Monday, June 23, 2014

H is for Hawk events

 Upcoming talks and events for H is for Hawk. Come and say hello!

October 27th: Toppings & Company, Bath 

November 1st: Black Huts Festival, Hastings, with Patrick McGuinness

November 3rd: All The Best Stories Are True at the RSA, London (Samuel Johnson Prize event)

November 9th: Bridport Literary Festival

November 15th: New Networks for Nature, Stamford 

November 19th: Caught by the River Social Club, London

November 20th: Burgh House, Hampstead 

November 30th: Cambridge Literary Festival, with Dave Goulson


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Book news

Well, it's done, and in, and it'll be published this summer! Much excitement and a sense that I don't quite know what to do with myself now I'm not stuck at my desk all hours. Spring's coming, and there are lapwings in the flooded fields...

And Chris Wormell has come up with the most exquisite cover ever.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Friday, July 22, 2011

Probably the best book index ever

This work of genius is the author's index from Samuel Butler's Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino (1881).

Click for big.

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Yesterday morning I shut the black front door, squinted into the mothy spring light, and wandered off down the hill towards coffee. On my way to the café is a hillside park full of elms.

Elms! There are elms here: fifteen thousand of them. Gone from the rest of the country; found nowhere else in England but here. And because it’s spring, the elms’ black branches are flocked with luminous green winged seeds, clumped and packed and confused, as if the trees were hastily made in a props factory by people who’d never seen leaves, but wanted to have a go.

Yesterday morning the T’ai Chi people were doing their thing under the flowering elms, just in front of the playground. There they were, with their little tapedeck, and their blanket. Only three? What a disappointment. I love walking past these people at the weekend: here be plangent strains of classical Chinese music and a man in a tracksuit on one leg.

I love this city. I’ve been trying to work out why, but it was a first-sight love, and you can’t put first-sight love in words, ever. I came here in February to flat-sit for my friend Olivia, and now I can’t bear to leave.

What city? BRIGHTON. Hah! It’s a glittering, scabrous pile teetering on the edge of the channel, a city that squares bolshily up to an onshore wind that pushes scraps of paper and moulted feathers around streets that are London forty years ago. Filthy stucco and sparrows in the hedges, ocean-liner white villas and streets full of dog poo.

I’ve seen hipster children in fedoras. I’ve seen street litter comprised mainly of olives and condoms. I’ve seen herring gulls trying to break into porsches. In Sainsburys, day one, I heard the woman behind the cheese counter exclaim, disbelievingly to a customer, ‘What do you mean you’ve never tried Manchego?” It’s all hipsters and new meejia and gangsters and students and dealers and what Steven Wells (via Alexis Petrides) memorably described as "crusty-wusty, hippy-dippy, twat-hatted, ning-nang-nongers."

I’m inured to eccentricity. Oddly enough, it’s not the years living in Cambridge that did this. My university town is an eccentric place. But its eccentricity isn’t kindly. It has its own rules. You can wear holey tweed and shoes with flapping soles; you can sit in cafés discussing latin syntax and be so absent-minded you forget your name, but if your eccentricity isn’t of this particular strain, goodbye. Cambridge is a cold place. If you smile at someone in the street their expression will register one part alarm, one part suspicion, one part embarrassment. And then they’ll walk on by.

I was inured to eccentricity way before Cambridge. Oh yes. When I was five years old, all knees and plasters and a fierce expression under a straight-cut fringe, my parents moved to a house in Camberley that happened to be on an estate owned by the Theosophical Society. I don’t know if you know much about the TS; perhaps that Yeats was a fan, and that Krishnamurti was involved, and that its driving light was the redoubtable Madame Blavatsky. We’re talking good old-fashioned old-school esoteric spiritualism. Our new house wasn’t connected to the TS: my mum and dad were not only agnostic, but journalists and agnostic; but growing up there, bathed in the faded light of Empire nuttiness, was an education.

One estate resident spent a lot of time in Nepal, but sent his beard clippings back in an envelope to be burned on the estate bonfire. People wandered around in their pyjamas. There were meetings, and fires, and all sorts of spiritual goings on. There was an ‘esoteric society’ somewhere on the estate, though I’m still not sure where or what that was all about. There were Italianate gardens, huge, climbable cedars, ginko trees, parkland and ponds - across which I went feral - and a summerhouse across the road beloved of Arthur Conan Doyle which had original prints of the Cottingley Fairies on the wall. Our neighbours all resembled Mrs Wilberforce in The Ladykillers, or Joan Hickson’s Marple. One told my mother that if we ever wanted to try collecting edible mushrooms we should test them on her, because she was old and, well, it wouldn’t matter so much. She gave me a sheaf of pastel landscapes she’d drawn in Italy as a girl, and a box of watercolours I still treasure; though the paint is tacky and ancient, it’s a pleasure to take a brush and draw a thin line of cerulean blue last employed to limn in the edge of a Venetian lagoon. One wore egyptian jewellery she’d been given by Howard Carter; another had a Great Auk egg in a drawer. Everyone had pasts of such luminous weirdness and aristocratic eccentricity that my notion of what was, and wasn’t normal took a battering from which it’s never recovered. And, as in Brighton, people didn’t set much store by the normal thing, anyway.

They’re all dead now, all these lovely people. I’d not realised how much I missed this particular kind of nuttiness until I got here. I’d got all inured to that icy Cambridge eccentricity, that one that would see T’ai Chi, or a shop selling vegetarian shoes as really rather sad and embarrassing indicators of social suicide. Sod that. This place is much, much more like home. I’m going to up sticks and live here. As soon as I bloody can.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Walden, feat. Gainsborough

Autumn’s very sudden this year. Two weeks ago was summer. Now the flowers are dead, the sky is the curious burnished blue of the inside of a limpet shell, and the fields have turned to plough. Red plough. I’m further north than usual. I’ve been visiting the boy, who lives in a part of the country renowned for food and foxhunting.

The quickest way to represent Fenland topography is to draw a pen along a ruler. For detail, colour above the line grey, and below the line green, tan, or black, depending on the season. Often, there, the only rounded feature of the wide scape that meets your eyes is cloud.

But up here is different.

First, this is not a world arranged around water, but arranged for livestock and leisure. You know those delightful watercolours by Gainsborough? Of watered silk and breeches and spaniels? Here is the landowner and his wife, or sister, or family, sitting before their estate. The farmed acres behind them are a paradise for social capital and hunterly, bloody delights. That’s what the country is like here.

These are the landscapes of Kingsley’s Ode to the North East Wind (I still giggle uncontrollably at all the bits about softening the pen"). And in the late eighteenth century this landscape, up here, where the boy lives, was THE place to be, in the right season.

Second difference: the soil here isn’t that black cake-crumb of the fens.It’s rust and clinker, friable and not sticky at all, and it stains your boots with iron. At every field’s edge are hedges precisely the right height for a hunter to jump, or a little more, and I’ve never seen so few crows. Not a single magpie in a day’s walking.

But that one day last week I must have seen a good ten thousand pheasants. They were in every place we went: jumping up spring-heeled to snap beetles from mustard flowers, wandering across the roads, hundreds of them in each bosky fragment along the rides. In early September the pheasants are particoloured and short-tailed, still adolescent and silly, and half can hardly fly.

Walking in a landscape this full of game soaks into some deep part of the mind, perhaps that part concerned with miracles; for long nights after, my dreams have been full of pheasants. Pheasants ducking and running through sheepfence, squeezing under brambles, through nettles, into hedgebottoms and ultimately into the huge sheafs of purposely-planted cover. In that hot afternoon the whole field of maize on top of the far hill crackled with partridges and pheasants as if it were charged.

Needless to say, this is not a public landscape. The boy and I walked down a tiny, private, muddy track for a couple of miles, and at the end of the track was a vast lake hemmed by pines. Here the track got less muddy and became a lawn. It wasn't edged by hazel scrub either, but with ancient lilacs.

It was a very strong and strange place. By the dam we stopped and sat. Part-gilded by the September light a buzzard swung across the sky above, mewing angrily. There was a dead jack pike rotting on the outflow. The water was gauzy, white under the trees. This was Walden Pond, feat. Gainsborough.

This world of private lakes and follies and neo-classical houses and foxhunting hedges and brakes and copses and holes is so peculiar and so reeking of mythical Englishness that I would not have been surprised, at that lakeside, if a small, muddy unicorn had trotted out from the shallows and wandered away, briskly, into the woods.

There was no unicorn. This was mildly disappointing. But my new need for figures from medieval romances was fulfilled fabulously by what I saw later: wild boar. Which are not, I was astonished to find, anything like pigs. More on that, and on them, next post...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Apes and Woodpeckers

A bit of blog thievery today, while I work on a piece of writing for Professor X's retirement do. Oh: and I have a (non-academic, but smashing) job interview next week, too. Busy busy.

First, a belated and thankful heads up to Patrick Wright for this snippet from Osbert Sitwell:
And then downstairs in the hall stood a large cage, with a monkey in it. Alas, I was frightened of this capering creature, and, indeed, in those days hated the whole simian tribe, though latterly, since being informed of the events that led up to the massacre of the majority of the monkeys in Gibraltar - only a very few were allowed to survive - my heart had warmed to them. . . The streets of the fortress town are so narrow that the monkeys could easily swing from any window-sill in it to another opposite. One summer they took, suddenly, to stealing photographs, the glinting silver frames of which no doubt caught there attention, and to placing them in the rooms across the way. The havoc these tricks created was immense; Colonel A would find that a photograph of his wife (”the Missus”) had disappeared, and would eventually locate it, either through his own initiative or the employment of detectives, in Commander B’s bedroom: and vice versa. As a result so many altercations took place, so many scandals occured, so many divorce proceedings were pending, that in the end, when the true criminals were discovered, it was felt that, for the honour of the Services, the monkeys of Gibraltar had better be suppressed, kept down to the minimum.

And second, intense raptor photo of the year. Full account here:

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Our garden pond here is covered in duckweed. I stood with mum today, looking at it idly. I suppose we should clear it, a bit. It's not too dense, but there is a lot of it, bubbling and shaking underneath from tadpoles drinking air. Water measurers tiptoe their way across it. Small black flies do squiggly little courtship dances over it. Damselflies inch their abdomens down into it to lay eggs. And today, a hornet came down to drink. I am sure it was a queen, though it seems the wrong time of year. It was a good one and a half inches long. Big.

This was not like the measured drinking of wasps. I've seen wasps drinking here loads of times. They land delicately on the side of the pond, on the scratched black liner, or on a lilypad. They walk down the edge, bring their scything mandibles to the water , the surface tension sucks it up to their jaws and they drink deeply before ungluing themselves and walking back up to fly away.

This hornet appeared with the distant sound of chinook rotorblades. And she didn't land at the side of the pond. She flew down to about a foot above the water. Rotated slowly about her horizontal axis, then dropped BLOOF straight down onto the duckweed. No messing. No creeping about. This huge, huge, huge wasp — so big it resembled Edwardian jewellery cut with some weird steampunk vespid vibe — just landed in the middle of the pond, sat there drinking with the relish of a man at a bar, then perked up her wings and took off, legs trailing. And off she went. I've never seen a hornet in the garden. It was bloody awesome.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


This glorious snippet from P. L. Travers' What the Bee Knows comes courtesy of my friend James P., who found it on the Bookslut blog:
This apprising of bees, telling them, for all one knows, what they already know, is not the business merely of great ones. The bees are constantly being told. No beekeeper would fail to do it. For if they are not courteously kept informed of everything that happens, they will take umbrage, swarm, and fly away, or die of grief or resentment.
In the British Isles and all over Europe, the folk continually keep the bees abreast of the news, at national as well as local level: decking the hives with crepe or ribbon, whichever fits the case. On one occasion, an ancient great-aunt of mine, hieratically assuming a head-dress of feather and globules of jet, required me to accompany her to the beehives. "But surely you don't need a hat, Aunt Jane! They're only at the end of the garden." "It is the custom," she said, grandly. "Put a scarf over your head." Arrived, she stood in silence for a moment. Then — "I have to tell you," she said formally, "that King George V is dead. You may be sorry, but I am not. He was not an interesting man. Besides," she added -- as though the bees needed telling! — "everyone has to die."


Did you read this story last week?
Three conmen tried to sell the Ritz Hotel for £250m in an elaborate scam that was simply "too good to be true", a London court was told yesterday. Anthony Lee, an unemployed lorry driver, pulled off the con which involved "one great big lie", convincing potential buyers that he was a "close friend and associate" of the billionaire Barclay brothers, who own the hotel in Piccadilly, London. Anuja Dhir QC, for the prosecution, said: "The deal that sounded too good to be true was a complete fantasy."

To which I can only respond:

Monday, June 14, 2010


I have become addicted to this.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Why the hell

I have been examining and refereeing like a bastard for the last few weeks. And tonight I'm sitting in a colleague's rather beautiful flat in Pembroke College while she attends some fantastically glamorous wedding in Delaware or Manhattan or somewhere. It's been raining, and cool air is pouring in through the window to slide along under the desk and chill my toes, and I'm thinking about why the hell I haven't blogged for such a very long time.

Well, fretmarketeers, should there be any of you left out there, it is because — as you gathered, I am sure — I wrote a lot about bereavement and sadness here a few years back. And for a long time after, I had a rather spooky disinclination to blog anything at all. Because, you know, this was where that other person wrote. That very, very sad one.

But courtesy of Blogger's brand-new and delightfully cheesy blogger templates (check the flying starlings, there!) I thought: what the hell. A change is as good as, right?

Plus, I have to do something to preserve me from the World Cup.

And if you're asking, The Birdoole is fine, and currently snoozing in his nestbox. And Mabel? She's moulting in my goshawk guru's aviary in a village not far from here. She laid three eggs this year - mateless, alas, but we are working on that...

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Rightmove delight!


By way of an apology for the strident-and-self-righteous tone of that last post. In my defence, I was coming down with a fever. Which seemed to make me into an arse.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Monday, April 19, 2010


Frankly, I’m a bit hacked off. This Saturday I had a plane booked to go to Iceland to see the volcano. And in a manoeuvre of some irony, the volcano came here and has likely enough grounded me.

It’s fun to write VOLCANO in huge letters through the ash on the roof of my car. It’s fun to look at the little glittering mites of grey glass on ones fingertips. It’s also extravagantly apocalyptic and cold-war-ish to drive along the M25 on a hot, clear morning under signs saying HEATHROW CLOSED. It’s the invisibility of the falling dust and the headlines BRITAIN CUT OFF FROM WORLD and the false-colour satellite-track maps of the threat as it slowly morphs and falls about Europe. It’s all a bit grand and alternative-history, a bit Charles Stross.

And there are no planes, so no contrails. The sky is a blank, steady, slightly rouged blue.

Meanwhile there is much talk about the lack of roses and the lack of miniature vegetables. “No we can’t just give mange-tout to the Kenyans; they don’t eat that kind of thing” was my favourite radio quote this morning. The plane companies are complaining of bad science, like there’s a tang of conspiracy in the air too, and our governmental national emergency committee springs into action. It’s called COBRA, which is so bloody Marvel Comics it makes me giggle. Their last meeting was, I think, on the occasion a dead swan was found in Fife.

On the radio yesterday, talking about the possibility of punctuated, yet regular eruptions from this volcano, it was mooted that we might just junk jets and go back to turboprops. The thought that flights to New York would make refuelling stops at Gander just gives me goosebumps of generation-x’y pleasure. Gander! And can we fly to Idlewild, too?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Friday, November 06, 2009

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

An ex-cep-tional afternoon's haul...

The following post

Is that most irritating thing, an academic paper I never published because I couldn't for the life of me track down some of the missing references. It is hard going in places. I was still attempting to sound clever, rather than just say things clearly. Wrote it five or six years ago for a workshop on objectivity in the sciences at the LSE. It's been sitting on my hard drive (and circulating as photocopies) for so long I thought: I'll just publish it here. Peer-reviewed journals be damned. Please feel free to completely ignore it. It's just better out here than in there, yanow?