Richard Carter's meta feed A merged feed of Articles, Sidelines, Reviews and Newsletters from en-gb Richard Carter A thrilling encounter on the most inauspicious of days Sat, 09 Oct 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter ( A surprisingly fruitful week in terms of random bird encounters A surprisingly fruitful week in terms of random bird encounters: a sizeable, noisy flock of long-tailed tits breezing through the back garden one afternoon; a great spotted woodpecker on the bird-feeder earlier the same day; a close fly-by of the barn owl as I headed towards the compost heap in the gloaming one evening; a large formation of high-flying geese as I went to open the garage this lunchtime.

But the most unexpected encounter occurred last Saturday afternoon, as I walked back towards Jen’s mum’s house from an errand in Hebden Bridge. It was pissing with rain, and ridiculously cold, feeling more like the week before Christmas than the first week in October. Cars had their headlights on at three in the afternoon. As I walked beneath my umbrella along the canal viaduct high above the River Calder, I heard a single, high-pitched squeak—a sound I had not heard for several years—and spun round to see an iridescent blue streak flying towards me along the river: my first ever Hebden Bridge kingfisher! It shone in the gloom, as if in a spotlight.

As always, I was astonished at just how small kingfishers are: only slightly larger than house sparrows. It landed on a riverside branch way below me, flitted back and forth for a few seconds, then shot off down the river, back the way it had come.

A thrilling encounter on the most inauspicious of days.

Newsletter No. 23: Emerging from aestivation Fri, 01 Oct 2021 16:03:54 +0100 Richard Carter (Newsletter – Richard Carter) Massimo Pigliucci · ‘spirituality’ · Barry Lopez · talking trees · Eleanor Konik · rewilding · Mark Cocker · light pollution · Sir Clive Sinclair · Horatio Clare · swifts · The Enlightenment
Rich Text



It’s October. How on earth did that happen? We just got to September and kept going, I guess. But suddenly there’s no denying it’s autumn. Earlier this week, it still felt like late summer here in Hebden Bridge. Then, at around 1pm on Wednesday, some switch was flipped, temperatures dropped, and a chill rain began to patter at the study window, accompanied by the tap and gurgle of the central heating system emerging from aestivation. It’ll be Christmas next, mark my words.

I’ve spent the last few months in deep research for my Darwin book, aided and abetted by the wonderful Obsidian app. I recently completed a chapter about Darwin’s religious views, and the first of a pair of chapters about the two decades it took him to get round to publishing his theory of evolution by means of natural selection. I used to think this was an extraordinary delay, but, at the rate I’m getting on with my Darwin book, twenty years is beginning to seem positively brisk.

Some stuff I thought worth sharing:

  1. Conversation with Massimo Pigliucci (video)
    Despite his background in genetics and evolutionary biology, the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci hasn’t appeared much on my radar. I thought he came across as pretty interesting and engaging in this video, so I’ve added him to my watch list.
  2. Spirituality is a brain state we can all reach, religious or not
    In the final chapter of my book On the Moor, I took great exception to the word ‘spiritual’ being used to describe the, to me, intensely physical sensation of connectedness with the universe that occasionally engulfs me. So I was intrigued by this article, which looks into the phenomenon from a neuroscientist’s perspective. (But, for the record, I still think the word spiritual misses the point entirely.)
  3. An interview with Barry Lopez
    I only recently read the late Barry Lopez’s wonderful book Arctic Dreams. His final book, Horizon, sits near the top of my To Read pile. This December 2019 interview describes the background to Horizon, and includes some thoughtful ideas on writing.
  4. The idea that trees talk to co-operate is misleading
    The romantic notion that trees, like humans, talk in order to co-operate could actually harm the cause of conservation, says plant ecologist Kathryn Flinn.
  5. Unfamiliar Territories (video)
    A conversation between authors Ken Worpole and Patrick Wright. I very much enjoyed the latter’s The Sea View Has Me Again, and Worpole’s book sounds like one I ought to be looking into.
  6. Book Review: Tamed by Alice Roberts
    I’m not just plugging this ‘deep dive’ book review by Eleanor Konik because it was me who tipped her off about Alice Roberts’ highly enjoyable book on domesticated species, Tamed. I read Tamed as research for my Darwin book. It was interesting to read the thoughts of someone interested in the same book for entirely different reasons, including speculative fiction world-building.
  7. Diary: Wild Beasts
    A thoughtful piece by Fraser MacDonald about the politics of rewilding in Scotland. When 432 people own half of Scotland’s private rural land, rewilding can happen easily enough without local support. But disputes can also arise between different land-owners with different views on rewilding.
  8. Living the (Cretaceous) Dream
    Author and naturalist Mark Cocker recently spent a week on the Yorkshire coast, appreciating creatures both great and small. (Like him, I also paid a recent visit to the fabulous gannetry at Bempton Cliffs.)
  9. Light pollution from street lamps linked to insect loss
    Scientists say light pollution is a factor driving worrying declines in local insect populations. The full scientific paper is available here.
  10. Sir Clive Sinclair: Tireless inventor ahead of his time
    The prolific inventor Sir Clive Sinclair has died. I first laid my grubby teenage mitts on a computer in 1981, when I borrowed my friend Carolyn’s Sinclair ZX-81 for a weekend. Within minutes, I knew I had to have one. I can honestly say the ZX-81, with its whole ‘1,000 bytes of memory’, was responsible for my subsequent 35-year career in I.T.

Recent Reading

More book reviews »

And finally…

With so much online stuff clamouring for everyone’s attention, thanks for making time to read this newsletter. I have a couple of ideas in mind as to how I might improve the format, but if you have any suggestions of your own, please let me know.

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


Book review: ‘Horizon’ by Barry Lopez Fri, 01 Oct 2021 08:00:11 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) This book is high in my To Read pile. Review to follow.

This book is high in my To Read pile.

Review to follow.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
No going back Thu, 30 Sep 2021 11:48:23 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) How was I ever able to organise my thoughts without ‘atomising’ them—breaking them down into smaller and smaller discrete notes—and then linking them together? I continue to remain astonished I was ever able to research and write an entire non-fiction book about a wide variety of topics without the aid of the wonderful (and free) Obsidian app.

Don’t get me wrong: other perfectly good apps are available. They’re very much the in thing at the moment. But how was I ever able to organise my thoughts without atomising them—breaking them down into smaller and smaller discrete notes—and then linking them together? How did I ever manage to get my head around complex, interrelated subjects? How did I ever spot interesting unexpected links between apparently unrelated topics? How did I ever see the wood for the trees?

I managed somehow, but this new way is far better.

I can never go back.

Obsidian note and graph
(L) My Obsidian note about the rush to publish Darwin and Wallace’s ‘joint’ 1858 paper on evolution.
(R) The corresponding Obsidian graph, showing how this note links with certain other notes in my research vault.
27 September 2021 Mon, 27 Sep 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Our semi-tame resident pheasant, Philip (whom I suspect is actually Philip III), has been strutting proudly about the garden the last few days with missus and kids in tow. Our semi-tame resident pheasant, Philip (whom I suspect is actually Philip III), has been strutting proudly about the garden the last few days with the missus and kids in tow.

One of the youngsters seems to be a chip off the old block.

Anglesey 2021 Wed, 22 Sep 2021 14:52:17 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) My annual early September holiday in Anglesey. We recently returned from our annual, early September week in Anglesey. As always, I spent hours sitting on my favourite rock near the caravan, gazing out to sea, waiting for nothing in particular to happen. It’s a wonderful way to chill out.

The view from my favourite rock
The view from my favourite rock.

With the exception of one day, the weather was pretty ideal this year, although there seemed to be more sea-fog around than usual. Wildlife-wise, it was a quiet year: fewer Sandwich terns, waders, razorbills and gannets near the coast; only a single grey seal; and most of the swallows already en route to Africa after a pretty dire August. But there was still plenty to see, and we went on our favourite walks, and ate one or three ice-creams.

Ravens, north coast of Anglesey.

There was also one wonderful starry night. Anglesey skies have very little light pollution, so we gazed up open-mouthed at the Milky Way, and trained my snazzy new binoculars on Jupiter and the Galilean Moons: from left to right, Ganymede, Europa, Io, Jupiter, and Callisto.

We’re already looking forward to next September.

31 August, 2021 Tue, 31 Aug 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A walk on the Moor. Sheep on the Moor

A walk on the Moor with Jen, the purple heather now past its best and fading fast.

A few sheep, a couple of red grouse, a lone wheatear flitting away. A distinctly autumnal feel in the air. Which is always disconcerting for those of us who book their ‘summer’ holidays for September.

Book review: ‘The Enlightenment’ by Ritchie Robertson Tue, 31 Aug 2021 08:55:25 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The pursuit of happiness, 1680–1790.

The pursuit of happiness, 1680–1790.

‘The Enlightenment’ by Ritchie Robertson

This is a monumental (984-page) book on a monumental subject: the primarily European intellectual movement running from roughly 1680 to 1790, which sought to increase human happiness through science and reasoning. In the preface, Robertson explains the Enlightenment also represented:

a sea change in sensibility, in which people became more attuned to other people’s feelings and more concerned for what we would call humane or humanitarian values. […T]he greatest motive for studying this subject is the awareness that the Enlightenment, though distant in time, remains vitally important. In an age that seems dominated by ‘fake news’, widespread credulity, xenophobia and unscrupulous demagogues, it matters more intensely than even to hold on to reliable knowledge, to be aware of our common humanity, and to pursue the possibility of human happiness.

He’ll get no argument from me, there.

The Enlightenment is a fascinating read. It overturned a number of assumptions I’d made about the period. I was surprised, for example, to discover just how many ‘enlighteners’, as Robertson calls them, seem not to have been atheists; how coffee-houses and salons played only a very minor role in the movement; and how little Enlightenment thinking influenced the American and French revolutions—although it did provide a significant input into the American Constitution.

A few of the many other major topics covered in this book include the Scientific Revolution, religious enlightenment, how enlightenment thinking affected the study of history and human society, and the growth of cosmopolitanism.

I can’t possibly do justice to this massive book in a short review, but, if, like me, you’ve often thought you ought to find out more about this fascinating period in our species’ intellectual development, this is the book for you.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Gannets Tue, 24 Aug 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A visit to the gannetry at RSPB Bempton Cliffs. · East Yorkshire ·

During a few days’ stay at her sister’s caravan near Filey, Jen and I drove a short distance down the coast to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliff’s: home of the UK’s only mainland gannetry.

The view from the clifftops were spectacular. V-formations of adults and juveniles were heading out to sea. Scores of other birds were circling off the cliffs before breaking away to make ambitious, often aborted landing attempts on narrow ledges. Ledge-space is at a premium, and neighbouring birds jealously guard their bijou real estate, repelling any interlopers that approach too close.

Gannet on landing approach

Jen and I last visited Bempton ten years ago, a couple of months earlier in the breeding season. Those extra weeks represented a considerable change in the life of the colony. Last time we were here, many pairs of adult gannets were still bonding or brooding their solitary eggs on cramped cliff-faces, while a few fluffy, white hatchlings could be seen here and there. This time, there were large, dark, brightly bespeckled young all over the place. These were mostly protected by lone parents, the other parents being away fishing for food. Young gannets are disconcertingly dinosaurian in appearance, and remarkably different in colouration to the brilliant-white adults. It takes several seasons for the full colour transformation to occur.

Adult and fledgling gannet

Up close, adult gannets are far more impressively coloured than the bright-white, black-wing-tipped birds seen from a distance. Their dark legs ad feet bear snazzy turquoise stripes along the ankles and toes. Their pale, sinister eyes are ringed with blue lids. Their sturdy, black-streaked, white dagger-beaks bear a hint of blue, lending them a metallic appearance. And the sides of their heads, their throats, and napes are stained with a hint of tobacco.


Up close, gannets are also rather smelly. I dare say all seabirds are, but when they’re gathered in such huge numbers, the effect borders on that of a good fertilizer—which is, of course, exactly how seabird guano was once used.

I’ve only just learnt that the word gannet comes from the same etymological source as gander—presumably on account of the gannet’s vaguely goose-like appearance. Both words are based on the Old English word ganot, meaning ‘strong’ or ‘masculine’. Which I guess just goes to prove, what’s source for the gannet is source for the gander.

Gannet in flight
Everything I needed was already in my notes! Tue, 10 Aug 2021 20:44:40 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) I’ve known it from the start, but this new way of making notes is perfect for the way I tend to work. It’s what I’ve been looking for all these years. After several months’ detour, converting my existing notes to a Zettelkasten(ish) format using the Obsidian app, and lots of deep reading to add yet more notes to my ‘vault’, I’ve finally got back to, you know, actually writing words for the book I’m supposed to be writing.

Rather appropriately, the topic of my current chapter is the twenty-or-so years Darwin took between coming up with the idea of natural selection and actually telling the world about it. I used to think that was a long time, but the rate I’ve been going with this book of mine lately, it now sounds positively speedy.

I had a really good day’s solid writing today. One of my best day’s writing ever, in fact. I’m still buzzing. I’d done my research, I had a detailed chapter outline with links to appropriate research notes, I had a big mug of Yorkshire Tea, I was raring to go, and suddenly the tremendous faff of converting all my notes started to pay off: I was writing about complex, interrelated ideas, and the words just flew from my keyboard.

But the best bit of all came when I hit a bump in the road. About a third of the way into my outline, I suddenly realised there was a gap in my preparatory work. My outline said I should include a paragraph or two about Darwin’s need to explain the evolution of social insects. But when I consulted my note on that topic, it was very basic. So, not wanting to disturb my flow, I skipped that section, deciding to return to it once I felt my energy flagging, when I would spend an hour or two reading up on the subject. But, when I got to that point, the necessary research took me less than 10 minutes… Everything I needed was already in my notes! All I needed to do was link a few of these existing notes together.

This is exactly how Zettelkasten(ish) systems like mine are supposed to work: you fill your filing system with lots and lots of short notes, linking as you go, then, when you finally decide to write in detail on a chosen topic, most of the work is already done for you.

I’ve known it from the start, but this new way of making notes is perfect for the way I tend to work. It’s what I’ve been looking for all these years. I just wish I’d started using it twenty years ago… Who knows how many notes I’d have by now, and how much more stuff I’d have written?

It was 20 years ago today… Wed, 04 Aug 2021 20:08:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) …that Jen and I moved into our forever home. …that Jen and I moved into our forever home.

Our new house (04-Aug-2001)

My hair’s considerably thinner and greyer these days, but I can still almost get into that T-shirt.

Book review: ‘Ariadne's Thread’ by Philippa Comber Tue, 03 Aug 2021 16:34:03 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) In memory of W.G. Sebald.

In memory of W.G. Sebald.

‘Ariadne's Thread’ by Philippa Comber

Ariadne’s Thread describes Philippa Comber’s long-term friendship with the UK-based German author W.G. Sebald.

True to its Sebaldian theme, this is an entertaining, enigmatic book. Like his character Austerlitz, Sebald keeps popping up as if from nowhere—yet, by the end of the book, our mysterious hero seems as mysterious as ever.

The book is very well written, and Sebald comes across as pretty much how I imagined him. It was particularly interesting to read how Comber seems to have influenced some of Sebald’s research into topics familiar from his books. But I did wonder how much Comber left out. There are hints of a (perhaps unreciprocated) romantic attraction, and Comber never once mentions the fact that, throughout their friendship, Sebald was married and a father.

The final section of the book describes a European tour Comber took after Sebald’s untimely death, visiting some of the places mentioned in his books and poetry. This section was less interesting, and felt to me like filler.

A fascinating read for all Sebald fans.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
Book review: ‘Heavy Light’ by Horatio Clare Tue, 03 Aug 2021 15:28:35 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) A journey through madness, mania and healing.

A journey through madness, mania and healing.

‘Heavy Light’ by Horatio Clare

Heavy Light is an incredibly brave, and I would say important book. It details author and journalist Horatio Clare’s descent into madness; his temporary detainment under section 2 of the Mental Health Act (1985); and his gradual return to the world of reality.

The first part of the book describes, from a psychotic perspective, the elaborate fantasy world Clare concocted, filled with British and foreign agents, observed by controlling alien intelligences, and with Clare at the very centre of the action. It’s portrays Clare’s complex delusions as entirely logical—which, from his point of view at the time, they were. It’s a compelling read. Clare lives in the same town as me, and I will never see certain local locations in quite the same light again.

Eventually, Clare’s long-suffering, highly intelligent wife manages to have him sectioned for his own good, and for that of his family. Then begins the healing process.

Once released, and on the road to recovery, Clare puts on his journalist’s hat and interviews nurses, mental health practitioners, commissioners, and friends and family who dealt with him during his delusions. Most of these people come across as utter heroes.

Clare is outspoken about what he sees as the over-use of drugs to treat mental conditions such as his, advocating far wider access to counselling. At times, like his wife by Clare’s account, I wished he hadn’t been quite so anti-medication. What he believes worked and didn’t work form him might not be true for other patients. But I was left agreeing wholeheartedly that patients need to be treated as individuals, rather than simply according to what it says in the text-books.

Heavy Light needs to be read by anyone with influence over mental health policies. It also deserves to be read by the wider public, portraying mental illness, as it does, in such a sympathetic light.

Highly recommended.

Note: I will receive a small referral fee if you buy this book via one of the above links.
1 August 2021 Sun, 01 Aug 2021 08:38:12 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) A wren and a woodpecker. Yorkshire Day… whatever that’s supposed to mean.

As I let Mia out into the garden first thing, a wren machine-gunned from somewhere in the undergrowth. It’s good to hear them back in the garden.

As I stood in the light drizzle, trying to locate the tiny bird, I heard a dull tapping. A great spotted woodpecker was hacking about near the top of our Scots pine in search of grubs. They’re only occasional visitors to our garden. Fabulous birds.

Mia wasn’t the least bit interested in stupid wrens or woodpeckers. Why was I wasting time gazing at birds when there were balls to be thrown?

Back throwing balls for Mia in the garden in the afternoon, there were wren calls all about. Parents keeping in contact with their young. I spotted at least five birds. Pound for pound, the noisiest in the business.

Young wren
Young wren

31 July 2021 Sat, 31 Jul 2021 21:00:00 +0100 Richard Carter (Sidelines – Richard Carter) Two random encounters. As I was loading shopping into the car boot at Sainsbury’s in Halifax on Wednesday morning, I glanced up and was surprised to see a peregrine falcon zooming back and forth, pestering the local gulls and feral pigeons. Paul Knights later tweeted a photo of one taken in Halifax a few weeks earlier. I hadn’t heard they had taken up residence.

We’re looking after Jen’s sister’s border collie, Mia, this week. As I took her out to play in the garden this evening, I heard a communal twittering, and, seconds later, about 30 long-tailed tits breezed through the garden in that just-passing-through way they do.

It’s the random wildlife encounters as you go about your daily life that seem the most special, as far as I’m concerned.

Book review: ‘Etta Lemon’ by Tessa Boase Mon, 26 Jul 2021 10:15:45 +0100 Richard Carter (Reviews – Richard Carter) The woman who saved the birds.

The woman who saved the birds.

The woman who saved the birds.

Tessa Boase’s Etta Lemon tells the story of the foundation and early development of what is now known as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

The powerful charity began life as a campaign to ban feathers from Victorian and Edwardian women’s headware. Feathered hats were incredibly fashionable at the time, and many species of wild birds were hunted almost to extinction for their attractive plumage.

The campaign was headed by the book’s eponymous Etta Lemon (née Smith), an energetic, rather conservative woman with a talent for organisation.

As the story unfolds, Boase provides plenty of background information about the feather and millinery trades. She also contrasts the campaign against ‘murderous millinery’ with parallel campaigns for women’s suffrage, led most notably by the redoubtable Emmeline Pankhurst in her outrageously feathered hats.

A very well researched, and entertaining read.

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.

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
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.

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.
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.
Rich Text

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: