Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘The Year of the Jouncer’ by Simon Gray Fri, 27 Nov 2020 14:46:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Vol. 2 of ‘The Smoking Diaries’.
‘The Year of the Jouncer’ by Simon Gray

The sequel to Simon Gray's wonderfully funny blend of memoir and diary, The Smoking Diaries.

Not quite as entertaining as its predecessor, I think, but I still laughed out loud several times. And the bit where he tries to feed a family of black swans made stuff come out my nose.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Let the tweaking commence! Wed, 25 Nov 2020 12:51:56 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which I decide to break a self-imposed rule. Lying wide awake in bed this morning, in the I’m-too-comfortable-and-it’s-far-too-early-to get-up hours, I was re-mulling over recent thoughts about my current work in progress: my ‘Darwin book’. Nothing drastic, but I’ve identified a slight change in emphasis I want to make which will involve me having to go back and change a couple of chapters whose current status is ‘1st draft complete’. I have a self-imposed rule, learnt through bitter experience, that I shouldn’t go back to tweak finished chapters until I’ve completed the first draft of the entire book. Therein lies madness. I’m an incorrigible tweaker. One thing writing my first book taught me is tweaking doesn’t get first drafts finished.

A well-known nature writer recently advised me not to stick too hard to my self-imposed no-tweaking rule. In fact, their advice was stronger than that: they actually used the word urge. While acknowledging it was a horses-for-courses thing, they rightly advised going back and tweaking is a good way to make sure your books hang together properly. I couldn’t agree more: it’s the main justification I’ve given in the past for all my tweaking. But there has to be a happy medium!

Anyhow, I’ve decided to break my rule and go back to do some tweaking. My justifications this time are as follows:

  • the tweaks will make my existing chapters hang together better;
  • they’re likely to be relatively minor tweaks, adding a few short sections here and there, rather than totally rewriting what’s gone before;
  • I’m happy with what I’ve written so far; I just think a few tweaks will improve what’s already there;
  • the tweaks won’t require any research;
  • the tweaks will subtly shift the style of the book, making it easier for me, I believe, to write more consistently in future chapters;
  • if I don’t make the planned tweaks now, they’ll nag at me incessantly, putting me off working on future chapters! (I should point out that this last ‘justification’ is simply not valid: the whole point of my self-imposed rule is not to give in to the nagging.)

So, anyway, let the tweaking commence!

As I lay in bed considering a few of my planned tweaks in more detail, I found I was already becoming more enthusiastic about the book. I dreamt up a couple of delightful passages that will greatly enhance their respective chapters, and a couple more for chapters I haven’t even begun to write yet. The book already felt more consistent and entertaining.

Of course, dreaming up delightful passages while lying flat on your back in bed in the early hours is all well and good. The real challenge is to get the damn things written. But at least I have a way forward—and a renewed sense of purpose!

Let’s go!

Late autumn Tue, 24 Nov 2020 18:00:34 +0000 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Under self-imposed semi-house-arrest. Phase two of the Squirrel Wars. Binge reading. A brace of anniversaries. Partly due to the latest lockdown, but mainly due to non-Covid-related family concerns, for the last six weeks or so I’ve not felt comfortable leaving the house other than for routine shopping trips and regular short walks around the lanes with Jen. Hence the absence of the usually obligatory autumnal photos from Hardcastle Crags this autumn. But it’s been good to stretch the legs around the lanes.

Autumn in the upper Calder Valley

My war with the recently arrived squirrels escalated last week. The chilli powder I sprinkled over the sunflower hearts in the plastic dishes set into our bird table did the trick for a while. But then the squirrels worked out the seeds lower down in the dishes didn’t have any chilli on them. So the little bastards gnawed through the bottom of the dishes from below. I’ve had to patch things up, and protect the base of the bird table with steel mesh. But it can only be a matter of time before my rodent nemeses wreak more havoc.

Scenes from the Squirrel War
Scenes from the Squirrel War

My self-imposed semi-house-arrest has allowed me more time for reading. I’d already broken my personal record for the number of books read in one calendar year, but I’ve now well and truly blown it out the water. Some of the books I’ve read, especially Alice Roberts’ excellent Tamed, have made me reflect on my current work in progress. I realise I need to go back and up my game in a few places. But I suddenly find myself with a much clearer picture of where it is I want to be heading with the book, which has to be a good thing. Thanks, Alice!

Today marks the 161st anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. It also marks the third anniversary of the publication of my book On the Moor. The shared anniversary is anything but coincidental. Has it really been three years? It’s about time I got a move on with this next one!

Book review: ‘The Smoking Diaries’ by Simon Gray Mon, 23 Nov 2020 15:50:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Vol. 1 of playwright Simon Gray’s amusing and meandering reminiscences.
‘The Smoking Diaries’ by Simon Gray

The ‘diaries’ in this four-volume series, of which this is the first, are not really diaries, as such, but more a series of reminiscences masquerading as an informal diary.

Playwright Simon Gray creates a wonderful new character named Simon Gray, who is clearly based on the real McCoy, but with added bumbling and insecurity. The entries are often genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, and often very moving. It’s a special kind of person who can make you laugh at an account of learning about a close friend’s cancer. The description of a financial adviser’s eyebrows also had me guffawing, much to the irritation of the other person in the room.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin (1st ed., 1859) Mon, 23 Nov 2020 15:47:09 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) …or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
‘On the Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin, 1st edition, title page

As revolutionary scientific works go, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is remarkably accessible to the ordinary reader. True, some of the language is occasionally heavy going—Darwin wrote in haste, had a thing for double negatives and rogue commas, and occasionally embarked on convoluted, heavily nested sentences requiring several deep breaths to read out loud—but, minor stylistic concerns aside, over a century and a half after its publication, Origin is still a rewarding read for anyone wanting to get inside the mind of one of the most important figures in the history of science. Darwin’s great theory of evolution by means of natural selection forms the foundation of modern biology. To read Origin is to have the theory explained to you by the man himself. That should be a good enough reason for anyone to read it.

Darwin describes his masterpiece as ‘one long argument’. He knows his views will be seen as controversial by some of his contemporaries, and he’s out to convince. But he realises some of his audience—especially some of the old guard—will not be able to accept his evidence and line of reasoning. Indeed, at one point, he humorously states anyone who has read his friend Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology and is still unconvinced about the great age of the earth might as well close Origin right away.

Darwin’s great theory is brilliant in its simplicity: individual organisms within a species vary; those with beneficial variations will have a better chance of competing for limited resources, and of passing on those beneficial variations to future generations; over time, these beneficial variations will become more widespread in local populations. The composition of the population will have changed. The species will have evolved. Given enough time, more changes will accrue. New species will emerge from old—often, but not always, supplanting them.

Darwin begins his long argument in what should be comfortably familiar territory for his readers, describing how, consciously or otherwise, humans have selected preferred variants of domesticated animal and plant species over decades and centuries, leading to all manner of highly adapted breeds and strains. He goes on to describe how wild species also vary, and how far more individuals are produced than can possibly be supported by the environment. This, he says, leads to a struggle for existence in which many individuals will perish. Those individuals that vary from the rest in some advantageous way will stand a better chance of surviving, and of passing on those variations to future generations. While humans select between variants of domesticated species based on some personal preference, Nature selects between variants of wild species based on whether or not they are well enough adapted to meet the challenges of life:

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. […] As man can produce and certainly has produced a great result by his methodical and unconscious means of selection, what may not nature effect? Man can act only on external and visible characters: nature cares nothing for appearances, except in so far as they may be useful to any being. She can act on every internal organ, on every shade of constitutional difference, on the whole machinery of life. Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for that of the being which she tends.

In the fourth chapter of Origin, Darwin brilliantly illustrates his principle of natural selection with a number of hypothetical examples. These are not intended to show how certain adaptations did indeed evolve, for that could never be proved retrospectively; Darwin’s aim is simply to show how such adaptations could have evolved through natural selection.

Famously, Darwin never got to the bottom of what causes the observed variations that are central to his theory, nor how they are inherited by future generations. He did, however, identify a number of important phenomena associated with such variations, including the atrophying and occasional total disappearance of organs which no longer have any use, occasional throwbacks to former organs, the skipping of variations in some generations, and the correlation of certain variations in different parts of individual organisms. He made a few stabs at explaining these phenomena, but they would not be properly understood until after his death, when the new field of genetics was merged with his theory. Darwin would no doubt have been delighted that his theory continued to evolve, but remains the single most important idea in the field of biology.

Having worked on his theory for two decades prior to publication, Darwin was painfully aware of the objections that would most likely be raised against it. He meets these objections head on in Origin, dedicating an entire chapter to addressing some of them, while still being prepared to admit when he doesn’t yet have entirely satisfactory answers. He addresses other potential objections to his theory in later chapters, which we shall return to later.

Darwin then goes on to discuss how animal instincts are also subject to natural selection, before exploring hybridism. I have to admit, even my eyes began to glaze over during the hybridism chapter: Darwin does go on a bit. The key point he is trying to get across is at last stated boldly in the final phrase of the chapter: ‘…there is no fundamental distinction between species and varieties’. Under Darwinian evolution, new species are simply old varieties writ large.

Darwin next dedicates an entire chapter to the imperfection of the geological record. If species evolved from other species, where are all the intermediate fossils? He is careful to explain it is tempting but wrong to envisage ‘intermediates’ directly between two closely related modern species—what we would nowadays describe as the ‘missing link’ fallacy. What really links modern species is their common ancestor, and it is far from necessarily true that this common ancestor would resemble some weird 50:50 chimera of its living descendants. Even if, as Darwin convincingly argues, the fossil record weren’t hopelessly incomplete, it is quite possible we might sometimes simply not recognise fossils of common ancestors for what they really are. Of course, since Darwin’s day, the fossils of many common ancestors, or their close relatives, have been identified.

One important challenge Darwin needed to overcome was to explain the current geographical distribution of species. If all species descend from other species, each must have originated in some single geographical location. But many individual species, or closely related species, have now spread far and wide across the planet. How could salt-water-intolerant plants and animal, for example, have crossed entire oceans? Darwin brilliantly addresses this problem in two of Origin’s more entertaining chapters, citing his own weird experiments on plant dispersal, and invoking climate change, among other phenomena, to explain how currently inhospitable areas might once have acted as corridors for species dispersal. Darwin would dearly have loved the twentieth-century theory of plate tectonics, which explains how continents themselves can move, transporting species with them. To his great credit, although he mentions the contemporary theory of numerous ‘land bridges’ that were believed to have formerly linked continents, which would have provided an obvious mechanism of species dispersal, Darwin the geologist is honest enough to admit he is not a great supporter of that theory, so believes alternative mechanisms need to be identified.

Before summing up, Darwin discusses a number of phenomena that are easily explained by his theory of descent with modification, but which would make no sense at all had species been uniquely created from scratch. How is it even possible to classify species into groups if they bear no physical relationship with each other? Why do species belonging to particular groups have the same basic design or archetype? Why are different animal embryos so hard to tell apart? Why do certain species bear apparently useless, or near-useless organs? Creationists might try explain these away by appealing to the aesthetic whim of a creator moving in mysterious ways, but Darwin rightly recognised all of these apparent enigmas were easily explained by realising all species are related to each other geneologically.

In a magnificent final chapter, Darwin recaps what has gone before, but with increasing confidence. In places, he even manages to overcome his almost painful modesty and strut a little. His theory’s merit, he fully appreciates, is that it explains so much, and that it will open up many new fields of research:

when we regard every production of nature as one which has had a history; when we contemplate every complex structure and instinct as the summing up of many contrivances, each useful to the possessor, nearly in the same way as when we look at any great mechanical invention as the summing up of the labour, the experience, the reason, and even the blunders of numerous workmen; when we thus view each organic being, how far more interesting, I speak from experience, will the study of natural history become!

Well said, Mr D! You did indeed made natural history more interesting. You gave future biologists a theory by which to work. You revolutionised an entire science. There was grandeur in your view of life—and you knew it!

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Agent Running in the Field’ by John le Carré Sat, 14 Nov 2020 14:31:00 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Spycraft and badminton in Brexit Britain.
Agent Running in the Field

Like all of John le Carré’s spy novels, Agent Running in the Field describes what feels like a far more realistic form of spycraft, without all the sexy James Bond and Spooks gizmos. But who knows how spies actually carry on in the real world? Either way, it’s a great tribute to le Carré that we assume real spycraft must be very much like this.

Agent Running in the Field is set in a post-Brexit-vote Britain; in a nation that has very much become second-tier. (We Remainers knew it would all end in tiers.) The Cold War might be over, but Russian agents are still interfering in our affairs, exploiting our pettiness, and dividing the West.

Anything more would be a spoiler, but this novel is a real page-turner.

Highly recommended, if spy novels are your thing.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Renegade’ by Mark E. Smith Wed, 04 Nov 2020 10:39:22 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The lives and tales of Mark E. Smith.
‘Renegade’ by Mark E Smith

The best group in the history of British music was The Fall, and, as the late Mark E. Smith famously observed, “If it’s me and yer granny on bongos, it’s The Fall.”

I put off reading this memoir, translated through ghost-writer Austin Collings, for twelve years. M.E.S. (as he was abbreviated) was famously irascible, opinionated, and inebriated. I love his music, and I love his lyrics (when I can make them out). I didn’t want to end up disliking the fellow by reading his random, irascible, opinionated, inebriated thoughts on pretty much every topic under the sun.

I’m so glad I finally seized the nettle. Renegade is a fantastically entertaining book. Smith is indeed irascible, and opinionated, and (it’s a fairly safe bet) inebriated throughout. But he is also extremely funny, and genuine, and surprisingly likeable.

Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t have got on. And I can’t imagine what it must have been like to work with him. In four decades of The Fall, Smith managed to work his way through 66 musicians, not including my granny. But, despite being impossible, Mark E. Smith was bloody hard-working, and had a consistent philosophy on life, at least in his own mind.

  • M.E.S. on singing technique: ‘When in doubt, shout.’
  • M.E.S. on instrument technique: ‘If you’re going to play it out of tune, then play it out of tune properly.’
  • M.E.S. on Rough Trade Records: ‘They reminded me of kids at school who suddenly get into things. I remember being into Bowie’s Man Who Sold the World when I was a kid; all the other lads at school were listening to fucking Pink Floyd. Bowie was off the radar for half of them. Six months later they’ve all got fox-coloured hair and they’re acting fay and spacey. Rough Trade were like that, but in a business way.’
  • M.E.S. on the legendary gig that spawned a hundred bands: ‘The Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in ‘76, I thought, my lot are not as bad as that.’
  • M.E.S. on literary genres: ‘Writing about Prestwich is just as valid as Dante writing about his inferno.’
  • M.E.S. on artistic integrity: ‘I always try to write a Eurovision every two years, but there’s no way it’s going to happen. Most records I bring out, I just think this is what it should be, so it’s irrelevant what other people think.’

Mark E Smith as the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest entry, accompanied by my granny on bongos: now there’s an alternative reality I’d love to visit. In its absence, I’ll just have to keep on listening to those many, many peerless albums from the wonderful and frightening would of The Fall.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Austerlitz’ by W.G. Sebald Wed, 04 Nov 2020 10:36:57 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A haunting novel. File under Sebaldian.
‘Austerlitz’ by W.G. Sebald

I’ve given up trying to describe the late W.G. Sebald’s books, other than to say they’re indescribable—or Sebaldian.

Unlike his earlier three masterpieces, Vertigo, The Emigrants, and The Rings of Saturn, Austerlitz is clearly fiction. As with those other, harder-to-classify works, Austerlitz is about Europe and memory and loss, and loss of memory.

The eponymous Austerlitz, who reveals much of his story during a series of encounters with a nameless narrator bearing an uncanny resemblance to W.G. Sebald, was, we learn, brought up under a different name by foster parents in Bala, North Wales. At boarding school, his headmaster eventually informs Austerlitz of his real name. “Excuse me, sir, but what does it mean?” asks Austerlitz. He spends the rest of the novel trying to find an answer to his own question.

No spoilers. Austerlitz is a brilliant novel, written in haunting prose without paragraph breaks, made more real with Sebald’s trademark, enigmatic black and white photographs.

A fantastic read.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Tamed’ by Alice Roberts Wed, 04 Nov 2020 10:32:41 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ten species that changed our world.
‘Tamed’ by Alice Roberts

Many was the time I helped my farmer friend sort her beef cattle for market. They spent half the year grazing on the Moor, semi-wild, hardly ever encountering human beings. Getting them home was always a major challenge: some of the older cattle knew the ropes, but the younger ones tended to be skittish. Occasionally, one or two—usually adolescent males—would stand their ground and have a go at you. The more bolshie animals were usually the first to be sold to the butcher. Only the more docile beasts stood any chance of breeding next season.

As Alice Roberts points out early on in Tamed, the process Darwin dubbed artificial selection, whereby humans determine which traits in domesticated species make the cut to the next generation, and which are weeded out, is really just a special case of Darwinian natural selection in action. All else being equal, farmers much prefer docile animals to belligerent ones, so docility is a highly advantageous trait as far as farm cattle are concerned.

Cows are just one of the ten domesticated species Roberts investigates in this excellent book, the others being dogs, wheat, maize, potatoes, chickens, rice, horses, apples, and—somewhat surprisingly—humans. She describes the science behind various human-desirable traits, along with the latest research into where and when each species was originally domesticated, from which original wild species, and how the domesticated forms subsequently spread around the world.

As with Roberts’s TV work, and her earlier book The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being, I was impressed at the way she goes into exactly the right level of detail, treating the reader as an intelligent adult, rather than feeling the need to constantly dumb down. She explains a number of difficult scientific concepts clearly and engagingly. In an entirely different context, I recently attempted to explain one of these concepts myself for a chapter in my next book. Rather irritatingly, I had to concede Roberts’ explanation was far clearer than my own, so I made a note to myself to go back yet again and try harder!

Quite unplanned, I happened to read Tamed a couple of weeks after reading Jean Manco’s Ancestral Journeys, about the prehistoric and historic flow of peoples and cultures throughout Europe. Although the subject matter was different, the two books complemented each other very well.

Tamed is a thoroughly excellent read. Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane Tue, 27 Oct 2020 11:09:30 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A history of a fascination.
‘Mountains of the Mind’ by Robert Macfarlane

I’ve never understood the mountaineering mentality. When I was at school, and for a number of years afterwards, my mate Mike used to drag me up mountains. I absolutely loved photographing the views from the top, but trudging up the damn things never struck me as fun. Mike went on to climb Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, and to get within calling distance of the top of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalaya.

Robert Macfarlane’s excellent first book explores how people have thought about mountains over the years, from the pre-Romanticism days in which they were seen as appalling, to the Romantics finding them appealing, to modern mountaineers finding them addictive. In among the meticulously researched pages, Macfarlane also finds time to recount a few mountaineering tales of his own.

The self-confessed Darwin groupie in me was delighted to see my hero Charles Darwin receive plenty of coverage in the early chapters, along with his friends the geologist Charles Lyell and physicist and pioneer climatologist John Tyndall. Macfarlane is also very good on the Victorian craze for the Alps, and on George Mallory’s repeated attempts to be the first to bag Everest.

Despite my general bafflement at people’s determination to ‘conquer’ mountains, rather that simply appreciating their aesthetics, I found Mountains of the Mind a fascinating read.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Overhaul’ by Kathleen Jamie Sun, 25 Oct 2020 12:01:06 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A fantastic poetry collection.
‘The Overhaul’ by Kathleen Jamie

Truth be told, I would read Kathleen Jamie’s shopping lists, were she to publish them. When I came across her first two collections of essays, Findings and Sightlines, in 2012, she immediately became my favourite writer. Jamie has a precision with words—as you might expect from a poet.

I have an irksome habit of admitting I don’t really get poetry. In truth, what I mean by this is the clichéed I don’t know much about poetry, but I know what I like. In my defence, I do at least recognise certain poetry actually represents something worth trying to get.

I thoroughly enjoyed this short collection of poems. With the exception of a couple written in the Scots dialect, I got them. Unpretentious, with something interesting to say. More poetry should be like this. I especially enjoyed the poems containing a touch of science, including ones about a spring flood, the shadow of a hawk, watching the Galilean Moons through a telescope, and observing moonlight crossing a study.

This is fantastic stuff! Enough to make this philistine resolve to read more poetry—which I have tried to do since first reading this wonderful collection.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Ghosts on the Shore’ by Paul Scraton Sun, 25 Oct 2020 11:55:52 +0000 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast.
‘Ghosts on the Shore’ by Paul Scraton

Quite unplanned, in recent years I seem to have got into the habit of reading books with a German connection. It all began with W.G. Sebald, but then I somehow found myself reading Jan Rüger’s fantastic history of Heligoland, Esther Kinsky’s strange novel River, Werner Herzog’s even stranger travel book Of Walking in Ice, Ben Myers’ novel The Offing (set in the North East of England, but with a German protagonist), and Horatio Clare’s Something of His Art about a walk to Lübeck in the footsteps of J.S. Bach.

Paul Scraton’s Ghosts on the Shore picks up where Clare leaves off, in Lübeck. It’s a fascinating read, describing Scraton’s explorations along the Baltic coast of the former East Germany, from Lübeck to the Polish border.

During his travels, Scraton investigates the area’s heritage from the former communist and Nazi regimes, and from the earlier days of the Hanseatic League. As he visits towns along the way, he also describes the lives of some of the area’s former noteworthy literary figures. Scraton is an excellent observer, describing in just the right level of detail what it’s like to experience the region in person.

Interspersed within Scraton’s travelogue are three sections of a short story set in the region. Normally, Sebald excluded, mixing fact and fiction in the same book irritates the hell out of me, but, in this case, it’s perfectly clear which chapters are factual, and which fiction, and the story fits well with the overall themes of the book.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘After Nature’ by W.G. Sebald Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:11:46 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Three long-form poems, best read as prose.
‘After Nature’ by W.G. Sebald

After Nature comprises three long poems. Their subjects are, in order: the 16th-century painter Matthias Grunewald; the 18th-century botanist, zoologist, physician and explorer Georg Wilhelm Steller, and his place on the Bering expedition to farmost eastern Russia; and Sebald’s own early life.

To be honest, I would never have read this book, had it not been written by W.G. Sebald, one of my favourite authors, but I’m glad I eventually got round to it. The secret, to me at least, was to ignore the fact that the text is written as poetry, and simply to read it as ordinary, tightly written prose.

I struggled in places, especially with the Grunewald piece, but thoroughly enjoyed the other two. So much so that I ended up wanting to read more about Steller.

One for the Sebald fans.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald Sat, 24 Oct 2020 14:59:58 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) An unclassifiable masterpiece.
‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald

I keep re-reading The Rings of Saturn. It’s a masterpiece. It’s also a total enigma, being impossible to describe, but I suppose I ought to try.

The Rings of Saturn is a strange and wonderful mix of travelogue, memoir, history, and fiction. A typical chapter begins with Sebald describing in beautiful prose the next desolate place on an East Anglian walking odyssey—they're all desolate. But, before you know it, our narrator has somehow segueed into a section on Joseph Conrad, Roger Casement, the Emperor of China, Sir Thomas Browne, Chateaubriand, silkworms, some chap making a model of the Temple of Solomon, etc.—whatever the hell ‘etc.’ is supposed to mean when applied to seemingly random lists.

Sebald, I think, gives a hint as to what The Rings of Saturn is about in his opening paragraph: ‘the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place’. Having now re-read (many times) Sebald’s other enigmatic masterpieces, The Emigrants, and Vertigo, I have a better idea where he was coming from—but please don’t ask me to elucidate, as I wouldn’t do it justice.

The Rings of Saturn is as enigmatic as ever. You should read it. Then, you should read it again.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Vertigo’ by W.G. Sebald Sat, 24 Oct 2020 14:58:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) File under ‘Sebaldian’.
‘Vertigo’ by W.G. Sebald

Like many of the late W.G. Sebald’s books, Vertigo is almost impossible to describe. The only adjective that really seems to fit is Sebaldian. It’s a strange yet compelling blend of speculative biography, autobiography, travel writing, and fiction, interspersed with strange black and white photographs.

The book is in four, loosely linked sections, set mainly in Northern Italy and Sebald’s hometown in Germany. Two of the sections describe events in the lives of Henri Beyle (whom Sebald never bothers to tell us is better known to the world as the nineteenth-century writer Stendhal), and one ‘Dr K.’ (Sebald’s alias for Franz Kafka). The other two sections describe the narrator’s travels as he carries out research. As with a number of Sebald’s other books, this narrator is clearly meant to be him, albeit a somewhat fictitious version of him.

There are recurring themes—disorientation, unreliable memory, a dead hunter, a series of real-life murders, coincidences, short people, years ending with the digits ‘13’, and more—which somehow seem to link the various sections, though you’re never quite sure how.

Like I said, almost impossible to describe. I have read Vertigo and Sebald’s similar books, The Rings of Saturn and The Emigrants, many, many times. You should too: they’re fantastic.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald Sat, 24 Oct 2020 14:55:46 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) File under ‘Sebaldian’.
‘The Emigrants’ by W.G. Sebald

As with his books The Rings of Saturn and Vertigo, W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants is almost impossible to describe, let alone categorise. Sebald invented a strange, dream-like literary genre of his own: an odd mix of reportage, memoir and fiction. Or at least I think that’s the mix: it’s frankly impossible to tell which passages are factual and which invented. The library classification on the back of the book is of little help: Fiction/History. Thanks for that!

The Emigrants is split into four sections, each one dealing with a different person known to Sebald who ended up living as an emigrant. Sebald describes how he came to know the person in question, what they told him about themselves, and what he subsequently managed to piece together about them—either factually or conjecturally. The text is interspersed with photographs supposedly supporting Sebald’s research, although you never know for sure how much is true, and how much fiction.

As with Sebald’s other works, The Emigrants is an astonishing book. I’ve read it many times, and shall continue to do so. You should too.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘At the Yeoman’s House’ by Ronald Blythe Fri, 23 Oct 2020 19:23:34 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Short book about veteran author’s extremely old house.
‘At the Yeoman’s House’ by Ronald Blythe

Ronald Blythe is one of my favourite writers. I read this short book in a single sitting.

Blythe writes and ruminates about the history of his old yeoman’s farmhouse in Suffolk, the previous owner of which was his close friend the artist John Nash.

This is far from a meaty book, but it’s as enjoyable as Blythe’s other wonderful works. As an added bonus, the quality of the paper in my hardback edition was fabulous—an increasingly rare treat in British books these days.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
11 October 2020 Sun, 11 Oct 2020 21:00:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Geese and a genealogist. From bed, I heard the distant cries of scores of geese flying at altitude. Pink-footed, I think. Their grating calls reminded me of school chairs being scraped over classroom floors.

Doorstepped by an amateur family historian, whose great uncle’s three-year-old son fell to his death in 1908 from the hay loft of the barn that is now our living room. Perhaps that explains the mysterious, ghostly clunks that occasionally sound at random from nobody is quite sure where.

8 October 2020 Thu, 08 Oct 2020 21:00:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My first mole. Spotted a mole scuttling about the patio in the rain first thing. Incredibly fast, with comically short legs. My first ever sighting of a live mole.

6 October 2020 Tue, 06 Oct 2020 21:00:19 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Spooked some roe deer. Spooked two roe deer as I returned home from the weekly shopping early this morning. They were in the overgrown, boggy patch in the field behind the house, and trotted off towards Nutclough Wood, pausing several times to look back at me. Annoyingly, I didn’t have my camera to hand.

2 October 2020 Fri, 02 Oct 2020 21:00:25 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Seasonal fungi. A walk down into Hebden through the woods for bread. Lots of seasonal fungi about.

Beefsteak fungus (probably)
Beefsteak fungus (probably)
29 September 2020 Tue, 29 Sep 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A cloud sea, some railings, and some photogenic workmen. Suspecting there might be an impressive cloud-sea from Heights Road en route to Sainsbury’s first thing this morning, I brought along my camera. I’m so glad I did. The steep-sided upper Calder Valley yields some wonderful views at this time of year.

Cloud-sea, upper Calder Valley
Cloud-sea, upper Calder Valley
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Later, I walked down through the woods into Hebden Bridge for bread. There’s an old set of railings at the edge of the wood that must have been there quite some time, judging by how a tree has grown around them.


Later, as I trudged back up the hill, some men working on a roof spotted my camera and called out to have their photo taken. Always happy to oblige.

Take us photo!
Take us photo!
27 September 2020 Sun, 27 Sep 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A visit from Philip and his phamily. An excited call from Jen first thing: five pheasants in the garden. It looks as if Philip has finally brought the phamily round.

Philip and phamily
Philip and phamily
25 September 2020 Fri, 25 Sep 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In which I find an excuse to treat myself to a new rucksack. The local authority having seized the opportunity afforded by the coronavirus pandemic to make parking even more impossible in Hebden Bridge, I haven’t visited the local bakers’ shops in months. Today, the weather being pleasant, I decided to walk a new (to me) route down through the woods in search of a decent loaf. Stupidly, I forgot to take a shopping bag. I used this as an excuse to pop into one of the outdoor shops and treat myself to a handy little rucksack. I’ve been hankering after one for ages.

It’s a terrific slog back up the hill from Hebden Bridge, but experience shows the easiest route is up through the woods.

Heading home through the woods

I suppose I’ve set a precedent, now—and I even have a rucksack. So I expect to be making many more descents into Hebden Bridge over the coming months in pursuit of decent bread.

21 September 2020 Mon, 21 Sep 2020 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The last day of summer. An opening salvo against the squirrels. The last day of summer. A distinct nip in the air first thing. The upper Calder Valley had evidently decided to start the whole mists and mellow fruitfulness a day early, with a cloud-sea filling the valley bottom.


The squirrel that first appeared in the garden in June gradually became a regular visitor during the summer, then a permanent fixture. It’s now two squirrels. They’ve taken up residence in the neighbour’s oak, and have spent the last week secreting acorns about our garden for the coming winter, mostly burying them in either lawn. I have to say, they’re diligent hoarders, but I suppose that’s natural selection for you: they will have come from a long line of diligent hoarders; the less diligent ones’ lineages will have died out.

Ruth’s acorns are all well and good, but the squirrels have also discovered the expensive sunflower hearts on our bird table. Over the weekend, I tried an experiment, sprinkling chilli powder on top of the seeds. Chilli plants evolved their spicy taste to dissuade mammals from eating them. To spread their seeds far and wide, it’s preferable for chilli pods to be eaten by birds, which don’t digest the seeds in their stomachs. Birds are immune to the hot, spicy taste.

A short while after deploying my chemical weapon, I watched in interest as one of the squirrels shone up the pole of the bird table and began tucking into the seeds. After a single mouthful, the evil rodent froze in its tracks, then shook its head and pawed the side of its face agitatedly for a few seconds before running off for a deep drink at the bird bath. It hasn’t been back to the bird table since.

1–0 to Homo sapiens. But I fear this battle could run all winter.

11 September 2020 Fri, 11 Sep 2020 21:00:59 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A final session down on the rocks. · Anglesey ·

A final session down on the rocks, watching Sandwich terns teaching their young how to fish. As I’ve noticed before, the adults are far more accomplished hunters than their offspring, aborting dives far more often, and diving in at much steeper (i.e. vertical) angles. The young clearly got the idea they were supposed to dive vertically, but always seemed to chicken out at the last moment, hitting the water at a much shallower angle. The also never seemed to abort their dives. But practice makes perfect, and learning from an expert must really help.

Sandwich tern
Sandwich tern

As I was about to head back to the caravan, a rock pipit joined me briefly on the rocks. Very similar to the far more common meadow pipits that populate my beloved Moor, but noticeably different: darker, with more pronounced markings. A bird I shall forever associate with this beloved rocky coast.

Rock pipit
Rock pipit
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9 September 2020 Wed, 09 Sep 2020 21:00:30 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Another favourite Anglesey walk. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks again first thing. Sun dazzling on the water. Cormorants and razorbills fishing off the rocks. Gulls, oystercatchers, and the occasional curlew passing by. I briefly spotted either a porpoise or a dolphin about 300 metres away in the bay. A dolphin, I think. I waited for it to resurface, but I saw no further sign of it. Perhaps it drowned!

In the afternoon, another of my favourite walks along the north coast of Anglesey from Porth Wen via Hell’s Mouth to Porth Llanlleiana. The views were as stunning as ever.

Hell’s Mouth
Hell’s Mouth

Spotted a pair of choughs on a large rocky outcrop. There do seem to be more of them about these days. Fantastic birds.


Having struggled up the final, very steep climb from Hell’s Mouth, we took in the view from the Coronation ‘Tower’ of Edward VII. It’s more like a derelict concrete bus shelter than a tower, but the view across to Ynys Badrig is wonderful. This is the small island where the Briton now known to the world as St Patrick is said to have been shipwrecked en route to Ireland (in Welsh, Ynys = island; Badrig = Patrick). We then descended to Porth Llanlleiana, where we enjoyed our packed lunches while watching a trio of grey seals out in the cove, after which, we headed back to the car along the winding lane festooned with autumnal fruits.

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8 September 2020 Tue, 08 Sep 2020 21:00:55 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Seabird tornado, lizards, porpoises, and house martins. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks first thing, the low light sparkling on the sea, illuminating the village and island; the mainland shrouded in shadows.


After a while, I spotted a distant commotion in the glare out towards the Great Orme. A vortex of seabirds had formed a couple of miles out to sea. Gannets mostly. Lots and lots of gannets, with more joining all the time. The avian tornado circled clockwise, birds continuously plunging after fish from on high, down into the sea. The water was full of bobbing, squabbling seabirds. Many of the gannets in the water took off again, always to the right, into the wind, rising and circling clockwise with the general flow until they had gained sufficient altitude to dive again. At its height, several birds were hitting the water every second. After ten minutes or so, the commotion subsided, the twister lost its identity, and the gannets just disappeared, leaving hundred and hundred of gulls to mop up.

Bull Bay headland
Bull Bay headland

To Bull Bay in the afternoon for my favourite walk along the headland. In the unlikely event I turn out to be wrong about the non-existence of heaven, I imagine it would be very much like the north coast of Anglesey. I took all the same photographs I take every year because, well, why wouldn’t I? Gannets soared high above the sea. Gorse, heather, thrift and devil’s-bit scabious coloured the headland yellow, purple, pink and blue: Anglesey colours. Unusually, there was no sign of any ravens, but I did hear the happy, playful calls of choughs, and eventually managed to spot a secretive pair dibbing for worms with their curved beaks. In the unlikely event I also turn out to be wrong about the non-existence of reincarnation, I think I might like to come back as a Bull Bay headland chough.


A real thrill as we approached one of the kissing gates: a pair of common lizards sunning themselves on some black rubber that used to spring-shut the gate. Frustratingly, behind a wire fence as they were, it was impossible for me to get a decent photograph with my fancy camera, but then Jen had the brilliant idea of using the camera on her iPhone. I followed suit. Sometimes, the best camera for the job is the one you can squeeze through a wire fence! I was delighted with the result.

Common lizard
Common lizard

Having reached the far end of our walk overlooking Porth Wen, we took shelter from the strong onshore wind behind a low cliff and had a brew. Then it was back the way we came towards thrill number two: a pair of porpoises—mother and child—fishing just off the rocks.

Absence of ravens aside, a perfect walk!


Back to the rocks early evening. Scores of house martins milling about, stocking up on flies in the lea of the headland. They’ll be away soon. Most of the swallows have already gone, although there are still quite a few stragglers about. Or perhaps they’re not stragglers, but passage migrants from farther north.

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7 September 2020 Mon, 07 Sep 2020 21:00:18 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Watching razorbills. · Anglesey ·

Drizzle and rain forecast. A drab but exhilarating start to the day down on the rocks, where several campers were fishing. Curlew, oystercatchers, distant gannets, and a little egret. You never used to see them here. As I climbed the headland on my way back to the caravan, I watched a pair of razorbills fishing just off the rocks. The sea was so still and clear, I could see the white flashes of their flanks darting below the surface. They were incredibly fast underwater, just like penguins. I don’t suppose this should have come as such a surprise: the razorbill’s nearest known relative, the extinct great auk, bore the scientific name Pinguinus impennis, whose genus name was later applied colloquially to superficially similar flightless aquatic birds encountered by European explorers in the southern hemisphere. Auks and penguins are not closely related. Their similar(ish) body shapes are an example of convergent evolution, in which similar lifestyles have resulted in similar design solutions honed by natural selection.


Later, a spin out to a very drizzly Beaumaris for a bag of chips. Sadly, the pier was closed, but the gulls were every bit as annoying as we dined on a bench at the edge of the beach.

6 September 2020 Sun, 06 Sep 2020 21:00:37 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Watching yachts, and a walk along the Anglesey coast. · Anglesey ·

Down to the rocks first thing, the early sun sparkling on the sea in that special way it does. I watched first one and then another yacht sail away from the village in the general direction of Puffin Island and the Menai Straits. I knew there was a good photograph in there somewhere, so I kept snapping away until I got one.

Sailing away

Late morning, took our customary first-day’s walk north along the coast. Part of the coastal path was closed due to a landslide, so we had to take a diversion along the road. There was far more people about than usual, presumably on account of their having to reschedule their holidays due to the pandemic. Glorious weather. Cormorants and shags drying their wings in the sun on the island. Distant gannets.

Towards Lligwy

We walked along the headland as far as the pebble beach where Mum found fireflies when she was a little girl. People had been stacking stones all along the shore. I’m not sure how I feel about this. It’s just a bit of harmless fun, but I think beaches look best when they haven’t been ‘improved’ by people feeling the need to express themselves. Still, I suppose pristine normality will be restored, come the next storm.

Back down to the rocks after lunch. As I sat on my favourite rock, I had a visit from an eponymous rock pipit. It was remarkably well camouflaged among the stones. I idly watched what I initially took to be a curlew flying towards the island, but something about its jizz made me question my assumptions. As it sped determinedly towards its intended destination, my binoculars revealed it to be a peregrine falcon! What sort of nature writer mistakes a peregrine for a curlew?! My sort, apparently. I followed the peregrine until it became so small I lost it. I assumed it was intending to launch an attack on the birds on the island, but there was no commotion, so it must have been heading off around the headland.

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