Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 28 May 2020 Thu, 28 May 2020 22:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) More International Space Station photography. Another late night last night, photographing the International Space Station. This time, I captured it flying over our garden. I took six separate 30-second exposures, using Photoshop to merge them into a single image.

International Space Station
The International Space Station passing over our garden
(composite photograph from six originals)

Heard a distant cuckoo while I was lying in bed waiting for the alarm to go off. I heard it again an hour later as I was opening the garage door.

On our evening walk, I took a nice photo of some swallows outside Carrs Farm.


I stepped on to the patio just before going to bed to take in the view. The barn owl flitted briefly across the field before disappearing over the houses opposite. It’s wonderful the owl has become such a regular feature in the neighbourhood.

27 May 2020 Wed, 27 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Photographing the International Space Station. Up until one o’clock this morning taking and processing photos of the International Space Station passing over Hebden Bridge just before midnight. The resulting shot was a composite of two separate photos.

International Space Station
The International Space Station passing over Hebden Bridge
(composite photograph from two originals)

It was lovely being out in the dark. A tawny owl hooted nearby, bats flittered above the patio, and I was surprised to hear an awful lot of bumblebees droning from the bushes.

25 May 2020 Mon, 25 May 2020 12:51:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The new moon, Mercury and Venus setting over Heptonstall. A beautiful new moon hung over Heptonstall in the twilight last night, with Venus glowing red off to its left. I grabbed a few hand-held photos, which turned out remarkably unblurry, bearing in mind I was using a long lens with a ridiculously slow shutter-speed of ⅙ of a second.

It was only while I was processing the photos this morning that I realised I’d also managed to bag Mercury (faint dot, just right of centre). My first ever definite sighting of Mercury—if spotting it the next day in a photograph counts.

New moon, Mercury and Venus setting over Heptonstall
23 May 2020 Sat, 23 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Long-tailed tits gathering insects. A pair of long-tailed tits gathering insects at Jen’s mum’s. I also saw them last week. I think they’re nesting in the silver birch in the corner of the garden.

19 May 2020 Tue, 19 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Owls hooting, partridges scooting, and cotton grass shooting. A pair of tawny owls calling to each other during the night, the kee-wik! of the female responded to by the hu-hu-hooo! of the male. Shakespeare got it wrong in Love’s Labour’s Lost when he said, ‘Then nightly sings the staring owl, Tu-whit; Tu-who, a merry note…’. The calls come from two owls, not one.

Took a detour across the moors on the way home from the weekly shop to give the car a decent run. The battery-warning came on briefly the other day: I’ve not being doing enough lengthy journeys during the lockdown to keep it charged! Nearly ran over a brace of red-legged partridges scuttling across the road. The cotton grass was out in all its magnificence.

Cotton grass

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Book review: ‘Landfill’ by Tim Dee Sun, 17 May 2020 12:00:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of gulls.
A celebration of gulls.

Article source:


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.

Highly recommended.

14 May 2020 Thu, 14 May 2020 22:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A pumped-up greenfinch, a distant owl, and a Nazi blackbird. The barn owl screeched from somewhere very nearby last night. Our Scots pine or cherry tree was my best guess. Wonderful to hear it so close. Jen thought it sounded like a dog yelping.

As I put the finishing touches to a chapter in the dining room this afternoon, a loud banging on the window. A greenfinch attacking its own reflection. Only a testosterone-pumped male would be that stupid. Male chaffinches carry on this malarkey all spring, but I’d thought greenfinches had a bit more common sense.

At dusk, I stood on the back lawn for half an hour in the hope of spotting the barn owl again. I did indeed, three fields away, twisting back and forth either side of the farm track. Seeing it from such a distance seemed even more special somehow: I was intruding less. The owl must have known I was watching it yesterday, but this evening it was just getting on with being an owl, oblivious to my distant presence.

Throughout the half-hour, a male blackbird sang from Ruth’s oak tree. It was the same one I’ve been hearing all week that likes to sing the opening bar from The Ride of the Valkyries.

Nazi blackbird
13 May 2020 Wed, 13 May 2020 22:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A thrilling owl encounter. As Jen re-opened the living-room curtains immediately after sunset, now we would no longer be blinded by the setting sun, she spotted the barn owl hunting in the field out front. I grabbed my camera and ran sock-footed across the lawn, fumbling with dim-light aperture-, shutter-, and ISO-settings as I went. Might today be the day I finally got some photos?

The owl was heading back up the field towards me. No time to confirm my settings, I fired away. It passed close by me, then doubled back and headed down the field once more, hunting back and forth along the edge of the bridleway. It then headed along the wall to the north, banking left into the next field.

Barn owl

I watched it swoop and hover in the distance, then drop. It was down on the ground for a good ten seconds before launching back into the air and making a bee-line for the hayloft above the mistal at the Farm. As it passed close by, I could clearly see the dead rodent in its right talon. A couple more hurried shots, and the magnificent apparition was gone.

Barn owl (with victim)

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12 May 2020 Tue, 12 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A second swift, and some spectacular light. A second swift this morning, streaking silently on stiff wings. I guess that makes it official: They’re back!

Amy Liptrot tells me she thinks she saw an osprey from Heights Road this morning. I drove along there twice before 10am. As an Orcadian, she should know an osprey when she sees one, so I'd better keep my eyes peeled.

A spectacular evening light as the sun sank towards Heptonstall. I tore upstairs for my camera. As usual with these contre-jour shots, it took an awful lot of post-processing to arrive at the image my mind thought my eyes saw.

11 May 2020 Mon, 11 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Pugnacious chaffinches, and a welcome returnee. As I’m ironing in the living room, two soft bangs in quick succession against the barn window. The unmistakeable sound of birds flying into glass. I rush over to see if there are any fatalities. Not yet…

Two male chaffinches are beating the shit out of each other. Really violent stuff: no pecks barred. Claws and feathers fly. One gains the upper hand—the _upper beak_—pinning his opponent to the ground, and stabbing mercilessly with his beak. The loser somehow breaks free and flies off through the shrubs, the victor still in hot pursuit.

Darwinian sexual selection in action on my very own patio.

Later, as I stand at the open patio door, admiring the view, taking a break from writing, a blur shoots past, loops around the still-flowering cherry tree, and soars up over the house, passing within three metres of me. My first swift of the summer! I punch the air. It’s like something out of a Ted Hughes poem.

Newsletter No. 19: Comfort Reading Sun, 10 May 2020 14:08:26 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Melissa Harrison · Tim Dee · Horatio Clare · John Mitchinson · Ronald Blythe · Mary Beard · Benjamin Myers · Zack Arias · Eric Newby · greenland sharks · Maunsell forts · England rugby · Charles Darwin (obviously) Rich Text

10TH May 2020


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

The extra time freed up by the lockdown has afforded me some uncharacteristically productive stints of writing on my ‘Darwin book’. In recent weeks, I’ve been exploring, among other topics, beards, the dawn chorus, and birds’ nests. As I’ve said before, everything has a Darwin connection.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison has launched a new podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, documenting the wonder and richness of the natural world. It brims with delight.

  2. Confined to his ‘sometime new home at the bottom of Africa’, Tim Dee will this year miss springtime in his ‘sometime old home in England’. This has led him to meditate on Gilbert White’s Swallows. (See also Comfort Reading below.)

  3. Horatio Clare passes on some valuable lessons he learnt writing a memoir about his parents’ divorce.

  4. Sarah Beavins describes a recent visit to the wonderful Ronald Blythe at his home, Bottengoms Farm. (See also Comfort Reading below.)

  5. Unsatisfied with George Orwell’s description of patriotism, John Mitchinson digs deep into his own personal history to untangle the complex roots of his Englishness.

  6. I loved the Asterix books as a kid, and appreciate them even more as an adult. When their illustrator, Albert Uderzo, died in March, the London Review of Books resurrected historian Mary Beard’s earlier piece Bonté Gracieuse! Astérix Redux.

  7. Benjamin Myers has released a PDF ebook of his short story A Stone Statue in the Future in support of independent publishers Little Toller and Bluemoose Books. An excellent coffee-break read for the price of a cup of coffee.

  8. As a keen photographer, I first became aware of the legendary travel writer Eric Newby through his wonderful photo-book What the Traveller Saw. The Royal Geographical Society recently launched a new virtual exhibition based on the book.

  9. After a hiatus of several years, American photographer Zack Arias recently relaunched his entertaining YouTube channel. Although I’m not feeling in the least burnt out, I particularly enjoyed his video Burn Out 02 : How To Restart Yourself : Inspiration Is For Amateurs, which provides some sound advice that doesn’t just apply to photographers or the burnt out.

  10. Caroline Crampton on the iconic WW2 Maunsell forts in the Thames Estuary.

  11. Katherine Rundell on the fascinating Greenland shark.

  12. The mystery of why fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at England rugby union matches has finally been solved.

Comfort Reading

In this time of crisis, I’ve been chilling out with plenty of comfort reading. For some reason, I’ve been finding writers in the 80s and 90s especially comforting:

The ‘Wormingford’ series
by Ronald Blythe
A magnificent ten-volume series of weekly diary-entries-cum-essays from the wonderful veteran writer.
Thinking Again
by Jan Morris
In a very similar mould, a second volume of gentle diary-entries-cum-essays from another wonderful veteran writer.
Essays After Eighty
by Donald Hall
A brilliant collection of mostly humorous essays from the late veteran American poet.
by Tim Dee
Journeys in springtime through Africa and Europe by a relative whippersnapper. (Definitely not a veteran, yet.)

More book reviews »

And finally…

If all the above isn’t enough to keep you going, please don’t forget to check out my regular Sidelines: lines I write on the side, so to speak, when I really ought to be writing other stuff. 27th April was a particularly delightful day I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

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

10 May 2020 Sun, 10 May 2020 09:51:48 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which fortune favours my prepared mind twice in one week. They say fortune favours the prepared mind. When I say ‘they’, I apparently mean Louis Pasteur (thanks, Google)—although he would presumably have said it in French. In a similar vein, I like to joke that, when you’re a self-confessed ‘Darwin groupie’, everything has a Darwin connection. So, when you’re a self-confessed Darwin groupie writing a book inspired by your hero, your mind should in theory be well and truly prepared for fortuitous inspirational happenstances.

It doesn’t quite work that way, of course. Writing books is hard. Especially non-fiction books, where you can’t just make the stuff up. But, in the last week, two signals blipped across my radar that turned out to be exactly the sort of inspiration my prepared mind was looking for.

I’d decided I needed to write a short chapter about instinct. Darwin dedicated an entire chapter to the same subject in On the Origin of Species. I realised I needed to write about a particular instinct, but had hit something of a brick wall trying to decide which one. Darwin wrote mainly about bees’ instincts to make honeycombs, but I had learnt my lesson and wanted to pick a less dangerous example. Then the following retweeted observation zipped by in my Twitter stream:

Somehow this is represented in the neurons in their birdy brains and, ultimately, in their genes.

— Matthew Cobb (@matthewcobb) April 28, 2020

This was exactly the inspiration I was looking for: of course my chapter should be about the nesting instinct of birds! It was so obvious! Thank you Prof. Cobb! I don’t think we’d ever crossed paths before, but I’m certainly following you now!

Of course, what Pasteur really meant was we make our own luck. I’m into Darwin, so I also tend to follow a lot of ‘nature’ and ‘science’ people on social media. So it’s hardly surprising that, once in a while, I’ll encounter an inspirational tweet blending science and nature like this. This tweet wasn’t written for me, but it was certainly made for me.

The second piece of good fortune my prepared mind encountered this week came in the early hours of this morning. I’d been in a deep sleep, but was suddenly wide awake. I found myself mulling over the chapter I’d been struggling with about the genetics of bees’ eyes. I must have spent a good 15 minutes, heading off on tangential dead-ends, then looping back and heading off on another fruitless quest, before I had a sudden, startling realisation… I am not working on a chapter about the genetics of bees’ eyes—it was all a stupid dream!

Somehow, in my dream, I seem to have conflated my recent reading of Darwin on bees with a vague notion I’d had a long time ago to write about colour vision. And, as I mulled this over some more, I came up with a potential new angle for approaching the old, vague idea. An angle which has nothing whatsoever to do with bees.

To be honest, I have no idea whether this new angle really has legs, or will ever make it into my book, but my stupid dream has at least given my prepared mind something more to conjure with.

9 May 2020 Sat, 09 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Different aromas. A walk down Burlees Lane, then up through the wood and back home along Raw Lane.

We walked past a pair of magnificent gorse bushes in full flower. From 10 metres away, the air was filled with their distinctive coconut smell.

In the wood, the wild garlic was equally magnificent, but with a very different aroma.

Wild garlic
Wild garlic

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8 May 2020 Fri, 08 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Two more evening walks. Two more early evening walks around the lanes yesterday and today. As ruts go, it’s a nice one to be stuck in.

The bridleway

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6 May 2020 Wed, 06 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Distinguishing pipits. Another early evening walk around the lanes. I took a nice photo of a meadow pipit perched on a shrubby twig. When I posted the photo on Facebook, an old friend who knows far more about birds than I could ever dream expressed envy at our having tree pipits in the area. This, of course, set me off on an hour’s research into how to distinguish tree pipits from meadow pipits. It’s all down to the stripes on the flanks and the length of the back claws, apparently.

The extreme difficulty in telling certain closely related species apart rather drums home the point Darwin repeatedly made that determining whether two organisms are from different but closely related species, or mere varieties of the same species, lends considerable support to his belief that varieties can sometimes eventually become species. Species are effectively varieties writ large.

Anyway, on more careful reflection, my friend and I eventually agreed my meadow pipit was indeed a plain old meadow pipit. Which is fine by me.

Meadow pipit
Definitely a meadow pipit

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5 May 2020 Tue, 05 May 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Cow parsley season is here. We’re looking after Rosie the reluctant cocker spaniel while her mum recovers from a nasty fall. This means I’ve been more preoccupied with telescopic leads and poo-bags than cameras during our recent evening walks. So apologies for there being fewer updates and photos than usual.

The annual extravagance of cow parsley has suddenly sprung up alongside the Carr track and Burlees Lane. Thanks to lockdown, I’ll no doubt miss the even more fabulous show at Burton Marshes this year. But what we have is certainly good enough. Cow parsley season is one of the highlights of our annual cycles, as far as I’m concerned.

Cow parsley
The ‘Wormingford’ series by Ronald Blythe Sun, 03 May 2020 16:48:12 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A magnificent ten-volume series of weekly diary-entries-cum-essays.
A magnificent ten-volume series of weekly diary-entries-cum-essays.

Article source:

Veteran writer Ronald Blythe’s Wormingford series is one of this atheist’s guilty pleasures. Blythe is a lay reader in the Church of England. The series collects his long-running weekly Church Times diary column, Word From Wormingford.

The pieces are mainly set in and around Blythe’s ancient home, Bottengoms Farm, near the village of Wormingford on the border of Suffolk and Essex. They provide short, thoughtful reflections on country and parish life, the natural world, the changing seasons, literature, scripture, and history. It’s all very gentle and comforting stuff. Pastoral in both senses of the word.

Blythe is a wonderful writer, mixing unpretentious prose with deep knowledge and an ever-present dry humour. Inevitably, reflecting the changing seasons as they do, there are occasional repetitions between the books, but this only adds to their charm. It’s reassuring to be reminded annual events, by definition, keep repeating each year as our planet takes its latest circuit around the sun.

When the world first went into lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, I knew exactly the sort of book I needed to take my mind off things. I turned off the news, headed straight to the Wormingford section of my bookshelves, and selected a book at random. Comfort re-reading in a time of crisis.

Thank you, Mr Blythe!

Now take your pick…

Book review: ‘The Writing Life’ by Annie Dillard Sun, 03 May 2020 10:20:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Definitely not a writing guide.
Definitely not a writing guide.

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The Writing Life

This book was not what I expected.

Having greatly enjoyed Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I was very much looking forward to reading her thoughts on the writing life—and maybe picking up a few handy writing tips.

It turns out there are very few writing tips in this book, which contains mostly descriptions of the difficulties of writing, interspersed with stuff that didn’t seem to be about writing at all.

Surprisingly, perhaps, I still rather enjoyed The Writing Life—especially the earlier chapters, which did at least talk about writing a bit. I particularly enjoyed Dillard describing how she only finds out what her latest book is about after she’s a good way into writing it. That sounds familiar. The closest I came to an actual writing tip was:

One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better.

A very enjoyable read—but definitely not a writing guide.

Book review: ‘Greenery’ by Tim Dee Sun, 03 May 2020 09:59:55 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Journeys in Springtime.
Journeys in Springtime.

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Greenery describes many mostly bird-related trips made by Tim Dee around springtime. Being hopelessly and unashamedly parochial, I’d assumed the book would be set in the UK, but I was mistaken. Although Dee does indeed describe numerous vernal encounters in Blighty, the majority of this book is spent following spring migrations in Africa and continental Europe. It is a much better book for that.

Dee certainly gets around. Among the places he visits are South Africa (where he now lives for part of the year), Belgium, Chad, Denmark, Ethiopia, Hungary, Gibraltar, Ireland, Italy, Heligoland, Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Shetland, Estonia, Latvia, Kenya, Iceland, and Norway.

Not only is Dee remarkably well travelled, he is also remarkably well read. Greenery is packed full of literary and poetic observations. I even spotted three cryptic references to Captain Beefheart lyrics, and, at one point, began to wonder whether Dee might be channelling the late, great W.G. Sebald:

In the autumn of 1986, I moved from Britain to Budapest to study Hungarian poetry for a year. Within weeks I was feeling cold and alone. Never, before or since has my breath been so continuously visible. Never has it dropped to the ground so uncared for by anyone else. A girlfriend I had miraculously found in England after several monkish years came to visit six weeks after I had started in Hungary. I showed her the covered market on the bank of the Danube and the mushroom doctor there who would vet your harvest for toxic species; I showed her a rough-legged buzzard. But we had already lost our touch and gone wrong. Walking together along the Danube and into its hills, through wet meadows in the autumn’s dripping mist, we could have spoken to one another as if in a hushed room. We didn’t, and she didn’t quite have the nerve to finish with me then. We had to do that over a weekend of failed telephone talk once she’d gone back to England; me trying to ration my increasingly desperate steps to the call box at the metro station and then, red-eyed and winded, kneeling to the floor of my landlady’s corridor, weighed down by the heavy black handset she’d let me borrow for one final call, and stunned by the cool voice in it coming with the surge of a dead sea, from the far side of the moon.

I thoroughly enjoyed Greenery. On reflection, I particularly appreciated its internationalism. The bird migrants arriving in the UK each spring, as April showers fall and sweet bulbs grow in our gardens, have all come from somewhere. Dee wonderfully conveys how ‘our’ birds also belong to many other countries—albeit sometimes only fleetingly.

Book review: ‘Thinking Again’ by Jan Morris Sun, 03 May 2020 09:58:11 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A second volume of gentle diary-entries-cum-essays.
A second volume of gentle diary-entries-cum-essays.

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Thinking Again

Thinking Again is the second collection of short, entertaining diary entries from veteran writer Jan Morris. I enjoyed it every bit as much as I did its predecessor, In My Mind’s Eye.

As with its predecessor, most of the diary entries take the form of short essays. They’re gentle and diverting, being mainly reminiscences, and reflections on being old and living in North Wales. I have to say, though, I found Morris’s occasionally professed admiration for Donald Trump rather disconcerting.

Being in her nineties, Morris says she believes this will be her last book. I hope she’s wrong.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Essays After Eighty’ by Donald Hall Sun, 03 May 2020 09:55:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A brilliant collection of mostly humorous essays from the late American poet.
A brilliant collection of mostly humorous essays from the late American poet.

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Essays After Eighty

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The late Donald Hall was an American poet. He briefly served a stint as the American Poet Laureate.

Essays After Eighty is a collection of short prose pieces, mainly reminiscences and reflections on being old and infirm. They are, at times, extremely funny. Here’s a sample passage that really did make me laugh out loud. Hall is attending a lavish ‘Jimmy Carter’s poetry do’ at the White House in 1980, and has just struggled to recognise the, then, best-selling poet Rod McKuen:

In every generation there is one poet whom high school boys read to high school girls in order to get into their pants. In my day it was Walter Benton, whose This Is My Beloved was endorsed by the anthologist Louis Untermeyer in publishers’ ads (“I certainly do not find these poems pornographic”) that swept a teenage mob into bookstores. Rod McKuen’s poems didn’t approach pornography—though they did approach Hallmark.

Essays After Eighty is a fantastic read. I look forward to checking out more of Donald Hall’s prose.

Book review: ‘In Pursuit of Spring’ by Edward Thomas Sun, 03 May 2020 09:54:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Cycling across southern England in early 1913.
Cycling across southern England in early 1913.

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In Pursuit of Spring

In Britain, thanks to the prevailing winds and our general north-south geography, Spring tends to arrive in the South West, spreading at a walking pace, in a generally north-easterly direction, up through our island.

In 1913, Edward Thomas decided to meet Spring head-on by bicycling west from London towards the Somerset coast. His account of the journey, In Pursuit of Spring is regarded as something of a nature-writing classic. Sadly, Thomas was to die a few years later, in 1917, at the Battle of Arras.

Although I very much enjoyed the idea of this book, and some of the writing, I have to say I found it rather heavy-going and plashy fennish in places. Thomas has a habit of going into way too much detail, turning right here, and south half a mile there. Before he set out, he already had a commission for an account of his journey. As I read on, I rather unkindly began to suspect he was trying to meet a contractual word-count.

To get a feel for his writing style, here is a sample paragraph chosen (almost) at random:

Uphill to Alderbury I walked, looking back south-eastward along the four-mile wall of Dean Hill which I had quitted a mile behind. Alderbury, its Green Dragon, its public seat and foursquare fountain of good water for man and beast (erected by Jacob, sixth Earl of Radnor), is on a hilltop overlooking the Avon, and immediately on leaving it I began to descend and to slant nearer and nearer the river. The hedges of the road guided my eyes straight to the cathedral spire of Salisbury, two or three miles off beneath me. On the right the sward and oaks of Ivychurch came down to the road: below on the left the sward was wider, the oaks were fewer, and many cows were feeding. A long cleft of rushy turf and oaks, then a broad ploughland succeeded the Ivychurch oaks, and the ploughland rose up into a round summit crested by a clump of pines and beeches. I remember seeing this field when it was being ploughed. by two horses, and the ploughman’s white dog was exploring on one side or another across the slopes.

…If you’re into this style of writing, there is much in this book for you to enjoy.

The edition I read was from the wonderful publisher Little Toller. As always with them, it is beautifully produced, and a delight to handle. It is also illustrated with photographs taken by Thomas during his journey. The photographs are wonderful, illustrating many former corners of a, now, very changed England.

Book review: ‘How to be Right’ by James O’Brien Sun, 03 May 2020 09:52:13 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How to be right in a world gone wrong.
How to be right in a world gone wrong.

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‘How to be Right’ by James O’Brien

If you were a Remainer during the Brexit shenanigans, you could hardly avoid James O’Brien in your Twitter and Facebook feeds. Videos of him systematically demolishing clueless Leavers (if you’ll pardon the tautology) who had unwisely rung into his LBC Radio phone-in programme circulated among the sensible 48% with joyous abandon.

How to be Right analyses various topics regularly in the cross-hairs of twenty-first-century bigotry. It includes many transcripts from O’Brien’s show. The topics covered are: Islam and Islamism, Brexit, LGBT, Political Correctness, Feminism, Nanny States and Classical Liberals, the Age Gap, and Donald Trump. It’s a depressing read. How did we end up here? (The right-wing press, I know.)

O’Brien is excellent at cutting through his callers’ bullshit. His simple technique is to ask them if they really mean what they’re saying, and why they believe what they say they believe?

An entertaining read.

28 April 2020 Tue, 28 Apr 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A commotion. Sitting in the dining room with the patio door open, researching my next chapter, I am disturbed by a commotion outside: the frantic chink-chink-chink! alarm-call of a blackbird. I glance up to see a black blur shoot past the window with a blue-grey blur in hot pursuit.

The twin blurs disappear briefly round the back of the blossoming cherry tree, then crash into the undergrowth in the corner of the garden. Chink-chink-chink! Chink-chink-chink!

I rush over to the door and watch as rhododendron, bramble and black bamboo are knocked violently back and forth. Chink-chink-chink! Chink-chink-chink!

After twenty seconds or so, a male sparrowhawk emerges, empty taloned, shooting off low, a murderous gleam in his sulphurous eye.

Book review: ‘A Single Swallow’ by Horatio Clare Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:40:26 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales.
Following the migration from South Africa to South Wales.

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A Single Swallow

Despite its avian title, A Single Swallow is not about birds, but is a travel book. Author Horatio Clare sets out to follow the swallow’s northward migration route from South Africa to his native South Wales. He does so by way of Namibia, Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, Algeria, Morocco, Gibraltar, Spain, France, and England.

Clare keeps an eye out for, and sees, swallows throughout his journey, but the book is primarily about what it’s like to travel through modern Africa, interacting with locals and fellow travellers. As someone who has never been to Africa, I found it a fascinating read. Clare is also very good (and honest) writing about himself. He comes across as a likeable, somewhat chaotic character, who trusts to luck far more that I would be comfortable with. Which makes him (and not me) a highly entertaining travel writer.


Book review: ‘Wintering’ by Stephen Rutt Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:38:14 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A season with geese.
A season with geese.

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‘Wintering’ by Stephen Rutt

Wintering is a short but entertaining book in which Stephen Rutt sets out to observe in a single season all the species of migrant geese that overwinter in Britain.

Not formerly much of a goose fanboy, Rutt’s interest is sparked by the arrival of large numbers of pink-footed geese near his new home in southwest Scotland. He is putting the finishing touches to his first book, The Seafarers, at the time, but soon finds himself being distracted. As someone who has often been distracted from work by pink-footed geese above the Dee Marshes, I have considerable sympathy with this predicament.

The writing is unpretentious and informative—just as it should be. By the end of this book, I had greater admiration for this under-appreciated family of birds.


Book review: ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:34:01 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives together.
Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe and their lives together.

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Just Kids

I first read Just Kids, having heard Patti Smith read extracts from it at a superb concern in St Albans in 2013.

The book is her memoir of her early days as a struggling artist, and her relationship with fellow artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Some big names have walk-on parts, including Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Allen Ginsberg (who mistakes Smith for a boy).

Patti Smith is a marvellous writer. Just Kids wonderfully conveys the New York arts scene in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The Illustrated Edition also contains some great images.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Sexual Selection’ by Marlene Zuk & Leigh W. Simmons Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:31:22 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A very short introduction.
A very short introduction.

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Sexual Selection

This is a very useful introduction to Charles Darwin’s ‘other’ great idea: sexual selection.

Nowadays, we tend to think of sexual selection as a special sub-category of natural selection. But Darwin was careful to keep the two separate: while natural selection concerned the struggle for survival, sexual selection concerned the struggle for mates. It’s an important distinction. To leave offspring, individuals who reproduce sexually need to survive long enough to mate, and they actually need to mate with one or more other individuals. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection explains the myriad physical and behavioural adaptations species have evolved to assist individuals in their struggles to mate.

It’s long been my personal hunch that sexual selection is far more important in the evolution of new species than it’s generally given credit for. Be that is it may (or may not), this short book is a very nice introduction to the subject.

Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Nature Cure’ by Richard Mabey Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:25:49 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Nature writer recovers from depression by reconnecting with nature.
Nature writer recovers from depression by reconnecting with nature.

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Nature Cure

I first read Nature Cure in 2006. It was one of the books that first got me hooked on ‘nature writing’.

The book describes Mabey’s slow recovery from a major bout of depression. Things are so bad at the start that he is forced to move from his life-long home in the Chilterns. He moves to East Anglia, first staying with various close friends, then house-sitting for another friend. As the months pass by, he gradually begins to recover by reconnecting with nature.

A strangely haunting book. Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Aftermath’ by Ronald Blythe Fri, 20 Mar 2020 15:20:53 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Selected writings, 1960–2010.
Selected writings, 1960–2010.

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‘Aftermath’ by Ronald Blythe

Aftermath is a hefty anthology from a venerable country writer. It comprises mainly book reviews and selections from Blythe’s earlier works. I’m a big fan of such collections of ‘occasional writing’. This collection is excellent.

I particularly enjoyed the lengthy section at the start of this book dedicated to the joys of reading other people's published letters, diaries, and journals.

Blythe has a wonderful knack for perceptive, often humorous, observations:

  • It is clear that letter-writing proper creates style and destroys inhibition;
  • There is an acute species of melancholy attached to the early days of authorship which is often lightly dismissed by biographers as teething pains;
  • The wholesale destruction [of the mining industry] by Mrs Thatcher and her successors, albeit for the sake of the economy, that sacred excuse, leaves an unpleasant taste;
  • from nine onwards Henry Beaufort could not allow a fox to live.

…That sort of thing.

Great stuff.