Richard Carter A merged feed of Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters and Reviews from en-gb Richard Carter 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.

A healthy assortment of raptors Sun, 28 Aug 2022 09:06:09 +0100 The heather is just about at its best at the moment, so, on Thursday, Jen and I went for a walk on the Moor.

The view from the Moor

It was very quiet up there, which suited us just fine. We only saw one other person, and that was from some distance. Neither did we see or hear any sign of grouse. I’ve noticed this before in August. It’s almost as if they’re keeping their heads low at the start of the shooting season. Either that, or they didn’t keep their heads low enough! That said, I haven’t heard any shooting so far this year.

What we did encounter, however, was a healthy assortment of raptors. Having paid our customary respects at the trig point, as we headed along the edge, we spotted four kestrels hanging low in the updraught. They were too far away to make out details, but I assumed they must be a pair of adults showing their offspring the ropes. A few moments later, I spotted what I initially took to be another kestrel squatting in the heather, but it turned out to be a female sparrowhawk, which took off as soon as it spotted us. Then, seconds later, I heard the unmistakeably wheezy whistle of a buzzard, and looked up to see it circling high overhead. Three species of raptors in as many minutes: the local gamekeepers will be going apoplectic!

Female sparrowhawk
Female sparrowhawk

As we headed down from the edge and made our way along the wall at the edge of the Moor, I kept my eyes peeled for wheatears, and soon spotted one flitting across the top field and landing on a fence-post: a male. As anyone who’s read On the Moor will know, I have a particular soft-spot for wheatears: a species with a remarkable migration route.

On the Moor

As we continued along the edge of the Moor, a buzzard, perhaps the same one we had seen earlier, was kicking up a commotion, gliding low, back and forth, above a distant field, wheeze-whistling incessantly. I thought this might be a young bird practising its hunting skills while trying to summon its parents, although I saw no sign of any other buzzards. Until recently, buzzards were seldom seen around here, being generally unwelcome in sheep-rearing and grouse-shooting country, but they’ve become noticeably more common over the last few years. A pair nested in nearby Burlees Wood this year and last, so I wondered whether this forlorn bird might be one of their offspring.

Just before we headed down off the Moor from Johnny House, I remembered to train my binoculars on the nearly dead tree, and was pleased to see, despite its having toppled over many years ago, it was once again covered in leaves.

Stanage Edge Fri, 26 Aug 2022 16:39:07 +0100 · Derbyshire ·

Considering we live just an hour’s drive away, it’s astonishing Jen and I don’t visit the Peak District more often. Actually, come to think of it, until last weekend we’d only visited the Peak District together once—for her younger brother’s wedding reception—and that hardly counts.

So, the last time we were out drinking with the in-laws, as well as rashly agreeing to read my sister-in-law’s favourite book, I dropped a not particularly subtle hint that perhaps they could invite us over to their place in Sheffield some time, so we could all go for a walk along the impressive gritstone escarpment of Stanage Edge. Which is exactly what finally happened last weekend.

Stanage Edge

It was a fantastic walk. The weather was perfect, the heather was in full bloom, the crowds at the popular beauty-spot were reasonably small, the views were fantastic, the company was spot-on, and there was even a pub-lunch at nearby Hathersage thrown in at the end for good measure.

A really pleasant part of the world.

Thanks, in-laws!

Stanage Edge
Book review: ‘The Emergence of Memory’ by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (ed.) Fri, 26 Aug 2022 15:37:07 +0100
‘The Emergence of Memory’ by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (ed.)

Over the years, and many, many re-readings of his uncategorisable work, I’ve become a huge fan of the late W.G. Sebald.

This enjoyable collection comprises the transcripts of a number of interviews Sebald gave with different interviewers, along with a few articles about him. It’s a fascinating read, and helped me appreciate a little better where Sebald was coming from.

It’s really a book for Sebald fans only. But, if you are a fan, it’s highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Speak, Memory’ by Vladimir Nabokov Fri, 26 Aug 2022 15:32:54 +0100
‘Speak, Memory’ by Vladimir Nabokov

I seldom read fiction, so haven’t read any of Nabokov’s novels. Speak, Memory isn’t a novel but a memoir. It describes Nabokov’s childhood and youth in a privileged Russian family, and the early days following his emigration to the West during the Russian Civil War. The book kept being mentioned again and again in the books and websites I read, so I thought it was about time I read it. And a damn fine read it turned out to be.

Speak, Memory’s inspired title sums up Nabokov’s approach to this memoir: searching the depths of his memory for the facts, and admitting when he’s unsure. The book is written in immaculate, precise English, even though English wasn’t Nabokov’s native language. I assume this accounts for the text’s slightly otherworldly nature, which I enjoyed immensely, although I did occasionally find it a bit too florid for my liking.

Deservedly seen as a classic.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields Fri, 26 Aug 2022 15:30:43 +0100
‘Reality Hunger’ by David Shields

Reality Hunger is a strange, thought-provoking book. It comprises several-hundred unattributed quotes, some of them are straight lifts, some are by the author himself, and some have been amended by him. (I say unattributed quotes, although, for legal reasons, a list of citations is included at the end of the book—but Shields urges the reader not to refer to them.)

Shields’s central argument in this ‘manifesto’ is that people are crying out for more reality from the arts. As someone who much prefers reading factual writing to fiction, I found myself nodding in violent agreement many times throughout the book.

At other times, though, I was in almost equally violent disagreement. For example, at several points, one or more of the unnamed contributors claims there’s no meaningful difference between memoir and fiction. This is, of course, provocative bollocks. While memoirs might often be unreliable, their authors are usually at least trying to recall and express what actually happened, rather than making stuff up. Fiction authors, on the other hand, know full well they’re making stuff up, and are perfectly entitled to do so—provided they don’t go so far as to claim their made-up stuff is actually true. There’s a world of difference between striving to make a novel seem authentic and claiming it’s true.

But, provocative bollocks aside, as I said, a thought-provoking book.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
My RSS feed has moved Tue, 16 Aug 2022 21:25:23 +0100 For technical reasons I won’t bore you with, the canonical URL (web address) for my combined RSS ‘metafeed’ (which lists all my latest Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters, and Reviews) has changed to:

The old feed URL should continue to work just fine. But if you’re already subscribed to the feed, you might want to update to the ‘official’ version.

Apologies for any inconvenience. I’ll try to ensure this doesn’t happen again.

A lesson in paying attention Sun, 14 Aug 2022 15:27:06 +0100 I’ll never forget the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence. Jen and I did the full tourist bit, queuing in the Italian sun for two hours to tick one off the list. After the first hour, I began to question the wisdom of waiting in line for so long ‘just to see some statue of a naked bloke’. But our patience was rewarded. Entering the cool gallery, turning left, then right, to see the famous statue from afar was one of the true WOW!-moments in my life. (I really did say ‘WOW!’—in captain letters.) One minor anatomical feature not withstanding, David was far, far bigger—and far whiter—than I’d ever imagined. The location and lighting set the artwork off perfectly. Here was art designed to make even the most introverted of philistines exclaim WOW!_

Replica of Michelangelo’s David
Replica of Michelangelo’s David outside the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence.
The original statue stood on the same spot until 1873.

The second time we visited David, a couple of years later, Jen and I learnt a new trick. In most museums and galleries in Florence, you can buy your tickets the day before your intended visit. Almost no queuing is involved, and, if you already have a ticket, you’re allowed to jump the normal queue the following day. This trick saved us an awful lot of time during our second stay.

Even though I’d seen it all before, I still found myself vocally WOWing as I approached David for the second time. After we’d had another gander, Jen and I decided to sit on one of the curved benches surrounding the statue and take in the vibes for a few minutes.

We were soon joined by a small party of black-American schoolgirls in their mid-teens. Having inspected David from all sides, two of them sat on the bench next to us and began a quiet, thoughtful conversation about the statue. I wish I could remember exactly what they said, as the nature of their conversation proved something of a revelation. These two schoolgirls spoke for a good ten minutes about the impression the statue was making on them; what they thought might have been going through Michelangelo’s mind as he chiselled away; and which details of the work they particularly admired (although not once did they refer to the statue’s most famous detail). They even made comparisons with some paintings they’d recently seen in New York. From what they said, it was clear these girls weren’t simply parroting stuff they’d been taught in art class; they were sharing their own original, intelligent, personal thoughts on a famous work of art. So much more impressive than my illiterate WOWs.

I often find myself reflecting, as I did just now, on that conversation between those two thoughtful, intelligent schoolgirls. Albeit unwittingly, they gave me an important lesson in what it’s like to show respect by paying attention. I have no idea whether their thoughts on Michelangelo’s David were on the ball or way off the mark—although that hardly matters. What matters is that they engaged with someone else’s work, giving it more meaning to them, and provoking new ideas of their own.

I’m used to doing that sort of thing when reading other people’s words. But the idea of engaging with some statue of a naked bloke in this way was a real eye-opener.

Detail of Michelangelo’s David
Most famous detail of Michelangelo’s David (which, for some inexplicable reason, is by far my most popular photograph on Flickr).
My unplanned archives Sun, 07 Aug 2022 15:26:26 +0100 Twice in the last couple of weeks I’ve had cause to refer back to stuff I’d written down but didn’t expect ever to refer to again.

The first time was when I returned to some old pages in the notebook I use for brainstorming rough ideas and outlines for individual chapters of my Darwin book. I typically go through this process to gather my ideas and research into some sort of order—to see the wood for the trees, so to speak—before sitting down at my computer to begin writing the chapter. Once I’ve got into the flow with the writing, I seldom if ever refer back to the notebook. The notebook is simply a tool for getting myself into the right frame of mind for writing. I returned to it on this occasion because, since completing the first draft of one particular chapter over a year ago, I’d read a couple of things elsewhere that made me wonder whether the chapter contained a serious error. I wanted to remind myself how I’d got to where I got to. The scrawled ideas in my notebook didn’t answer all my questions, but they gave enough pointers to enable me to retrace my research and eventually satisfy myself that I had not, in fact, committed a blunder.

The second time I referred back to some old stuff came last week when I was piecing together a few ideas for what is likely to be my next chapter. I had an idea to include a personal anecdote from a trip to Ireland several years ago, and was trying to remember when the trip took place. By digging around in my copious correspondence with a close friend, which goes all the way back to 1990, I soon unearthed a brief account of the trip. I was astonished to learn it took place 15 years ago this month. How time flies! The letter contained a couple of nice, forgotten details that may well end up in the chapter.

Hickey’s, Clonmel, 2007
Ireland, 18 August 2007

Over the last couple of years, thanks mainly to Covid, my letters to my friend have pretty much petered out. Correspondence has been replaced by FaceTime calls. In difficult times, it’s good to be able to talk face to face, even when you’re 200 miles apart. Working on my book is also, no doubt, partly to blame for the drop in my letter-writing. When you spend your working day researching, making notes, brainstorming ideas, and occasionally even writing a few words for the actual book, keeping up with personal correspondence can seem like a conflict of interests… You should be working on your book, not banging out mostly nonsense to friends! But it seems to me I’m missing a trick, here. The truth is, writing to my friend has become almost effortless for me. Over the years, I’ve developed a particular style in these letters that I can adopt at the drop of a hat. I can, almost literally, bang out a couple of thousand reasonably entertaining words about pretty much anything—or, more often, nothing. Perhaps, if I were to do more of that, some of this effortless writing technique might seep into my proper writing.

What was unexpected with both these recent examples of trawling through my old stuff was just how much pleasure I derived from the exercise. Flicking through the pages of my notebook provided a fascinating (to me) reminder of what had been going on in my mind during the different chapters of my book, from half-baked ideas that never saw the light of day, to half-baked ideas that somehow eventually did. Searching for the word ‘Ireland’ in my correspondence also resurrected memories from a number of other trips, including one of which I had—and still have—almost no recollection. If you can recall the details of a trip to Ireland, you were probably never there.

As a teenager, I occasionally—although only ever briefly—dabbled with keeping a diary. My pal Amy Liptrot has kept a diary for years, and now uses it as the basis for much of her published writing and journalism. As she said in a recent Guardian interview, “My ambition has always been to write my diary for a living. Which is kind of what I’m managing to do.” Indeed, Amy’s hand-written diary has become so important to her that, as she explained in the interview, she’s recently been looking for a fireproof box in which to store its many volumes.

But keeping a conventional diary doesn’t strike me as my kind of thing. Nowadays, I keep a writing journal, along with daily notes about my work, but these are very much like the notebook I mentioned above: used for brainstorming issues and ideas, with no real prospect or intention of their being revisited in future. I also have a number of old, non-work-related notebooks; an extensive catalogued collection of digital photographs; several albums of pre-digital photographic slides and negatives; my index-card reading notes from many of the books I’ve read over the years; some old school exercise books; and a host of old posts buried in the graveyards that are my various blog archives. All of these collections informally document stuff I got up to, or things that happened to interest me, over the years. They are, it turns out, my unplanned archives.

The Germans have a useful word to describe the assorted collections of documents left behind when a scholar or other noteworthy figure dies: nachlass. I certainly don’t think anyone apart from me would find much of interest in my own archives. But it occurs to me that perhaps I should be showing more of an interest in them myself. This would at least have the distinct advantage of someone showing an interest in them without me having to die first. Who knows, there might actually be some gold in them thar hills.

It also occurs to me that my informal, unplanned archives are only likely to be of much use to me in future if I continue to add stuff to them. So, if you’ll forgive me, I’m off to bang out a long letter about pretty much nothing to an old friend…

Newsletter No. 30: ‘Ming’ Fri, 29 Jul 2022 15:49:52 +0100
Rich Text

29TH JULY 2022


I got up close to some truly fabulous birds on a trip to the RSPB reserve at Bempton a few weeks ago: gannets, guillemots, kittiwakes, gannets, razorbills, puffins, gannets, tree sparrows, and a barn owl (not to forget the gannets).

But the biggest birding surprise of quite possibly the decade came with the arrival of a magnificent male Lady Amherst’s pheasant in our garden. I dubbed him Ming (after the Chinese dynasty, not Flash Gordon’s arch-enemy). These birds, which were introduced from China by the eponymous Lady Amherst in the nineteenth century, are now said to be extinct in the wild in the UK, but there are still occasional sightings. I’m guessing Ming must be an escapee from someone’s collection. He hung around in our garden for a couple of weeks as he went through a moult, but we haven’t seen him now for three or four days. I’m not at all interested in chasing after rare birds, but to have one set up shop in our own garden was quite a thrill.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. ‘A truce with the trees’: Rebecca Solnit on the wonders of a 300-year old violin
    Made with all-renewable materials, this violin from 1721 reflects a time of magnificent culture—a global gathering from before the climate crisis. (I enjoyed this essay so much, I wrote a sideline piece about it.)
  2. Today (2010) (video)
    In 2009, US artist Jonathan Harris began a project to take a daily photograph and post it to his website. It lasted for 440 days. This video shows the eclectic mix of photos in order, one per second, while Harris explores what he learnt from the project. (via Psyche).
  3. Two weeks in, the Webb Space Telescope is reshaping astronomy
    In the days after the mega-telescope started delivering data, astronomers reported new discoveries about galaxies, stars, exoplanets and even Jupiter.
  4. Cloud chambers and cosmic rays: the quest to unravel one of the most dazzling mysteries of the universe
    How experiments performed at high altitude in a balloon in 1911 revolutionised nuclear physics, and led to a Nobel Prize.
  5. Who were the people of Stonehenge? (video)
    Famously, no one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but British Museum curators Jennifer Wexler and Neil Wilkin know better, taking us on a tour of their exhibition The World of Stonehenge.

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

My most successful day’s writing on my Darwin book this month resulted in a word-count of minus 652. There’s a lot more to writing than simply writing. In my recent review of the chapters I’d written so far (see newsletter 28), I identified one whose opening paragraphs were so cringeworthily awful that I simply had to do something about them. Cutting the crap can be remarkably uplifting. So perhaps I’d better stop right here…

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. As always, please forward it to any of your friends who might enjoy it. And if a friend forwarded this newsletter to you, perhaps now might be the perfect time to subscribe.

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


Rich Text 30: Bonus Links Fri, 29 Jul 2022 15:49:16 +0100 Some stuff there wasn’t space for in my Rich Text newsletter No. 30:

  1. Origin of the world map
    Mythical creatures and mathematical precision met in the Catalan Atlas, a world map that fused Christian and Muslim knowledge.
  2. Chance, choice, and the avocado: the strange evolutionary and creative history of Earth’s most nutritious fruit
    How a confused romancer that survived the Ice Age became a tropical sensation and took over the world.
  3. Great auks and seal-headed men: a window into ice age Provence
    The Cosquer Cave near Marseilles astonished the diver who discovered it with its ancient depictions of sea and land animals. Now it has been painstakingly recreated.
  4. The Maintenance Race
    The world’s first round-the-world solo yacht race was a thrilling and, for some, deadly contest. How its participants maintained their vessels can help us understand just how fundamental maintenance is. (Thanks to Dave W. for the link.)
  5. Drone footage reveals hidden 17th Century garden
    The recent heatwave has parched grass lying over a formal garden, which dates back to 1699.
  6. How ancient Roman souvenirs made memories and meanings
    Ancient Romans bought mementos to commemorate their travels. These speak eloquently of their world, if we care to listen.

Book review: ‘Wanderers’ by Kerri Andrews Mon, 25 Jul 2022 17:31:09 +0100
‘Wanderers’ by Kerri Andrews

In this wonderful book, Kerri Andrews explores how walking became an integral part of the lives of ten women writers spanning the last three centuries. She gives a brief biography of each of woman, describing how their walking informed their writing. Andrews also shows how, for many of these women, walking was a daring, transgressive act.

Some of these women’s names—and, in a few cases, their writing—were already familiar to me, while others were completely unknown. Dorothy Wordsworth’s Journals have long sat on my bookshelf unread. I’ll soon be doing something about that. The wonderful Nan Shepherd is there, of course, as is Virginia Woolf. I was particularly delighted to learn a lot more about the brilliant Harriet Martineau, who, up until now, I had only really been aware of due to her scandalous (in the eyes of the family) relationship with Charles Darwin’s brother, Erasmus. And as for Sarah Stoddart-Hazlitt, estranged wife of fellow essayist William Hazlitt, if someone doesn’t make a film about this poor woman soon, they’re missing a trick.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen Mon, 25 Jul 2022 17:23:52 +0100
‘Sense and Sensibility’ by Jane Austen

I read this novel thanks to a drunken deal I made with my sister-in-law. We had been talking favourite authors down the pub, and agreed to send each other some books to read. So she received some Kathleen Jamie, and I ended up with, erm… Jane Austen.

That would be the same Jane Austen who notoriously replaced my hero, Charles Darwin, on the back of the ten pound note. That would be the Darwin ten pound note that I personally campaigned for. I like my sister-in-law, but you can only push a disconcertingly handsome, mild-mannered brother-in-law so far.

Sense and Sensibility is about two late-eighteenth-century sisters, Elinor (the one with more sense) and Marianne (the one with more sensibility). The novel is written primarily from Elinor’s point of view, supported by a laundry list of gentry who seem mostly concerned with each-other’s incomes, and about being seen to be conducting themselves with due decorum.

There’s a nice humorous bit early on in which Austen, through one of her characters, has laugh at the expense of contemporary aesthetic types who had a fascination for the ‘picturesque’ ideal. She’s also amusing when conveying information about certain characters’ limited educational backgrounds through their dialogue. (Unfortunately, one of these characters is the only servant in the whole novel to get to say a few words.)

The best line in Sense and Sensibility is, without doubt, “But, my dear, we must touch up the Colonel”. This made stuff come out my nose, and I immediately added it to my short list of Fnaar-fnaar moments from literary classics. (No, I really do maintain such a list: ask me the one about Virginia Woolf’s boobies at some point.)

All joking aside, Sense and Sensibility was far better, and far more enjoyable than I expected. Which is just as well, as my sister-in-law very kindly took it upon herself to send me The Complete Novels of Jane Austen, rather than just this one. So I have six more of the damn things to go. I think I’ll try to read one a year. It is, I am reliably informed, possible to get too much of a good thing.

You might be wondering what on earth I told my sister-in-law. My feedback went as follows:

Finished ‘Pride and Prejudice’ last week… It was just like Jeeves and Wooster without all the ‘What-ho?!’s

(I didn’t mean Pride and Prejudice; I meant Sense and Sensibility. But I suspect the feedback would have been the same.)

Actually, come to think of it, I think I might have to buy the sister-in-law some Jeeves and Wooster next, so she can confirm my insightful analysis.

Recommended. (No, seriously.)

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