Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘The Good Bee’ by Alison Benjamin & Brian McCallum Tue, 21 May 2019 11:21:09 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of bees and how to save them.
A celebration of bees and how to save them.

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The Good Bee

When I was a young boy, my widowed grandmother’s gentleman friend, Uncle Chuckie, kept bees in his spacious garden. When we visited his house, honeybees would occasionally fly into the living room. To my sister’s and my astonishment, Uncle Chuckie would gently grasp an errant bee between thumb and forefinger, inspect it closely, and, before releasing it back into the garden, announce something along the lines of, “Ah, yes! This one’s named Henry!” My sister and I totally believed Uncle Chuckie could identify his bees individually, not even realising the bee in question was far more likely to be a Henrietta than a Henry.

Beekeeping is going through something of a renaissance at the moment. Everyone seems to be at it. Even my lifelong friend Carolyn, who occasionally used to visit Uncle Chuckie with us. People’s rediscovered interest in apiculture isn’t, as far as I can tell, driven by an increased demand for honey or beeswax. It seems to have far more to do with people realising, worldwide, bees are in trouble, and that, for our own good, we should be doing more to help them.

Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum are one of many couples who have been bitten by the beekeeping bug. Their engaging, charmingly illustrated book is packed full of interesting facts about both wild and domesticated bees. To be honest, I had no idea there were so many types of bee. Thousands of species in fact. In addition to the familiar bumblebees and honeybees, there are, among others, stingless bees, cuckoo bees, carpenter bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, and ivy bees. I vaguely recalled having read somewhere about sweat bees that obtain moisture and minerals from humans’ and other animals’ perspiration, but vulture bees that make a form of honey from carrion were completely new to me. How long before someone incorporates these amazing creatures into a macabre horror story?

As well as exploring the many different types of bees, their produce, and how we put it to use, Benjamin and McCallum describe the crisis bees and other insects are going through. It’s the same, sad old story: habitat destruction, disease, pesticides, and climate change. They also provide some useful advice about how we can do our bit for bees, and encourage them back into our gardens.

An enjoyable and entertaining read.


Postscript: After I’d finished reading this book, I decided to give my review copy to Carolyn as thanks for all the jars of honey she’s presented me with over the years. I also thought I’d take the opportunity to capture some of her bees on video to accompany this review. The exercise didn’t quite go according to plan…

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

Book review: ‘Under the Rock’ by Benjamin Myers Mon, 06 May 2019 09:31:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The poetry of a place.
The poetry of a place.

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Under the Rock

Benjamin Myers lives quite literally in the shadow of Scout Rock, Mytholmroyd, in the steep and narrow Upper Calder Valley. I live on the opposite, sunnier side of the valley. I know Ben, and I love the area, so there was never any chance I wouldn’t enjoy this book. Personal biases aside, it’s damn good.

But how to describe it?

Under the Rock is about immersing oneself in a landscape, in a community. It’s about woodland and millstone grit. Trespassing and wild swimming. Dump-scavenging and guerrilla wood-piling. It’s about the winter blues. Poetry and prose. Weather and walking. Floods and landslides. Moss and mud. History and counter-culture. It’s about Northernness. It’s about reservoirs and dams. Native and offcumden species. It’s about asbestosis and mass-murder. It’s about Jimmy Savile. Throbbing Gristle. Heathcliff the dog. Ted and Sylvia. (Hughes and Plath.)

It’s about 360 pages.

It’s about bloody time you read it.

Book review: ‘Round About Town’ by Kevin Boniface Sat, 04 May 2019 12:56:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Diary of a postman.
Diary of a postman.

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Round About Town

Round About Town is a hugely entertaining book. It comprises the diary entries of Kevin Boniface, a Huddersfield postman. It’s packed with observations and overheard conversations. I frequently found myself laughing out loud. (I don’t mean that simply as an expression; I actually did laugh out loud many times.)

Boniface’s words are augmented with equally well-observed photographs gracing every double-page spread.

If Alan Bennett were a postman, his diaries might read very much like this. (And they wouldn’t have all that boring stuff in them about the theatre.)


Book review: ‘The Tree’ by John Fowles Sat, 04 May 2019 12:52:29 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.
Dissing science (and art) for no good reason.

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The Tree

Despite this being a truly infuriating book, I know it’s one I’ll return to again and again, just so I can continue to distance myself from its central premise.

This extended essay by the late John Fowles attempts to set science at odds with an appreciation of nature. Anyone who’s read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will understand I hold the truth to be the exact opposite. To shamelessly quote myself:

When did appreciating the world for what it really is become unromantic—or, as some would have it, soulless? […] Darwin hadn’t belittled Nature by explaining how life evolves; he had revealed its true grandeur.

At a number of points in his essay, Fowles goes out of his way to explain he’s not condemning science. He then immediately spoils the conciliatory gesture by setting up yet another scientific straw-man to knock down.

In the interests of balance, Fowles also has a go at art. He argues it’s completely impossible (so pointless to attempt) to convey, say, the ineffable otherness of a wood in either pictorial or written format. But isn’t a major aim in art to convey what an experience meant to the artist? I might never be able to comprehend and describe or depict a tree’s utter treeness, but I can certainly attempt to describe or depict what standing in the middle of a copse felt like to me. I mean, why stop at trees? I might never be able to comprehend a pencil’s utter pencilness, but there’s absolutely no harm in me having a go at drawing one.

Pencil doodle
In yer face, Mr Fowles!

An infuriating but compelling read.

Book review: ‘Time Song’ by Julia Blackburn Sat, 04 May 2019 12:43:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Searching for Doggerland
Searching for Doggerland

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Time Song

Time Song recounts Julia Blackburn’s personal investigations into Doggerland: the name coined in the 1990s to describe the land that once connected Britain to continental Europe, but which now lies submerged beneath the North Sea. It was a land inhabited by woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses, Neanderthals, and stone-age Homo sapiens. Evidence for these and other former Doggerland inhabitants continues to be dredged from the sea and washed up on the surrounding beaches.

I enjoyed this book very much indeed, not least because it was written by a non-expert. In many ways, it’s more an account of Blackburn finding out about Doggerland than it is about Doggerland itself. It’s the sort of book that encourages you to go and find out stuff for yourself. I’m all for that.

Interspersed between the account of Blackburn’s investigations is a series of poems: the eponymous time songs. Taking their inspiration from various sources, the time songs explore what life in Doggerland might have been like, and summarising the results of recent scientific studies. It’s an unusual approach, but helps to keep the personal narrative flowing without getting sidetracked too far into published research.

An unusual and entertaining book. Recommended.

Introducing Sidelines Sun, 21 Apr 2019 10:38:56 +0100 Richard Carter ( A new section on my website dedicated to the (mostly nature) writing I write ‘on the side’. Definitely not a diary. Definitely not a blog. In issue 15 of my ‘Rich Text’ newsletter, I wrote:

[T]o keep my juices flowing, I’ve begun writing regular short pieces about things I’ve seen, or stuff I’ve been thinking. I’m steadfastly refusing to call this a ‘Diary’, and it certainly won’t replace my Writing Journal. So, for want of a better name, I’ve decided to call these short pieces Sidelines: lines that I write on the side, so to speak. I suppose they should rightly have been blog posts, but I’m finding writing stuff without the pressure of intended publication rather liberating. Who knows, perhaps some of my Sidelines might make it out into the wider world some day. It seems a shame to write stuff and not put it out there.

Since the newsletter went out, I’ve continued to write my Sidelines, and I’ve continued to wonder what on earth (if anything) I should do with them.

I meant it when I said writing without the pressure of intended publication was liberating. And I definitely don’t want to get into the blogging mindset, publishing each new sideline as soon as it’s written, then moving on. I much prefer to mull things over for a while, and to tinker.

So, by way of experiment, I’ve decided to try publishing my Sidelines retrospectively, in batches, as and when I feel ready to put them out there. I’m thinking, most likely, of publishing them once a month for the month just gone—although this might well change.

Obviously, I have a bit of catching up to do. So, without further ado, let me take you back six months to my very first Sidelines:

26 February 2019 Tue, 26 Feb 2019 21:00:48 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Unseasonably hot for February. Yesterday was the hottest February day—and, indeed, the hottest winter day—on record. To read the BBC’s coverage, you’d think this was wonderful news.

—Grand day, said the man in the bird-seed shop.
—Yes, I just had to turn the air-conditioning on in the car.
—We’ll pay for it!

Pragmatic Yorkshire thinking.

The record held for 24 hours. Today was even hotter: more like May than February.

We shall indeed pay for it.

25 February 2019 Mon, 25 Feb 2019 21:00:52 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A thrilling barn owl encounter. As I took my customary quick glance out the window at the top of the stairs on my way down to breakfast, a ghostly figure flapped into view. Unmistakable: a barn owl! It flew across Ruth’s garden, up towards the apex of her bungalow roof, then banked suddenly to the left on wide, rounded wings. What a thrill!

I jammed my head into the deep, narrow window alcove to follow the owl as long as I could. But the owl didn’t disappear across the field as I expected. It suddenly flipped over and dived headlong into the long grass a couple of metres into the field behind our hawthorns.

I legged it downstairs and into the kitchen, where Jen was putting the kettle on. ‘BARN OWL. FIELD. NOW!’ I blurted, and legged it back upstairs. Jen joined me a couple of seconds later. We hurried through into the barn section of the house to look through the larger, round pitching-eye window.

Seconds later, the owl rose from the field and flapped off to the right with some sort of rodent in its beak. It landed on a fence post, presenting us with a magnificent profile view as it began to swallow the rodent whole. The rodent looked far too big to swallow, but the owl repeatedly threw its head forward, straightening its gullet, and the rodent slowly disappeared.

There was a sudden, distant screaming sound… The kettle had begun to whistle. I ran back downstairs to take it off the hob, then back upstairs into the study to get my binoculars. I returned to Jen’s side at the round window just in time to see the barn owl leap from the fence post and flap off low across Russell’s field in the general direction of the farm.

The highlight of my week, and it was only 06:55 on as Monday morning!

23 February 2019 Sat, 23 Feb 2019 21:00:27 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Checking out a future photo location. Took Pat’s dog, Rosie, for a walk up through Crow Next Wood and on to the cobbled lane above. Ridiculously warm and sunny weather for February.

Cobbled lane

The lane looked particularly stunning in the strong sidelight, which cast tree-trunk shadows on the moss-covered walls. I took a few snaps with my phone, but keep meaning to return there on my own some time for some proper shots. It’s a lovely location.

As usual, Rosie threw me a deaf one and shot off home once we were within about 500 yards of the house. So I waited and took in the view over Hebden Bridge, knowing she’d eventually return to find out what the hell was keeping me.

20 February 2019 Wed, 20 Feb 2019 21:00:26 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) High tide at the Dee Marshes. [ Dee Marshes, Gayton ]

The plan was to do some work in the car before heading off to Dad’s, but I arrived at the usually quiet car park to find it packed with birders. It was an unusually high tide, and the marshes were flooded.

There were hundreds of birds milling about: black-headed gulls, redshank, curlews, teal, mallard, greylag and pink-footed geese, a few shelducks. Far out, I spotted a small formation of darker-coloured geese heading out into the estuary. ‘Brent,’ observed the birder standing next to me with his kick-ass telescope. Brent geese: my first ever.

I’d arrived just in time for the high tide. Over the next hour the waters and birders swiftly dissipated, till I had the car park all to myself, as originally planned.

Time to do some work!

16 February 2019 Sat, 16 Feb 2019 21:00:48 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk with friends on the Moor. Bill and Angela were visiting. As the glorious weather was still with us, Angela expressed interest in a walk on the Moor. To make the suggestion more palatable to Bill, we said we’d contrive to finish at a pub in Hebden Bridge, with a taxi back up the hill home.

Summit photo!

After the obligatory group summit-photo at the trig point (courtesy of a passing jogger), we headed off along the edge. I’d promised Angela grouse, but, for once, they stubbornly refused to show. I suspected the strong south-westerly breeze was to blame. The grouse seem to move into the lea of the edge on windy days, meaning they’re concealed over the brow of the hill.

We came down off the Moor at Old Town and took the track at the side of the mill, down through the fields and Nutclough Wood into Hebden Bridge. It was open jackets and bare heads all the way, more like late April than mid-February. Having said that, snow in late April wouldn’t be a first.

14 February 2019 Thu, 14 Feb 2019 21:00:40 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A St Valentine’s Day walk on the Moor. An unseasonably glorious St Valentine’s Day: sunshine, blue sky, white clouds, cool breeze. Vague plans for working on my Darwin book were immediately abandoned, and I headed up on to the Moor.

Red grouse were calling from random refuges in the heather. I flushed three as I climbed the rise up to the trig point. I made a brew and spent ten minutes admiring the familiar view. Heading off along the edge, I bumped into another bearded walker who, it turned out, was also skiving off work.


Not much in the way of birdsong yet, but I did hear one little brown job half-heartedly chortling away somewhere. Get a move on, Spring!

A large formation of geese flew overhead as I descended the edge. I heard them long before I spotted them. They didn’t seem to have any clear path in their collective mind, banking suddenly to the north, before heading off east, back the way they’d come. As they dwindled into the distance, they seemed more like a puff of smoke than a flight of birds.

12 February 2019 Tue, 12 Feb 2019 21:00:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday. Charles Darwin’s 210th birthday. Ten years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in the corner of the garden. I went to inspect it again this morning, and took what has become the traditional annual photograph. It was about 18 inches high when I planted it. It’s considerably taller now, but still a mere sapling. A decade counts as nothing to an oak.

The Darwin Bicentennial Oak
10 February 2019 Sun, 10 Feb 2019 21:00:48 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Philip the pheasant senses spring in the air. I’ve lost track of what number Philip we’re on at present. For years now, we’ve referred to the male pheasant that takes up winter residence in the garden as Philip, but I’m pretty sure they haven’t always been the same chap. Certainly, the current Philip doesn’t bang on the dining-room window, demanding to be fed, like his notorious predecessor. Unless it is the same Philip, but he’s learnt some manners.

For most of this winter, there’s also been a female pheasant in the garden. Philippa, obviously. The two have pretty much ignored each other all winter. But now spring is in the air, Philip has suddenly begun to find Philippa very interesting indeed. He spends much of his time strutting in parallel with her, his wings slightly ajar, angling his back to her, as if to say, ‘Look at my beautiful feathers!’ Which is, in effect, exactly what he is saying. When it comes to pheasants, beautiful feathers quite literally help pull the birds.

Darwin wrote about this sort of shenanigans, of course. He called it sexual selection, which it’s really a special case of natural selection. Being good at attracting the opposite sex is one more evolved trick in leaving more offspring.

Good luck, Philip! We’re rooting for you, mate!

7 February 2019 Thu, 07 Feb 2019 21:00:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Distracted by raptors. [ Dee Marshes, Gayton ]

I drove here through atrocious weather, en route to Dad’s to celebrate his 84th birthday. Being early (deliberately, as usual), I decided to do some writing at the marshes in the car. The weather soon picked up: bright sunshine, but with a strong, cold northerly wind.

I don’t know what it was that made me look up from the screen of my iPad after about half an hour—I was probably searching for an appropriate word—but suddenly, there was a female hen harrier flying low above the marsh, about 20 metres in front of the car. Having learnt from my previous unexpected close encounters with hen harriers, I had my camera at the ready just in case, and was out the car and firing away in 10 seconds. They weren’t particularly good photos, but as good as could be expected, given the short notice.

Female hen harrier

The harrier’s outrageous white rump and banded tail-feathers were unmistakeable. Always such a thrill. She headed off slowly, northwards, along the edge of the marsh, into the wind. She was soon out of range of my camera lens, so I switched to binoculars, watching her as she banked to and fro, low above the reeds, setting startled teal, woodpigeons and waders to flight.

When she was about half a mile away, the harrier swerved suddenly, hovered, then dropped into the reeds. I assume her strike must have been successful, as I waited a good five minutes without seeing her rise again. Then the bitter wind drove me back into the car.

A short while later, I glanced up from my iPad once more to see a buzzard heading my way from the north with four crows in hot pursuit. Once again, I leapt out the car, camera in hand. But before the buzzard could reach me, the crows had forced it to land on the marsh. Flushed with success, their mobbing continued. Two crows landed a short distance behind the buzzard to stare at it menacingly; the other pair continued to dive-bomb the poor raptor, making sure to keep out of striking distance. After enduring about five minutes of this bullying, the buzzard sped off with the crows once again in hot pursuit.

Minutes later, the female hen harrier was back, about 400 metres to the north, tormented by her own solitary crow as she tried to hunt above the Phragmites.

I’m beginning to suspect the marshes might not be a location particularly conducive to work.

📷 More photos »

6 February 2019 Wed, 06 Feb 2019 21:00:14 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Fox encounter. As I was driving up Pellon Lane out of Halifax this morning, a juvenile fox ran across the road in front of me and leapt on to a garden wall. It was a fine, healthy looking beast.

I hadn’t seen a fox for ages. They tend to hang out more in towns than the countryside these days, so being in town this morning will have increased my chances. Thinking about it, I’ve only seen one fox in Hebden Bridge since I moved here almost 18 years ago. We were looking after Rosie, Pat’s cocker spaniel, at the time, and I’d taken her for a walk up Burlees Lane. It was Rosie who spotted the fox, not me. We stood and stared at each other from a respectable distance before the fox turned and trotted away.

Come to think of it some some more, I’ve also only heard a vixen’s nighttime mating call once since I moved here. It was on my very first night. I lay in bed, listening to her alarming screams. The screams lasted for about 15 minutes before being curtailed by two shotgun blasts. Which presumably goes some way to explaining why foxes seem to prefer our towns these days.

I finally finished decorating the back bedroom late in the afternoon. My right wrist is completely knackered. ‘Only one undercoat and two top-coats required’ ranks up there alongside ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’, and ‘the cheque’s in the post’.

3 February 2019 Sun, 03 Feb 2019 21:00:42 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) I wish spring would get a move on. Jen was off all last week, so I had a much-needed week off decorating duties. It’s a running joke in her office that the weather always turns glorious whenever Jen is off. The whole of last week was bitterly cold, with an inch of snow on the ground. No doubt some would count that as glorious, but not us.

Snow, Hebden Bridge

We took several walks around the lanes, and I managed to take one or two decent photos, but our only off-the-beaten track excursion was down into Hebden Bridge via Nutclough Wood. Many of last autumn’s colours were still in evidence, looking incongruous against the snowy backdrop.

I wish Spring would get a move on!

Book review: ‘The Seabird’s Cry’ by Adam Nicolson Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:19:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.
The lives of puffins, gannets, and other ocean voyagers.

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The Seabird’s Cry

The Seabird’s Cry is a hugely entertaining book about birds that spent much of their lives at sea. There are chapters on fulmars, puffins, kittiwakes, gulls, guillemots, cormorants and shags, shearwaters, gannets, the extinct great auks and their surviving close relatives the razorbills, and albatrosses.

The prose borders on the poetic in places, and occasionally on the anthropomorphic—although not in an objectionable way. But Nicolson also pulls no punches in describing the less savoury habits of certain seabird species.

There is also a plenty of fascinating science in this book, exploring, for example, how scientists eventually managed to track various ocean-going species’ foraging and migration routes, and gain insights into how they navigate. Indeed, science is pretty much the hero of this book. As Nicolson says in the introduction:

Science, for all that non-scientists disparage it, is dedicated to that urge towards [exploring life], and the astonishing findings of modern seabird scientists mean that a sense of wonder now emerges not from ignorance of birds but from understanding them.

Anyone who has read the final chapter of my book On the Moor will appreciate how heartily I endorse these sentiments.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species’ by Sabina Radeva Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:17:11 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection explained for young children.
Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection explained for young children.

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Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species

Although modern evolutionary theory encompasses all manner of complex considerations, at its heart, as laid out by Charles Darwin in 1859, it is still a remarkably simple idea. I’ve often joked that a reasonably intelligent five-year-old child should be able to understand the basic concepts, even though they seem totally beyond the grasp of most creationists.

In this beautifully illustrated book, Sabina Radeva sets out to explain the basic concepts of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection to children of five years and upwards. She also finds room to outline how evolutionary theory has advanced since Darwin’s time, and to explain some common misconceptions about Darwin’s theory.

There are a few big words in this book that younger children (and possibly their parents) might struggle to understand, but Radeva thoughtfully includes a simple glossary at the end to help them out.

I was particularly pleased to see Darwin quoted directly in small snippets throughout this book, reminding readers that this is not a made-up story, and that Charles Darwin was a real person who wrote a really important book. Hopefully, when they grow older, the interest kindled by reading Sabina Radeva’s delightful book will encourage her readers to check out Charles Darwin’s original.

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

Book review: ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:15:01 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of gulls.
A celebration of gulls.

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Gulls don’t have the kudos of other seabirds—except among the real bird nerds. Not that they’re exclusively seabirds these days. Like those other maligned avians, pigeons, gulls have adapted to the new environments created by our own species’ inexorable expansion. They’ve fitted in, moving into our towns and cities, and especially on to our rubbish dumps.

Tim Dee’s Landfill is a celebration of gulls’ adaptability, and of the urban bird nerds who study them. Thanks to the latter, we now know far more about what gulls get up to in our human-centric environments. Our urban gulls have done well over the last few decades, but changes in waste-disposal practices are beginning to create problems. The gulls will no doubt continue to adapt, but most likely in reduced numbers.

An unusual book, and a thoroughly enjoyable read about an under-appreciated family of birds.


Book review: ‘The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 8, 1860’ Thu, 31 Jan 2019 17:12:45 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Letters to and from Darwin in the immediate aftermath of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’.
Letters to and from Darwin in the immediate aftermath of the publication of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

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The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, volume 8, 1860

In my opinion, the magnificent, multi-volume Correspondence of Charles Darwin is by far the best way we 21st-century fans have of getting to know our hero. Here is Darwin talking privately among friends (and a few enemies). And every single letter both to and from Darwin is annotated with meticulously researched footnotes explaining its context and references.

This particular volume comprises Darwin’s correspondence for the year 1860—that is, in the immediate aftermath of the publication of the first edition of On the Origin of Species. Here we encounter many of the initial responses to his revolutionary book from the people whose opinions Darwin most cared about: his fellow scientists. Some are extremely positive, some politely non-committal, and a few downright scathing. As the months progress, Darwin begins to build a list of who has been won over by his one long argument, who goes with him some way (and will perhaps, with encouragement, go further), and who should be written off as a lost cause.

This volume also reveals Darwin the shrewd tactician, developing allegiances, encouraging third-party rebuttals to negative reviews, and scheming to bring positive reviews to a wider audience. We also encounter a good deal of frustration on Darwin’s behalf at readers (sometimes wilfully) failing to appreciate his strongest arguments in favour of his theory, while seizing on those that Darwin himself acknowledged were the weakest. (You’d better get used to it, Mr D!)

As always, individual letters provide fascinating insights into Darwin’s thinking. In this volume, we read him, among many other things:

  • comparing evolutionary links between species to a network, as well as to the more familiar tree;
  • thriftily admonishing his amanuensis for not writing on both sides of the paper;
  • realising he should have credited Alfred Russel Wallace more for independently arriving at the idea of Natural Selection (something he would remedy in later editions of Origin);
  • being impressed with his publisher at his having managed to get copies of Origin into railway bookstalls;
  • regretting certain passages in Origin that he would later amend or drop altogether;
  • sending his former servant aboard HMS Beagle an ear-trumpet to help with his increasing deafness;
  • emphasising the importance of different traits in species being linked together in some way;
  • feeling sick at the very thought of a peacock’s tail;
  • accusing Prince Albert (behind his back) of impertinence;
  • failing to see how a benevolent creator could allow the pupae of parasitic wasps to eat their hosts from the inside;
  • congratulating his friend Charles Lyell on raising some excellent, insightful objections to his theory;
  • explaining that dominant species in one environment would by no means necessarily be the dominant species in a different environment;
  • speculating that, were all vertebrates except reptiles to be wiped out, mammals would not evolve again from the remaining reptiles;
  • confessing how easily he is distracted from his planned work;
  • noting how having a theory by which to work affects your observational skills;
  • predicting that his theory will only be generally accepted once the old guard has been superseded by younger scientists.

As with all the volumes in this series, this book is really aimed at people with a serious interest in Darwin. And, as with all the other volumes, it is absolutely magnificent.

23 January 2019 Wed, 23 Jan 2019 21:00:41 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In search of bearded tits. [ Wirral ]

Bitterly cold, but bright. En route to Dad’s, I decided to pay a visit to the RSPB Burton Mere Wetlands reserve. The volunteers there had recently been tweeting about new visitors at the reserve in the form of bearded tits. I had never seen a bearded tit, so thought a brief visit was worth a shot.

Frozen pool, Burton Mere

There were surprisingly few birds at the reserve. The scrapes and mere were covered in thick ice, forcing their usual residents to move elsewhere. But I made my way to the main hide to find a flock of woolly hatted birders gazing toward the distant reeds through impressive telescopes. After a few minutes, one of them explained to the rest of us how the best way to look for bearded tits was to look for movement in the reeds. If the birds did reveal themselves, it was usually very briefly. Then he spotted one through his telescope, and gave a very good description of where to look for it. Through my puny binoculars, I couldn’t see a damn thing. After a while, I spotted a minuscule dot flying off above the reeds, but something about its jizz cried out blue tit to me.

The chap with the telescope called out again a few minutes later. The bird had returned. It was a male, he said. Good grief, his telescope must have been powerful. I still couldn’t see a thing. Then the bird was gone. I waited for ten minutes or so, then headed back to the car.

I wasn’t at all disappointed at my failure to add a new bird to my non-existent life list. Indeed, I took an almost perverse pleasure in not seeing any bearded tits. Where would be the fun if rare visitors were always easy to spot? There’s always next time.

21 January 2019 Mon, 21 Jan 2019 21:00:27 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Photographing the lunar eclipse. The weather forecast for the early hours was far from encouraging, so I decided not to set an alarm and to leave things to chance. If I happened to be awake at around 05:00, and if the sky happened to be clear, I would get up and venture outside. Which is how I came to find myself standing behind my tripod on the front lawn at 05:15, photographing the lunar eclipse.

Eclipsed moon

As my mate Thony, an expert on the history of astronomy, tweeted a few hours later, ‘If you’ve seen one lunar eclipse, you’ve seen em all.’ My photos did indeed look remarkably similar to the ones I’d taken of previous lunar eclipses. But it’s always a thrill to see predictive science come up trumps yet again: here was the promised eclipse, bang on cue, just to the left of Gemini.

But this wasn’t any boring old lunar eclipse, you understand. As the media were falling over themselves to point out, this was a ‘super blood wolf moon’. ‘Super’ because the moon was closer to the earth than usual, making it almost imperceptibly larger and brighter. ‘Blood’ because, as with all full lunar eclipses, the moon turned red. And ‘wolf’ because it was the first full moon in January, when wolf courtship howls are supposedly at their peak. To maintain our interest, it seems to be an unwritten rule that every lunar eclipse has to have one more adjective than the last.

The rosy lunar glow is caused by sunlight refracting through the earth’s atmosphere and bouncing back at us off the face of the moon. Reflected sunrises and sunsets from around the world: a truly international collaboration. It’s not the colour I marvel at, but the way in which the moon is sculpted by the subdued light, revealing its true three-dimensional nature. On all other nights, the moon looks like a flat disc, with varying amounts bitten away. When the moon is in full eclipse, it is very clearly a solid sphere, hanging up there in the blackness, as if by magic.

I tried to contain my disappointment at not hearing any wolves serenading in the valley below. But I was delighted to hear the persistent ke-wick of a female tawny owl a short distance away, down near the Manor House. After a few minutes, her cries were answered by the more distant hoo-hoo-ooo of a male off towards Nutclough Wood.

As I lowered my gaze from the moon to admire the mist rising from the valley, a shooting star streaked towards Heptonstall. The icing on the cake. Elated, I began to dismantle my camera kit. Lunar eclipses were all well and good, but I was bloody freezing.

18 January 2019 Fri, 18 Jan 2019 21:00:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) On tempting fate. The phrase tempting fate has always baffled me. Isn’t the whole point of fate supposed to be that it’s unavoidable? There’s nothing you can do to affect its outcome. Try as you might, you can’t ‘tempt’ it. It wouldn’t be fate otherwise. (Not that fate is an actual thing, you understand.)

I’ve been avoiding tempting fate for over a month now. Not once have I mentioned to anyone what a mild and snow-free winter it’s been so far.

Anyway, it bucketed down with sleet this evening, so I now feel it’s safe to say it’s been a remarkably mild and snow-free winter so far.

17 January 2019 Thu, 17 Jan 2019 21:00:03 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A woodland walk with a friend. [ Wirral ]

A quick visit to the Dee Marshes at Parkgate before meeting Carolyn for lunch. Several curlews piping, flocks of lapwings, a few little egrets, rooks and jackdaws, and a close encounter with a very friendly robin. As I was about to leave, a raven cronked low overhead, heading off across the marshes.

After lunch, Carolyn and I took her great dane, Minnie, for a walk in Burton Woods. She told me it has rapidly become one of her favourite walks. I was astonished to learn Carolyn was unaware of the two quakers’ graves at the edge of the wood, directly behind the church: a burial site as close as quakers were allowed to consecrated ground in less enlightened times. I took Carolyn to see the graves. As soon as we arrived, Carolyn heard a woodpecker hammering high up in a beech tree. It took us a couple of minutes to spot it among the branches: a great spotted woodpecker—always a thrill.

Carolyn and Minnie
Book review: ‘The Diary of a Bookseller’ by Shaun Bythell Thu, 10 Jan 2019 11:30:34 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A year in the life of a Scottish bookseller.
A year in the life of a Scottish bookseller.

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The Diary of a Bookseller

This is an extremely entertaining account of running a bookshop in Wigtown on the south-west coast of Scotland. As the title implies, it’s written in the form of daily diary entries, and we soon get to know its small cast of main characters, not least the author himself, and his Jehovah’s Witness shop assistant (and skip scavenger), Nicky.

There’s lots of gentle humour in this book. Bythell paints himself as something of a rude and opinionated curmudgeon—a persona he seems to take genuine pride in maintaining. Well, why wouldn’t he?

I was bought this book by my mate Stense, who has visited Bythell's sensibly named The Bookshop on several occasions, and who once bought me a year’s subscription to their Random Book Club. My favourite anecdote from my year as a member was receiving an entirely useless book two in a trilogy of novels, whose part 3 was yet to be published. It was was described as ‘Dark and super sexy’ by no less an authority than Cosmopolitan, and was absolutely filthy if the page I opened it to at random was anything to go by. Reading The Diary of a Bookseller made me appreciate how I managed to end up with such an unsuitable book, which is now, no doubt, still available at a very reasonable price in the Hebden Bridge branch of Shelter charity shops.

Highly recommended.

(Or, as I’m sure Bythell would demand I point out, better still, buy it from your local bookshop.)

2018: a year in photos Tue, 01 Jan 2019 00:00:01 +0000 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) My eighth annual video slideshow.
My eighth annual video slideshow.

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For the last few years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2018 video:

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

The background music, Dumb and Base, is also by Yours Truly. I don't have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Book review: ‘Darwin’s Most Wonderful Plants’ by Ken Thompson Tue, 20 Nov 2018 15:49:51 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Darwin’s botany today.
Darwin’s botany today.

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Darwin’s Most Wonderful PlantsWhile working on my next book, I recently had cause to consult Charles Darwin’s The Effects of Cross and Self-Fertilisation in the Vegetable Kingdom (1876). As with all the books Darwin wrote after On the Origin of Species, the apparently obscure subject matter provided him with ample opportunity to build his case for his revolutionary theory of evolution by means of Natural Selection. Not that I did anything but dip into his plant fertilisation book, you understand: it assumes far more knowledge of botany than I will ever possess.

Darwin theorised, experimented and wrote a great deal on plants. They made ideal research subjects for a man often confined to his home through ill health. And having a wonderful theory by which to work enabled him to ask (and answer) deceptively simple questions nobody had even thought to ask before. To cap it all, having as a best friend Joseph Dalton Hooker, one of the foremost botanists in the world, also gave Darwin someone to bounce his ideas off. Anyone who has read their correspondence will appreciate just how much Hooker selflessly contributed to Darwin’s work.

In this short but entertaining book, plant biologist Ken Thompson visits each of Darwin’s major works on plants. The subject matter includes orchids, climbing plants, insectivorous plants, plant domestication, and plant movement. Without getting too technical, Thompson examines Darwin’s thoughts and findings on each topic, while introducing us to some of the latest thinking.

By end of the book, I had a far better appreciation for Darwin the botanist. Although, ever modest, he no doubt saw himself as little more than a gifted amateur, he really was at the cutting edge of plant research. But, with Charles Darwin, you would hardly expect anything less.

A nice book. Highly recommended.

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

Newsletter No. 15: Semi-immersed Fri, 02 Nov 2018 12:56:36 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) writing & research · milestones · Anthea Bell · island wardens · hillforts · pubs · oak trees · ancient ships · self-improvement · Mark Cocker · Jan Morris · Melissa Harrison Rich Text



I’ve been immersed in research and writing since my last newsletter. Well, semi-immersed, at least. Darwin-related stuff for my next book, mostly. I’d forgotten just how much I enjoy research. Finding stuff out is fun. My approach is uncharacteristically haphazard: I pick a topic that sounds interesting, begin to delve into it, but allow myself to become easily distracted, wandering off on all sorts of diversions. Those of you who’ve read On the Moor will no doubt recognise traces of my research technique in my finished work. Subjects I’ve been delving into lately include foxgloves, pollination, pigeons, and dogs. Oh, and while I was finally getting to the bottom of a dubious anecdote about Darwin, I ended up transcribing a previously unpublished ‘autobiographical fragment’ by his daughter Henrietta. Then, to cap it all, I gave a shambolic, rambling interview about Darwin’s captain aboard HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy.

It’s early days with my Darwin book, and I still haven’t quite found my voice, but I’m sure I’ll get there in the end. In the meantime, to keep my juices flowing, I’ve begun writing regular short pieces about things I’ve seen, or stuff I’ve been thinking. I’m steadfastly refusing to call this a ‘Diary’, and it certainly won’t replace my Writing Journal. So, for want of a better name, I’ve decided to call these short pieces Sidelines: lines that I write on the side, so to speak. I suppose they should rightly have been blog posts, but I’m finding writing stuff without the pressure of intended publication rather liberating. Who knows, perhaps some of my Sidelines might make it out into the wider world some day. It seems a shame to write stuff and not put it out there.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. A milestone in history revitalised
    A charming short video about Rowan Denton, a man whose hobby is refurbishing the mile markers which dot the byways and towpaths around here in Yorkshire.

  2. Anthea Bell, ‘magnificent’ translator of Asterix and Kafka, dies aged 82
    I was saddened to hear of the death of the wonderful translator Anthea Bell. I devoured Asterix books as a child, but it was only as an adult that I began to appreciate just how clever her translations were. They brilliantly adapted the French children’s books for a British (adult) sense-of-humour, incorporating clever puns galore. The fact that she later translated W.G. Sebald was just the icing on the cake, as far as I was concerned.

  3. The Gatekeepers
    A lovely idea for a continuing photo-project. Over the next few years, Alex Ingram plans to re-visit remote UK islands, spending more time with the wardens who have chosen to spend their lives there.

  4. A group of academics has produced an interactive, online map of Britain’s ancient hillforts. (Meanwhile, Ramiro Gómez has produced a far simpler, but strangely compelling map showing all the pubs in Britain and Ireland—and nothing else.)

  5. Hundreds of previously undiscovered ancient oak trees have been found in the English countryside
    This interesting article explains the likely historical reasons why England has more ancient oak trees than rest of Europe combined.

  6. It’s been a wondeful few months for re-discovering old ships. Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour might have been found in US; high-resolution geo-radar has detected a Viking ship in Norway; and the world’s oldest intact shipwreck has been discovered in the Black Sea.

  7. A characteristically thoughtful video by photographer Sean Tucker, about how you should stop comparing your own endeavours unfavourably with those of people much better than you. Instead, you should compare your latest work with your other recent work. The important thing is to keep improving.

Recent Reading:

Our Place
by Mark Cocker
An important book, but a depressing read. For a nation that prides itself on its love of the natural world, we Brits have let things slip in our own backyard. Things are far worse than they seem. Our green and pleasant land is struggling, and we are to blame.
In My Mind’s Eye
by Jan Morris
A gentle book by the veteran writer. It comprises 188 short diary entries, covering all manner of topics, ranging from the former British Empire to getting the car valeted, from model ships to observing passers-by from a local tea shop.
All Among the Barley
by Melissa Harrison
This initially seems to be a simple tale of country folk going about their business in early 1930s East Anglia. There are cart-horses and scythes and hayricks and corncrakes. It all seems very idyllic. But therein lies the assumption challenged by this enjoyable novel.

Apologies for the delay in getting this latest newsletter out there, but, as I say, I’ve been at least semi-immersed in my Darwin book. I’ll try not to take quite so long next time.

As always, I welcome any feedback about this newsletter. It can only improve if I know what people like about it, and what they don’t.

Have a fab November.

Book review: ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’ by Roger Deakin Thu, 01 Nov 2018 11:48:23 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The jottings of a great observer of nature’s minutiae.
The jottings of a great observer of nature’s minutiae.

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Notes From Walnut Tree FarmThis is an unusual and rather poignant book. Published posthumously, Notes From Walnut Tree Farm comprises the edited highlights of the notebooks kept by author, conservationist and swimmer Roger Deakin during what turned out to be the last six years of his life. The selected notes have been arranged into calendar months, so that they read like a single year’s thoughts, reflecting the changing seasons. It’s a format which works very well.

Deakin’s notes were clearly never intended for publication in their current form. Perhaps he hoped to use them as starting material for some future book. But his literary executor and editors have done Deakin and us a great service by ensuring the thoughts contained within his notebooks saw the light of day. The Roger Deakin who emerges from these pages is one of those rare beasts: a committed nature lover and environmentalist, with at least one foot planted firmly in the real world. I suspect that he did hug the occasional, unsuspecting tree, but it would be going too far to accuse him of being a tree-hugger.

“Jottings, in their spontaneity and complete absence of any craft, are often much truer to what I actually feel or think at a given moment,” Deakin observes. Their spontaneity also means that his jottings record passing thoughts which might not have escaped editorial pruning. Deakin was clearly a lover of the minutiae of life: “You could spend a lifetime studying a hedgerow, or a pond,” he notes, and “Just as popular history has, until recently, tended to focus more on kings and queens, admirals and generals, than on the everyday lives of ordinary people, so natural history has tended to favour the bigger creatures and plants over the smaller ones. Whales, lions, elephants, sharks and anacondas generally command more column inches or television time, while their smaller counterparts in creation are, literally, over-looked.” True to this philosophy, Deakin’s notes contain thoughts and observations of such minutiae as the ant crawling across his desk, and the insects attracted to the light of his window.

I enjoyed Notes From Walnut Tree Farm so much that I made a point of reading Deakin’s other two books, Waterlog and Wildwood: a journey through trees—and very enjoyable they were too. I have since his books several times. All of Deakin’s books are wonderful, but Notes From Walnut Tree Farm remains my favourite.