Richard Carter's meta feed http://richardcarter.com A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from richardcarter.com en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-writing-to-learn-william-zinsser/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-writing-to-learn-william-zinsser/ Tue, 25 Jan 2022 15:06:02 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The best way to find out if you understand something is to write about it.

The best way to find out if you understand something is to write about it.

‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser

I came to this book having very much enjoyed the late William Zinsser‘s earlier book On Writing Well. He was preaching to the converted, as far as I was concerned: keep your writing simple, respect the intelligence of your readers, use short words and sentences, drop the adverbs, and so on. Obvious and easy enough in theory; difficult, of course; to pull off in practice.

Writing to Learn is an equally excellent book from this self-confessed ‘clarity nut’. It covers similar ground to On Writing Well, but comes with an interesting slant:

we write to find out what we know and what we want to say.

The book is packed full of sound advice on writing clearly about factual topics. In so doing, Zinsser explains, you help not only your readers, but also yourself understand complex issues and seemingly impenetrable subjects. Trying to write clearly on such topics also gives you insights into what you really think about them:

Reduce your discipline—whatever it is—to a logical sequence of clearly thought sentences. You will thereby make it clear not only to other people but to yourself. You will find out whether you know your subject as well as you thought you did. If you don’t, writing will show you where the holes are in your knowledge or your reasoning.

This is excellent stuff, illustrated with well-chosen examples of clear writing on ‘difficult’ topics. But, let’s face it, anyone who praises Charles Darwin’s ‘unendingly rich’ The Voyage of the Beagle for ‘its accounts of animals, birds and the whole panoply of natural life that I could quote from any of its five hundred pages’ was always going to get a glowing review from this Darwin groupie.

An excellent book, recommended to all factual writers.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘The Art of Creative Nonfiction’ by Lee Gutkind http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-the-art-of-creative-nonfiction-lee-gutkind/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-the-art-of-creative-nonfiction-lee-gutkind/ Tue, 25 Jan 2022 15:03:27 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Writing and selling the literature of reality.

Writing and selling the literature of reality.

‘The Art of Creative Nonfiction’ by Lee Gutkind

I bought this book by accident, somehow mistaking it for a book on my wishlist, ‘Writing to Learn’ by William Zinsser. I’m not quite sure how I managed this. I must have been having a major senior moment.

The book itself is fine. Lee Gutkind provides some useful writing advice for creative nonfiction authors. He places a lot of emphasis on developing ‘scenes’. This sounds like excellent advice for more journalistic writers like himself, and I’m sure it can be applied to other forms of factual writing, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.

Gutkind illustrates the points he makes with often lengthy extracts, mostly from his own books. These weren’t all that helpful, and felt more like filler. But, as I say, there is some useful writing advice buried in there, especially concerning some of the more practical issues of writing professionally regarding agents, submitting articles, etc. I was also pleased to see Gutkind make it clear it’s OK for creative nonfiction writers to be subjective, while being adamant that:

nonfiction differs from fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate and the presentation of information, a teaching element to readers, is paramount.

Amen to that!

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘A Year Unfolding’ by Angela Harding http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-year-unfolding-angela-harding/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-year-unfolding-angela-harding/ Tue, 25 Jan 2022 15:00:21 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ever since, at school, I made a crappy linocut of Tony the Tiger, copied from the front of a box of Kellogg’s Frosties, I’ve been a fan of the format. Linocuts, I mean; not cereal boxes. It’s one of those things the frustrated visual artist in me keeps saying he’d like to have another go… Continue reading Book review: ‘A Year Unfolding’ by Angela Harding
A Year Unfolding’ by Angela Harding

Ever since, at school, I made a crappy linocut of Tony the Tiger, copied from the front of a box of Kellogg’s Frosties, I’ve been a fan of the format. Linocuts, I mean; not cereal boxes. It’s one of those things the frustrated visual artist in me keeps saying he’d like to have another go at some time, although he knows he probably never will.

A friend who knows of my linocut fandom gave me this beautiful book for Christmas. It’s packed full of printmaker Angela Harding’s wonderful countryside-inspired lino/vinyl/silkscreen illustrations.

Gorgeous, and right up my street.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Reading more eclectically http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/reading-more-eclectically/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/reading-more-eclectically/ Sun, 02 Jan 2022 14:17:47 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics. I read 46 books last year. One of my aims this year is to broaden the scope of my reading. I still intend to stick mainly to factual stuff, but hope to branch out a bit. The more eclectically you read, the better your chances of making unexpected connections between different topics.

That said, I’ll also need to keep reading books and articles for my Darwin book, so very much more of the same in that respect.

Broadening my reading should also give me the occasional excuse to write about new topics, both here and elsewhere. What’s the point of unearthing interesting new stuff if you don’t share it? Or, as Charles Darwin once put it:

There is no pleasure in reading a book if one cannot have a good talk over it.

—Darwin, C.R. to Charles Lyell, 9 August [1838]. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 424”. https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-424.xml

…But there I go, banging on about Darwin as usual!

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2021: a year in photos http://richardcarter.com/2021-a-year-in-photos/ http://richardcarter.com/2021-a-year-in-photos/ Sat, 01 Jan 2022 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) My eleventh annual video slideshow. For the last eleven years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2021 video:

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

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

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

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Book review: ‘A Nature Poem for Every Night of the Year’ edited by Jane McMorland Hunter http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-nature-poem-for-every-night-of-the-year-edited-jane-mcmorland-hunter/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-nature-poem-for-every-night-of-the-year-edited-jane-mcmorland-hunter/ Tue, 28 Dec 2021 09:40:19 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A poetry anthology.

A poetry anthology.

‘A Nature Poem for Every Night of the Year’ edited by Jane McMorland Hunter

As the title of this massive nature poetry anthology makes clear, this is a bedside book for dipping into every night. I didn’t keep to such a schedule, tending to catch up on a week’s worth or so at a time.

The book itself is a wonderful artefact, made from the sort of top-quality paper that ought to be mandatory in all hardbacks, but which is so rare in British publishing these days. Opening this book and flicking to each day’s poem is a gorgeous experience.

As for the poems, I have to say an awful lot of them weren’t to my taste. But I think this reflects far more on my extremely limited taste when it comes to poetry than on Jane McMorland Hunter’s editorial judgement. The poems I did enjoy, I enjoyed very much indeed.

A lovely book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ by Steven Lovatt http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-birdsong-in-a-time-of-silence-steven-lovatt/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-birdsong-in-a-time-of-silence-steven-lovatt/ Tue, 28 Dec 2021 09:11:46 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of birdsong during a pandemic.

A celebration of birdsong during a pandemic.

‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ by Steven Lovatt

This enjoyable book is a celebration of the common or garden (or supermarket car park) birds we encounter in our daily lives, paying specially attention to their songs. It also describes how, as for many other people, Lovatt’s interest in birds was rekindled during the regulated confinement of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown.

Lovatt considers the different types of calls made by many familiar birds, wisely steering clear of trying to transcribe their precise sounds. He also hypothesises about what some of the calls mean to the birds themselves. I took some of these suggestions with a pinch of salt, but everyone is entitled to hypothesise about birds now and again.

A pleasant book.

Pedantic aside: This book repeats one common misunderstanding which the science groupie in me feels compelled to point out: the June solstice is not the day on which the earth passes closest to the sun. That day, the earth’s perihelion, falls in early January each year. The June solstice occurs when the northern hemisphere tilts directly towards the sun, meaning the sun appears directly overhead at its northernmost point, above the Tropic of Cancer.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-childs-christmas-in-wales-dylan-thomas/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-a-childs-christmas-in-wales-dylan-thomas/ Tue, 28 Dec 2021 09:04:16 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A Christmas classic, wonderfully illustrated by Peter Bailey.

A Christmas classic, wonderfully illustrated by Peter Bailey.

‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ by Dylan Thomas

This charming classic should be read in a single sitting, preferably after a slightly too large Christmas lunch. Which is exactly how I read it.

Fictionalised memoir, humorously told, with huge dollops of nostalgia that will melt the heart of the scroogiest of scrooges.

Fab.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘Horizon’ by Barry Lopez http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-horizon-barry-lopez/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-horizon-barry-lopez/ Sun, 26 Dec 2021 08:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Memoir, place and empathy.

Memoir, place and empathy.

‘Horizon’ by Barry Lopez

I very much looked forward to reading the late Barry Lopez’s final book, having belatedly got round to reading his wonderful Arctic Dreams. Horizon isn’t as good as its predecessor, but this is hardly surprising, as very few books are. It’s still a fantastic read.

In Horizon, Lopez writes at length about a small number of places that meant a lot to him over the years. He sensibly tends to merge accounts of different visits to the same place, as if they were all part of a single trip. On the whole, this works very well, although the early section on Cape Foulweather seems rather fragmented, chopping and changing between subjects. This is far less noticeable in the rest of the book.

Lopez’s trips range from Skraeling Island in northern Canada to the South Pole, from the Galápagos Islands to the Great Rift Valley, and from the Oregon coast to Botany Bay. A key message of this book is that different cultures bring different perspectives, and we ignore them at our peril. Lopez also brilliantly describes how indigenous peoples pay attention to the natural world in different ways to how westerners do. In passing, Lopez also provides some fascinating history lessons about, among other topics, Captain Cook, Charles Darwin, human origins, and polar exploration. He also occasionally strays briefly into some dodgy evolutionary psychology—although all evolutionary psychology should be taken with a huge pinch of salt, as far as this sceptic is concerned.

A couple of minor misgivings aside, Horizon is an excellent read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Newsletter No. 24: ‘Unclassifiable’ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/unclassifiable/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/unclassifiable/ Fri, 10 Dec 2021 15:28:21 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) W.G. Sebald · Jan Morris · Jonathan Meades · prehistoric megafauna · Rebecca Solnit · complex numbers · Vikings! · Richard Mabey · Jeff Young · Horatio Clare · chess · Charles Darwin (obviously)
Rich Text

10TH DECEMBER 2021

Hello.

Next Tuesday, 14th December, will mark the 20th anniversary of the untimely death of one of my favourite writers, the UK-based German emigrant W.G. Sebald. If you’ve read any of Sebald’s work, you won’t need any recommendation from me. If you haven’t, you’ll just have to take my word for it that you’re missing out. I won’t try to describe Sebald’s writing, as everyone else who does inevitably ends up resorting to the adjective unclassifiable. (You see—even I’m doing it!) I have, however, put together a page of links to my reviews of Sebald-related books, in case you’re interested. I particularly recommend the first three books on the list, which I consider to be masterpieces.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Loss of ancient grazers triggered a global rise in fires
    A new study suggests the loss of prehistoric grazing species triggered a dramatic increase in fire activity in the world’s grasslands. (And, on a surprisingly related topic, YouTuber and author John Green explores why avocados still exist.)
  2. Ten ways to confront the climate crisis without losing hope
    It’s easy to despair at the climate crisis, or to decide it’s already too late. Rebecca Solnit suggests how to keep the fight alive.
  3. The problem so hard we had to invent new numbers
    A nicely explained video about the invention/discovery of complex numbers. Don’t be put off, even if you haven’t a clue what on earth a complex number might be: this video will give you some appreciation of the issues involved.
  4. On Mistaking Whales
    A nice piece of nature/place writing in which historian Dr Bathsheba Demuth visits the Bering Strait.
  5. An ancient solar storm has helped pinpoint when Vikings settled in North America. By a spooky coincidence, the answer turns out to be precisely 1,000 years ago this very year. The detailed new study in the science journal ‘Nature’ is accompanied by a handy animated video and podcast episode (In related news, another new study suggests the Vikings also made it to the Azores.)
  6. Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past
    Archaeological discoveries are shattering scholars’ long-held beliefs about how the earliest humans organised their societies—and hint at possibilities for our own.
  7. An audience with Richard Mabey
    A filmed conversation with veteran British nature writer Richard Mabey.
  8. Jeff Young in conversation with Horatio Clare
    Jeff Young, the author of the wonderful Ghost Town, talks about a lost Liverpool with his friend, author and broadcaster Horatio Clare.
  9. ‘Swish! Swish! Swish!’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Dominic West reads Patrick Leigh Fermor’s piece about the olive harvest on the Mani peninsula in Greece, written in the 1950s but first published in 2021. (The text is also available via the link.)
  10. Chess Network’s surname-less U.S. National Master, Jerry, has been providing excellent match-by-match, retrospective video analysis of the current World Chess Championship between the defending champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, and Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi. If you’d like to gain some appreciation of just how much better these chaps are at chess than you and me, this is a wonderful way to start. (Alternatively, some viewers have been known to make use of Jerry’s laid-back, dulcet tones to overcome insomnia.)

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

Work on my Darwin book continues at a less-than-breakneck speed. But managing to continue without breaking your neck is a good thing, right? Recently, I’ve been diving deep into the evolution of the human eye: a subject on which, Darwin is forever being selectively quoted to give the impression he thought it could never have happened. Of course, he thought no such thing. Turns out the eye is such a useful organ, it has evolved many, many times.

Stay safe, thanks for subscribing, and I’ll see you next time.

Richard
richardcarter.com

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Book review: ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ by Jan Morris http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-trieste-and-the-meaning-of-nowhere-jan-morris/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-trieste-and-the-meaning-of-nowhere-jan-morris/ Thu, 09 Dec 2021 21:14:41 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Place writing at its finest, and most personal.

Place writing at its finest, and most personal.

‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ by Jan Morris

Prior to transitioning to life as a woman, Jan Morris, then James Morris, visited Trieste as a British soldier at the end of the Second World War. This short, fascinating book provides a brief, imaginative history of a city that meant a great deal to the author.

Morris describes the massive growth of the city as it was adopted as the main port of the otherwise landlocked Habsburg Empire. She then takes us through the years of Fascist rule and the subsequent Cold War, during which Trieste finally became an official appendage of Italy. Being just one port of many to Italy, the city lost its strategic importance, and entered into years of slow decline and faded glory.

During the telling of the city’s tale, Morris adds personal but entirely plausible embellishments to the narrative. Usually, this sort of thing would annoy me, but they made the city come alive. Many times while reading this book, I was reminded of W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, with which is shares a certain periodic style.

I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful book, and have every intention of exploring more of Morris’s books about ‘Place’ in future.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Book review: ‘Pedro and Ricky Come Again’ by Jonathan Meades http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-pedro-and-ricky-come-again-jonathan-meades/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-pedro-and-ricky-come-again-jonathan-meades/ Wed, 08 Dec 2021 12:05:52 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Selected Writing 1988-2020.

Selected Writing 1988-2020.

‘Pedro and Ricky Come Again’ by Jonathan Meades

I would read (and watch) pretty much anything by Jonathan Meades. Pedro and Ricky Come Again is an excellent, satisfyingly lengthy collection of reviews, essays, and opinion pieces written over a 32-year period.

As you might expect from Meades, there’s plenty about architecture and ‘Place’ in this collection, but it also covers a broad range of other thought-provoking topics. As always, Meades is opinionated, irreverent, erudite, and witty—and he’s usually right. Even on the few topics where he opines through the wrong orifice (Received Pronunciation, wind turbines, northern humour, what ’form following function’ means), Meades is immense fun to read. If I have one minor complaint about this collection, it’s that Meades really likes the word ‘cynosure’. (No, me neither.)

A few, mainly aphoristic, snippets to give you a feel for the sort of thing to expect:

  • Believe in god and you’re deemed fit to run a country. Believe in fairies and you’re deemed fit for an asylum.
  • No work of art has or should have any point other than to be.
  • According to the author note she graduated from Oxford with a degree in modern languages: one must assume that English was not among them.
  • In 1917 Kenneth Wood was five and Marcel Duchamp was thirty, going on five. That year Duchamp notoriously signed a urinal ‘R. Mutt’. It was a dull jest then and it remains a dull jest, but it has for a century been treated with reverence by morons.
  • amateurism is routinely considered to be inimical to professionalism, rather than its foundation.
  • God is the most successful, most enduring, most pervasive and most banal of all fictional creations.
  • A world without tattoos might not be a better place but it would look cleaner.
  • I write before I think, I write to find out what I’m thinking.
  • France in 1944 was a nation of 40 million people of whom 45 million had been résistants.
  • The [Teutonic] Order’s evangelical assault suggests that a religion is no more than a cult with an army attached to it.
  • We live in houses, they live in housing.
  • [Boris Johnson’s] demeanour makes the sentient wince, constantly. He provokes species shame.
  • [Anthony Burgess] wasn’t drinking an awful lot when I met him. That was at nine thirty in the morning.
  • It’s a writer’s job to be interesting in language.

On this final point, Meades succeeds magnificently.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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Storm Arwen http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/storm-arwen/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/storm-arwen/ Tue, 30 Nov 2021 19:57:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which I (again) bemoan the naming of storms, and experience what it’s like to go off grid. I’m not a fan of this newfangled notion of giving winter storms names. I think of it as hurricane envy. To make matters worse, the convention of resetting to the letter A at the start of each winter, then progressing alphabetically with each new storm, means it’s unlikely we’ll ever get to experience a Storm Richard. I suppose there might one day be a Storm Dick, but I’m not holding my breath. The powers that be at the Met Office will no doubt avoid that one for entirely different reasons.

All of which means they’ve begun to scrape the barrel for early-in-the-alphabet names to assign to the latest seasonable gust. So much so that the first storm of the current season, which hit the UK last week, appears to have been named after the minor elf-maiden character (and Strider-love-interest) Arwen Undomiel from out of The Lord of the Rings. Whatever next? Storm Boromir? Storm Beren? Storm Balin? (I guess the smart money’s on Storm Bilbo.)

Snowy garden
An ent in our garden on Sunday. Can you tell which way the wind had been blowing?

Like hundreds of thousands of other people in the North of England and Scotland, thanks to Storm Arwen, we had no electricity for most of Saturday. Living high in the Pennines, we also had no water as the electric pumps that pump the water up to our place from below also had no power. And our gas-powered central heating was out of commission too, as the boiler also requires electricity. So we spent much of the day huddled in front of a roaring coal fire, in several layers of clothing, reading until the power finally came back on.

There was a second power-cut on Monday, during which we ended up reading by candle-light. It was an experience, and pleasant enough, but give me the wonders of electric light any day.

Being without running water, central heating, electricity, a telephone, and the internet for the best part of a day did make me wonder what it must have been like to live that way all the time. Practically all our ancestors did just that. They had no mod cons. They were permanently off grid. They knew nothing else, yet somehow they got by.

They must have been bored out of their minds.

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Book review: ‘Speak, Silence’ by Carole Angier http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-speak-silence-carole-angier/ http://richardcarter.com/reviews/book-review-speak-silence-carole-angier/ Wed, 24 Nov 2021 20:37:26 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) In search of W.G. Sebald.

In search of W.G. Sebald.

‘Speak, Silence’ by Carole Angier

I re-read my three favourite, unclassifiable W.G. Sebald books every year in the vain hope that I might one day fathom them. Their unfathomability is a large part of their appeal. That and their unclassifiability. And their peerless, formal prose. And their mysterious photographs. And their melancholia. And their dry humour. Ever since I first read Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, I have found them utterly compelling.

With each re-reading, and by reading Sebald’s other works, both prose and poetry, and by reading around some of the subjects he covered, I feel I’m beginning to fathom him a bit better. Maybe 1% or so better each time. I still have a long way to go. I get the distinct impression I’m by no means alone.

Carole Angier’s Speak, Silence is the first full-length biography of Sebald, who died in 2001. It’s one that will be seized on with relish by his fans. The book is very much an unofficial biography, having been written against the wishes of Sebald’s family, and without licence to quote directly from his works. These difficulties no doubt hindered Angier’s task, but she works around them very well.

Sebald famously blended fact with fiction, embellishing and grafting, repurposing and misdirecting, adding to the realism with unassailable photographic ‘proof’. Angier does well distinguishing between true events depicted in Sebald’s work, and stuff he fabricated. She also unearths plenty of fascinating details about Sebald’s life and personality.

The W.G. Sebald who emerges from this biography is, to this particular fan, every bit as likeable as I had previously thought, although considerably more melancholic. I had always assumed the relentless mournful tone—which can sometimes come across as exaggerated for humorous effect—was simply a brilliantly manufactured element of Sebald’s unique style. But it seems that particular aspect of his work was perhaps the least fabricated.

I thoroughly enjoyed this autobiography, and will certainly return to it for further readings.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
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A trip out http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/a-trip-out/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/a-trip-out/ Wed, 24 Nov 2021 15:34:35 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A spin around the Yorkshire Dales To celebrate Jen’s birthday, a Michelin-starred meal and an overnight stay at the Angel at Hetton. I couldn’t resist making the obligatory pun that the venison was ‘dead dear’. The waiter was kind enough to say he intended to steal my joke. I’m not sure if I believed him.

En route (indirectly) home, we took a spin around the Yorkshire Dales, and paid a visit to our favourite second-hand bookshop in Sedbergh. The weather was utterly glorious. As always, we kept asking ourselves why we don’t visit the Dales more often: they’re practically on our doorstep.

Sleddale
Sleddale
Howgill Fells
Howgill Fells, Cumbria

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Back-endish http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/back-endish/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/back-endish/ Sat, 20 Nov 2021 21:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) This wonderful autumn has finally begun to show signs of ‘back-endishness’, although there are still plenty of glorious colours to admire. This wonderful autumn has finally begun to show signs of back-endishness, although there are still plenty of glorious colours to admire.

Hebden Bridge, autumn
Hebden Bridge, autumn, looking towards our house and the Moor from Fairfield.

Jen and I have taken a few more walks around the lanes, and a longer one around Hollingworth Lake, where the geese, ducks and gulls were as plentiful as ever. But there are suddenly more redwings and fieldfares in the local fields and bushes: favourite winter-migrant thrushes on loan from Scandinavia and farther afield.

Winter does hold certain benefits.

Black-headed gulls, Hollingworth Lake
Black-headed gulls, Hollingworth Lake
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Autumn strolls http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/autumn-strolls/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/autumn-strolls/ Tue, 09 Nov 2021 07:15:29 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) After several days of pretty dreadful weather, Jen and I were finally able to get some decent autumn strolls in over the last week. After several days of pretty dreadful weather, Jen and I were finally able to get some decent autumn strolls in over the last week.

Highlights included only our third ever Hebden Bridge red kite, a flock of long-tailed tits breezing through, a small flock of redwings, and three roe deer in the field behind the house (the fawn is now the same size as its parents). But undoubted star of the show were the magnificent autumn colours, which have done us proud this year.

Upper Calder Valley, autumn
Upper Calder Valley, autumn
Hardcastle Crags, autumn
Hardcastle Crags, autumn
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A thrilling encounter on the most inauspicious of days http://richardcarter.com/a-thrilling-encounter-on-the-most-inauspicious-of-days/ http://richardcarter.com/a-thrilling-encounter-on-the-most-inauspicious-of-days/ Sat, 09 Oct 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) A surprisingly fruitful week in terms of random bird encounters A surprisingly fruitful week in terms of random bird encounters: a sizeable, noisy flock of long-tailed tits breezing through the back garden one afternoon; a great spotted woodpecker on the bird-feeder earlier the same day; a close fly-by of the barn owl as I headed towards the compost heap in the gloaming one evening; a large formation of high-flying geese as I went to open the garage this lunchtime.

But the most unexpected encounter occurred last Saturday afternoon, as I walked back towards Jen’s mum’s house from an errand in Hebden Bridge. It was pissing with rain, and ridiculously cold, feeling more like the week before Christmas than the first week in October. Cars had their headlights on at three in the afternoon. As I walked beneath my umbrella along the canal viaduct high above the River Calder, I heard a single, high-pitched squeak—a sound I had not heard for several years—and spun round to see an iridescent blue streak flying towards me along the river: my first ever Hebden Bridge kingfisher! It shone in the gloom, as if in a spotlight.

As always, I was astonished at just how small kingfishers are: only slightly larger than house sparrows. It landed on a riverside branch way below me, flitted back and forth for a few seconds, then shot off down the river, back the way it had come.

A thrilling encounter on the most inauspicious of days.

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Newsletter No. 23: Emerging from aestivation http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/emerging-from-aestivation/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/emerging-from-aestivation/ Fri, 01 Oct 2021 16:03:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Massimo Pigliucci · ‘spirituality’ · Barry Lopez · talking trees · Eleanor Konik · rewilding · Mark Cocker · light pollution · Sir Clive Sinclair · Horatio Clare · swifts · The Enlightenment
Rich Text

1ST OCTOBER 2021

Hello.

It’s October. How on earth did that happen? We just got to September and kept going, I guess. But suddenly there’s no denying it’s autumn. Earlier this week, it still felt like late summer here in Hebden Bridge. Then, at around 1pm on Wednesday, some switch was flipped, temperatures dropped, and a chill rain began to patter at the study window, accompanied by the tap and gurgle of the central heating system emerging from aestivation. It’ll be Christmas next, mark my words.

I’ve spent the last few months in deep research for my Darwin book, aided and abetted by the wonderful Obsidian app. I recently completed a chapter about Darwin’s religious views, and the first of a pair of chapters about the two decades it took him to get round to publishing his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. I used to think this was an extraordinary delay, but, at the rate I’m getting on with my Darwin book, twenty years is beginning to seem positively brisk.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Conversation with Massimo Pigliucci (video)
    Despite his background in genetics and evolutionary biology, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci hasn’t appeared much on my radar. I thought he came across as pretty interesting and engaging in this video, so I’ve added him to my watch list.
  2. Spirituality is a brain state we can all reach, religious or not
    In the final chapter of my book On the Moor, I took great exception to the word ‘spiritual’ being used to describe the, to me, intensely physical sensation of connectedness with the universe that occasionally engulfs me. So I was intrigued by this article, which looks into the phenomenon from a neuroscientist’s perspective. (But, for the record, I still think the word spiritual misses the point entirely.)
  3. An interview with Barry Lopez
    I only recently read the late Barry Lopez’s wonderful book Arctic Dreams. His final book, Horizon, sits near the top of my To Read pile. This December 2019 interview describes the background to Horizon, and includes some thoughtful ideas on writing.
  4. The idea that trees talk to co-operate is misleading
    The romantic notion that trees, like humans, talk in order to co-operate could actually harm the cause of conservation, says plant ecologist Kathryn Flinn.
  5. Unfamiliar Territories (video)
    A conversation between authors Ken Worpole and Patrick Wright. I very much enjoyed the latter’s The Sea View Has Me Again, and Worpole’s book sounds like one I ought to be looking into.
  6. Book Review: Tamed by Alice Roberts
    I’m not just plugging this ‘deep dive’ book review by Eleanor Konik because it was me who tipped her off about Alice Roberts’ highly enjoyable book on domesticated species, Tamed. I read Tamed as research for my Darwin book. It was interesting to read the thoughts of someone interested in the same book for entirely different reasons, including speculative fiction world-building.
  7. Diary: Wild Beasts
    A thoughtful piece by Fraser MacDonald about the politics of rewilding in Scotland. When 432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land, rewilding can happen easily enough without local support. But disputes can also arise between different land-owners with different views on rewilding.
  8. Living the (Cretaceous) Dream
    Author and naturalist Mark Cocker recently spent a week on the Yorkshire coast, appreciating creatures both great and small. (Like him, I also paid a recent visit to the fabulous gannetry at Bempton Cliffs.)
  9. Light pollution from street lamps linked to insect loss
    Scientists say light pollution is a factor driving worrying declines in local insect populations. The full scientific paper is available here.
  10. Sir Clive Sinclair: Tireless inventor ahead of his time
    The prolific inventor Sir Clive Sinclair has died. I first laid my grubby teenage mitts on a computer in 1981, when I borrowed my friend Carolyn’s Sinclair ZX-81 for a weekend. Within minutes, I knew I had to have one. I can honestly say the ZX-81, with its whole ‘1,000 bytes of memory’, was responsible for my subsequent 35-year career in I.T.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

With so much online stuff clamouring for everyone’s attention, thanks for making time to read this newsletter. I have a couple of ideas in mind as to how I might improve the format, but if you have any suggestions of your own, please let me know.

Keep safe, and I’ll see you next time.

Richard
richardcarter.com

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No going back http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/no-going-back/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/no-going-back/ Thu, 30 Sep 2021 11:48:23 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) How was I ever able to organise my thoughts without ‘atomising’ them—breaking them down into smaller and smaller discrete notes—and then linking them together? I continue to remain astonished I was ever able to research and write an entire non-fiction book about a wide variety of topics without the aid of the wonderful (and free) Obsidian app.

Don’t get me wrong: other perfectly good ‘Personal Knowledge Management’ apps are available. They’re very much the in thing at the moment. But how was I ever able to organise my thoughts without atomising them—breaking them down into smaller and smaller discrete notes—and then linking them together? How did I ever manage to get my head around complex, interrelated subjects? How did I ever spot interesting unexpected links between apparently unrelated topics? How did I ever see the wood for the trees?

I managed somehow, but this new way is far better.

I can never go back.

Obsidian note and graph
(L) My Obsidian note about the rush to publish Darwin and Wallace’s ‘joint’ 1858 paper on evolution.
(R) The corresponding Obsidian graph, showing how this note links with certain other notes in my research vault.
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27 September 2021 http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/2021-09-27/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/2021-09-27/ Mon, 27 Sep 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Our semi-tame resident pheasant, Philip (whom I suspect is actually Philip III), has been strutting proudly about the garden the last few days with missus and kids in tow. Our semi-tame resident pheasant, Philip (whom I suspect is actually Philip III), has been strutting proudly about the garden the last few days with the missus and kids in tow.

One of the youngsters seems to be a chip off the old block.

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Anglesey 2021 http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/anglesey-2021/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/anglesey-2021/ Wed, 22 Sep 2021 14:52:17 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My annual early September holiday in Anglesey. We recently returned from our annual, early September week in Anglesey. As always, I spent hours sitting on my favourite rock near the caravan, gazing out to sea, waiting for nothing in particular to happen. It’s a wonderful way to chill out.

The view from my favourite rock
The view from my favourite rock.

With the exception of one day, the weather was pretty ideal this year, although there seemed to be more sea-fog around than usual. Wildlife-wise, it was a quiet year: fewer Sandwich terns, waders, razorbills and gannets near the coast; only a single grey seal; and most of the swallows already en route to Africa after a pretty dire August. But there was still plenty to see, and we went on our favourite walks, and ate one or three ice-creams.

Ravens
Ravens, north coast of Anglesey.

There was also one wonderful starry night. Anglesey skies have very little light pollution, so we gazed up open-mouthed at the Milky Way, and trained my snazzy new binoculars on Jupiter and the Galilean Moons: from left to right, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Jupiter, and Callisto.

We’re already looking forward to next September.

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31 August, 2021 http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/2021-08-31/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/2021-08-31/ Tue, 31 Aug 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk on the Moor. Sheep on the Moor

A walk on the Moor with Jen, the purple heather now past its best and fading fast.

A few sheep, a couple of red grouse, a lone wheatear flitting away. A distinctly autumnal feel in the air. Which is always disconcerting for those of us who book their ‘summer’ holidays for September.

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Gannets http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/gannets/ http://richardcarter.com/sidelines/gannets/ Tue, 24 Aug 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A visit to the gannetry at RSPB Bempton Cliffs. · East Yorkshire ·

During a few days’ stay at her sister’s caravan near Filey, Jen and I drove a short distance down the coast to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliff’s: home of the UK’s only mainland gannetry.

The view from the clifftops were spectacular. V-formations of adults and juveniles were heading out to sea. Scores of other birds were circling off the cliffs before breaking away to make ambitious, often aborted landing attempts on narrow ledges. Ledge-space is at a premium, and neighbouring birds jealously guard their bijou real estate, repelling any interlopers that approach too close.

Gannet on landing approach

Jen and I last visited Bempton ten years ago, a couple of months earlier in the breeding season. Those extra weeks represented a considerable change in the life of the colony. Last time we were here, many pairs of adult gannets were still bonding or brooding their solitary eggs on cramped cliff-faces, while a few fluffy, white hatchlings could be seen here and there. This time, there were large, dark, brightly bespeckled young all over the place. These were mostly protected by lone parents, the other parents being away fishing for food. Young gannets are disconcertingly dinosaurian in appearance, and remarkably different in colouration to the brilliant-white adults. It takes several seasons for the full colour transformation to occur.

Adult and fledgling gannet

Up close, adult gannets are far more impressively coloured than the bright-white, black-wing-tipped birds seen from a distance. Their dark legs ad feet bear snazzy turquoise stripes along the ankles and toes. Their pale, sinister eyes are ringed with blue lids. Their sturdy, black-streaked, white dagger-beaks bear a hint of blue, lending them a metallic appearance. And the sides of their heads, their throats, and napes are stained with a hint of tobacco.

Gannet

Up close, gannets are also rather smelly. I dare say all seabirds are, but when they’re gathered in such huge numbers, the effect borders on that of a good fertilizer—which is, of course, exactly how seabird guano was once used.

I’ve only just learnt that the word gannet comes from the same etymological source as gander—presumably on account of the gannet’s vaguely goose-like appearance. Both words are based on the Old English word ganot, meaning ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’. Which I guess just goes to prove, what’s source for the gannet is source for the gander.

Gannet in flight
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HebWeb interview http://richardcarter.com/hebweb-interview/ http://richardcarter.com/hebweb-interview/ Thu, 22 Jul 2021 10:14:27 +0100 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) I have been interviewed for the local HebWeb site. I’m the most recent interviewee in George Murphy’s series of interviews with ‘local characters and personalities’ for the HebWeb site. I guess that must make me something of a character, as I certainly don’t have much personality.

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Newsletter No. 22: His glib, beardless chops http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/his-glib-beardless-chops/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/his-glib-beardless-chops/ Fri, 02 Apr 2021 08:45:43 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Insensitive teenager · Helen Macdonald · Patrick Barkham · Richard Mabey · Julian Hoffman · photography · Mars · Christina Riley · icebergs · bowling alleys · cassette tapes · Richard Thompson · Antikythera mechanism · and more… Rich Text

2ND APRIL 2021

Hello.

When I was at secondary school, I would often remark, with complete confidence, that I would die of a heart-attack at 56. I think I must have thought I was being funny, talking so matter-of-factly about my distant, yet tragically young demise. How I wish I could go back in time and slap my teenage self across his glib, beardless chops.

Today, I hit 56. If there’s one thing I’m determined to do over the next 12 months—if for no other reason than to prove that young idiot wrong—it’s to make it all the way through. Either that, or die in the attempt.

Anyway, I thought I’d better send this latest newsletter out pretty damn smartly, just in case…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

These go all the way to eleven:

  1. The things I tell myself when I’m writing about nature
    Helen Macdonald gives some sound, ‘not-too-serious and also quite serious’ nature-writing advice.
  2. ‘Viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are all part of nature’
    Patrick Barkham interview the veteran British nature writer Richard Mabey. As a fan of both nature-writing and literary correspondence, I was intrigued to read Mabey is considering writing his next collection of essays in the form of letters, very much in the style of his hero Gilbert White. Sounds perfect.
  3. The Wild Nearby
    My mate Julian Hoffman on how the wild wills its way into the most developed and unexpected of places.
  4. The Royal Photographic Society archive
    The Royal Photographic Society Journal is the oldest continuously published photographic periodical in the world. This digital archive provides searchable access to all issues from the first, in March 1853, up to 2018. Best viewed in full-screen mode.
  5. Perseverance Rover’s descent and touchdown on Mars
    We are a talented species. Nasa’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission captured thrilling footage of its rover landing on Mars.
  6. Emerging from a mussel shell
    Christina Riley tracks down the work of pioneering seaweed collector and artist Mary A. Robinson.
  7. Iceberger
    A website inspired by a tweet. Draw icebergs and see how they would float. It’s totally addictive.
  8. Right Up Our Alley
    Astonishingly skilful drone footage captured inside a bowling alley.
  9. Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94
    Thanks for all the mix tapes. The Dutch engineer was also instrumental in the development of the first CD.
  10. ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’
    Britain’s greatest guitarist, Richard Thompson, has finally written his memoir, covering a life-changing crash, and his fiery romance with his ex-wife and singing partner Linda Thompson.
  11. Scientists may have solved ancient mystery of ‘first computer’
    Researchers claim a breakthrough in study of 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator found in the sea.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

After I’d made some encouraging progress on my Darwin book, things suddenly ground to a halt this month. I used this as an excuse to investigate a new(ish) software app designed to help people like me link and analyse their notes. I was hugely impressed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for some low-cholesterol cake.

See you next time.

…I hope.

Richard
richardcarter.com

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

19TH FEBRUARY 2021

Hello.

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

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

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

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

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Plus… Three excellent videos featuring prominent nature writers:

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

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

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

Recent Reading

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

And finally…

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

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

See you next time, spam filters permitting.

Richard
richardcarter.com

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2020: a year in photos http://richardcarter.com/2020-slideshow/ http://richardcarter.com/2020-slideshow/ Fri, 01 Jan 2021 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter (richardcarter.com) My tenth annual video slideshow. For the last few years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2020 video:

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

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

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

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Newsletter No. 20: Giving it the David Attenboroughs http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/giving-it-the-david-attenboroughs/ http://richardcarter.com/newsletter/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

Hello.

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

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.

Richard
richardcarter.com

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Giving fiascos a bad name http://richardcarter.com/articles/giving-fiascos-a-bad-name/ http://richardcarter.com/articles/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?

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