Newsletter No. 31: ‘When nice old ladies wave’

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Forgive me, reader, for I have sinned: it has been two monarchs and three Prime Ministers since my last newsletter. Although a staunch (UK) republican, even I had to admit the death of Queen Elizabeth II felt like the end of an era (whereas, Johnson replaced by Truss replaced by Sunak feels like the continuation of an error).

In the non-stop news coverage leading up to the queen’s funeral, it was claimed more than once that, when she waved, you always felt she was waving at you. On the one occasion my path accidentally crossed with that of Her Majesty, this was literally the case.

It happened 20 years ago. I was walking through the streets of Liverpool on my lunch-break, when I encountered a gathering of several hundred people holding union flags. I had forgotten the queen was due in town to mark her 50th (golden) jubilee. So I headed down towards the River Mersey to get away from the royalist mob. A minute later, a police car slowly rounded the corner, followed by an old Bentley without any number-plates. I was the only person in the street. I gawped in embarrassed astonishment as Her Majesty and Prince Philip looked directly at me, smiled, and waved. This was it: my big chance to make my mark; to raise a clenched fist and cry, “Power to the people!” But somehow my fist wouldn’t clench. Instead, the fingers and thumb on my raised hand began to wiggle back and forth in what I hope came across as a not-too-ironic return-wave.

When nice old ladies wave at you, it’s always polite to wave back.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Making a medieval book (video)
    I love watching skilled craftspeople at work. Here, 60 hours’ work creating a medieval-style leather-bound book from scratch are compressed into 24 minutes. If you’d prefer to watch a much longer version, check out this playlist.
  2. First known map of night sky found hidden in medieval parchment
    A fabled star catalogue by the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus, presumed lost, has been recovered through detailed scientific analysis of a palimpsest.
  3. The Spirit of the Wetlands
    A long, moving piece by my friend Julian Hoffman about the drastic decline of Dalmatian pelicans in the Prespa lakes in northern Greece due to avian influenza.
  4. Mutual entrapment
    As Neolithic people transformed prehistoric forests, they stumbled into an ecological trap… Although I wrote about humans’ ongoing maintenance of heather uplands in my book On the Moor, I’d never really thought of heather as a domesticated species before.
  5. The simple secret of runway digits (video)
    Ever wondered how airport runways are allocated numbers? Me neither. This typically entertaining CGP Grey video spills the beans, taking several diverting diversions in the process.
  6. How darkness can illuminate the insect apocalypse
    On our increasingly light-polluted planet, it’s possible nocturnal insects might have been evolving to avoid artificial light. But, as we use light-traps to count many of them, how do we know our insect-population estimates over the years have been comparing like with like?
  7. Two-hundred years of Stendhal
    2022 marks the bicentennial of the pseudonym’s transformation from literary dabbler into one of the greatest novelists of the modern age.
  8. Why 8 eyes are better than 2 (…if you’re a spider) (video)
    Why do spiders have 8 eyes? It’s a seemingly simple question with a surprisingly complex answer. (Warning: Be prepared to develop a soft-spot for jumping spiders.)

A few bonus links 🔗

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

I’m planning to visit Cambridge soon on a mini Darwin pilgrimage. More of this, no doubt, in my next newsletter. Meanwhile, you might be interested in some sideline pieces I published recently about Charles Darwin’s note-making system, and some details of my own note-making ‘tagsonomy’. Those of a less nerdy nature might prefer the three pieces I wrote following my annual late-summer holiday in Anglesey about an encounter with dolphins and sitting on my favourite rock (parts 1 and 2).

Thanks as always for reading this newsletter—particularly if you’re a subscriber. In times like these, with the world’s richest narcissist and self-styled ‘free speech absolutist’ taking over Twitter, keeping in touch by email seems so much more sociable than so-called social networking.

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


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