Comfort books

So, 2020 is finally over. A well and truly good riddance! As a matter of principle, Jen and I stayed up long enough to see the new year in, then almost immediately hit the sack. Every year, I confidently predict the new year will be better than the last, but from now on I’m keeping my trap shut. Hoping for an improvement on 2020 is setting 2021 an awfully low bar, but I don’t want to tempt fate. (Not that fate can be affected by anything we say or do: that’s the whole point of fate… Not that fate actually exists.)

On New Year’s Day evening, I had the latest of my weekly FaceTime chats with my friend Stense. We both brought along a bottle to toast the new year. A year ago, who’d have thought video calls would become so important in our lives? Talking to my hard-of-hearing dad on the phone is an absolute nightmare at the best of times; FaceTime saved the day during the lockdowns. Regular video calls with a small number of close friends also helped make a dreadful year more bearable for me. I‘m sure I’m not alone.

Stense and I had actually done some homework for our latest chat. She’d spotted a book she thought we’d both like, so treated us both to copies for Christmas: The Bookseller’s Tale by Martin Latham. From next week, it’s unlikely Stense will have much time for reading or video calls, so we’ve agreed to read one chapter of the 13-chapter book per month, starting in December 2020, taking us neatly to the end of 2021. So, in advance of our first chat of the year, we’d both read chapter one, the subject of which is comfort reading.

Our conversation was fascinating. We talked about the books that have brought comfort to us over the years. It’s not my place to name Stense’s comfort books, but I reminisced about firm favourites from my childhood: The Story of Ferdinand (the first book I ever ‘read’—although I really recited it by heart); Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories; the Asterix comics; Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series; and all things Tolkien. I also told Stense about the authors whose works comfort me as an adult, in particular Kathleen Jamie, W.G. Sebald, and Ronald Blythe (whose Wormingford series brought a much-needed sense of tranquility during the first lockdown).

As we reached the end of our wonderful chat, I told Stense I wish I’d recorded our call, as it would have made a lovely podcast.

Stense looked mortified.

27 December 2020

During the course of the last three or four days, the offcumden squirrels have:

  1. regained access to the recently squirrel-proofed bird-table by gnawing through the heavy-duty cable-ties I’d used to secure the roof of the bird-table to the caged sides;
  2. regained access to the squirrel-proof glass bird-feeder by gnawing through the sheathed metal cable suspending the feeder from our cherry tree;
  3. eaten most of the fritillary bulbs Jen received as an early Christmas present and planted less than a week ago.

Of course, you realise this means war.

End of a streak

The ridiculous yet somehow magnificent streak had to come to an end eventually. Every Christmas Eve since 1988, I have climbed the locally impressive Moel Famau in North Wales. But not this year. The pandemic is to blame, obviously.

Moel Famau
Moel Famau in happier times (Christmas Eve 2018)

It began on the eve of Christmas Eve in a Yates’s Wine Lodge on the Wirral. I have no idea how I ended up there, as I’d never been to a Yates’s Wine Lodge before, and I certainly haven’t been back since. I was there with a couple of mates, Bryan and Peter. We had a lot to drink, and Bryan suggested we pop up Moel Famau early next morning to walk off his inevitable hangover. In those days, I didn’t get hangovers, but I was still drunk enough to agree.

Somehow it became a tradition. Every Christmas Eve after that, I ended up climbing Moel Famau. A couple of times, I went up on my own, but I was usually accompanied by various friends, and their friends and families. There were plenty of dogs involved too. I liked to joke my annual Christmas-Eve ascent of Moel Famau was the closest thing I had to regular exercise.

I find myself surprisingly unbothered by the breaking of my 32-year streak. There are far more important things to be bothered about at the moment. But I do hope to start a new streak as soon as possible. If I can make the next streak last 32 years, I’ll be at least 89 by the time I break my personal record. It’s certainly worth a shot.

Thanks to everyone who has accompanied me over the years. Thanks to Bryan and Peter, wherever they are these days. Thanks to Mike, his dad, his late wife, Lynne, and his friend Geoff. Thanks to my dear friend Stense. And special thanks to Carolyn, her partner Howard, their three children, Hazel, Aran and Chloë, and their extended family and friends. As Carolyn’s children have grown alarmingly quickly into adults, our annual ascents of Moel Famau have become a central feature of their Christmases. Indeed, I like to think I’ve handed on the baton, and am just accompanying them on their annual ascents.

As traditions go, it’s a pretty special one. Let’s hope we can resume it together soon.

22 December 2020

Yesterday’s winter solstice, and the rare alignment of Jupiter and Saturn both passed in a blanket of dense hill-fog, but Venus blazed cold and bright, low to the south-east in the pre-dawn sky, as I opened the gate this morning.

I stood admiring it for a couple of minutes, putting off the inevitable annual hell that is the Big Christmas Shop. As I did so, the silhouette of a barn owl quartered our farmer friend’s field beneath the so-called Morning Star. I hadn’t seen the local owl for several months, so an un-looked-for joy.

It’s little, unexpected wildlife encounters like these during the normal day that mean the most, I find.

17 December 2020

As the winter solstice approaches, the early morning sun is extremely low to the south east.

This morning, as I returned home from buying fish at the market first thing, a magnificent sidelight illuminated the dead leaves on the oak sapling in the corner of our garden. The sight was made even more spectacular set against the backdrop of moody clouds to the north.

Realising the view would only last a few minutes at most, I decided to grab a photo on my phone, rather than rushing indoors for my proper camera. As I composed the shot, I was distracted by movement in the corner of my eye: a pair of roe deer cantering across the neighbour’s field.

Not a bad start to a Thursday.

Side-lit oak
Side-lit oak.
(Note the pair of deer in the field.)

11 December 2020

Jen and I have continued to take our regular half-hour walks around the lanes the last couple of weeks. The early winter weather has been changeable to say the least. In the space of a few days, we saw thick fog, bright sunshine, and heavy early snow.

The weather today might most kindly be described as indescribable: thick hill-fog incorporating heavy rain. We decided to forego our walk, and I went to buy a Christmas tree. Now all we have to do is decorate the damn thing!

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.