Author: Jeremiad

Katrina van Grouw – The Unfeathered Bird

We are displaying the wonderful Katrina van Grouw’s work in our Coffee Shop for the whole of October. Here she tells us about the inspiration behind her drawings, and the book ‘The Unfeathered Bird’, published by Princeton University Press.

Budgie Skeleton - Katrina van Grouw

Budgie Skeleton – Katrina van Grouw

Fact: If you’re going to spend several months intimately involved with a dead duck, it’s got to have a name.

I was an undergraduate Fine Art student of 22 with a passionate interest in natural history in general, and birds in particular. My college artwork was life-sized, Audubonesque, copper plate engravings of dramatic birds doing dramatic things. I’d thrown myself with gusto into ornithology: trained to be a bird ringer; taught myself taxidermy and prepared bird skins at my local museum.

What I was looking for on the beach that day was a bird I could dismantle in stages; make drawings of, layer by layer, bone by bone; strip down and then re-assemble again as a skeleton. And then I saw her: a female mallard in fine condition – except for being dead. I christened her ‘Amy’ and took her home. At graduation, the drawings of Amy were bound into a book with a professional-looking title embossed in gold on the cover: The Anatomy of Birds.

Twenty five years later – a lot more birds dismantled and drawn, and a lot of hissing and “quack – get out of here” from publishers – The Anatomy of Birds finally emerged as The Unfeathered Bird, universally acknowledged as a very fine swan indeed and dubbed by one reviewer “the best book ever to be inspired by a dead duck”.

The problem was one of preconceptions. Anatomy = textbook. I proposed to break that mould. What I wanted was combine the beauty, the attention to detail and sheer artistry typified by the best historical illustrations with up-to-date, jargon-free text that relates birds’ structure with their behaviour and evolution. It mattered little to me if readers know that the tibiotarsus articulates with the tarsometatarsus. What was more significant was that they understand that the joint between them is the ankle and not the knee.

The Unfeathered Bird is about adaptations. It shows how competitive pressure for survival has raised ostriches onto only two toes so they can run faster, shaped penguin wings into blade-like paddles; how having an enormous breastbone has enabled sandgrouse to commute and how tinamous have risen above their disadvantaged background by sheer stealth tactics. It’s a book for bird lovers: artists, and scientists, alike.

In my living room, the skeleton of a Mallard looks down at me benevolently from its glass case. Amy is by no means the most elegant specimen in my possession, but she has a very special place in my affections. Who would have thought a dead duck could do so much?


Ruby Wax/ Sane New World: Taming the Mind


Monday 28th October at 7pm

Oxford Town Hall

Blackwell’s is delighted to announce a very special event with Ruby Wax, who will be talking about her new book, ‘Sane New World’ at the Oxford Town Hall on Monday 28th October at 7pm.


Ruby Wax – comedian, writer and mental health campaigner – shows us how our minds can jeopardize our sanity. With her own periods of depression and now a Masters from Oxford in Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy to draw from, she explains how our busy, chattering, self-critical thoughts can drive us to anxiety and stress. If we are to break the cycle, we need to understand how our brains work, rewire our thinking and find calm in a frenetic world. Helping you become the master, not the slave, of your mind – here is the manual to saner living.

Make sure to join us for what is sure to be a fantastic event.

Tickets cost £5 and are available from the Customer Services Department, Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford. Alternatively, please telephone 01865 333623 or email

Melissa Benn: What Should We Tell Our Daughters?

Melissa Benn is appearing at Blackwell’s Bookshop on Tuesday 8th October at 7pm to talk about her new book, ‘What Should We Tell Our Daughters?’


Here is her manifesto:


1. Many of the freedoms and rights you enjoy today are the result of feminist struggles of the past. Learn about, and honour, that history – and carry on the struggle if need be.

2. Don’t let the highly sexualised culture in which we live (and particularly pornography) dictate your view of your own body and desires or tell you what sex really feels like.

3. Your safety is paramount. Judge those who are charged with caring for you – from your family to your school, the police to the law courts – by how much they act genuinely to protect you.

4. Doing well at school is important but it is only a part of the life-long task of developing intellectual confidence.

5. Don’t be too obliging or obedient. Once established as a habit, it is surprisingly hard to break.

6. Discover what gives you sexual pleasure and learn how to ask for it.

7. Develop your own opinions and ideas and learn to express them, in all their complexity, in front of others. Ultimately, it is less frightening than staying silent.

8. Have the highest ambitions for yourself but remember, success is not all about money, power and status. (And failure is an inevitable part of meaningful achievement.)

9. Learn to recognise and trust your feelings and express them appropriately – particularly anger. It is the basis of sanity and true self-regard.

10: Fight for yourself but fight for others too.

Richard Dawkins Event: Tuesday 17th September, 7pm at the Sheldonian


Richard Dawkins: An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist

We are thrilled to present a very special event at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Tuesday 17th September at 7pm with Richard Dawkins talking about his autobiography, “An Appetite for Wonder”


Born to parents who were enthusiastic naturalists, and linked through his wider family to a clutch of accomplished scientists, Richard Dawkins was bound to have biology in his genes. But what were the influences that shaped his life and intellectual development? And who inspired him to become the pioneering scientist and public thinker now famous (and infamous to some) around the world?

In An Appetite for Wonder we join him on a personal journey back to an enchanting childhood in colonial Africa, through an English schooling and then on to Oxford, the catalyst to his life. Vigorous debate in the dynamic Zoology Department unleashes his innate intellectual curiosity, and inspirational mentors together with his own creative thinking ignite the spark that results in his radical new vision of Darwinism, The Selfish Gene.

From innocent child to charismatic world-famous scientist, Richard Dawkins paints a colourful, richly textured canvas of his early life. Honest self-reflection and witty anecdotes are interspersed with touching reminiscences of his family and friends, literature, poetry and songs. We are finally able to understand the private influences that shaped the public man who, more than anyone else in his generation, explained our own origins.

Tickets cost £5 and are available from the Customer Services Department, Blackwell’s Bookshop, Oxford. Alternatively, please telephone 01865 333623 or email

Seashells in Yakushima Island

Seashells in Yakushima Island


‘Seashells in Yakushima Island’ is the title of a brand new book by Shunshiro Taniguchi which has just been published and which is available from Blackwell’s here in Oxford. It is a beautiful self-published book which introduces you to 345 different types of seashell which are part of the collection of a Japanese orthopedist and seashell enthusiast who moved to Yakushima island on retirement. The island is a World Heritage site located in the south west of Japan. This moving and soulful piece explains the story behind the book.


In March 2009 I retired after 30 years as an orthopaedic specialist in Osaka. I decided to settle on Yakushima Island in Kagoshima prefecture, and found part-time work at the island’s only hospital. Apart from 2 days a week working, I spend my time on art, climbing in the Okudake Mountains, and collecting seashells and ancient ‘Yakusugi’ Cedar driftwood on the beach.

Yakushima Island lies in the East China Sea, south of Kyushu, and surrounded by the warm Kuroshio Current. Its high temperature, averaging 19C° all year round, is the reason for its diverse sea life. Apart from a few sandy beaches where turtles nest, the coast is mainly stony, but the vast, sandy bed between Yakushima and Tanegashima is home to many snails and bivalves, whose shells are often washed up around the island.

My first house on the Island was an old wooden bungalow, in scenic Mugio village at the foot of Mt. Takahira, surrounded by orange groves and virgin forest. I felt like the Vedic sage Yajnavalkya, leaving behind family life and retiring to live the woods. Of course, it wasn’t quite like that! Each evening I sat on a big granite rock in the garden as the sun went down, then spent the night sorting my seashell and insect collections, and carving Yakusugi wood. With no TV or radio, I was isolated from day-to-day information and could lose myself in reading and daydreams.



After two years I moved to my current house in Anbou. Its back yard was once a fruit garden, and I can still pick Tankan oranges from December through March and make my own juice. The house has been completely overtaken by my collection, with so many specimens of seashell, local insects and carvings everywhere, it almost looks like a little natural history museum of Yakushima.

I usually go to the beach in the early morning, especially after winter storms and autumn typhoons, to comb for shells and driftwood. One of the most exciting mornings of my life was in October 2009, after a night of terror, with 90 mile/hour winds buffeting my old wooden house. Such heaps of treasure were washed up on the shore; enormous, strange shells with still-living inhabitants, and a 100kg Yakusugi log which had lain 40 years on the seabed at the mouth of Anbou River.

I am fascinated with the beauty of seashells. I can lose myself in imagination, tracing their beautiful forms and patterns, or holding one to my ear to hear the echo of the sea. I decided to make a photo book of my collection in May 2011, and it has taken two years, with the help of many people.

For me, this is the natural extension of a habit I formed in childhood. This dates back to 1960, when I was a twelve year old boy on vacation in my home town, in Kagoshima. Walking along Nishikata Beach, I found a beautiful, pristine Striped Bonnet shell deposited on the white sand after a big wave. I picked it up in fascination and delight, and my life as a collector began at that moment.


I first discovered Yakushima in 1985, on holiday with my family. We drove to a beach in Shitoko, and saw piles of seashells washed up everywhere. It was like stumbling on a gold mine, with countless snails, clams and tiny shells that I had never seen before. This scene was etched vividly into my memory, and has never left me. I would often dream about it, and be reminded of Yakushima Island.

When I finally returned to Shitoko in 2009 I found the same beach buried in concrete blocks, and the mountains of seashells in my memory were gone. Hoping to recapture that scene, I walked along every single beach in Yakushima, but I couldn’t find it. Even today, I feel as though I’m still searching for that beach from my dreams.






Event with Hadley Freeman – Be Awesome: Modern Life for Modern Ladies

Blackwell’s Event, Thursday 25th July at 7pm

Hadley Freeman, Guardian features writer and author of the popular ‘Ask Hadley…’ column, reminds the modern lady to Be Awesome.

Hadley Freeman

Covering topics vital for any modern woman to consider (from ‘How to read women’s magazines without wanting to grow a penis’ to ‘Beyond the armpit: a guide to being a modern day feminist’), Be Awesome tackles body image, sex, dating and feminism head on. With an attitude that is unfalteringly funny, smart and surprisingly heart-warming, Hadley Freeman is a voice of sanity that every woman should hear. Join us for what promises to be a fabulous event.

Hadley Freeman is the author of The Meaning of Sunglasses and has been a columnist and staff writer for the Guardian since 2000, where she writes the popular ‘Ask Hadley’ fashion column. She also contributes to US Vogue.

Tickets cost £3 and are available from our Customer Service Department, Blackwell’s Bookshop, 48-51 Broad Street, Oxford. Telephone: 01865 333623.

Adventures in Wonderland

Alice’s Day takes place on Saturday 6th July and meanwhile, our friends at The Story Museum have something rather special going on to get you in the mood.

From Wednesday 3rd July, Teatro Vivo presents a 2-hour family show, ‘Adventures in wonderland’ at the Story Museum. The show stars at a variety of different times on different days – click here for further details.

Teatro Vivo poster pic      

Join a mad tea-party, swim in the Pool of Tears and help the Cheshire Cat put himself together!

A sell-out success at the 2012 Greenwich Children’s Festival, Teatro Vivo’s curiouser and curiouser interactive journey comes to life in the atmospheric spaces of The Story Museum. Take this rare opportunity to step inside Oxford’s new centre of story in the making, and experience ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ like never before. Use all your senses to follow the strange characters and backwards riddles to discover scenes, installations and games related to Alice’s adventure.

Suitable for all with a sense of adventure aged 7+.

Alice’s Day itself has plenty going on throughout Oxford and Blackwell’s will be hosting a day of frabjous activities in our magical children’s department from 11am to 5pm. Be transformed by a face-painting artist or entertained by comical Alice’s Day musicians. Have a balloon made by a balloon sculptress and get creative with a range of Alice themed craft activities. ALL EVENTS ARE FREE.

 Queen Of Hearts - Natasha Magigi