Essay: Talk to the Animals

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I emerged from a fug of book deadline stress last month and wrote a fun essay about the quest to talk to animals for Prospect to celebrate. It’s got everything: apes speaking sign language, sex with dolphins and the search for extraterrestrial life.

Full text on the Prospect site here, or after the fold.
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Books on my bedside table: Q4 2019 and Q1 2020

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It’s been a strange few months for reading. I finished the first draft of my new book, Islands of Abandonment, at the start of February, after months of nocturnal living and occasional minor breakdowns. Then – well – the pandemic happened. Suffice to say, I’ve felt my capacity for recreational reading to be lower than normal. Still, somehow I managed to read a fair number of books that I loved and wholeheartedly recommend, so here goes:

Fiction
Outline and Transit // Rachel Cusk: The first two books of the highly-acclaimed Outline trilogy. Each takes the form of a series of conversations – with a colleague, a stranger on a plane, a difficult neighbour, her hairdresser – as the protagonist is largely present as a negative, bar her sharp, analytic comments in response to her interlocutor’s offerings. Despite its cool affect and barely-there plot (or perhaps because of it) the books are spellbinding, and powerful in their own understated manner. So acutely intelligent, so readable.

Weather // Jenny Offill: I came nervously to this, because her last novel Dept. of Speculation is one of my favourite books of all time. Was delighted to find that same unpretentious profundity, that quick wit, that macabre obsession. So easily digestible, in its fragmentary form. I read it in an afternoon, then reread it the next day. Who knew the end days could be so dryly amusing? I didn’t feel it to have the same gut-punch emotional intensity of the previous book, but I loved it nevertheless.

The Plague // Albert Camus: Completely coincidentally, I got onto a ‘plague fiction’ reading jag last year before Covid-19 swept the world. I know Camus’ The Plague to be allegorical, yet I still haven’t been able to get the opening section out of my head: the way the city residents grab at life, filling the bars and restaurants in the early days of the quarantine. How, as boredom sets in, they sit smoking at cafe tables, complaining about their lost loves. And all the time, out of sight, the death toll rises…

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The Wild Frontier: storm season

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My latest column for Prospect talks about living at the meeting point of air, earth and sea. Find it on the Prospect website here, or after the fold.

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Country Diary: Wacky Races

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A brief vignette from spring-time Orkney for the Guardian’s Country Diary: a brief stand-off with a brown hare. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Slowing down on the rocky strand

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I’m still contributing a monthly column titled ‘The Wild Frontier’ to Prospect magazine, as well as a monthly wildlife column to the Scottish Field (not online). My latest Prospect article is about remembering to slow down in times of stress. Full text online here, or after the fold.

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Country diary: the cannibal seals

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A second dispatch from Orkney for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. It’s about the darker side of nature, and a murder mystery now solved: the dead seal pups and the cannibal bulls. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold.

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The Wild Frontier: night walker

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My latest column for Prospect magazine is about the joys of walking at night time, an enthusiasm I share with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dickens. Full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold. I’ve been doing a lot more of it recently, while staying up writing into the early hours. Sometimes I do wish I was an early riser, who got their most efficient work done before breakfast. But other times I really enjoy those long hours of darkness, after everyone is in bed, when I can get in great stretches of concentrated writing time – and a wander through deserted lanes and fields under starlight.

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The Wild Frontier: settling in

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A new column for Prospect, on moving across the country during a time of migrations. Full text here, or after the fold. Illustration by Kate Hazell.

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Hive minds and the wisdom of crowds

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My most recent column for Prospect deals with collective intelligence and decision-making, with inspiration taken from the natural world. Full text on the Prospect website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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Country Diary: the super-pod

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Another brief postcard from Orkney, this time from the shores of the island of Flotta – a short ferry ride from where I live (in the west of what we call ‘mainland’ here on the archipelago). A super-pod of porpoises has been in residence for several weeks, as they have every autumn for the last few years during their breeding season. Full text on the Guardian website here, or after the fold. Continue reading

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