Recent writing

The last few months got away from me, so here’s a quick summary of some of my recent published work:

Guardian Country Diary
I continue to contribute regularly to this short daily feature in the Guardian newspaper. I’ve written recently about curlews, seasonal birdsong, snorkelling the shipwrecks of Orkney’s Scapa Flow, and the purple heathered uplands of late summer.
Probably my favourite of these pieces are the more personal ones: on walking the same paths again and again through lockdown (“Every day I look at these same hills, these same shores, and every day they show me something new. Over time, these daily walks build up, one upon the other, to create a long view: a portrait of a place through time…”), and my latest effort, in which I begin to recognise Orcadian seasonal signposts as I pass into my sophomore year as an islander (“Knowledge of the land builds up in layers. I will never be from here, but, over time, these windswept hills might come to feel like home.”)

I continue to write my monthly column ‘The Wild Frontier’ for Prospect magazine. Expeditions of any kind have obviously been curtailed during lockdown, so I’ve been writing more about island living. Since I last updated you, my columns have been on
Lockdown in Orkney (“Our containment on the island is a source of comfort and claustrophobia, both.”),
Why everyone has been getting into birdwatching during the Covid crisis (“In empty streets, birds have felt more present than ever.”),
What keeping tadpoles taught me about change (“I feel it in the air now, sense it moving in the wind. Change is coming. But what kind of change are we facing?”
a paean to Britain’s county recorders, our invaluable newt counters (“In the Orkney Islands, we have 26 of them, including recorders of cetaceans, molluscs, algae, sawflies, bats, and slime moulds.”)
I’ve also been book reviewing for Prospect on occasion. Recently I wrote about David Farrier’s intriguing Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils and Sonia Shah’s The Next Great Migration: The Beauty and the Terror of Life on the Move, which I found thought-provoking and readable, even if I found myself picking holes in her argument.

New Humanist
I wrote a long feature on the danger and promise of genetically modified humans for this monthly magazine published by the Rationalists Association – and why we find the idea so horrifying. It led me to Philip Ball’s fascinating book Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People (2011), and some of his more recent writing on the subject, which explored concepts of ‘anthropoesis’, or the making of artificial people, in literature and mythology.
The New Humanist is a great, unashamedly intelligent quarterly publication, run on a shoestring by the brilliantly clever Samira Shackle, and I love writing for it. She also gave me the opportunity to review my favourite new book of 2020 so far, Sophie Mackintosh’s Blue Ticket (“Mackintosh’s book, like all good speculative fiction, reminds us of a truth in the real world. Choice, onerous or not, is a luxury.”).

Five Books
I continue to review and interview for this literary website, where I am the deputy editor. I’ve written round-ups of the most notable novels of summer 2020 and fall 2020, plus recommendations of very short books for the chronically distracted, and interviewed experts on subjects as varied as the best sci fi novels of 2020, books on Handel, forensic science, and diet books.
Five Books continues to go from strength to strength; we now have a monthly readership of around 700,000 (which reached 800,000 during lockdown!) from both sides of the Atlantic, plus significant reach on our social media channels and our biweekly newsletter.
I love to hear about significant book publications, so if you are a book publicist, please consider getting in touch. I’m particularly interested in the environment, psychology, natural history, and literary nonfiction in general, plus literary fiction and literary-crossover genres like literary sci fi or literary horror. (NB. My colleagues Sophie and Ben tend to concentrate on history, business and economics, while Nigel Warburton heads up our philosophy section and Casper Henderson sometimes mans our hard science coverage.)

Scottish Field
I continue as the wildlife columnist for this monthly glossy magazine. Recently I’ve written about beavers and their detractors, the wild boar breeding and spreading through the west Highlands under cover of night, and efforts to save rare Scottish butterflies. I love to get tips on what to cover next – drop me a line if you’re involved in an interesting wildlife project in Scotland. There’s a lead time of 1-2 months.

I look forward to seeing two major pieces of work in print in the not too distant future – including an essay for Isabella Tree’s guest-edited issue of Granta, which should be out very soon.

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Essay: Talk to the Animals


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

Hilary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light - hardback book cover on floor boards

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:

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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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