Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 2 December 2019 Mon, 02 Dec 2019 13:27:55 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Blackbirds and fieldfares all over our hawthorn. Fieldfare on our hawthorn

Our berry-laden hawthorn hedge was also laden with blackbirds and fieldfares this afternoon. At the rate they were eating, there won’t be many berries left by the end of the week.

I call it our ‘hedge’, but it’s really a straggly line of trees. Every time I come across a hawthorn sapling somewhere it doesn’t belong in the garden, I transplant it to the line. The idea was to let the saplings grow a bit, then lay them down to make a hedge. But hawthorns are very prickly, and they grew a lot faster than I expected, so I never got round to sorting them out—and now they’re trees.

1 December 2019 Sun, 01 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk around the lanes before sunset. The first day of winter, according to meteorologists’ reckoning. The winter solstice in three weeks’ time will make it official.

A late-afternoon walk around the lanes. Another cold and sunny day, but not quite as still as yesterday. The ruined farmhouse at Far Nook (or Ernest’s, as we call it) was beautifully side-lit in the lowering sun. The brief sunset shortly after I returned home was among the most crimson I’ve ever seen.

Far Nook
30 November 2019 Sat, 30 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Another frosty walk. Another heavy frost overnight. So heavy, when I glanced out the window without my glasses first thing, I thought it had been snowing.

Another circuit around the lanes. The puddles in the ruts on the track had frozen solid. Cold still air with bright sunshine: my absolute favourite weather.

Spotted a couple standing forlornly in a field next to a blue plastic sheet that appeared to be covering something horse-shaped.

A pair of bullfinches near the Lane Ends pub. Not particularly common around here. Always a treat.

29 November 2019 Fri, 29 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A frosty walk. A walk around the lanes. The foxglove leaves at the side of the track were still coated in last night’s frost, as was the moss on the north-facing drystone walls. The low sun cast long shadows over towards Stoodley Pike. The church bells at Heptonstall rang across the valley, carrying farther in the cold, still air.

Frost-covered moss

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27 November 2019 Wed, 27 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk along the misty Dee Marshes, · Wirral ·

A short walk along the edge of the misty Dee Marshes to Burton Point. Blackbirds and other thrushes pigging out on hawthorn berries. Linnets and a robin watching me from the bushes. A vole searching for crumbs beneath a bench. A raucous flock of rooks and jackdaws wheeling above an oak. A tup mounting a ewe. A raven cronking on a distant fencepost. A large formation of pink-footed geese descending, then tumbling willy-nilly into the marsh. Minutes later, a formation of Canada geese doing the same. A kestrel flying past with a frog in its talons. The alders in the carr yellow with autumn. Wales invisible in the mist.

A lovely walk.

Autumn, Burton Marshes

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26 November 2019 Tue, 26 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A damp walk round the lanes. A damp walk round the lanes.

Up near the Farm, there was still a white foxglove in flower. With no bumblebees around to pollinate it, I wonder how long it will take for the petals to wilt and fall off. I’ll continue to monitor the situation with interest.

Rooks dibbing in the fields: always a happy site.

Late foxglove
20 November 2019 Wed, 20 Nov 2019 23:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A Caught by the River event in Todmorden. This evening, Jen and I attended a Caught by the River event at the Golden Lion pub in Todmorden. The gig, MCed by Anna Wood, featured a surname-less ‘Roy’ (entertaining Scouse fiction writer), Amy Liptrot (reading about literal and metaphorical geologies, online dating, and raccoons), poet Zaffar Kunial, and a threesome from the Willowherb Review , Jessica Lee, Nina Mingya Powles, and Michael Malay. The event had received funding from Arts Council England. As always, it was a thoroughly enjoyable event. I was most impressed at the quality of the chosen pieces, and intrigued by what on earth it is that makes particular writers write in their own particular ways.

It later occurred to me perhaps there might be a useful rule of thumb here for my own writing… Every time I finish a piece, I should ask myself, ‘Can you imagine reading this in front of an audience?’ If the answer is no, perhaps I haven’t been ambitious enough.

Caught by the River
Amy Liptrot
16 November 2019 Sat, 16 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Lots of berries. The hawthorns in our back ‘hedge’ are covered in red berries at the moment. I’ve never seen so many.

The berries mean the hawthorns are also covered in blackbirds, and the occasional thrush. I’m pretty sure there was a fieldfare mid-way up one of the trees this morning, but it was impossible to tell for sure as it was obscured by an inconsiderate branch.

There are reports of redwings all over Twitter, but no sign of them here, yet.

Book review: ‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith Sun, 10 Nov 2019 13:43:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further quirky memoirs.
Further quirky memoirs.

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‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith

Year of the Monkey is the third volume in Patti Smith’s loosely joined memoirs, which began with Just Kids, and continued with M Train.

I very much enjoy Smith’s quirky, often humorous, writing, and this latest volume continues in a familiar vein. There are moving sections concerning the loss of friends, and impromptu musings and excursions, but Year of the Monkey falls short of its two predecessors.

A big problem for me were the dream sequences. Although similar sequences occur in M Train, they are far more intrusive in Year of the Monkey. So intrusive, in fact, that it often becomes confusing about which events are part of a dream-sequence, and which are real. I’m sure this is entirely deliberate, and the segues from dream-sequence to reality (and back again) are cleverly handled. But it felt over-confusing and unnecessary to this reader.

7 November 2019 Thu, 07 Nov 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A miserable day. A miserable day. Torrential rain with no let-up, bringing fears of flooding down in the valley. A couple of leaking windows. Lights on at midday.

I glanced out the study window mid-afternoon and saw a small flock of starlings land in one of the hawthorns at the far end of Russel’s field. But something about their jizz felt un-starlingy. I dug out my binoculars, and struggled to focus them through the sheets of rain… Starlings all right, but with a handful of fieldfares thrown in for good measure. A sure sign winter can’t be far off.

3 November 2019 Sun, 03 Nov 2019 21:00:45 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which I finally get to meet author and online friend Neil Ansell, along with local pal Amy Liptrot. By pre-arrangement, I finally met the author and online friend Neil Ansell today. Neil has been incredibly supportive of my writing over the years. He was visiting the Calder Valley for the Todmorden Book Festival. We took a pleasant autumnal walk along the Rochdale Canal, talking about nature writing and our current works in progress. Afterwards, we grabbed a coffee at a v✽gan café, then headed off to Neil’s gig at St Mary’s church.

Brexit Boat, Rochdale Canal
The Brexit Boat, Rochdale Canal

The session was entitled ‘Writing Wild Places’. Local author Andrew Bibby interviewed Neil and another pal of mine, Amy Liptrot, about their work. Neil read from his latest, The Last Wilderness, and Amy from The Outrun. The session ended with perceptive questions from the audience. I later congratulated Amy for using the word ‘orgasm’ in a packed Sunday church.

As always with these literary events, I came away totally inspired, determined to do better with my own writing. Thanks, chaps!

Neil Ansell & Amy Liptrot
30 October 2019 Wed, 30 Oct 2019 21:00:24 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) An autumnal photo-expedition, and an encounter with a top-ten bird. An autumnal photographic expedition to Hardcastle Crags—or a nice stroll alongside Hebden Water, if you prefer. I was eight days later than the equivalent expedition last year, and the difference showed. There were noticeably fewer leaves on the trees. But gauging the best date for peak autumn is always problematical, varying as it does from year to year.

Upon my arrival, I was immediately treated to a nice view of a great spotted woodpecker clambering around one of the riverside tree-trunks in search of food. But my priority today was photographs, not birds. So the high-pitched cheeping of assorted tits, and the alarm calls of nuthatches, went largely ignored.

Unlike last year, I decided to stick to the valley-bottom this year, despite its being mainly in the shade. I was after riverside reflections. For once, I got my tripod technique right. Tripods are an awful faff, but I discovered it was far more efficient, once I’d spotted a potential photograph, to set up the tripod and camera immediately and then decide whether it was worth taking a photo. Keeping the tripod legs extended when folded for carrying also saved a lot of faffing.

I was pleasantly pleased with the photos I took. As usual with autumnal shots, the unprocessed photos didn’t look nearly as impressive as the views I remembered taking, so some careful post-processing was required. This year, I twigged that the automatic white-balance of the camera had rendered the shots too cold-looking, so correcting that made a huge difference.

Hardcastle Crags, Autumn
Hebden Water, Hardcastle Crags, autumn

Although I was officially not in birding mode, I couldn’t resist checking if there were any dippers in the second millpond above Gibson Mill. It seems to be a favourite haunt of theirs. Sure enough, I immediately spotted a dipper chasing off a rival downstream. Dippers are very territorial birds. The resident dipper returned to the millpond a short while later, and I grabbed some nice shots on my way back from photographing further upstream. Dippers are definitely a top-ten bird.


Note to self: Go on more photo expeditions next year—and take a tripod.

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26 October 2019 Sat, 26 Oct 2019 21:00:14 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My great-niece admires some goldfinches, and our first ever garden mustelid! Our four-weekly haircuts from Kath, the visiting hairdresser. This time great-niece Lotte (4) and her mum came along to have theirs done too. Lotte was extremely impressed at the number of birds on our bird-table and -feeder. She recognised a robin, and I pointed out a blue tit, great tit, sparrow, and lots and lots of goldfinches. Lotte was particularly taken with the goldfinches, so I asked her to draw me a picture of one in her Spider-Man™ notebook.

‘Goldfinch’ by Lotte (4)
‘Goldfinch’ by Lotte (4)

Later, as Lotte was admiring the birds some more, her mum gasped and mouthed the word RAT! to Jen as something small and brown shot through the lavender at the edge of the patio. Jen knew straight away it was not a rat, but ‘one of those long, thin things’. When I eventually spotted it for myself, I was happy to confirm that it was indeed one of those long, thin things: our first ever garden weasel!

17 October 2019 Thu, 17 Oct 2019 21:00:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The Dee Marshes. · Wirral ·

A walk along the edge of the Dee Marshes to Burton Point. Lovely sunshine, with the marshes showing some subtle, autumnal hues. Very few birds, for a change: several squadrons of crows, a couple of little egrets, and a Cetti’s warbler singing invisibly from the greater reed-mace.

As I approached the point, I heard a raven cronking overheard. It was flying among some jackdaws. I thought they might have been mobbing the raven, but, if so, it was only half-hearted. Seeing a raven flying alongside its smaller cousins made me appreciate once again just how big they are: buzzard-sized!

Later, at Gayton Marshes, I spotted a large flock of knots twisting agitatedly back and forth just above the drainage channel, dark when their backs were towards me, flashing brightly as they turned in unison to reveal their lighter undersides. A few teal and redshank also rose in panic and headed off low up the channel. I wondered what had spooked them, and raised my binoculars in eager anticipation of a peregrine, marsh harrier or hen harrier. But the cause of the commotion turned out to be considerably slower and easier to spot than a raptor: a lone canoeist in hi-vis jacket paddling slowly up the channel.

9 October 2019 Wed, 09 Oct 2019 21:00:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Dragonfly and egret action, and sad news from home. · Wirral ·

A visit to RSPB Burton Mere en route to Dad’s. Plenty of dragonflies around, including one pair latched together in flight, the male gripping the nape of the female’s neck with the claspers at the end of his abdomen—a prelude to a potential mating. I spent five minutes or so trying to photograph individual dragonflies in flight. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring my macro lens, so had to make do with my ordinary zoom. Latching on to such small, fast-moving targets is pretty much beyond the capabilities of my camera’s autofocus system, so I switched to manual focus mode and resigned myself to lots of blurry images. But a couple of the shots of common hawkers came out all right.

Common hawker

As I approached the Inner Marsh Farm hide, a Cetti’s warbler exploded into song less than two metres away, deep in the path-side branches. I could see it hopping back and forth behind a maze of twigs—a situation which also confounded my autofocus. By the time I’d slipped the lens back into manual mode, however, the bird had disappeared.

From the hide, I could see hundreds of black-tailed godwits huddled together in the shallow water, with a smaller number of lapwings at the water’s edge behind. A few redshank squabbled noisily, and a moorhen played with a stalk of grass a couple of metres away. After a while, a little egret appeared, and began fishing right in front of me. I took some nice photos, including some action shots as the bird reacted to the arrival of another egret interloper.

Little egret

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In the evening, a text from neighbour John, saying he’ll have no eggs for us for the foreseeable future as a fox has killed three of his four hens. Very sad: I’d become rather attached to ‘the girls’, as I called them. The chicken-run looks like Fort Knox, but foxes are such resourceful creatures.

5 October 2019 Sat, 05 Oct 2019 21:00:52 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk in the woods. Took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for another drag around Crow Nest Wood. As we entered the beech trees, I heard what I took to be rain starting to fall through the leaves. But then I realised the sound was coming from a single tree. As I looked up, trying to work out what was causing the noise, about 20 wood pigeons exploded out of the canopy and headed off across the valley. I guess they must have been foraging for beech mast, in the process dislodging leaves and seed husks which pattered down through the lower branches like rain.

Book review: ‘The Light in the Dark’ by Horatio Clare Thu, 03 Oct 2019 10:00:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A winter journal.
A winter journal.

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The Light in the Dark

In The Light in the Dark, Horatio Clare tries to be more positive about our most difficult season. It is a surprisingly moving book. Clare is remarkably candid about his mental-health issues, which can be exacerbated in the dark winter months. This journal marked his attempt to find joy, rather than dread, in the winter of 2017–2018.

Although we’ve never met, Clare and I are fellow offcumdens to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, so I recognise the landscape and weather he describes so beautifully. I live high on the steep valley side, where there is still a reasonable amount of light in mid-winter; Clare lives in the valley bottom, which, in the winter months, when the sun is low in the sky, can grow almost as gloomy as Todmorden in mid-summer.

Clare’s attempt to be more positive about winter receives a nasty jolt only a few days into his journal, when badger-baiters kill sheep on his mother’s Welsh farm—seemingly in an attempt to intimidate her. There are other dark moments, as Clare struggles with his demons, but there is also plenty of joy. In particular, Clare’s interactions with his young son, Aubrey, left this blissfully child-free reader surprisingly moved.

The narrative sometimes flips into flashback, with reminiscences from Italy and France, and to Liverpool, where Clare lectures a couple of days each week, staying at the legendary Adelphi Hotel, where I once witnessed a colleague so unimpressed with his dinner portion that he went back for thirds.

In the end, Clare is only partially successful at staving off the winter blues, but he emerges into spring more positively than he might have, which I guess would have seemed a more than acceptable outcome at the start of winter.


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

Book review: ‘A Claxton Diary’ by Mark Cocker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 09:00:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further field notes from a small planet.
Further field notes from a small planet.

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A Claxton Diary

In the introduction to this extremely enjoyable collection, Mark Cocker considers how modern nature writing tends to avoid the somewhat old-fashioned approach of providing simple descriptions of encounters with wildlife. Descriptions are fine, but insufficient. Modern nature writers feel almost duty-bound to include some human element in their stories, describing, for example, how the encounters propelled the author along some narrative arc, or how they provide yet another example of our species’ disastrous impact on the natural world. Oh dear! muses Cocker. He has no problem with the modern approach, but realises his latest collection adopts a more old-fashioned style, sticking mainly to simple descriptions of what the author saw, celebrating the intimacy of the encounters.

I very much enjoy modern nature writing, but I also enjoy this more old-fashioned approach. There has to be a place for celebrating wildlife simply for being wildlife. Not everything has to be about us. Which is perhaps the main reason I so much enjoyed Cocker’s previous collection in this genre, Claxton: field notes from a small planet.

Like its predecessor, A Claxton Diary: further field notes from a small planet comprises a large collection of short articles, the majority of which are taken from Cocker’s entries in the Guardian’s long-running Country Diary column. Most of the articles are set in and around Cocker’s home in Claxton, Norfolk. Once again, the articles are arranged in day-of-the-year order, irrespective of the year in which they were written. This gives the collection more of a flow, as we pass through the seasons of an amalgamated year.

Most of the dated articles are just three- or four-hundred words long, describing a single encounter or thought before moving on to the next. I love the diary format. It’s comforting somehow. Something to savour; to dip into whenever you have a few spare moments, rather than rushing through as if following some narrative trajectory. It’s a format close to my own heart.

As with its predecessor, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book.

A must-read for all lovers of traditional nature writing.

Book review: ‘Claxton’ by Mark Cocker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 08:38:46 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Field notes from a small planet.
Field notes from a small planet.

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‘Claxton’ by Mark Cocker

This book was one of my two favourite new reads of 2014 (the other being A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson). It comprises a large collection of short articles, the majority of which are taken from Mark Cocker’s entries in the Guardian’s Country Diary column. Most of the articles are set in and around Cocker’s home in Claxton, Norfolk.

The articles are arranged in day-of-the-year order, irrespective of the year in which they were written. This was a clever move, as it makes the collection feel like a flowing narrative, rather than an assortment of discrete essays.

A must-read for all lovers of nature writing.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘First You Write a Sentence’ by Joe Moran Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:21:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The elements of reading, writing… and life.
The elements of reading, writing… and life.

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First You Write a Sentence

I latched on to this book thanks to a random passing tweet. It sounded like my kind of book, providing practical writing advice, so I decided to give it a try.

After a slow but entertaining start, Joe Moran begins dishing out plenty of useful advice. Writing is all about sentences, and this book is about how to put sentences together. Some of the advice is pretty standard: keep sentences short, cut back on the adverbs and adjectives, use simple words of few syllables, don’t over-punctuate, but make sure you don’t stick too rigidly to the rules, and vary things every so often. All excellent advice.

Where the book really took off for me, though, was when Moran describes the joys of well-written long sentences, explaining how to go about writing them, the pitfalls to avoid, and the tricks you can use to make them more readable. As someone who’s tried his damnedest to make his sentences shorter and shorter over the years, I found this section particularly thought-provoking and useful.

If you want to improve your writing, you would do well to read this book.


Book review: ‘Animal Behaviour’ by Tristram D. Wyatt Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:18:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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Animal Behaviour

The environments in which animals find themselves might at any time contain threats, potential meals, parenting challenges, or mating opportunities. This short but informative book is about how animals interact with those environments, to make the most of the opportunities presented, and to mitigate the threats posed.

Subjects covered include how animals sense and respond to opportunities or dangers, how they learn and pass on those lessons to others, how they hoodwink potential predators, how they communicate, how they make strategic or tactical decisions, and how they act collectively.

The book contains some nice examples of how natural selection has honed animal behaviour to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges, be it determining how many eggs to lay in a clutch, employing countermeasures to escape predators, or using tools to obtain food.

An entertaining little book.

Book review: ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:10:52 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A second volume of superb ‘nature writing’.
A second volume of superb ‘nature writing’.

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‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie

I first read Sightlines immediately after reading Kathleen Jamie’s earlier collection of nature/landscape/unclassifiable essays, Findings. They immediately became my two favourite books. I make a point of re-reading them every September during my late-summer holiday in Anglesey. Favourite books for favourite places. A long-awaited third collection, Surfacing, finally came out in 2019.

Jamie writes about nature like nobody else I know. She is a poet, with a poet’s eye for detail, and a poet’s knack for precision. Her prose is down to earth, describing things as she sees them, finding wonder where it belongs: in the real world.

Sightlines is an astonishing collection of essays, covering such diverse topics as a cruise to see icebergs in a fjord; a visit to a gannetry; a description of the light in February; trips to the Scottish islands of Rona and St Kilda; and the renovation of the whale-room (Hvalsalen) at the Bergen Natural History Museum.

Jamie redefines what we pigeon-hole as ‘nature writing’. In this collection, for example, she makes an itinerary of whale-jawbone archways, and pays several visits to a pathologist’s laboratory to inspect body-parts:

I thought ‘we are just meat’, then called it back. Flesh, bodily substance, colons and livers and hearts, had taken on a new wonder. If you had to design a pump or gas-exchange system or device for absorbing nutrients, you would never, ever, think of using meat.

Yes, exactly.

One thing I particularly love about Jamie’s writing is her unpretentiousness. She doesn’t claim to know it all; she is just an ordinary woman, with an observant eye, and an enquiring mind. While watching gannets with the ornithologist Tim Dee, she thinks she spots something in the water:

It was probably nothing, so I said nothing, but kept looking. That’s what the keen-eyed naturalists say. Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

In some ways, Keep Looking would have been a more appropriate title for this wonderful collection of essays.

Go and read Kathleen Jamie immediately!

Book review: ‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:08:35 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Nature writing from the other side of the fence.
Nature writing from the other side of the fence.

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‘Findings’ by Kathleen Jamie

For some inexplicable reason, Kathleen Jamie’s Findings didn’t register on my radar for an entire seven years after its publication, until I finally got round to reading it and its sequel, Sightlines, in 2012. Jamie immediately became my favourite writer. A long-awaited second sequel, Surfacing, finally came out in 2019.

Jamie is a poet who writes wonderfully precise, unpretentious prose. She sensibly resists labels, and doesn’t like being thought of as a ‘nature writer’. But, in the absence of a more appropriate pigeon-hole, the nature writing section is where I shelve it.

Nature writing doesn’t usually include accounts of surgery museums, nighttime ferry rides, scans of city rooftops, or a spouse’s life-threatening fever. Yet all these topics somehow fit perfectly in this wonderful essay collection (which does, I hasten to add, also include plenty of more conventional nature writing).

One thing I particularly enjoy about Jamie’s writing style is how she writes as a non-expert, almost thinking out loud, admitting when she’s unsure of something. For a poet, she can also be remarkably dispassionate in her observations. When she encounters a dead gannet, her immediate thought is to cut off its head as a cool trophy for her study. The decapitation turns out not to be one of her better ideas.

This is an absolutely wonderful book. Go and buy it. And go and buy Sightlines and Surfacing too. You can thank me later.

Book review: ‘Sea Room’ by Adam Nicolson Tue, 27 Aug 2019 15:53:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.
The story of one man, three islands and half a million puffins.

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‘Sea Room’ by Adam Nicolson

‘Have you ever wondered what it would be like to own your own islands?’ asks the blurb on the back of Sea Room: an island life. Well, no, not in the plural. But, as a kid, I fantasised about having my very own island. I knew exactly what it would be like (a cross between Arthur Ransome’s Wild Cat Island with its secret harbour, and the Famous Five’s Kirrin Island with its secret tunnel to the mainland). I drew countless maps of my fantasy island. I even knew where it would be situated: about half a mile off the coast of my beloved Anglesey. It also had a house and a lighthouse, and lots of cliffs inhabited by lots and lots of seabirds.

Sadly, my fantasy island doesn’t exist.

Adam Nicolson had no need of a fantasy island, as he inherited three very real islands from his father: the Shiant Islands (pronounced Shant) off the east coast of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides (another fantasy island from my childhood, for no other reason than my middle name is Lewis). Nicolson has now handed the Shiant Islands on to his own son. Before finally doing so, however, he wrote this very enjoyable book.

Sea Room is an entertaining blend of memoir, opinion, nature writing, and history. In places, the history of these remote islands is unsurprisingly sketchy, but the ‘romantic landowner’ does his best to fill in the gaps with reasonable conjecture.

The Shiants might not have a secret tunnel to the mainland, or a lighthouse, and their harbours come across as barely accessible rather than secret, but there is a house (of sorts), and there are plenty of very high cliffs with lots and lots of seabirds, especially puffins. They sound like a lovely place to spend a few weeks.

Book review: ‘River’ by Esther Kinsky Tue, 27 Aug 2019 15:52:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) File under Sebaldian.
File under Sebaldian.

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‘River’ by Esther Kinsky

I read this novel after reading a review of it on a W.G. Sebald-themed blog. The parallels with Sebald’s work, which I admire very much, seemed clear bordering on blatant. So I thought I’d give it a go.

Having now read River, I can confirm the Sebaldian similarities are glaring: an unnamed, German narrator living in the UK, but travelling to other parts of the world; a confusingly disjointed timeline; empty, melancholic landscapes; wonderfully precise prose; indistinct black and white photographs; text translated from the German by Iain Galbraith (who previously translated Sebald).

I enjoyed River very much indeed, even though (or perhaps especially because), like reading Sebald, the experience is very difficult to describe. It’s a strange, haunting form of writing, and it works for me.

Although the novel is titled in the singular, it features many different rivers from a number of countries, from India to Canada. But most of the action (such as it is) takes place around the River Lea in London. Kinsky’s long, detailed descriptions of the east London edgelands are wonderfully precise, contrasting with the remarkably little we learn about her narrator. During the section set in Canada, for example, we hear of her young child. But the child is never mentioned again.

As with Sebald, photography features prominently in this novel. Indeed, while there are fewer images than with Sebald, the photography is more to the forefront. Whereas Sebald simply illustrates his prose with photographs, Kinsky’s character describes how she obtained her camera, and how she goes about taking and collecting photographs.

An enjoyable, perplexing, Sebaldian read.

Book review: ‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:45:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A journey among birds.
A journey among birds.

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‘The Seafarers’ by Stephen Rutt

Seabirds seem to be a popular subject for new books at the moment. We’ve had Adam Nicholson’s The Seabird’s Cry and Tim Dee’s Landfill (both excellent), and now we have Stephen Rutt’s equally enjoyable The Seafarers.

I very much appreciated the unpretentious nature of this book. Rutt travels around different parts of the UK studying seabirds. In the process, we learn a bit about what makes him tick, and quite a lot about seabirds.

The writing is how I prefer it: clear and uncomplicated, mixing memoir, opinion, nature writing, history, and science. The occasional textual flourishes never seem out of place. Here, for example, is Rutt describing the extended Northern Isles midsummer dusk:

The northwards tilt of the earth is sufficient for the perpetual Arctic summer to bleed south and colour the northern horizon at night with a lingering sunset.

I wish more people would write sentences like that, slipping a little science into their descriptions.

As to the birds, it was refreshing to read a nature writer admit he isn’t really into gulls, and finding the popularity of puffins a little irritating. Rutt also made me feel less of an idiot for struggling to distinguish between common and Arctic terns.

Reading this book made me look forward even more to my annual late-summer holiday on the Anglesey coast. It also made me realise (yet again) that, after a gap of over thirty years, I really should try to get back to Shetland some time.

Highly recommended.

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

Book review: ‘Irreplaceable’ by Julian Hoffman Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:43:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The fight to save our wild places.
The fight to save our wild places.

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Julian Hoffman is a personal friend, whose progress writing Irreplaceable I have followed from afar with interest. Even though I knew a little about its content, I have to say I was taken aback by just how uplifting and positive the finished book turned out to be. I had anticipated something far more gloomy.

Irreplaceable is a wonderful blend of nature writing and journalism, exploring individual battles to save local wild places.

Grand themes are often best illustrated by small, specific examples. There is an undeclared, faceless, global war being waged against the natural world. But, in this beautifully written book, Hoffman keeps things local and personal, describing how apparently powerless individuals are trying to protect their beloved local patches. The loss of a wood, allotment, or small population of lynxes might seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but they can be utter tragedies viewed at a local level.

Why did I find this book so uplifting? It wasn’t simply because, in some of Hoffman’s examples, the little guys win their particular skirmish (for the time being, at least). Far more heartening, however, were the many examples of people who care passionately about their local patches, and who are prepared to stand their ground in the face of apparently insurmountable odds. If local patches are worth anything, they ought to be worth fighting for. This book shows many people think they are.

Inspirational, and highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Underland’ by Robert Macfarlane Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:41:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A deep time journey.
A deep time journey.

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People who venture underground are an odd bunch. I well remember the visiting cavers’ drunken antics at The Old Hill Inn near Ingleton, back in the day. I’ve visited a few show-caves and -mines over the years, but it takes a special form of insanity to enjoy crawling through cramped, wet passageways in the pitch dark. As far as I’m concerned, it’s bad enough going down our cellar for some firewood.

Reading Underland, Robert Macfarlane’s book celebrating subterranean adventurers, brought back two suppressed claustrophobic memories. The first was of the time in Shetland in 1985, when I foolishly decided to crawl through a low, narrow passageway between the twin walls of a prehistoric circular stone tower, known as a broch. I became trapped for a couple of minutes, and had visions of rescuers having to dismantle a protected ancient monument to retrieve a stout archaeology student who really should have known better. The second was of the time I was given a tour of a nuclear-powered submarine berthed at the Liverpool docks. I was shown the small cabin in which, in the event of an emergency, the entire crew was supposed to gather and await rescue through a single escape hatch. It felt pretty cramped with just a handful of us in there. The idea of cramming in the entire ship’s complement seemed preposterous in the extreme. I got the distinct impression the officer showing us around thought so too.

As you might have gathered, my general plan is to remain safely above ground until I no longer have any say in the matter. Which made my enjoyment of Macfarlane’s book such a surprise. I very much admired his previous books, but, due to the subterranean subject-matter, was concerned I might not get much out of this one. My reservations turned out to be groundless.

This is a thoroughly entertaining book. Not least because it isn’t all about squeezing into ridiculously cramped spaces. Macfarlane’s concept of what comprises ‘underland’ is admirably wide. My escapades in the Shetland broch and nuclear-powered submarine might well have counted. In this book he explores all manner of underland, from Greenland glacier-caves to prehistoric burial chambers, from underground rivers to the Paris catacombs, from Norwegian cave-art to subterranean nuclear waste facilities, from tree roots to the search for ‘dark matter’ in a mine beneath the North Sea. It’s all delightfully entertaining and, of course, beautifully written.

More, please.

Book review: ‘Selected Poems’ by Kathleen Jamie Mon, 15 Jul 2019 19:38:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A highly enjoyable poetry collection.
A highly enjoyable poetry collection.

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Selected Poems

Kathleen Jamie is one of my favourite writers. I make a point of re-reading her ‘nature writing’ collections every year during my annual holiday in Anglesey. Favourite books for favourite places.

I have a pet theory that poets make excellent prose writers. Not (god forbid!) because they write poetically, but because they are accustomed to writing with precision. Jamie is a prime example. But, it turns out, poets are also pretty good at writing poetry.

This is a most enjoyable selection of Jamie’s poems. I can’t claim to have understood or appreciated all of them, but those that I did I enjoyed very much indeed. So much so that I have even earmarked one of them for possible inclusion at my funeral. (Not that I hope it will ever need to be used, you understand.)

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin Thu, 20 Jun 2019 13:34:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin
‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ by Charles Darwin

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The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals

Darwin’s book on emotions is an entertaining read. As ever, he makes many perceptive observations, describing how humans and animals express emotions. But he makes no real attempt to draw the two together

While Darwin gives examples of body-language we share with certain domestic animals, such as shaking or perspiring in fear, he wisely steers clear of making comparisons of ‘higher’ emotions. He doesn’t, for example, attempt to show similarities in body-language between affectionate dogs and humans. (Not least, presumably, because humans don’t have tails to wag!)

Darwin does eventually become a bit bolder when comparing the body-language of humans and other primates, describing how certain apes and monkeys ‘laugh’ when pleased, ‘chuckle’ and wrinkle their eyes when tickled, ‘weep’ when grieving, and ’pout’ when sulking. But he never explicitly presses home an argument claiming we and our fellow simians inherited common facial expressions from a common ancestor. His rhetorical technique seems to be to describe the similarities, but to let the reader work out the implications for themself.

Darwin is far stronger arguing for a common set of expressions across all humans. As someone who believed all mankind was descended from common human ancestors, Darwin thought we would most likely share a common set of emotions. This put him at odds with other evolutionary scientists of his day, who argued different races of humans had evolved from different non-human parent stock. Such arguments were used, along with other specious reasoning, to justify the subjugation of other races by what were assumed to be clearly superior white Europeans. As a fervent opponent of slavery (and, let’s face it, as a far better evolutionary scientist), Darwin had no time for such nonsense.

In one way at least The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was a thoroughly groundbreaking book: it was the first scientific book written in English to contain photographs. And some of them are absolute belters.

The version of the book I read contained a useful running commentary by the psychologist Paul Ekman. It turns out much, but not all, of what Darwin said about the expression of emotions is still supported by modern experts in the field.