Richard Carter A merged feed of Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters and Reviews from en-gb Richard Carter My makeshift desks Sun, 21 May 2023 16:11:54 +0100 Back in the days when I made extensive use of a laptop computer, I found resting it on my actual lap while I was working on the sofa to be pretty damned uncomfortable, not least because of all the heat it put out. So I took to resting an old wooden chopping board across my knees to act as a table-cum-heat-shield. It worked really well.

When I’d been using this arrangement for a couple of years, I was delighted to come across the following passage in the Reminiscences of his father by Charles Darwin’s son Francis:

After he had read his paper, came his time for writing letters. These, as well as the MS. of his books, were written by him as he sat in a huge horse-hair chair by the fire, his paper supported on a board resting on the arms of the chair.

A pleasing example, I like to think, of great minds thinking alike!

After I replaced my laptop PC with an iPad and keyboard, heat was no longer a problem, but the keyboard wasn’t rigid enough to rest on my lap directly, so I migrated to a smaller, thinner plastic chopping board. Again, this worked—and continues to work—very well.

iPad and index-card notes
Transferring my card-based reading notes into my electronic system. (Note the high-tech notes holder.)

Under this new arrangement, my large wooden chopping board was temporarily retired. Recently, however, I found a new use for it, acting as a makeshift laptop desk while I’m sitting in my reading armchair in my study. I read a lot of physically heavy hardback factual books, routinely making notes about them on index-card bookmarks. Resting the book and cards on the chopping board placed across my knees has made such note-making that much easier. Better still, I’ve also taken to laying an old piece of cloth across the board to provide some extra protection for the book. I wrap the book in the same cloth whenever I take a break from reading. This might sound like an unnecessarily elaborate, possibly ostentatious set-up, but it works an absolute treat.

Laptop desk
My improvised laptop reading and note-making desk. (And, yes, I totally pulled in my stomach for this photo.)

This year, my reading has mostly centred around the Correspondence of Charles Darwin. I have to admit, I get a big kick out of reading and making notes on letters my hero wrote in his study on a board placed across the arms of his chair using a similar board in my own study.

Book Review: ‘The Creative Act’ by Rick Rubin Sun, 14 May 2023 16:51:29 +0100
‘The Creative Act’ by Rick Rubin

I was inspired to read this book after watching Vashik Armenikus’s enthusiastic video review.

The Creative Act comprises a large number of short essays by famous record producer Rick Rubin on the subject of artistic creativity. It’s an enjoyable read. Rubin offers generally sound advice, interspersed with occasional hippie nonsense.

When Rubin touched on topics I was particularly interested in, I made copious notes. In other places, I made no notes at all. But I imagine, should I re-read this book in a couple of years’ time, as I probably shall, my immediate priorities may well have changed, so I might find different sections of the book more relevant and rewarding.

The Creative Act certainly provides plenty of food for thought. Reading it will make you feel more creative, and provides an enjoyable, constructive-seeming diversion from the far harder task of actually being more creative.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book Review: ‘Aftermath’ by Harald Jähner Sun, 14 May 2023 16:51:01 +0100
‘Aftermath’ by Harald Jähner

How did Germany, an aggressor nation, recover and come to terms with its past following its devastating defeat at the end of the Second World War? These and other subjects are investigated in Harald Jähner fascinating book Aftermath.

At the end of the war, Germany lay devastated, with many of its towns and cities in ruins, much of its population displaced, and with foreign forces from four different nations occupying its territory. In well-researched themed chapters, Jähner explores how ordinary Germans and their new leaders approached these challenges, gradually rebuilding order from chaos.

Jähner examines how rubble was cleared; how displaced people became returnees and refugees, bringing both challenges and opportunities; how ordinary German citizens partied as if it were the end of times; how they struggled to re-build old personal relationships, and how they build new ones; how a black market economy thrived, eventually necessitating currency reform; and how Germans as a whole managed to cope by absolving themselves of any personal guilt for what had happened during the war, and by seeing themselves as victims of the former regime.

An excellent book.

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 13 • 1865 plus supplement (1822–1864)’ Sun, 14 May 2023 16:50:33 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 13 • 1865 (plus supplement)

The thirteenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1865, plus a supplement of letters from earlier years that came to light after publication of the previous twelve volumes.

As in the two previous years, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1865, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for much of the year.

Highlights from Darwin’s 1865 correspondence include:

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: ‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa Sun, 14 May 2023 16:49:25 +0100
‘Radical By Nature’ by James T. Costa

Marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of its subject, James T. Costa has written an entertaining biography of the man who famously arrived at the idea of natural selection independently of Charles Darwin: Alfred Russel Wallace.

Were I ever tempted to cheat on Darwin and direct my fanboy fascination elsewhere, Wallace would definitely be in with a chance. He led a long and fascinating life, fully deserving his place in the scientific pantheon in his own right, rather than being portrayed, as he sometimes is, as some under-appreciated unfortunate who was totally eclipsed by Darwin.

Following on from his excellent book on Darwin’s experiments, Costa does a great job telling the story of Wallace’s life, from his upbringing on the English-Welsh border, to his burgeoning interest in science, his early work as a surveyor with his brother, his befriending of fellow science-enthusiast Henry Walter Bates, and their decision to travel to South America to pursue their interests in exploration and science. It was in South America that Wallace, who eventually parted ways with Bates, first developed an interest in the geographical distribution of species—what we nowadays refer to as biogeography—a subject that was to become synonymous with Wallace’s name. Costa goes on to describe Wallace’s disastrous journey back to England, in which the ship he was travelling caught fire and sank with the loss of Wallace’s notebooks and large collection of valuable specimens.

Surprisingly undaunted, a few years later, Wallace was off naturalising and collecting again, this time in the Malay Archipelago (a problematic term these days, then used to describe the extensive group of islands between the South East Asian mainland and Australia). Here, over several years, assisted by a number of locals, Wallace travelled from island to island, collecting specimens, contracting diseases, and hypothesising in his down-time. It was here that Wallace earned his fame as a biogeographer, when he identified a hypothetical line running between the islands of the archipelago, on one side of which were found species with Asiatic characteristics, and, on the other side, species with a mix of Asiatic and Australian characteristics. This line was soon to become known as the Wallace Line.

Wallace had been convinced of the fact of organic evolution even before he set sail for South America, having read the controversial, anonymously written bestseller Vestiges of Creation (a book Darwin found to be utter rubbish). Costa describes how Wallace planned to theorise about evolution and, in particular, to address the arguments made against evolution in Charles Lyell’s influential book Principles of Geology. The same book had inspired Darwin–with its geology, rather than its arguments against evolution–during the Beagle voyage. Darwin and Lyell had since become close friends.

During his time on the Malay Archipelago, Wallace dispatched occasional scientific papers back to Britain. One of these, what is now known as his Sarawak Law paper (1855), concluded that ‘Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.’ Back in Britain, Darwin was largely unimpressed—as far as he was concerned, the paper contained no new ideas he hadn’t already thought of himself—although he did send Wallace some words of encouragement. But the paper Wallace sent Darwin three years later came as a total bombshell, outlining a theory of evolution pretty much identical to Darwin’s as-yet unpublished theory of evolution by means of natural selection. This led to a rather undignified rush to establish Darwin’s priority by publishing some old papers of Darwin’s alongside Wallace’s. It also caused Darwin to put to one side his long-planned, partially written, never-to-be-completed ‘big book’ on species, and to begin writing an ‘abstract’ that was to become On the Origin of Species. To his credit, Wallace expressed complete satisfaction at how his paper had been published alongside Darwin’s, and always maintained natural selection was Darwin’s theory, not his. Upon Wallace’s return to Britain a few years later, the two men were to become respectful, albeit not particularly close, friends.

I particularly enjoyed Costa’s account of Wallace’s life following his return from the Malay Archipelago. The tales of Wallace’s two great expeditions having been covered in detail, the pace necessarily picks up as there is a lot of ground still to cover over the remaining five decades of Wallace’s long life. Costa describes Wallace’s ongoing friendship with, and influence on, Darwin; his many books and papers; his financial difficulties; his marriage; his many relocations; his awards and honours; his debunking of flat-earthers; his embrace of spiritualism; his advocacy of women’s rights; his anti-vaxism; his campaigning for land-reform; his environmentalism; and his successful late lecture tour of the United States.

I did have a small number of quibbles with this book. In particular, when discussing Wallace’s Sarawak Law paper, Costa adopts the standard narrative that was (in my opinion, compellingly) debunked a few years back by science historian John van Wyhe. I assume Costa must be aware of this paper, but as far as I could see, he makes no attempt to address any of the points it raises. This could be seen as fair enough in what is supposed to be a popular biography, but Costa does, on the other hand, find space to mention—albeit adopting a neutral position—the supposed controversy over the arrival date of Wallace’s bombshell letter at Darwin’s house—a favourite non-topic of conspiracy theorists.

This and a few other irritations aside, I very much enjoyed Radical by Nature, and recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about a justifiably celebrated, fascinating figure from the history of science.

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

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 12 • 1864’ Wed, 26 Apr 2023 10:49:44 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 12 • 1864

The twelfth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1864.

As in the previous year, Darwin suffered much ill-heath during 1864, so progress on the first volume of his planned ‘big book’ on species was delayed for several more months. Instead, Darwin once again dedicated what energy he could muster to less strenuous botanical studies, all of which sought to support arguments he had presented to the world five years earlier in On the Origin of Species. He continued his investigations into heterostyly and plant hybridisation, but focused in particular on climbing plants. All of these studies investigated how existing plant organs had become modified, producing adaptations that encouraged cross-pollination, or that enabled plants to climb.

Also of note in 1864 was Darwin’s developing friendship with the man who had independently arrived at the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin was particularly impressed with Wallace’s paper The Origin of Human Races and the Antiquity of Man Deduced from the Theory of “Natural Selection”, which was the first to apply the idea of natural selection to human evolution. Although Darwin had ideas of his own on the subject, and did not agree with everything Wallace had to say, Wallace’s emphasis on the evolution of human morality and intellect provided an interesting new slant that was later to inform Darwin’s The Descent of Man. Indeed, so impressed was Darwin with the paper that he offered to give Wallace his own notes on human evolution, should Wallace decide to write further on the topic. Darwin was also impressed with Wallace’s modesty at not taking any credit for the theory of natural selection: ‘it is just as much yours as mine’, he admonished Wallace. ‘I shall always maintain it to be actually yours & your’s only’, replied Wallace by return of post.

1864 was also the year in which Darwin was finally awarded the Royal Society’s most prestigious honour, the Copley Medal, having pointedly been passed over for the same award the previous year. But the honour sparked controversy with Darwin’s supporters when it emerged that his evolutionary work had not been taken into consideration in his selection for the award.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1864 correspondence include:

  • a moving death-bed tribute to Darwin from botanist Francis Boott, conveyed to Darwin by Boot’s widow, Mary;
  • Darwin receiving an apology from Daniel Oliver, Assistant in the herbarium of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for having addressed Darwin as if he were one of his students; and Darwin’s typically modest response that he prefers ‘being treated as what I am[:] quite ignorant of the rudiments of botany’;
  • Darwin trying to find a new placement for gardener/botanist John Scott, who had resigned from his post at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh, frustrated at lack of support from his superiors. Darwin ends up paying for Scott’s passage to India;
  • Darwin’s former shipmate aboard HMS Beagle Bartholomew Sulivan informing Darwin of the recent deaths of two other shipmates;
  • the poorly Darwin reporting having being read an astounding number of ‘trashy novels’;
  • Darwin’s and his correspondents’ reactions to the first photograph of him sporting a beard. ‘Do I not look venerable?’ he jokes. His best friend, Joseph Dalton Hooker, compares the bearded Darwin to a painting of Moses in the House of Lords;
  • Darwin explaining the origin and development of his theory of evolution by means of natural selection to a new German disciple, Ernst Haeckel;
  • Darwin receiving (and apparently wisely ignoring) a ridiculously long, rambling letter from a religious fundamentalist who, while admitting he has not actually read On the Origin of Species, feels duty bound to point out the error of Darwin’s ways by quoting biblical chapter and verse, and by using different-coloured inks and occasional capital letters. (I share your pain, Mr D: believe me, I’ve been there!)

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 11 • 1863’ Mon, 10 Apr 2023 17:08:49 +0100
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 11 • 1863

The eleventh volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1863.

During the second half of 1863, Darwin suffered from prolonged ill-health, which affected the work he was supposed to be doing on the first part of his long-planned, never-to-be-completed three-volume magnum opus on evolution. Instead, he continued to pursue his recent botanical studies, sometimes from his sick-bed. Featuring prominently in the year’s correspondence are Darwin’s thoughts, observations, and queries concerning plant cross-pollination, including his interest in dichogamy (the ripening of the stamens and pistils of a flower at different times), heterostyly (in which different individuals of the same species of flower exhibit different relative lengths of stamens and styles), and orchids’ reproductive adaptations. Darwin’s botanical interests expanded further as he became fascinated with certain plants’ abilities to move and climb, and in phyllotaxy (the arrangement of leaves on a plant stem)—a topic that ultimately left him flummoxed.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1863 correspondence include:

  • excitement and controversy over the recently discovered fossil Archaeopteryx, an early bird bearing decidedly reptilian features and, as Darwin had once predicted, bifurcated wings;
  • Darwin’s growing indignation with his former friend, now enemy, Richard Owen;
  • Darwin’s deep disappointment at the ‘excessive caution’ exercised by his close friend and ally Charles Lyell in his long-anticipated book The Antiquity of Man;
  • the ensuing public scientific spat about Lyell having insufficiently acknowledged the work of others in his book;
  • Darwin’s delight at his friend Thomas Henry Huxley’s far more forthright book on a related topic, Man’s Place in Nature;
  • Darwin’s regret at having used biblical-sounding terms in On the Origin of Species;
  • Darwin’s public defence of On the Origin of Species, in the pages of ‘Athenæum’—a move he was soon to regret, and never to repeat;
  • ongoing discussions with Darwin’s closest friend in the United States, Asa Gray, concerning the civil war;
  • a campaign spearheaded by Darwin’s wife, Emma, against steel vermin traps;
  • Emma and Charles Darwin’s dismay at the apparent destruction of their daughter’s grave in Malvern (it was found eventually—Emma had been looking in the wrong place);
  • an unsuccessful campaign by his friends to have Darwin awarded the Royal Society’s highest honour, the Copley Medal (not to worry—spoiler alert—he was to receive it the following year).

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.
LRB letter: ‘The reaction economy’ Sun, 19 Mar 2023 12:34:47 +0000 The following letter appeared in the 16th March 2023 edition of the London Review of Books. It was my response to an article entitled The Reaction Economy by William Davies, in which Davies stated:

Charles Darwin’s 
The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), seen by some as the origin of modern understandings of emotion, included extensive interpretation of emotional reactions on animals’ faces. Darwin was an enthusiastic photographer: the recent invention of the camera enabled him to capture and study fleeting facial expressions in a way that hadn’t previously been possible.

I have written about Darwin’s use of photography in his study of emotions in my own book Through Darwin’s Eyes (currently in progress). My letter was shortened slightly by the LRB editors. The image shown after the letter has been added by me, and did not appear in the LRB.

William Davies mentions Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, the first English-language science book to be illustrated with photographs (LRB, 2 March). But Darwin did not take the photographs used in the book; nor did the photographic technology of the time allow the capture of fleeting facial expressions.

Darwin acquired the photographs for the book from three sources. Some were already on sale to the general public; he got permission to reproduce others from an earlier book by the French physiologist Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne; and he commissioned a number of original photographs, mainly from the London-based Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Duchenne’s images, captured with the help of the pioneer photographer Adrien Tournachon, include several of a toothless old man whose contorted facial expressions were obtained – and frozen long enough to photograph – by applying electrodes to different combinations of muscles in his face. Duchenne claimed the old man had a medical condition that rendered him impervious to pain. Rejlander, having struggled to coax his models into providing and holding realistic expressions, trimmed his magnificent moustache to make his own face easier to read, and provided Darwin with several selfies in hammy, melodramatic poses.

Richard Carter
Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire

Duchenne facial expressions image
Demonstration of the mechanics of facial expression. Duchenne and an assistant ‘faradise’ the mimetic muscles of ‘the Old Man’. (Source: Wikipedia)
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862’ Mon, 06 Mar 2023 11:04:27 +0000
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 10 • 1862

The tenth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1862.

As in the previous year, in 1862 Darwin was supposed to be working on his book about variation in domesticated animals and plants—the planned first part of his long-promised major work on the evolution of species, of which On the Origin of Species, now in its third edition, was supposed to have been only an ‘abstract’. But as in 1861, Darwin was easily distracted into botanical observation and experimentation. During the year, he continued his work on heterostyly (different length male and female sexual organs in individual flowers), which he correctly interpreted as an adaptation to avoid self-pollination. Darwin published two papers on this topic during the year, which also saw the publication of the book he had worked on the previous year, also on pollination, On The Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.

In his correspondence of 1862, Darwin becomes noticeably more confident that his evolutionary reviews will ultimately be accepted—albeit, no doubt, with some modification. As he wrote to one correspondent:

I have not the least doubt that I have erred most seriously on many points; but now so many (yet few) really good judges concur in the main with me, that I do not fear that some such view will ultimately prevail, notwithstanding all the abuse & ridicule so freely poured on me.

Darwin’s growing confidence was buoyed by the support of younger naturalists who experienced less difficulty accepting his views. In 1862, he was particularly delighted by Henry Walter Bates’s application of natural selection to explain the uncanny similarity of different species of South American butterflies: a phenomenon now known as Batesian mimicry. Darwin was quick to encourage Bates to publish such views, and was largely instrumental in finding him a publisher for his now classic book (published the following year), The Naturalist on the River Amazons. Another of Darwin’s younger supporters who arrived on the scene around this time, freshly back from the Malay Archipelago, was Bates’s former travel-companion, and the man who independently arrived at the idea of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Although his allies slowly increased in number, Darwin’s old enemies didn’t go away. But, with his growing confidence, Darwin seems to have found it easier to dismiss some of them. In particular, he is more open with his close friends about his mutual animosity with the anatomist and palaeontologist Richard Owen, confiding to Owen’s great rival Thomas Henry Huxley:

I do not suppose I shall see Owen’s 2d. Edit [of Palæontology]; but he is so dishonest that I really now care little what he says.

Other highlights featuring in Darwin’s 1862 correspondence include Darwin:

  • sharing jokes with Joseph Dalton Hooker about the British nobility’s dependence on the principle of primogeniture running contrary to the principle of natural selection;
  • enjoying Thomas Henry Huxley’s victories over Richard Owen in their ongoing battle over the relationship between humans and apes;
  • being exasperated at Huxley’s insistence that evolution by means of natural selection could never be fully accepted until humans managed to breed different domestic varieties from the same original stock that were mutually infertile;
  • finally conceding defeat over the glacial (as opposed to marine) origin of the geological features known as the parallel roads of Glen Roy;
  • receiving a monocle as a gist from his son;
  • correctly predicting the existence of an as-yet-undiscovered moth with a prodigiously long proboscis capable of feeding from the prodigiously long nectary of an unusual species of orchid;
  • being quizzed by his friend (and soon-to-be author of The Water-Babies) Rev. Charles Kingsley as to whether our old tales of elves, dwarfs, fairies and satyrs might reflect distant memories of encounters with ‘missing links’;
  • debating the role (or otherwise) of changed external conditions in the development on new variations in species;
  • urging a botanist in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) to try artificially fertilising Cinchona (quinine) trees, as they are ‘important to mankind’;
  • proudly describing his young son hypothesising about the adaptive benefit to adders of fleeing from humans, rather than being more belligerent;
  • thanking the wrong person for a complimentary book review;
  • describing jellyfish as ‘mere organised water’;
  • regretting his use of the word ‘races’ instead of ‘variations’ in the subtitle of On the Origin of Species;
  • being amused by a typographical error in an advertisement for his book on orchids;
  • wishing somebody would study the vocalisations of captive monkeys;
  • reminiscing with one of his old shipmates about sitting on the boom of HMS Beagle;
  • describing the idea of a holidays as ‘an unendurable bore’.

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: ‘Pride And Prejudice‘ by Jane Austen Mon, 06 Mar 2023 10:52:20 +0000
‘Pride And Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

In 2022, to honour a drunken deal, my sister-in-law and I bought each other copies of books we admire greatly. So she received some Kathleen Jamie, and I ended up with the complete novels of bloody Jane 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 Pride and Prejudice.

They're basically the same novel.

In Pride and Prejudice, over-privileged toffs worry about how much money each of them is worth, and about being seen to be conducting themselves with decorum. Mr Darcy is full of pride, and Elizabeth Bennet is full of prejudice against him. But (spoiler alert) they eventually resolve their differences, as you knew damn well they would.

I can't begin to imagine how Mansfield Park might turn out.

…Oh, actually, I can.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Darwin Comes to Town’ by Menno Schilthuizen Mon, 06 Mar 2023 10:41:59 +0000
‘Darwin Comes to Town‘ by Menno Schilthuizen

As our species’ footprint continues to grow, consuming more and more of our planet’s resources, the habitats we create for ourselves spawn more and more potential ecological niches for enterprising species to exploit. Darwin Comes to Town explores how certain plant and animal species have begun to adapt to life alongside humans, and the traits that pre-dispose certain species and not others to integrate themselves into such environments.

What I particularly liked about this book were the examples Schilthuizen gives of far-from-obvious new human-made ecological niches that species have begun to exploit. Who, for example, would have thought that the patches of grass beneath the UK’s electricity pylons might comprise an interesting new niche? Our ageing pylons are coated in zinc, which has slowly leached into the soil beneath, creating a selective pressure for grasses more tolerant to that metal. Similarly, our habit of spreading rock-salt on our roads in winter has created pressure for more salt-tolerant plants in roadside verges.

Schilthuizen also explores the more obvious changes we have made on our environment, such as destroying wilderness, introducing non-native species, littering our streets with food, polluting the air, banishing darkness from the night sky, and filling our world with noise—all changes to which species have had to adapt, sometimes very successfully.

Darwin Comes to Town is an interesting, entertaining book, and unexpectedly uplifting at times: as we inexorably destroy wild habitats, we do, albeit unwittingly, occasionally provide new opportunities for species to exploit.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Charles Darwin’s book-writing process Sun, 12 Feb 2023 12:59:26 +0000 For what I hope are obvious reasons, this post also appears on my Friends of Charles Darwin website.

Like many prolific authors, Charles Darwin did not enjoy writing books, claiming it was ‘dull work, but must be borne’1. He was easily distracted from his writing, preferring to spend his time observing, experimenting and hypothesising. But books needed to be written, and, over the years, Darwin adopted a writing process that worked for him. Indeed, certain elements of his process are still advocated as best practice by many modern writers.

Darwin’s approach to book-writing, described in detail in the Reminiscences 2 of his son Francis, and in less detail in Darwin’s Autobiography 3, went through four key stages:

  • Top-down planning/outlining
  • Initial rough draft
  • Fair copies
  • Revision of printers’ proofs

Top-down planning/outlining

When beginning his major works, Darwin would make a rough outline of the whole book first, then drill down into more detail:

[W]ith my large books I spend a good deal of time over the general arrangement of the matter. I first make the rudest outline in two or three pages, and then a larger one in several pages, a few words or one word standing for a whole discussion or series of facts. Each one of these headings is again enlarged and often transferred before I begin to write in extenso.4

Book plan
Outline for Darwin’s never-completed ‘big book’ on species.
Photo: Richard Carter

As described in my article about Darwin’s note-making system, while he was carrying out research, Darwin collected loose slips of information in different portfolios dedicated to particular topics of interest. The idea was, once he came to start writing on a particular topic, he would be able to open the corresponding portfolio, shuffle the various loose slips of paper around, and come up with a detailed outline. From this outline, he would develop an initial rough draft.

Initial rough draft

In his early days as a writer, Darwin struggled with his first drafts. He fussed too much over wording, trying to make the draft as good as possible. In later years he overcame this difficulty by adopting an approach recommended by many modern writers of simply going with the flow, not worrying at all about quality, and getting any old crap down on paper as quickly as possible:

There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.5

Manuscript page of ‘On the Origin of Species’
Manuscript page from the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
Photo: Richard Carter

One trick the proudly thrifty Darwin adopted to avoid both the terror of the blank page, and worrying too much about style in the rough drafts was to write on the backs of old letters and manuscripts.

He had a pet economy in paper, but it was rather a hobby than a real economy. All the blank sheets of letters received were kept in a portfolio to be used in making notes; it was his respect for paper that made him write so much on the backs of his old MS., and in this way, unfortunately, he destroyed large parts of the original MS. of his books. […]

It was characteristic of him that he felt unable to write with sufficient want of care if he used his best paper[.]6

Child’s drawing
Drawing made by one of Darwin’s children on the reverse of the same manuscript page of the first edition of On the Origin of Species.
Photo: Richard Carter

Fair copies

Having completed his rough draft, Darwin would have a fair copy made on widely ruled paper. So bad was his handwriting that he outsourced the production of this fair copy to the local schoolmaster, Mr Norman.

My father became so used to Mr. Norman’s handwriting, that he could not correct manuscript, even when clearly written out by one of his children, until it had been recopied by Mr. Norman.7

Darwin would then correct and improve this fair copy, and have a second, final fair copy made for sending to the printer.

One side-benefit Darwin saw in making two different fair copies was that the first, subsequently amended, fair copy could serve as a reassuring backup of his work, should something happen to the second copy after it was dispatched to the printer.

Revision of printers’ proofs

Once the proofs came back from the printer, Darwin set to work correcting and improving his words. He did not at all enjoy this stage of the writing process.

It was at this stage that he first seriously considered the style of what he had written. When this was going on he usually started some other piece of work as a relief. The correction of slips consisted in fact of two processes, for the corrections were first written in pencil, and then re-considered and written in ink.8

It sounds strange to modern readers that Darwin would only start worrying about literary style after the printers had already produced proofs of his work. Working on my own books, I find it extremely beneficial to be able to read my drafts in a different medium to the computer-screen on which they were composed—either on paper or e-book reader. Darwin also seems to have appreciated seeing his own words in a different format:

I never can write decently till I see it in print.9

In terms of literary style, Darwin preferred simple language with few superfluous words. When his new friend Henry Walter Bates began work on his first book, Darwin offered some stylistic advice:

As an old hackneyed author let me give you a bit of advice, viz to strike out every word, which is not quite necessary to connect subjects & which would not interest a stranger. I constantly asked myself, would a stranger care for this? & struck out or left in accordingly.— I think too much pains cannot be taken in making style transparently clear & throwing eloquence to the dogs. I hope that you will not think these few words impertinent.—10

During this final stage of the writing process, Darwin welcomed corrections and suggestions from family members. According to his daughter Henrietta11, he was always extremely grateful for suggested changes, making a point of remarking how much they improved the text, or giving all sorts of reasons why he didn’t agree with the proposed changes.

Darwin would then read his corrected proofs out loud to determine whether they needed further amendment:

I find it good to correct in pencil & read aloud, & if it sounds well, not to plague more over it.12

He would then return the completed book to the printer:

[I]t is great satisfaction finishing a job. It is certainly the greatest pleasure about a book.13

At which point, no doubt relieved to have got another book out of the way, Darwin would immediately move on to his next project.

…Which reminds me, I really ought to be working on my next book, rather than banging out posts on my website.

  1. Darwin, C.R. to H. W. Bates, 18 October [1862]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3773”. [Read online] ↩
  2. Darwin, F. (ed.) (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. [Read online] ↩
  3. Darwin, C. R. (1958). The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. Collins. [Read online] ↩
  4. Darwin, C.R. 1958 ↩
  5. Darwin, C.R. 1958 ↩
  6. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  7. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  8. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  9. Darwin, C.R. to J. D. Hooker, 30 May [1861]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3168”. [Read online] ↩
  10. Darwin, C.R. to H. W. Bates, 25 September [1861]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3266”. [Read online] ↩
  11. Darwin, F. 1887 ↩
  12. DCP Letter no. 3773 ↩
  13. Darwin, C.R. to J. D. Hooker, [21 December 1862]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 3871”. [Read online] ↩
Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 9 • 1861’ Wed, 18 Jan 2023 17:04:33 +0000
The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 9 • 1861

The ninth volume of Charles Darwin’s correspondence comprises all the surviving letters both from and to Darwin from the year 1861.

On the Origin of Species had been published in late 1859, and, at this stage, Darwin was supposed to be working on his long-planned ‘big book’ on species, of which he had described Origin as an ‘abstract’. But, as Darwin admits several times in this volume, he much preferred experimenting to writing, so was easily distracted. In the event, Darwin spent much of 1861 investigating the complex pollination mechanism of orchids, which he would eventually describe in his snappily entitled 1862 book, On the Various Contrivances by which British and Foreign Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing.

As with his previous eight-year study of barnacles, the pollination of orchids might sound like an inexplicably esoteric diversion for Darwin, who must surely have had far bigger fish to fry; but, as always, Darwin’s latest ‘hobby-horse’ bore considerable relevance to his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Darwin was convinced that in-breeding in general, and self-fertilisation in particular, were detrimental to sexually reproducing species, so adaptations that help cross-fertilisation should be favoured by natural selection. With his orchids study, Darwin showed how the wonderfully complex designs of many species of orchid are adaptations to ensure pollen is carried to other flowers by insects, rather than fertilising the flower in which it develops. In parallel with his orchid studies, Darwin had another side-project to investigate the dimorphism (different forms) of flowers in the same species, especially primulas. Once again, Darwin was really studying how these plants avoid self-pollination.

But 1861 wasn’t just about poking around in flowers’ private parts. During the year, Darwin also put out a revised, third edition of On the Origin of Species. His correspondence also shows him, among many other things:

  • writing to his American friend Asa Gray about the American Civil War;
  • egging on his combative friend Thomas Henry Huxley in his ongoing feud with anatomist Richard Owen about the similarity or otherwise of human and ape brains;
  • repeatedly defending natural selection as a scientific theory by comparing it to the wave-theory of light: another suggested mechanism that explained a great deal without having been directly observed;
  • being thrilled at new(ish) friend Henry Walter Bates’s demonstration of mimicry in South American butterflies;
  • giving Bates writing tips;
  • encouraging other scientists in their evolution-adjacent studies;
  • joking about the impossibility of a theory of his being wrong;
  • writing a posthumous tribute to his favourite old college professor and close friend John Stevens Henslow;
  • receiving news that the philosopher John Stuart Mill endorsed the philosophical he had adopted in Origin;
  • finally conceding that he had previously committed ‘one long gigantic blunder’ in attributing the Scottish geological features known as the Parallel Roads of Glen Roy to the action of the sea, rather than glaciers;
  • arranging a job for his oldest son as a partner in a bank.

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.
Darwinian smut Sun, 01 Jan 2023 19:20:10 +0000 Sunday, 01-Jan-2023

Began my ‘Daily Darwin’ project to try to read at least 10 pages of Darwin’s correspondence each day. It’s just a general principle, rather than a set target, so breaking the chain is fine. Today’s smutty highlight:

I am glad to hear so good an account of your Willy.
—Charles Darwin to Joseph Dalton Hooker, 04-Feb-1861

It’s good to be reading the old chap again.

2022: a year in photos Sun, 01 Jan 2023 00:00:00 +0000 For the last twelve years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2022 video:

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

The background music, Slide Salad, 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: ‘A Private Spy: the letters of John le Carré, 1945-2020’ Sat, 31 Dec 2022 09:38:26 +0000
‘A Private Spy‘ by John Le Carré (Tim Cornwell, ed.)

A penchant for reading other people’s correspondence is one of my few vices. As a John le Carré fan-boy, I was very much looking forward to this collection, and it didn’t disappoint.

Here you will find le Carré (real name: David Cornwell) corresponding with fellow former spies; assuring Sir Alec Guinness he is perfect for the TV role of George Smiley; providing his brother with writing advice (‘You just have to show up in the gym next morning, & behave as if nobody knocked you cold the day before‘); advising Stephen Fry on places to keep a low profile; stipulating his rules of engagement with his new publisher; complaining to his agent about the quality of paper in UK hardback books (a particular bugbear of my own); reminiscing about his wayward father; and banging out novel upon novel. Le Carré comes across very much as a hard-working, likeable character.

A fascinating collection, and a must-read for all my fellow le Carré fan-boys and -girls.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Northerners‘ by Brian Groom Fri, 23 Dec 2022 11:57:53 +0000
‘Northerners: a history‘ by Brian Groom

Northerners: a history covers similar territory to Tom Hazeldine’s recent book The Northern Question, but places far less emphasis on politics.

Although sticking broadly to a chronological history, its various chapters are dedicated to specific topics concerning the North of England, including: its historical role as a border region with Scotland; the Wars of the Roses; the Industrial Revolution; immigration; the slave trade; local rivalries; famous and influential northerners; northern cities; and so on.

The book repeats itself in a couple of places, but is otherwise an entertaining read about England’s better half.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Allegorizings‘ by Jan Morris Fri, 23 Dec 2022 11:35:27 +0000
Allegorizings‘ by Jan Morris

Following Jan Morris’s wishes, publication of this entertaining collection of essays had to wait until after her death. I’m not sure why she felt the need for the delay: to allow her time to keep adding new material is my best guess; and, perhaps, to reward her long-term fans with a posthumous treat.

This is a lovely, eclectic collection. Eclectic, yet somehow possessing what Morris, in her ‘pre-mortem’, describes as ‘a sort of crepuscular unity’. It’s very much a late-life book, although never morbid.

These essays cover, among many other topics: falling over; train journeys; sneezing; Tenzing Norgay; wanting to marry one’s cat; cruise-liners; Bloomsday; Provence; and whistling.

Like I say, eclectic. And lovely.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Cambridge Darwin pilgrimage Fri, 02 Dec 2022 15:34:36 +0000 This article also appears on my Friends of Charles Darwin website.

When I learnt of there was to be an exhibition entitled Darwin in Conversation at Cambridge University Library to mark the completion of the Darwin Correspondence Project, I realised a trip to Cambridge was an absolute must. My long-suffering partner, Jen, and I finally drove down at Halloween, staying for a couple of nights, and making our trip into something of a Darwin pilgrimage.

As luck would have it, a long-term online contact, Julian Derry (@JFDerry), emailed me a couple of days before the trip to alert me to an event being held by the Cambridge Philosophical Society to tie in with the exhibition. So we booked tickets and agree to meet afterwards. At the event, chaired by Dr Alison Pearn, Associate Director of the Darwin Correspondence Project, three scientists who are all direct descendants of Charles Darwin spoke about what it was like to be brought up having such an illustrious ancestor, and how he influenced their own careers. A video of the event was later made available on YouTube. Afterwards, we met briefly with Julian, who introduced us to Dr Francis Neary, Editor and Research Associate at the Darwin Correspondence Project, and we agreed to meet for beers the following evening.

Next morning, Jen and I made our way to the university library for the exhibition. It was a treasure-trove of Darwinalia: letters, maps, more letters, manuscripts, children’s doodles, more letters, notebooks, books, caricatures, more letters, and displays of various aspects of Darwin’s work, from writing books to investigating insectivorous plants, from following the flight-paths of bees to exploring human emotions. Also on display were two welcome, unplanned late additions to the exhibition: Darwin’s notebooks B and C, stolen from the library several years ago, anonymously returned only a few months earlier.

By prior arrangement, Alison Pearn briefly joined us at the exhibition for a quick chat about Darwin and the Correspondence Project, during which I took the opportunity to thank her and the rest of the team, past and present, for their astonishing scholarship over almost five decades.

After the exhibition, the rest of our day was spent on a whistle-stop tour of various Darwin-related Cambridge attractions: Christ’s College, in torrential rain, for the young Darwin statue; the Museum of Zoology for Darwin’s beetles, Beagle-voyage specimens, and barnacles; the Whipple Museum for his microscope; and the Sedgwick Museum for his geological stuff. Then, after fish and chips at The Eagle, it was down to the Maypole pub for real ale and enthusiastic Darwin conversation with Julian and Francis, during which I finally got to prove to Jen once and for all that it isn’t just me: there really are other Darwin nerds out there.

Thanks to Jen, Julian, Francis and Alison: it really was a very special trip.

Newsletter No. 31: ‘When nice old ladies wave’ Fri, 28 Oct 2022 15:49:04 +0100
Rich Text



Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned: it has been two monarchs and three Prime Ministers since my last newsletter. Although a staunch (UK) republican, even I had to admit the death of Queen Elizabeth II felt like the end of an era (whereas, Johnson replaced by Truss replaced by Sunak feels like the continuation of an error).

In the non-stop news coverage leading up to the queen’s funeral, it was claimed more than once that, when she waved, you always felt she was waving at you. On the one occasion my path accidentally crossed with that of Her Majesty, this was literally the case.

It happened 20 years ago. I was walking through the streets of Liverpool on my lunch-break, when I encountered a gathering of several hundred people holding union flags. I had forgotten the queen was due in town to mark her 50th (golden) jubilee. So I headed down towards the River Mersey to get away from the royalist mob. A minute later, a police car slowly rounded the corner, followed by an old Bentley without any number-plates. I was the only person in the street. I gawped in embarrassed astonishment as Her Majesty and Prince Philip looked directly at me, smiled, and waved. This was it: my big chance to make my mark; to raise a clenched fist and cry, “Power to the people!” But somehow my fist wouldn’t clench. Instead, the fingers and thumb on my raised hand began to wiggle back and forth in what I hope came across as a not-too-ironic return-wave.

When nice old ladies wave at you, it’s always polite to wave back.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Making a medieval book (video)
    I love watching skilled craftspeople at work. Here, 60 hours’ work creating a medieval-style leather-bound book from scratch are compressed into 24 minutes. If you’d prefer to watch a much longer version, check out this playlist.
  2. First known map of night sky found hidden in medieval parchment
    A fabled star catalogue by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, presumed lost, has been recovered through detailed scientific analysis of a palimpsest.
  3. The Spirit of the Wetlands
    A long, moving piece by my friend Julian Hoffman about the drastic decline of Dalmatian pelicans in the Prespa lakes in northern Greece due to avian influenza.
  4. Mutual entrapment
    As Neolithic people transformed prehistoric forests, they stumbled into an ecological trap… Although I wrote about humans’ ongoing maintenance of heather uplands in my book On the Moor, I’d never really thought of heather as a domesticated species before.
  5. The simple secret of runway digits (video)
    Ever wondered how airport runways are allocated numbers? Me neither. This typically entertaining CGP Grey video spills the beans, taking several diverting diversions in the process.
  6. How darkness can illuminate the insect apocalypse
    On our increasingly light-polluted planet, it’s possible nocturnal insects might have been evolving to avoid artificial light. But, as we use light-traps to count many of them, how do we know our insect-population estimates over the years have been comparing like with like?
  7. Two-hundred years of Stendhal
    2022 marks the bicentennial of the pseudonym’s transformation from literary dabbler into one of the greatest novelists of the modern age.
  8. Why 8 eyes are better than 2 (…if you’re a spider) (video)
    Why do spiders have 8 eyes? It’s a seemingly simple question with a surprisingly complex answer. (Warning: Be prepared to develop a soft-spot for jumping spiders.)

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

I’m planning to visit Cambridge soon on a mini Darwin pilgrimage. More of this, no doubt, in my next newsletter. Meanwhile, you might be interested in some sideline pieces I published recently about Charles Darwin’s note-making system, and some details of my own note-making ‘tagsonomy’. Those of a less nerdy nature might prefer the three pieces I wrote following my annual late-summer holiday in Anglesey about an encounter with dolphins and sitting on my favourite rock (parts 1 and 2).

Thanks as always for reading this newsletter—particularly if you’re a subscriber. In times like these, with the world’s richest narcissist and self-styled ‘free speech absolutist’ taking over Twitter, keeping in touch by email seems so much more sociable than so-called social networking.

Keep safe, and I’ll see you next time.


Rich Text 31: Bonus Links Fri, 28 Oct 2022 10:19:04 +0100 Some stuff there wasn’t space for in my Rich Text newsletter No. 31:

  1. Footprints on Merseyside beach shine light on biodiversity in ancient Britain
    Footprint beds on Formby beach reveal that the intertidal landscapes of Mesolithic Britain were hubs of human and animal activity for the first few thousand years after the last glacial period.
  2. Now playing (Caught by the River) (video)
    A mesmerising video promoting the new track ‘Sister Rena’ by Lomond Campbell from the album ‘Under This Hunger Moon We Fell’.
  3. Tutankhamun’s burial chamber may contain door to Nefertiti’s tomb
    Hidden hieroglyphics could suggest the king is buried within a much larger structure housing the Egyptian queen.
  4. Increase in LED lighting ‘risks harming human and animal health’
    The transition to blue light radiation across Europe increases suppression of sleep hormone melatonin, say scientists.
  5. Hunger stones, wrecks and bones: Europe’s drought brings past to surface
    Receding rivers and lakes recently exposed ghost villages, a Nazi vehicle and a Roman fort.
  6. Ovule obsession, or: A life without ash
    Forester and pathologist Jim Pratt describes his growing obsession with, and love for, the ash tree, along with his concerns about the causes and implications of ash dieback disease.
  7. ‘Zero scent’: could negative reviews of smelly candles hint at a covid surge?
    Research shows there is indeed a correlation between Covid cases and the number of reviews complaining that Yankee Candles don’t have a smell.

Book review: ‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes Wed, 26 Oct 2022 11:24:38 +0100
‘Kindred’ by Rebecca Wragg Sykes

As someone who publishes a Charles-Darwin-related newsletter, I’ve noticed new scientific papers concerning two particular topics ping on my radar with remarkable frequency (so remarkable that I’m remarking on it right now): the evolutionary history of domestic dogs, and our long-lost human cousins the Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis). Both of these subjects are clearly very hot topics in the archaeological science community. There’s a good reason for this: recent advances in the extraction and analysis of ancient DNA (aDNA) have opened up exciting new avenues of research, even when based on specimens collected many years ago.

Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s enjoyable book Kindred explores what we know, and what we can infer, about our extinct Neanderthal relatives. In the process, she punctures a number of outdated misconceptions about this particular branch of our increasingly bushy family-tree. In the same way that, over the last couple of decades, we’ve stopped seeing dinosaurs as lumbering, ill-adapted failures, now appreciating them for the magnificent creatures they were, in recent years we’ve begun to realise our cousins were far from the dimwitted knuckle-dragging ‘Neanderthals’ we once mistook them for. As Wragg Sykes puts it, ‘Neanderthals were never some sort of highway service station en route to Real People. They were state-of-the-art humans, just a different sort’.

As with all things archaeological, there is an unavoidable element of survivorship bias in our perceptions of the Neanderthals. The bodily remains and artefacts that have managed to survive in the archaeological record give us only a few fragments of the picture. As Wragg Sykes explains, 99% of Middle Palaeolithic human artefacts are stone, but most artefacts will have been organic, so rarely survived. Kindred wonderfully explains how we have managed to correct some of the our earlier misconceptions, and begun to fill in some of the gaps in knowledge of the Neanderthals. For example, it was fascinating to read how aDNA analysis of the tartar on their teeth has revealed their ‘paleao’ diets to have been more varied than clichéd mammoth burgers and cave-bear kebabs.

Inevitably, in addition to new, science-based revelations about the Neanderthals, Kindred contains a considerable amount of conjecture. This can often be annoying in books where you just want to learn the facts, but Wragg Sykes is always at pains to make clear when she is speculating, and the reasoning she used to get there—and her conjectures often sounded entirely reasonable to this generally sceptical non-expert.

Perhaps the biggest headline-grabbing scientific revelation about Neanderthals in recent years was that some of their DNA lives on in our own cells. In other words, they occasionally inter-bred with our Homo sapiens ancestors. The branches in family trees are more convoluted than many of the textbooks would have us believe. Not only were the Neanderthals our cousins, but an unknown number of them were also our direct ancestors. Some people might find this shocking, but, by the end of this book, I hope most readers, like me, will find the idea utterly delightful.

Kindred is a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to our formerly maligned cousins.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Bonniest Companie’ by Kathleen Jamie Mon, 17 Oct 2022 11:20:26 +0100
‘The Bonniest Companie’ by Kathleen Jamie

As I’ve said before, I’m a huge fan of Kathleen Jamie’s prose. Her first two collections of essays, Findings and Sightlines, are two of my favourite books. Reading and re-reading her wonderful prose eventually encouraged me to read her poetry.

I loved two of Jamie’s earlier poetry collections, The Overhaul and The Tree House. I also loved The Bonniest Companie. Jamie’s poetry is not at all showy. She writes with a wonderful, accessible precision—a quality I admire in her prose. I could also relate to many of the humanist sentiments expressed in her poems, especially when Jamie expresses disbelief in an afterlife, and the need to make the most of what time we have left. I also love the way she describes, in a completely un-twee way, nostalgic memories from her childhood. Very much my kind of thing.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Orwell’s Roses‘ by Rebecca Solnit Mon, 17 Oct 2022 09:13:44 +0100
‘Orwell’s Roses’ by Rebecca Solnit

Although I’ll happily read anything by Rebecca Solnit, I wasn’t expecting to get much from this book. I had previously enjoyed George Orwell’s short collection of essays Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, and his book The Road to Wigan Pier perches atop my precipitous To Read pile, but I have no interest in Orwell’s more famous fictional works, so expected Solnit’s book to be of only passing interest.

I should have known better: I absolutely loved this book.

Loosely structured around a brief biography of George Orwell, Orwell’s Roses also explores themes in his work, and the moral and literary values he adhered to. Orwell was a keen gardener, and the delight he took in growing roses is a running theme throughout this book. Solnit also adopts the metaphor of roses, as previously adopted by the American women’s suffrage movement in their slogan bread and roses, to stand for the small pleasures that elevate our lives. In one particularly excellent chapter, she criticised the moralistic posturing of people who seem to think everyone should be equally unhappy:

The left has never been short on people arguing that it is callous and immoral to enjoy oneself while others suffer, and somewhere others will always be suffering. It’s a puritanical position, implying that what one has to offer them is one’s own austerity or joylessness, rather than some practical contribution toward their liberation.

In another excellent chapter, Solnit explores the importance of being truthful in factual writing, while denying this leaves insufficient scope for the use of creative literary techniques. In later chapters, she goes on to explore the damage done when people are lied to, and the inability of totalitarian states to function without lies.

Orwell’s Roses is an unusual, thought-provoking book that meanders between important topics in a most enjoyable manner. I would describe is as a gem, but, in the circumstances, a rose seems more appropriate.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Charles Darwin’s note-making system Wed, 12 Oct 2022 16:31:21 +0100 For what I hope are obvious reasons, this post also appears on my Friends of Charles Darwin website.

Charles Darwin’s life and work must be one of the most well documented of any scientist. We still have his Beagle Journal, most of his notebooks, much of his vast correspondence, many of the annotated books from his personal library, many of his own loose papers and draft manuscripts, not forgetting, of course, all the wonderful books and papers he published. Heck, we even have his student bills from university!

During his many years of research, Darwin consumed and processed vast amounts of information, merging it with thoughts and research of his own to produce all manner of publications on subjects as apparently diverse as coral reefs, insectivorous plants, barnacles (both living and fossil), earthworms, orchids, cross- and self-fertilisation, human emotions, climbing plants, domestication, not to forget, of course, evolution by means of natural selection, and human evolution and sexual selection.

Despite long-term ill-health, Darwin managed to churn out an awful lot of top-rate material over the years. It seems remarkable he was able to keep track of so many diverse topics. Fortunately, Darwin’s life is so well documented, we have a pretty good idea of how he made and arranged his notes—a practice that Darwin himself briefly describes in his autobiography:

As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.

In other words, in modern note-making parlance, Darwin:

  • gathered loose slips of information in a number of different filed folders dedicated to particular topics of interest. These slips included notes, speculations and draft fragments of his own; interesting snippets from, and comments on, stuff he had read; and extracts from personal correspondence;
  • made brief source/literature notes which he filed either: a) in the back of the book concerned; or b) in a dedicated file (i.e. drawer). Note: As we shall see from his son Francis’s account of Darwin’s note-taking system, Darwin sometimes also filed particular source/literature notes in the appropriate topic-related folder(s).

In the following sections, I explore Darwin’s note-making in more depth before giving one example of how Darwin transformed some rough notes into a published text.

Darwin’s reference and source notes

Darwin read vast amounts of scientific literature and, by way of light relief, also enjoyed having family correspondence, novels and other non-specialist books read aloud to him by his wife, Emma, while he rested.

During and immediately following the two decades’ research that culminated in the publication of On the Origin of Species, Darwin maintained reading notebooks listing, in chronological order, the books and papers he had read. He recorded work-related reading on the left-hand pages and leisure reading on the right. At the back of the same book, he also maintained a list of work-related material he planned to read. These notebooks will no doubt have been invaluable to Darwin when trying to recall obscure references.

When reading, Darwin treated work-related books very much as tools to be used. So much so that he was not above tearing particularly thick books in half down the spine to make them easier to handle. Indeed, according to his son Francis, “He used to boast that he had made [his close friend the geologist Charles] Lyell publish the second edition of one of his books in two volumes, instead of in one, by telling him how he had been obliged to cut [the first edition] in half.”

Francis also explains how his father annotated his reading material, and, later, made and filed indexed, abstracted notes:

In each book, as he read it, he marked passages bearing on his work. In reading a book or pamphlet, &c., he made pencil-lines at the side of the page, often adding short remarks, and at the end made a list of the pages marked. When it was to be catalogued and put away, the marked pages were looked at, and so a rough abstract of the book was made. This abstract would perhaps be written under three or four headings on different sheets, the facts being sorted out and added to the previously collected facts in different subjects. He had other sets of abstracts arranged, not according to subject, but according to periodical. When collecting facts on a large scale, in earlier years, he used to read through, and make abstracts, in this way, of whole series of periodicals.

Darwin’s notebooks and research portfolios

In the early days of his research into transmutation (i.e. evolution), at a time when he was still trying to identify a mechanism for evolutionary change, Darwin began to keep a number of transmutation notebooks in which he jotted down ideas, reading notes, and other information that seemed relevant to the general topic in hand. As he writes in his autobiography:

My first note-book was opened in July 1837. I worked on true Baconian principles, and without any theory collected facts on a wholesale scale, more especially with respect to domesticated productions, by printed enquiries, by conversation with skilful breeders and gardeners, and by extensive reading. When I see the list of books of all kinds which I read and abstracted, including whole series of Journals and Transactions, I am surprised at my industry.

Although Darwin continued to maintain a number of notebooks on various topics, shortly after his 1838 Eureka moment in which he identified a mechanism for evolution that he dubbed Natural Selection, he seems to have realised bound notebooks would be too restrictive when making notes for what was to become a twenty-year research programme. Instead, as we have already seen, he began to maintain a series of different loose-leaf portfolios dedicated to individual research topics.

It wasn’t just work-related textbooks that Darwin mistreated abysmally. Once he had begun his new system of collecting notes on loose slips of paper, he was not above tearing pages out of his old notebooks to file in the relevant portfolio. For example, on the inside cover of his famous Notebook B (1837–38), which contains his iconic ‘I think’ evolutionary tree diagram, Darwin noted:

All useful Pages cut out Dec. 7th. /1856/

(& again looked through April 21 1873)

Indeed, so useful does Darwin seem to have found his final (1839–41) notebook on transmutation that he tore it completely apart for filing in his various research portfolios.

Darwin adopted a very much top-down approach when researching and planning his never-to-be-completed ‘Big Book’ on species—an ‘abstract’ of which, he would later publish as On the Origin of Species. He had a broad outline for the book in mind, so arranged his portfolios to reflect the various planned chapter topics. The general idea was, once Darwin came to start writing a chapter, he would be able to open the corresponding portfolio, shuffle the various loose slips of paper about, and come up with a detailed outline for that chapter.

Darwin was so convinced of the usefulness of this technique that, in 1864, when trying to convince his close friend Thomas Henry Huxley to write a book on zoology aimed at a general audience, he suggested:

If you were to keep a portfolio open for a couple of years, and throw in slips of paper as subjects crossed your mind, you would soon have a skeleton (and that seems to me the difficulty) on which to put the flesh and colours in your inimitable manner.

In his Reminiscences, Francis Darwin also describes his father’s use of portfolios, and how, in later life, Darwin was amused to learn another scientist had independently arrived at the same note-making method:

In some of his early letters he speaks of filling several note-books with facts for his book on species; but it was certainly early that he adopted his plan of using portfolios […] My father and M. de Candolle were mutually pleased to discover that they had adopted the same plan of classifying facts. De Candolle describes the method in his ‘Phytologie,’ and in his sketch of my father mentions the satisfaction he felt in seeing it in action at Down.

On realising they had arrived at the same note-making technique, Darwin wrote to the French-Swiss botanist Alphonse de Candolle, saying:

It has pleased me to find that I have always followed your plan of making notes on separate pieces of paper; I keep several scores of large portfolios, arranged on very thin shelves about two inches apart, fastened to the walls of my study, and each shelf has its proper name or title; and I can thus put at once every memorandum into its proper place.

The thin shelves Darwin used for filing his portfolios are clearly visible in the alcove to the right of the fireplace in this etching of his study made shortly after he died. I also note the same image appears to show several loose slips of paper pinned to the wall at the side of the fireplace:

Darwin’s study at Down House

de Candolle was just as delighted as Darwin to learn they shared the same loose-slip note-making technique. In a brief sketch he wrote about visiting Darwin at his home, de Candolle recalls (my translation of his original French, very much aided and abetted by Google Translate):

When we returned to the house [having walked round the grounds], Darwin showed me his library, a large room on the ground floor, very convenient for a studious man: many books on the shelves; daylight from two sides; a table for writing and another for experimental equipment. […] He was kind enough to inform me that, for his notes, he had himself employed exactly the same process of loose slips that my father and I have followed, and which I have spoken of in detail in my Phytographie. Eighty years of our [i.e. de Candolle and his father’s] experience had shown me its value. I am more impressed with it than ever, since Darwin had devised it on his own. This method gives the work more accuracy, supplements memory, and saves years.

Example of Darwin’s annotated notes in action

I thought it might be fun to explore an example of Darwin capturing and processing some notes, and using them in a published document.

For the source document, I chose On the Nature of Limbs by Darwin’s friend (and soon-to-be enemy), the brilliant anatomist Richard Owen. In this book, Owen describes how the skeletons of all vertebrates seem to bear the same underlying basic layout. Owen proposes this is due to their all being derived from the same ideal ‘archetype’. He suggests this mysterious underlying design must have arisen through natural laws, but offers no suggestions as to how.

Already familiar with Owen’s ideas, Darwin highlighted (with marginal pencil lines) several passages in his personal copy of ‘On the Nature of Limbs’, and included a number of annotations. Five of his highlights were made against the following:

  • on p.9, in which Owen points out that human inventors don’t constrain themselves to a common basic design when designing different types of mechanical locomotion;
  • on p.10, in which Owen argues that the structure of individual species’ limbs are not wholly determined by their ‘final causes’ (or, as we might put it, their forms are not entirely determined by their functions);
  • on pp.13–14, in which Owen points out the uncanny similarities in structure between a mole’s forelimb (used for digging), a human hand (used for grasping), a bat’s wing (used for flying), and the fin of a dugong or whale (used for swimming);
  • on p.82, in which Owen observes that the limbs of the newly discovered Lepidosiren (South American lungfish)—a species that can live out of water, and move around on land using its fins—most closely resemble the limbs of Owen’s hypothetical archetype;
  • on p.86, in which Owen waxes lyrical about how, once ‘the Divine Mind’ had planned and established the ideal archetype, ‘[Nature] has advanced with slow and stately steps, guided by the archetypal light, amidst the wreck of worlds, from the first embodiment of the Vertebrate idea under its old Ichthyic [i.e. fishy] vestment, until it became arrayed in the glorious garb of the Human form.’

In his indexed summary of his highlights and annotations that he pinned into the back of his copy of Owen’s book, Darwin summarised the highlighted sections described above as follows:

  • 9. Man does not trammel himself in his inventions by any common type
  • 13 Capital comparison of hand of Mole, Bat & Fin
  • 10 Final causes not sole governing principle [see also:] 14, 37
  • 82 Lepidosiren realises nearly ideal Archetype (see my remarks at end of volume)
  • 86 Alludes in grandiloquent sentence to some law governi[n]g progression, guided by archetypal light — &c.—

By far the most important (and famous) note Darwin made in his copy of On the Nature of Limbs, however, were the remarks he links to in the index item for p.82 shown above. In the back of the book, Darwin wrote a separate note offering his own interpretation of Owen’s proposed archetype:

I look at Owens Archetypus as more than ideal, as a real representation as far as the most consummate skill & loftiest generalizations can represent th parent-form of th Vertebrata . —

I follow him that there is a created archetype, the parent of its class

Darwin had realised that, when Owen talked of a mysterious vertebrate archetype, although he didn’t know it, he was really talking about the common ancestor of all vertebrates.

Darwin’s notes on Owen’s book were to inform his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in which he writes:

Morphology.—We have seen that the members of the same class, independently of their habits of life, resemble each other in the general plan of their organisation. […] This is the most interesting department of natural history, and may be said to be its very soul. What can be more curious than that the hand of a man, formed for grasping, that of a mole for digging, the leg of the horse, the paddle of the porpoise, and the wing of the bat, should all be constructed on the same pattern, and should include the same bones, in the same relative positions? […]

Nothing can be more hopeless than to attempt to explain this similarity of pattern in members of the same class, by utility or by the doctrine of final causes. The hopelessness of the attempt has been expressly admitted by Owen in his most interesting work on the 'Nature of Limbs.' On the ordinary view of the independent creation of each being, we can only say that so it is;—that it has so pleased the Creator to construct each animal and plant.

The explanation is manifest on the theory of the natural selection of successive slight modifications […] If we suppose that the ancient progenitor, the archetype as it may be called, of all mammals, had its limbs constructed on the existing general pattern, for whatever purpose they served, we can at once perceive the plain signification of the homologous construction of the limbs throughout the whole class.

Quite correct, as usual, Mr. D. The similar skeletal layouts of humans, moles, horses, porpoises and bats—and of frogs, lizards, birds, ichthyosaurs, and even fish—speak volumes. They speak of inheritance from a common ancestor. No other explanation makes sense.

Concluding remarks

Working, as I currently am, on a book about Charles Darwin, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of a reliable note-making system. I’m no note-making masochist, so, what with it being the twenty-first century and everything, I’ve adopted a highly flexible digital note-making app to gather and process my, and other people’s, thoughts. All such modern systems allow you to adopt Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making; or a bottom-up approach through which, by linking lots of small notes together, interesting new themes emerge; or, if you prefer, you can have a combination of both top-down and bottom-up. Each to their own.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, because my main focus is currently on the life and work of a single person, I’ve mostly adopted Darwin’s top-down approach to note-making. This is not because I’m in any way trying to emulate my hero, but because a top-down approach, in this case, makes most sense. Darwin adopted a top-down approach to most of his work, so many of the notes in my electronic system naturally reflect the individual topics he worked on. Indeed, I suspect there must be a considerable overlap between the major topics covered in my notes, and the topics assigned their own loose-slip portfolios in Darwin’s own note-making system. That said, I have experienced several of my own bottom-up, mini Eureka moments as, deep down in some obscure note in my system, I’ve suddenly identified a fascinating, unexpected link with some apparently unrelated note elsewhere.

When you set out to unify the whole of biology by devising, researching and promoting its single most important theory, you’d better have a reliable note-making system to hand. Darwin would no doubt have given his back teeth for a modern, digital system to keep track of all his notes, but, obviously, this was never an option. So, instead, he devised his own, entirely pragmatic, top-down note-making system that allowed him to gather and process notes on all manner of different research topics from hundreds of different sources. The sheer amount of work he managed to put out bears magnificent testament to how well Darwin’s system worked for him.

My notes ‘tagsonomy’ Sun, 02 Oct 2022 17:53:47 +0100 For many years, I maintained notes on diverse topics in a number of different places. These included (and, in the first three cases, still include):

  • paper notebooks;
  • index cards of notes made while reading books (these doubled as bookmarks, and were permanently ‘filed’ inside the book in question);
  • collections of electronic bookmarks;
  • individual electronic notes on particular topics;
  • a number of extremely long ‘spark files’ containing links, notes and undeveloped ideas, one for each potential future project. (This was a concept I adopted and adapted over ten years ago from an idea by Steven Johnson.)

Once I discovered, and fell in love with, the frankly wonderful Obsidian app (other ‘personal knowledge management’ systems are available), I gradually converted most of my old notes into a much larger collection of smaller, interlinked electronic notes in my Obsidian repository. In so doing, I also adopted many of the Zettelkasten note-making principles popularised by Sönke Ahrens in his book How to Take Smart Notes.

One simple but very powerful thing electronic systems like Obsidian allow you to do is assign one or more ‘tags’ (prefixed with a # symbol) and ‘sub-tags’ to individual notes. This enables you, among other things, to indicate what type of note they are. Obviously, there are many different ways to do this, and I struggled for quite some time to come up with a taxonomy—an, if you will, tagsonomy—that worked for me.

None of what follows is particularly original, but I thought I’d describe the tagsonomy I eventually arrived at in case anyone else might find it useful… It certainly works for me!

The following is by no means a complete list of the tags I use in Obsidian, but describes the tags I use to classify the different types of notes in my Zettelkasten-type system…

Zettelkasten-related tags

The top-level tag for all my Zettelkasten-type notes. This tag is used to group all such notes together, and to distinguish them from other documents in my repository.

Fleeting (ephemeral) notes. This tag effectively identifies an ‘inbox’ of vague/passing thoughts. After review, fleeting notes will either be developed into one or more other types of note, or be deleted.

Source notes (also known as literature notes). Notes made from a single source of information. Sub-tags of this tag denote the source type: book, paper, article, video, podcast, interview, etc. (Note: Source notes are every bit as permanent as ‘permanent notes’—see below—but I find it useful to keep them separate.)

Indexes. Notes listing (and linking to) other notes on a particular topic. These can be straightforward (e.g. alphabetised) linked indexes, or more curated/structured Tables of Content (denoted by the sub-tag: TOC).

My main ‘permanent’ notes (also called evergreen notes by some, and atomic notes by others). Named in contrast to ‘fleeting’ notes, these are notes that are likely to remain permanently in my repository—although they will be subject to constant revision. The following section describes my sub-taxonomy of permanent notes.

‘Iconic notes’

In the early days, I struggled manfully to develop some consistency in my permanent notes. I failed. It finally dawned on me I had set myself an impossible task. It seems obvious now, but my problem was I had a number of different types of permanent notes. What I needed was some permanent notes sub-tags! But, rather than text, I thought, why not use some nice emoji icons for these sub-tags?

For some reason, giving my permanent notes iconic sub-tags really helped clarify what sort of notes I had. So much so that I now tend to think of my permanent notes as ‘iconic notes’—if that doesn’t make them sound too important.

My permanent notes’ sub-tags are, in (roughly) increasing order of importance:

Information-only notes. Simple definitions or summaries of the topic in question, often cut and pasted from elsewhere with few or no original thoughts of my own. I only use this icon for notes I’m unlikely to want to develop further. Their main purpose is to provide something to link to from other notes.

Placeholder notes (also known as ‘tag notes’). Brief (or even non-existent, virtual) notes whose main value is in their backlinks (i.e. the links to them from other notes). These are different from information-only notes in that they are on topics I think I might want to make one or more proper notes about in future—especially if the note accrues a significant number of backlinks.

Spark notes. Rough and ready ideas and links about a particular topic. These are basically initial research notes containing only minimal processing at best. These notes are similar to placeholder notes, but much of my initial research surrounding them is contained within the note itself, rather than in the backlinks. (I named this sub-tag in honour of my pre-Obsidian ‘spark files’, which they effectively replaced—albeit there are a lot more of them.)

Fully developed notes on a particular topic, complete with cited sources.

Idea notes. Notes expressing a specific claim or opinion that I’m prepared to defend, complete with cited sources. These notes will usually (and preferably) have titles that are statements.

The thing I like about my notes tagsonomy is that it allows me to classify many of my notes as ‘permanent’, albeit not yet full developed. A half-developed note can, after all, still be incredibly useful.

My ‘placeholder’ notes and ‘spark’ notes, in particular, fulfil a very important role in developing my ideas. Hopefully, one day, many of them will end up as fully developed notes, or ‘idea’ notes on subjects I now feel I understand well enough to defend. But there will always be a place for half-developed notes in my vault. Note-making should be an ongoing process, not something you ever complete

Darwin book notes taxonomies
Indexes of the different types of permanent notes for my Darwin book, Through Darwin’s Eyes.
On the rocks Sun, 25 Sep 2022 15:42:04 +0100 It’s only been two weeks, but it seems a long time since I was in Anglesey. The late queen lying in state dragged on forever, and as for what’s been going on in the political world, the least said the better.

I didn’t have to worry about that sort of stuff in Anglesey. I just sat on my favourite rock for several hours each day, gazing out to sea, waiting to see what came along. Nature waiting, I call it—I need to come up with a better term. I hope seasonal vagaries were to blame, rather than avian flu, but I saw fewer birds this year. The swallows had mostly gone. There were fewer terns—perhaps they had already headed off too. There were also fewer guillemots and razorbills. But I did see plenty of old favourites: gannets, cormorants, gulls, wheatears, rock pipits, oystercatchers, curlews, egrets. I even saw a flight of seven Brent geese—a first from my rock. The local grey seal also put in several appearances. One of the experienced anglers from the rocks swore blind it had a habit of stealing fish from his line as he reeled them in—although he said the seal was picky, and tended to ignore less desirable fish such as pollack.

Grey seal

The most unusual sighting from my rock this year, however, had nothing to do with wildlife. One evening, the local lifeboat launched. This was not, in itself, a particularly unusual event. But this time it was joined in a training exercise by a coast guard helicopter. My rock turned into a ring-side seat as they practised lowering the winchman into the speeding lifeboat. It was all rather spectacular…

Lifeboat and coastguard helicopter practice exercise

All in all, fewer birds and noisy helicopters notwithstanding, sitting on my rock doing nothing but look at stuff was as idyllic as ever. You should give it a go yourself… But you’ll need to find your own rock.

Grampus Sun, 18 Sep 2022 16:47:03 +0100 During our recent holiday in Anglesey, Jen and I took several walks along the island’s rugged north coast. We do so every year: these are my favourite walks bar none. I always insist, in the unlikely event I turn out to be hopelessly wrong about the whole ‘reincarnation’ malarkey, I’d very much like to come back as a chough on the north coast of Anglesey. I say chough, rather than raven, as the local choughs seem to enjoy the place every bit as much as I do, wheeling and cavorting in the air, calling to each other in what sounds like unrestrained joy.


There were choughs (and ravens) this year. It’s always a thrill to see them. But this time they had some stiff competition for my attention. On my favourite walk of all, we briefly spotted three or four porpoises in hot pursuit of fish. They were escorted by a couple of gannets that dived among them after the same quarry.

But the biggest thrill came the following day, as Jen and I arrived, breathless after a steep climb, at the wartime lookout post high on a clifftop at the northernmost point of the island. A couple of women had arrived there before us, and excitedly announced they had just been watching a small pod of Risso’s dolphins. Seconds later, the dolphins reappeared: two or three of them directly below us, another two rapidly approaching from the direction of Ynys Badrig, a small island a short distance off the coast. One of the approaching dolphins was making quite a show of itself, leaping from the sea, flipping upside-down, and splashing dramatically into the water on its back. It must have repeated this manoeuvre at least 20 times.

A Risso’s dolphin showing off

Dolphins are thought to leap out the water like this for a number of reasons: to get their bearings; to dislodge parasites; or simply to play. Whatever the reason, this one seemed to be having great fun.

I’d never seen Risso’s dolphins before, and was surprised at the roundness of their faces, and the shortness of their snouts. To me, they looked uncannily like the faces of swifts—albeit with disproportionately large eyes.

Risso’s dolphins
Risso’s dolphins

The dolphins hung around for a good ten minutes before heading off further along the coast, leaving us to enjoy the sight of the small new gannet colony on Ynys Badrig—an island named in honour of the British-born St Patrick, who, according to legend, was once shipwrecked on the island as he tried to cross the Irish Sea to rid Ireland of its snakes (and, presumably its weasels and moles).

Ynys Badrig
Ynys Badrig
Sitting on a rock with a brew, gazing out to sea Sun, 11 Sep 2022 20:09:59 +0100 Jen and I have just returned from our annual early September holiday in Anglesey. As always, when we weren’t out walking or dining, I spent much of my time—typically 90 minutes before breakfast, and 90 minutes in the late afternoon—sitting on my favourite rock, gazing out to sea. Nature waiting, I like to call it: sitting and waiting to see what comes along.

Morning view from my favourite rock
Morning view from my favourite rock.

Billy Connolly once joked luge competitors in the Winter Olympics could practice their sport simply by lying in bed. Similarly, it occurred to me one morning last week, people who write about the natural world—or, indeed, about anything—can carry out research simply by sitting on a rock with a brew, gazing out to sea. Well, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.

All joking aside, though, as I keep insisting to anyone who will listen, there’s far more to writing than simply writing. There’s also research, obviously, including making notes. And there’s thinking about what you’re going to write. And there’s outlining. And, after you’ve written your first draft, there’s all the re-writing, cutting out the bullshit in an attempt to fashion a silk purse out of a sow’s ear (if you’ll pardon the mixed farming-metaphor-cum-cliché).

But I would maintain there are less obvious elements of writing that are just as important, but which, to be frank, sound—and feel—like skiving. Reading other people’s writing, for example. How can you develop as a writer without learning a thing or two from your colleagues—both what works, and what doesn’t? And there’s letting things stew. Once you’ve finished the first draft of a piece of serious writing, just about the worst thing you can do is immediately begin work on the second. You need to allow yourself time to become less familiar with what you’ve written, so you can review it with fresher, more dispassionate eyes. And there’s simply allowing yourself time to chill. Sitting on your favourite rock with a brew, gazing out to sea is a great way to do this. As I re-discover every September, simply making time to think about nothing in particular is a great way to come up with new ideas; to realise what you need to do up your game; and, most importantly, to put things in perspective. And if, in the process, you happen to spot some stuff that might make nice material for chapters or blog posts, so much the better.

Thank you, once again, favourite rock. I’ll be back!

Winter emigrants—for the time being Fri, 02 Sep 2022 18:52:11 +0100 September is a strong contender for my favourite month: generally decent weather, not too hot, often better than August; a sensible mix of daylight and night-time hours; fewer people about, now the kids are back at school; early hints of autumn to come. On the downside, though, winter is on its way, and favourite migrants are leaving us.

Swallows preparing to migrate from Anglesey in 2010.

The swifts are long gone. The swallows will be following soon. Back to Africa, swapping the local cows for wildebeest. It always seems strange to me to realise swallows hang out with lions and baboons for half the year. So much more exotic than our foxes and rabbits. Not that there’s anything wrong with foxes and rabbits, you understand. I wonder if African flies taste different to our European ones. (To the swallows, I mean: I’m not particularly interested in finding out for myself.)

What I also tend to forget is that swallows begin their lives up here, in Europe not Africa. Here is where they nest and raise their young. Without wishing to sound parochial, it’s wrong to think of them as summer migrants: strictly speaking, they’re winter emigrants. Not that I begrudge Africa their loan.

Swallows’ annual disappearance each autumn used to perplex those who had time to wonder at such marvels. Gilbert White, an unabashed swallow fanboy, very much regretted their vanishing each autumn, being undecided whether they migrated abroad or remained nearby in some unknown hybernaculum. Reading White’s The Natural History of Selborne, however, I gained the distinct impression he would have much preferred it had his beloved hirundines remained local.

The way things are going, White might one day get his way. This spring, the British Trust for Ornithology reported that up to 10 swallows were observed to have overwintered in southern England, rather than making the dangerous and arduous two-way journey to Africa and back. Welcome though White might have found such news, it doesn’t bode well: the only reason these birds were able to survive over winter in the UK was that our winters are getting milder as a result of climate change.