Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Keep Going’ by Austin Kleon Mon, 01 Mar 2021 12:09:34 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ten ways to stay creative in good times and bad.

Ten ways to stay creative in good times and bad.

‘Keep Going’ by Austin Kleon

As with Austin Kleon’s previous book, Show Your Work, the subtitle says it all: Keep Going examines ten ways in which creative types can continue to be creative. Not as useful as its predecessor, I think, but perhaps one to return to when you feel you might have lost your mojo.

As with Show Your Work, I feel compelled to point out that Keep Going is rather expensive for such a short book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Show Your Work’ by Austin Kleon Mon, 01 Mar 2021 12:08:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ten ways to share your creativity and get discovered.

Ten ways to share your creativity and get discovered.

‘Show Your Work’ by Austin Kleon

The subtitle says it all: Show Your Work examines ten ways in which creative types should be taking steps to get their work out there and build a following. It’s sound advice, and an entertaining read. One to return to when inspiration fails you.

My only criticism is that Show Your Work is rather expensive for such a short book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
28 February 2021 Sun, 28 Feb 2021 16:06:29 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Late February seems to have decided it’s April. Late February seems to have decided it’s April. The last three days of my least favourite month have been glorious.

We managed to dry the bedsheets outside on Friday. Yesterday, I heard my first curlew of the year burbling across the fields from the general direction of the Moor. It only lasted for about three seconds, but it quite made my day. Later, on an errand into Hebden Bridge, I was surrounded by birdsong and budding trees. And, as I was lying in bed listening to the half-hearted dawn chorus this morning, I was thrilled to hear a curlew calling at length from the field in front of the house.

And, to cap it all, tomorrow is March. Things are starting to look up.

Pussy willow
Book review: ‘A Writer’s Day-Book’ by Ronald Blythe Wed, 24 Feb 2021 23:42:33 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Essays about books and authors.

Essays about books and authors.

‘A Writer’s Day-Book’ by Ronald Blythe

A Writer’s Day-Book is a collection of essays by the veteran writer Ronald Blythe about some of his favourite authors. I haven’t read most of the authors in question, but Blythe makes it very tempting. He has a great way of making their writing seem contemporary and intimate—almost as if he knew them personally (which, given his reading, he probably feels that he does).

Authors and poets covered include Francis Kilvert, Thomas Traherne, Mary Russell Mitford, Joseph Conrad, Charles Baudelaire, Katherine Mansfield, George Bernard Shaw, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Laurie Lee.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Bento’s Sketchbook’ by John Berger Wed, 24 Feb 2021 14:49:23 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A compelling mix of journal, reminiscences, sketches, and art theory.

A compelling mix of journal, reminiscences, sketches, and art theory.

‘Bento’s Sketchbook’ by John Berger

I originally bought this book on a hunch, having seen the artist, author and presenter John Berger in a TV interview. I thought he sounded interesting.

It’s a strange but compelling book. A mix of journal, reminiscences, sketches, and art theory. The title is inspired by the lost sketchbook(s) of the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza—generally known as Benedict (or Bento) de Spinoza.

I enjoyed the book a lot, reading it in one sitting. In fact, I enjoyed it so much, I immediately ordered a second copy for a friend for their birthday. Since then, I’ve re-read it a couple of times.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Gone’ by Michael Blencowe Wed, 24 Feb 2021 14:49:03 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures.

A search for what remains of the world’s extinct creatures.

‘Gone’ by Michael Blencowe

I once got to see an egg of a great auk, an extinct North Atlantic flightless bird, whose scientific name gave us the word penguin. It was absolutely stunning.

In this very enjoyable book, Michael Blencowe sets off to visit the locales and remains of numerous extinct species, including the great auk, the Pinta Island tortoise, the dodo, Stellar‘s sea cow, and the upland moa. Less famous, less charismatic extinct species also feature, including the Xerces blue butterfly, the huia, the spectacled cormorant, Schomburgk’s deer, and Ivell’s sea anemone.

As well as paying his respects to these lost creatures, Blencowe also describes their tragic histories, how they were discovered, and what became of them.

Blencowe turns of to be something of fan of the explorer and naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who accompanied Vitus Bering on his tragic 1730s expedition from Russia to Alaska. I had very much wanted to find out a bit more about Steller, having first encountered him in a long poem by W.G. Sebald in his collection After Nature. Blencowe has tweaked my interest even further.

Despite its rather depressing subject matter, Gone is an enjoyable, easy read.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

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

No longer rocket science Mon, 22 Feb 2021 15:31:47 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A Zoom lecture makes me yearn for the golden days of blogging. Yesterday evening, I attended an excellent Zoom video lecture by author and conservationist Mark Cocker on the subject of crows. It was the latest in a series of lectures organised by The Last Tuesday Society. Cocker spoke for about an hour, then took questions from the online audience. I managed to sneak in a question of my own about ravens flipping upside-down while flying and cronking. There was also a Facebook page where attendees could hand out and discuss the presentation afterwards.

The talk was loosely based on Cocker’s wonderful book Crow Country. There were a lot of crow fans in the audience. Apparently, over 800 tickets had been sold for the event.

This was the latest in a small number of online, video-streamed events I’ve attended during lockdown. I’ve enjoyed them very much indeed. The fact that people who are, in effect, enthusiastic amateurs can now netcast live events to a global audience is pretty mind-blowing. It reminded me very much of the early, golden days of blogging. As an Information Systems strategist at the time, I confidently predicted blogging was about to take over the world. It did for a while, then the likes of Twitter and (especially) Facebook arrived to throw a spanner in the works. It could be argued the social media giants were simply the next, logical step in the blogging phenomenon, but I can’t help feeling they went out of their ways to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

We’ve come a long way technically since I watched the events of 911 unfold on Dave Winer’s Scripting News blog, while all the traditional media websites crashed under the unexpected load. Back in those days, even having a blog was an immense technical challenge (a challenge I was determined to, and soon did, overcome). To save bandwidth and cut load times, images on blogs were either non-existent, low-definition, or tiny. Audio was pretty much unheard of. Video, a distant dream. Now we have podcasts, and video blogs, and live lecture series being published by people from their smart-phones and laptops.

This has to be a good thing, and I’m really glad enthusiastic amateurs are putting out such great content. But I still miss the days when blogging was going to take over the world. Before the likes of Twitter and Facebook turned up on the scene. They haven’t quite won yet, and I think the backlash will continue to build. I’ll keep using them, of course—primarily because that’s where most the people I want to hang out with hang out these days. But I’ll also stubbornly continue to put out (and shamelessly link to) stuff on my own websites, because that’s where I feel any original ‘content’ I generate rightly belongs. And because I’m pig-headed like that.

Get your own websites, people! It’s no longer rocket science.

21 February 2021 Sun, 21 Feb 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The annual February pre-spring clean of our blue tit nest-box. The annual February pre-spring clean of our blue tit nest-box. You’re supposed to do it nearer to St Valentine’s Day, but the icy cold weather of a week ago meant this was never going to happen.

Last year, for the first time since we set up our nest box in 2002, we did not have a successful blue tit brood. A pair of birds showed interest for a few weeks, going through all the right motions, but then they just disappeared. In the book I’m currently writing, I have a chapter in which I describe the huge success we’ve had with our blue tit nest box. It looks as if I might have to add a post script.

Blue tit eggs

I was surprised to find two abandoned eggs inside the nest box, with almost no evidence of any nesting material. Usually, the blue tits pad the box with an assortment of moss, hair and feathers. So it looks as if last year’s birds were particularly inept. But inept birds, as this example shows, tend to leave fewer offspring, so the problem is self-righting. Darwinian natural selection in action in the corner of our garden.

I usually find a few invertebrates when I'm cleaning the nest box. Bird lice, woodlice, unrecognised squooshy things. This year, I was delighted to find a magnificent spider, which I carefully relocated in the bush at the side of our compost heap.

Newsletter No. 21: Positively sluggish Fri, 19 Feb 2021 16:14:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Richard Mabey · Tim Dee · Mark Cocker · Amy Liptrot · Kathleen Jamie · Patti Smith · Alan Bennett · Melissa Harrison · Urban Birder · Patrick Wright · Clive James · and more…
Rich Text



A belated Happy New Year! I hope you and yours are keeping safe and well. It’s not a particularly ambitious target, but let’s hope 2021 pans out significantly better than its predecessor.

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

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

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

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus… Three excellent videos featuring prominent nature writers:

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

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

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

Recent Reading

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

And finally…

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

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

See you next time, spam filters permitting.


14 February 2021 Sun, 14 Feb 2021 14:58:20 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) I’ve generally had quite enough of winter, come February. The prolonged cold-spell is forecast to end today. Lots of people have been tweeting about how nice it’s been.

Snow on setts
Snowy setts, Hebden Bridge

In any other month, I’d probably agree. But I’ve generally had quite enough of winter, come February.

Come on, spring, get a move on!

Keeping in touch Fri, 05 Feb 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Who would have thought video-calls would become such an important way of keeping in touch? Every so often, Facebook presents you with ‘Memories’ of stuff you posted on exactly the same day one or more years ago. Like many of Facebook’s features, it’s one I would happily turn off if I could. Very occasionally, these reminders are welcome, but mostly they’re just yet more random social media noise competing for my eyeballs.

During the lockdown, these ‘Memories’ have reminded me of stuff I would normally be doing, were travel wise or allowed at the moment. I’ve been seeing lots of old posts from my former, almost weekly, trips to the Wirral to visit Dad. Nowadays, I visit him twice weekly via FaceTime, which works remarkably well. But I’m missing my regular trips to the Dee Marshes en route to Dad’s, and my occasional coffee trysts with my friend Carolyn while I’m over there—although those too have now been replaced with video-calls.

Who would have thought video-calls would become such an important way of keeping in touch? I’m seeing far more of my friends than I ever did when I was still allowed to meet them in the flesh. They’re not the same as meeting in real life, of course, but they’re a vast improvement on text messages and phone calls. It’s good to be able to look friends and family in the face and see they really are doing OK.

Book review: ‘Lines in the Sand’ by A.A. Gill Thu, 04 Feb 2021 09:38:33 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Collected journalism.

Collected journalism.

‘Lines in the Sand’ by A.A. Gill

I didn’t expect to enjoy this book, but was assured by someone who knows me well that I might. It turned out they were right.

The late A.A. Gill was an intelligent, entertaining writer. This collection of his journalism begins with several moving pieces about refugees in different parts of the world. Then it’s on to more general, less heavy pieces about travel, reminiscences, being a dad, writers, and so on. Throughout the book, Gill gets the mix of humour, self-deprecation, and seriousness just right. In the penultimate piece, he announces he has cancer before heading off to Whitby in a helicopter for fish and chips. When we get to the final piece, the prognosis is not looking good, and we realise why it’s the final piece.

An excellent collection of essays. I shall certainly be investigating some of A.A. Gill’s earlier books.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘All Points North’ by Simon Armitage Wed, 03 Feb 2021 12:52:31 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Humorous memoir from the future Poet Laureate.

Humorous memoir from the future Poet Laureate.

‘All Points North’ by Simon Armitage

I first read All Points North when it came out in 1998. It’s entertaining, and good-humoured, and, as its title implies, northern.

Simon Armitage, who would go on to become Poet Laureate, mixes anecdote with memoir, both in the second person. There are also a couple of scripts-cum-TV-proposals. All entertaining stuff.

With hindsight, it was this book that first got me into reading the prose of poets. They have a precision I admire. And, on that precise note, why don’t I stop right there?

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Fire of Joy’ by Clive James Wed, 03 Feb 2021 12:50:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Roughly eighty poems to get by heart and say aloud.

Roughly eighty poems to get by heart and say aloud.

‘The Fire of Joy’ by Clive James

The late Clive James’s final book comprises a collection of classic poetry he encourages us to learn and recite out loud. Each poem is followed by a brief, perceptive, often funny commentary by James.

I read this book as part of my ongoing campaign to ‘get my head around’ poetry. I have a similar ongoing campaign with chess. The difference being, when I watch a commentary of a classic chess game on YouTube, I usually gain some appreciation of why a particular player’s moves were admirable. With poetry, while there are poems I very much like, there are plenty that do absolutely nothing for me, even when explained by someone with a far better appreciation of the art. I hoped Clive James might help me better appreciate some classic poetry.

He didn’t.

The poems I liked, I liked; the (far greater number of) poems I didn’t like, I still didn’t like, even after James had explained why I should. That said, I did very much enjoy James’s mini lectures, and, by the end of the book, I thought he’d made a pretty good case for the blame for my Philistinism lying squarely with me.

I can’t finish without repeating my favourite joke from the book, which genuinely made me laugh out loud—not least, because, in making it, James plays the poetry Philistine himself. After a poem by Emily Dickinson, he writes:

[T]he cold truth is that you wish most of her poems were like longer poems instead of notes. (You look at one of her poems and think, ‘Yes, she could probably have made a good poem out of that.’)

While I’m at it, why not repeat another favourite joke from the book? This one is concerns Ernest Dawson’s poem Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae:

Ernest Dawson was often keen to get his latest poem up on stilts by giving it a Latin title, no doubt riveting the attention of any Roman legionaries who happened to be idling nearby.

A funny, intelligent man who will be greatly missed. And a very good book, despite its failure to make the scales fall from my eyes.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Sea View Has Me Again’ by Patrick Wright Wed, 03 Feb 2021 12:46:04 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Uwe Johnson in Sheerness (1974–1984).

Uwe Johnson in Sheerness (1974–1984).

‘The Sea View Has Me Again’ by Patrick Wright

This huge, surprisingly entertaining book is really two books in one: a short biography of the great East German novelist Uwe Johnson—no, me neither—and a much longer history of the Isle of Sheppey at the mouth of the Thames estuary. The two subjects are not as incongruous as they might seem: Johnson spent the last decade of his life effectively in exile on the island, trying to finish the fourth and final volume of his magnum opus Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl [Anniversaries. From the Life of Gesine Cresspahl].

As I say, the book is huge. I had no idea it was such a doorstop when I ordered it, having been intrigued by John Mitchinson’s endorsement in the preamble to episode 125 of the excellent Backlisted podcast. When it landed, I must confess I found the prospect of reading such a long book on such obscure subject-matter somewhat daunting. But I ended up thoroughly enjoying it, getting through the 734 pages in only a few days.

If I’m brutally honest, as I read the book, it did feel a bit as if two very different books had been bolted together—although I would have been quite happy reading either. But, with hindsight, I very much enjoyed the strange merging of subjects.

The book is meticulously researched and profusely illustrated, although some of the photographs were way too small for my liking. I dare say they had to be kept small to prevent the book being even thicker. The sections on the history of Sheppey, a former naval town which has fallen on hard times, were surprisingly engaging to this northerner. And Uwe Johnson turns out to be a surprisingly interesting chap, despite the fact I’d never heard of him. (Ah, but will I ever read his magnum opus, I hear you wonder… Well, no I won’t.)

An unusual, enjoyable read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Marmalade alchemy Tue, 02 Feb 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A good way to spend a snowy day. Two-and-a-half inches of snow overnight. Still blizzarding down first thing. My plans for the weekly shop were immediately cancelled. What better excuse could Jen and I possibly need for staying in and making our second and final batch of 2021 marmalade?

But then a text message from Yorkshire Water: problems with the water supply, which might go off or become discoloured. So much for marmalade! But they fixed the problem soon enough, so Jen and I set to work on our second batch.

2021 marmalade (batch 2)

The secret with marmalade is to boil the orange-sugar-liquid mix until it reaches precisely 105°C. 104°C is not enough. 106°C is too much. Trust me, we’ve worked on this. Once you remove the pan from the heat, you should let it cool for 20 minutes or so before pouring it into jars. This leads to a much move even distribution of orange-peel shreds in the final product.

Marmalade isn’t an art; it’s alchemy.

1 February 2021 Mon, 01 Feb 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A decidedly un-Februaryish day, and a close encounter with a heron. February… It’s come round yet again. As I say in On the Moor:

February is, without doubt, the crappiest month of the year: Christmas long gone, and still winter drags on! By February, it’s getting beyond a joke. As my friend Mary used to say, there’s a reason why they only gave it twenty-eight days.

But, despite stereotypes, this particular February began as it clearly had no intention of going on. It was an absolute belter. A cold, crisp winter’s day, with the faintest hint of spring in the air. The snowdrops in the garden improved matters even further. They always remind me on Mum. Snowflakes were her favourite flowers. The ones in our garden came from my parents’ garden, which themselves, five decades earlier, when such things were less frowned on, came from the local wood.

The weather was too pleasant to ignore, so Jen and I took a stroll round the lanes. As we headed down the hill above the Lane Ends pub, I spotted a grey heron flapping low and languidly up out of the valley, across the field towards us. I had plenty of time to get my camera ready, and couldn‘t believe my luck as it flew by right in front of us.


A fabulous day. But it is February… There’ll be two inches of snow overnight, mark my words.

23 January 2021 Sun, 31 Jan 2021 14:21:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Snowy Hebden Bridge, and a non-snowy owl. An early morning walk to the post office to post a parcel. Really just an excuse to take a few snaps in the snow. I was very pleased with the results. A handy hint when taking snow photos is to set your camera’s exposure-compensation to over-expose by about one stop. Your camera doesn’t know it’s photographing snow, so assumes it needs to turn the brightness down to get the right exposure. By telling it to over-expose, you correct this assumption.

Snowy Hebden Bridge
Snowy Hebden Bridge

Heard, then saw, a raven cronking overhead on my way to the post office. Then spotted a woodpecker flying across the fields towards the trees at Ibbot Royd on my way back. It was only a silhouette against the snow, so I couldn’t tell whether it was a green woodpecker or a great spotted, but its roller-coaster flight-path was unmistakable.

In the afternoon, Jen and I took a walk around the lanes. A huge thrill as we walked alongside one of our farmer friend’s fields: a barn owl on patrol. I fired off several photos, some of them in focus, as the owl quartered the field then plunged into the grass. It stayed on the ground for over a minute, its head occasionally popping up to see if we were still watching. Then it took off with slain rodent dangling from its talons, moving to a patch of taller, more private grass at the edge of the field.

Barn owl
Definitely not a snowy owl, despite the weather

Book review: ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison Tue, 12 Jan 2021 14:05:05 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A nature diary.

A nature diary.

‘The Stubborn Light of Things’ by Melissa Harrison

During the 2020 lockdown, Melissa Harrison’s weekly podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, brought comfort to many people, myself included.

This essay collection, bearing the same name as the podcast, comprises seven years‘ worth of Harrison’s Nature Diary columns for the Times newspaper. It, too, brings plenty of comfort.

What I particularly like about Harrison’s approach, both on the podcast and in this book, is that she doesn’t put herself forward as an expert. She’s just an ordinary person with an interest in nature—albeit an ordinary person with a regular nature diary column in the Times newspaper. She likes to stress she’s learning as she goes along, and there’s no shame in not knowing stuff, or making mistakes about the natural world. That said, Harrison clearly has picked up lots of stuff about the natural world, so there’s plenty of interest to be found in this collection.

The book is split into two parts, marking Harrison’s transition from being mainly London-based to taking up residence in deepest Suffolk. So there’s a pleasing mix of urban and rural nature writing in the collection.

One piece which particularly resonated with me was Harrison’s description of how, on the banks of the River Stour in Dorset, she likes to:

…sit on a little wooden jetty, under an overhanging beech, and do nothing for an hour but watch the water slip slowly by.

Sometimes, something happens: a fish rises and ripples the surface, perhaps a grayling or brown trout; a kingfisher calls peep, then flashes past, glinting; a bright-eyed brown rat investigates the exposed roots of an alder on the bank. Most of the time, though, there is just the cold, slow-moving river bearing the odd dead leaf or feather, the contented notes of a wood pigeon from somewhere high above, and the light sparkling on the water and dappling the undersides of the leaves. My breathing slows, and perhaps my heart; my attention seems to be distilled and focused by the water, rather than its usual distracted scatter. It isn’t meditation, I don’t think, because my focus is keenly outward; but I’m sure every angler will recognise the feeling I describe.

Not just anglers. Harrison is here describing the feeling I have sitting on my favourite rock in Anglesey, gazing out to sea: nature waiting, as I like to think of it. Reading the above passage took me straight back there, to my favourite rock. For that alone, the book was worth its cover-price.

An excellent, uplifting read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: Melissa Harrison and I follow each other on social media. I consider her an online friend. I made a guest appearance in episode 16 of her podcast, where I displayed my non-expertise about bats.

New-year snow Thu, 07 Jan 2021 15:33:15 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) There’s been snow on the ground since before Christmas, and throughout the first week of the year. There’s been snow on the ground since before Christmas, and throughout the first week of the year. Not an awful lot, but enough to be inconvenient. We’re going through a bit of a cold snap, so the snow shows no sign of turning to slush.

Jen and I managed to take a few walks around the lanes. The first time, we were caught out, ending up walking through something of a blizzard. I managed to take a few photos of falling snow. But my favourite photo came before the blizzard: a nice one across the snowy fields of the beech stand next to Old Town Mill. Someone is building a few new houses next to the mill, which will mar my favourite iconic view, so this time I kept the mill out of shot, concentrating on the silhouetted trees on the skyline. Unfortunately, they weren’t the only prominent features on the skyline: a pile of plastic-wrapped hay bales very much got in the way.

There’s a general rule of thumb in portrait photography that it’s acceptable to remove facial blemishes ‘in post’, provided those blemishes are temporary, and likely to be gone from your subject’s fizzog within three weeks. Other than cropping and removing sensor spots, I tend not to remove stuff in post from my landscape shots, but, on this occasion, the unsightly temporary blemishes were totally ruining the image and had to go.

I really liked the resultant photo. I’ve photographed the same stand of trees hundreds of times, but this time I think I really caught their ‘character’—perhaps because they weren’t contending for attention with hay bales and an iconic mill.

New-year snow
New-year snow
Book review: ‘The Bookseller’s Tale’ by Martin Latham Thu, 07 Jan 2021 11:27:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The story of our love affair with books.

The story of our love affair with books.

The Bookseller’s Tale

I’m reading one chapter of this book a month with my friend Stense during 2021.

Review to follow.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Chilling sound Wed, 06 Jan 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A vixen screams. Lying awake in bed in the early hours after a night of non-sleep, I heard a vixen screaming nearby. A chilling sound. The first time Mum and Dad heard one from their house, they thought a woman was being attacked on the other side of the railway line.

Foxes are rare around here. They’re not tolerated in sheep country. One saw off most of our neighbours’ chickens last year, despite their being secured inside a sturdy chicken-wire enclosure with a roof.

Comfort books Fri, 01 Jan 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A conversation with a friend about the books that have brought us comfort over the years. So, 2020 is finally over. A well and truly good riddance! As a matter of principle, Jen and I stayed up long enough to see the new year in, then almost immediately hit the sack. Every year, I confidently predict the new year will be better than the last, but from now on I’m keeping my trap shut. Hoping for an improvement on 2020 is setting 2021 an awfully low bar, but I don’t want to tempt fate. (Not that fate can be affected by anything we say or do: that’s the whole point of fate… Not that fate actually exists.)

On New Year’s Day evening, I had the latest of my weekly FaceTime chats with my friend Stense. We both brought along a bottle to toast the new year. A year ago, who’d have thought video calls would become so important in our lives? Talking to my hard-of-hearing dad on the phone is an absolute nightmare at the best of times; FaceTime saved the day during the lockdowns. Regular video calls with a small number of close friends also helped make a dreadful year more bearable for me. I‘m sure I’m not alone.

Stense and I had actually done some homework for our latest chat. She’d spotted a book she thought we’d both like, so treated us both to copies for Christmas: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham. From next week, it’s unlikely Stense will have much time for reading or video calls, so we’ve agreed to read one chapter of the 13-chapter book per month, starting in December 2020, taking us neatly to the end of 2021. So, in advance of our first chat of the year, we’d both read chapter one, the subject of which is comfort reading.

Our conversation was fascinating. We talked about the books that have brought comfort to us over the years. It’s not my place to name Stense’s comfort books, but I reminisced about firm favourites from my childhood: The Story of Ferdinand (the first book I ever ‘read’—although I really recited it by heart); Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories; the Asterix comics; Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; and all things Tolkien. I also told Stense about the authors whose works comfort me as an adult, in particular Kathleen Jamie, W.G. Sebald, and Ronald Blythe (whose Wormingford series brought a much-needed sense of tranquility during the first lockdown).

As we reached the end of our wonderful chat, I told Stense I wish I’d recorded our call, as it would have made a lovely podcast.

Stense looked mortified.

2020: a year in photos Fri, 01 Jan 2021 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter ( My tenth annual video slideshow. 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 2020 video:

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

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

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Book review: ‘The Murdstone Trilogy’ by Mal Peet Thu, 31 Dec 2020 12:30:50 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Funny, daft and a bit scary (to some).

Funny, daft and a bit scary (to some).

‘The Murdstone Trilogy’ by Mal Peet

I tend to read almost no fiction. But, when I do read fiction, The Murdstone Trilogy by the late Mal Peet is very much the type of fiction I don’t tend to read.

The friend who bought it for me described it as ‘funny, daft and a bit scary’. I did indeed find it funny in places, and it’s certainly daft. I didn’t find it particularly scary.

The Murdstone Trilogy is the story of a diminishingly successful author of ’young adult’ fiction, Philip Murdstone, whose sexy agent encourages him to write more popular stuff, namely ‘High Fantasy. Sometimes spelled Phantasy, with a pee-aitch.’ Murdstone hates everything to do with the genre. So, by the sound of it did Mal Peet.

Next thing he knows, Murdstone is banging out volume one of his trilogy, as if chanelling something from another dimension: the dimension, indeed, of his trilogy. Someone, or something, seems to be doing the writing for him.

The rest, as they say, is pure phantasy (with a pee-aitch).

But enough of my yakking, here’s what Mal Peet had to say about his book:

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
27 December 2020 Sun, 27 Dec 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The offcumden squirrels have been making nuisances of themselves again. During the course of the last three or four days, the offcumden squirrels have:

  1. regained access to the recently squirrel-proofed bird-table by gnawing through the heavy-duty cable-ties I’d used to secure the roof of the bird-table to the caged sides;
  2. regained access to the squirrel-proof glass bird-feeder by gnawing through the sheathed metal cable suspending the feeder from our cherry tree;
  3. eaten most of the fritillary bulbs Jen received as an early Christmas present and planted less than a week ago.

Of course, you realise this means war.

Book review: ‘Empire Antarctica’ by Gavin Francis Fri, 25 Dec 2020 09:40:55 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ice, silence and emperor penguins.

Ice, silence and emperor penguins.

‘Empire Antarctica’ by Gavin Francis

Empire Antarctica recounts the fourteen months Gavin Francis spent as the doctor at the British Halley base-camp in Antarctica.

The book describes the camp’s activities during the changing seasons, from the days of 24-hour daylight in high summer to the perpetual dark of deepest winter, then back again. I particularly liked the way Francis makes Antarctica seem like a real place, where ordinary people go to work in challenging conditions, rather than some mythological land fit only for heroes.

Francis does not, however, miss the opportunity to write about the former heroes of Antarctic exploration that inspired his visit: the likes of Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, and Edward Wilson. I was pleased to see Wilson receive due recognition, having become something of a fan of his since his name popped up during my research into the history of grouse disease for my book On the Moor. As a self-confessed Darwin groupie, I was delighted to read in Empire Antarctica that, on one reconnaissance mission during the summer of 1902–3, Scott, Shackleton and Wilson kept themselves entertained by reading aloud from On the Origin of Species. It was Wilson who inspired and took part in a dangerous three-man mission to collect eggs from the Cape Crozier emperor penguin rookery in 1911. The harrowing events of the expedition were later described by Cherry-Garrard in his classic book, The Worst Journey in the World.

Emperor penguins feature aplenty in Francis’s book too. The Halley base-camp is situated near a large penguin rookery, and Francis takes several opportunities to pay them visits.

An entertaining and educational read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
End of a streak Thu, 24 Dec 2020 15:08:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My 32-year streak climbing the same hill in North Wales on Christmas Eve has come to an end. 😕 The ridiculous yet somehow magnificent streak had to come to an end eventually. Every Christmas Eve since 1988, I have climbed the locally impressive Moel Famau in North Wales. But not this year. The pandemic is to blame, obviously.

Moel Famau
Moel Famau in happier times (Christmas Eve 2018)

It began on the eve of Christmas Eve in a Yates’s Wine Lodge on the Wirral. I have no idea how I ended up there, as I’d never been to a Yates’s Wine Lodge before, and I certainly haven’t been back since. I was there with a couple of mates, Bryan and Peter. We had a lot to drink, and Bryan suggested we pop up Moel Famau early next morning to walk off his inevitable hangover. In those days, I didn’t get hangovers, but I was still drunk enough to agree.

Somehow it became a tradition. Every Christmas Eve after that, I ended up climbing Moel Famau. A couple of times, I went up on my own, but I was usually accompanied by various friends, and their friends and families. There were plenty of dogs involved too. I liked to joke my annual Christmas-Eve ascent of Moel Famau was the closest thing I had to regular exercise.

I find myself surprisingly unbothered by the breaking of my 32-year streak. There are far more important things to be bothered about at the moment. But I do hope to start a new streak as soon as possible. If I can make the next streak last 32 years, I’ll be at least 89 by the time I break my personal record. It’s certainly worth a shot.

Thanks to everyone who has accompanied me over the years. Thanks to Bryan and Peter, wherever they are these days. Thanks to Mike, his dad, his late wife, Lynne, and his friend Geoff. Thanks to my dear friend Stense. And special thanks to Carolyn, her partner Howard, their three children, Hazel, Aran and Chloë, and their extended family and friends. As Carolyn’s children have grown alarmingly quickly into adults, our annual ascents of Moel Famau have become a central feature of their Christmases. Indeed, I like to think I’ve handed on the baton, and am just accompanying them on their annual ascents.

As traditions go, it’s a pretty special one. Let’s hope we can resume it together soon.

22 December 2020 Tue, 22 Dec 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Venus and an owl. Yesterday’s winter solstice, and the rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn both passed in a blanket of dense hill-fog, but Venus blazed cold and bright, low to the south-east in the pre-dawn sky, as I opened the gate this morning.

I stood admiring it for a couple of minutes, putting off the inevitable annual hell that is the Big Christmas Shop. As I did so, the silhouette of a barn owl quartered our farmer friend’s field beneath the so-called Morning Star. I hadn’t seen the local owl for several months, so an un-looked-for joy.

It’s little, unexpected wildlife encounters like these during the normal day that mean the most, I find.

17 December 2020 Thu, 17 Dec 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Spectacular winter light, and a brace of deer. As the winter solstice approaches, the early morning sun is extremely low to the south east.

This morning, as I returned home from buying fish at the market first thing, a magnificent sidelight illuminated the dead leaves on the oak sapling in the corner of our garden. The sight was made even more spectacular set against the backdrop of moody clouds to the north.

Realising the view would only last a few minutes at most, I decided to grab a photo on my phone, rather than rushing indoors for my proper camera. As I composed the shot, I was distracted by movement in the corner of my eye: a pair of roe deer cantering across the neighbour’s field.

Not a bad start to a Thursday.

Side-lit oak
Side-lit oak.
(Note the pair of deer in the field.)