining the experience. In the end, I had to resort to the rather drastic and laborious process of manually deleting my old highlights one-by-one. (I then stupidly opened the Kindle app on a different device, it re-synched, and all my carefully deleted highlights magically re-appeared, requiring me to delete them all again! They have returned several times since.)

Re-reading a physical book involves no such issues to spoil my pleasure. The book’s pages are unsullied by Former Me. I still have my earlier thoughts available on my index-card bookmark, which I always file inside the book, but they don’t distract me from my reading. They’re there if I want them, but they’re not getting in the way.

Surely one of the best reasons for re-reading a book is to try to see it through fresh eyes. How can you possibly hope to achieve this when Former You has covered its pages with what they thought was noteworthy? What were you: some kind of monster? Your thoughts about a book belong in your note-making system; not scrawled across its pages.

Anglesey 2023 Sun, 01 Oct 2023 16:17:14 +0100 Jen and I paid our annual early September visit to my beloved Anglesey last month. Our week-long stays don’t vary much: we repeat favourite walks; we eat at the same restaurants; and I spend a couple of hours before breakfast, and a couple in the afternoon, sitting on my favourite rock, gazing out to sea.

But this year began with something of a shock. After unpacking, I immediately headed down to my favourite rock, only to discover it had moved! Only by about a metre, but a major geological event as far as I was concerned. The rock is—or had been—part of the limestone bedrock. But, since my last visit, it had become detached, I’m guessing during a winter storm, and had been shifted slightly inland. Sitting on my newly relocated favourite rock gave me an entirely different perspective on life. I wonder if it will still be there next year.

My favourite rock has moved!
My favourite rock (foreground, left) and the ‘home scar’ of bare limestone where it used to reside (centre).

The weather was relentlessly sunny and calm for the entire week. I’m hoping this, rather than avian flu, explained the total absence of razorbills, which might have moved farther out to sea. But there were no Sandwich terns either, which was worrying. I spotted a few gannets, but they kept well away from shore this year. There were, however, cormorants and shags aplenty, oystercatchers, gulls, occasional egrets and herons, rock pipits, a few late swallows and house martins, and linnets. No wheatears, though, which was disappointing.

Shag, Anglesey

What I did see most days, however, was harbour porpoises. I’ve never had so many sightings. I saw them most days. Perhaps the calm sea made them easier to spot. They seldom approached the rocks, but I did get some nice close-up shots of one of them from my favourite walk along the north coast.

Harbour porpoise, Anglesey
Harbour porpoise

The constant dilemma when out walking was whether I should have a telephoto lens on my camera in case some interesting animal passed by, or whether I should have a wide-angle lens on to capture the sweeping views. I tended to stick with the telephoto, so, of course, Sod’s Law dictated that, on one of the few occasions I switched to wide-angle, a flock of twenty-five agitated choughs appeared out of nowhere. Seconds later, I spotted the source of their agitation: a female peregrine falcon hanging in the wind not twenty metres in front of me. I managed to grab a shot of the choughs, but sadly the falcon was a mere speck when viewed through the totally inappropriate lens, and was soon chased off by courageous gulls.

Choughs, Anglesey
Agitated choughs

Macabre highlight of the trip was finding the decaying corpse of grey seal pup on a pebbly beach. A proper nature writer would no doubt have collected the nearly fleshless skull as a magnificent trophy for their study, but this particular skull wasn’t nearly fleshless enough, as far as I was concerned, and was covered in green bottle blowflies, so I ended up taking only photographs home with me.

Dead grey seal, Anglesey
Grey seal skull and blowfly
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 2 • 1868’ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:44:27 +0100 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part II • July–December 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part two of volume 16, covering the months July–December 1868.

In the second half of 1868, Darwin continued his research into human evolution, human emotions and sexual selection. Near the end of the year, he also began work on revising On the Origin of Species for its fifth edition. Highlights from this period include:

  • Darwin reporting that, although he has had the manuscript for the next volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species almost ready for several years, he has decided to amuse himself by writing a ‘short volume’ on Man;
  • Thomas Henry Huxley enquiring on behalf of Prof. Kühne about the ‘possibility of paying his devotions at the Shrine of Dr. Darwin’. (The letter is illustrated with a cartoon by Huxley.)
  • Louis Agassiz explaining to Darwin that his disagreement with Darwin is not personal;
  • Alfred Russel Wallace’s detailed objections to female choice in sexual selection (as opposed to protective colouration through camouflage) as an explanation of the different colours of certain male and female birds—and Darwin’s response;
  • Darwin’s later letter to Wallace on the same subject, saying: ‘I grieve to differ from you, & it actually terrifies me & makes me constantly distrust myself’—and Wallace’s reply;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker reporting he has been selling photographs, chiefly of Darwin, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science on behalf of photographer Julia Margaret Cameron;
  • Darwin opining, ‘I am not sure whether it wd not be wisest for scientific men quite to ignore the whole subject of religion’;
  • An affectionate letter from the ageing anti-evolutionist Adam Sedgwick, who had taken the young Darwin on a geological tour of North Wales, and Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin declaring, ‘I believe that almost every book wd be improved by condensation’;
  • Darwin claiming to be trembling at Ernst Haeckel’s boldness at proposing a detailed evolutionary tree, but agreeing with Thomas Henry Huxley that ‘some one must be bold enough to make a beginning in drawing up tables of descent’;
  • Darwin complaining he is ‘undergoing the purgatory of sitting for hours to Thomas Woolner’ for a bust sculpture;
  • Darwin humorously referring to claims by physicists that the world is not old enough for his theory of evolution to be correct: ‘The brevity of the world troubles me, on account of the pre-silurian creatures which must have lived in numbers during endless ages, else my views wd be wrong, which is impossible — Q.E.D.—’;
  • Darwin, while working on the latest edition, complaining he is sick of correcting ‘that everlasting Origin’;
  • Darwin reporting he has installed Joseph Dalton Hooker’s photograph over his chimney piece so he will never be bold enough to make theoretical wriggles under his gaze. (Making such wriggles was a running joke between the two friends.)
  • Darwin complaining about Richard Owen misquoting him, saying ‘he puts words from me in inverted commas & alters them’;
  • Darwin on the difficulty of reconciling evolution with the idea of an omnipotent, omniscient creator;
  • Ernst Haeckel jokingly comparing his newborn son to a ‘quadrumane’.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part 1 • 1868’ Wed, 27 Sep 2023 17:41:24 +0100 The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 16, part I • January–June 1867

The sixteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1868. Uniquely for this 30-volume collection, Darwin wrote and received so many letters in 1868 that they had to be split across two physical books (published as a pair). The following refers to part one of volume 16, covering the months January–June 1868.

January 1868 finally saw the publication of Darwin’s two-part book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication. Darwin then immediately began work of what he believed at the time would be a ‘short essay’ on human evolution. But, as so often happened with Darwin’s work, its scope rapidly expanded. His planned essay was to become two major works: his two-volume The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), and The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872).

Highlights of Darwin’s early 1868 correspondence include:

  • Darwin confidently predicting the idea of common descent will soon become universally accepted—while expressing bemusement at the French in particular for currently failing to accept it;
  • Darwin expressing delight at his son George’s recent success in mathematics at Cambridge;
  • Darwin receiving an indescribably bizarre letter seemingly associating evolutionary history with the (English) names of certain localities and countries—or, at least, that’s what I think it’s trying to do;
  • Darwin asking a favour ‘which will appear the oddest ever asked’ about observing elephants crying. (Answer: They don’t cry!)
  • Darwin wistfully remarking, ‘What a splendid pursuit Natural History would be if it was all observing & no writing.’
  • Darwin’s old Beagle shipmate Bartholomew Sulivan sending him a photograph of a group of four Fuegian boys, one of whom is the son of ‘Jemmy Button’ (one of the Fuegians who travelled aboard Beagle. See also Darwin’s reply;
  • Darwin recalling ‘an extraordinary account of male[ moth]s finding females at great distances’. See also subsequent received correspondence (1, 2) suggesting the males are attracted by scent;
  • Darwin expecting a ‘blowing up’ from his friend Thomas Henry Huxley regarding his (we now know, incorrect) unpublished hypothesis of pangenesis, and later being amused by Huxley’s joke ‘Genesis is difficult to believe, but Pangenesis is a deuced deal more difficult.’
  • Darwin observing (post publication) ‘It seems that the poor infant Pangenesis will expire, unblessed & uncussed by the world, but I have faith in a future & better world for the poor dear child!’
  • Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace politely disagreeing in a series of letters about the role of (female-choice) sexual selection versus camouflage in the different colourations of male and female birds;
  • Darwin expressing distrust in himself for disagreeing with Wallace’s view that birds’ nest-building is a learnt activity, rather than instinctive;
  • naturalist John Jenner Weir informing Darwin of experimental results supporting Wallace’s hypothesis that brightly coloured caterpillars are rejected as food by birds;
  • Darwin describing himself in a photograph as ‘a hideous affair—merely a modified, hardly an improved, Gorilla’;
  • Darwin sending his friend Joseph Dalton Hooker grass seeds recovered from locust dung for identification (and Hooker’s response);
  • avid reader Darwin complaining, ‘It drives me mad & I know it does you too, that one has no time for reading anything beyond what must be read: my room is encumbered with unread books.—‘;
  • Joseph Dalton Hooker being horrified at having somehow forgotten to mention the birth of his latest daughter;
  • Darwin informing the perpetual curate of the village of Downe about the dodgy dealings of the latest incumbent.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Charles Darwin. As with all the other volumes, every letter is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references. The series as a whole is a masterpiece of scholarship.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
‘Lesser’ truth v artistic licentiousness Mon, 21 Aug 2023 19:43:38 +0100 My left knee would benefit from trigger warnings. It is spring-loaded and ready to jerk at the merest hint of postmodernist factual relativism. It also clicks when I’m climbing stairs.

In the current edition of the Literary Review (paywalled link), author Gillian Tindall writes:

When photography was evolving, it was thought that it might ‘capture’ the heart of life in a new way, only for it to be found that each shot seized just a static moment. When a renowned photographer snapped Henry Kissinger, he hoped to show something of the man’s ‘anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, isolation’. But all that appeared on film was a ‘defensive’ motionless figure. A painted portrait can contain far more of the essential person than a photograph can.

I would be the last to deny there are many wonderful painted portraits out there. But the claim that paintings can somehow give a far more accurate representation of their subjects than simple snapshots initiated a knee-jerk that made me quite forget the immediately preceding preposterous suggestion that photography had failed in its promise to capture the heart of life in a new way.

True, photoshopped manipulations notwithstanding, the camera can only capture what’s actually there to be seen. But isn’t that a good thing? If Henry Kissinger appears ‘defensive’ in a particular photograph, perhaps that’s because he was acting uncharacteristically defensively at the time. Doesn’t that, in itself, tell us something interesting about his inner character? Or perhaps he was feeling perfectly at ease, or angry, or inept, and we, the viewers of the photograph, are simply misreading his body-language. But the interpretation of the photograph, valid or otherwise, is, as it should be, down to us.

To pretend to convey some unphotographable essential person, the portrait painter can only embellish with their own interpretation of their subject, be it valid or otherwise. Then we, the viewers of the portrait, get to interpret the painter’s interpretation. In which case, we are one step further removed from the original in the interpretation process. We’re playing a game of Chinese whispers at two degrees of interpretation—or misinterpretation.

There’s nothing wrong with this. Surely the whole point of art is for artists to try to convey their personal impressions of the world, and for the likes of you and me to engage with artists’ works by interpreting them in our own unique ways. But it strikes me as nonsense to claim a work of art created to convey one individual’s perception of another human being provides a more accurate rendition of their ‘essential person’ than a simple photograph. What if the artist’s interpretation of their subject’s essential person is wrong? What if the subject means different things to different portrait painters? How do we know which one is capturing the true essence of the person? And what if different artists happen to agree? How do we know their idea of the subject’s true essence isn’t down to some common misperception, or a pandering to stereotype?

Take Jesus. In Florence, I encountered more painted masterpieces of our divinely appointed saviour than Pontius Pilate had larks’ tongues dinners. Masterpieces by Giotto, Leonardo, Verrocchio, Giordano, and a bunch of other dead canvas-daubers whose names ended in ‘o’. Not being at all of a religious persuasion, I wasn’t particularly moved by any of these works, although I did appreciate the artists’ craftsmanship. If I hadn’t already formed my own (no doubt, incorrect) interpretation of Jesus, what would I have gathered from these assorted masterpieces? I might well have concluded Jesus was a ginger-headed western European with an inexplicable penchant for goldfinches, whose head had been surrounded by a gilt-edged hula-hoop since his first days as an ugly, precocious boss-eyed toddler.

How different might my interpretation of Jesus have been had I access to an actual photograph of the man Himself? Even just a blurry black and white snapshot. (Obviously, no such thing could ever happen, but let’s pretend.) Would such a photograph convey a more or less accurate impression of the essential person of our legendary Jewish carpenter? I know where I stand on this one. Give me the snapshot over some painter’s personal interpretation any day of the week! And I’ll bet I’m not alone. I’ll bet I could flog such a photo of our redeemer for far more than any of the painted masterpieces currently gracing the walls of the Uffizi.

The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo
The Baptism of Christ (Verrocchio & Leonardo), depicting the essential person of Jesus, ginger hair, halo, airborne hands, radioactive dove, and all.
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This philistine is no doubt making too much of a couple of passing comments made in a book review. My silly Jesus example was chosen to illustrate that artistic interpretations, like all interpretations, are subject to personal beliefs and biases, not to forget clichéd symbolism and dogma. But the claim that a painting can give a truer picture of an individual than a simple photograph is one of a growing trend that I think is bogus, though seldom challenged.

People make similar claims in favour of literary fiction. Novels, it is said, can convey a ‘greater truth’ than factual writing. Or, as Albert Camus is credited with having said (presumably in French), ‘fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth’. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel, but I’m totally not buying into this one either. Novels, no matter how good, are by definition not true. The novelist is at liberty to—and, indeed, should—exercise artistic licence in a way the factual writer is not allowed. Great. But another way of saying ‘exercise artistic licence’ is ‘write stuff that isn’t true for artistic effect’. Entertaining, no doubt—but hardly telling a greater truth! Call me a literalist, but if you want to read stuff about the real world, isn’t reading quality factual writing the best way to go about it?

Yes, photographers and factual writers have personal biases, misapprehensions, and agendas like everyone else. But let’s not belittle their work by claiming it’s no match for the artistic licence of painters and novelists. Many photographers, and all factual writers worthy of the name, are at least trying to keep things real—occasional embellishments about knees with philosophical sensibilities notwithstanding.

We live in a time in which what counts as truth is often seen as a matter of personal opinion. In which people can pick and choose their facts without being held to account. In which bigots are expected to be cut some slack for holding ‘strongly held beliefs’—as if that were any sort of defence. Claiming paintings are somehow more accurate than photographs, or novels more truthful than factual writing, panders to this misguided mindset. Clearly, there’s a place in this world for paintings and novels, but let’s not overbuild their parts. Instead, would it not be better to acknowledge and celebrate their extra degree of separation from reality?

See also: Other writing tagged ‘factual v fiction’