Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter 31 July 2020 Fri, 31 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A seasonal feast. A hot and sunny day. Lots of flying ants reported on Twitter. We spotted some emerging from a next in the rockery at Daisy Bank. Swifts screamed overhead: a seasonal feast.

29 July 2020 Wed, 29 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Swifts circulating. Finally, some decent weather. The last two months have been pretty dreadful.

About 20 swifts circulating in the warmth above Daisy Bank. They’ll no doubt be heading off soon.

26 July 2020 Sun, 26 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The buck stops here—but not for long. An excited call from Jen from our landing: there was a roe deer on the back lawn. I grabbed my camera, but it had already gone. So I sneaked outside to see if I could find it. Suddenly, two deer-heads raised from the long grass in the back field. A male and a female. They bounded off through the grass in the general direction of Nutclough Wood.

I ran to the field-gate to see if I could get a photo. Thoughtfully, the male decided to stop and observe me for a few seconds.

Roe buck

Badger sighting reported at the Farm again. One of these days I’ll see it!

24 July 2020 Fri, 24 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Scores of house martins. Scores of house martins perched on wires and twittering about above the Carr track, many of them this year’s fledglings.

Several landed on the dustier sections of the track to gather grit for their gizzards.

House martins gathering grit
22 July 2020 Wed, 22 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Great spotted woodpecker sighted. Great spotted woodpecker at our bird table. Haven’t had one in our garden for several years! As soon as I saw it, it saw me and flew off, so no photos.

20 July 2020 Mon, 20 Jul 2020 23:59:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My podcast appearance, and a spot of astronomy. My self-imposed embargo is lifted. Episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s delightful podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, went out this morning, and I appear on it, talking about the bats in our garden. Producing it turned out to be something of a fiasco. To keep to the three-minute limit, I had to trim almost half from the original edit.

Saw the comet again this evening. Harder to see than last night. Saturn and Jupiter shone brightly, close to each other, to the south. Jupiter is particularly bright at the moment. Even through my unimpressive binoculars, I could make out a couple of its moons. I tried to take a photograph, but the new LED street lights conspired against me. When I am king, the cat-free streets will be dark at night. Light pollution aside, the long exposures required to capture the moons meant there was too much blurring as the earth rotated on its axis beneath me.

Newsletter No. 20: Giving it the David Attenboroughs Mon, 20 Jul 2020 15:23:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) In which I gatecrash a podcast, and share cool stuff by the likes of: Melissa Harrison · Luke Turner · Werner Herzog · Merlin Sheldrake · Robert Macfarlane · Gaby Wood · Caught by the River · Philip Hoare · and a host of talented extras. Rich Text

20TH JULY 2020


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

Work continues apace on my ‘Darwin book’. It’s not a particularly pacy pace, I’ll grant you, but if Darwin taught us anything it’s that small developments over long periods can lead to wonderful outcomes. I’ve recently been writing about that very topic, as well as evolutionary vestiges, the geographical distribution of marsupials, birds’ nesting instincts, colour vision, bats, hypothetical bears, and a bunch of other stuff. I think this book might best be described as ‘eclectic’.

My research into bats provided me with the perfect excuse to gatecrash Melissa Harrison’s delightful nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. You can hear me giving it the David Attenboroughs live(ish) from my back garden in episode 16, which went out earlier today. I’ve posted an extended version of my audio piece at the end of this article about the fiasco I went through putting it together.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I rant against the jungle
    Werner Herzog fan Luke Turner interviews the man himself.

  2. How Margiad Evans wrote the earth
    One I’ve just added to my ‘To Read’ list… Margiad Evans’ writing is largely unknown outside her adopted Wales. Steven Lovatt introduces this nature writer of precision and feeling.

  3. Fungi’s lessons for adapting to life on a damaged planet
    Merlin Sheldrake in conversation with Robert Macfarlane about Sheldrake’s new book, Entangled Life, looking at the complex world of fungi.

  4. Vast neolithic circle of deep shafts found near Stonehenge
    Archaeologists have discovered an impressive prehistoric structure spanning 1.2 miles.

  5. Tea and capitalism
    Dutch merchants were the first to import tea leaves into Europe in 1609, but by the late 1700s it was the English East India Company, backed by state monopoly, that came to dominate what became known as the ‘Canton Trade’.

  6. How to draw an albatross
    My favourite genre of writing: a fascinating blend of nature, science and history by Gaby Wood.

  7. The 2020 Audubon Photography Awards
    Stunning bird photographs.

  8. Could the art of ‘sashiko’ help to mend our frayed world?
    In sashiko, the art of fabric-repair, the goal is not to hide the repair, but to celebrate it. It exemplifies the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi.

  9. An Antidote to Indifference—online in full!
    The wonderful Caught by the River website marked the 13th anniversary of their first post by making two editions of their irregular physical publication, An Antidote to Indifference, available free online.

  10. The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’
    Since September 2019, medieval scholars have heatedly debated the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’.

  11. PLACE 2020
    The Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University has just launched a digital project bringing together writers and artists to think about place and its meanings in 2020. A fabulous new resource.

  12. The Blues Brothers at 40: a manic musical romp that still sings today
    A 40th-anniversary tribute to my favourite film—although I don’t think the article makes clear just how fantastic the soundtrack is!

Recent Reading

Spike Island
by Philip Hoare
The memory of a military hospital. Reminiscent of the works of the late W.G. Sebald. A fantastic read.
by Ronald Blythe
Selected writings, 1960–2010. A wonderfully entertaining anthology from the veteran country writer.
A Carnival of Losses
by Donald Hall
Notes nearing ninety. Sadly, the late Donald Hall never quite got there! Moving, and highly recommended.
Somewhere Becoming Rain
by Clive James
Writings on Philip Larkin. Existing Larkin fans will enjoy this collection, although James’s enthusiasm should provide enough encouragement for anyone who hasn’t yet dipped into Larkin to take the plunge.

More book reviews »

And finally…

To mark the 300th anniversary of the great parson-naturalist, I recently wrote about Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin.

If you still have any reading left in you after that lot, please keep checking in on my latest Sidelines posts. Highlights from July 2020 include a nice photo of Comet Neowise over Hebden Bridge, and this recent photo of a barn owl in the field in front of our house:

Barn owl

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

Book review: ‘Kilvert’s Diary’ by Francis Kilvert Mon, 20 Jul 2020 14:51:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The diary of a Victorian country curate.
Kilvert’s Diary

I’d known about this classic for years, but had somehow never got round to reading it. Francis Kilvert was a country curate, and later vicar, who began keeping a diary in 1870, which he maintained until shortly before his tragically premature death nine years later. During this time, Kilvert moved between various parishes, but the majority of the time covered by the diary was spent in his beloved Welsh village of Clyro near Hay-on-Wye on the other side of the Welsh-English border.

I thought the diary took a little while to get going, but once Kilvert hits his stride, this book is an absolute joy. It’s packed full of observations about local characters and customs, with occasional references to national and international events. There is also plenty of gentle humour contained in its pages, and reminiscences from older generations.

Passages I particularly enjoyed included: memories of encounters with William Wordsworth; Kilvert receiving one of the newfangled post cards; a woman in labour being made to move to a different room in the house so that her child would be born on the English side of the border; a funeral where the lead-lined coffin proved difficult to lift; an accidental visit to a pornographer; some scathing comments on bagpipes; a parishioner wishing the vicar good health when receiving the communion wine; a visit to an aunt in a private lunatic asylum; and an unexplained ‘splendid romp with Polly Taverner’.

“Why do I keep this voluminous journal?” wonders Kilvert in a rare moment of self-reflection. “I can hardly tell. Partly because life appears to me such a curious and wonderful thing that it almost seems a pity that even such a humble and uneventful life as mine should pass altogether away without some such record as this, and partly too because I think the record may amuse and interest some who come after me.”

Amuse and interest it certainly does.

On a less happy note, several passages in the diary make uncomfortable reading for people with modern sensibilities. Kilvert certainly had what we would nowadays consider an unhealthy preoccupation with young girls, and seems to have been titillated by the idea of flagellation. It seems clear from the diary that nothing untoward ever happened, but his evident enthusiasm for these taboo subjects is disquieting.

Other than that, Kilvert’s Diary is an absolute joy to read. Highly recommended.

Giving fiascos a bad name Mon, 20 Jul 2020 11:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) How not to make a simple three-minute podcast piece. It seemed like such a nice idea. I’d been reading up on bats for a chapter of my ‘Darwin book’. I’d also been eavesdropping on the local bats with my bat-detector. It suddenly dawned on me that I might be able to record a short piece about watching bats for Melissa Harrison’s lovely nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. Rather than thinking things through, I immediately pitched the idea to Melissa. She liked the sound of it. My brief: please keep it to three minutes maximum, and avoid recording when it’s windy. Fair enough. I was sure I could stretch what I had to say to three minutes.

The next few weeks bore witness to the kind of ineptitude that gives fiascos a bad name, as I struggled manfully with all manner of incompatible technologies, and carried out a number of spectacularly unsuccessful dry runs.

The idea was to capture simultaneous recordings of bat-clicks from the bat-detector, and me giving a running commentary via a lapel-microphone. I’ll spare you the technical details. During the first dry run, instead of capturing the intended bat-clicks, I managed to record 15 minutes of me, off-mic’, stumbling around in the dark, treading on slugs and swearing at bitey insects. It turned out I’d used the wrong type of cable. In the second dry run, my voice totally drowned out the recordings of the bats. After more tinkering, I finally cobbled together an admirably inelegant and complicated solution that I was 50% confident might just work. The following evening, I was all set to go, but the weather turned windy. I made a couple of test recordings of bat-clicks, just to prove I actually could, then decided to wait for calmer weather.

Next morning, I discovered I’d somehow managed to fry my bat-detector. It was totally dead. I contacted Melissa to say things weren’t looking too peachy. Then I remembered my two test recordings from the night before. Maybe I could use those! So I retrieved them from my trash folder and switched to Plan F. Plan F was much less ambitious: a simple piece to microphone, interspersed with the recovered bat recordings I already had safely in the can. What could possibly go wrong?

It took a week for the unseasonably strong winds to subside. Finally, the perfect evening arrived: clear sky; still air; crescent moon. Serenity reigned. As I waited for the first bats to appear, I clicked the record button on my phone, and began to deliver my intro…

It’s about an hour after sunset, and I’m standing in my garden looking across the Hebden Valley towards…

Suddenly, somewhere in the middle-distance, a small crowd of people began to sing. The noise grew. There seemed to be some celebration taking place—here, in the middle of nowhere, 230 metres above sea-level in the West Yorkshire Pennines! In my 19 years living on this tranquil hillside, I‘d never heard such a commotion. Bloody uncanny timing! I decided to give the celebrants a few minutes to calm down. While I waited, I checked the news on my phone… Ah… Mystery solved! After a gap of 30 years, Liverpool F.C. had just become English soccer champions! #YNWA

When, after 30 minutes, the celebrations showed no sign of subsiding, I decided to trust to luck and hid behind a tree, hoping my microphone wouldn’t pick up the distant strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Come on, Richard: three minutes on bats. Strut your stuff! A little bit of science, a little bit of history, a couple of jokes… how hard can it possibly be?

Two hours: that’s how hard! Two whole hours! This thanks mainly to my inability to talk into a microphone for more than ten seconds without tripping over my own tongue. The neighbour’s dog barking at the weirdo talking to himself in the next garden didn’t help either. Neither did the local tawny owl that decided to start hooting midway through a very promising take that was immediately rendered unusable due to my expletives.

Somehow, I got there in the end. I was frankly astonished when the first edit of my piece came in at a little under six minutes. To meet the brief, I had to do a lot of trimming. Out went most of the science and history; in remained most of the crap jokes. With scalpel-like precision, I even had to excise a few phrases from the middle of sentences in order to squeeze in under the three minutes with an entire second to spare.

You can listen to my final three-minute edit on episode 16 of Melissa’s podcast. As for the full-blown original version, I went through quite a bit of hassle putting it together, so I’m damned if I’m not going to make use of it somewhere. So why don’t I post it here, in all its unexpurgated wordiness?

19 July 2020 Sun, 19 Jul 2020 19:14:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Weeding, and a spot of comet-watching. Performed my annual hour’s weeding. I’m beginning to think I might never get on top of the garden.‬ So many different types of weeds taking over the rockery: nettles, ferns, goose-grass, willowherb, bindweed, thistles, brambles, stonecrop, ragwort, assorted grasses, and even a couple of silver birch saplings.

Demoralising. But it did give me a great idea for the next chapter of my book!

Outside at 22:45, looking for Comet Neowise. Still too much light in the sky. Enough light to silhouette the barn owl as it flew past, utterly silent, about five metres away.

Outside again, at midnight on the dot, looking once again for the comet. And there it was, hanging in the sky above Old Town Mill!

Comet Neowise over Old Town Mill, Hebden Bridge
Comet Neowise over Old Town Mill, Hebden Bridge.
Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin Sat, 18 Jul 2020 08:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) To mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, a brief account of Rev. Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin. 18 July 2020

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Hampshire parson-naturalist Gilbert White, whose classic book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has been in continuous print since 1789.

Charles Darwin was something of a Gilbert White fanboy. In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, he reminisced about his own childhood fascination with natural history:

From reading White’s ‘Selborne’, I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.

‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White
Title page of one of my copies of ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White.

Had history taken a slightly different turn, and had the opportunity not arisen of a place aboard HMS Beagle, there’s a very good chance Darwin might himself have ended up a parson-naturalist. His father’s plans for him, once he had dropped out of medical training, was for a career as a country clergyman. It was to this end that Darwin studied at Cambridge.

In 1846, Darwin wrote to thank Leonard Jenyns for a promised copy of his new biography of Gilbert White. Jenyns was a parson-naturalist himself, and had turned down the offer of the place aboard HMS Beagle, suggesting Darwin as a suitable alternative. Of the White biography, Darwin observed:

I feel sure I shall like it, for all discussions & observations on what the world would call trifling points in Natural History, always, appear to me very interesting. In such foreign periodicals, as I have seen, there are no such papers, as White, or Waterton; or some few other naturalists in Loudon’s & Charlesworth’s Journal, would have written, & a great loss it has always appeared to me.

White and his classic work are mentioned several times in Darwin’s correspondence and notebooks, and in a number of his published works, including The Descent of Man, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, and The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms.

In his late 40s, while visiting a nearby ‘water-cure’ establishment for his various ailments, Darwin, in his son’s words, ‘made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Gilbert White at Selborne’.

Anyone whose classic book influenced my hero is also a hero in my book.

Happy 300th birthday, Rev. White!

The above article also appeared on my Friends of Charles Darwin website.

17 July 2020 Fri, 17 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A crowded pool. A walk down into Hebden Bridge and back home again through the woods.

The tiny pool in the stream at the edge of the wood was teeming with pond skaters. There must have been over a hundred of them rowing back and forth across the surface. So much life and activity in such a small space. There’s hope for the world yet!

16 July 2020 Thu, 16 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) An early morning barn owl encounter. Returning home after a pre-breakfast trip into Hebden Bridge for fish from the market, I spotted the barn owl flying past the end of our garden towards the front field. I shot upstairs to grab my camera. Sadly, the owl had already checked out the front field by the time I returned to the garden, but I spent a thrilling ten minutes watching it quartering the other nearby fields before heading off towards the Farm.

Despite the owl never coming particularly close, I was pretty pleased with the photographs I took.

Barn owl
Bats podcast piece Thu, 16 Jul 2020 11:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter ( I make a guest appearance in episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s podcast ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’. Here’s an extended version. I made a guest appearance in episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s delightful podcast The Stubborn Light of Things, in which I talked about the science, history and natural history of bats.

I’ve posted an article about the fiasco I went through making my three-minute piece. If you’d like to listen to the extended (5 min 45s) version, here it is:

13 July 2020 Mon, 13 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A garden murder, and a drizzly trip to Bridestones Moor. We heard a commotion outside yesterday evening, with dozens of birds scattering, and with one flying into the dining room window in blind panic. This morning, I found a mass of feathers on the lawn by the bird-feeder. The remains of a collared dove, by the look of it. Prime suspect: a sparrowhawk.

Murder scene
Murder scene

Jen had taken the day off work, so we took a trip to Bridestones Moor to look at its eponymous rocks. Unforecast drizzle began as soon as we arrived. Jen hates drizzle. I took a few hasty grab-photos, and was unexpectedly pleased with the results. Must return there soon for a proper photo-session.

Bridestones Moor
Bridestones Moor
12 July 2020 Sun, 12 Jul 2020 23:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A special after-sunset. Popped outside late this evening to see if I could spot the comet. Turned out I was looking at the wrong time of day. But the after-sunset behind the trees near Old Town Mill was something special.

After sunset
10 July 2020 Fri, 10 Jul 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Recognised by its ‘jizz’: my first Hebden Bridge whitethroat. As Jen and I took our regular early evening walk around the lanes, I spotted a small bird flitting about the scrub in our farmer friend’s field. Even from 50 metres away, the bird’s untidy, erratic flight screamed whitethroat at me. Turned out I was right.


My first ever Hebden Bridge whitethroat—although not the first time I’ve identified a whitethroat by its ‘jizz’.

5 July 2020 Sun, 05 Jul 2020 23:59:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A wet week. A week of shower-dodging evening walks.

Ragwort has come into bloom alongside the foxgloves. Yellow and purple, a daring combination. The local horsey types make a habit of pulling up intolerable, horse-poisoning ragwort and dumping it at the side of the road. It’s a real shame: the insects seem to love it.

Ragwort and foxgloves

No barn owl sightings for a couple of days, thanks presumably to all the wind and rain we’ve been getting. Owls’ soft feathers are ideal for silent flight, but not very waterproof. The owl put in an appearance between squalls at around 21:30 this evening, quartering the field out front, hovering very low at one point, just inches above the tall grass. Jen and I are thrilled a barn owl has become a regular feature of our evenings’ entertainment.

As I was putting out the recycling last thing, there was a small, momentary break in the clouds to the south. The edges of the opening blazed with moonlight, although the moon itself remained hidden. In the middle of the opening, a planet shone. According to my astronomy app, it was either Saturn or Jupiter, both of which were close to the moon. My money was on Saturn.

Book review: ‘A Carnival of Losses’ by Donald Hall Wed, 01 Jul 2020 19:04:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Notes nearing ninety.
A Carnival of Losses

A Carnival of Losses is the follow-up to the late American Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s wonderful and funny essay collection Essays After Eighty. As its subtitle makes clear, this final collection was written as Hall approached his ninetieth birthday. Sadly, he was never to get there, dying a few months short of the big nine-O.

Although not as funny as its predecessor, this collection is another highly entertaining read. It is sadder than the earlier collection, but contains many entertaining anecdotes, particularly about Hall’s fellow poets.

Highly recommended. But read Essays After Eighty first.

Book review: ‘Spike Island’ by Philip Hoare Wed, 01 Jul 2020 19:03:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The memory of a military hospital.
Spike Island

This book had been on my list of potential reads for several years. I’m glad I finally took the plunge: it’s fabulous.

Although Spike Island is primarily a history of the huge Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, situated on the book’s eponymous ‘island’ near Southampton—it’s actually a peninsula—the early chapters, in particular, contain elements of family memoir, as well as a brief history of Netley Abbey.

The hospital itself was built at the behest of Queen Victoria, who had been upset at the suffering of injured British soldiers during the Crimean War. Philip Hoare entertainingly describes the controversy surrounding the design of the hospital during the mad rush to meet the queen’s demands. Florence Nightingale was outspoken in her criticism of the hospital’s design, but was largely ignored. In many ways, the massive complex was outmoded even before it opened.

Hoare takes us through the history of the hospital, describing Victoria’s numerous visits, the treatments given, and the stories of some of the patients. The hospital expanded, and continued to treat soldiers, including enemy prisoners, during the First and Second World Wars. During the latter, it was run by the American military, who employed more modern treatments, especially for those suffering with psychiatric conditions. The hospital declined after the war, and was demolished in the mid-1960s.

Hoare’s text is interspersed with many black and white photographs, reminiscent of the works of the late W.G. Sebald, who was a fan of the book and provided the cover blurb. The text is wonderfully Sebaldian in places, but the book as a whole, being the detailed history of a military complex over many decades, reminded me far more of Jan Rüger’s equally excellent Heligoland.

A fantastic read.

Book review: ‘Into the Tangled Bank’ by Lev Parikian Wed, 01 Jul 2020 19:01:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) In which our author ventures outdoors to consider the British in nature.
Into the Tangled Bank

In Into the Tangled Bank, Lev Parikian pays a series of visits to various British nature spots, many of them associated with famous (and not-quite-so-famous) nature writers and artists.

The book begins with the author admiring a butterfly on the pavement outside his house, then expounding the joys of his own garden. His explorations then spread farther afield. Parikian visits my hero Charles Darwin’s garden at Down House (the tangled bank of the book’s title is a Darwin reference). He then goes on to pay his respects at locations associated with the likes of Gilbert White, John Clare, Gavin Maxwell, Sir Peter Scott, Thomas Bewick, the lady founders of the RSPB, and the pioneering nature photographer Emma Turner.

It’s not all famous (and not-quite-so-famous) old naturalists, however; in amongst, Parikian finds time to visit some wildlife habitats that don’t yet come with celebrity endorsements.

Anyone, like me, who enjoys the increasingly popular nature writing genre is likely to enjoy this book—especially if, unlike me, they’re also into jocular footnotes.

An enjoyable and fun read.

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

Book review: ‘Somewhere Becoming Rain’ by Clive James Wed, 01 Jul 2020 18:02:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Collected writings on Philip Larkin.
Somewhere Becoming Rain

The multi-talented Clive James was an accomplished poet, and a great fan of the late Philip Larkin. This anthology, put together towards the end of his life at the suggestion of James’s daughter, collects his various writings on Larkin from an assortment of literary reviews.

One of Larkin’s great appeals was in his observation of the mundane. His long-term job as head librarian at the university of Hull seems absolutely perfect for him. You can’t imagine him being trapped in any other role. James hits the nail on the dead, when he says in the introduction:

Though it is hard to imagine him looking forward to a meeting of the library car-park-space allocation committee, or whatever grim task loomed next, it is equally impossible to imagine him ducking out of it. […] The everyday might have been full of things that he found dull, but the everyday was his subject.

The individual essays is this collection are those of a committed fan who is prepared to defend his fandom against all doubters. Readers already familiar with Larkin’s writing will perhaps get most out of the essays, although James’s enthusiasm should provide enough encouragement for anyone who hasn’t yet dipped into Larkin to take the plunge.

Finally, I need to mention the wonderful, simple yellow and grey-brown cover of this anthology depicting the Hull skyline. It was designed by James’s aforementioned daughter, and is one of the most delightful book covers I have ever seen.

30 June 2020 Tue, 30 Jun 2020 11:15:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The delights of a wet day. A lone lapwing tumbling over wet fields as I drove back home from the supermarket over the moors this morning. There have been even fewer of them this summer, although there seem to have been more curlews around.

As I unpacked the car, the weeds along the edges and down the middle of our driveway looked delightful in the wet. The purple selfheal is looking particularly magnificent at the moment. There are days when all the hard work we don’t put into weeding the drive really pays off.

27 June 2020 Sat, 27 Jun 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A friend’s dogs are frightened by an unexpected guest. Another dog remains as reluctant as ever. Having decided she needed to change where she was leaving food for the semi-feral cats living in her hay-loft, as her dogs were getting to it and it was attracting slugs to the back door, our farmer friend went to scout out suitable locations in the disused mistal beneath the hay loft. Uncharacteristically, her dogs, a young Staffordshire bull terrier and a Jack Russell, point-blank refused to accompany her. They seemed terrified of the mistal. When she slid open the door, she found out why: a huge badger was taking a kip in the old cast-iron bath that used to serve as a cattle-watering trough. She now suspects it hasn’t been the dogs eating all the cat food.

Took Rosie the extremely reluctant cocker spaniel for a short drag in Crow Nest Wood.

Crow Nest Wood
Book review: ‘Across the Land and the Water’ by W.G. Sebald Sun, 14 Jun 2020 15:21:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Selected poems, 1964–2001.
‘Across the Land and the Water’ by W.G. Sebald.

As a huge fan of W.G. Sebald’s haunting prose, I’ve been dipping into his poetry of late. As with his prose, it’s difficult to categorise, other than with the label Sebaldian.

This collection, translated from the original German by Iain Galbraith, is easy enough to read, but contains many allusions that aren’t obvious to the English reader. Fortunately, Galbraith provides some useful notes for each poem, which give you at least some chance of working out what’s going on. That said, it always seemed to me one of the joys of reading Sebald is not understanding all the allusions. As with his prose, it’s perfectly acceptable to let the poems simply wash over you.

The early poems in the collection were entertaining enough, but I much preferred the later ones, which seemed far more reminiscent of Sebald’s prose. Indeed, a couple of the poems concern events described in his prose books. As always with Sebald, there’s plenty of train-travel, observing landscapes, cityscapes, and fellow passengers.

I very much struggled with this collection the first time I read it. But, by the time I came to read it for third time, several years later, I enjoyed it very much indeed. Not that I could claim to understand everything that’s going on in there.

Sebaldian in the every sense of the word.

Book review: ‘The Faraway Nearby’ by Rebecca Solnit Sun, 14 Jun 2020 15:19:21 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A curiously compelling mix of memoir and anti-memoir.
‘The Faraway Nearby’ by Rebecca Solnit

This is an unusual but compelling book. It’s partly memoir about Rebecca Solnit’s relationship with her difficult mother, especially during her mother’s declining years as she suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease, and about Solnit’s own brush with illness. But it’s also about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and art, and Buddhism, and the Marquis de Sade, and apricots, and saying ‘yes’ to adventure opportunities, and protesting, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

It’s a strange mix. But I think that’s the point: this book is about how nothing happens in isolation; and how diverse stories fit together to make life more interesting. Or, at least, I think that’s what it’s about.

As you will have gathered, I'm very much struggling to describe this book. So why don't I stop trying?

A good read.

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

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.

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.

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. 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.
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.