Writings On Readings

Books are food for the brain. I make an effort to read books, and I know it’s not easy to sit down and write a feature, let alone a book. I don’t want to be or see myself as a critic, so in writing about a few of the books I’ve read (“Writings on Readings”), I simply want to say a few things about what I found useful, interesting and inspiring about them, and how they might have overlapped with my own experience. No over-analysis, no slating or hatchet jobs, and I’m not necessarily endorsing the content or viewpoints of any of them by having read them nor by writing about them…


by Isabella Tree

A fascinating, inspiring and brave “re-wilding” project was set in motion at the Knepp Estate in Sussex.

What has miraculously happened there alongside all the struggles along the way are brilliantly described by Isabella Tree, and shows what our denuded and degraded land is capable of doing if only we could let it do its’ own thing.

A remarkable book about a remarkable project. Perhaps it points a better way forward. – JC

Curlew Moon

by Mary Colwell

I really enjoyed Mary Colwell’s “Curlew Moon” – at times I was reminded of days growing up in the village of Corsley (Wiltshire) where a small population of Curlew were present in an area known as “the marsh” – a wet and largely inaccessible valley between Corsley and Chapmanslade that I occasionally visited on childhood “roaming sessions”.

The Curlew have since vanished from “the marsh”, as they’ve done from many other former strongholds across the UK and Ireland, a plight which is brilliantly articulated by Colwell.

In the book, there are some honest and valid opinions about the need for balance, compromise, understanding and conflict resolution in the efforts to conserve wildlife and habitats, and that some uncomfortable decisions are having to be made in the name of conservation, more of which will doubtless be required in the future. She also explains how some “solutions” to other (important) problems may cause unintended consequences in other dimensions (such as Curlew conservation).

I liked the way she debunked the “good vs bad” nonsense into which much debate degenerates, and instead encourages people to have better quality interactions based on respect and understanding to find better ways (usually sensible compromises and “meetings of minds”) to move forward together. Conservation is complicated, and anyone thinking that it isn’t is deluding themselves. You don’t just “plant more trees”. – JC

Train Man

by Andrew Mulligan

At some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced that difficulty in carrying on (or perhaps even wanting to carry on), and pulling against the cumulative burden of what has happened to us. Everyone’s story is different, and in “Train Man”, the main character Michael MacMillan had reached his endpoint, or so he thought.

Some chance encounters steered him away from the lonely darkness of suicide on the railtracks, and back to the land of the living. It was a close call. The book reminded me of some quotesI’d collected;

“Up sluggard and waste not life, in the grave shall be sleeping enough.”

“Life has a way of opening up.”

I suppose it kind of re-affirmed them for me, really. All is not lost. – JC

Other Minds

by Peter Godfrey-Smith

“Other Minds” is an excellent book, likely to be of particular interest to scuba divers (like me) who enjoy and marvel at cephalopod encounters, and wonder what might be going on with their thinking as they contort their bodies and display myriad colour changes (surely it must mean something?). And what if, in the case of an octopus, that it might be able so “see” with its’ skin as well as its’ eyes? It boggles the mind.

I liked the analogy of the “semi-autonomous” tentacles being jazz musicians in an orchestra (rather than obedient classical musicians); doing their own thing to an extent, but deferring to the band leader when necessary.

Really though, anyone with an interest in the origin of intelligence (of any kind) would find this book fascinating. – JC

Watching The Wheels

by Damon Hill

I always liked Damon Hill, and knew something of the “prices he paid” to achieve his Formula 1 World Championship.

I could relate to quite a lot of his struggles and battles along the way (struggles that many of us have in our own lives), and found it uplifting to read of how he navigated these rapids, often to emerge battered but having learned and achieved something with which to go forward with.

In his book, he comes over as sensitive but strong and determined, as well as intelligent, articulate and erudite. He’s still on a journey (as we all should be). – JC

Variation In British Butterfles

by A.S. Harmer & A.D.A. Russwurm

Written by A.S. Harmer and illustrated by A.D.A. Russwurm, this book is a labour of love. It covers the (fairly obscure) topic of variation in species of UK Butterflies and discusses their former value and fascination in relation to butterfly collecting (gladly, now mostly a thing of the past), and how these rare and unusual forms arise – sometimes genetic, and other times more influenced by environmental factors such as extreme temperatures, and often combinations of both.

The book is illustrated by the renowned artist/illustrator A.D.A. (“Don”) Russwurm, about whom A.S. Harmer dedicates a large section of the book.

A very interesting read, and great to see books such as this being produced for reasons of knowledge and interest rather than making money. – JC

The Salt Path

By Raynor Winn

Debut author Raynor Winn movingly describes the diagnosis of her husband’s terminal illness combined with the loss of their home in Wales, and the little apparent options that they had going forward as newly homeless and broke in middle age.

In the depths of darkness, worry and despair, they decided to walk the South West Coast Path to find some kind of a future with the bare minimum equipment and provisions, and barely any money to sustain themselves against constant hunger and thirst. It’s an uplifting story of how life can unfold in expected ways (positive and negative) and triumph (if that’s the right word) over seemingly insurmountable adversity. It makes you think… shall I go for a long walk?– JC

12 Rules For Life – An Antidote To Chaos

By Jordan B. Peterson

I purchased this book a while ago, and in the time that had elapsed since, I had some peripheral awareness that Jordan Peterson had become controversial or “problematic” figure in some quarters. I decided to read this book without finding out any more about the controversies in which he’s become embroiled, in case it tainted my view and experience of reading the book.

To me, the book contained many interesting and thought-provoking viewpoints on how to navigate the complicated thing that is human life, and how the “lived” experience might be made better. Of particular focus was the dividing line between order and chaos – the place where he argued the best of life might be found if the right balance can be struck (which is, of course, different for every individual).

I’ve certainly been able to relate and apply some of the material to my own life, and I’m sure many others would too. If it was this book that got him into “hot water”, then that would be a surprise and disappointment to me.

And anyway, you don’t have to agree with everything you read or hear, but it’s so important that the right to say it is vigorously defended, and the ability to have access to material (however controversial some may find it) is preserved with caveats for extreme exceptions. I suspect that its’ in this area where the controversies lie.– JC

The Moth Snowstorm

By Michael McCarthy

Originally, I had (mistakenly) assumed that this book was primarily about moths, and how their decline from abundance is a wider metaphor for environmental destruction, even though that point is, of course, true and was discussed in the text.

Indeed, the book’s title will doubtless trigger memories among those of us who are old enough to have experienced the “Moth Snowstorms” that were once typical of night-time car journeys in the summer months.

McCarthy does talk about moths in his book, but not to any greater extent than say birds. Instead, he talks about the natural world as a whole from his early experiences of growing up in the Wirral to becoming a journalist covering stories as part of his job, where coverage of environmental ruin were regular topics of his articles such as the disgraceful “reclamation” of the Saemanguem Estuary in South Korea, an internationally important area for waders and other waterbirds.

But most of all, it is a personal viewpoint and passionate account of experiencing the “joy of nature”, something he argues might even be hardwired into our beings, though currently suppressed and uncultivated in many of us thanks to the all-encompassing demands of “modern life”.

He argues that if that joy of nature, and our connection to nature could be unlocked (or set free) in more of us, it could power societies to conserve and protect species and the entire ecosystems in which they inhabit in better ways than humankind has managed thus far, and push back the systemic forces of environmental ruin that continue to degrade our planet.

In context with experiencing the joy of nature, I was particularly taken by one quote in the book; “Human existence is taken for granted virtually all of the time; it’s one of our greatest complacencies.”– JC

Left Out – The Inside Story Of Labour Under Corbyn

By Gabriel Pogrund& Patrick Maguire

I don’t like entering political territory with anything I write, so upfront I thought it best to declare where I sit, lest I be accused of being something I’m not.

I’m not a person of the left, nor a person of the right – I don’t belong to any political party or subscribe to extremism of any sort, and would describe myself unashamedly as a centrist, though a centrist that believes in the need of some radicalism as being part of that pragmatic view (a radical centrist).

I especially think this is required and long overdue in terms of environmental protection, where no society regardless of its’ political leanings can claim that it has the monopoly on sufficient environmental protection in the past or present – wherever there are people (whether communist, capitalist, points in between, or mixtures of all of that), there are usually environmental problems. But anyway, to this book…

The unexpected event of Jeremy Corbyn securing the Labour Party leadership in 2015 was bound to take things in a different direction from the “Centre-Left” stance of the Blair and Brown years, even though it did orientate further to the left under Ed Miliband prior to Corbyn’s election.

Corbyn, however, was a different proposition altogether than Miliband, for most of his career existing on the fringes of the Labour Party, and enjoying little influence except among those who shared his politics. Therefore, little attention was paid to him.

In 2015, that all changed, and for a while, many people and especially the young, idealistic and Utopian got behind Corbyn resulting in his “near miss” of becoming Prime Minister in 2017, even though the majority of his parliamentary colleagues were not at all “bought in” to his vision of a more hardline Socialist world view and all that would spin from it.

Instead, Corbyn’s support was drawn from a large base of “grass-roots” supporters and activists many of whom had recently joined the Labour Party facilitated by a change of rules made under Ed Miliband. The stage was set for some fireworks as the war for the “soul and direction” of the party played out.

This book describes that discourse, from the heady days of his early party leadership through to his defeat at the hands of Boris Johnson in late 2019. This book is not, I think, written from a particular ideological standpoint from the authors, which makes Left Out a more objective read, and uses views and recollections from multiple sources who were either involved in the action, or close witnesses to it. Its’ certainly interesting reading; especially the machinations around Corbyn’s team of advisors, handlers and managers, which makes his call for “a kinder, gentler politics” look hollow and hypocritical in my view.

As I said, I’m not a person of political extremes, and what I read confirms what I think would generally happen when more extreme elements of a mainstream political party win control.

Have a read and make your own mind up. What you think about the activities of the key players might, of course, be swayed by where you sit politically…but try to look at it objectively. A fascinating read. – JC

The Aurelian Legacy – a History of British Butterflies and their Collectors

By Michael A. Salmon with Contributions by Peter Marren& Basil Harley

A fabulous book, superbly written, and full of thorough research that must have involved huge amounts of historical checking and cross-referencing, charting the history of entomology and lepidopterology in the UK. It focuses in particular on the lepidopterists; those who studied and (in the early days) collected, butterflies and moths.

The Aurelians were the first “society” to gather to discuss and study butterflies, the name derived from the word aurum, Latin for gold. Tinges of gold are sometimes a feature of certain butterfly pupae such as the Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterfly. It is through this “linkage” that the society was named.

The book charts the work, opinions, quirks and controversies of this heady time of scientific study and exploration. The one theme that stands out to me was the sheer abundances of most species compared to what is present in our impoverished environment today.

Though obsessive collecting was very popular in bygone times, in truth this only had a small detrimental effect on the fortunes of butterfly populations overall, with the largest single factors being the widespread adoption of intensive farming in the times of WWII, the destruction and fragmentation of habitat due to growing populations and development, and pollution. – JC

Beyond Order – 12 More Rules For Life

By Jordan B. Peterson

A follow up to “12 Rules For Life – An Antidote To Chaos” from the supposedly controversial author Jordan B. Peterson.

As with the aforementioned book, I found some useful ideas that I could utilise in my own life.

I’m sure most people, and even those who find him “controversial” (or worse), could genuinely find some useful tools and thought processes for tackling the ongoing struggle that is life. – JC

Jochen Rindt – Uncrowned King Of Formula 1

By David Tremayne

The early years of car racing were incredibly dangerous, and there was a high statistical chance that you’d be badly injured or killed whilst pursuing your dreams of race wins and title success.

This excellent and well-researched book describes the life and times of Formula 1 legend and world champion Jochen Rindt, who was an incredible talent behind the wheel, and who lived a full life off the track before his untimely death in an accident at the superfast Monza circuit in Italy.

He was leading the world championship at the time, and despite his fatal accident, his points advantage was never overhauled, making him the only posthumous Formula 1 World Champion. – JC

Woke Racism

By John McWhorter

This thought-provoking book tackles head-on the inconsistencies, hypocrisies and “bad logic” espoused by many high-profile campaigners and activists, despite their well-meaning intent to make the world a better and more harmonious place in which to live (in most cases). But what happens if those ideas are exacerbating the problem that is attempting to be solved.

There’s more than one way to solve problem, and anyone with an open mind should find this a very interesting read. – JC

The Narcissism Epidemic – Living In The Age Of Entitlement

By Jean Twenge & W. Keith Campbell

Though quite an “old” book in terms of the fast-paced world of cultural trends, having been written around 2008/9, this book discusses ideas and reasons behind the increase in narcissistic behaviour in American society, which could similarly be applied to the UK.

It kind of confirmed and articulated many of the thoughts that I’d had myself, plus added some other ideas and linkages that I hadn’t thought much about.

Since this book was published, narcissistic behaviour has continued unabated in society, or so it appears to me. Are we all going slightly mad? – JC

The Wild Silence

By Raynor Winn

This enjoyable and uplifting follow up to the excellent Salt Path is both a prequel and a sequel, as it gives more context and understanding to the “paths that led to the Salt Path” and the “paths that led from the Salt Path”.

John Frusciante, the sometime Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist and composer, in one of his solo outings, wrote the lyrics “Extra time when you think it’s all over/Live a life when you’ve rolled over and died” and that “Life has a way of opening up”. For me, those words encapsulate this inspiring story. – JC

How Music Works

By David Byrne

A fascinating book by David Byrne (Talking Heads, serial collaborator, solo artist).

Well researched and written, this book has a depth to it that offers great insights into what makes music “work” for this particular individual.

I suspect he’s right about a lot of things, or as right as it’s possible to be about a subjective topic like music. Everyone’s relationship with it is unique, but I suspect that there’s some common threads running through it that shared by most of us, even if tastes differ.

One thing missing perhaps, was a more in-depth discussion about the role of critics, who can make or break bands, artists and even genres. Rather like television executives, they have a lot of power over what is broadcast (or published) and how things are perceived. I suspect this topic is a book in its’ own right.– JC


By Benedict MacDonald

I really enjoyed this book, and thought that it offered some very compelling and inspiring ways forward in order to restore species and habitats that have been lost or are declining, reversing the depressing trend of local, followed by national extinctions in the UK. It focuses on birds, but could apply to any species of animals and plants that have been lost (or those that are “losing”).

The aspect that resonated most with me was the “big idea” of landscape scale regeneration whilst offering credible and potentially viable ways forward for each of the “involved parties” and vested interests so that they weren’t left with nothing. It takes everyone forward, and seeks not to ban, vilify and confiscate in order to make things happen; instead, it persuades those practicing outdated activities to change for the better (for themselves, for others, and for the environment as a whole).

Any landowner, politician and conservationist with an open mind should be able to see the “balance” and the potential solutions being offered here.

Though it talks predominantly about re-wilding large tracts of land by letting nature “do its’ thing”, my view is that the current activity of “managing” reserves would also be necessary in parallel to this change of emphasis in order to save certain species, before that land could be joined to other suitable land.

Imagine if Pelicans do return to the Somerset Levels, and White Storks nest regularly on the rooftops of our towns. It could be made to happen, and Benedict MacDonald articulates how this could become our future if we’re prepared to make changes that could truly benefit us all. – JC

Will She Do?

By Eileen Atkins

Historically, most of my reading has tended to be about topics and people that I’m interested in, but more recently I’ve made a determined effort to read about people, walks of life and subjects about which I know next to nothing.

Eileen Atkin’s book “Will She Do?” was one such title that attracted my interest and curiosity after stumbling across a review.

Clearly, she’d had (and at the time of writing is still having) an interesting and colourful life from her childhood in austere and war affected London, performing dance and “coquetry” as a young girl, and eventually getting herself into the uncertain and financially unreliable world of acting.

She tells an interesting and inspiring story that opened a (stage) door in my mind about what pursuing such a career might involve; an unknown world to me.

The question “will she do?” was certainly answered favourably as she became an acclaimed, respected and decorated actress. Clearly she did “do”. – JC

Living Better

By Alistair Campbell

Alistair Campbell is best known as Tony Blair’s Director of Communications (and to a lesser extent, Gordon Brown’s), but in more recent times, he’s also become known as a depressive, thanks to his lifelong battle with the condition about which he has written and spoken publicly about.

Though I don’t suffer with, or am pre-disposed to suffer with depression (I might occasionally be accused of being “depressing” on a particularly bad day, but that’s not the same thing!), I read a review about this book and thought it would be an interesting and insightful account to check out; the author opening himself up, revealing his inner self and the struggles he has to be him.

There’s plenty of depression in today’s world and probably it’s always been a commonplace human condition, so any deeper understanding I could glean would be helpful going forwards. I think I know some individuals who suffer with it, so maybe I could even make a difference if confronted with a situation linked to their (possible) depressive bouts. If I say I “enjoyed” the book, then that would sound wrong, but I kept wanting to read on, so it was certainly riveting to me.

In it, Campbell well and truly lays bare his lifetime of struggle,and also the difficulties that this can cause beyond himself with his family, friends and colleagues when a “plunge” occurs, though rather than simply describing this, he undertakes a journey of looking for understanding and reasons behind what may be happening in what is a notoriously ephemeral subject matter.

In his early years, despite a huge breakdown, he initially refused help and attempts at “treatment” or perhaps “management”, but he later travelled a road towards learning about his depression and ways that it could be better understood, mitigated and coped with.

Campbell, given his high-profile career in newspapers and politics, is also a regular guest, commentator and speaker in the media and is known to be a formidable (even aggressive) opponent, especially towards those with whom he disagrees with politically. When in these situations, I wonder if he ever reflects on the effect he might have on the mental health of his adversaries given the nature of his dressing-downs that may occur in the “public domain”.

In summary, I found this book very open and enlightening, but personally, I didn’t think it needed the semi-regular insertion of politics, but I guess it must be hard to resist for a political animal such as Campbell and it is a big part of his story (contrary to what appears to be widely perceived, most politicians here in the UK are I think, united in that they’re motivated by making things better, only differing about how that should be achieved and what is prioritised on a hugely long list).Clearly for Campbell, there’s still more road to travel in learning to live “even better” in the future. – JC

Killing For Company

By Brian Masters

I’m always fascinated by what makes people what they are; factors such as genetics, upbringing and life experiences all combining to influence what an individual thinks and chooses to do.

Amanda and I watched the dramatisation of Dennis Nilsen’s murders, which led us both to read this harrowing yet interesting book about the activities that turned an ordinary man into someone extraordinary (and notorious).

In it, author Brian Masters gained exclusive access to Dennis Nilsen following his capture and prosecution, and with his cooperation sought to articulate some kind of understanding of what may have contributed to the grim events that occurred at 195 Melrose Avenue and 23 Cranley Gardens in London.

Of course, that answer could never be definitive, though the stories and insights drawn from his childhood where he experienced the devastating loss of his beloved Grandfather, suffered the absence of his father, and descriptions of the paths he subsequently took in adolescence and adulthood all contribute to gaining some kind of understanding of the man and what may have motivated him.

A fascinating and unique read.- JC