The Friends of Charles Darwin Blog

The problem writing a book about Charles Darwin

Darwin ape cartoonWhen friends found out I’d finally written a book, they naturally assumed it was about Charles Darwin. To be a friend of mine is to be accustomed to having Darwin slipped into pretty much every conversation. My friends seemed almost shocked to learn my book is, in fact, about my adventures on the local moor. (They seemed considerably less shocked to learn Darwin has somehow been slipped into many of its chapters.)

But everyone who has expressed an opinion on the matter says just one thing:

‘…but your next book is going to be about Darwin, right?’

Well, that’s certainly the plan.

But there’s a problem writing a book about Charles Darwin. There are so damn many of the things already, how do you make your book different? Which is why I’ve been banging my head against the wall for the last few months.

The way I see it, there’s no need for yet another Darwin biography. And there are people far better qualified than me to write about the latest in evolutionary theory. And the vague idea I had for a book about Darwin’s ‘fools experiments’ has just been done. You name it, the topic’s been covered. I mean, there’s even a book of poems about the dude. So, what should I do? What can I say that hasn’t already been said? What have I got going for me that other writers haven’t already got gone?

It seems to me, my main strength as a writer on matters Darwinian is I’m a unabashed fanboy. A self-confessed Darwin groupie. A Darwin nerd who can string a few sentences together. I’m someone who delights in both the trivia and the essentials of Darwin’s life and works. Someone who, as I say, has something of a reputation for slipping Darwin into pretty much every conversation.

Feedback from my Moor book suggests people enjoyed both its eclectic nature and its humour. They also liked learning new stuff. Eclectic, occasionally humorous stuff about Charles Darwin: I can do that!

So, that’s my plan, such as it is: an assortment of pieces on all things Darwinian. A celebration of the great man’s life and work that doesn’t take itself too seriously. A book non-Darwin groupies might read and remark, ‘Oh, actually, that’s quite interesting!’

I haven’t managed to come up with a decent title for the book yet. All the good ones have been taken. But my working subtitle is a Darwinian Selection (see what I did, there?).

What do you reckon? Has this idea got fully opposable thumbs, or what?


Re. Joyce

Twitter user Sandra Tropp (@SandyTropp) last week drew my attention to the fact that, in his notoriously cryptic Finnegans Wake, James Joyce makes use of a pun very similar to the Friends of Charles Darwin tagline. Here’s the quote (my emphasis added):

The thing is he must be put strait 2 on the spot, no mere waterstichystuff in a selfmade world that you can’t believe a word he’s written in, not for pie, but one’s only owned by naturel rejection. Charley, you’re my darwing! So sing they sequent the assent of man. Till they go round if they go roundagain before breakparts and all dismissed. They keep. Step keep. Step. Stop. Who is Fleur? Where is Ange? Or Gardoun?

(No, me neither.)

It was in 1994 that my late friend and Friends of Charles Darwin co-founder, Fitz, came up with our Charlie is our Darwin motto: a pun on Robert Burns’s Charlie, He’s My Darling—a song about Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I’m pretty sure Fitz would have been delighted to hear he’d been pre-empted by 55 years by none other than James Joyce.


24 not out… So, what next?

24Today (2nd March 2018) marks the Friends of Charles Darwin’s 24th birthday. Happy birthday to us!

At midnight last night, the Charles Darwin £10 note, for which we originally campaigned, finally became extinct.

Time, perhaps for something of a relaunch.

Although you’d never guess it from appearances, I’ve been working hard behind the scenes over the last few months, making numerous much-needed improvements to the website. I’ll spare you the technical details, but the Reviews and Articles sections will be a lot easier for me to maintain in future. I’ve also converted some of the old, blog posts into proper articles—especially those that celebrate anniversaries of one form or another, which might come in handy again in future years.

I’ll keep making improvements to the website over the next few months. The general idea is to bring the site more up to date, and, in particular, to make it more suitable for sharing stuff on social media—which is where all the cool kids hang out these days, apparently.

I published my first book last year. Although, as you might expect, Darwin, the history of science, and evolution feature in it quite a lot, it was never intended as a Darwin-related book. My next book is likely to be decidedly Darwin-related. So, I’m planning to start blogging here more often about stuff I uncover during my research. Obviously, I’ll also include reviews of any relevant books I (re-)read during the writing process. So, watch this space…

I’m also about to start a Friends of Charles Darwin newsletter. Nothing too spammy, you understand: I’m thinking maybe one newsletter every couple of months or so. So please sign up—even if you already asked to be added to the mailing list when you became a member (after 24 years, our existing mailing list is completely out of date, so it makes sense to start afresh).

What else? I guess we’ll find out. But my intention is to start posting more stuff with more regularity on the Friends of Charles Darwin website, Twitter feed, and Facebook page.

If you have any suggestions about other things you’d like to see from the Friends of Charles Darwin, please feel free to add a comment below, or to get in touch directly.


The end of the Darwin tenner

As extinction events go, the dating of this one is pretty precise: the Bank of England’s Charles Darwin £10 note will cease to be legal tender at 23:59 GMT tonight (1st March 2018).

Darwin £10 notes
Some magnificent Darwin tenners.

The notes had a great run: formally announced on 17 May 2000, and issued on 7 November the same year, the Darwin tenner graced many a purse, wallet, and back pocket for almost 18 years. But Darwin would be the first to point out that everything is bound to go extinct in the end. The Darwin bank note has now been replaced by an austentatious plastic monstrosity. Which just goes to show not all evolutionary change is progress. Still, life goes on…

From a personal point of view, the timing of the demise of the Darwin tenner is spectacularly unfortunate, falling as it does precisely one minute before the Friends of Charles Darwin’s  24th birthday. My friend Fitz and I founded the Friends in the Red Lion pub, Parkgate, Wirral on 2nd March 1994, when we wrote to the Bank of England to point out a certain ‘glaring omission’ from their bank notes. Thus began our campaign to see Darwin depicted on a Bank of England note.

In all honesty, I can’t with any real conviction claim we were instrumental in getting Darwin portrayed on the tenner, but I like to think we helped. And we certainly celebrated like hell when the Bank of England finally saw the light:

The founders celebrating
Fitz (L) and me (R), celebrating the announcement of the Darwin tenner.

Time moves on at an alarming pace. Is it really 18 years since Fitz and I partied like it was 1999? I am considerably thinner on top and more grey-haired than I was back then, and poor old Fitz is considerably less alive. After he died in 2014, I took steps to ensure he was buried with a crisp Darwin tenner, just in case the ferryman demanded a fare. I miss the daft, old bugger.

Considering the Friends of Charles Darwin were created with the sole aim of seeing our hero celebrated on a bank note, and considering we got precisely what we wanted almost 18 years ago, it could be argued we’ve long outlived our purpose. But, what the hell, there are plenty more self-confessed Darwin groupies out there, so I might as well keep this thing going a while longer. So, if Charlie is your Darwin, and you haven't done so already, please feel free to join us.

Oh, and I’m thinking of starting a newsletter, so please sign up—even if you're already a member (after 24 years, our existing mailing list is very old, and completely out of date, so I thought I should start it afresh).

Here’s to the next 24 years…


The ghost of John Tyndall solves a mystery (probably)

The case of the morbid book inscription

In December 2013, while visiting one of my favourite second-hand book shops with a friend, I came across a first edition of the essay collection New Fragments by one of Charles Darwin's close friends, the physicist John Tyndall.

I was still working on my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk at the time. John Tyndall features prominently in two chapters, so I felt compelled to buy the book. (Well, that was my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.) Perhaps more intriguing than the book itself was the dramatic, hand-written inscription on the title page:

Book inscription
Morbid book inscription.

Transcript: Received at [the?] Temple Chambers on Friday 15th January 1892 (on a bed of sickness that has been well nigh unto death)

I concluded the inevitable blog post about my find with the confident prediction, ‘I guess I'll never know the story behind these words—which is one of the appeals of such enigmatic inscriptions.’

But, hang on! Not so fast, Richard…

Mystery solved?

Four years and three days after coming across the enigmatic inscription, I happened to end up in a Twitter exchange with none other than the ghost of John Tyndall. (Twitter is weird like that.) I took the opportunity to draw his attention to my find:

HOLY CRAP!!

True to his word, the ghost of John Tyndall did indeed get back to me the next day, in the guise of his amanuensis and biographer, Roland Jackson, who wrote:

[T]here’s an outside chance that your book is inscribed by [the mathematician] Thomas [Archer] Hirst. 15 January was publication day and he might have risen from his sickbed to get a copy. He died on 16 February. Tyndall at the time was confined to Hindhead, and the writing isn’t his wife’s (who might have gone to get it but I think there’s no mention in the diary) or his I think.

I attach the only really contemporary letter of Hirst’s we have. His writing seems to have changed quite a bit as he got more and more ill. There are resemblances but I’m not sure strong enough to be definitive. See what you think, making allowances for a sick man scrawling it on his bed.

Here is the attached letter from Hirst:

Hirst letter
Letter from Thomas Archer Hirst to John Tyndall, 04-Jan-1892.
Reproduced by courtesy of the Royal Institution of Great Britain.
SOURCE: RI MS JT/1/H/480

Transcript:

4 Jany 1892

My dear John

I have just ordered your dozen of Whisky It ought to reach you tomorrow, or next day, I trust you will continue to like it, at your midday repast.

What do you think of Sir W. Thomson’s new Peerage? People here are wondering what title he will select to bear.

As to your possible change from Hind Head; Spencer has just been saying that he found perfect quiet at Bournemouth. This is worth knowing; for he is almost as sensitive as you are, with respect to quietude at night.

Every yours affectionately | Tom

A letter concerning whisky, containing gossip about the future Lord Kelvin, and with word from (presumably) Herbert Spencer: right up my street!

I'm no handwriting expert, but, as Roland Jackson suggested, I compared my book inscription with the Hirst letter and noticed a number of similarities, namely:

  • the year 1892, which appears in both samples, looks very similar (especially, the elongated, lowered numeral 9, and the curly flourish at the top of the numeral 2);
  • the lower-case ‘m’ in the word ‘midday’, and the (presumably) upper-case ‘M’ in ‘My’ in the letter both have very distinctive curly opening finials. These closely resemble the curly opening finial on the letter ‘n’ in the word ‘nigh’ in the book inscription;
  • (less convincingly) the upper-case ‘T’s in ‘Thomson’ and ‘Tom’ in the letter are similar in style to the upper-case ‘T’ in ‘Temple’ in the book inscription.
Thomas Archer Hirst
Thomas Archer Hirst (1830–1892)

Two other factors to consider:

  1. Thomas Archer Hirst kept an extensive scientific-diary-cum-everyday-book for 47 years. Although the diary does not mention receiving Tyndall's New Fragments, its final entry was dated 18th January 1892—just three days after the date of the book inscription. This would tie in very well with Hirst's being ‘well nigh unto death’. (He died as a result of a major influenza epidemic less than a month later, at his home in Marylebone, London, on 16 February 1892.)
  2. Whoever wrote the inscription in my book was sufficiently interested in the writing of John Tyndall to take delivery of his latest book from their sickbed on the very day it was published. Hirst, being a very close friend of Tyndall, and a voracious science-reader would seem to fit that bill very nicely.

Do I think this conclusively proves my morbid book inscription was indeed written by Tyndall's dear friend Thomas Archer Hirst? No I don't. But do I strongly suspect it was? You betcha!

Pleasing co-incidences

I couldn't let the opportunity occasioned by writing about Thomas Archer Hirst and John Tyndall go by without relating a couple of personally interesting co-incidences about their friendship.

While I was researching Tyndall for my book, I learnt that he and Hirst first became friends as young men while surveying a proposed railway line between Halifax and Keighley, West Yorkshire. Those towns both lie just 20 minutes' drive from my home. More pleasing, however, was it to discover that the man they both worked for was my namesake, the land agent and surveyor Richard Carter.

Shameless plug

On the MoorRead more about John Tyndall (and Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy, Sir Thomas Browne, Celtic languages, evolution's kludgy compromises, wheatears, triangulation, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, grouse disease, defining species, DNA barcoding, the Laws of Thermodynamics, the Brontës, snipe courtship, skeletons, rooks, the Greenhouse Effect, blue skies, the songs of skylarks, contrails, and much more) in my book On the Moor: Science, History and Nature on a Country Walk.