Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 13 January 2020 Mon, 13 Jan 2020 13:49:17 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A weird thrush. Getting the car out of the garage shortly before dawn, I hear a bird-call I don’t recognise coming from our neighbour’s garden. It sounds like some sort of thrush: clear and mellow.

It’s not a song as such; just a couple of notes in rapid succession, a pause, then a couple more notes. Sometimes the pairs of notes go low-high (oo-ii!); sometimes they go high-low (chii-oo!). The call is surprisingly clear. Definitely not a blackbird. An unimaginative song thrush perhaps?

I need to get better at this. I’ve learnt to recognise more bird-calls in recent years, but what do you do when you hear one you don’t recognise? Seeing the bird would help, but it’s still too dim to make anything out. The call seems to be coming from the ridge of the neighbour’s roof. Perhaps that’s a clue: a bird that likes to perch high when calling.

How am I going to remember this so I can look it up later? Or should that be listen it up? Then I remember the voice memo app on my phone and record a good 20 seconds of calls.

I hurry back into the house to compare the call to the sounds of various thrushes on my Birds app…

Definitely a bit song-thrushy, but not varied enough. Not a mistle thrush either. Nor a redwing or fieldfare… Surely not a ring ouzel! Now wouldn’t that be something? You do occasionally get them round here, I’ve heard, although I’ve never seen one! Actually, it does sound quite a bit like a ring ouzel, if I’m ridiculously generous and optimistic! I should go out and listen some more, now I know what I’m listening for.

The bird is still calling, clear and loud, as regular as clockwork. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it sounds a bit like a faulty burglar alarm.

…A bit like the faulty burglar alarm my neighbour was complaining about the other week, in fact.

10 January 2020 Fri, 10 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The local jackdaws and rooks seem to think it’s Spring. The local jackdaws and rooks seem to think it’s Spring. On a glorious day like today, I can hardly blame them.


Perhaps I shouldn’t tempt fate, but it’s been a remarkably mild winter so far. But there’s always February to get past.

8 January 2020 Wed, 08 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Distracted by geese. · Wirral ·

An afternoon working on my Darwin book in the car, parked at the edge of the Dee Marshes at Gayton. I did pretty well (800 words), despite the distraction of pink-footed geese constantly on the move. There were also hundreds of woodpigeons. I’ve never seen so many together before. A kestrel spent a couple of hours perched atop a red water-channel marker-post. Little egrets flew by every so often, spooking geese and redshank. The way egrets tuck in their necks in flight can make their heads look rounder and surprisingly owl-like. Perhaps the spooked birds thought the same.

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



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

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

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

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

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

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

Recent Reading

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

More book reviews »

Book update

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

Wishing you all a great 2020.

3 January 2020 Fri, 03 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Not a bumblebee. Another lunchtime walk around the lanes. As I was heading down Rowlands Lane, a huge bumblebee shot out of the drystone wall to my left, and made a bumblebee-line for the wall on the opposite side of the track. But no, not a bumblebee; a wren—a surprisingly easy mistake to make, and not for the first time in my case.

True to its scientific name, Troglodites troglodites, the wren disappeared into a crevice in the wall. I stopped to have a look, and found myself nose-to-beak with the diminutive creature. A split-second later it was gone. I couldn’t say I blamed it.

Definitely a top-ten bird.

2 January 2020 Thu, 02 Jan 2020 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Lots of woodpigeons. A lunchtime walk around the lanes. About 30 woodpigeons circling above the field at Nook Corner. This struck me as unusual. Or perhaps woodpigeons are something I usually subconsciously ignore as being, well, just woodpigeons.

Darwin would not be impressed: he was very much a pigeon man.

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

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

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

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

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

1st January 2020 Wed, 01 Jan 2020 20:26:54 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Kathleen Jamie, and Shetland memories. Jen and I saw in the new year in front of a roaring fire with Jools Holland and Laphroaig whisky.

We took a walk around the lanes just before lunch. The weather was mild and still: almost spring-like.

Yesterday, I finished reading Kathleen Jamie’s latest collection, Surfacing. I’d saved it for the holiday season. She is my favourite writer. The book was slightly different from its two predecessors in that there were some very long pieces, with more space given to archaeology. Predictably, I loved it.

One of my Christmas presents from Jen was the official write-up of the archaeological dig I took part in way back in 1985: Kebister: the four-thousand-year-old story of one Shetland township by Olwyn Owen and Christopher Lowe (or Olly and Chris, as we knew them). I was surprised to see my own name in the acknowledgements, among those who had worked to ‘impossibly tight timescales (1985–6), often in bad and sometimes appalling weather (1985)’. You’ve not known cold until you’ve knelt in mud all day in a Shetland blizzard with only a trowel for protection.

Happy days!

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

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

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

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

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

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

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‘The Offing’ by Benjamin Myers

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

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

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

Highly recommended.

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

30 December 2019 Mon, 30 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A strange bird. A 75-mile drive to the Wirral for a lunch-date with Stense. The weather was so glorious, we decided to leave lunch and Christmas presents till later, and took a walk along the edge of Burton Marshes to Burton Point, then on down the cycleway as far as the Welsh border.

Pink footed geese, several stonechats, a curlew, and the usual suspects.

At the Point, I spotted a strange bird perched on one of the fence-posts high above us. It was about the size of a thrush, but was shaped more like a robin. Then it turned towards us and I realised it was a robin. With it silhouetted against the sky, with nothing but the fence-post to gauge it by, I had completely misjudged its size.

(Well, at least I recognised its shape.)

28 December 2019 Sat, 28 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Walking the reluctant cocker spaniel. Looking after Rosie the cocker spaniel for a couple of days, I took her for a walk up the hill, down Raw Lane, then back home through the wood.

The wood was a risk, as I correctly guessed the path would be very muddy. But, for once, Rosie exhibited some common sense and side-stepped all the mud. Until, that is, she came to the foot-wide stream we needed to step across, which she somehow contrived to fall into head-first, then lay there, looking at me pathetically, waiting to be lifted out.

26 December 2019 Thu, 26 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Jen’s and my annual Boxing Day walk round the lanes. Jen’s and my annual Boxing Day walk round the lanes. Overcast and grim. The drizzle began as we neared the bridleway on our way back.

Curiously exhilarating.

24 December 2019 Tue, 24 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My 32nd consecutive Christmas Eve ascent of Moel Famau in North Wales. My 32nd consecutive Christmas Eve ascent of Moel Famau in North Wales. I’m sure I’ll break the chain eventually.

This year, I was once again accompanied by Carolyn and her extended family. It took three cars to get us all there. The weather was dry, windy, and unexpectedly clear. Lots of blue sky. Lots of fellow walkers, too. There must have been around a hundred people at the summit, where we partook of mince pies, biscuits, brownies, and cups of tea, before heading down via the longer route through the forest.

No ravens this year, but we did get a very good view of a buzzard perched in a pine tree.

Shortly after joining the M56 on my way home, I spotted a red kite twisting low above the verge: my first red kite on the Wirral.

📷 More photos ».

22 December 2019 Sun, 22 Dec 2019 15:06:22 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Putting the ‘slow’ in sloe gin. The winter solstice: the shortest day, and the official start of winter.

On Friday, I decided it was about time I did something about the seven bottles of sloe gin that have been doing nothing in the cupboard in our coal hole for the last three years. I gathered the sloes with my friend Carolyn and her daughters at her secret sloe site at the edge of the Dee Marshes. There were two problems that needed to be resolved: the gin was far too sour, and it contained masses of sediment.

The sourness was easily resolved: four additional teaspoons of sugar per bottle. I first tried getting rid of the sediment by sieving (no joy), then by straining through muslin (not much better). Then, yesterday morning, I hit upon the frankly genius idea of digging out our long-forgotten filter-coffee machine from the same coal-hole cupboard, and using its pot and funnel to filter the gin through proper filter paper. It took the best part of 24 hours for the gin to seep through at a rate of one drop every ten seconds or so.

Not so much sloe gin and slow gin.

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

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The Laws of Thermodynamics

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

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

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

An excellent introduction to an awesome subject.

14 December 2019 Sat, 14 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Gathering holly. A walk in Crow Nest Wood with Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel in search of holly. Like last year, I went equipped with hidden secateurs. This time, I was determined to find a tree still bearing berries.

I spotted one eventually, high on a steep, muddy slope. I couldn’t trust Rosie off the lead, as I knew she would immediately make a bolt for home, so I struggled manfully to collect berry-laden sprigs with one hand while fighting against a fully extended dog-lead with the other. I slipped and slided, got pricked and cursed, ending up ankle-deep in mud. I like to think I did great service to the word fiasco. But I ended up with a delightfully seasonal twig-arrangement.

Holly arrangement
13 December 2019 Fri, 13 Dec 2019 21:00:42 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My second-least favourite household chore. The annual rigmarole of a trip to the garden centre to buy a Christmas tree. This year, I took one for the team and decorated it all on my own before Jen got home. A contender for my second-least-favourite household chore. The uncontested worst household chore will come in a few weeks’ time, as we un-decorate the Christmas tree before Twelfth Night. It’s an awful lot of faff, but there’s something undeniably Christmassy about Christmas trees.

Christmas tree
12 December 2019 Thu, 12 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) I am a domestic goddess! Smoked haddock and leek fish cakes for dinner. A Nigel Slater recipe, modified to cut back on some of the faff. I am a domestic goddess!

The smell of leeks will overpower the house for the rest of the week, but it’s worth it. It’s a smell I associate with my friend’s parents’ house. I never used to know what it was. We almost never had leeks when I was a kid. I don’t think mum was much of a fan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely a book to re-visit.


Book review: ‘Darwin’ by Jonathan Howard Sun, 08 Dec 2019 13:51:31 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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This useful little book concentrates less on Darwin’s life-story, and more on an explanation of his work, and its implications.

After a very brief biography of our hero, topics covered include: Natural Selection; sex, variation, and heredity; human evolution; the concepts of perfection and progress; and an assessment of Darwin the scientist.

Jonathan Howard’s language is clear and unfussy, and the book is an enjoyable and informative read.


Book review: ‘Evolution’ by Brian & Deborah Charlesworth Sun, 08 Dec 2019 13:49:10 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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For a ‘short introduction’ to the theory of evolution, this book certainly covers the right kind of topics, including: the process of evolution; evidence that it occurs; adaptation and natural selection; and speciation.

I did however find much of the prose regrettably heavy-going. Even—perhaps especially—when covering complex topics, introductory guides need to use plain language. At times, even though I consider myself relatively well-read for a lay-person on the subject of evolution, I struggled to understand what the authors were trying to say. Their prose is sometimes so succinct as to border on the incomprehensible. I tried, for example, to parse the following passage at least a dozen times, and I’m sure it’s making a very valid and important point, but I still cannot fathom what on earth it’s supposed to mean:

In less extreme cases, gradual geographical changes in traits arise because migration blurs the differences caused by selection that varies geographically, in response to changes in environmental conditions.

An important subject, but a missed opportunity.

7 December 2019 Sat, 07 Dec 2019 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Redwings. My first redwings of the winter first thing this morning, pigging out on the hawthorn berries on our hedge. Such delightful, small thrushes, easily distinguished from their cousins by size alone.

I don’t know why I keep saying ‘hawthorn berries’, rather than ‘haws’. It seems politer somehow.

Newsletter No. 17: Scoffing all the berries Fri, 06 Dec 2019 12:54:23 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Island Review · Julian Hoffman · John Green · Dorothea Lange · Jonathan Meades · Rebecca Solnit · Willowherb Review · Robert Macfarlane · Dave Winer · Horatio Clare · Mark Cocker · Steve Rutt Rich Text



December… How the did that happen? How can the fieldfares be scoffing all the berries on our hawthorn hedge already? I definitely remember photographing bluebells in April, and being attacked by bees in May, and enjoying our annual week’s holiday in Anglesey in September. But… DECEMBER?!

It’s been a while since my last newsletter. Over the last few months, I’ve been busy gazing into my computer screen, occasionally adding words to the first draft of my next book, then rearranging them several times before taking most of them out again. But I do finally feel to be making some progress. The book is about how Charles Darwin saw the world, and how he enabled us to see it in a new and better way. Well, that’s what it’s about at the moment, but who’s to say how it might evolve over time? (See what I did, there?)

As usual, I’ll be taking some time between Christmas and New Year to make plans for the year ahead. Cracking on with the book will feature prominently, of course, but I’ll no doubt be considering one or two other, smaller projects. Who knows, I might even throw my hat into the ring to play the next James Bond. I have the liver for it, apparently.

How about you?

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

These recommendations go all the way to eleven…

  1. The Island Review: The Writers, The Artist, The Notebooks
    Five writers and artists reveal their note-keeping habits.

  2. Guardian: ‘Extraordinary’ 500-year-old library catalogue reveals books lost to time
    The discovery of a 2,000-page manuscript summarising the library of the illegitimate son of Christopher Columbus provides a fascinating insight into the lost world of 16th-century books.

  3. Beneath the Stream podcast: ‘Irreplaceable’ with Julian Hoffman - the fight to save wild places
    A discussion of threatened places and habitats of the non-human world with my mate Julian Hoffman. (See also Recent Reading below.)

  4. Places Journal: Through Mountains to the Sea
    A journey on the A66 through the Lake District to West Cumbria.

  5. Science History Institute: Ronald Fisher, a Bad Cup of Tea, and the Birth of Modern Statistics
    How a longstanding disagreement about the best way to brew a cup of tea let to an important insight into how to conduct scientific experiments.

  6. The Art Assignment (YouTube): Whose Migrant Mother was this?
    Blog brother John Green recounts the true story behind Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph Migrant Mother.

  7. Meades Shrine
    An unofficial video archive (endorsed by the man himself) of many of the wonderfully erudite and quirky TV programmes made by Jonathan Meades.

  8. Literary Hub: How to Be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit
    Excellent advice from one of the best.

  9. Willowherb Review: Issue One: Liminality | Issue Two: Embers
    A new online publication to celebrate and bolster nature writing by emerging and established writers of colour.

  10. Nautilus: Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness.
    Robert Macfarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.

  11. Guardian: Happy 25th year, blogging
    I still greatly miss the pre-Twitter and -Facebook days when everyone seemed to be blogging. (Some of us still are!) October 7th, 2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the first serious blog, Scripting News, written by Dave Winer. It’s still going strong. It’s where I got my news on 9/11, when all the mainstream news sites couldn’t handle the traffic.

Recent Reading

The Light in the Dark
by Horatio Clare
A winter journal about trying to be more positive during our most difficult season.
A Claxton Diary
by Mark Cocker
Further field notes celebrating wildlife simply for being wildlife.
by Julian Hoffman
A surprisingly uplifting book about the fight to save our wild places.
The Seafarers
by Stephen Rutt
Enjoyably unpretentious nature writing, travelling to different parts of the UK in pursuit of seabirds.

More book reviews »

Christmas panic?

I’m just back from our local bookshop, where I picked up my Christmas present from my better half: the newly published volume 27 of The Correspondence of Charles Darwin! (No prizes for guessing what my present was last year.)

If you’re in a total panic about what to buy your loved one (or even your mortal enemy) this Christmas, might I shamelessly endorse my book On the Moor: science, history and nature on a country walk? All the cool kids are reading it.

Have a great one, and see you in the New Year.

Book review: ‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith Sun, 10 Nov 2019 13:43:18 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further quirky memoirs.
Further quirky memoirs.

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‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith

Year of the Monkey is the third volume in Patti Smith’s loosely joined memoirs, which began with Just Kids, and continued with M Train.

I very much enjoy Smith’s quirky, often humorous, writing, and this latest volume continues in a familiar vein. There are moving sections concerning the loss of friends, and impromptu musings and excursions, but Year of the Monkey falls short of its two predecessors.

A big problem for me were the dream sequences. Although similar sequences occur in M Train, they are far more intrusive in Year of the Monkey. So intrusive, in fact, that it often becomes confusing about which events are part of a dream-sequence, and which are real. I’m sure this is entirely deliberate, and the segues from dream-sequence to reality (and back again) are cleverly handled. But it felt over-confusing and unnecessary to this reader.

Book review: ‘The Light in the Dark’ by Horatio Clare Thu, 03 Oct 2019 10:00:07 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A winter journal.
A winter journal.

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The Light in the Dark

In The Light in the Dark, Horatio Clare tries to be more positive about our most difficult season. It is a surprisingly moving book. Clare is remarkably candid about his mental-health issues, which can be exacerbated in the dark winter months. This journal marked his attempt to find joy, rather than dread, in the winter of 2017–2018.

Although we’ve never met, Clare and I are fellow offcumdens to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, so I recognise the landscape and weather he describes so beautifully. I live high on the steep valley side, where there is still a reasonable amount of light in mid-winter; Clare lives in the valley bottom, which, in the winter months, when the sun is low in the sky, can grow almost as gloomy as Todmorden in mid-summer.

Clare’s attempt to be more positive about winter receives a nasty jolt only a few days into his journal, when badger-baiters kill sheep on his mother’s Welsh farm—seemingly in an attempt to intimidate her. There are other dark moments, as Clare struggles with his demons, but there is also plenty of joy. In particular, Clare’s interactions with his young son, Aubrey, left this blissfully child-free reader surprisingly moved.

The narrative sometimes flips into flashback, with reminiscences from Italy and France, and to Liverpool, where Clare lectures a couple of days each week, staying at the legendary Adelphi Hotel, where I once witnessed a colleague so unimpressed with his dinner portion that he went back for thirds.

In the end, Clare is only partially successful at staving off the winter blues, but he emerges into spring more positively than he might have, which I guess would have seemed a more than acceptable outcome at the start of winter.


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

Book review: ‘A Claxton Diary’ by Mark Cocker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 09:00:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Further field notes from a small planet.
Further field notes from a small planet.

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A Claxton Diary

In the introduction to this extremely enjoyable collection, Mark Cocker considers how modern nature writing tends to avoid the somewhat old-fashioned approach of providing simple descriptions of encounters with wildlife. Descriptions are fine, but insufficient. Modern nature writers feel almost duty-bound to include some human element in their stories, describing, for example, how the encounters propelled the author along some narrative arc, or how they provide yet another example of our species’ disastrous impact on the natural world. Oh dear! muses Cocker. He has no problem with the modern approach, but realises his latest collection adopts a more old-fashioned style, sticking mainly to simple descriptions of what the author saw, celebrating the intimacy of the encounters.

I very much enjoy modern nature writing, but I also enjoy this more old-fashioned approach. There has to be a place for celebrating wildlife simply for being wildlife. Not everything has to be about us. Which is perhaps the main reason I so much enjoyed Cocker’s previous collection in this genre, Claxton: field notes from a small planet.

Like its predecessor, A Claxton Diary: further field notes from a small planet comprises a large collection of short articles, the majority of which are taken from Cocker’s entries in the Guardian’s long-running Country Diary column. Most of the articles are set in and around Cocker’s home in Claxton, Norfolk. Once again, the articles are arranged in day-of-the-year order, irrespective of the year in which they were written. This gives the collection more of a flow, as we pass through the seasons of an amalgamated year.

Most of the dated articles are just three- or four-hundred words long, describing a single encounter or thought before moving on to the next. I love the diary format. It’s comforting somehow. Something to savour; to dip into whenever you have a few spare moments, rather than rushing through as if following some narrative trajectory. It’s a format close to my own heart.

As with its predecessor, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book.

A must-read for all lovers of traditional nature writing.

Book review: ‘Claxton’ by Mark Cocker Thu, 03 Oct 2019 08:38:46 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Field notes from a small planet.
Field notes from a small planet.

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‘Claxton’ by Mark Cocker

This book was one of my two favourite new reads of 2014 (the other being A Buzz in the Meadow by Dave Goulson). It comprises a large collection of short articles, the majority of which are taken from Mark Cocker’s entries in the Guardian’s Country Diary column. Most of the articles are set in and around Cocker’s home in Claxton, Norfolk.

The articles are arranged in day-of-the-year order, irrespective of the year in which they were written. This was a clever move, as it makes the collection feel like a flowing narrative, rather than an assortment of discrete essays.

A must-read for all lovers of nature writing.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘First You Write a Sentence’ by Joe Moran Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:21:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The elements of reading, writing… and life.
The elements of reading, writing… and life.

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First You Write a Sentence

I latched on to this book thanks to a random passing tweet. It sounded like my kind of book, providing practical writing advice, so I decided to give it a try.

After a slow but entertaining start, Joe Moran begins dishing out plenty of useful advice. Writing is all about sentences, and this book is about how to put sentences together. Some of the advice is pretty standard: keep sentences short, cut back on the adverbs and adjectives, use simple words of few syllables, don’t over-punctuate, but make sure you don’t stick too rigidly to the rules, and vary things every so often. All excellent advice.

Where the book really took off for me, though, was when Moran describes the joys of well-written long sentences, explaining how to go about writing them, the pitfalls to avoid, and the tricks you can use to make them more readable. As someone who’s tried his damnedest to make his sentences shorter and shorter over the years, I found this section particularly thought-provoking and useful.

If you want to improve your writing, you would do well to read this book.


Book review: ‘Animal Behaviour’ by Tristram D. Wyatt Wed, 02 Oct 2019 22:18:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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Animal Behaviour

The environments in which animals find themselves might at any time contain threats, potential meals, parenting challenges, or mating opportunities. This short but informative book is about how animals interact with those environments, to make the most of the opportunities presented, and to mitigate the threats posed.

Subjects covered include how animals sense and respond to opportunities or dangers, how they learn and pass on those lessons to others, how they hoodwink potential predators, how they communicate, how they make strategic or tactical decisions, and how they act collectively.

The book contains some nice examples of how natural selection has honed animal behaviour to make the most of life’s opportunities and challenges, be it determining how many eggs to lay in a clutch, employing countermeasures to escape predators, or using tools to obtain food.

An entertaining little book.