Read The World challenge: status report, 2013

As of August 1st, I’ve been reading my way round the world for five years and I’m at 135 countries accounted for — or 99 books read since I started (99½, actually). You can check the map here.

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Which means I’ve read 16 (and a half!) this year. Which is down from the rate I managed at first — 53 in the first two years — but about in line with what I’ve done since. So at least I haven’t slowed down even more. Or stopped altogether.

None of those 16 were absolutely stand-out classics, but there are several I can recommend if they sound like the kind of thing that would interest you:

A Woman in the Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution by Samar Yazbek is well-written, interesting and informative. It’s becoming ever less topical as the situation in Syria moves on; but as long as we have dictatorships, the subject of life as a dissident in a (wobbling, unstable) police state is still going to have relevance.

Survival in the Killing Fields by Haing Ngor and Roger Warner is a book that tells a remarkable story, of a man who survived the Khmer Rouge and ended up winning an Oscar for his performance in a film about it.

Life and a Half by Sony Labou Tansi is yet another book about dictatorship, this time a dark, strange, poetic novel which I thought was very worth reading.

And not recommendations exactly, but a few books which stand out in my memory because of their subject matter rather than their literary qualities: 88 Days (Somali piracy), The Chronicles of Dathra (Kuwaiti chick-lit, sort of), and African Philosophy (African philosophy).

» Cupid Shooting Arrows at the World Globe is attributed to Otto van Veen and apparently 1608ish. From the Met.

Apologies for the lack of posts

If I’d been better blogger recently you might have got my thoughts about things like the weirdness of the US healthcare debate (you’d think that the aim of universal healthcare was laughably naive starry-eyed utopianism, rather than something that every other wealthy country has already achieved), Manchester United’s prospects for the season (I’m worried they’ll be short of goals if Rooney gets crocked), the Ashes (I’m thrilled we won, but it was a funny old topsy-turvy series), and the appearance of a variant, yellow-winged form of the Jersey Tiger moth in the garden.

So you haven’t missed much, really.

I don’t actually have anything in particular to say now, I just had a twinge of guilt about the lack of blogging. I’m currently drinking a cup of coffee and preparing to upgrade the OS on my computer — something I realised I was excited about not so much because of the software itself but because it’s named after the most beautiful and coolest of the big cats.

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Good bird days

I’ve had a couple of good days of birding. Yesterday we had a walk in some dry scrubby brush – cistus (ie rock rose), wild lavender, broom and flowers like wild gladiolus, orchids and so on. There were nightingales and woodlarks singing, and I also saw Dartford warbler, woodchat shrike, black kite and possibly most exciting, turtle dove, a bird I haven’t seen for a surprisingly long time.

Then today we went for a walk somewhere picked for no other reason than there was a big lake on the map, and again it was a lovely landscape with masses of flowers. Nightingales singing beautifully, and this time I managed to see subalpine warbler. And even better, red-backed shrike, which is a bird I’ve only seen once before, many years ago, and then I saw a juvenile or a female, so it was a boring mottled brown instead of the attractive male I saw today with a pink tummy, a rufous back, grey head and a rakish highwayman’s mask.

Then just to top it off, a family of crested tits turned up at the villa during lunch. So that was nice.

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Exciting wildlife update

The wildlife picked up a bit today: some very camouflaged geckos on the walls of the house (I’ll post a pic when I get back to England), a raven flying over, bee-eaters heard but not seen.

And the treecreepers nesting in the roof, which I think I mentioned on Twitter but not here, turned out to be Short-toed Treecreeper. I thought initially it was a new bird for my life list, but I realised I saw them in Spain a couple of years ago. Still, it was a challenge to identify them, so I’m glad I managed.

And most exciting, what initially looked like a big fat bumblebee but turned out to be a bee mimic: the Narrow-bordered Bee Hawkmoth. I’d post a link but I’m blogging from the iPhone and it’s a PITA. I’ve wanted to see one of these little clear winged hawkmoths for years and years and years, though, so that was very pleasing.

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Holiday update

I’m still in France; no hot news on the bird front or indeed any other front, but it’s all very pleasant.

Some kind of lizard orchid. Not the prettiest orchid I’ve found, but maybe the coolest.

There’s a gecko behind the sofa on the other side of the room.

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4th annual Heraclitean Fire Christmas stuffing post

Because arbitrary traditions are important at Christmas.

As usual, I made a base of sausagemeat, celery, onion and breadcrumbs, and also as usual half of it is chestnut stuffing. But this year’s second, ad-libbed recipe has toasted almonds and dried apricots and peaches soaked in amaretto.

Now I ought to get on with roasting the ham that has been simmering away the whole time. Happy midwinter festival, everyone.

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Wales photos

I’ve uploaded a set of photos from Welsh trip to Flickr. Here’s one of them, a singing whitethroat:

Singing whitethroat

I somewhat felt the lack of a wide-angle lens, with all that scenery all over the place, and I’ve held back some of the best ones for my photoblog Clouded Drab (there’s a couple already posted), but I hope you can find some you like. Over the next week or so I’ll decide which others to post to Clouded Drab and post the ones which don’t make the cut to Flickr.

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I have returned!

I am back from Wales. Debriefing, holiday book report, lots of photos, and musings on the Welsh language and widescreen television to follow. Possibly. In the meantime, here’s a shot of ox-eye daisies with cliffs and sea in the background.

Not only does it illustrate some of the many pretty flowers to be seen in Pembrokeshire, it’s an example of something emphasised by the presence of a flat horizon in so many of the pictures: my apparently complete inability to hold a camera straight.

» daisies in Pembrokeshire, uploaded to Flickr by me.

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Rain, rain go away

Don’t get me wrong, this place looks beautiful even when it is raining, but I think I’m ready for some more sun now.

I would say it was no more than I expect of Wales — it’s not a coincidence that the principality is famous for sheep rather than, say, vineyards — but in fact I read somewhere that St. David’s Head has more hours of sunshine every year than anywhere else in the country, so perhaps I’m just unlucky.

Still, I had a wet but mostly enjoyable walk today: the flowers are amazing. As well as all the gorse, bluebells, campion and thrift, there were little blue flowers I think might be called squills, and little wild white roses, and milkwort and cuckooflower and scabious and foxgloves and about a hundred others. It really is rather lovely. And I saw nesting ravens, and a couple of choughs, and there were whitethroats singing from every bush.

I also went to the cathedral today. If you use the criterion that a city is a town with a cathedral, St. David’s is the smallest city in the UK. I think it might be going a bit far to describe it as a ‘village’, but in more densely populated parts of the country it would certainly be a very small town. The cathedral is really attractive: lots of good medieval stuff and some unusually attractive Victorian restoration as well.

When they built the nave in [about] the C13th, they didn’t do a particularly good job of it, and standing in the cathedral looking along the nave you can see the north wall is visibly leaning outwards, which is quite disconcerting. So in the C16th they put in some internal buttressing and lowered the ceiling: there’s a beautiful ornately carved wooden Tudor ceiling with huge protruding bosses which you can see is just cutting across the top of the arched window in the west wall. And the exterior of the west wall is covered in the fabulous purple Pembrokeshire stone: I think it must be something like an iron-rich sandstone, but it’s a sort of aubergine colour.

Like most medieval cathedrals in this country, it had some of its best stuff — windows and statues and so on — demolished either during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s men; and no doubt in the middle ages all the interior would have been covered in murals and other decoration. But that’s just par for the course. I don’t know whether it’s ironic or highly appropriate that Christians created so much of the country’s artistic heritage and then it was other Christians who came along a bit later and destroyed most of it.

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I’m in Wales

In a cafe in St David’s to be exact. I spent the last couple of days in the southern part of Pembrokeshire, in a village called Marloes; it’s the kind of place which, in England, would be one street, one pub, one shop and one church; being Wales, it has a pub, a shop, a church and a chapel. Anyway, I went there because of its proximity to an island called Skomer, known for its population of puffins. Puffin was my target species for this trip, really: everything else is just a bonus.

The first day I tried to get out to the island it was beautiful blazing sunshine and the sea was like glass, but the forecast was for the wind to come up in the afternoon, so they weren’t running boats to the island because they didn’t want everyone to get stuck there. Frustrating, but I took the round-island boat trip instead and walked back along the coastal path to the village. And I have to say, it was seriously beautiful: cliffs, blue seas, the cliff-tops covered in flowers.

The next day it was wetter but the wind was from the right direction, so I got onto the island: it’s an amazing place. The whole top of the island is covered in bluebells and campion and thrift, there are gulls nesting everywhere, huge colonies of auks on the cliffsides, and best of all the puffins, which nest in rabbit burrows at the tops of the cliffs. They are fabulously cute and extremely tame, apparently completely impervious to people.  I went to the Galapagos the year before last, and Skomer is as magical a place as any of those islands – or at the very least almost as magical and a hell of a lot easier to get to. It was raining for the first hour or so I was on Skomer and cloudy thereafter, so not great for photography, but actually the soft grey light, lush grass, stone walls and bluebells made a rather lovely combination. Sun would have been even better, but it was beautiful nonetheless.

And as well as puffins: guillemot, razorbill, shag, raven, chough, peregrine, fulmar, kittiwake. It was a lovely day. I’ll show you the photos when I get home :)

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