Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 4 April 2020 Sat, 04 Apr 2020 14:58:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Taking in the view from across the valley. As predicted, my head-cold has evolved into an irritating cough.

Spotted a pair of mallards walking down the centre of Crown Street this morning. Jen and I took lock-down provisions to her mum on the other side of the valley. I sat in the garden taking in the view while Jen and her mum caught up on news from separate rooms.

The view of Hebden Bridge was as wonderful as always. Rooks and jackdaws wheeled in the breeze. A nuthatch called noisily from Crow Nest Wood. Canada geese flew down the valley. And a robin celebrated spring from a budding tree.


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3 April 2020 Fri, 03 Apr 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Fug. Spent most of the day in a head-cold fug. Or it might have been last night’s strictly medicinal Laphroaig whisky. If experience is anything to go by, my head will be much clearer tomorrow, but I’ll have developed an irritating cough that will drag on far longer than is reasonable.

Another bitterly cold afternoon walk around the lanes. Scarves and woolly hats order of the day. But, again, lovely occasional bright patches.

Upper Calder Valley hillside
2 April 2020 Thu, 02 Apr 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Birthday books and a head-cold. My birthday. Plenty of wonderful birthday books to keep me entertained during the lock-down. How did they know?

Birthday books

With impeccable timing, the head-cold I’ve been fighting off for weeks finally decided to kick in with a vengeance. (Definitely a head-cold. Definitely not coronavirus.) The weather turned brisk and blustery, so our afternoon walk around the lanes was considerably brisker and blusterier than of late. Occasional breaks in the clouds illuminated random patches of distant landscape in a wonderful side-light. Thank Canon for my zoom lens!

Upper Calder Valley hillside

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30 March 2020 Mon, 30 Mar 2020 19:15:48 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Wonderful light, and a suspicion confirmed. En route to the kettle first thing, I glanced out the dining room window and stopped dead in my tracks. The low sun had just crept round the side of the house, illuminating the top-most branches of the cherry and hawthorn trees. I had never seem them look so stunning. The photo I took doesn’t do them justice.

Sunlight on trees

A short while later, I popped outside to add some stuff to the recycling bins, and again stopped dead in my tracks. The sycamore by our workshop was bathed in a magnificent side-light. Again, I had never seen it look so stunning. This time, I think the photo does do it some justice.

Sycamore bathed in light

Later still, as I was bringing in some washing, a roe deer leapt over the fence from our neighbour’s garden and trotted off at a leisurely pace across the fields. I guess that confirms my suspicion as to who was responsible for all the mysterious divots on our front lawn last week.

28 March 2020 Sat, 28 Mar 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Startled by a spider, and a celestial alignment. During the last few evenings, a massive spider has taken to appearing out of nowhere and running at breakneck speed across the back of my sofa—if spiders do, indeed, have necks to break. I’m rather fond of spiders, so am not usually startled by them, but I don’t deal at all well with unexpected noises or movements, so the spider’s sudden appearance has made me jump out of my skin at least three times. Tricky blighters, spiders.

It’s that time of year when the moon begins to make fleeting appearances in one of the circular pitching-eye windows above our living room. The windows hark back to when our living room was a barn, and hay would be pitched through them.

Pitching-eye window

It always delights me to see the moon shining through this window. It all feels very Stonehengey and Indian Jones-ey, seeing a celestial body align like that.

27 March 2020 Fri, 27 Mar 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A mysterious night-time visitor, and another bonfire. Whatever it is that occasionally leaves deep, triangular divots in our lawn was back overnight. My best guess is a roe deer, although Jon across the way blames badgers for the identical divots on his lawn. I would love him to be correct: I am spectacularly jinxed when it comes to encountering badgers!

Mysterious divot

A second garden bonfire in two days. As I made my way deeper into the huge pile of garden trimmings, I unearthed the remains of four more Christmas trees. I lopped off and incinerated all the branches, keeping the trunks for firewood. Nothing burns like dried Christmas tree branches.

It was surprisingly hazy as Jen and I took our evening walk around the lanes. With this virus lockdown, perhaps I’m not the only one to have been lighting a few bonfires!

Hazy Calder Valley

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Postscript: A few days later, I received strong confirmation of my suspicion that the mysterious divots in our lawn were caused by a roe deer.

26 March 2020 Thu, 26 Mar 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Time for a bonfire! As I stood near the rough patch in our garden making a phone call yesterday, I couldn’t help noticing that the large pile of garden trimmings we’d dumped there over the last couple of years was unseasonably dry. What better excuse could I possibly need for a bonfire? Unfortunately, the pile was too big to burn safely, so, this afternoon, I dug out the garden incinerator and spent several smokey hours disposing of old Christmas trees, prickly twigs and branches, and dried leaves. They burned so quickly, I had to work constantly to keep feeding the fire.

Garden incinerator

Yesterday’s curlews were still burbling in the back field, and, at one point, the raven I spotted last week flew past. I hope I’ll be seeing a lot more of him.

It felt more like June than late March as Jen and I took our walk around the lanes in the evening. The fields above Ernest’s looked almost parched.


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25 March 2020 Wed, 25 Mar 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Avian action, and a rare visitor. An hour-long chat with a friend on the phone. The weather was fabulous, so I stood outside, leaning over the back gate for the call. All sorts of avian action was going on in the garden and surrounding fields: a male chaffinch attacked his own reflection in the arched barn window; starlings shot back and forth in a mini murmuration; rooks and jackdaws cavorted; goldfinches twittered; and a pair of curlew burbled above the back field. It has been the most glorious start to spring.


In the evening, Jen and I took a walk around the lanes. As we headed along the farm track, I spotted an approaching buzzard being half-heartedly mobbed by a pair of rooks. Buzzards are relatively rare around here, what with it being sheep- and grouse-country. But as the ‘buzzard’ flew nearer, I realised it was no such thing… I was looking at only my second ever Hebden Bridge red kite. What a thrill!

Red kite

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24 March 2020 Tue, 24 Mar 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Mobbing, molluscs, and foraging. While pottering in the garage this afternoon, I was interrupted by a frantic twittering from outside. A handful of goldfinches were mobbing a passing kestrel. Mobbed kestrels always have my sympathy: there they are, minding their own business, simply wandering about on the lookout for the odd vole to murder, but can they get a moment’s peace from cowards acting all macho once they’re in a gang?

A few minutes later, I was thrilled to find a couple of broken snail shells lying on top of a flat stone at the edge of our lawn: a thrush’s anvil. Snails used to be unheard of in our garden; now they’re everywhere. I recently wrote a chapter about our changing mollusc population.

Thrush's snail ‘anvil’

The hawthorn leaves were beginning to open when Jen and I took our lockdown-legal single piece of exercise around the lanes in the evening. According to folklore, young hawthorn leaves are supposed to taste like bread and cheese, so I popped some in my mouth. They tasted surprisingly pleasant, like nutty lettuce—and not remotely like bread and cheese. But, as we neared the house, the after-taste was considerably more bread-like.

Less than a week into the lockdown, and I’m already reduced to eating leaves.

23 March 2020 Mon, 23 Mar 2020 19:21:26 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Office move. Due to the coronavirus crisis, Jen began working from home today. So I vacated the study and moved office on to the dining table. One unforeseen advantage of this move was that it gave me a distracting front-row view of the bird table. Philip the garden pheasant was looking magnificent in his spring plumage as he prowled around all afternoon in search of seeds dropped by other birds. There were plenty of goldfinches around, as usual, as well as house sparrows, dunnocks, chaffinches, blue tits, great tits, and the occasional greenfinch. Annoyingly, one of the local magpies has worked out how to circumvent the supposedly crow-proof feeder in the cherry tree. Highlight of the day was several fleeting bird-table visits from the local coal tit. They never hang around: in, grab a seed, out!

The temporary office.

After Jen finished work, we took an evening walk around the lanes, making sure to ‘socially distance’ ourselves from other strollers. Curlews were burbling in the fields. The weather was glorious. A perfect start to spring, were it not for the damned pandemic.

21 March 2020 Sat, 21 Mar 2020 21:00:16 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Looking towards our place. Without entering her owner’s house, I took Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel for a long walk up through Crow Nest Wood, along the lane past Old Chamber, down the steep cobbled track, and back home through the wood.

It’s always strange to look towards home from the other side of the valley. Familiar landmarks arranged in an unfamiliar way. Our naturally camouflaged millstone grit house almost impossible to spot in the general terrain.

Suits us just fine.

Looking towards our place
20 March 2020 Fri, 20 Mar 2020 21:00:46 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) First day of spring As first days of spring go, I’ll take this one. A thoroughly glorious day. I opened all the windows to give the house a good airing.

The first day of Spring

We knocked another winter off! Now we need to do the same with this damn virus. If only it were that easy!

Book review: ‘A Single Swallow’ by Horatio Clare Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:40:26 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales.
Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales.

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A Single Swallow

Despite its avian title, A Single Swallow is not about birds, but is a travel book. Author Horatio Clare sets out to follow the swallow’s northward migration route from South Africa to his native South Wales. He does so by way of Namibia, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain, France, and England.

Clare keeps an eye out for, and sees, swallows throughout his journey, but the book is primarily about what it’s like to travel through modern Africa, interacting with locals and fellow travellers. As someone who has never been to Africa, I found it a fascinating read. Clare is also very good (and honest) writing about himself. He comes across as a likeable, somewhat chaotic character, who trusts to luck far more that I would be comfortable with. Which makes him (and not me) a highly entertaining travel writer.


Book review: ‘Wintering’ by Stephen Rutt Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:38:14 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A season with geese.
A season with geese.

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‘Wintering’ by Stephen Rutt

Wintering is a short but entertaining book in which Stephen Rutt sets out to observe in a single season all the species of migrant geese that overwinter in Britain.

Not formerly much of a goose fanboy, Rutt’s interest is sparked by the arrival of large numbers of pink-footed geese near his new home in southwest Scotland. He is putting the finishing touches to his first book, The Seafarers, at the time, but soon finds himself being distracted. As someone who has often been distracted from work by pink-footed geese above the Dee Marshes, I have considerable sympathy with this predicament.

The writing is unpretentious and informative—just as it should be. By the end of this book, I had greater admiration for this under-appreciated family of birds.


Book review: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:34:01 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives together.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives together.

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Just Kids

I first read Just Kids, having heard Patti Smith read extracts from it at a superb concern in St Albans in 2013.

The book is her memoir of her early days as a struggling artist, and her relationship with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Some big names have walk-on parts, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Allen Ginsberg (who mistakes Smith for a boy).

Patti Smith is a marvellous writer. Just Kids wonderfully conveys the New York arts scene in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The Illustrated Edition also contains some great images.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Sexual Selection’ by Marlene Zuk & Leigh W. Simmons Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:31:22 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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Sexual Selection

This is a very useful introduction to Charles Darwin’s ‘other’ great idea: sexual selection.

Nowadays, we tend to think of sexual selection as a special sub-category of natural selection. But Darwin was careful to keep the two separate: while natural selection concerned the struggle for survival, sexual selection concerned the struggle for mates. It’s an important distinction. To leave offspring, individuals who reproduce sexually need to survive long enough to mate, and they actually need to mate with one or more other individuals. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection explains the myriad physical and behavioural adaptations species have evolved to assist individuals in their struggles to mate.

It’s long been my personal hunch that sexual selection is far more important in the evolution of new species than it’s generally given credit for. Be that is it may (or may not), this short book is a very nice introduction to the subject.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Nature Cure’ by Richard Mabey Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:25:49 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Nature writer recovers from depression by reconnecting with nature.
Nature writer recovers from depression by reconnecting with nature.

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Nature Cure

I first read Nature Cure in 2006. It was one of the books that first got me hooked on ‘nature writing’.

The book describes Mabey’s slow recovery from a major bout of depression. Things are so bad at the start that he is forced to move from his life-long home in the Chilterns. He moves to East Anglia, first staying with various close friends, then house-sitting for another friend. As the months pass by, he gradually begins to recover by reconnecting with nature.

A strangely haunting book. Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Aftermath’ by Ronald Blythe Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:20:53 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Selected writings, 1960–2010.
Selected writings, 1960–2010.

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‘Aftermath’ by Ronald Blythe

Aftermath is a hefty anthology from a venerable country writer. It comprises mainly book reviews and selections from Blythe’s earlier works. I’m a big fan of such collections of ‘occasional writing’. This collection is excellent.

I particularly enjoyed the lengthy section at the start of this book dedicated to the joys of reading other people's published letters, diaries, and journals.

Blythe has a wonderful knack for perceptive, often humorous, observations:

  • It is clear that letter-writing proper creates style and destroys inhibition;
  • There is an acute species of melancholy attached to the early days of authorship which is often lightly dismissed by biographers as teething pains;
  • The wholesale destruction [of the mining industry] by Mrs Thatcher and her successors, albeit for the sake of the economy, that sacred excuse, leaves an unpleasant taste;
  • from nine onwards Henry Beaufort could not allow a fox to live.

…That sort of thing.

Great stuff.

19 March 2020 Thu, 19 Mar 2020 21:00:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Up early. The last day of winter. I left Dad’s extremely early and was back in the Pennines in time to grab a few photographs of Blackstone Edge Reservoir at dawn.

Blackstone Edge Reservoir, dawn

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18 March 2020 Wed, 18 Mar 2020 21:00:52 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A generous gift. A generous gift arrives through the post: an 1889 edition of Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches, more commonly known as The Voyage of the Beagle. A present from someone who enjoyed my Moor book and who follows my Darwin-related activities on the internet. I’ve promised to buy him a pint once this virus crisis is over.

A generous gift.

A fleeting visit to the Dee Marshes in the later afternoon en route to a Dad’s before he goes into self-isolation. I saw a grey heron trying to intimidate a great white egret. I’d never seen the two side-by-side before, so had not appreciated how much taller the egrets are, although their bulk seemed comparable.

17 March 2020 Tue, 17 Mar 2020 21:00:24 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A de-stressing circuit. St Patrick’s Day. A quick circuit of the lanes at lunchtime to de-stress from all the virus news.

I heard a meadow pipit singing from the field opposite Ernest’s and sat on the low wall to listen. An empty bus passed by. The pipit was then drowned out by an explosive outburst from inside the building: it might be a ruined farmhouse to us, but it’s a highly des res to the local wrens.

Rooks were looping and cavorting above the treetops at Ibbot Royd, and I spotted a threesome of moulting carrion crows in one of the fields. Two of them bore white feathers on their wings: a temporary de-pigmentation known as leucism.

Carrion crows

I completed my circuit without encountering a single fellow walker. Normally this would delight me, but in a time of crisis like this, it felt more than a little sinister.

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Book review: ‘Crow Country’ by Mark Cocker Sun, 09 Feb 2020 23:09:51 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A meditation on birds, landscape and nature.
A meditation on birds, landscape and nature.

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Crow Country

When naturalist Mark Cocker moves to his new home in Norfolk, he witnesses a spectacular display of crows heading off to roost. It’s a life-changing event. Suddenly Cocker has the crow bug.

This book describes six years’ rooking throughout the UK, with brief excursions to mainland Europe. Read it, and you will never think of crows as boring again.

As he becomes more familiar with their habits, Cocker comes up with a number of hypotheses about his beloved rooks. Occasionally, these hypotheses might seem a little odd, but I see no harm in that: we’ve all been there.

Crow Country is nature writing at its most enjoyable. I particularly appreciated its lack of sentimentality. Cocker clearly loves his crows, but he sees them for what they are: fascinating, living and breathing bundles of blood, flesh and feathers. We’ll probably never understand what’s going on inside their heads, but Cocker does at least have a go.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Turning the Boat for Home’ by Richard Mabey Sun, 09 Feb 2020 23:05:58 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A life writing about nature.
A life writing about nature.

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Turning the Boat for Home

I’m a big fan of Richard Mabey’s writing. Indeed, his wonderful memoir Nature Cure introduced me to the genre of ‘nature writing’—whatever that term is supposed to mean.

Turning the Boat for Home is a collection of loosely autobiographical miscellanea taken from Mabey’s occasional writing: radio broadcasts, book introductions, journals, etc. It’s a format I very much enjoy, providing as it does consistent yet unconnected pieces by a single author. This book reminded me very much of the wonderful collection Aftermath by Mabey’s great friend Ronald Blythe.

One thing I’ve always admired about Mabey’s writing is his lack of sentimentality and ‘spirituality’. In his prologue, he writes about his ‘commitment to a materialistic view of nature’, and admits to being ‘suspicious of grand overarching narratives’. Amen to that, Mr M!

There are many fine pieces in this collection. I particularly enjoyed the opening section in which Mabey writes about his early writing influences, and his embracing of reality over spirituality.

Throughout the book, Mabey demonstrates his love for, and commitment to, first-rate, unpretentious writing. As soon as I reached the end, I regretted my self-imposed rule not to read the same book twice in the same year. I suspect it’s a rule I’m about to break. But perhaps I’ll re-read Nature Cure first—and then, maybe, Ronald Blythe’s Aftermath.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ by Charles Darwin Sun, 09 Feb 2020 17:23:28 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.
Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.

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‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ by Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin was never one to understate his case. The Descent of Man is a 900-page barrage of evidence and argument, making the case that our own species, just like every other species on our planet, evolved from earlier species. Nobody capable of assessing the evidence now doubts this to be the case, but in 1871 such a view was still controversial with a sizeable portion of the general public, and with the more dyed-in-the-wool scientific establishment.

Famously, Darwin tactfully (and tactically) avoided treating the subject of human evolution in his most famous book, On the Origin of Species, limiting himself to the coy observation that ‘Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’ In The Decent of Man, Darwin finally sets out to enlighten us on our origins.

Surprisingly, most of The Descent of Man does not directly address human evolution. Instead, Darwin discusses at length his second major theory of evolution: sexual selection. Nowadays, we tend to think of sexual selection as a special sub-set of his more famous theory, natural selection. But Darwin was careful to keep the two separate: while natural selection concerned the differential survival of individuals, sexual selection concerned their differential success at finding, attracting, and keeping hold of mates.

The evidence Darwin presents concerning sexual selection is vast. He systematically describes all manner of secondary sexual characteristics: adaptations evolved to help individuals breed successfully. Such characteristics include features to attract potential mates (alluring songs, sounds, smells, colours, ornaments, etc.), and features to deter or fight would-be sexual competitors (horns and antlers, protective armour, increased body size, and so on). Having been amassing evidence for decades, Darwin brain-dumps on us, presenting example after example of secondary sexual characteristics from throughout the Animal Kingdom. After the first couple of hundred pages, you find yourself waving a metaphorical white flag: OK, Charles, I get it: you’ve convinced me!

Either side of his huge thesis on sexual selection, Darwin discusses human evolution. At times, some of the language he uses is uncomfortable for modern readers. Like almost every other educated Westerner of his day, Darwin was in no doubt that white Europeans were superior to all other ‘races’ of human beings, and that the men of all races were generally more intelligent than the women. But in a number of places, he is careful to point out that he is judging other races by his own culture’s standards, not theirs. Likewise, we should not judge the upright Victorian Charles Darwin’s politically incorrect language by our own twenty-first-century standards. Darwin was a well-meaning man, who believed all human races were closely related and belonged to the same single species, Homo sapiens—a recognition not shared by certain less liberal scientists of his day.

After a relatively brief discussion of the ‘rudimentary’ human organs that provide clues to our ancestry, Darwin turns to the subjects of intelligence, morality, and civilised habits, arguing how something like their precursors is reflected in many other living species. While these topics clearly needed to be addressed, by their very nature they do not leave any physical evidence, so Darwin is forced to make conjectures of varying degrees of plausibility.

Darwin is on much firmer and more comfortable ground when he turns to the subject of our species’ genealogical descent, and our relatedness to other living species. Here, he takes us back in time, describing our increasingly remote common ancestry with apes, other mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and ultimately fish. This chapter (chapter VI) is Darwin at his most compelling. He concludes it with a wonderful passage that had me punching the air in agreement:

Thus we have given to man a pedigree of prodigious length, but not, it may be said, of noble quality. The world, it has often been remarked, appears as if it had long been preparing for the advent of man; and this, in one sense is strictly true, for he owes his birth to a long line of progenitors. If any single link in this chain had never existed, man would not have been exactly what he now is. Unless we wilfully close our eyes, we may, with our present knowledge, approximately recognise our parentage; nor need we feel ashamed of it. The most humble organism is something much higher than the inorganic dust under our feet; and no one with an unbiassed mind can study any living creature, however humble, without being struck with enthusiasm at its marvellous structure and properties.

As the above quotation demonstrates, Darwin writes with considerably more confidence in The Descent of Man than he did in On the Origin of Species. He treats evolution by means of natural selection as a given: a theory that has won the day, and need not be couched in conditionals, subjunctives, and double-negatives. I like this more confident Darwin. Strut your stuff, Charles!

Darwin returns to human evolution after his major detour into the subject of sexual selection. It is now that we finally begin to appreciate the relevance of the detour. Darwin needed to get us on board with sexual selection before he can use it to describe secondary sexual characteristics in humans. A large number of human characteristics, he argues, might well result from human sexual selection. It would seem to explain why men are generally larger (and, he would have us believe, more intelligent!) than women. It might also explain the differing standards of beauty and courtship rituals across different peoples. Ultimately it might even explain different skin colours and body-hair patterns across the ‘races’. As a proud beardy, I was delighted to hear I might owe my abundant facial hair to a long line of European female predecessors who found that sort of thing indescribably sexy—a trait that, sadly, seems to have died out in their less discerning female descendants.

The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is a colossal and daunting read, but it contains some wonderful observations, and plenty of food for thought, albeit some of the language used is uncomfortable to modern ears.

A really-ought-to-read for all my fellow Darwin groupies.

Newsletter No. 18: 169 in giraffe-years Sat, 04 Jan 2020 09:09:37 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Julian Hoffman · CGP Grey · WG Sebald · Kathleen Jamie · Tim Dee · LRB · Alan Bennett · Caught by the River Rich Text



New Year is a time for reflection. This particular new year, I pass a numerically tidy, yet otherwise insignificant personal landmark. Today, I am 20,000 days old. Thanks for the card.

At 08:45 GMT this morning, as all five digits on my personal odometer advanced one click, it was sobering to realise the next time that happens—if I make it that far—I’ll be 82 years old. I certainly won’t see a fourth five-digit turnover.

To quote Philip Larkin in a similar context, ‘It makes me breathless’… Twenty-thousand days! That’s 169 in giraffe-years!

Virgil was right: tempus does indeed fugit. I’d better carpe the diem while I still can…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I was delighted to hear my mate Julian Hoffman’s excellent essay on the chambered nautilus, The Spiral Windings, has been nominated for the John Burroughs Nature Essay Award.
  2. The always fascinating CGP Grey points out the importance of posing the right question. In this case, the right question happens to be, Which planet is the mostest closest to the earth? I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the answer.
  3. Episode 105 of the excellent Backlisted Podcast recently discussed one of my favourite books, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
  4. During the launch of her latest book, Surfacing (see Recent Reading below), Kathleen Jamie gave an interesting interview with the Herald newspaper. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in conversation with my pal Amy Liptrot at the Caught by the River event in Farsley in February.
  5. Talking of Caught by the River, Tim Dee provided them with some poignant end-of-year reflections.
  6. As a long-time subscriber to the London Review of Books, I enjoyed this video discussion about its 40-year history by some of those who were there.
  7. The LRB also recently published the latest extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary, entitled What I did in 2019.
  8. Also filed under ‘what I did in 2019’, here’s my ninth annual video slideshow.

Recent Reading

by Kathleen Jamie
A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.
The Laws of Thermodynamics
by Peter Atkins
I had the temerity to touch on the Laws of Thermodynamics in my book On the Moor. This short introduction covers the subject far better than I could in my single, inexpert chapter.
Notes From Walnut Tree Farm
by Roger Deakin
The ‘jottings’ of a wonderful observer of nature’s minutiae. (I love jottings.)
First You Write a Sentence
by Joe Moran
Excellent advice on how to string a sentence together.

More book reviews »

Book update

My ‘Darwin book’ continues at a pace that makes glaciers look positively hasty. But I guess glaciers have grown pretty hasty these days, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet. The book is about looking at the world through Darwin-tinted spectacles. Lately, I’ve been writing about autumn leaves and dippers (the birds, not the pickpockets). For a Darwin groupie, everything has a Darwin connection. If you’re inexplicably champing at the bit for more of my writing, keep checking out my regular Sideline jottings.

Wishing you all a great 2020.

Book review: ‘Surfacing’ by Kathleen Jamie Thu, 02 Jan 2020 15:20:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.
A third collection of wonderful essays from my favourite writer.

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Kathleen Jamie is my favourite writer, so I looked forward to this third collection of essays with considerable excitement. I re-read its two predecessors, Findings and Sightlines, in Anglesey every September. Favourite books for favourite places.

Surfacing differs slightly from its predecessors in that it comprises three relatively long pieces interspersed between more typical-length essays. In addition, there is less nature and more archaeology in the latest collection—which suited the former archaeologist in me just fine.

Jamie’s no-nonsense, precise prose is as enjoyable to read as ever, whether she’s writing about archaeological digs in Alaska and Orkney, reminiscing about struggling to get to Tibet, or simply describing reflections in a train window. Surfacing also contains a couple moving accounts of personal life-events.

If you enjoyed Jamie’s previous books, you don’t need my personal recommendation. But, for those of you who haven’t yet read her work, what are you waiting for? You’re in for a treat!

2019: a year in photos Wed, 01 Jan 2020 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) My ninth annual video slideshow.
My ninth annual video slideshow.

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For the last few years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2019 video:

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

The background music, Pizzi-Carter, 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: ‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers Tue, 31 Dec 2019 12:19:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Summer friendship in the North Riding.
Summer friendship in the North Riding.

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‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

The Offing is a gentle novel about the developing friendship between a young man and an older woman. It’s set just after the Second World War near Robin Hood’s Bay in the North Riding of Yorkshire.Summer friendship in the North Riding.The Offing is a gentle novel about the developing friendship between a young man and an older woman. It’s set just after the Second World War near Robin Hood’s Bay in the North Riding of Yorkshire.

The young man, Robert Appleyard, seems destined to work in the Durham coalfields; the older woman, Dulcie Piper, thinks he should show more ambition, and introduces him to literature—and to fine food and drink. The third main character is absent throughout: Dulcie’s former lover Romy Landau, a German poet, whose final unpublished collection Robert uncovers. The collection contains a hidden message to Dulcie.

Unlike Myers’s previous novels, there are no villains, no murders, but plenty of sunshine and friendship. It turns out he’s just as good at ‘comfort reading’ as he is at grim and bleak.

Highly recommended.

Disclosure: I have met local author Ben Myers several times, and we follow each other on various social media.

Book review: ‘The Laws of Thermodynamics’ by Peter Atkins Sun, 22 Dec 2019 12:45:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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The Laws of Thermodynamics

I had the temerity to write about the Laws of Thermodynamics in one of the chapters of my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk. The Second Law of Thermodynamics gets my vote for the most awesome law in science. I find it perversely comforting: it explains how you can’t get something for nothing, how things wear out, and how, in the long-run, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

Peter Atkins’s introduction to the Laws of Thermodynamics might well be short, but it covers the subject far better than I could in my single, inexpert chapter. He breaks the cardinal rule of popular science writing by including a number of formulae in the text, but he doesn’t expect you to understand them; he simply wants you to get a feel for the factors that need to be taken into account when considering the secrets of the universe.

I would have liked to have seen a few more examples of how the Laws of Thermodynamics apply to the everyday world, beyond the functioning of engines. But Atkins’s prose is pretty accessible for such a difficult subject. So much so that I finally began to understand the subtle distinctions between temperature, heat, and work.

An excellent introduction to an awesome subject.

Book review: ‘Ness’ by Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood Sun, 08 Dec 2019 14:50:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A haunting prose-poem (I think).
A haunting prose-poem (I think).

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I’m not at all sure how to refer to this unusual little book. A prose poem, I think. It’s certainly prose, but it’s also bordering on poetry. It reminded me in many ways of Alice Oswald’s book-length poem Dart, which also contains numerous voices and characters, with a strong hint of the mythological.

I have to say, I struggled to understand what the hell was going on at first. It’s one of those books that take you a few chapters to get your head round what the author is playing at—after which it’s best to return to the beginning and start afresh. Which is exactly what I did. I’m glad I did. I’m pretty sure it’s one of those books I’ll keep returning to, getting a little bit more out of it with each revisit.

The Ness of the book’s title is clearly Orford Ness in Suffolk, a former weapons-research establishment, now abandoned to the elements, as famously featured in W.G. Sebald’s masterpiece The Rings of Saturn.

The narrative flips back and forth between ghost-like humans ‘worshipping’ in one of the old research buildings (the Green Chapel—a reference to the Gawain legend, I presume); and sinister(ish) mythological figures representing various aspects of nature (biology, botany, geology, erosion and deposition) gradually moving in to take over. Or, at least, I think that’s what they represent. As I say, it’s one of those books it’s hard to get your head round.

The text is illustrated by wonderful woodcuts by the artist Stanley Donwood, whom I was delighted to see receives equal billing on the cover.

Definitely a book to re-visit.