Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter Book review: ‘Etta Lemon’ by Tessa Boase Mon, 26 Jul 2021 10:15:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) I am currently reading this book. Review to follow. Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.
The woman who saved the birds.

I am currently reading this book. Review to follow.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

HebWeb interview Thu, 22 Jul 2021 10:14:27 +0100 Richard Carter ( I have been interviewed for the local HebWeb site. I’m the most recent interviewee in George Murphy’s series of interviews with ‘local characters and personalities’ for the HebWeb site. I guess that must make me something of a character, as I certainly don’t have much personality.

HebWeb tweet
Sun’s all hottin’ in the rotten hot Thu, 22 Jul 2021 09:51:52 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Is it just me, or is it hot around here? Is it just me, or is it hot around here? Hot… in July: some sort of mistake, surely. The thunderstorms can’t be far off, mark my words.

Meadow at sunset
The meadow in front of our house at sunset last week.

Spotted a roe deer grazing at the far end of the neighbour’s field first thing this morning. It observed me as I opened the gate, but seemed to have decided it was too hot to get into all that running away business.

The locally rare siskin was back at the bird-feeder yesterday, and, on our walks around the lanes, there have been the occasional whitethroats and magnificently red male linnets.

Male linnet
Male linnet

The barn owl has been back a few times too. Only fleetingly, as usual. I’ve taken to keeping my camera to hand in the evenings, already set to the right settings. But I only ever seem to spot the owl as it’s about to leave. Still a thrill, though.

Barn owl
Barn owl in the gloaming
New facts emerge Fri, 16 Jul 2021 16:41:12 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) On the unavoidably provisional nature of essay collections.

…I am become most deeply interested in the way facts fall into groups. I am like Crœsus overwhelmed with my riches in facts.

—Charles Darwin to his cousin W. D. Fox, 8 February [1857]

It’s not just the absence of a natural narrative arc that poses a challenge when writing an essay collection loosely themed around Charles Darwin.

The almost limitless potential subject matter for my Darwin book, and Darwin’s continuing appeal and relevance, create another problem: all manner of interesting new stories continue to appear with reckless abandon on my Darwin news radar. It’s wonderful, really. The temptation to head off down some fascinating new rabbit-hole is constant and immense. It takes considerable will-power not to be distracted. I often fail.

But the real killer is when new facts emerge about some topic I’ve already ‘finished’ writing about. You wouldn’t believe how often, for example, a brand new press release appears in my RSS feed-reader concerning the evolutionary history of domestic dogs… I’ve done that chapter. Stop finding out interesting new stuff, bloody scientists!

Sometimes, new material can appear on the most esoteric subjects. Just weeks after I completed a chapter on how Darwin made species classification make sense, by identifying the natural way to group them is by genealogical descent, up pops a brand new academic paper about Darwin’s disagreement with his friend Thomas Henry Huxley on that very subject! I’ve earmarked that one for consideration when working on my second draft. But if I were less thick-skinned, I might start to take this sort of thing personally.

Over the years, I’ve slowly come to embrace the idea that factual writing in the essay format—my preferred genre—can never be definitive. Indeed, I see its incomplete, provisional nature as a large part of its appeal. Interesting new fact keep emerging. If it were possible to write a definitive book on the wide variety of Darwin-related topics that interest me, it would already have been written, and I would have to find something less interesting to write about—and to read.

The challenge to me as a writer is not to write the final word on the topics that interest me, but to try to convey some of that interest to my readers. Whether or not I succeed is another matter—but it is at least something I can get my teeth into, and try to do something about.

An arc of sorts Tue, 13 Jul 2021 22:05:06 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) On the emergence of unplanned themes. Certain categories of factual writing tend to have natural narrative arcs that lead to a sense of an ending. Memoirs, biographies and travelogues, for example, all recount true stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Other forms of factual writing have no obvious beginning or end, and could in theory go on indefinitely. After completing his encyclopaedic Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey didn’t feel compelled to stop writing about flowers. Once Delia Smith had written her hugely successful Cookery Course, it didn’t mean she’d run out of recipes to publish.

My own writing falls squarely into this second category. I write open-ended factual prose about stuff that happens to interest me. Although I appreciate it wouldn’t be good commercial practice to pitch my work as such, I write essay collections: individual pieces loosely strung together via a uniting theme. My first book was ‘about’ my walks on the local Moor, but it was really an excuse to write a series of mostly standalone essays about science, history and nature. The book I’m working on at the moment is ‘about’ Charles Darwin, but it’s really an eclectic collection of chapter-length essays about Darwin-related topics—once again, science, history and nature. Charles Darwin was a major historical figure, and I’m a major Darwin nerd: I could, in theory (and quite happily) spend the rest of my life researching and writing more and more Darwin-inspired chapter-essays, never exhausting the subject matter. But going on indefinitely would mean never finishing my book. As with my Moor book, I appreciate I’ll have to draw a line somewhere. But there’s always the next book.

Despite the absence of a planned narrative arc for my Darwin book, I am finding certain unplanned themes have started to recur in different chapters. I knew they would. The same thing happened with my Moor book. As with the Moor book, I’ve been keeping a detailed note of which themes raise their heads in which chapters, and how these unintentionally theme-linked chapters might most logically be arranged. Which means there will need to be a major re-ordering of chapters when I get to the second draft. Then I can start to build stronger links between these and other chapters, based on the themes that have emerged. With any luck, I might even give the impression such a structure was my intention all along. It’s the second draft that makes a book, as far as I’m concerned.

Even though there’s no obvious natural narrative arc to my Darwin book, emerging themes have started to provide an arc of sorts.

In other words, it turns out I’m writing exactly the sort of book I was hoping to write.

But there’s still a long way to go.

Book review: ‘The Screaming Sky’ by Charles Foster Sat, 03 Jul 2021 09:17:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A celebration of swifts.

A celebration of swifts.

‘The Screaming Sky’ by Charles Foster

I very much enjoyed this celebration of swifts, which receive my nomination for the most unusual birds found in the UK.

I've previously described swifts as turtles of the air in that, like sea turtles, swifts only leave their preferred element to nest. Otherwise, they spend pretty much their entire lives on the wing—including their sleeping hours. As Charles Foster puts it, far better than I did, swifts ‘inhabit the air as fish inhabit the sea’. Astonishing creatures.

Foster is a huge fan of swifts. He structures this delightful book around swifts’ yearly migration cycle. They only spend a few summer months in UK skies. We forget most of the protein that makes them is derived from African insects.

There are many wonderful, precise observations in this book: ‘[Swifts] hunt, they don’t trawl,’ Foster says. He also writes about the sky having tides, and of how, in flight, ‘swifts always seem to be pulled; never drive themselves forward’. That’s exactly right—although I’d never thought of it in that way.

Foster’s writing is anthropomorphic at times, but, as a shameless practitioner of that generally frowned-upon technique, I’m all for its deployment in moderation. As Foster puts it, ‘anthropomorphism […] is a good first guess as to what an animal is feeling’. Yes—and it’s also affectionate fun.

Finally, I should mention the production quality of this book. The publishers, the wonderful Little Toller, have done the author proud: The Screaming Sky is beautifully bound and illustrated, on top-quality paper, with a fabulous cover by Jonathan Pomroy. The book is an absolute delight to handle. There’s really no excuse for all books not being of a similar quality.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Book review: ‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport Fri, 02 Jul 2021 08:29:41 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Rules for focused success in a distracted world.

Rules for focused success in a distracted world.

‘Deep Work’ by Cal Newport

I decided to read Deep Work by Cal Newport after hearing it recommended more than once on Curtis McHale’s excellent YouTube channel.

Newport defines Deep Work as: ‘Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.’

He contrasts Deep Work with Shallow Work: ‘Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.’

In part one of the book, Newport sets out to convince us of the value and difficulty of performing deep work. I didn’t find this section at all useful: if I wasn’t already convinced, I wouldn’t have been reading the book in the first place.

In part two, Newport provides advice on how to go about giving deep work the priorities it needs, and on developing your deep work skills. There’s some sound advice in here—much of it obvious, but with a few non-obvious ideas worth thinking about. The following sort of things:

  • Avoid social media, and replying to emails, unless it significantly helps achieve your key goals.
  • Constantly flipping back and forth between deep and shallow work is a deep work killer. It takes time to get in the zone.
  • Keep some sort of scoreboard of the amount of deep work you do each day as an encouragement to maintain streaks.
  • Learn to embrace boredom (as opposed to constantly checking social media as soon as you feel bored). This will help break distracting habits.
  • Set yourself artificially tight deadlines.
  • Time-block your daily work, making suitable allowances for deep work, shallow work, and contingency. Monitor progress against these time-blocks and update throughout the day. The purpose of this is not to plan your day, but to recognise how bad you are at estimating task durations, and to identify stuff that gets in the way of deep work.
  • Learn to say no to shallow work.
  • When accepting shallow work from/with others, set/define expectations about what you are/are not prepared to contribute.

Deep Work didn’t provide as many suggestions as I’d hoped, but it did give some useful food for thought. I’ll probably revisit part two some time.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Unofficial Britain’ by Gareth E. Rees Fri, 02 Jul 2021 06:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Journeys through unexpected places.

Journeys through unexpected places.

‘Unofficial Britain’ by Gareth E. Rees

In Unofficial Britain, Gareth Rees sets out to explore the marginal areas of Britain. According to the book’s blub, the unofficial Britain Rees has in mind ‘is a land of industrial estates, factories and electricity pylons, of motorways and ring roads, of hospitals and housing estates, of roundabouts and flyovers’.

I very much liked the sound of this book, but regret to say I found it disappointing. I’m all for a bit of psychogeography, but I was soon put off by non-commital accounts of ’haunted’ locations. I don’t believe in ghosts, and I don’t think Rees does either, so why write about them neutrally, as if stories about them might somehow be true? I would have avoided the nonsense subject entirely, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to explore what it is that makes people invent such tales?

This is perhaps an unfair, very specific example. Much of Unofficial Britain has nothing to do with ‘paranormal’ nonsense. But, throughout, I couldn’t help wondering what the thesis of this book was supposed to be. As I say, the topics covered sounded very much like the sort of things I thought I’d like to read about—the same sort of topics covered in Richard Mabey‘s excellent The Unofficial Countryside, Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts’ equally excellent Edgelands, and Iain Sinclair’s occasionally challenging, more psycho-geographical London Orbital—but something about Unofficial Britain just didn’t hit the mark for me.


Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘The Eternal Season’ by Stephen Rutt Wed, 30 Jun 2021 12:19:53 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Ghosts of summers past, present and future.

Ghosts of summers past, present and future.

‘The Eternal Season’ by Stephen Rutt

Set during the (first) coronavirus pandemic summer of 2020—a time during which many British people sought solace in the natural world—The Eternal Season describes Stephen Rutt’s unplanned lockdown exile in southern England, and subsequent return to Scotland.

It’s a book about trying to enjoy, and find comfort from, the familiar seasonal minutiae of nature. But the more Rutt observes, the more he comes to appreciate our own species’ ongoing pernicious affects on the natural world.

Even though The Eternal Season celebrates joys of summer, it’s also a book with nagging concerns. Unwelcome changes are afoot. Baselines are shifting—sometimes so subtly we barely notice. But we should be noticing. Our new normals would once have been seen as alarmingly abnormal. As Rutt perceptively observes, ‘The worst catastrophes come in increments, not as a sudden apocalypse.’

As someone who himself tries to blend science- and nature-writing, I appreciate how difficult it is to get the mix just right. Rutt achieves this admirably. The Eternal Season is very much a traditional ‘nature’ book, but with just the right amount of science to make you stop and think. I picked up some useful new terms from this book. Terms I’ll now be incorporating into my own lexicon, such as phenological mismatch, photoperiod, and ecoliterate. But don’t let these unlovely terms put you off: they describe important concepts that gave this reader genuine pause for thought.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

29 June 2021 Tue, 29 Jun 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A lovely new circular walk. A walk with Jen up to Old Town, then down through the fields and back home via Nutclough Wood. Yellow rattle in the fields, and a tree full of raucous jackdaws near the rookery at Ibbot Royd.

Yellow rattle
Yellow rattle
Nutclough Wood
Nutclough Wood

A lovely new walk.

28 June 2021 Mon, 28 Jun 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk around Ogden Water, and an encounter with a locally rare bird. A walk around Ogden Water near Halifax. Only our second ever visit to the site. Last time we were there, the dam was being renovated, and we left distinctly unimpressed. But it’s a lovely spot now, and a walk around the reservoir is just the right length.

Ducks and geese, yellow flag irises, a grey heron, and a pair of great crested grebes (in the middle of the lake, so too far away to photograph, unfortunately).

Yellow flag iris
Yellow flag iris (and friend)

On a personal note, I was delighted to see the reservoir-construction commemoration stone, which was relocated to the visitor centre during the renovation work. The stone bears the name of the reservoir’s engineer, John Frederick Bateman. I first came across Bateman’s name when I was researching my book On the Moor. He designed many of the reservoir systems and supporting infrastructure around here, including the air-shafts on our local Moor. During my research, I was surprised to realise Bateman was tenuously connected with Charles Darwin’s reason for being in nearby Ilkley on the day On the Origin of Species was published.

Commemoration stone
Commemoration stone

Later, back at home, I was equally delighted to spot a siskin on our bird-feeder. They’re far from rare, but I hadn’t seen one in our garden for many years.

Noctilucent clouds Sat, 19 Jun 2021 10:10:47 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) One of the advantages of living in the same area as a number of other nature-writerish types is you occasionally receive really good tip-offs. One of the advantages of living in the same area as a number of other nature-writerish types is you occasionally receive really good tip-offs. Like this one from last night, courtesy of Amy Liptrot, who lives just down the hill from us:

Noctilucent clouds

More on noctilucent clouds.

Being prepared Wed, 16 Jun 2021 21:01:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) The barn owl returns bang on schedule. We’ve had a couple of brief sightings of the local barn owl over the last few evenings, so, this evening, I decided to have my camera at the ready, just in case it passed by. To my delight (but not to that of one of the local voles’), it did:

Barn owl with vole

For a brief moment, I thought I was finally about to be on the receiving end of the perfect fly-by: a barn owl with a kill in broad daylight flying straight towards me when I had my camera primed and ready. But about ¼ second after I took the above photo, the owl spotted me and did a handbrake turn, heading off across the fields towards my farmer friend’s barn.

Still, though: another thrilling encounter.

Swift visit Wed, 16 Jun 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) In search of Apus apus. En route to Saltaire, Jen and I paid a quick visit to Hewenden viaduct to see if there were any swifts about.

Hewenden viaduct

There were indeed:


Then on to Salt’s Mill, where, rather appropriately, I picked up a copy of Charles Foster’s recent book celebrating swifts, The Screaming Sky.

Book review: ‘The Jeeves Omnibus, vol. 3’ by P.G. Wodehouse Wed, 09 Jun 2021 07:22:31 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Pip pip!

Pip pip!

‘The Jeeves Omnibus, vol. 3’ by P.G. Wodehouse

As you’d probably guess, volume 3 of The Jeeves Omnibus continues in very much the same vein as volumes 1 and 2: lots of what-ho-ing, unlikely predicaments, and fearsome aunts.

Unfortunately, the first part of this collection comprises a short Jeeves novel in which his boss, Bertie Wooster, does not appear. Most of the enjoyment of Jeeves stories, it seems to me, is that they are narrated in the first person by the well-meaning but dim Wooster. So, an opportunity (and formula) wasted. But the rest of this collection is exactly what you might have come to expect, if you’ve encountered this sort of thing before:

The Right Hon. was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and had forgotten to say “When!”

If you don’t find that sort of thing funny, this book is probably not for you. (But, if you don’t find that sort of thing funny, there’s probably little hope for you.)

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘The Heeding’ by Rob Cowen Wed, 09 Jun 2021 07:19:17 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Astonishingly good poetry collection.

Astonishingly good poetry collection.

‘The Heeding’ by Rob Cowen & Nick Hayes

Having successfully completed a campaign to force myself to enjoy olives and oysters, and in parallel with another to gain a better appreciation for a well-played game of chess, my concerted effort to acquire a taste for poetry continues in earnest. I have long liked the idea of olives, oysters, chess and poetry: I could see there was something in them, even when I couldn’t see anything in them. (I, of course, drew a line at jazz and opera.)

What I’ve discovered so far about poetry is that it falls into three broad camps:

  1. utter bilge;
  2. stuff that reads through perfectly sensibly and inoffensively, but that does nothing for me;
  3. stuff I really, really like.

Taking my penetrating analysis to the next level, I’ve begun to notice certain similarities between the poems that fall into the third (and by far smallest) category: they tend to be modern, precise, unpretentious, and relatively unconstrained by rhyme schemes and metre. It turns out I like poetry to adopt a similar approach to my favourite prose: keep it succinct; don’t try to show off; and make it about something I can relate to.

I’m glad to say Rob Cowen’s collection, The Heeding, beautifully illustrated by Nick Hayes, falls squarely into this third category. I thoroughly enjoyed these poems. They’re deeply personal, well observed, moving, and a pleasure to read.

A number of themes run through the collection: family life, nature, and the 2020 pandemic being the three most obvious. They’re themes that go uncannily well together.

The pieces that stood out to me on first reading included a remarkably affectionate poem about starlings, and a haunting account of the last moments of an elderly man in a nursing home. But it’s unfair to single out individual poems from a collection that, to this poetry philistine at least, seemed consistently excellent throughout.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Book review: ‘Women on Nature’ by Katherine Norbury (ed.) Wed, 09 Jun 2021 07:16:22 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 100+ voices on place, landscape and the natural world.

100+ voices on place, landscape and the natural world.

‘Women on Nature’ by Katherine Norbury (ed.)

Women on Nature is an enjoyable anthology of nature-related writing by women writers, past and present, based in Britain and Ireland. It provides an eclectic mix of factual writing, fiction and poetry.

I approach books like these very much as tasters: as a way to try out writers I haven't encountered before whom I might want to look into in future. In this respect, I picked up a few excellent pointers—although I was embarrassed to discover one of the ‘new’ authors I identified in this anthology was a woman whose non-eponymous Twitter feed and blog I already followed and enjoyed. Note to self: there are real names behind obscure handles.

If you’re into nature-related writing, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this anthology.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.

Disclosure: Women and Nature was a crowdfunded project from Unbound. I was one of the 842 sponsors.

Book review: ‘Thames Mudlarking’ by Jason Sandy & Nick Stevens Wed, 09 Jun 2021 07:13:44 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) Searching for London’s Lost Treasures.

Searching for London’s Lost Treasures.

‘Thames Mudlarking’ by Sandy & Stevens

Thames ‘mudlarks’ are dedicated amateur archaeologists who seek washed-up treasures on the mud-, sand-, and shingle-banks of the River Thames in and around London.

London is a city with a long history. Thames Mudlarking takes us on a whistle-stop tour from pre-historic times to the present day. Each chapter gives a broad overview of a particular period in the city’s history, then describes the types of artefacts from that period that have been recovered by mudlarkers, from fossils and flint arrowheads to messages in pop bottles.

My first impression of this booklet was that it resembled a beautifully illustrated museum exhibition catalogue. In many ways, that’s exactly what it is, as many of the finds described and illustrated now reside in museums.

A very nice little book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Talon spotting Thu, 03 Jun 2021 20:53:05 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A barn owl on a hunting expedition. As Jen and I trudged up the hill, two minutes into our evening walk, we heard a rasping commotion. Seconds later, a barn owl flew across the road and disappeared between two houses with an outraged mistle thrush in hot pursuit.

A few minutes later, as we walked up the farm track above our friend’s field, Jen spotted the owl again, heading up the field. We watched as it zig-zagged back and forth, then plunged dramatically into the long grass after some rodent. Missed! It then headed farther off down the field before taking a second plunge, staying down a lot longer this time. We correctly guessed it had made a kill. A couple of minutes later, it rose from the field, heading in our general direction, with the remains of a hapless vole clasped in its talons.

Barn Owl
Going for the kill
Barn owl with hapless vole
31 May 2021 (redux) Mon, 31 May 2021 19:11:32 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Hebden Bridge has reached Peak Yellow. A glorious mid-afternoon walk down Burlees Lane and up through Hill House Wood. Hebden Bridge has reached Peak Yellow.

Yell OH!

A buzzard hovered above the ridge at the bottom of the lower field on the Farm, then shot off towards Mytholmroyd, mewing constantly. It’s good to see them becoming a bit more common around here: like many birds of prey, for some inexplicable reason, they don’t seem to fare well in grouse-shooting country.

Book review: ‘Steal Like an Artist’ by Austin Kleon Tue, 18 May 2021 12:43:20 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) 10 things nobody told you about being creative.

10 things nobody told you about being creative.

‘Steal Like an Artist’ by Austin Kleon

As with Austin Kleon’s later books, Show Your Work, and Keep Going, the subtitle says it all: stealing like an artist is just one of the ‘10 things nobody told you about being creative’.

As with the other books in the series, there’s some sound advice in here—even though, I would contend, despite the claim of the subtitle, some of the advice is far from original. But a fun and motivating read.

As with the other books in the series, I feel compelled to point out that Steal Like an Artist is rather expensive for such a short book.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Newsletter No. 22: His glib, beardless chops Fri, 02 Apr 2021 08:45:43 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Insensitive teenager · Helen Macdonald · Patrick Barkham · Richard Mabey · Julian Hoffman · photography · Mars · Christina Riley · icebergs · bowling alleys · cassette tapes · Richard Thompson · Antikythera mechanism · and more… Rich Text

2ND APRIL 2021


When I was at secondary school, I would often remark, with complete confidence, that I would die of a heart-attack at 56. I think I must have thought I was being funny, talking so matter-of-factly about my distant, yet tragically young demise. How I wish I could go back in time and slap my teenage self across his glib, beardless chops.

Today, I hit 56. If there’s one thing I’m determined to do over the next 12 months—if for no other reason than to prove that young idiot wrong—it’s to make it all the way through. Either that, or die in the attempt.

Anyway, I thought I’d better send this latest newsletter out pretty damn smartly, just in case…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing

These go all the way to eleven:

  1. The things I tell myself when I’m writing about nature
    Helen Macdonald gives some sound, ‘not-too-serious and also quite serious’ nature-writing advice.
  2. ‘Viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are all part of nature’
    Patrick Barkham interview the veteran British nature writer Richard Mabey. As a fan of both nature-writing and literary correspondence, I was intrigued to read Mabey is considering writing his next collection of essays in the form of letters, very much in the style of his hero Gilbert White. Sounds perfect.
  3. The Wild Nearby
    My mate Julian Hoffman on how the wild wills its way into the most developed and unexpected of places.
  4. The Royal Photographic Society archive
    The Royal Photographic Society Journal is the oldest continuously published photographic periodical in the world. This digital archive provides searchable access to all issues from the first, in March 1853, up to 2018. Best viewed in full-screen mode.
  5. Perseverance Rover’s descent and touchdown on Mars
    We are a talented species. Nasa’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission captured thrilling footage of its rover landing on Mars.
  6. Emerging from a mussel shell
    Christina Riley tracks down the work of pioneering seaweed collector and artist Mary A. Robinson.
  7. Iceberger
    A website inspired by a tweet. Draw icebergs and see how they would float. It’s totally addictive.
  8. Right Up Our Alley
    Astonishingly skilful drone footage captured inside a bowling alley.
  9. Lou Ottens, inventor of the cassette tape, dies aged 94
    Thanks for all the mix tapes. The Dutch engineer was also instrumental in the development of the first CD.
  10. ‘I had to put the pen down, take a deep breath, have a little cry’
    Britain’s greatest guitarist, Richard Thompson, has finally written his memoir, covering a life-changing crash, and his fiery romance with his ex-wife and singing partner Linda Thompson.
  11. Scientists may have solved ancient mystery of ‘first computer’
    Researchers claim a breakthrough in study of 2,000-year-old Antikythera mechanism, an astronomical calculator found in the sea.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

After I’d made some encouraging progress on my Darwin book, things suddenly ground to a halt this month. I used this as an excuse to investigate a new(ish) software app designed to help people like me link and analyse their notes. I was hugely impressed.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off for some low-cholesterol cake.

See you next time.

…I hope.


Newsletter No. 21: Positively sluggish Fri, 19 Feb 2021 16:14:38 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Richard Mabey · Tim Dee · Mark Cocker · Amy Liptrot · Kathleen Jamie · Patti Smith · Alan Bennett · Melissa Harrison · Urban Birder · Patrick Wright · Clive James · and more…
Rich Text



A belated Happy New Year! I hope you and yours are keeping safe and well. It’s not a particularly ambitious target, but let’s hope 2021 pans out significantly better than its predecessor.

Despite misgivings, I decided to stick with tradition and publish an annual video slideshow for 2020. Ninety-seven photos of life pretending to go on as normal.

In other news, I’m pleased to report progress on my Darwin book has accelerated from sub-glacial to a positively sluggish. Coincidentally, slugs feature prominently in one chapter—although I appreciate I probably shouldn’t mention this in future sales pitches. But it does very much feel as if the book is finally starting to come together. Slowly. I think.

When I ought to have been working on my book, I’ve continued to bang out occasional ‘Sideline’ posts. Here’s what I got up to in January and February.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Happy Birthday Richard Mabey!
    Richard Mabey turns 80 tomorrow (20th February). Tim Dee celebrates the author who pretty much single-handedly invented modern nature writing. And there’s even the obligatory Twitter #MabeyMonth hashtag.

  2. How we lost our green and pleasant land
    Mark Cocker on how the pandemic has revealed not only how essential Britain’s natural landscape is, but how little ownership we have over it.

  3. A Hyper-Local Spring
    Amy Liptrot on contracted horizons during the pandemic.

  4. Keep him as a curiosity: Botanic Macaroni
    Steven Shapin reviews The Multifarious Mr Banks: From Botany Bay to Kew, the Natural Historian Who Shaped the World by Toby Musgrave.

  5. Art Lessons
    Peter Campbell was the resident designer and art critic at the London Review of Books until his death in 2011. In these 1996 notes, he offers art advice to Anna Fender.

  6. The Greatest Journey of All Time
    Gillen D’Arcy Wood on how the first Americans made their way from Siberia to Patagonia.

  7. Tweeted new poem
    Kathleen Jamie: ‘After a weepy morning missing folks and thinking This Will Never End, I made myself go out. Wrote a re-balancing poem. Feel better now.’

  8. ‘As a writer, you can be a pacifist or a murderer’
    As she prepared to ring in 2021 with a performance on screens at Piccadilly Circus, Patti Smith explained why she was optimistic amid the ‘debris’ of Trump’s years in office.

  9. Honeybee historians reveal how the UK floral landscape has changed over the last 65 years
    Scientists have compared flower DNA extracted from British honey made in 1952 and 2017. Their results reflect changes in UK agriculture, and provide evidence for how best to increase floral resources.

  10. A Round of Applause
    The latest annual collection of Alan Bennett’s diary entries, courtesy of the London Review of Books.

Plus… Three excellent videos featuring prominent nature writers:

  1. Discussion and reading with Tim Dee and Kathleen Jamie
    A fascinating, hour-long conversation hosted by New Networks for Nature Online 2020.

  2. Second Nature - New nature writing from Scotland
    An 18-minute documentary featuring five award-winning writers talking on the subject of nature and nature writing today: Kathleen Jamie, Jim Crumley, Chitra Ramaswamy, Roseanne Watt and Gavin Francis.

  3. In Conservation with… Melissa Harrison
    As a Zoom-call audience member, I very much enjoyed this hour-long conversation between the Urban Birder (David Lindo) and novelist and nature writer Melissa Harrison.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »
Note: My book reviews now contain links to the recently launched UK branch of, a website supporting local, tax-paying, independent British bookshops.

And finally…

Thanks for taking time to read this newsletter. I hope you enjoyed it. Feedback is always welcome. With Facebook throwing its weight around (yet again) regarding who is allowed to see what, and with Twitter prepared to boot even the (then) President of the United States off its platform, I can’t help feeling cutting out the giant social-media middlemen and relying on good, old-fashioned, uncensored, unmediated email is the right way to go.

So, if you’re reading a copy of this newsletter on my website, and you haven’t subscribed yet, perhaps you better had. (That’s a spectacularly unsubtle hint, in case you didn’t notice.)

See you next time, spam filters permitting.


2020: a year in photos Fri, 01 Jan 2021 00:00:00 +0000 Richard Carter ( My tenth annual video slideshow. For the last few years, at this time of year, I’ve produced a video slideshow of photos to sum up my year just gone. Here’s the 2020 video:

Consistent beyond reproach, as in previous years, this year’s slideshow contains 97 photographs.

The background music, Igneous Rock, is also by Yours Truly. I don’t have an ounce of musical ability. Thank goodness for Garageband!

See also: Previous years’ video slideshows

Newsletter No. 20: Giving it the David Attenboroughs Mon, 20 Jul 2020 15:23:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) In which I gatecrash a podcast, and share cool stuff by the likes of: Melissa Harrison · Luke Turner · Werner Herzog · Merlin Sheldrake · Robert Macfarlane · Gaby Wood · Caught by the River · Philip Hoare · and a host of talented extras.
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20TH JULY 2020


I hope you and your loved ones are still keeping safe and well.

Work continues apace on my ‘Darwin book’. It’s not a particularly pacy pace, I’ll grant you, but if Darwin taught us anything it’s that small developments over long periods can lead to wonderful outcomes. I’ve recently been writing about that very topic, as well as evolutionary vestiges, the geographical distribution of marsupials, birds’ nesting instincts, colour vision, bats, hypothetical bears, and a bunch of other stuff. I think this book might best be described as ‘eclectic’.

My research into bats provided me with the perfect excuse to gatecrash Melissa Harrison’s delightful nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. You can hear me giving it the David Attenboroughs live(ish) from my back garden in episode 16, which went out earlier today. I’ve posted an extended version of my audio piece at the end of this article about the fiasco I went through putting it together.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I rant against the jungle
    Werner Herzog fan Luke Turner interviews the man himself.
  2. How Margiad Evans wrote the earth
    One I’ve just added to my ‘To Read’ list… Margiad Evans’ writing is largely unknown outside her adopted Wales. Steven Lovatt introduces this nature writer of precision and feeling.
  3. Fungi’s lessons for adapting to life on a damaged planet
    Merlin Sheldrake in conversation with Robert Macfarlane about Sheldrake’s new book, Entangled Life, looking at the complex world of fungi.
  4. Vast neolithic circle of deep shafts found near Stonehenge
    Archaeologists have discovered an impressive prehistoric structure spanning 1.2 miles.
  5. Tea and capitalism
    Dutch merchants were the first to import tea leaves into Europe in 1609, but by the late 1700s it was the English East India Company, backed by state monopoly, that came to dominate what became known as the ‘Canton Trade’.
  6. How to draw an albatross
    My favourite genre of writing: a fascinating blend of nature, science and history by Gaby Wood.
  7. The 2020 Audubon Photography Awards
    Stunning bird photographs.
  8. Could the art of ‘sashiko’ help to mend our frayed world?
    In sashiko, the art of fabric-repair, the goal is not to hide the repair, but to celebrate it. It exemplifies the Japanese principle of wabi-sabi.
  9. An Antidote to Indifference—online in full!
    The wonderful Caught by the River website marked the 13th anniversary of their first post by making two editions of their irregular physical publication, An Antidote to Indifference, available free online.
  10. The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’
    Since September 2019, medieval scholars have heatedly debated the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
  11. PLACE 2020
    The Centre for Place Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University has just launched a digital project bringing together writers and artists to think about place and its meanings in 2020. A fabulous new resource.
  12. The Blues Brothers at 40: a manic musical romp that still sings today
    A 40th-anniversary tribute to my favourite film—although I don’t think the article makes clear just how fantastic the soundtrack is!

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

To mark the 300th anniversary of the great parson-naturalist, I recently wrote about Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin.

If you still have any reading left in you after that lot, please keep checking in on my latest Sidelines posts. Highlights from July 2020 include a nice photo of Comet Neowise over Hebden Bridge, and this recent photo of a barn owl in the field in front of our house:

Barn owl

Keep safe. Keep well. And I’ll see you next time.


Giving fiascos a bad name Mon, 20 Jul 2020 11:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) How not to make a simple three-minute podcast piece. It seemed like such a nice idea. I’d been reading up on bats for a chapter of my ‘Darwin book’. I’d also been eavesdropping on the local bats with my bat-detector. It suddenly dawned on me that I might be able to record a short piece about watching bats for Melissa Harrison‘s lovely nature podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things. Rather than thinking things through, I immediately pitched the idea to Melissa. She liked the sound of it. My brief: please keep it to three minutes maximum, and avoid recording when it’s windy. Fair enough. I was sure I could stretch what I had to say to three minutes.

The next few weeks bore witness to the kind of ineptitude that gives fiascos a bad name, as I struggled manfully with all manner of incompatible technologies, and carried out a number of spectacularly unsuccessful dry runs.

The idea was to capture simultaneous recordings of bat-clicks from the bat-detector, and me giving a running commentary via a lapel-microphone. I’ll spare you the technical details. During the first dry run, instead of capturing the intended bat-clicks, I managed to record 15 minutes of me, off-mic’, stumbling around in the dark, treading on slugs and swearing at bitey insects. It turned out I’d used the wrong type of cable. In the second dry run, my voice totally drowned out the recordings of the bats. After more tinkering, I finally cobbled together an admirably inelegant and complicated solution that I was 50% confident might just work. The following evening, I was all set to go, but the weather turned windy. I made a couple of test recordings of bat-clicks, just to prove I actually could, then decided to wait for calmer weather.

Next morning, I discovered I’d somehow managed to fry my bat-detector. It was totally dead. I contacted Melissa to say things weren’t looking too peachy. Then I remembered my two test recordings from the night before. Maybe I could use those! So I retrieved them from my trash folder and switched to Plan F. Plan F was much less ambitious: a simple piece to microphone, interspersed with the recovered bat recordings I already had safely in the can. What could possibly go wrong?

It took a week for the unseasonably strong winds to subside. Finally, the perfect evening arrived: clear sky; still air; crescent moon. Serenity reigned. As I waited for the first bats to appear, I clicked the record button on my phone, and began to deliver my intro…

It’s about an hour after sunset, and I’m standing in my garden looking across the Hebden Valley towards…

Suddenly, somewhere in the middle-distance, a small crowd of people began to sing. The noise grew. There seemed to be some celebration taking place—here, in the middle of nowhere, 230 metres above sea-level in the West Yorkshire Pennines! In my 19 years living on this tranquil hillside, I’d never heard such a commotion. Bloody uncanny timing! I decided to give the celebrants a few minutes to calm down. While I waited, I checked the news on my phone… Ah… Mystery solved! After a gap of 30 years, Liverpool F.C. had just become English soccer champions! #YNWA

When, after 30 minutes, the celebrations showed no sign of subsiding, I decided to trust to luck and hid behind a tree, hoping my microphone wouldn’t pick up the distant strains of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Come on, Richard: three minutes on bats. Strut your stuff! A little bit of science, a little bit of history, a couple of jokes… how hard can it possibly be?

Two hours: that’s how hard! Two whole hours! This thanks mainly to my inability to talk into a microphone for more than ten seconds without tripping over my own tongue. The neighbour’s dog barking at the weirdo talking to himself in the next garden didn’t help either. Neither did the local tawny owl that decided to start hooting midway through a very promising take that was immediately rendered unusable due to my expletives.

Somehow, I got there in the end. I was frankly astonished when the first edit of my piece came in at a little under six minutes. To meet the brief, I had to do a lot of trimming. Out went most of the science and history; in remained most of the crap jokes. With scalpel-like precision, I even had to excise a few phrases from the middle of sentences in order to squeeze in under the three minutes with an entire second to spare.

You can listen to my final three-minute edit on episode 16 of Melissa’s podcast. As for the full-blown original version, I went through quite a bit of hassle putting it together, so I’m damned if I’m not going to make use of it somewhere. So why don’t I post it here, in all its unexpurgated wordiness?

Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin Sat, 18 Jul 2020 08:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Articles – Richard Carter) To mark the 300th anniversary of his birth, a brief account of Rev. Gilbert White’s influence on Charles Darwin. 18 July 2020

Today marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of the great Hampshire parson-naturalist Gilbert White, whose classic book The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has been in continuous print since 1789.

Charles Darwin was something of a Gilbert White fanboy. In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, he reminisced about his own childhood fascination with natural history:

From reading White’s ‘Selborne’, I took much pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every gentleman did not become an ornithologist.

’The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White
Title page of one of my copies of ‘The Natural History of Selborne’ by Gilbert White.

Had history taken a slightly different turn, and had the opportunity not arisen of a place aboard HMS Beagle, there’s a very good chance Darwin might himself have ended up a parson-naturalist. His father’s plans for him, once he had dropped out of medical training, was for a career as a country clergyman. It was to this end that Darwin studied at Cambridge.

In 1846, Darwin wrote to thank Leonard Jenyns for a promised copy of his new biography of Gilbert White. Jenyns was a parson-naturalist himself, and had turned down the offer of the place aboard HMS Beagle, suggesting Darwin as a suitable alternative. Of the White biography, Darwin observed:

I feel sure I shall like it, for all discussions & observations on what the world would call trifling points in Natural History, always, appear to me very interesting. In such foreign periodicals, as I have seen, there are no such papers, as White, or Waterton; or some few other naturalists in Loudon’s & Charlesworth’s Journal, would have written, & a great loss it has always appeared to me.

White and his classic work are mentioned several times in Darwin’s correspondence and notebooks, and in a number of his published works, including The Descent of Man, The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, and The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms.

In his late 40s, while visiting a nearby ‘water-cure’ establishment for his various ailments, Darwin, in his son’s words, ‘made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Gilbert White at Selborne’.

Anyone whose classic book influenced my hero is also a hero in my book.

Happy 300th birthday, Rev. White!

The above article also appeared on my Friends of Charles Darwin website.

Bats podcast piece Thu, 16 Jul 2020 11:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter ( I make a guest appearance in episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s podcast ‘The Stubborn Light of Things’. Here’s an extended version. I made a guest appearance in episode 16 of Melissa Harrison’s delightful podcast The Stubborn Light of Things, in which I talked about the science, history and natural history of bats.

I’ve posted an article about the fiasco I went through making my three-minute piece. If you’d like to listen to the extended (5 min 45s) version, here it is:

Newsletter No. 19: Comfort Reading Sun, 10 May 2020 14:08:26 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Melissa Harrison · Tim Dee · Horatio Clare · John Mitchinson · Ronald Blythe · Mary Beard · Benjamin Myers · Zack Arias · Eric Newby · greenland sharks · Maunsell forts · England rugby · Charles Darwin (obviously)
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10TH May 2020


I hope you and your loved ones are keeping safe and well.

The extra time freed up by the lockdown has afforded me some uncharacteristically productive stints of writing on my ‘Darwin book’. In recent weeks, I’ve been exploring, among other topics, beards, the dawn chorus, and birds’ nests. As I’ve said before, everything has a Darwin connection.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison has launched a new podcast, The Stubborn Light of Things, documenting the wonder and richness of the natural world. It brims with delight.
  2. Confined to his ‘sometime new home at the bottom of Africa’, Tim Dee will this year miss springtime in his ‘sometime old home in England’. This has led him to meditate on Gilbert White’s Swallows. (See also Comfort Reading below.)
  3. Horatio Clare passes on some valuable lessons he learnt writing a memoir about his parents’ divorce.
  4. Sarah Beavins describes a recent visit to the wonderful Ronald Blythe at his home, Bottengoms Farm. (See also Comfort Reading below.)
  5. Unsatisfied with George Orwell’s description of patriotism, John Mitchinson digs deep into his own personal history to untangle the complex roots of his Englishness.
  6. I loved the Asterix books as a kid, and appreciate them even more as an adult. When their illustrator, Albert Uderzo, died in March, the London Review of Books resurrected historian Mary Beard’s earlier piece Bonté Gracieuse! Astérix Redux.
  7. Benjamin Myers has released a PDF ebook of his short story A Stone Statue in the Future in support of independent publishers Little Toller and Bluemoose Books. An excellent coffee-break read for the price of a cup of coffee.
  8. As a keen photographer, I first became aware of the legendary travel writer Eric Newby through his wonderful photo-book What the Traveller Saw. The Royal Geographical Society recently launched a new virtual exhibition based on the book.
  9. After a hiatus of several years, American photographer Zack Arias recently relaunched his entertaining YouTube channel. Although I’m not feeling in the least burnt out, I particularly enjoyed his video Burn Out 02 : How To Restart Yourself : Inspiration Is For Amateurs, which provides some sound advice that doesn’t just apply to photographers or the burnt out.
  10. Caroline Crampton on the iconic WW2 Maunsell forts in the Thames Estuary.
  11. Katherine Rundell on the fascinating Greenland shark.
  12. The mystery of why fans sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot at England rugby union matches has finally been solved.

Comfort Reading

In this time of crisis, I’ve been chilling out with plenty of comfort reading. For some reason, I’ve been finding writers in the 80s and 90s especially comforting:

More book reviews »

And finally…

If all the above isn’t enough to keep you going, please don’t forget to check out my regular Sidelines: lines I write on the side, so to speak, when I really ought to be writing other stuff. 27th April was a particularly delightful day I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

Keep safe. Keep well. And I’ll see you next time.


Newsletter No. 18: 169 in giraffe-years Sat, 04 Jan 2020 09:09:37 +0000 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Julian Hoffman · CGP Grey · WG Sebald · Kathleen Jamie · Tim Dee · LRB · Alan Bennett · Caught by the River
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New Year is a time for reflection. This particular new year, I pass a numerically tidy, yet otherwise insignificant personal landmark. Today, I am 20,000 days old. Thanks for the card.

At 08:45 GMT this morning, as all five digits on my personal odometer advanced one click, it was sobering to realise the next time that happens—if I make it that far—I’ll be 82 years old. I certainly won’t see a fourth five-digit turnover.

To quote Philip Larkin in a similar context, ‘It makes me breathless’… Twenty-thousand days! That’s 169 in giraffe-years!

Virgil was right: tempus does indeed fugit. I’d better carpe the diem while I still can…

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. I was delighted to hear my mate Julian Hoffman’s excellent essay on the chambered nautilus, The Spiral Windings, has been nominated for the John Burroughs Nature Essay Award.
  2. The always fascinating CGP Grey points out the importance of posing the right question. In this case, the right question happens to be, Which planet is the mostest closest to the earth? I guarantee you’ll be surprised by the answer.
  3. Episode 105 of the excellent Backlisted Podcast recently discussed one of my favourite books, WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn.
  4. During the launch of her latest book, Surfacing (see Recent Reading below), Kathleen Jamie gave an interesting interview with the Herald newspaper. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in conversation with my pal Amy Liptrot at the Caught by the River event in Farsley in February.
  5. Talking of Caught by the River, Tim Dee provided them with some poignant end-of-year reflections.
  6. As a long-time subscriber to the London Review of Books, I enjoyed this video discussion about its 40-year history by some of those who were there.
  7. The LRB also recently published the latest extracts from Alan Bennett’s diary, entitled What I did in 2019.
  8. Also filed under ‘what I did in 2019’, here’s my ninth annual video slideshow.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

Book update

My ‘Darwin book’ continues at a pace that makes glaciers look positively hasty. But I guess glaciers have grown pretty hasty these days, so perhaps there’s hope for me yet. The book is about looking at the world through Darwin-tinted spectacles. Lately, I’ve been writing about autumn leaves and dippers (the birds, not the pickpockets). For a Darwin groupie, everything has a Darwin connection. If you’re inexplicably champing at the bit for more of my writing, keep checking out my regular Sideline jottings.

Wishing you all a great 2020.