Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of posts from all of Richard Carter's blogs. en-gb Richard Carter Stronger and stabler Mon, 26 Jun 2017 20:42:38 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) BBC: Conservatives agree pact with DUP to support May government An agreement has been reached which will see the Democratic Unionist Party back Theresa May’s minority government. The deal, which comes two weeks after the election resulted in a hung …

BBC: Conservatives agree pact with DUP to support May government

An agreement has been reached which will see the Democratic Unionist Party back Theresa May’s minority government.
The deal, which comes two weeks after the election resulted in a hung Parliament, will see the 10 DUP MPs back the Tories in key Commons votes.
There will be £1bn extra for Northern Ireland over the next two years.

One-billion pounds for 10 DUP votes. That's a mere £100-million per unspeakable DUP MP.

The Brussels Brexit negotiators must be shitting bricks.

Actually, I think Theresa May might have played a blinder here: when you haven't a leg to stand on, acting insane is probably your best strategy for getting people to fall for your bluffs: she might actually be that crazy.

The SATSASTSM button Mon, 26 Jun 2017 09:47:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) I'm beginning to think we might be taking the ‘home cinema’ concept a bit too far. I think we can all agree, home entertainment has improved dramatically in recent years. Not only do we no longer have to wait at least five bloody years to be able to buy our own personal copies of the latest films, but we can now watch them on high-definition, wide-screen tellies. Indeed, those of us with more than two ears can enjoy these films in multi-speaker surround-sound. And there's even microwaveable popcorn. What's not to like? (Apart from microwaveable popcorn, I mean.)

But I'm beginning to think we might be taking this ‘home cinema’ concept a bit too far. Nowadays, presumably to add to the authentic cinematic experience, we are expected to sit through half an hour of advertisements and trailers before the main feature begins.

Which is why I have just invented the SATSASTSM button. It looks like this:


The SATSASTSM button—or, to give it its full name, the Skip All The Shite And Show The Sodding Movie button—is a special button on your remote control that, as the name implies, skips all the shite and shows you the sodding movie straight away. How brilliantly simple is that? I'm frankly amazed nobody has thought of this before.

There aren't actually any remote controls featuring a SATSASTSM button at the moment, but, for the benefit of all movie buffs out there, I hereby waive all rights to my invention and make it freely available to any and all manufacturers wishing to avail themselves of such an essential killer feature.

You can thank me later.

Dogs’ sneezes Fri, 23 Jun 2017 22:57:47 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Did you ever wonder why dogs sneeze when they’re excited? Did you ever wonder why dogs sneeze when they’re excited? They usually sneeze more than once. Dogs are a highly olfactory species: perhaps it has something to do with clearing their noses in readiness for whatever exciting thing they think is about to happen. A Pavlovian reflex of the nose. (Whoever knew Pavlovian reflexes also worked on dogs!)

I wonder if wolves do the same thing. It would seem strange if they didn’t. I find it hard to believe sneezing in excitement is something dogs have picked up since we domesticated them, so it stands to reason wolves should too. On the other paw, sneezing in the excitement of the chase would seem a major disadvantage for wolves: it would be bound to lose them the odd caribou or two.

Mysteries like dogs’ sneezes make life worth living.

Strong and stable Wed, 21 Jun 2017 23:11:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís swallows wasp. With a mentally ill narcicist in the White House, and a politically moribund, morally bankrupt Brexit appeaser in Number 10, where on Earth is one to turn for strong, stable leadership?

Oh, hang on a second…

BBC: Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís swallows wasp

Gets my vote.

Orion’s belt-buckle Tue, 20 Jun 2017 11:45:29 +0100 Richard Carter ( In celebration of my adopted star.
In celebration of my adopted star.

Article source:

When I was about fourteen, I decided to adopt a star. I was standing on my parents’ patio on a glorious chilly evening. The stars were out in relative abundance for the suburbs. I thought I should pick a star so, wherever I saw it in future, I would be able to relate to it; to imagine it twinkling above my home.

I knew how to find the North Star, but that seemed too obvious a choice, so I sought out the short line of three evenly spaced stars I’d noticed many times before. I found them to the south-west, hanging in the darkness above the garage, and, reckoning it would be the easiest to remember, chose the middle star to be my star. I didn’t know at the time that the three stars in question comprised Orion’s Belt; and I’ve only just found out from Wikipedia that my star goes by the Arabic-derived name Alnilam, meaning string of pearls. Alnilam, it turns out, is a blue-white supergiant: the 29th brightest star in the night sky. Not bad for a humble belt-buckle.

The constellation of Orion photographed from Anglesey. Alnilam is shown dead centre.

Although the stars of Orion’s Belt look to be in a straight line, that’s only because we see them from our particular vantage point in the galaxy. In reality, Alnilam is roughly half as far away again from us as its two apparent companions, Alnitak and Mintaka: very roughly 1,340 light-years to their 800.

Just think about that for a second. In fact, actually count out one second. Go on, I mean it, I’ll wait…

In the time it takes to count a second, a beam of starlight travels 300,000 kilometres through space (that’s 186,000 miles in old money). That’s slightly farther than the most reliable car I ever owned travelled during its entire lifetime. Or, to put it another way, if you could somehow steer its course, a beam of light could travel around the earth seven-and-a-half times per second. Yet the light of Alnilam, striking our retinas when we happen to glance up at it on a chill winter evening, left that star shortly after the Romans abandoned Britain, several hundred years before the Norman Conquest, in an era we are no longer supposed to refer to as the Dark Ages. How unimaginably vast is our Milky Way Galaxy? Yet it is only one of an estimated two-trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion. That’s a two followed by twelve zeros: 2,000,000,000,000. How unimaginably insignificant are we in the vast non-scheme of things?


With hindsight, I suppose I could have chosen my star more carefully: the constellation of Orion isn’t visible from the UK for three months of the year, from May to July. It’s still up there, of course, but at that time of year Orion rises and sets during the hours of daylight, so is banished from our skies by the brightness of the sun.

But Orion’s absence during the northern hemisphere’s summer months makes its reappearance in our night skies in late summer and early autumn a cause for celebration. Indeed, for many years, I’ve marked my ‘official’ start of autumn by the first pre-dawn sighting of Orion over the gate at the end of our driveway. There he stands, just like last year, facing west, club raised aloft: just as he will have stood, long before the story of Orion the hunter was invented, as the Bronze Age inhabitants of the Moor above my house gazed out on the same pre-dawn sky; just as he stood almost four decades ago, that starlit evening above my parents’ garage; just as he will stand, for many years to come, when I am long gone.

Yet perhaps I shouldn’t be so sanguine about Orion’s endurance. Like everything else, the configuration of the night sky evolves with time. Constellations change shape; new stars are born; old ones die. Ultimately—very soon by astronomical timescales—my adopted star, Alnilam, is likely to go out in a blaze of glory: a massive supernova. Indeed, perhaps it already has. With the speed of light as the limiting factor for spreading news throughout the universe, Alnilam might have exploded a thousand years ago, and we still wouldn’t know a thing about it for another 300 years or so.

So maybe I should enjoy Alnilam’s pin-prick of Dark Age light in the night sky while I still can.

That’s certainly my intention.

Cunning linguistics Mon, 19 Jun 2017 11:08:29 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) A conversation with Jen about dwarfs. From a conversation with Jen this morning:

R: Did you know the correct English plural for the word dwarf is dwarfs with an F?
J: Not …V-E-S, then?
R: No—although, when he was writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, as an expert in linguistics, decided the word would be far more common in Middle Earth, so would have been corrupted through everyday usage. So he made a point of spelling the plural …V-E-S.
J: I dare say, after working that out, writing the rest of the book will have been a cinch.

Somebody buy the BBC a thesaurus Thu, 01 Jun 2017 12:50:03 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) The BBC struggles to describe the late General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

BBC (30-May-2017): Manuel Noriega, Panama ex-strongman, dies at 83

General Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former military leader of Panama, has died aged 83, officials have announced.

…Although he was never elected to office, Noriega became the de facto leader of Panama, serving a six-year tenure as military governor in the 1980s.

…But the US tired of his increasingly repressive role internally in Panama, and there were indications he was selling his services to other intelligence bodies, not to mention drug-trafficking organisations.

I'm pretty sure the word so steadfastly failing to trip off the BBC's tongue is ‘dictator’.

Newsletter No. 6: A borrowed dog Sun, 28 May 2017 14:15:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) woodpeckers · ambrotype portraits · W.G. Sebald · a deserted hamlet · mission creep · prime meridians · W.H. Hudson · podcasts · street photography · bonkers · tapirs · coiners Rich Text

28 MAY 2017


I’m looking after a friend’s dog for a couple of months, and am sending my friend daily photo updates to show that Millie is having a good time. Which means my Instagram and Flickr feeds have a decidedly canine feel to them at the moment.


One of the advantages of suddenly finding yourself with responsibility for a borrowed dog is that you’re forced to get off your fat arse at least once a day and go for a walk. The other day, I took Millie to see the bluebells at Hardcastle Crags, a local beauty spot. At the end of the walk, we were thrilled to see a pair of great spotted woodpeckers making several visits to their nest-hole to feed some extremely noisy chicks.

Great spotted woodpecker

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

This time, my recommendations number the same as the Muses of classical antiquity:

  1. Photographer Giles Clement’s stunning 16x20” glass ambrotype portraits made using a home-built camera and a lens from a First World War spy Zeppelin. (Link via: Bored panda.)
  2. An interview with W.G. Sebald from 1997, four years before his untimely death. I’m a huge Sebald fan, filing his books under uncategorisable, or, equally unhelpfully, Sebaldian.
  3. Photographer Stuart Petch’s notes and photos from Thorns, a deserted hamlet in upper Ribblesdale.
  4. My friend Thony Christie’s thoughts on historians’ tendency towards mission creep, leading into a review of a new book about prime meridians. (Thony fact-checked a chapter about the history of triangulation in my own forthcoming book, On the Moor. Any remaining errors are, therefore, entirely his fault.)
  5. The naturalist W.H. Hudson also features briefly in On the Moor, but, until I came across this Smithsonian Magazine article, I had no idea how influential he was.
  6. I’m addicted to podcasts. If you’ve ever wondered what the hell you’re missing, you could do far worse that listen to episode 51 of ‘Reconcilable Differences’, in which John Siracusa and Merlin Mann, two men of a certain age, fret about random stuff. Very funny.
  7. (Video) Photographer Craig Roberts visits London’s Brick Lane and Columbia Road Flower Market, showing how street photography is done.
  8. In what is perhaps a sign of the times, America finally seems to be catching on to one of my favourite British words: ‘bonkers’.
  9. To mark World Tapir Day (no, it really is a thing), my online pal Dave Whiteland released a charming, online, interactive story, Dwindle: a tapir’s tale.

Shameless plugs

Earlier this month, I was invited to the Hebden Bridge launch of Benjamin Myers’ fantastic new novel, The Gallows Pole. It’s based on the true story of the local Cragg Vale Coiners. Eighteenth-century Yorkshire meets The Sopranos: you should read it. Check out my review.

I recently joined GoodReads, a social network for book lovers. If you’re also a member, you might want to follow me via my GoodReads profile page.

Well, that dog’s not going to walk herself…

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, suggesting in no uncertain terms that your life would be made a whole lot simpler if they were to subscribe for themselves.

Book review: ‘The Gallows Pole’ by Benjamin Myers Mon, 22 May 2017 12:49:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 18th-century Yorkshire meets the Sopranos: intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge in the Calder Valley. The Gallows PoleDespite my reading almost no fiction these days, there was a pretty good chance I was going to enjoy Benjamin Myers’ novel based on the true story of a notorious gang of 18th-century money counterfeiters: one of my study windows looks out across the upper Calder Valley towards Cragg Vale, where much of this novel is set; the other looks across Hebden Valley to Heptonstall Church, where the novel’s protagonist is buried.

The Gallows Pole tells the story of the Cragg Vale Coiners, an organised gang of criminals based in and around the upper Calder Valley, in what was then a remote part of England where the law held little sway. The novel is set against the backdrop of imminent industrialisation, with the threatened arrival of mills, the Rochdale Canal, and the detested turnpike (still known as ‘New Road’ where it passes through nearby Hebden Bridge).

Locally, the coiners still have something of a reputation as a band of merrie men whose debasement of the king’s coin helped feed the poor. In reality, their leader, the self-styled ‘King’ David Hartley, was far less Robin Hood than Tony Soprano: the Cragg Vale Coiners were a bunch of lawless, murderous thugs, with, as events were to prove, little to be said for them in terms of group loyalty.

All great anti-heroes require a would-be nemesis. In Hartley’s case, this came in the form of William Deighton, an excise officer charged with putting an end to the counterfeiting operation. What follows is a story of intrigue, betrayal, murder, and revenge.

The Gallows Pole is written in two narrative voices, both of which work remarkably well. The main story is written in third-person standard English with a few stylish twists to lend period authenticity. Direct speech is incorporated into the text without quotation marks, and people are always referred to by their full names, both of which devices just seem right somehow. When the coiners are gathered, the formal listing of those present, as if for the minutes, gives an appropriate Uncle Tom Cobley and all period feel.

The second narrator’s voice is that of David Hartley himself. These very short, italicised diary extracts, interspersed throughout the main narrative, are written without punctuation and are littered with contemporary slang and phonetic spellings. Usually, this sort of device annoys the hell out of me, but it works brilliantly in The Gallows Pole. If King David Hartley really had kept a diary—and don’t we all wish he had?—it surely would have read like this. Myers must have had immense fun (and given himself some severe headaches) capturing Hartley’s ‘authentic’ voice. Here is a typical example, imparting some useful advice on man-management:

Now lissen now for I tell you sum thin importent sum thin secret now When a dug misbyhayves you ponk that dug on its neb and when it misby hayves again you rub its phyz in scat and if still that dug misbyhayves a third tyme then you are doon sum thin rong so then you beet it until sum thin goes in its ays like the last ember of a dyin fyre and the spirit of the creechure will be yors and then yool have no trubble from that dug and that dug will give his lyf for you and now it nose its playce that yule have mayde for it And it will feer you an love you an protec you An that is how you run a ragged crew of desprit men That is how you run a gang that sum corl the Turvin Clippers and that uthers corl the Cragg Vayle Coiners.

Finally, I should say a word about Myers’ descriptions of the local landscape. It’s an area I know and love very much indeed—as, judging from his evocative descriptions, does Myers. I tend to be parochial in the extreme in my local walks. Reading The Gallows Pole made me want to begin roaming farther afield, exploring the upper Calder Valley in more depth, maybe even wandering into the godforsaken craggy vale that was once the haunt of a ragged crew of desprit men.

Disclosure: At the time of writing this review, I have met local author Ben Myers on two occasions. We now follow each other on various social media.

Millie Sat, 06 May 2017 09:02:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) A video of Stense's dog going walkies. Jen and I are looking after Stense's dog, Millie, for a couple of months. She's been with us for a week so far, and I've been sending Stense daily photos of her pooch to reassure her that I haven't been doing anything characteristically irresponsible, such as feeding Millie the rest of Daisy-May.

Anyway, yesterday I decided to send Stense a video update, to show her how Millie's getting on. And as a new video constitutes new content, I thought maybe I should post it here too:

Wearenotamused Fri, 05 May 2017 09:11:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) I woke up this morning to find one of Carolyn's random text-message queries awaiting me. I woke up this morning to find one of Carolyn's random text-message queries awaiting me:

C: What is the plural of Hippopotamus?
R: Hippopotwomuses.
C: With a w?
R: It was a joke… Plural: HippopoTWOmuses!
C: That's a very early in the morning joke!

Rare treat Sun, 30 Apr 2017 14:20:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Just about the only benefit of spending hundreds of hours chasing your farmer friend's cattle across field and moor is that, every once in a while, you get to eat your arch-nemesis. Just about the only benefit (other than the highly dubious one of ‘getting some exercise’) of spending hundreds of hours chasing your farmer friend's cattle across field and moor is that, every once in a while, you get to eat your arch-nemesis:


Two sirloin steaks formerly known as ‘Daisy-May’ yesterday.

Daisy-May had it coming, believe me.

Best steaks we ever ate. (And I'm not just saying that.)

Newsletter No. 5: Incongruous owl Tue, 25 Apr 2017 13:24:16 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) dawn chorus · Simon Armitage · the invention of the telescope · huge, sprawling collaborations · Withnail & I · book smells · re-assembling Darwin’s research notes · converting walks into words · Daniel Dennett · writing letters · humanist politics · dentistry with stone tools · analysing penguin poo · Melissa Harrison · Robert Macfarlane · swallows Rich Text

25 APRIL 2017


As always round our way, the dawn chorus last Monday was initiated by a blackbird: half-hearted melodic chortles at first, but quickly growing in confidence. Then came the robin, great tits, blue tits, and wood pigeon, followed by a wren’s sonic fusillade, the underrated twittering of a dunnock, and the monotonous U-NI-TED! U-NI-TED! soccer-chant of a collared dove (he must have travelled up from London for the match). In the space of 15 minutes, the chorus had grown to a full-blown oratorio. But then came something I’d never heard in a dawn chorus before: the incongruous kee-wick of a tawny owl calling from our Scots pine. It was good to hear old brown owl contributing to the jocund din.

Early Spring has also seen a pair of rabbits take up residence in the garden, and a roe deer make a rare early morning visit to the field in front of the house. But still we anxiously await the swallows. Twitter contacts have begun to report their arrivals far and wide. And a friend in Perthshire positively squeeeeed in delight as the first swallows returned to her neighbourhood while we were talking on the phone last Saturday. But still no swallows in the West Yorkshire Pennines. They always seem to arrive later here than elsewhere. Perhaps they don’t relish the climb. But it surely can’t be very much longer…

Sunny bunny
A sunny bunny waiting for some swallows recently.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

Like protons in the nucleus of a silicon atom, this newsletter’s recommendations number 14:

  1. Simon Armitage: ‘Language is my enemy—I spend my life battling with it’
    Poet Simon Armitage on his love-hate relationship with writing.
  2. How many great minds does it take to invent a telescope?
    My friend and history-of-science curmudgeon Thony Christie on how, as so often happens in science and technology, many different people contributed to the invention of the telescope.
  3. …and it’s not just in science and technology. In this uplifting video, which employs the surprising analogy of the world’s biggest ball of paint, John Green discusses how art and writing and most other human endeavours are best imagined as huge, sprawling collaborations.
  4. Withnail and I: 30 years on, it’s the perfect film for Brexit Britain
    Ben Myers on Withnail & I: a film set in the Sixties, made in the Eighties and claimed by the Nineties, but which, 30 years on, is a film for our times.
  5. Can you judge a book by its odour?
    How distinctive book smells say something about how and when a book was made, and where it has been.
  6. How Darwin Evolved: 25,540 Paper Fragments Tell the Story
    On how computer experts are re-assembling Darwin’s research notes.
  7. Putting walks into words
    Author Linda Cracknell on converting walks into words: a subject very close to my heart. [See also my review of Cracknell’s Doubling Back.]
  8. Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul
    I have owned two of Daniel Dennett’s books for many years, but never managed to get into them. This fascinating profile of the philosopher made me think I should give his writing another chance. He sounds like a thoroughly good egg.
  9. Should you feel sad about the demise of the handwritten letter? asks Siobhan Phillips… As someone who has been writing letters to the same friend on a regular basis for over 26 years, originally as word-processed printouts, nowadays as emails, my response has to be an unqualified ‘Not necessarily!’
  10. A politics of humanism can help build a just, free and more equal world
    Disillusioned with all political parties following the EU Referendum, I decided to take some positive action by (finally) joining the British Humanist Association, which campaigns politely and positively on matters that seem important to me. This article explains how more humanist politics could make the world a better place.
  11. Oldest tooth filling was made by an Ice Age dentist in Italy
    Dentistry with stone tools, I kid you not.
  12. A Tale of Cataclysm, Written in Penguin Guano
    What analysing penguin poo can tell us about historical penguin populations.
  13. On Aston’s Eyot
    A moving piece by Melissa Harrison about returning to her native Oxford to finish writing a novel. [See also my review of Harrison’s At Hawthorn Time.]
  14. Violent spring: The nature book that predicted the future
    Robert Macfarlane remembers JA Baker’s The Peregrine 50 years after its publication.

Shameless plugs

A few days ago, I published an article whose third draft had been languishing on my hard drive for several months. I had dithered about publishing it because I thought others might not recognise the wonderful sensation I was trying to describe, for which, as the article explains, the word ‘spiritual’ won’t do.

I finally decided to publish my article having read Annie Dillard’s wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which contained a short passage that made me realise I might not be alone in experiencing these sensations. You can read my review of her fantastic, Pulitzer-Prize-winning book here.

Since the last newsletter, I have also reviewed the Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, and Built on Bones by Brenna Hassett, which describes what archaeology can tell us about how human bodies were affected by our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies.


…A SWALLOW, just now, gliding in the stiff northerly above the field behind our house!

The swallows are back!

‘Spiritual’ won’t do Sun, 23 Apr 2017 19:01:42 +0100 Richard Carter ( In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.
In which I seek a better word to describe a profoundly uplifting sensation.

Article source:

There’s this wonderful sensation I get from time to time. I’m hoping you do too, otherwise I’m going to sound like a total weirdo as I try to describe it.

I’m usually outdoors when it happens, often at some place that means a lot to me: approaching the trig point on the Moor above my home, for example; or gazing out to sea from my favourite headland. It also happened, totally unexpectedly, the first time I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David in Florence, and when I first heard a full-blown orchestra playing live.

But it can happen in the most mundane situations too, such as at our compost heap after dark. I’ll be standing there, holding my small bucket of potato peelings, looking out at the lights across the valley, when, without warning, some sort of switch gets flipped and everything goes into ultra-high-definition. My senses seem magnified somehow. I suddenly become far more aware of the world around me: of the lonesome dog-barks echoing in the distance; of the vastness of the sky, and of the darkness between the stars; and of the cold air sending goose-pimples erupting along my forearms. It’s very much like that feeling you get when you come out of the cinema, back into the light and noise of the real world, and everything feels so utterly, well, real.

I’ve mentioned these experiences to friends. They claim to know exactly what I’m on about. They say they have them too. But they then almost inevitably go on to use the word ‘spiritual’. Which makes me wonder whether we’re talking about the same thing at all. The word ‘spiritual’ is precisely the wrong word, you see. No, that’s not it at all.

It’s not just the word’s religious connotations. As a devout atheist, I take great exception to such profound and uplifting experiences being hijacked in the name of religion. But that’s not my real problem with the word. ‘Spiritual’ is derived from the Latin ‘spirare’, meaning to breathe. In this respect, it’s entirely appropriate: the sensations I’ve tried to describe are breathtaking. The same Latin root also gives us the word ‘inspirational’. Perfect. But the word ‘spiritual’, to me at least, clearly implies the non-physical. Which is where it totally misses the point.

The thing is, you couldn’t get more physical than these sensations I’m trying to describe. When I reach the trig point on top of the Moor, and the whole hi-def thing kicks in, I suddenly become hyper-conscious of the material nature of my existence. This is not the Matrix. This is no dream. I am here. This is now. The air filling my lungs is cool. It is made of molecules. So am I. So is everything else. There is rock beneath the heather. I can taste the sea on the wind. All this stuff is real: water and rock; flesh and bone; physics and chemistry. Real is all there is. It’s us and the universe, my friend. Accept no alternatives.

Trig point
Trig Point S4643, on the Moor.

I’ve struggled to come up with a more appropriate adjective than ‘spiritual’ to describe episodes like these. The trouble is, the religiously inclined and the new-agers have already (mis)appropriated all the best ones: ‘enlightening’, ‘illuminating’, ‘uplifting’. For a while, I quite liked the word ‘lucid’, until it occurred to me that the same word is also used to describe dreams, which again misses the point entirely.

What I’m trying to describe is the sensory equivalent of an adrenaline rush. Something that jolts you out of yourself into the physical universe. A reality rush, if you will.

Do you know what the hell I’m on about? Can you think of a better term than ‘spiritual’ to describe these experiences? One which can’t possibly be misconstrued as endorsing any sort of belief in the non-physical or the supernatural? One which embraces the physical reality of such astonishing sensations?

Or is it just me being a total weirdo after all?

First in line Sat, 22 Apr 2017 00:43:32 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Trump puts EU ahead of Britain total non-shock! Compare and contrast:

Telegraph (09-Jan-2017): Boris Johnson says Britain will be first in line for US trade deal after meeting with Donald Trump's team and Paul Ryan
Britain is "first in line" for a trade deal with the US, Boris Johnson has said after talks with Donald Trump's senior advisers.

The closeness of the relationship between the UK and US will not change once the president-elect takes office, the Foreign Secretary insisted.

Times Trump puts EU ahead

Why, it's almost as if Brexit liar Boris Johnson either hasn't a clue what he's talking about, or is, well, a liar.

Or possibly both.


Boris Johnson recently.

Paintstaking Fri, 14 Apr 2017 10:31:49 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) Paint frivolity. Apologies for the dearth of updates recently, but I have been spending what seems like the last 14 years redecorating our guest bedroom.

I'll spare you the details, but one of the (many, many) reasons this job has taken so long is that we rather stupidly chose to paint the walls a totally different colour from the ceiling, skirting-boards, window-frame, and doors. Which means there have been an awful lot of straight lines that needed painting by hand, for which I have had to resort to a minuscule ½-inch, flat-ended Rowney art-brush:

Paint and brush

Yesterday, I was perched on top of a ladder, painstakingly edging the window-frame when the doorbell rang. It was Derek the plumber, who had come to re-plumb our downstairs loo.

“Doing a spot of painting, Richard?”
“I'm re-decorating the guest room. It's taken bloody months.”
“I'm not bloody surprised, with that brush!”

Book review: ‘Built on Bones’ by Brenna Hassett Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:35:06 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 15,000 years of urban life and death. Built on BonesBuilt on Bones explores how archaeologists interpret dental and skeletal remains. In particular, it examines what we can infer from changes in humans’ bodies associated with our move from hunter-gatherer groups to agricultural and, later, urban societies. Or, as Brenna Hassett puts it: ‘This book is about human adaptation in the face of human invention.’

It’s a fascinating subject for a book, and bioarchaeologist Hassett is well qualified to write about it. The book contained some, to me, surprising revelations. For example, throughout the world, the adoption of agriculture seemed to go hand-in-hand with a decrease in physical stature. This could indicate that agricultural diets were not as nutritious as hunter-gatherer diets—although Hassett is quick to pour scorn on the current fad for so-called ‘palaeo’ diets.

Hassett explains how our move to urban lifestyle, while conveying certain benefits, also seems to have had numerous drawbacks—especially for those lower down the pecking order. She includes several chapters on how urban living led to new forms of violence, and encouraged different types of disease. All of which sounds rather gloomy—which perhaps explains Hassett’s liberal use of (a few too many) footnote-based jokes.

Built on Bones covers a surprisingly interesting subject in an entertaining manner. If I have one criticism it is that, in the early chapters in particular, Hassett often writes extremely long, heavily nested sentences. So much so that, on a number of occasions, I finally reached the end of a sentence only to discover I had entirely forgotten what it had been about. It’s a flaw I have tried to overcome, with limited success, in my own writing. (Handy hint: Try reading your sentences out loud. If you begin to asphyxiate before the end, they’re almost certainly too long.)

Occasional epic sentences aside, an entertaining read.

Book review: ‘Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ by Annie Dillard Wed, 05 Apr 2017 08:56:58 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Pulitzer-Prize-winning ruminations on the natural world. Pilgrim at Tinker CreekI put off reading the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for longer than I should. I’d gathered it was a rather spiritual book, and I seldom enjoy such writing. But my misapprehensions were misplaced: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is an absolute delight.

Annie Dillard muses about our relationship with the natural world, and how the natural world came about. Yes, there is plenty of spiritual stuff in there that I don’t agree with, but it is written in such a way that you’re never entirely sure where Dillard herself stands on the subject—if, indeed, she has come to any conclusion. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is very much a thinking-aloud book: Dillard is writing this stuff to try to get her head around it. Which is one of the best reasons anyone can have for writing anything.

Dillard is also extremely good at writing succinctly from what I would describe as a more scientific viewpoint. A handful of gems that stood out:

  • [Re. the old chestnut about a tree falling in the forest] …beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them. The least we can try to do is be there.
  • More than one insect […] is an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.
  • Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once. This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If you’re dealing with organic compounds, then let them combine. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass; there’s always room for one more; you ain’t so handsome yourself. This is a spendthrift economy; though nothing is lost, all is spent.
  • That insects have adapted is obvious. Their failures to adapt, however, are dazzling. It is hard to believe that nature is partial to such dim-wittedness.
  • That there are so many details seems to be the most important and visible fact about creation. If you can’t see the forest for the trees, then look at the trees; when you’ve looked at enough trees, you’ve seen a forest, you’ve got it.
  • Evolution, of course, is the vehicle of intricacy. The stability of simple forms is the sturdy base from which more complex stable forms might arise, forming in turn more complex forms, and so on.
  • Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me.
  • We have not yet encountered and god who is as merciful as a man who flicks a beetle over on its feet.

At one point in the book, Dillard recounts sitting outside a remote petrol station sipping coffee while patting a puppy. She describes the sudden sensation of being in the present. This section resonated immensely with me: it’s a wonderful sensation I’ve experienced many times myself, totally out of the blue. I even have an unpublished article about the phenomenon, which has been sitting in my drafts folder for a couple of years while I wondered what on earth to do with it. I was worried nobody would have a clue what the hell I was one about. But Annie Dillard, for one, clearly would, so perhaps there might be others. Maybe I should get the damn article out there once and for all.

A brilliant book. Highly recommended.

Book review: ‘Selected Letters of Philip Larkin’ (Anthony Thwaite, ed.) Wed, 05 Apr 2017 08:53:01 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Hugely entertaining correspondence from one of Britain’s most popular poets. Selected Letters of Philip LarkinReading other people’s letters is one of my guilty pleasures. I first read this selection of Philip Larkin’s letters in 1993, writing to a friend shortly after I’d begun: ‘So far, the guy seems a bit of a prat.’ But I ended up enjoying the book immensely, Larkin’s prattish moments notwithstanding.

Be warned, there is plenty of misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Toryism and jazz in these letters, but there are also plenty of affectionate letters. And there are also many humorous moments. Like this, in which the young Larkin describes beginning work as a librarian in Shropshire

The library is a very small one, I am entirely unassisted in my labours, and spend most of my time handing out tripey novels to morons.

Or this, in which he describes a neighbour playing atonal classical music:

[It s]ounded like a ferry boat trying to get out of a piano factory…

Or this, on the poetry of a future Poet Laureate:

At Ilkley literature festival a woman shrieked and vomited during a Ted Hughes reading. I must say I’ve never felt like shrieking.

The misogyny, racism and xenophobia make uncomfortable reading, and damaged Larkin’s posthumous reputation. The fact that the letters containing them were limited to a relatively small number of recipients made me suspect there was more than an element of puerile, exaggerated, politically incorrect in-joking with ‘the lads’. But I also strongly suspect that Larkin’s misogyny, racism and xenophobia, while not being as extreme as they might sound on a literal reading of these letters, were genuine enough.

Misgivings aside, well worth a second reading. Recommended.

Undermining religious tradition: a time-honoured religious tradition Tue, 04 Apr 2017 12:11:39 +0100 Richard Carter ( Religious tradition has been being ‘undermined’ in Britain since recorded history began—most of the time by people of a distinctly religious persuasion.
Religious tradition has been being ‘undermined’ in Britain since recorded history began—most of the time by people of a distinctly religious persuasion.

Article source:

Hardly a silly season seems to go by without someone—they’re usually from the Church of England—moaning about how those intolerant secularists seem hell-bent on undermining time-honoured British religious tradition. By which, they usually mean time-honoured English religious tradition.

The latest manufactured moral outrage came courtesy of the Archbishop of York, whose bandwagon was soon jumped on by none other than the Prime Minister. The cause of their holy indignation? Cadbury and the National Trust have had the temerity to advertise Egg Hunts, rather than Easter Egg Hunts. Well, there go hundreds of years of Christian-appropriated pagan religious tradition down the plughole!

Playing the ‘tradition’ card smacks of desperation. The circular argument is that we should carry on doing things the way we’ve always done them because we’ve always done things that way. It’s hardly the most compelling of arguments. Imagine if the Druids had used it when the Romans arrived: “We should carry on daubing ourselves in woad, worshipping trees, and sacrificing the odd virgin because we’ve always daubed ourselves in woad, worshipped trees, and sacrificed the odd virgin.” Or if the Romans had used it when Christianity arrived: “I don’t like the sound of this new-fangled ‘Jehovah’; Jupiter has far more charisma.” Or if the Anglo-Saxons had used it when the first Roman and Celtic Christian missionaries landed: “You can’t get rid of Tiw, Woden, Thunor and Frigg—over half the bloody week’s named after them!”

The fact is, religious tradition has been being ‘undermined’ in Britain since recorded history began—most of the time by people of a distinctly religious persuasion. Indeed, you could argue that undermining time-honoured British religious tradition is something of a time-honoured British religious tradition. In general (albeit in somewhat biased hindsight), it has usually been seen as a good thing.

If we had never undermined time-honoured British religious tradition, this island would presumably still be pagan, or worshipping at the cult of the Roman emperor, or Catholic (the same thing, in some people’s eyes). If time-honoured British religious tradition had prevailed, there would be no Church of England, no Methodists, no Quakers, no British Muslims, Sikhs or Hindus, no re-imagined Druids, and no self-styled Wiccans. If we had stuck with time-honoured British religious tradition, sermons would still be in Latin, we would all be heading off on crusades, and kids would be getting married at 14.

We cringe in hindsight—or, at least, I hope we all do—at many of the religious rules, ideas and practices which were once seen as sacrosanct, but are now seen as abominations. We live in a modern world: of course we don’t want to go back to witch-burnings, the ‘evil-spirit’ theory of disease, and the Genesis account of creation. I appreciate I’m setting up a staw-man here: to most modern British religious adherents, the very suggestion is ridiculous. Yet such nonsense was once part of our proud, time-honoured religious tradition.

As you will probably have gathered, I’m not a religious person. But I have some well-meant advice for those of you who are, and who like to play the ‘tradition’ card. It’s time to move on. Stop blaming the secularists; you are your own faith’s worst enemy. Every time you play the tradition card, your religion becomes less and less relevant. Female bishops, gay marriages, practising gay priests, Easter-free Easter eggs: get over them—it’s the 21st Century! In a couple of years, everyone will wonder what the hell all the fuss was about. Most of us already do.

And as for all you more modern, forward-thinking, right-on, non-traditionalist people of a religious persuasion, if you think your faith should still be officially defended by the monarch, that it should still receive preferential treatment from the state, and that kids should still be indoctrinated in it at school rather than in a place of worship, you are also part of the problem. Shouldn’t your religion be strong enough to stand on its own two feet, without fear or favouritism?

Or don’t you think it is?

Fucking imbeciles Wed, 29 Mar 2017 10:45:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) May signs letter that will trigger Brexit.

BBC: Article 50: May signs letter that will trigger BrexitThe letter will be delivered to the EU on Wednesday, marking formal notice of the UK's exit.

Urgent consignment Sun, 26 Mar 2017 09:41:52 +0100 Richard Carter (Gruts) When you've lived in Hebden Bridge for as long as I have, you become accustomed to seeing peculiar things. But, on occasion, you can still be taken by surprise. When you've lived in Hebden Bridge for as long as I have, you become accustomed to seeing peculiar things. But, on occasion, you can still be taken by surprise.

I was taking the high, narrow back-road from Halifax on Friday morning, and pulled over to let a car coming the other way pass by. As the car approached, I was somewhat astonished to see it was being driven by a clown. I'm not talking metaphorically. I don't mean the other driver was acting like a clown; I mean the other driver actually was a clown: white face-paint, red nose, sad mouth, unlikely dress-sense, the whole Grimaldi. I think she might have been a clown-woman, but I'm not entirely sure: sexing clowns is notoriously problematical.

This unlikely brief encounter has preyed on my mind ever since. What on earth would a clown be doing taking the high-road to Halifax early on a Friday morning? I have thought about it long and hard—far longer and harder than I should, in fact—and have come to the conclusion that she—if, indeed, she was a she—must have had an urgent consignment of buckets of water to deliver.

I'm not entirely convinced she was a genuine clown, however, as her car remained resolutely in one piece as it squeezed past and headed off towards Midgley.

Utopia To Let Sat, 25 Mar 2017 12:08:35 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) …in Stratford Precinct. Utopia To Let

Newsletter No. 4: Paint to pufferfish Fri, 24 Mar 2017 13:39:10 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Robert Macfarlane · Hilary Mantel · Martha Sprackland · Viking wool · Charles Darwin's reading habits · human evolution · praying to Elrond · drawing · making ink · Rebecca Solnit · insectivorous plants · do pufferfish hold their breath? Rich Text

24 MARCH 2017


I think it was Tennyson who observed that in the Spring a middle-aged man’s fancy rashly turns to thoughts of decorating. Or something like that. Which might explain why the last month or so has been spent not so much getting stuff out there, as scraping stuff off there, and daubing paint up there.

Sistine Chapel
Yours truly applying a few finishing touches to the guest room ceiling.

Spring has finally sprung, here in the West Yorkshire Pennines: the garden daffs are out; lapwings are tumbling and whooping above the fields once more; and the fake curlew-calls of a talented local starling have been replaced by the Real McCoy. I’m already starting to get jittery about seeing my first wheatears and swallows of the year.

Since the previous newsletter went out, I exhibited some of my local bridges photos at a Caught by the River event in Hebden Bridge. Afterwards, I wrote a few thoughts about the experience.


Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Is Travel Writing Dead? asks Robert Macfarlane.
  2. Hilary Mantel reviews a new biography about a woman I’d never heard of: the Tudor countess Margaret Pole. Sounds like quite a character.
  3. I had a quick chat with Caught by the River Poet in Residence Martha Sprackland at the Hebden Bridge event. One of her poems that I particularly enjoyed was called Snail.
  4. Claire Eamer investigates the importance of Viking wool.
  5. Christian Jarrett has been researching my hero Charles Darwin’s reading habits.
  6. Palaeoanthropologist John Hawks describes the vast amount of evidence we now have of human evolution.
  7. A Brazilian grandmother has been praying to Elrond from The Lord of the Rings, having mistaken a figurine of the pointy-eared, half-elf for St Anthony. It could happen to anyone.
  8. Every year, I half-heartedly resolve to take up drawing. I’m pretty hopeless at it, but it strikes me as an excellent way to learn to observe more closely. Perhaps this year. Ben Brignell seems to have the right idea: he has been falling back in love with sketching.
  9. Talking of drawing, Amy L. Tigner has been having a go at making ink.
  10. Keziah Weir has written an interesting profile of American writer, feminist, and activist Rebecca Solnit.
  11. Scientists have shown that distantly related insectivorous plants have independently evolved the same solution for digesting their prey.
  12. My friend GrrlScientist describes a study to resolve a question most of us would never have even thought to ask: do pufferfish hold their breath when inflated?

Shameless plugs

Some stuff I managed to get out there since my last newsletter (during the rare moments I wasn’t stuck up a stepladder, that is):

From paint to pufferfish: name a more eclectic newsletter, I challenge you!

Feel free to contact me with any feedback. And please forward this newsletter to any friends you think might enjoy it, urging them to subscribe, if for no better reason than it will make me happy.

Right, that’s quite enough of this malarkey. Those walls aren’t going to paint themselves.

Temporary apologies Wed, 22 Mar 2017 19:15:02 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Sign spotted at motorway services. Spotted at a motorway service station this morning:

…at least they spelt the word their correctly.

Book review: ‘Man of Iron’ by Julian Glover Mon, 06 Mar 2017 12:01:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Thomas Telford and the Building of Britain. Man of IronAs someone who has taken holidays on the Isle of Anglesey since (literally) before I was born, I’ve long had a soft-spot for the legendary engineer Thomas Telford. Whether we headed to Anglesey along the coast, or took the longer, more spectacular route through Snowdonia, we were travelling on Telford’s roads. Either way, the much-anticipated, are-we-nearly-there-yet? highlight of the journey was always Telford’s magnificent suspension bridge across the Menai Straits.

Julian Glover’s excellent biography of the ‘Colossus of Roads’ is careful to put Telford’s achievements in perspective. Yes, he was a talented workaholic who oversaw the design and creation of a huge number of edifices, but most of the day-to-day management of ‘his’ construction projects was carried out by talented engineers appointed by Telford. Telford could not have achieved what he did, had he been directly responsible for the detailed management of every project. If anything, to use modern parlance, Telford was a gifted Programme Manager who monitored and steered the work of others.

The sheer number of Telford’s architectural and engineering projects, many of them running in parallel, presents the biographer with a challenge. To keep the biography strictly chronological is to risk confusing the reader by continuously flitting back and forth between projects. Glover sensibly keeps things simple by concentrating on individual projects, even when this means flitting back and forth chronologically. He does this by dedicating individual chapters to Telford’s major projects and programmes, such as his road-surveying and construction work in Scotland and Wales, his extensive British canal work (including the construction of the magnificent Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, and of the Caledonian Canal), and his trips to Sweden to advise on the construction of the Göta Canal.

Telford’s only shortcoming seems to have been, in later life, perhaps, not to give enough credit to the other engineers who collaborated with him on his major projects. Be that as it may, the Thomas Telford who emerges from this biography is an amiable, hard-working achiever whose legacy, through no fault of his own, was soon to be eclipsed by the advent of the railways.

Highly recommended.

Mum Mon, 06 Mar 2017 09:18:36 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Mum would have been 80. Mum would have been 80 today.

Mum and me

Lovely lady; very odd-looking kid. xx

He's a 60 year old man… Sun, 05 Mar 2017 08:47:11 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Happy 60th birthday, Mark E Smith. …and he likes it.

Happy 60th Birthday, Mark E Smith! What less appropriate way to mark(!) the occasion than with this masterpiece?

Book review: ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane Sat, 04 Mar 2017 15:12:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) How we humans shaped the landscape of Britain, from the Ice Age to the present. The Making of the British LandscapeThis book wasn’t what I expected. Not that that’s a bad thing.

From its title, I assumed The Making of the British Landscape was going to be all about geophysics, geology and physical geography: plate tectonics, mountain-building, fault lines, erosion, glaciation, cwms, clints, grykes, drumlins, escarpments, longshore-drift, all that malarkey we did in geography. While glaciation, in particular, features prominently in the early chapters, and the impact of climate-change is a recurring theme, this book is far more about how the land was altered over thousands of years by human beings: it’s about how we made the British landscape with our tree-felling, earthworks, religious observances, settlements, farming practices, industry, transport networks, and so on.

The former archaeologist in me was pleased to see Nicholas Crane dedicate around a third of this book to British prehistory. We tend to forget the majority of our island story occurred before the Roman Conquest—some of it, indeed, as Crane describes, before Britain was even an island. But we do, as you would expect, eventually get round to the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, and everyone else, bringing us right through to the current day. It is a magnificent and highly enjoyable read.

I did have a few minor quibbles with the book. In the introduction to his bibliography, Crane explains his decision to avoid disrupting the narrative with 2,721 footnotes. Although I understand why he did this, in the early chapters in particular, I was sometimes frustrated by not being sure which statements were generally agreed views, and which were Crane’s own conjectures. Either way, judging by the extensive bibliography, it is clear that Crane has done his homework.

In the same early chapters, Crane also occasionally adopts the device of not referring to prehistoric and early historic places by their modern names. Whether this is for dramatic effect, or to avoid anachronistic labels, I found it irritating: Where the hell is he actually talking about? I kept wondering. In most cases, I could guess an answer by consulting the bibliography—but I felt I shouldn’t have to guess.

Finally, as a proud inhabitant of the region, I was disappointed by the relatively small amount of space in this book dedicated to the North of England, compared with Scotland, Wales, and (in particular) the South of England. But this is a complaint I could (and do) make about many books.

But, minor quibbles aside, I thoroughly enjoyed this ambitious and entertaining book.


The Welsh side Fri, 03 Mar 2017 15:24:45 +0000 Richard Carter ( In all my years visiting the Dee Marshes, I had never looked across them from the Welsh side.
In all my years visiting the Dee Marshes, I had never looked across them from the Welsh side.

Article source:

I’ve been visiting the English side of the Dee Marshes for longer than I can remember. It’s what you do when you’re brought up on the Wirral Peninsula. Ice creams at Parkgate, gazing across the no-longer-there river towards Wales. A pint at the Harp in Neston, taking in the same view. Bird-spotting strolls along the edge of the marshes at Burton.

Even though I no longer live on the Wirral, I return there most weeks to visit my dad. When I do, I usually make time for a visit to the marshes: often for a stroll; sometimes simply to sit in the car and admire the view; occasionally (like I’m doing right now) to write.

Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. After so many years, the view across the Dee Marshes has become very dear to me: the backdrop of the Clwydian Hills, dominated by Moel Famau, the hill I’ve climbed every Christmas Eve for the last 29 years; Flint Castle, squatting low on the edge of the marshes beneath ugly blocks of flats; the retired British Rail ferry near Mostyn, which lived an unsuccessful second life as a ‘Fun Ship’; the distant vertical smudge of the lighthouse at Talacre near Point of Ayr way over to the far right.

Only recently did it occur to me that, in all my years visiting the Dee Marshes, I had never looked across them from the Welsh side, back towards my native Wirral. So, a couple of weeks ago, I made a detour over there to take some photographs:

Flint Castle

Although the approach by car was most inauspicious, Flint Castle turned out to be rather wonderful. Situated right on the edge of the marshes, the castle once used the River Dee as a moat. The oldest of Wales’s medieval castles, protecting a former causeway over the Dee, it was here in 1399 that Richard II was captured by Henry Bolingbroke. Henry subsequently deposed Richard to become Henry IV.

I couldn’t believe my luck to have the castle all to myself. The views across the marshes were misty and atmospheric. I could only just make out the Wirral on the far side.

Talacre Beach and Lighthouse

I came in search of the lighthouse, but was surprised to find a wonderful beach backed by extensive sand-dunes. How could I have lived so close, for so many years, without even knowing it was there?

The Fun Ship

The former Fun Ship (née Duke of Lancaster) has clearly seen better days, but makes quite an impression up close. It would be nice to see her put to some good use—assuming it’s appropriate to refer to a duke as ‘her’.

I very much enjoyed my brief excursion to the Welsh side of my beloved Dee Marshes. The weather wasn’t exactly fantastic, but what did I expect in the middle of February? That said, the overcast, misty views across the marshes from Flint Castle lent a satisfyingly desolate air.

I hope to return to the Welsh side later in the year, when the views are clearer, and when I might actually be able to see the Wirral.