This week: Books Make Books, George Bernard Shaw, adders, zen motoring and social progress?

Happy Friday!

And welcome to your second summer. Sometimes this newsletter is a one pot meal, sometimes it’s more of a tapas affair. Today it’s the latter: a collection of amuse-bouches to assuage your appetite until lunchtime.

Here are a few things I’ve written recently that you may be saving up for the big screen:

Above: As a newly-employed outdoor instructor, this was my office last weekend.

A Fortune-Teller Told Me

After a long hiatus for lockdown-induced exhaustion and then something of a bike ride, Books Make Books is BACK! After all: home is where the books are.

This week I review / relish A Fortune-Teller Told Me by Tiziano Terzani, an Italian foreign correspondent who had a penchant for the unconventional. In 1993, Terzani took a year off flying and spent that time travelling around East Asia getting his fortune told by dozens of wise soothsayers.

‘The cards read the shadows of things, of events. What I can do is help people to change the position of the light, and then, with free will, they can change the shadows. That I really do believe: you can change the shadows.’

There are many more quotes and comments on fortune-telling, Khmer Rouge firing squads and the pleasures of not flying over on my companion newsletter Books Make Books.

Feel the Fear… And Give Future Readers a Hard Time By Not Referencing Your Sources Anyway

I’m currently reading Feel the Fear… And Do It Anyway, a classic of the self-help genre, by Susan Jeffers. It was written in a fever of enthusiasm back in 1987 and you can kind of tell.

Although there’s plenty of practical wisdom in there—clearly inspired by the Stoics I might add—there are also moments of sweeping generalisation and unsubstantiated assertion. All good fun.

I’m reading the revised edition, published in 2012, and very much enjoying the fact that she felt no need to update the references to ‘audio cassettes’ and ‘portable CD players’. More annoying, however, is her tendency to quote other writers without attribution or without context.

In the chapter ‘Filling the Inner Void’ Jeffers presents a long quotation from George Bernard Shaw. I wanted to share his idea of ‘feverish selfishness’ with you, but also wanted to give some context. So I looked it up on the internet—something Susan Jeffers can kind of be forgiven for missing out on in 1987, but not in 2012.

Irrelevant fact: Bernard Shaw and Bob Dylan are the only artists to have been awarded both an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. Life goals.

It wasn’t easy sourcing this supposed Bernard Shaw quotation. It seems like most of the internet has slavishly copied out the words as they appear in Jeffers’ book, but I’m more demanding than that. The internet is full of ‘inspirational’ quotes spuriously attributed to dead white men: I want to see the words printed by a reputable publisher, ideally in Bernard Shaw’s very own blood.

Plugging the first words of Jeffers’ quotation into DuckDuckGo, I quickly traced them to the dedication at the beginning of Bernard Shaw’s 1903 play Man and Superman:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I note that Jeffers edited the text slightly, changing ‘you’ to ‘me’ at the end and excising the excellent ‘scrap heap’ clause. (For pity’s sake, Susan, there are ellipses in the title of your book, why not use them in quotations?)

But even ignoring those minor quibbles, this text is scarcely half of what Jeffers had presented as a continuous quotation. Where’s the rest? Cue more frantic searching, but the words are nowhere to be found in Man and Superman.

DuckDuckGo had to work hard to earn its crushed biscuits this time. Mainly because the second part is uncontextualised reported speech quoted at the very end of George Bernard Shaw: His Life and Works, a 1911 biography by Archibald Henderson:

“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatsoever I can.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch, which I have got hold of for the moment; and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”

Jeffers was a little more free with the translation here: her source—clearly not Henderson’s biography—less precise. This makes me think that she was given this quotation as it’s presented: the two parts as a whole.

Looking back at how Jeffers presents the quotation(s), I can see the disjunction in the two texts. The first, written by Bernard Shaw himself, is a single sentence with a transcendent idea concisely expressed from three different angles. It was this first sentence that I wanted to share with you (and now look what’s happened).

The second passage you can tell is reported speech. It’s no less than five sentences, including two half-thought fragments. It’s both more wordy and a little clichè. With all due respect to Archibald Henderson, you can tell it’s not the drafted and re-drafted work of Bernard Shaw.

Anyway, the point is: always reference your sources. Oh, and please be ‘a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’. Nice one.

Make adders count

Last weekend I saw my first adder. I didn’t take a photograph because I was instructing a group of teenagers and we don’t do screens when we’re outdoors. Instead we watched in awe as it slalomed across the sandy path and into the tree root undergrowth.

We were lucky: adders are a conservation priority species in the UK and 90 percent of adder sites now have only small populations—and numbers are falling. The Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK (ARG!) found that, unsurprisingly, the human rampage was doing nothing for the peace and tranquillity of Britain’s most infamous serpent.

You might not have much sympathy for the adder personally, but they are an indicator species: if adders are struggling, then so too are unheralded species who share the same habitat.

While no one wants to be bitten by a snake, adders are not aggressive animals and adder venom toxicity is relatively low compared to other vipers. There have been 14 fatalities from adder bites in the UK since 1876, and none since 1975.

If you’re bitten, seek medical attention immediately: there’s a buffet of at least eight different antivenoms to enjoy.

Any more for any more?

  • If only attendance at the Ogmios School of Zen Motoring was compulsory for all road users. These videos are brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Who knew driving through London could be so relaxing? Much to learn here. Thanks to Paul for sharing.

  • Try this quiet indulgence: taking a shower in darkness.

  • In the Wilds of an Open Soil with Writer Merlin Sheldrake, a sort of ‘graphic interview’ by Wendy Xu.

  • The 2020 Social Progress Index is out. High fives to our brothers and sisters in the US, Brazil and Hungary, the only countries actively going backwards according to this report. Those benighted realms aside, for most people on the planet, things are at least going in the right direction. Apart from the environment. You’re right: that is fucked.

  • AgriMan and PhotosyntheSister are here to save the planet from food insecurity! This 25 minute podcast with ‘agroholic’ Alpha Sennon is my new favourite thing.

    “A lot of people in the Caribbean still thinks that farming is slavery. But who feeds you controls you, and now, at this point of time, if you are not feeding yourself today, then maybe you are still being enslaved.”

I hope you enjoyed a few of those dishes. The sun is rising right in my face so I’m going to open a window and let the sea air sweep the room before starting work.

I’m tentatively wrangling my cycling diaries into some kind of publishable shape, but I’m torn between action and release. I’ve had some industry encouragement that there might be a book lurking in the shadows—but I don’t want to write anything unless it will say something that matters.

We already have plenty of great books about how hard and joyful it is to cycle a very long way in the UK; how will this one be different?

Big love,


Hello, I’m David Charles and I wrote this newsletter. I publish another newsletter about reading called Books Make Books. I’m co-writer of BBC Radio Wales sitcom Foiled, and also write for The Bike Project, the Center for International Forestry Research and Thighs of Steel. Reply to this email, or delve into the archive on

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