Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘The Northern Question’ by Tom Hazeldine Sat, 25 Jun 2022 15:48:14 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) British politics and the North-South divide.
’The Northern Question’ by Tom Hazeldine

The Northern Question explores how successive British governments of different political persuasions have consistently ignored the needs of the North of England in favour of London and the South.

It is a well-researched book with a distinct left-wing bias: Hazeldine has little good to say for any political leader except saintly Jeremy Corbyn.

The Northern Question is particularly good on how, once the North of England came into the ascendant during the Industrial Revolution, northern businessmen gradually relocated south to gain the political influence and amenities they lacked in the North. So, even though industries arose in the North, their headquarters tended to end up in the South. When recessions hit, these southern headquarters looked after themselves by reining in their northern ‘offshoots’.

In more recent years, post empire, British politicians have consistently given priority to maintaining London’s high profile in the international financial markets, courting investment from abroad as a sop to the industrial North. But these foreign investors also tend to withdraw their investments in times of financial difficulty.

In other words, over the years, the North of England has become something akin to an overflow car-park, receiving business when there is plenty to go around, but left derelict when demand falls.

An interesting, but depressing book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Practice’ by Seth Godin Sat, 25 Jun 2022 15:45:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A bunch of bullet points with the bullets removed.
’The Practice’ by Seth Godin

Ironically, given its subtitle, this book shipped too soon. It contains interesting, occasionally thought-provoking fragments, but the whole book reads like a bunch of bullet points with the bullets removed.

My three-bullet-point summary:

  • Creativity is about iterated processes, not outcomes: iterate the process and the outcomes will follow.
  • Don’t wait for the creative muse; go through the next iteration of the process (whether you feel like it or not): it’s your job!
  • You can’t satisfy everyone, so forget about those who aren’t interested in your stuff.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
The gaping void between fact and fiction Fri, 17 Jun 2022 19:23:57 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Fact and fiction should be recognised as discrete things, not parts of a continuum. In the June 2022 edition of Literary Review, Emma Park reviewed Laura Beatty’s new book, Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher (Atlantic Books).

I think it’s unlikely I’ll ever get round to reading this book, although I enjoy cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety. So many books; so little time. When it comes to reading material, an element of triage is a regrettable necessary.

Park’s review concludes:

One of [Beatty’s] more Sebaldian passages, and one of the more successful, is a discussion of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph of a Paris street. Owing to the long exposure time, all but two of the figures on the street have vanished because they were moving too fast. Beatty uses this as a metaphor for the difficulty of bringing the fleeting past to life without falsifying it.

In other words, in attempting to be a ‘ghost-raiser’, the biographer risks becoming a historical novelist. But then, as this ambiguous book suggests, between myth and history, fact and fiction, there have always been shades of grey.

I really like the daguerreotype analogy. Despite photography’s undeserved reputation for veracity, we know there are important details missing from the image: the crowds and the traffic. Without intending to give a false impression, the limitations of the technology mean Daguerre has done just that, presenting a hauntingly empty street-scape reminiscent of W. G. Sebald’s thinly populated landscapes and city-scapes. The limitations of the technology have presented other, more subtle, unintentional deceptions: there is no colour in the image—a limitation so familiar from old photographs that we don’t even pause to consider it; and, as with all daguerrotypes, the photograph is an inverted mirror image.

Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre
Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre (source: Wikipedia)

People can—and often do—use photographs to create deliberate deceptions. But even photographers who intend to make as accurate a reproduction as possible can mislead due to limitations in their technology, or due to choices they make when composing, capturing or processing their images. But I think there’s an important distinction to be made between photographs which deliberately mislead, and those which at least attempt to give an honest impression, albeit one filtered by the photographer’s technical and compositional choices, aesthetic preferences, and personal biases.

Sebald was wonderfully talented at obfuscating the divide between fact and fiction. In this, he was aided and abetted by images interspersed throughout his text. As a reader, you know, or naively assume, many of the details he gives are, or must be, based on things that actually happened. But Sebald freely admitted deceiving for artistic effect, merging or conflating details, manipulating and repurposing images, and even fabricating documents.

The unreliability of images—and of memories, which are a form of image—was a recurring theme in Sebald’s work. In The Rings of Saturn, he writes of Rembrandt’s celebrated painting of a 17th-century postmortem, The Anatomy Lesson, in which the left hand of the corpse of an executed criminal has been depicted the wrong way round. An innocent mistake, perhaps—and one I certainly didn’t spot when I saw the painting in the Mauritshuis in The Hague many years ago. But Sebald—or, rather, his unnamed narrator, who bears an uncanny resemblance to W.G. Sebald—thinks otherwise:

[W]hat we are faced with is a transposition taken from the anatomical atlas, evidently without further reflection, that turns this otherwise true-to-life painting (if one may so express it) into a crass misrepresentation at the exact centre point of its meaning, where the incisions are made. It seems inconceivable that we are faced here with an unfortunate blunder. Rather, I believe that there was deliberate intent behind this flaw in the composition. That unshapely hand signifies the violence that has been done to Aris Kindt [the executed criminal]. It is with him, the victim, and not the Guild that gave Rembrandt his commission, that the painter identifies.

Sebald’s narrator claims Rembrandt is deliberately manipulating our emotions through this misrepresentation. Elsewhere in The Rings of Saturn, he claims unequivocally that ‘the pictorial representations of great naval engagements are without exception figments of the imagination’. Later, on viewing a three-dimensional panoramic recreation of the Battle of Waterloo, he states:

This then, I thought, as I looked round about me, is the representation of history. It requires a falsification of perspective.

Which brings us to the subject of biography, historical novels, and writing in general.

Obviously, people are perfectly entitled to write whatever they damn well please. But I disagree with the implication in the final paragraph of Park’s review—and, I presume, in Beatty’s book—that there is some sort of continuum, albeit in different ‘shades of grey’, between myth and history, and between fact and fiction.

While it’s true the amount of factual material in a work of fiction can vary, and that some factual writing contains more speculation than others, I maintain there’s still a huge gulf between fiction—stuff that’s been made up by the author to entertain us, or to make us think—and factual writing—stuff the author believes to be true, albeit often filtered by their personal viewpoints. That’s not to say that factual writing is better than fiction, or vice versa; simply that they are—and should be seen as—discrete things, not parts of some monochromatic spectrum.

Sebald’s wonderful books The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and The Emigrants all freely mix fact with fabrication. Sebald was perfectly entitled to do this—and I’m glad he did. But this amalgam of the factual and the fictitious makes these books undeniably novels. They reside firmly on the fictional side of the gaping void between fact and fiction.

Buried deep, but not deep enough, in my library of Darwinalia is one of many biographical books about my hero. I’m not going to give the title of the book as it’s not at all good, being filled with all manner of unsubstantiated details and unreferenced claims. I later learnt (I’m not at liberty to say how, so by all means treat this as an unreferenced claim of my own) that at least one of the details in this supposed biographical work had been invented by the author because they thought it made a nice story. This would be entirely acceptable in a work of fiction, but this book was marketed as factual. It is no such thing. You can’t invent stuff like that and retain the (admittedly awkward) label of nonfiction. This is a black and white thing, not a shade of grey.

This is not to say that all supposedly factual writing must be totally accurate. A chance would be a fine thing! Nor that factual writing must never be speculative. While the speculative must never masquerade as the actual, an amount of speculation is fine, provided the author makes it clear when they’re speculating—preferably with some supporting evidence. That said, if factual writing becomes too speculative, what’s the point? Write a novel instead!

I will never buy the Albert Camus soundbite that fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth. Most fiction is primarily there to entertain, which is all the justification it needs. Some fiction makes us consider real and important issues in a new light, which is often admirable. Some fiction, such as Sebald’s, satiates my liking for cross-genre writing of the travel-cum-history variety, but with some made-up stuff thrown in for good (or bad) measure. But one thing all these and the many other types of fiction have in common is that they are exactly that: fiction.

In an era of ‘post-truth’ politics in which objective facts have taken a back seat, and in which downright lies are routinely rewarded, it seems to me more important than ever to maintain a clear distinction between fact and fiction, rather than talking postmodernist shades of grey.

Book review: ‘84, Charing Cross Road‘ by Helene Hanff Sat, 11 Jun 2022 10:11:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A book-lovers’ classic.
‘84, Charing Cross Road‘ by Helene Hanff

You’ve probably already seen the movie, but 84 Charing Cross Road comprises the multi-year correspondence between American writer Helene Hanff and the antiquarian London bookshop Marks & Co.

Hanff has a hunger for books that Marks & Co. do their best to satiate. In return, as transatlantic friendships develop, Hanff begins to supply the bookshop staff with delicacies such as fresh eggs and tins of ham that are on ration in post-War England.

The correspondence is witty and affectionate, and a must-read for all book-lovers.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Song Of The Rolling Earth’ by John Lister-Kaye Thu, 09 Jun 2022 10:09:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A highland odyssey.
‘Song of the Rolling Earth’ by John Lister-Kaye

Song Of The Rolling Earth is John Lister-Kaye’s memoir about his acquisition of a decrepit former hunting estate, Aigas, in the Scottish Highlands, and its conversion to a world-renowned field-studies centre.

As well as describing the ins and outs of the field centre, Lister-Kaye reminisces about team members and other locals, and describes much of the history, pre-history and natural history of the surrounding countryside. He also writes knowledgeably about conservation, biodiversity, rewilding and related issues.

The writing is occasionally a bit florid for my taste, and there are a couple of passages in which Lister-Kaye comes across as a bit too ‘spiritual’. There is also an incorrect account of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace working together on their famous 1858 ‘joint’ paper. Wallace knew nothing about their supposed joint effort until several months after it had been published.

These minor misgivings aside, an enjoyable book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem‘ by Joan Didion Wed, 08 Jun 2022 10:08:57 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Counter-cultural journalism from the Swinging Sixties.
‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem‘ by Joan Didion

I decided to read some of the late Joan Didion’s factual writing after watching an excellent documentary about her on Netflix.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem was her earliest collection, comprising a series of articles she wrote for various magazines and newspapers in the 1960s. I’m not entirely sure at what point journalism pieces become essays (or vice versa), but I saw these as very much on the journalism side of the tenuous divide. However you classify it, this collection is particularly good on Sixties culture and counter-culture.

Pieces that particularly stuck in my mind covered:

  • sixties counter-culture in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco (the collection’s title piece);
  • a counter-cultural school for the study of non-violence set up by the folk singer Joan Baez;
  • spending time with John Wayne during the filming of The Sons of Katie Elder;
  • keeping a notebook.

The writing is stylish, precise, ruthless and unsentimental, with a heavy emphasis on Didion’s native California. In the introduction she writes:

My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does.

So, definitely journalism, them.

An excellent read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Teaching a Stone to Talk’ by Annie Dillard Tue, 07 Jun 2022 10:07:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) An eclectic mix of science, nature and memoir.
‘Teaching A Stone To Talk’ by Annie Dillard

Having greatly enjoyed Annie Dillard's Pulitzer-Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I thought I'd try reading some of her essays.

Dillard has a knack for choosing off-beat essay topics which often lead to surprisingly profound observations. I wish more people wrote stuff like this.

On the whole, I enjoyed this eclectic mix of science, nature and memoir very much indeed—although I was somewhat flummoxed by a piece which juxtaposed attending a church service with polar exploration.

My favourites essays were ones about a weasel (or ‘a muscled ribbon’ as Dillard brilliantly describes it), about travelling to see a solar eclipse, about a trip to the Galápagos Islands, and one comparing Nasa’s Sojourner spacecraft with mangrove trees (which was nowhere near as flummoxing as it might sound).

An enjoyable read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Newsletter Ninja’ by Tammi LaBrecque Mon, 06 Jun 2022 16:39:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How to become an author mailing list expert.
‘Newsletter Ninja’ by Tammi LaBrecque

Newsletter Ninja provides useful advice on building and maintaining a following for your newsletters. Perhaps the key message is you shouldn’t worry too much about subscriber numbers, but should instead concentrate on attracting the right sort of subscribers. Amen to that!

Much of the advice is fairly obvious, but worth reading. Some of the main recommendations make perfect sense, although I‘m unlikely to follow them with my own newsletters—not least because the very basic system I use for publishing my newsletters doesn’t provide the necessary functionality.

An interesting read if you have a newsletter, or are thinking of starting one.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
A long way Sat, 21 May 2022 18:24:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A trip to Ireland. Earlier this month, I drove my mother-in-law from Hebden Bridge to her original home town in County Tipperary.

Eight of us went in total, in two cars, catching the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. The trip involved visits to some favourite old haunts, two family reunions, a memorial mass (I waited in the car), large amounts of alcohol, and some legendary home-made soda bread. A good time was had by one and all.

St Patrick's Well, Clonmel
St Patrick's Well, Clonmel

I spent much of the return ferry journey out on deck looking for seabirds. I was delighted to see a number of black guillemots (last seen in Shetland in 1985), and some unidentified terns. But the biggest thrill of the crossing was being accompanied all the way by shearwaters (Manx, from what I could tell). I was travelling light for the trip, so didn’t have my proper camera with me, but I managed to capture a short video on my iPhone of a pair of the shearwaters (although it needs to be viewed full-screen to see them). Such astonishing, aptly named birds, banking back and forth on rigid wings, practically skimming the surface of the sea as they flew between the waves in search of food. This was only my second ever sighting of shearwaters, but they’re already a firm favourite.

In the early hours Fri, 13 May 2022 16:53:34 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A bad night’s sleep has unforeseen benefits. After a deep sleep, I awoke at 3am this morning and was suddenly wide awake. One of my sinuses was playing up. I tired to go back to sleep for an hour, knowing I would fail. Then, just after 4am, I heard the distant but unmistakeable call of a cuckoo: my first of the spring. It called for several minutes. I was delighted: I didn't hear any cuckoos last year.

After another hour tossing and turning, I decided to get up. I dressed and, as I always do, had a quick look out of the landing window. There was something white and out of place near our hawthorn hedge. It took me a few seconds to resolve in the dim, dawn light: the scut of roe deer that was browsing on the young leaves.

It was too dark for photos, but I tiptoed into the study anyway to fetch my camera. By the time I returned to the window, the deer was tucking into the Welsh poppies growing at the side of our driveway. I took a few hand-held shots on a ridiculously slow shutter-speed. The results were far from ideal, but better than I expected.

Roe deer

By the time I’d crept downstairs and eased open the back door to try to get a better look, the deer was sauntering off across our neighbour’s field.

Roe deer

It was lovely being outside at 05:15, with the day all to myself, and the local wildlife getting on with its business before anyone else came along to mess things up.

I should have bad nights’ sleep more often.

Newsletter No. 28: ‘Breaking my golden rule’ Fri, 29 Apr 2022 16:46:31 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Thoughts on nature writing · Richard Feynman · Vikings! · Bronze Age diets · recovered daguerreotypes · transit of Phobos · Alice Roberts · Cal Flyn
Rich Text

29TH APRIL 2022


I intended to begin this newsletter with some brief comments on a recent article about nature writing. But by the time I passed the 1,200-word mark, I thought my Sidelines blog might be a more appropriate place to share some thoughts on Nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem.

Talking of word-counts, having reached 84,000 words in my Darwin book, I realised it was time to break my golden rule and re-read what I’d written so far. As I explained in another sideline piece, I’d reached the point where I could no longer see the wood from the trees, and felt the need to put my existing chapters into some sort of order. I saw this as an encouraging sign that I’m beginning to enter the endgame of my first draft. (The other good news was my completed chapters were better than I remembered.)

…I’ve just realised both the sideline pieces I linked to above contain the word cringeworthy. I hope this doesn’t speak volumes.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Feynman’s Ode to the Wonder of Life
    A literally wonder-full animated prose poem adaptation of the words of Nobel science laureate Richard Feynman, read by Amanda Palmer, animated by Kelli Anderson, with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma providing backing music. Fantastic. More details on the Marginalian website, from where I took this link.
  2. Vikings shipped walrus ivory from Greenland to Kyiv, ancient skulls show
    The Vikings set up impressive trade-routes. New DNA evidence strongly suggests they traded walrus ivory hunted in Greenland or the Canadian Arctic as far as modern Ukraine. 🇺🇦
  3. How can ancient dental plaque help reveal the rise and spread of dairy pastoralism on the Eurasian steppes?
    I attended a course in scientific techniques in archaeology in the mid-1980s. As with the walrus ivory story above, I’m continually amazed how far such techniques have advanced. Thanks to analysis of his dental plaque, we can tell an Early Bronze Age man whose remains were excavated in the Caucasus had a diet heavy on dairy produce.
  4. Doomed ship of gold’s ghostly picture gallery is plucked from the seabed
    Maritime archaeologists have recovered hauntingly personal daguerreotype photographs from a famous 1857 shipwreck off the coast of South Carolina.
  5. Nasa’s Perseverance rover sees solar eclipse on Mars
    Science for the win! An astonishing brief video, captured by one of our species’ robots on Mars, of the moon Phobos passing in front of the sun. (The pedant in me feels compelled to point out this was technically a transit, not an eclipse.)

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

Thanks as always for allowing me to email you directly: with oligarchs in control of Facebook and now Twitter, I would far rather cut out the billionaire middlemen.

I continue to make minor tweaks to the format of this newsletter in an attempt to increase the signal-to-noise ratio. If you have any suggestions for improvements, or if you know of any similar newsletters I might learn a few lessons from, please get in touch—either by replying to this newsletter or via my contact form.

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


Rich Text 28: Bonus Links Fri, 29 Apr 2022 16:45:48 +0100 Richard Carter ( Some stuff there wasn’t space for in my Rich Text newsletter No. 28 Some stuff there wasn’t space for in my Rich Text newsletter No. 28:

  1. In Search of Troy
    It wasn’t just a legend. Archaeologists are getting to the bottom of the city celebrated by Homer nearly 3,000 years ago.
  2. Autopsy on Adam & Eve - Objectivity 256
    A look at an incredible selection of paper instruments at the Royal Society.
  3. Bats
    Quick facts about bat species from around the world. From egalitarian relationships to vitamin synthesis.
  4. On Antibiotic Resistance
    Writer and general practitioner Gavin Francis on the evolution of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.
  5. Why birds migrate vast distances – and how you can help during their breeding season
    Birds are master navigators, negotiating journeys of thousands miles each year.
  6. Dire straits
    A review of ‘Straits: Beyond the Myth of Magellan’ by Felipe Fernández-Armesto.
  7. Most UK national parks deliver ‘negligible benefits’ for wildlife
    Report says land should only be classed as protected if wildlife is proved to be recovering over long-term.
  8. The 50 best albums of 2021
    A list from the Guardian’s assorted music journos.
Nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem Thu, 28 Apr 2022 16:23:28 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to whatever ‘nature writing’ is supposed to be these days. It might not all be to my personal taste, but such diversity has to be a good thing. Earlier this month, the thought-provoking digital magazine Aeon published an article by nature writer Richard Smyth, the point of which I entirely missed on first reading. This was largely due to the article’s unhelpful title and introductory standfirst, which threw me off the scent. I assume they must have been written by someone else.

Smyth’s piece is 4,600 words long, and contains a lengthy digression on the TV show Mastermind. So here’s my attempt at a three-sentence summary:

  • Factual knowledge about the natural world is an important element of nature writing.
  • But all nature writing is, to some extent, human-centric, with different authors bringing different types of knowledge.
  • The best nature writing merges factual knowledge with other types of knowledge derived from observation, experience, culture, emotional responses, etc.

As someone who writes in the segment of the Venn diagram where science, history and nature intersect, and as someone currently 84,000 words into his first draft of a book about how Charles Darwin looked at the world, and enabled us to look at nature in new and better ways, I assumed the importance of incorporating factual knowledge and informed observation into nature writing must be patently obvious. This despite the fact that, although I have the temerity to write about nature, I don’t consider myself to be a naturalist. Neither, come to mention it, do I consider myself to be a scientist or historian.

I’m pretty sure, like me, most people who write about nature would agree with Smyth on the importance of at least some factual knowledge creeping into their work. Smyth cites a few examples of writers who seem to disagree, but I’m unfamiliar with their names and writing, so I’m not sure how representative of their views are the undeniably cringeworthy quoted passages. The one book I was familiar with that Smyth cites as arguing against formalised knowledge, the late novelist John Fowles’s The Tree, certainly infuriated the hell out of me for trying to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature: an idea most kindly described as bullshit. Smyth seems to have got more out of Fowles’s book than I did. Perhaps it’s time to do as I confidently predicted and revisit it—if only, as I said at the time I reviewed it, ‘so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise’.

One of the chapters in my Darwin book concerns the classification of species—or taxonomy, as more modern scientists would have it. I make the point that taxonomies for most things are pretty much arbitrary: people think of things in different ways; there in no correct way to group and arrange them. But in the case of living (and extinct) species there really is a correct way to classify them: Darwin’s way. Species should be grouped and classified according to genealogical descent; that is, by how closely they are related to each other.

Unlike with species, there is no correct way to classify writing. A hundred different authors or readers could easily come up with a hundred or more different taxonomies of varying degrees of usefulness. To complicate matters, whichever of these hypothetical taxonomies you might choose, most writing would fall into a combination of different genres within it. W.G. Sebald famously wanted his unclassifiable masterpiece The Rings of Saturn to be catalogued under every officially recognised publishing category, instead of being limited to a maximum of three.

My own writing isn’t pure science-, history- or nature-writing, whatever any of those terms might mean. My writing is, I hope, an enjoyably idiosyncratic amalgam of all three. Other people who write about nature occupy very different niches on the taxonomic Venn diagram, where nature intersects with memoir, say, or biography, or self-help, or fiction, or feminism, or writing by writers of colour, or poetry, or cooking, or WW2 prison journals, or motorcycle maintenance, or a whole host of other potentially fascinating possibilities.

In a recent interview, the groundbreaking modern nature writer Richard Mabey said that, for his next book, he is planning to reinvent the epistolary nature-writing format of his (and Charles Darwin’s) hero Gilbert White. Utter genius! Chalk me up for a pre-order. As a long-term incorrigible letter-writer, who can bang them out at the drop of a hat, I could have kicked myself for not having come up with that brilliant cross-genre idea.

There have been all manner of articles, and responses to articles, over recent years about what constitutes proper ‘nature writing’. This seems a peculiarly British preoccupation. As Mabey said in the introduction to his 1995 anthology The Oxford Book of Nature Writing, ‘In the United States, the best nature writers are regarded simply as writers.’

The idea of popular nature writing goes back at least as far as Gilbert White—and, some might argue, Thomas Browne, or even Pliny the Elder. But in recent years it has been seized on by book marketing departments as a convenient, highly popular catch-all classification for pigeonholing and promoting anything remotely to do with the natural world. As such, the term has become effectively meaningless, with many of its most respected practitioners actively disavowing the label. In one of his last interviews, Barry Lopez claimed he abhorred the term ‘nature writing’; in a 2012 interview in the Scottish Review of Books, Kathleen Jamie said she couldn’t bring herself to get the words ‘nature writers’ out of her gob.

To me, the best nature writing—indeed, the best writing full-stop—wears its knowledge lightly. I love to read intelligent, well-informed individuals thinking out loud, sharing and testing the limits of what they know, and exploring new ideas. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that my favourite form of writing is the essay. Like Smyth (and, I suspect, like Mabey and Tim Dee and Mark Cocker and many others) I have a predilection for what, in my own personal taxonomy, I like to think of as ‘natural history essays’: exploratory nature writing informed by factual knowledge, with a plain-speaking, enquiring, humanist/materialist world-view, and with little or no time for the ‘spiritual’. But I also greatly enjoy plenty of other nature writing that doesn’t perfectly intersect with my personal biases. One of my guiltiest pleasures, for example, are the deeply spiritual, sermon-like countryside essays of Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford Series.

‘Long live difference!’ as they say in France. Diversity has to be a good thing. Writing, like nature itself, does best when it evolves thriving ecosystems. There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to whatever ‘nature writing’ is supposed to be these days. It might not all be to my personal taste, but what genre of writing is? Diversity in nature writing, as in all writing, has to be a good thing. So I’m all for it. Even the stuff that infuriates the hell out of me.

But when someone named Richard Carter, who dabbles in this ill-defined ‘nature writing’ genre, writes an over-long ‘sideline’ piece in response to an article written by someone else writing in that genre named Richard Smyth, and cites a recognised master in the genre named Richard Mabey, it looks as if we might also have an embarrassment of Richards.

So perhaps I’d better stop all this navel-gazing and get back to my Darwin book.

Fools and dilettantes Thu, 21 Apr 2022 17:18:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) How the problems I’ve been encountering lately are a sign (I hope) that my book is starting to come together. I first noticed underlying themes emerging in my Darwin book 10 months ago. I saw this as a positive sign: there are supposed to be recurring themes in books like this. My plan, as with my previous book, On the Moor, was not to worry yet about how the individual chapters fitted together; I would simply write lots of chapters about relevant topics, then worry about putting them in a sensible order when I got to the second draft.

But lately I’ve been struggling. The last chapter I wrote took far longer than expected. In fairness to myself, it was a complex chapter, but it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did. A large part of the problem was I’d reached the stage where I could no longer remember which topics I’d already adequately covered in previous chapters, and which ones still needed fleshing out. I could no longer see the wood for the trees.

So, I broke my golden rule, and went back to re-read my earlier chapters before continuing with the rest of my first draft. Then, having re-familiarised myself with my own work, I decided I really needed to re-arrange the existing chapters right away before proceeding with my next chapter. I needed to get a better feel for the ‘shape’ of the book. This exercise also took far longer than expected, but I finally got there at the end of last week.

Notebook entry 15.4.22
One of several unsuccessful attempts at trying to put my book into some sort of order.

I’m taking all the problems I’ve been encountering lately as a very good sign. Exactly the same thing happened at around this stage when I was writing On the Moor. It means my book is starting to come together, and I’m finally entering the endgame—of the first draft, at least.

And the other good news: on re-reading my earlier chapters, I found they were far better than I’d feared—one or two cringeworthy passages notwithstanding. According to most writing guides, the whole point of first drafts is to get any old crap down on paper as quickly as possible. Their sole purpose is to give you something to pull to bits and transform into something half decent in the second draft. But I can’t bring myself to write that way: my first drafts are more like second drafts—which no doubt is one of the reasons they seem to take so long to produce.

On the subject of writing guides, last week I was amused to read the following in How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia:

It’s impossible to write a book without a plan. Books are too big. The first step in writing a book—a step that could take months—is developing a strong table of contents. […] only fools and dilettantes try to write a book when ignorant of what will go into each chapter.

I guess that puts me in my place. What can I say? Lesson well and truly learnt (the hard way); I’ll definitely produce a full outline for my next book before committing a single word to paper, mark my words!

(Mind you, I swore pretty much the same thing last time.)

Book review: ‘How to Write a Lot’ by Paul J. Silvia Mon, 18 Apr 2022 14:21:39 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A practical guide to productive academic writing.
‘How to Write a Lot’ by Paul J. Silvia

This book provides sound, albeit mostly obvious advice about producing lots of words. It is aimed primarily at academics, especially those studying psychology, but, aside from the section on preparing grant proposals, much of the advice applies to factual writing in general. The book contains plenty of humour in among the advice.

The key messages are to stop making excuses, schedule time for your writing, treat it like real work, set goals, and measure your progress towards them. A point I repeatedly make to my partner when she asks what I’ve been writing today is that there’s a lot more to ‘writing’ than actual writing. I was glad to see Paul J. Silvia endorse this point several times, as the claim often sounds flimsy even to me.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn Mon, 18 Apr 2022 14:20:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Life in the post-human landscape.
‘Islands of Abandonment’ by Cal Flyn

Cal Flyn’s Islands of Abandonment is a refreshingly upbeat book about nature getting by in difficult circumstances. Its key message is that, when people remove themselves from environments, nature quickly moves in and adapts.

Flyn visits numerous places that have mostly been abandoned by humans, typically as a result of economic decline, or environmental disasters—either natural or manmade. Everywhere she goes, she finds nature has moved in, and is often thriving. Nature is more resilient and resourceful than we might think.

A pet gripe of mine is the feeling, often expressed by well-meaning environmentalists, that we are best placed to solve the environmental problems our species has created. Of course we should be taking steps to mitigate our impact on the planet, but what makes us think we know what we’re doing when it comes to trying to undo the mess we’ve made? As I said in a recent interview, when asked about my views on rewilding: ‘Ecosystems are complicated. They seem to work best when left to their own devices, rather than being curated by well-meaning humans.’ Islands of Abandonment repeatedly makes the same point, albeit far more eloquently.

A wonderful book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Ancestors’ by Prof. Alice Roberts Mon, 18 Apr 2022 14:18:03 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The prehistory of Britain in seven burials.
‘Ancestors’ by Prof. Alice Roberts

In this entertaining book, Prof. Alice Roberts visits a number of iconic prehistoric British burials, in the process taking the opportunity to guide us through the entire prehistory of Britain from the earliest pre-Neanderthals, through the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic ’Stone Ages’, to the Copper Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.

Roberts is particularly good on how our interpretation of archaeological evidence has evolved over recent years. Whereas we formerly pretty much assumed, for example, that changes in archaeological artefacts at particular sites implied changes in culture, we now take far more cognisance of the possibility that these artefacts might have been copied or traded between cultures.

Roberts also explains how we know what we think we now know about these predecessors, describing the scientific techniques used, and the latest interpretations of the evidence. She is also careful to point out where there are still areas of disagreement. I was particularly interested in how recent analyses of ancient DNA suggest that Neolithic British people seem to have left very few descendants in subsequent populations; and of how oxygen and strontium isotope analysis has established that certain individuals grew up in regions sometimes very distant to where their remains were found. These people got about!

Definitely my kind of book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Newsletter No. 27: ‘Getting hitched’ Mon, 21 Mar 2022 13:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) The Pros and Cons of tying the knot · prehistoric invention · Ernest Shackleton · W.G. Sebald · swallows · comma splices · Amy Liptrot · Kapka Kassabova
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21ST MARCH 2022


Thirty years ago today, my partner, Jen, and I became a couple. To mark the anniversary, this afternoon we finally made it official by entering into a civil partnership at the local register office. (If you’ve never heard of a civil partnership, it’s basically the same as getting married, but without any of the historical religious or patriarchal baggage.)

Famously, when brainstorming the Pros and Cons of getting hitched, the occasionally over-analytical bachelor Charles Darwin noted, on the plus side, that a wife would be better than a dog. Like my hero, I have a huge soft-spot for dogs, but unlike him, I know exactly what I’m getting myself into… After three decades with Jen, I can confirm without a shadow of doubt that she knocks poor old Fido into a cocked hat!

Decades… When did I start reckoning in decades?

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. How a handful of prehistoric geniuses launched humanity’s technological revolution
    A new study suggests many key prehistoric inventions were one-offs. Instead of being invented by different people independently, they were discovered once, then shared.
  2. Endurance: Shackleton’s lost ship is found in Antarctic
    The ship whose loss beneath the ice led to one of the greatest stories of escape from adversity has been found on the Antarctic seafloor.
  3. We’re analysing DNA from ancient and modern humans to create a ‘family tree of everyone’
    How linking together genetic material from thousands of people, both modern and ancient, allowed scientists to trace our ancestors, and the history of our evolution.
  4. Self on Sebald (audio)
    Twenty years after W.G. Sebald’s untimely death, Will Self pieces together the life and work of the writer.
  5. Swallows opt out of migration
    Climate change has allowed a small number of swallows to alter their winter strategy, remaining in the UK instead of flying south. (Sounds like good news, but it really isn’t.)
  6. What you need to know about comma splices
    Bite-sized punctuation advice from Charles and Emma Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter, also named Emma Darwin.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

Apologies for the brevity, but Jen and I are off celebrating at the moment. Thanks as ever for making time to read this newsletter. If you have any friends you think might like it, please forward them a copy, suggesting they might like to subscribe.

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


Newsletter No. 26: ‘Slits for pupils’ Fri, 25 Feb 2022 16:11:02 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Research triage · filing your nuggets · pupil shapes · Amy Liptrot · moths and bats · critical reading · early medieval history · Tim Dee · book reviews
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A confession… For me, writing a book is mostly an excuse for finding stuff out. If, in the process, I actually manage to write a book others might enjoy, so much the better. But the fun part is the finding out, not the writing.

That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the challenge of trying to distil a complex mishmash of ideas into a coherent narrative. The golden rule is, if I can’t explain a concept in straightforward language to an intelligent reader, it’s likely I don’t understand it well enough. The problem with this rule, of course, is it gives me the perfect excuse to go back and find out even more stuff.

A less enjoyable part of trying to distil my research is deciding which bits to leave out. I have literally hundreds of interlinked notes in my research app of choice. Not all my nuggets can make it into the book.

Last week, for example, I finally completed the first draft of a chapter about the evolution of the eye. As I neared the end of the chapter, I decided I needed to do some retrospective research about irises (the things in your eyes, obviously, not the flowers). In the process, I unearthed an interesting new study investigating why some animals have horizontal slits for pupils, while others have vertical slits. This sort of nugget would normally be a shoo-in, but I couldn’t sneak it into my chapter without making an unnecessary diversion in an already lengthy narrative. So I reluctantly filed the article away in my notes for possible future use. Then it occurred to me one good use for it would be to share it in a newsletter…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Revealed: why animals’ pupils come in different shapes and sizes
    An interesting new study on the visual benefits of vertical and horizontal pupils.
  2. ‘I wanted to put the sex into nature writing’
    My near(ish) neighbour and pal Amy Liptrot interviewed about her forthcoming memoir The Instant , which is out next week (you should all pre-order a copy, by the way). Amy recently tweeted the bombshell announcement that her brave and surprisingly uplifting debut memoir, The Outrun, is to be made into a film starring Saoirse Ronan. I literally w00ted!
  3. Moths and bats have been in an evolutionary battle for millions of years—and we’re still uncovering their tricks
    Yet another example (see previous newsletter) of an interesting new story on a topic I’ve already written a chapter about for my Darwin book. I also spoke about this topic in a short bats podcast piece a couple of years back.
  4. Have we forgotten how to read critically?
    A thoughtful article on how, thanks to social media, many readers treat every published piece of writing as a conversation opener, demanding a bespoke response. I’m tempted to contact the author to ask her to elaborate on one or two points.
  5. Like a Flamingo: Viking Treasure
    A nice piece about the Galloway treasure hoard. It touches on a number of topics that interest me: the P- and Q-Celtic languages (as discussed in my book On the Moor), place names giving clues to history (ditto), ancient British peoples, St Cuthbert (who ought to be England’s patron saint), and Vikings. What’s not to like?
  6. Bird Island
    A new essay on South African cape gannets (and humans) by top bird-man Tim Dee. I once spoke briefly with Tim. I remember our words as if they were uttered only yesterday: “Sorry, mate,” I said, getting out of his way. “Thanks. No worries!” he replied. One to file away for my autobiography, perhaps.

Recent Reading

’Stasiland’ by Anna Funder’Albert & the Whale’ by Philip Hoare’The Journal of a Disappointed Man’ by W.N.P. Barbellion

More book reviews »

And finally…

Thanks, as always, for making time to read this newsletter. If you have any feedback, please drop me a line. And, if you have any friends you think might like it, please forward them a copy, suggesting they might like to subscribe.

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


Limitations of the blog format Sun, 30 Jan 2022 16:49:56 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) For some time now, I’ve been growing increasingly conscious of the limitations of the blog format in catering for the provisional nature of factual writing. In my latest newsletter, I briefly described one of the ‘dubious delights’ of writing nonfiction: its undefinitiveness. You can’t hope to say everything there is to say on a topic, and what you do say often becomes outdated. This led Leon Paternoster to consider how the notion of a novel being finished might change in the online world.

It was like the early 2000s all over again: I publish something on my website; somebody else comments about it on theirs; and, even if I hadn’t already been subscribed to the other person’s RSS feed, I would know about their post because their blog sends a courtesy ping to my blog to say my post has been commented on. And here I am commenting on the comment, back on my own blog. This is how things should work. I yearn for the glory days of blogging, before Twitter and Facebook ate its lunch. Personal blogs were, and still are, the Internet at its best.

But, for some time now, I’ve been growing increasingly conscious of the limitations of the blog format in catering for the provisional nature of factual writing. Blogs deliberately, and usefully, place great emphasis on your latest posts. They adopt a ‘news’ metaphor. But this is far from ideal for publishing interrelated ideas that are all subject to constant revision. This is a publishing challenge that very much interests me, but one that’s unlikely to become a priority when there are so many books I’d rather be writing. I shall, however, continue to keep an eye on developments regarding the reinvention of an old, pre-blogging concept that makes use of a new metaphor: digital gardening.

Obsidian, my note-making app of choice, has become indispensable to me for developing fleeting thoughts and half-baked notions into detailed, interrelated ideas. It’s perfect for curating the provisional. But I won’t be signing up for the option to share my notes online because, well, frankly, they’re written for me and nobody else. That said, just to prove I have indeed put some thought into the issues I’ve been describing, here’s a screen-shot from my Obsidian vault:

Obsidian screenshot

In the absence of more fully formed thoughts, please consider this screenshot a provisional note of some stuff I might eventually get round to writing about on this website in future.

Newsletter No. 25: ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ Fri, 28 Jan 2022 15:42:59 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) On the undefinitiveness (I made that word up) of factual writing. Plus some cool links and book recommendations.
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One of the dubious delights of writing nonfiction (or factual writing, as I prefer to think of it) is its undefinitiveness. Even if you’ve said everything that needs to be said on a topic, inevitably new facts emerge to make your former thoughts out of date, or, at the very least, in need of modification. The trouble is, if you keep going back to update your old stuff, you’ll run out of time to write new. Writing factual books can sometimes turn into the literary equivalent of painting the Forth Bridge.

Charles Darwin recognised this problem. He was an incorrigible tinkerer, updating On the Origin of Species no less than five times to cite more recent findings, to respond to criticism, and to remove the odd embarrassing passage. As he grew older, Darwin sensibly decided it was time to draw a line under his revisions. Six years before his death, he wrote to his close friend the Harvard botanist Asa Gray:

Lastly many thanks for your letter with the facts about Maurandia: what would I not have given for them when I was preparing the new Edit [of Climbing Plants]; but it is now too late, for I do not suppose I shall ever again touch the book. After much doubt I have resolved to act in this way with all my books for the future; that is to correct them once and never touch them again, so as to use the small quantity of work left in me for new matter.

I’m already starting to feel the same way, Mr D. New facts keep emerging with reckless abandon.

Last week, having worked all day on the latest chapter of my book Through Darwin’s Eyes—a chapter on how genetic variations in organisms occur at random, but how natural selection itself is far from random—I opened up my RSS feed reader for some light relief, and was immediately confronted with the following headline:

Study challenges evolutionary theory that DNA mutations are random

Give me a chance, for Pete’s sake! I haven’t even finished writing the chapter yet!

Fortunately, the new study didn’t require me to make significant changes to my planned chapter—although I did take the opportunity to insert a brief caveat that it’s possible genetic mutations aren’t quite as random as we thought.

I suppose I’d better finish this damn book before some bright spark proves the world really was created in six days after all!

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Selling my hair on eBay
    Selected entries from Alan Bennett’s 2021 diary, read by the man himself. The text is also available via the same link.
  2. The Life-breath Songs: the people of Scotland’s nature poem
    Scotland’s Makar Kathleen Jamie introduces the People’s Poem project, and curates the three ‘filmpoems’ by artist Alastair Cook based on lines submitted by the public and developed by Jamie.
  3. For a ray of hope in our damaged world, take a train to Epping Forest
    An interview with the Head of Conservation at Epping Forest, Jeremy Dagley, who clearly knows his stuff (and with whom I took many a train journey to and from school).
  4. A wild affair: develop a passion for photography and nature
    Catching wildlife on film has taken Robin McKie from Shetland to Kazakhstan, but his photograph of a woodpecker in the garden of his London home gave him as big a thrill.
  5. Granta magazine’s most popular essays of 2021.
  6. My annual video slideshow for 2021.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

You might have noticed a slight change of format for this latest newsletter. I’ve tried to simplify things a bit. I hope you approve. But, as always, please feel free to send feedback.

Thanks for letting me into your inbox. With so much else out there clamouring at you, your attention is much appreciated.

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


Reading more eclectically Sun, 02 Jan 2022 14:17:47 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics. I read 46 books last year. One of my aims this year is to broaden the scope of my reading. I still intend to stick mainly to factual stuff, but hope to branch out a bit. The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics.

That said, I’ll also need to keep reading books and articles for my Darwin book, so very much more of the same in that respect.

Broadening my reading should also give me the occasional excuse to write about new topics, both here and elsewhere. What’s the point of unearthing interesting new stuff if you don’t share it? Or, as Charles Darwin once put it:

There is no pleasure in reading a book if one cannot have a good talk over it.

—Darwin, C.R. to Charles Lyell, 9 August [1838]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 424”.

…But there I go, banging on about Darwin as usual!

2021: a year in photos Sat, 01 Jan 2022 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My eleventh annual video slideshow. For the last eleven years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2021 video:

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

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

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Newsletter No. 24: ‘Unclassifiable’ Fri, 10 Dec 2021 15:28:21 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) W.G. Sebald · Jan Morris · Jonathan Meades · prehistoric megafauna · Rebecca Solnit · complex numbers · Vikings! · Richard Mabey · Jeff Young · Horatio Clare · chess · Charles Darwin (obviously)
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Next Tuesday, 14th December, will mark the 20th anniversary of the untimely death of one of my favourite writers, the UK-based German emigrant W.G. Sebald. If you’ve read any of Sebald’s work, you won’t need any recommendation from me. If you haven’t, you’ll just have to take my word for it that you’re missing out. I won’t try to describe Sebald’s writing, as everyone else who does inevitably ends up resorting to the adjective unclassifiable. (You see—even I’m doing it!) I have, however, put together a page of links to my reviews of Sebald-related books, in case you’re interested. I particularly recommend the first three books on the list, which I consider to be masterpieces.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Loss of ancient grazers triggered a global rise in fires
    A new study suggests the loss of prehistoric grazing species triggered a dramatic increase in fire activity in the world’s grasslands. (And, on a surprisingly related topic, YouTuber and author John Green explores why avocados still exist.)
  2. Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope
    It’s easy to despair at the climate crisis, or to decide it’s already too late. Rebecca Solnit suggests how to keep the fight alive.
  3. The problem so hard we had to invent new numbers
    A nicely explained video about the invention/discovery of complex numbers. Don’t be put off, even if you haven’t a clue what on earth a complex number might be: this video will give you some appreciation of the issues involved.
  4. On Mistaking Whales
    A nice piece of nature/place writing in which historian Dr Bathsheba Demuth visits the Bering Strait.
  5. An ancient solar storm has helped pinpoint when Vikings settled in North America. By a spooky coincidence, the answer turns out to be precisely 1,000 years ago this very year. The detailed new study in the science journal ‘Nature’ is accompanied by a handy animated video and podcast episode (In related news, another new study suggests the Vikings also made it to the Azores.)
  6. Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past
    Archaeological discoveries are shattering scholars’ long-held beliefs about how the earliest humans organised their societies—and hint at possibilities for our own.
  7. An audience with Richard Mabey
    A filmed conversation with veteran British nature writer Richard Mabey.
  8. Jeff Young in conversation with Horatio Clare
    Jeff Young, the author of the wonderful Ghost Town, talks about a lost Liverpool with his friend, author and broadcaster Horatio Clare.
  9. ‘Swish! Swish! Swish!’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Dominic West reads Patrick Leigh Fermor’s piece about the olive harvest on the Mani peninsula in Greece, written in the 1950s but first published in 2021. (The text is also available via the link.)
  10. Chess Network’s surname-less U.S. National Master, Jerry, has been providing excellent match-by-match, retrospective video analysis of the current World Chess Championship between the defending champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi. If you’d like to gain some appreciation of just how much better these chaps are at chess than you and me, this is a wonderful way to start. (Alternatively, some viewers have been known to make use of Jerry’s laid-back, dulcet tones to overcome insomnia.)

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

Work on my Darwin book continues at a less-than-breakneck speed. But managing to continue without breaking your neck is a good thing, right? Recently, I’ve been diving deep into the evolution of the human eye: a subject on which, Darwin is forever being selectively quoted to give the impression he thought it could never have happened. Of course, he thought no such thing. Turns out the eye is such a useful organ, it has evolved many, many times.

Stay safe, thanks for subscribing, and I’ll see you next time.


Storm Arwen Tue, 30 Nov 2021 19:57:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which I (again) bemoan the naming of storms, and experience what it’s like to go off grid. I’m not a fan of this newfangled notion of giving winter storms names. I think of it as hurricane envy. To make matters worse, the convention of resetting to the letter A at the start of each winter, then progressing alphabetically with each new storm, means it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to experience a Storm Richard. I suppose there might one day be a Storm Dick, but I’m not holding my breath. The powers that be at the Met Office will no doubt avoid that one for entirely different reasons.

All of which means they’ve begun to scrape the barrel for early-in-the-alphabet names to assign to the latest seasonable gust. So much so that the first storm of the current season, which hit the UK last week, appears to have been named after the minor elf-maiden character (and Strider-love-interest) Arwen Undomiel from out of The Lord of the Rings. Whatever next? Storm Boromir? Storm Beren? Storm Balin? (I guess the smart money’s on Storm Bilbo.)

Snowy garden
An ent in our garden on Sunday. Can you tell which way the wind had been blowing?

Like hundreds of thousands of other people in the North of England and Scotland, thanks to Storm Arwen, we had no electricity for most of Saturday. Living high in the Pennines, we also had no water as the electric pumps that pump the water up to our place from below also had no power. And our gas-powered central heating was out of commission too, as the boiler also requires electricity. So we spent much of the day huddled in front of a roaring coal fire, in several layers of clothing, reading until the power finally came back on.

There was a second power-cut on Monday, during which we ended up reading by candle-light. It was an experience, and pleasant enough, but give me the wonders of electric light any day.

Being without running water, central heating, electricity, a telephone, and the internet for the best part of a day did make me wonder what it must have been like to live that way all the time. Practically all our ancestors did just that. They had no mod cons. They were permanently off grid. They knew nothing else, yet somehow they got by.

They must have been bored out of their minds.

A trip out Wed, 24 Nov 2021 15:34:35 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A spin around the Yorkshire Dales To celebrate Jen’s birthday, a Michelin-starred meal and an overnight stay at the Angel at Hetton. I couldn’t resist making the obligatory pun that the venison was ‘dead dear’. The waiter was kind enough to say he intended to steal my joke. I’m not sure if I believed him.

En route (indirectly) home, we took a spin around the Yorkshire Dales, and paid a visit to our favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh. The weather was utterly glorious. As always, we kept asking ourselves why we don’t visit the Dales more often: they’re practically on our doorstep.

Howgill Fells
Howgill Fells, Cumbria

Newsletter No. 23: ‘Emerging from aestivation’ Fri, 01 Oct 2021 16:03:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Massimo Pigliucci · ‘spirituality’ · Barry Lopez · talking trees · Eleanor Konik · rewilding · Mark Cocker · light pollution · Sir Clive Sinclair · Horatio Clare · swifts · The Enlightenment
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It’s October. How on earth did that happen? We just got to September and kept going, I guess. But suddenly there’s no denying it’s autumn. Earlier this week, it still felt like late summer here in Hebden Bridge. Then, at around 1pm on Wednesday, some switch was flipped, temperatures dropped, and a chill rain began to patter at the study window, accompanied by the tap and gurgle of the central heating system emerging from aestivation. It’ll be Christmas next, mark my words.

I’ve spent the last few months in deep research for my Darwin book, aided and abetted by the wonderful Obsidian app. I recently completed a chapter about Darwin’s religious views, and the first of a pair of chapters about the two decades it took him to get round to publishing his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. I used to think this was an extraordinary delay, but, at the rate I’m getting on with my Darwin book, twenty years is beginning to seem positively brisk.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Conversation with Massimo Pigliucci (video)
    Despite his background in genetics and evolutionary biology, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci hasn’t appeared much on my radar. I thought he came across as pretty interesting and engaging in this video, so I’ve added him to my watch list.
  2. Spirituality is a brain state we can all reach, religious or not
    In the final chapter of my book On the Moor, I took great exception to the word ‘spiritual’ being used to describe the, to me, intensely physical sensation of connectedness with the universe that occasionally engulfs me. So I was intrigued by this article, which looks into the phenomenon from a neuroscientist’s perspective. (But, for the record, I still think the word spiritual misses the point entirely.)
  3. An interview with Barry Lopez
    I only recently read the late Barry Lopez’s wonderful book Arctic Dreams. His final book, Horizon, sits near the top of my To Read pile. This December 2019 interview describes the background to Horizon, and includes some thoughtful ideas on writing.
  4. The idea that trees talk to co-operate is misleading
    The romantic notion that trees, like humans, talk in order to co-operate could actually harm the cause of conservation, says plant ecologist Kathryn Flinn.
  5. Unfamiliar Territories (video)
    A conversation between authors Ken Worpole and Patrick Wright. I very much enjoyed the latter’s The Sea View Has Me Again, and Worpole’s book sounds like one I ought to be looking into.
  6. Book Review: Tamed by Alice Roberts
    I’m not just plugging this ‘deep dive’ book review by Eleanor Konik because it was me who tipped her off about Alice Roberts’ highly enjoyable book on domesticated species, Tamed. I read Tamed as research for my Darwin book. It was interesting to read the thoughts of someone interested in the same book for entirely different reasons, including speculative fiction world-building.
  7. Diary: Wild Beasts
    A thoughtful piece by Fraser MacDonald about the politics of rewilding in Scotland. When 432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land, rewilding can happen easily enough without local support. But disputes can also arise between different land-owners with different views on rewilding.
  8. Living the (Cretaceous) Dream
    Author and naturalist Mark Cocker recently spent a week on the Yorkshire coast, appreciating creatures both great and small. (Like him, I also paid a recent visit to the fabulous gannetry at Bempton Cliffs.)
  9. Light pollution from street lamps linked to insect loss
    Scientists say light pollution is a factor driving worrying declines in local insect populations. The full scientific paper is available here.
  10. Sir Clive Sinclair: Tireless inventor ahead of his time
    The prolific inventor Sir Clive Sinclair has died. I first laid my grubby teenage mitts on a computer in 1981, when I borrowed my friend Carolyn’s Sinclair ZX-81 for a weekend. Within minutes, I knew I had to have one. I can honestly say the ZX-81, with its whole ‘1,000 bytes of memory’, was responsible for my subsequent 35-year career in I.T.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

With so much online stuff clamouring for everyone’s attention, thanks for making time to read this newsletter. I have a couple of ideas in mind as to how I might improve the format, but if you have any suggestions of your own, please let me know.

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


Newsletter No. 22: ‘His glib, beardless chops’ Fri, 02 Apr 2021 08:45:43 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Insensitive teenager · Helen Macdonald · Patrick Barkham · Richard Mabey · Julian Hoffman · photography · Mars · Christina Riley · icebergs · bowling alleys · cassette tapes · Richard Thompson · Antikythera mechanism · and more… Rich Text

2ND APRIL 2021


When I was at secondary school, I would often remark, with complete confidence, that I would die of a heart-attack at 56. I think I must have thought I was being funny, talking so matter-of-factly about my distant, yet tragically young demise. How I wish I could go back in time and slap my teenage self across his glib, beardless chops.

Today, I hit 56. If there’s one thing I’m determined to do over the next 12 months—if for no other reason than to prove that young idiot wrong—it’s to make it all the way through. Either that, or die in the attempt.

Anyway, I thought I’d better send this latest newsletter out pretty damn smartly, just in case…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

These go all the way to eleven:

  1. The things I tell myself when I’m writing about nature
    Helen Macdonald gives some sound, ‘not-too-serious and also quite serious’ nature-writing advice.
  2. ‘Viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are all part of nature’
    Patrick Barkham interview the veteran British nature writer Richard Mabey. As a fan of both nature-writing and literary correspondence, I was intrigued to read Mabey is considering writing his next collection of essays in the form of letters, very much in the style of his hero Gilbert White. Sounds perfect.
  3. The Wild Nearby
    My mate Julian Hoffman on how the wild wills its way into the most developed and unexpected of places.
  4. The Royal Photographic Society archive
    The Royal Photographic Society Journal is the oldest continuously published photographic periodical in the world. This digital archive provides searchable access to all issues from the first, in March 1853, up to 2018. Best viewed in full-screen mode.
  5. Perseverance Rover’s descent and touchdown on Mars
    We are a talented species. Nasa’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission captured thrilling footage of its rover landing on Mars.
  6. Emerging from a mussel shell
    Christina Riley tracks down the work of pioneering seaweed collector and artist Mary A. Robinson.
  7. Iceberger
    A website inspired by a tweet. Draw icebergs and see how they would float. It’s totally addictive.
  8. Right Up Our Alley
    Astonishingly skilful drone footage captured inside a bowling alley.
  9. Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94
    Thanks for all the mix tapes. The Dutch engineer was also instrumental in the development of the first CD.
  10. ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’
    Britain’s greatest guitarist, Richard Thompson, has finally written his memoir, covering a life-changing crash, and his fiery romance with his ex-wife and singing partner Linda Thompson.
  11. Scientists may have solved ancient mystery of ‘first computer’
    Researchers claim a breakthrough in study of 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator found in the sea.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

After I’d made some encouraging progress on my Darwin book, things suddenly ground to a halt this month. I used this as an excuse to investigate a new(ish) software app designed to help people like me link and analyse their notes. I was hugely impressed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for some low-cholesterol cake.

See you next time.

…I hope.


Newsletter No. 21: ‘Positively sluggish’ Fri, 19 Feb 2021 16:14:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Richard Mabey · Tim Dee · Mark Cocker · Amy Liptrot · Kathleen Jamie · Patti Smith · Alan Bennett · Melissa Harrison · Urban Birder · Patrick Wright · Clive James · and more…
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A belated Happy New Year! I hope you and yours are keeping safe and well. It’s not a particularly ambitious target, but let’s hope 2021 pans out significantly better than its predecessor.

Despite misgivings, I decided to stick with tradition and publish an annual video slideshow for 2020. Ninety-seven photos of life pretending to go on as normal.

In other news, I’m pleased to report progress on my Darwin book has accelerated from sub-glacial to a positively sluggish. Coincidentally, slugs feature prominently in one chapter—although I appreciate I probably shouldn’t mention this in future sales pitches. But it does very much feel as if the book is finally starting to come together. Slowly. I think.

When I ought to have been working on my book, I’ve continued to bang out occasional ‘Sideline’ posts. Here’s what I got up to in January and February.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Happy Birthday Richard Mabey!
    Richard Mabey turns 80 tomorrow (20th February). Tim Dee celebrates the author who pretty much single-handedly invented modern nature writing. And there’s even the obligatory Twitter #MabeyMonth hashtag.

  2. How we lost our green and pleasant land
    Mark Cocker on how the pandemic has revealed not only how essential Britain’s natural landscape is, but how little ownership we have over it.

  3. A Hyper-Local Spring
    Amy Liptrot on contracted horizons during the pandemic.

  4. Keep him as a curiosity: Botanic Macaroni
    Steven Shapin reviews The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, the Natural Historian Who Shaped the World by Toby Musgrave.

  5. Art Lessons
    Peter Campbell was the resident designer and art critic at the London Review of Books until his death in 2011. In these 1996 notes, he offers art advice to Anna Fender.

  6. The Greatest Journey of All Time
    Gillen D’Arcy Wood on how the first Americans made their way from Siberia to Patagonia.

  7. Tweeted new poem
    Kathleen Jamie: ‘After a weepy morning missing folks and thinking This Will Never End, I made myself go out. Wrote a re-balancing poem. Feel better now.’

  8. ‘As a writer, you can be a pacifist or a murderer’
    As she prepared to ring in 2021 with a performance on screens at Piccadilly Circus, Patti Smith explained why she was optimistic amid the ‘debris’ of Trump’s years in office.

  9. Honeybee historians reveal how the UK floral landscape has changed over the last 65 years
    Scientists have compared flower DNA extracted from British honey made in 1952 and 2017. Their results reflect changes in UK agriculture, and provide evidence for how best to increase floral resources.

  10. A Round of Applause
    The latest annual collection of Alan Bennett’s diary entries, courtesy of the London Review of Books.

Plus… Three excellent videos featuring prominent nature writers:

  1. Discussion and reading with Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie
    A fascinating, hour-long conversation hosted by New Networks for Nature Online 2020.

  2. Second Nature - New nature writing from Scotland
    An 18-minute documentary featuring five award-winning writers talking on the subject of nature and nature writing today: Kathleen Jamie, Jim Crumley, Chitra Ramaswamy, Roseanne Watt and Gavin Francis.

  3. In Conservation with… Melissa Harrison
    As a Zoom-call audience member, I very much enjoyed this hour-long conversation between the Urban Birder (David Lindo) and novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »
Note: My book reviews now contain links to the recently launched UK branch of, a website supporting local, tax-paying, independent British bookshops.

And finally…

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is always welcome. With Facebook throwing its weight around (yet again) regarding who is allowed to see what, and with Twitter prepared to boot even the (then) President of the United States off its platform, I can’t help feeling cutting out the giant social-media middlemen and relying on good, old-fashioned, uncensored, unmediated email is the right way to go.

So, if you’re reading a copy of this newsletter on my website, and you haven’t subscribed yet, perhaps you better had. (That’s a spectacularly unsubtle hint, in case you didn’t notice.)

See you next time, spam filters permitting.


Newsletter No. 20: ‘Giving it the David Attenboroughs’ Mon, 20 Jul 2020 15:23:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) In which I gatecrash a podcast, and share cool stuff by the likes of: Melissa Harrison · Luke Turner · Werner Herzog · Merlin Sheldrake · Robert Macfarlane · Gaby Wood · Caught by the River · Philip Hoare · and a host of talented extras.
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20TH JULY 2020


I hope you and your loved ones are still keeping safe and well.

Work continues apace on my ‘Darwin book’. It’s not a particularly pacy pace, I’ll grant you, but if Darwin taught us anything it’s that small developments over long periods can lead to wonderful outcomes. I’ve recently been writing about that very topic, as well as evolutionary vestiges, the geographical distribution of marsupials, birds’ nesting instincts, colour vision, bats, hypothetical bears, and a bunch of other stuff. I think this book might best be described as ‘eclectic’.

My research into bats provided me with the perfect excuse to gatecrash Melissa Harrison’s delightful nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. You can hear me giving it the David Attenboroughs live(ish) from my back garden in episode 16, which went out earlier today. I’ve posted an extended version of my audio piece at the end of this article about the fiasco I went through putting it together.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I rant against the jungle
    Werner Herzog fan Luke Turner interviews the man himself.
  2. How Margiad Evans wrote the earth
    One I’ve just added to my ‘To Read’ list… Margiad Evans’ writing is largely unknown outside her adopted Wales. Steven Lovatt introduces this nature writer of precision and feeling.
  3. Fungi’s lessons for adapting to life on a damaged planet
    Merlin Sheldrake in conversation with Robert Macfarlane about Sheldrake’s new book, Entangled Life, looking at the complex world of fungi.
  4. Vast neolithic circle of deep shafts found near Stonehenge
    Archaeologists have discovered an impressive prehistoric structure spanning 1.2 miles.
  5. Tea and capitalism
    Dutch merchants were the first to import tea leaves into Europe in 1609, but by the late 1700s it was the English East India Company, backed by state monopoly, that came to dominate what became known as the ‘Canton Trade’.
  6. How to draw an albatross
    My favourite genre of writing: a fascinating blend of nature, science and history by Gaby Wood.
  7. The 2020 Audubon Photography Awards
    Stunning bird photographs.
  8. Could the art of ‘sashiko’ help to mend our frayed world?
    In sashiko, the art of fabric-repair, the goal is not to hide the repair, but to celebrate it. It exemplifies the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi.
  9. An Antidote to Indifference—online in full!
    The wonderful Caught by the River website marked the 13th anniversary of their first post by making two editions of their irregular physical publication, An Antidote to Indifference, available free online.
  10. The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’
    Since September 2019, medieval scholars have heatedly debated the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
  11. PLACE 2020
    The Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University has just launched a digital project bringing together writers and artists to think about place and its meanings in 2020. A fabulous new resource.
  12. The Blues Brothers at 40: a manic musical romp that still sings today
    A 40th-anniversary tribute to my favourite film—although I don’t think the article makes clear just how fantastic the soundtrack is!

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

To mark the 300th anniversary of the great parson-naturalist, I recently wrote about Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin.

If you still have any reading left in you after that lot, please keep checking in on my latest Sidelines posts. Highlights from July 2020 include a nice photo of Comet Neowise over Hebden Bridge, and this recent photo of a barn owl in the field in front of our house:

Barn owl

Keep safe. Keep well. And I’ll see you next time.