Let the tweaking commence!

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

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!

11 October 2020

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.

29 September 2020

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
📷 More photos »

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!

25 September 2020

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

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.