Richard Carter A merged feed of Sidelines blog posts, Newsletters and Reviews from en-gb Richard Carter My notes ‘tagsonomy’ Sun, 02 Oct 2022 17:53:47 +0100 For many years, I maintained notes on diverse topics in a number of different places. These included (and, in the first three cases, still include):

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

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

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

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

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

Zettelkasten-related tags

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

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

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

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

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

‘Iconic notes’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grey seal

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

Lifeboat and coastguard helicopter practice exercise

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

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


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

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

A Risso’s dolphin showing off

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

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

Risso’s dolphins
Risso’s dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swallows preparing to migrate from Anglesey in 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

The view from the Moor

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

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

Female sparrowhawk
Female sparrowhawk

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

On the Moor

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

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

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

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

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

Stanage Edge

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

A really pleasant part of the world.

Thanks, in-laws!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deservedly seen as a classic.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

29TH JULY 2022


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

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

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

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

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended. (No, seriously.)

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Descent into violins Sun, 24 Jul 2022 17:30:57 +0100 When done well, the personal essay is without doubt my favourite literary form. I particularly enjoy when an essayist latches on to some small, seemingly trivial example to illustrate a recurring theme of great importance to them. This is especially true if their chosen example provides an original take on a familiar topic, but also turns out to be interesting in its own right. I like it when writers find their own nuggets.

The late, great Stephen Jay Gould was a master at this. Gould was largely to blame for my unhealthy obsession with Charles Darwin. As I wrote shortly after his death 20 years ago:

His unbroken run of 300 monthly essays, which appeared between 1974 and 2001 in Natural History magazine, and which were reprinted in several best-selling books, were masterpieces in the genre. In his best essays, Gould would often start with some small, seemingly obscure detail, then lead the reader through various twists and turns until the chosen detail became an illustration of a far wider scientific generality. En route, he would destroy myths, restore scorned historical figures to their rightful places in the scientific pantheon, wax lyrical about baseball, and occasionally slip in favourite Gouldian words such as canonical, maximal, contingency, ontogeny and exaptation. On reaching the end of a Gould essay, you would often feel (as Thomas Henry Huxley did after reading On the Origin of Species) how stupid of me not to have thought of that! You rarely, if ever, came away from a Gould essay without feeling just that little bit cleverer than before.

A couple of weeks ago, the Guardian published a wonderful essay by Rebecca Solnit. I very much enjoy Solnit’s writing, but I particularly liked what she did in this piece. I found myself returning to it several times, not least to try to work out why I enjoyed it so much.

Solnit’s original nugget comes in the form of a violin made in Milan in 1721 by the instrument-maker Carlo Giuseppe Testore. The instrument is now owned, and has been very much used over the last 50 years, by the founder and artistic director of San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet. Solnit imparts some lovely details about the history and process of violin-making, from the types and densities of wood required, to a fascinating piece of trivia about why stallions’ tail-hair is preferable to mares’ in the stringing of violin bows. Stuff like this—stuff you didn’t even realise could be interesting—is the making of an essay. But Solnit also uses the violin as an excuse to return to recurring themes in her writing: climate change, sustainability, and colonialism.

Solnit explores how rising global temperatures are affecting the way trees grow, and how this will make it more difficult to manufacture quality violins. The point here is not ‘how shall we make quality violins in future?’ That’s just an interesting technical challenge. The point is, climate change has untold (in both senses of the word) implications: it’s even going to affect something as esoteric as violin-manufacture.

Solnit also explains how the best violins could not have come about without access to global resources provided by colonialism. She also cites the continuing use of a 300-year-old violin as a small example of long-term sustainability, contrasting this with our modern association of cultural enrichment with ‘material stuff’:

The sheer thrift of an instrument lasting so long said to me that maybe you could have magnificent culture with material modesty, that the world before all our fossil fuel extraction and burning could be plenty elegant, and maybe that the world we need to make in response to climate change can feel like one of abundance, not austerity.

To Solnit, violins, being made of wood, are also examples of (admittedly tiny) carbon sinks. Again, the point is not about violins per se, but to remind us of the important role trees have to play in sequestering carbon from our atmosphere.

Another lesson in climate change, sustainability, and colonialism, this time illuminated by a 300-year-old musical instrument, accompanied by some unexpectedly interesting trivia about violins…

As nuggets go, pure gold!

Converting my notes into a chapter Fri, 15 Jul 2022 18:55:02 +0100 As I’ve explained in a number of earlier sideline pieces, midway through the first draft of my Darwin book (which is still a work in progress) I became aware of the Zettelkasten system of note-making, and quickly became besotted with both it and the associated Obsidian app (other apps or analogue alternatives are available). I ended up taking a few months retrospectively converting all my existing notes to the system, then filling in some of the more glaring gaps in my notes.

Earlier this week, Chris Aldrich put out a call for model examples of Zettelkasten output processes. What he’s after is best summarised in his response to one commenter:

Now that you’ve got [your notes] and they’re linked, how do you actively revisit and reuse them? What does that portion of your process look like? Do you actively use them to write papers, articles, blogposts, other? How is that done?

In my own case, the answer is yes, I do actively use my notes to write both long-form pieces (the more recent chapters of my book), and some of my longer-form ‘sideline’ blog posts (including this one). It’s still early days, but, as I wrote before, there’s no going back.

My research and writing is a convoluted process, but, in response to Chris’s call, I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try to describe how I went about drafting a recent chapter of my book, which was fairly typical under my new system—and not entirely unlike how I worked in my pre-Zettelkasten, pre-Obsidian days. I shall, as Chris suggested in the comment quoted above, begin from where I already had a set of interlinked notes in place…

Chapter background

The completed chapter I shall be discussing is currently entitled Trying to Explain Too Much—although, knowing me, this might change in future drafts. Its original working title was Use It or Lose It. The change in title was due to a change in scope of the chapter, which, as we shall see, occurred as a direct result of my interacting with my notes inside the Obsidian app and elsewhere.

My original intention for the chapter was to explore how Charles Darwin explained the development of useful new biological traits, and the diminishing of old ones that, due to changes in circumstances, are no longer as useful as they used to be. Unsurprisingly, Darwin often invoked natural selection to give what we would now consider the correct ‘Darwinian’ explanation for such changes. But in some cases he gave the wrong ‘Lamarckian’ explanation of Use and Disuse.

Like many people, I’d always been baffled by the occasional, undeniably ‘Lamarckian’ passages in On the Origin of Species, bearing in mind Darwin is generally credited with having discredited such thinking.

Further developing my notes

My original note about ‘Use and Disuse’ merely summarised the basic idea, pointing out it was bogus, although Darwin sometimes referred to it uncritically. One thing I wanted to get my head round was why did Darwin think it was a genuine phenomenon? It turned out he thought so because pretty much every other biologist of the time thought so. Darwin took ‘Use and Disuse’ effectively as a given. As I read more around the topic, I began to add new notes to Obsidian with titles such as:

  • Lamarckism
  • Darwin and Lamarck compared and contrasted
  • What we think of as ‘Lamarckism’ had little to do with Lamarck
  • Darwin switched between natural selection and ‘use and disuse’ to explain different traits
  • Darwin thought injuries could sometimes be inherited
  • Variation, ch.24: Laws of Variation - Use and Disuse, etc.

This last note refers to a chapter from Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, in which he expanded on some of the themes only touched on in On the Origin of Species. As I explored and made notes about this and a few subsequent chapters, it slowly dawned on me that I was going to have to go off on another one of my tangents and begin researching one of Darwin’s other ideas: his hypothesis of Pangenesis.

Pangenesis was Darwin’s attempt, in the absence of any understanding of modern genetics, to explain a mechanism for biological inheritance. It’s a subject usually glossed over in polite Darwinian circles these days, as Darwin’s proposed mechanism was hopelessly wrong. I’ll spare you the details. But, having politely avoided looking into the subject for many years, I ended up doing a deep-dive, amending or splitting many existing notes, and adding some new ones. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but the key new note was one entitled:

  • Phenomena Darwin tried to explain with Pangenesis

One of the supposed phenomena Darwin tried to explain with his hypothesis of Pangenesis was our old ‘Lamarckian’ friend, Use and Disuse.

At around this point, as is my habit when trying to work out where I’ve got to, and to devise a basic outline, I took out my trusty Leuchtturm1917 notebook and scrawled out a rough mind-map of my potential chapter:

Chapter mind-map
Chapter mind-map

Note the side-comment half-way down on the left:

D liked his theories to explain multiple accepted phenomena (cf. Nat Seln)

Thanks to a similar passing observation in my Writing Journal three weeks later, this brief side-comment was to lead to the aforementioned changes in scope and title of my chapter.

Writing Journal

As I’ve written before, the single best piece of writing advice I ever received was to keep a writing journal. I’ve been doing so now—on and off, but mostly on—for over a decade. My Journal saw me through my first book, and is now seeing me through my second. It has always been an electronic Journal in simple ‘Markdown’ (plain text) format. So, when Obsidian, which is also in Markdown format, came along, my existing Journal was easily incorporated into my new system.

Among other things, I have traditionally used my Journal to think out loud to myself about my work in hand: the progress I’m making, the problems I’m encountering, and so on. Many of my best ideas have arisen by writing to myself like this.

In March 2022, I had been struggling to work out how the existing draft chapters of my book were all going to fit together. So, as I explained in a subsequent sideline piece, I broke my golden rule and went back to re-read my existing chapters before the first draft of my entire book was finished. Half-way through this re-reading, I recorded the following in my Journal (the text in bold indicates links to notes in my system that I can’t link to from here) :

Today, continued my reading in among chores:

As I’d already realised, there is clearly going to be some overlap between [my completed chapter] As Monstrous as a Whale and my planned next chapter on use and disuse, etc. […]

Also, [my existing chapter] Small Change Writ Large mentions Darwin trying to shoehorn the parallel roads of Glen Roy into his applications of Charles Lyell’s theories of uplift and subsidence (geological). When all you have is a hammer… This would tie in nicely with the use and disuse chapter, where Darwin made a similar mistake. He recognised Glen Roy as a blunder, but never Use and Disuse.

Developing my notes, re-reading my work, and thinking out loud in my Journal had led me to an interesting observation: Charles Darwin did indeed like his theories to explain multiple accepted phenomena, and I now had three examples. In chronological order, they were:

  • Darwin applied his friend Charles Lyell’s thinking on uplift and subsidence to explain a number of apparently unrelated, recognised geological phenomena. (In one case, the parallel roads of Glen Roy, he turned out to be very wrong.)
  • Darwin applied his own theory of evolution by means of natural selection to explain a wide range of apparently unrelated, recognised biological phenomena, from species classification to embryology, and from vestigial organs to the geographical distribution of species.
  • Darwin applied his hypothesis of Pangenesis to explain a wide range of other recognised biological phenomena, from how wounds heal to how plants reproduce though budding. (But at least one of these recognised phenomena, Use and Disuse, was bogus.)

Then came my lightbulb moment: Darwin had identified a number of phenomena that he wanted to try to explain with his proposed mechanism of inheritance, but at least one of those phenomena was wrong… I immediately created a new note:

  • Darwin never stood a chance with Pangenesis

The scope of my chapter immediately expanded, and its title needed to change: I decided I would now write about Darwin’s habit of applying general ideas to a wide range of phenomena in order to convince other scientists of the power of those ideas. But, as the new chapter of my title made clear, in the case of Pangenesis, Darwin bit off more than he needed to chew: he was Trying to Explain Too Much.

Trying to Explain Too Much graph
Obsidian graph of my Trying to Explain Too Much note

Outlining my chapter

I now had an interesting new take and scope that required me to re-outline my chapter. There was no way I would be able to mind-map this one on a single page in my trusty Leuchtturm1917, so, as always, I created a detailed outline in the electronic note dedicated to the chapter.

I make a habit of outlining chapters in Obsidian as it allows me to structure them with indented bullet points, and to link individual bullet points to supporting notes, including notes on original sources. I also make the bullet points into checkboxes, so I can check them off as I make my way through the outline as I’m drafting the actual chapter.

I can’t include an image of my chapter outline here—it’s far too long—but here’s a small section to give you a feel for how it looks (the light-purple text is linked to notes in my system):

Section of chapter outline
Section of chapter outline

Writing the chapter

All that remained was the small matter of actually writing the chapter. I don’t do this in Obsidian: I think it would be asking for trouble to mix notes and their end-products in the same place. For the time being, my writing app of choice is Ulysses, but plenty of others are available—even, heaven help you, Micros✽ft W✽rd.

Having links to original sources in my outline makes the compilation of references for the chapter far easier than it used to be.

In summary

The above is an attempt to describe how I went about writing one chapter of my book. I use the same basic approach for all my chapters, namely:

  • make lots of linked notes about stuff I happen to find interesting;
  • continue to develop those notes, splitting them into smaller notes when they become too wide-ranging;
  • write Journal entries and draw mind-maps to explore what I’ve discovered;
  • keep playing with my notes;
  • await a lightbulb moment, when two or more notes suddenly make an unexpected new connection in my brain, and I think, “Oh, that’s interesting!”
  • create a detailed bullet-point outline of my chapter, complete with links to supporting notes and references;
  • write the chapter;
  • compile the chapter references with the help of the chapter outline links;
  • repeat until the first draft of the book is finished;
  • then comes the fun part.

It’s far more complicated than that, obviously. Different parts of this process are going on all the time. While working on one chapter, I’m also capturing and working on unrelated—for the time being at least—notes on other topics that interest me, including stuff that might well end up in future books.

Apologies for such a long, nerdy piece. I do hope I wasn’t, like my hero, trying to explain too much.

Lady Amherst’s pheasant Mon, 11 Jul 2022 16:33:07 +0100 “Richard, there’s a strange, red-tailed pheasant in the garden,” said Jen, gazing out the study window.

Jen is definitely getting better at bird identification, but the last ‘strange pheasant’ she spotted in our garden turned out to be a sparrowhawk, so she still has some way to go.

“It’s probably jus… Oh good grief!”

Male Lady Amherst’s pheasant

A male Lady Amherst’s pheasant. My first ever! They were introduced to the UK from China by the eponymous Lady Amherst, as garden ornaments for her estates. Over the years, some escaped and established local wild populations. But, in recent years, they’re believed to have died out. From what I can gather, sightings are very rare these days.

My guess is the bird in our garden was an escapee. Our stunning visitor seemed fairly relaxed as I tiptoed about the patio taking photographs. So relaxed that he hung around for the rest of the day. I’m hoping he becomes a regular ornament on our estate!

Lady Amherst’s pheasant

A real thrill. And this not twenty-four hours after I wrote, “I’ve never been one for chasing after [bird] rarities”.

(In my defence, no chasing was involved.)

Bempton Sun, 10 Jul 2022 08:51:43 +0100 · East Yorkshire ·

Jen and I spent a few days at the in-laws’ caravan near Filey last week. Two things were non-negotiable, as far as I was concerned: haddock and chips from Ingram’s, and a trip to the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs. Obviously, the haddock and chips came first. Priorities, and all that.

On our previous visit to Bempton, late last August, the local gannets were all that remained on the cliffs, the other birds having already raised their young and departed. This time round, six weeks or so earlier in the season, kittiwakes, puffins, guillemots and razorbills were also in abundance—as were betelescoped birders in search of Bempton’s famous lone black-browed albatross, and a Turkestan shrike that had been spotted in the area a couple of days earlier. But I’ve never been one for chasing after rarities, being far more interested in encountering familiar species up close.

I took some nice photos during our visit, but there was one clear winner: a shot of a gannet returning to its nest with floral nesting material. I was determined to get the shot, having seen the bird make an earlier, aborted landing attempt. With many thousands of other gannets circulating near the cliffs, I soon lost track of the bird, but knew it would return to make a second landing attempt at exactly the same spot. So I positioned myself as well as I could directly above the spot in question; switched my camera to multi-shot mode; set autofocus to continuous; set exposure compensation to ⅔ of a stop under-exposed, to compensate for the gannet’s glaring white feathers; waited for my quarry to reappear out of the gyrating mass; and fired away:


Not too shabby.

Just as big a thrill as encountering Bempton’s headline species, however, was getting to see tree sparrows dust-bathing; a burnet moth sharing a thistle with a score of tiny, black beetles; a lone barn owl being mobbed by swallows; a pensive-looking jackdaw; and my favourite members of the auk family, razorbills, in their dapper summer plumage. But let’s face reality… You’re only here for the obligatory puffin photo, aren’t you?

Newsletter No. 29: ‘An inspiration’ Fri, 01 Jul 2022 16:03:06 +0100
Rich Text

1ST JULY 2022


Earlier this week, I paid one of my regular visits to Salt’s Mill in Saltaire near Bradford. The mill and adjacent village are a World Heritage site, with the former textile mill having been converted into fancy shops and art galleries. The site is closely associated with the artist David Hockney, who was born in Bradford in 1937, and who has been extremely supportive of his hometown by exhibiting many of his artworks at the mill. I was there to see Hockney’s latest exhibition, A Year in Normandie, which comprises his biggest ever picture: a 90.75m frieze depicting the changing seasons in his French garden. The size and presentation of this piece was influenced by another artwork associated with Normandy, but most likely made in England, the Bayeaux Tapestry. Like many of Hockney’s recent pieces, A Year in Normandie was created on his iPad.

Here are some photos I took at the exhibition.

Hockney is an inspiration. He never stops trying out new ideas. A great draftsman and painter, he famously branched out into other media, producing wonderful photographic collages dubbed joiners. He later explored this idea further in video format. Nowadays, he churns out image after image on his iPad, many of which are wonderful.

Even at age 84, the secret is to keep experimenting, and to keep putting your stuff out there.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. ‘A fragment of eternity’: the mesmerising murmurations of Europe’s starlings
    Photographer Søren Solkær has spent hundreds of nights capturing the astonishing flight patterns made by starlings. Note: It might not be obvious, but some of the images are amazing videos. To get them to play, you might need to click on them, or right-click and choose the ‘Play’ option.
  2. Cracking the Cretan code
    The written language Linear B has been deciphered, but Linear A remains elusive. Can linguistic analysis unlock the meaning of Minoan script?
    See also: The ancient secrets revealed by deciphered tablets - When cuneiform was cracked, it gave us some astonishing insights into the ancient world.
  3. Wet Plate Photography with the Royal National Lifeboat Institution
    A lovely video documentary about one man’s 10-year project to photograph all 238 RNLI lifeboat stations and their crews around the coast of the UK using a 170-year-old photographic process. The images are stunning.
  4. Ten years sober
    My friend and near-neighbour Amy Liptrot’s characteristically brave, personal piece about being ten years free of alcohol.
  5. Black death: how we solved the centuries-old mystery of its origins
    The Black Death evolved around Kyrgyzstan, according to interesting new research.

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

Even before being re-inspired by David Hockney this week, I’d recently begun putting more of my stuff out there on my website. I plan to keep doing this in future, in parallel with working on my Darwin book. So please keep checking out the latest posts on my Sidelines blog.

Thanks, as ever, for allowing me into your inbox, and for making time to read this newsletter. As always, please let me know if you have any feedback, and feel free to forward this newsletter to anyone you think might enjoy it and want to subscribe. It’s always nice to gain new readers!

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


Rich Text 29: Bonus Links Fri, 01 Jul 2022 11:35:16 +0100 Some stuff there wasn’t space for in my Rich Text newsletter No. 29:

  1. The swashbuckling, philosophical alchemist
    A typically well-researched, profusely illustrated piece by my mate science historian Thony Christie on Sir Kenelm Digby, ‘one of the most fascinating figures of the seventeenth century’.
  2. Ancient DNA reveals secrets of Pompeii victims
    Researchers studying human remains from Pompeii have extracted genetic information from the bones of a man and a woman who were buried when the Roman city was engulfed in volcanic ash.
  3. How do we solve the paradox of protection in Antarctica?
    The most protected place on Earth has become one of the most threatened—and threatening.
  4. Supermassive black hole at centre of Milky Way seen for first time
    The Event Horizon telescope has captured an image from the turbulent heart of our galaxy.
  5. Where science meets fiction: the dark history of eugenics
    Scientist and author Dr Adam Rutherford looks at how the study of genetics has been warped for political ends.
  6. Tom Scott vs Irving Finkel: The Royal Game of Ur
    YouTuber Tom Scott takes on British Museum curator Irvin Finkel in the world’s oldest playable board game. (And what a fantastic game it is!)
  7. Are you eating a credit card of plastic every week?
    (Spoiler alert: Nope!) A nice piece of sceptical investigation, showing how genuine scientific studies can be accidentally misrepresented in the re-telling.

Weird magpie Thu, 30 Jun 2022 14:42:19 +0100 We looked after the in-laws’ dog last week. While we were out walking it one morning, I was distracted by a commotion coming from a tree at the end of the lane. I recognised the noise as a magpie, which I presumed was up to no good. Then it emerged from the foliage…

I was astonished to see the magpie was what could only be described as brown and white, not the usual black and white.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera to hand, but subsequent research revealed this Creative Commons photograph from the website:

Creative Commons photo from [ website](
Brown and white magpie next to its more traditionally coloured parent.

Apparently, the unusual brown colouration is caused by leucism, a condition involving a lack of pigmentation. Back in March 2020, I also saw a partially leucistic carrion crow on one of my regular walks.

I’ve taken my camera with me on every subsequent walk, but, of course, there has been no sign of this unusual bird.

Always carry a camera, people!

Sibling rivalry Thu, 30 Jun 2022 09:30:08 +0100 Most of the meadows around here were mown during the recent prolonged dry-spell, but not the ones immediately surrounding our house. During the last week, these have become something of a magnet for the local swifts, swallows, and house martins. Unmown fields harbour more insects than mown ones.

A few days ago, I watched all three of these insectivorous bird species quartering the front field at the same time, flying low above the tall grass. It’s not until you see swifts flying alongside swallows that you appreciate just how much faster they are. Swallows are no slouches, varying their flights between a leisurely coast and gunning along on all cylinders, but the aptly named swifts shot past them with effortless ease: fighter-jets to the swallows’ spitfires.

The following morning, as I worked in the study, I was distracted by a frantic twittering just outside the open window. I recognised it immediately as the sound of recently fledged swallows begging to be fed by their parents. The young birds were perched close to the house on our electrical power-lines. Our walls are two feet thick, and the study window is low and rather small, but I somehow contrived to hang precariously out of the window, craning my neck sideways, to capture a nice shot of an adult swallow feeding one of it young while two of its siblings tried desperately to attract the parent bird’s attention with their pleading open beaks and flapping wings.

Swallow feeding its young
Swallow feeding its young

When it comes to natural selection, individuals aren’t just pitted against the elements: cold or heat, flood or drought. Nor simply against members of different species: predator versus prey, generalist versus specialist. The struggle is often—perhaps more often—between members of the same species for limited resources: a struggle for mating opportunities, nesting locations, food. This even applies to siblings. When parent swallows return to their fledglings bearing food, the chick that pleads the most energetically is more likely to be the one that ends up being fed. As with the human world, it’s the loud-mouthed extroverts that tend to do best. When it comes to feeding time, it’s every chick for itself. Keeping schtum, not kicking up a fuss is a bad tactic. In times of plenty, every chick might still receive all the food it needs, but in times of scarcity it pays to be outgoing and unreserved.

The slippery slope of minor embellishments Sun, 26 Jun 2022 13:47:41 +0100 No sooner had I written about the gaping void between fact and fiction, being strongly of the opinion you can’t just invent colourful details and retain the label nonfiction, than I came across an article by Thomas Meaney in the latest edition of the London Review of Books which covers the same topic.

The article is a review of Lea Ypi’s memoir Free: Coming of Age at the End of History (Penguin) about her upbringing in Albania as the country emerged from 40 years under a repressive communist regime headed by Enver Hoxha. This sounded similar in content to two other books I read and very much enjoyed recently, Stasiland by Anna Funder, and Border by Kapka Kassabova, so I guessed I ought to be adding to my To Read list.

Ypi’s book opens with a charming detail. As Meaney explains:

‘I never asked myself about the meaning of freedom until the day I hugged Stalin,’ Ypi writes in the opening line of Free. She describes herself, aged eleven, as an ardent young Pioneer who loves her country and worships ‘Uncle Enver’. On a rainy day in December 1990 she had run to the statue of Stalin to hide from a band of hooligans wreaking havoc in the wake of the state’s collapse, only to find her idol defiled, his head broken off.

A great, symbolic anecdote with which to open a book. But Meaney’s review goes on to explain the reception of the book in Albania:

The opening image of Ypi hugging the statue of Stalin came in for particular scrutiny. There was no large statue of Stalin in Durrës in 1990: there was only a small bust, and it was never decapitated. Ypi responded by mocking her Albanian fact-checkers’ tiresome adherence to the ‘correspondence theory of truth’, and directed them to Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Excavation and Memory’, where Benjamin argues that genuine memory yields an image of the person who remembers rather than simply cataloguing events.

I’m genuinely fascinated by the phenomenon of unreliable memory, which we all experience whether we realise it or not. But to mock the idea that what is claimed to be true must reflect what is real—in other words, in this case, what actually happened—strikes me as philosophical smoke-screening. And to cite a 90-year-old single-paragraph posthumously published essay which makes the interesting point that memories are—and need to be—explored and developed, rather than simply recalled, seems an academic diversionary tactic.

How does Ypi actually defend the charge of having made up this colourful anecdote? Her reported response doesn’t dispute the claim that the decapitated statue she described as real never actually existed. Is she instead maintaining that this seemingly fictional statue—a metaphorical statue, perhaps—reflects some different kind of truth?

Interestingly, as Meaney’s review goes on to explain:

It’s true that the protocols of Anglo creative non-fiction have struggled to find a footing in Europe, where there is no established genre of non-fiction, much less ‘creative non-fiction’. (In German, nicht-fiktionale Literatur is a very recent Anglicism. Outside of history and memoirs, there is no common term for ‘non-fiction’, only Sachbücher, ‘books about things’.) In Albania, Ypi’s memoir was marketed as a novel.

Like all categorisation, classifying book genres is fraught with difficulties. I’ve previously written about nature writing’s ill-defined, thriving ecosystem. I was intrigued to learn the ‘non-fiction’ genre—I continue to prefer the term ‘factual’—seems to be mainly limited to the English-speaking world. But clearly Ypi’s scrutinous Albanian fact-checkers were of the opinion her book was supposed to be a factual memoir, despite its local classification as a novel.

Meaney argues there are times when artistic licence allows factual writers a bit of leeway, when ‘it’s neither here nor there whether’ certain minor details are true or not, but that ‘different standards govern political memoirs that make claims about wider public experience’. He goes on to say:

The problem with some of Ypi’s scenes isn’t really about memory or truth—whether or not her Stalin statue had a thigh for her to press her cheek against. It’s about whether she may have submitted a bit too readily to Anglo-American publishing imperatives that want stories of far-off places served with a spoonful of kitsch. […] Ypi’s apparent over-compliance with certain narrative expectations makes one wonder if she has oversimplified other aspects of her passage through 1990s Albania.

I think it’s wrong to blame ‘narrative expectations’ for the sexing up of a supposedly factual account. I also think it’s wrong to hold different types of factual writing to different standards, and am less relaxed than Meaney when it comes to minor embellishments. Slippery-slope arguments irritate the hell out of me, but it seems to me, once we allow some artistic licence regarding apparently inconsequential details into what is supposed to be factual writing, we open a dangerous can of worms.

Ypi’s memoir has been widely praised internationally, being shortlisted for and even winning a number of prestigious awards. It was also listed among the books of the year by several newspapers. It still sounds like the sort of book I would very much have enjoyed reading. But now I know it passes off certain details as facts when they are no such thing, I don’t think I’ll be reading it: I know I would have continuous nagging doubts, never knowing which details it describes are real, and which are artistic embellishments.

Book review: ‘The Northern Question’ by Tom Hazeldine Sat, 25 Jun 2022 15:48:14 +0100
’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
’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 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
‘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.