Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of posts from all of Richard Carter's blogs. en-gb Richard Carter 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.

Vegetating Sat, 25 Feb 2017 11:41:03 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Ten-a-day fruit and veg?

Me: Have you seen they're saying we should be eating ten fruit and veg per day now?
Jen: I remember when ‘ten-a-day’ referred to Woodbines.

Marmalaise Sat, 25 Feb 2017 09:50:12 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Marmalade in decline (or not). Compare and contrast:

Guardian (10-Dec-2014): Marmalade: Paddington’s favourite conserve makes a comeback
The success of the Paddington movie is good news for marmalade: sales are up, more of us are making our own and a new generation is even drinking the stuff.

Guardian (24-Feb-2017): Marmalade in decline as Paddington struggles to lift sales
2014 film brought only a slight boost to the bear’s favourite spread, which is now mainly the preserve of older people.

Corbyn speak Fri, 24 Feb 2017 08:57:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Corbyn spouts management speak. As the UK government ploughs on with the insanity that is Brexit, and on the day that Labour loses one of its safest seats to the Tories, what the hell, you might begin to wonder, has the leader of Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition got to say about the price of fish?

Well, this tweet from last November might offer some insight:

We now face the task of creating a New Britain from the fourth industrial revolution #CBI2016

— Jeremy Corbyn MP (@jeremycorbyn) November 21, 2016

Go, Jeremy!

Stretford Mall irony Mon, 20 Feb 2017 17:35:13 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) When doors aren't necessarily always open. Always Open

Wall of sound Sun, 19 Feb 2017 08:48:25 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) I always, incorrectly, assumed Blowzabella stopped making music years ago. For many years, the late tosser Fitz and I would retire to his house after our weekly Tuesday-night pub session to drink loads of coffee and listen to music. Fitz was a big folk music fan, so he would invariably end up playing some Blowzabella. Blowzabella was a British folk band that specialised in playing droney instruments: violins, bagpipes, hurdy-gurdies, that sort of thing. They were pretty magnificent.

I write in the past tense, because I always assumed Blowzabella stopped making music years ago. Imagine my surprise and delight earlier this week, therefore, when I learnt they're still going strong, and churning out magnificent rackets like this:

You can thank me later.

Compare and Contrast Fri, 17 Feb 2017 14:18:48 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Musk v Harkness. Musk

Tesla's Elon Musk (sic).


Torchwood's Capt. Jack Harkness.

We have a right to know.

Re. the ‘newspaper’ that delivered Brexit Fri, 17 Feb 2017 14:11:39 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Wikipedia editors have voted to ban the Daily Mail as a source for the website in all but exceptional circumstances after deeming the news group “generally unreliable”.

Guardian: Wikipedia bans Daily Mail as 'unreliable' source
Wikipedia editors have voted to ban the Daily Mail as a source for the website in all but exceptional circumstances after deeming the news group “generally unreliable”… The editors described the arguments for a ban as “centred on the Daily Mail’s reputation for poor fact checking, sensationalism and flat-out fabrication”.

(My emphasis added.)

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on Sun, 12 Feb 2017 11:30:05 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (The Friends of Charles Darwin) Eight years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. The Darwin Bicentennial Oak

Planted 12-Feb-2009

The Darwin bicentennial oak, 8 years on


Eight years ago today, I planted the Darwin Bicentennial Oak in my garden. I am pleased to report that it is still doing well.

I have now spent eight years gathering material for the longest time-lapse movie ever. Or should that be shortest?

The name's Darwin: Charles Darwin Sun, 12 Feb 2017 10:07:14 +0000 Richard Carter, FCD (The Friends of Charles Darwin) KILLER FACT: Charles Darwin once featured in a James Bond film. KILLER FACT: Charles Darwin once rubbed shoulders (literally) with fellow heroic British icon James Bond. In the opening credits to Daniel Craig's first Bond film, Casino Royale, in fact. Can you spot him?

Darwin meets Bond

That chap gets everywhere.

BBC science fail Sat, 11 Feb 2017 11:10:44 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) There is nothing ‘coincidental’ about a lunar eclipse occurring during a full moon.

BBC: Spectacular snow moon regales worldFebruary's full moon also coincides with a partial lunar eclipse.


There is nothing ‘coincidental’ about a lunar eclipse occurring during a full moon: every lunar eclipse that ever happened occurred during a full moon.

For a lunar eclipse to occur, the sun and moon must be on opposite sides of the earth. The same configuration is required for a full moon. The only difference is that, during a lunar eclipse, the sun, earth, and moon happen to line up exactly, causing the earth's shadow from the sun to be cast on the moon.

Busy man Tue, 07 Feb 2017 16:58:46 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) gents' loo at the Birch Service Station on the M62 this morning: a businessman operating two hand-driers simultaneously, one for each hand. Spotted in the gents' loo at the Birch Service Station on the M62 this morning: a businessman operating two hand-driers simultaneously, one for each hand.

Now there's a man with not enough time (and too much water) on his hands, I thought. I wouldn't mind betting he'd read some self-help book on personal productivity: 200 Killer Hacks to Save Yourself an Hour a Day, or some such nonsense.

To complicate matters, the middle of the three hand-driers wasn't working, so the man had to extend his arms to full-stretch to accomplish his astonishing time-saving feat. He looked for all the world like Jesus hanging on the cross—albeit Jesus in a snazzy business suit. I would have liked to grab a photo, but realised taking pictures of men in gents' loos was the sort of thing likely to get me arrested.

Still, though, what a thoroughly efficient man! There was a chap who understood the true value of his time: so much more precious than that of the fat, bearded bloke standing behind him with dripping hands.

Shock news Mon, 06 Feb 2017 19:16:36 +0000 Richard Carter (Gruts) Analysis of EU Referendum voting patterns shows strong correlation between lower educational qualifications and voting Leave.

BBC: Local voting figures shed new light on EU referendum

[…] local results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters - populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave. […] The level of education had a higher correlation with the voting pattern than any other major demographic measure from the census.

Call me a Liberal Elitist, but it seems to me that maybe we should be treating education as a higher priority. Then maybe, just maybe, in the long-run, the British public might stop making such monumentally stupid decisions.