Saturday, 17 April 2021

My Dad's Birthday

Today would have been my Dad's 103rd birthday, were such a thing even possible. Of course it is possible for a human to live to the age of 103 years, but not my Dad. His smoking, his diet and his sedentary nature all denied him that. Just as his half-brother, Albert, had his life cut short, only much shorter.

Albert - yes! I have an Uncle Albert! - was born three years before my Dad, almost to the day - on the 16th rather than the 17th of April. He was christened Albert Martin Brown in the Lutheran church on the 21st of January 1916. He is shown as resident in the Owatonna State School in the 1920 census. I'm told he was adopted in 1922 - at the age of 7. 

A letter from his mother, Marit / Mary, to the Minnesota state officials in 1939 tells us he has died from drowning at the age of 24. The people who adopted him apparently knew how to contact his birth mother. Having lost one son - she feels due to carelessness on the part of the adopting parents - she is desperate to know where her youngest son - my Dad - has been placed. It is a heart breaking letter.

Of course my Dad lived to the age of 71. His adoptive parents were anything but neglectful. And of course my Dad never knew he had a half-brother. It always strikes me as a bit surreal to think of all the things he didn't know about himself - and all the things I didn't know until someone dropped this piece of information on me and I pursued the story. It often crosses my mind that there are likely other things I don't know, or only think I 'know'.

I am practically wishing this year away when I realise I can obtain Albert's adoption information from the Minnesota Historical Society, or perhaps from the courts, I'll have to figure it out. It will then be 100 years since his adoption and the records will no longer be sealed. I'll then know the names of his adoptive parents and can look for his death certificate. Perhaps there will have been an inquest or other records to shed more light on the circumstances. I will be able to search for him in the 1930 census and perhaps there might be a marriage record, who knows? Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a photograph somewhere and I could see a resemblance to my Dad - or even to me? 

Bless him, he didn't make it to be in the 1940 census. How very much of life he missed out on, passing at 24. Makes me feel terribly ancient and extremely fortunate. Also to realise that even though I've always felt cheated that each of my parents died at the age of 71, they did get to experience most of what life was going to hand them by then, except perhaps something negative about growing old. So I'll not wish for what can't be anyhow. 

Happy birthday, Daddy.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021


When I returned home from the library last Friday, I unpacked my backpack to see which books had been loaned to me.  One of them, a biography, I had no memory of requesting. I knew neither the name of the author (Hermoine Lee) or the subject of the book, Penelope Fitzgerald. I decided to read it anyhow, given that Fitzgerald was known for having published her first book at the age of 60 and having won the Booker Prize aged 73. Another three of her novels were shortlisted; not a bad record for the author of nine novels. I'm always happy to be inspired by a late bloomer, given the number of things I still aspire to accomplish in spite of soon turning 65. 

Though I'm now barely into the second chapter - this book has tiny print and is not an easy read, I spent much of the first chapter referring back to the family tree at the front, which had annotations that didn't become clear until I'd read well through that chapter - I believe I'm going to enjoy this challenging book. Fitzgerald lived between 1916 and 2000 and grew up in an illustrious family full of Church of England bishops, Catholic priests and writers - her father was editor of Punch magazine. Fitzgerald described her childhood home well enough to make one bask in the cosiness of interwar England. 

"She recreated the vanished 1920's Hampstead of her childhood with pleasure and precision. 

The village - and Hampstead still felt itself very much a village - was a place of high thinking, plain living and small economies. The steep charming old streets were full of ham and beef shops, old bookstalls, and an amazing number of cleaners and repairers, all helpful to shabby refugees and literary men. There was even a jeweller's where one bead could be bought at a time, for all the Hampstead ladies wore long necklaces. The livery stables had only just turned into a garage...poets walked the streets, Stanley Spencer pushed his pramful of painting materials aimiably across the Health...

This was a Georgian childhood. The streets in her memory were not only full of poets in their 'wide brimmed black hats', but also of lamplighters coming round to light the gas lamps, muffin men in winter, and lavender sellers in summer, knife grinders and chair menders, pony-carts brining dairy milk from the farm at Highgate. Gazes the drapers had everything you needed in 'the button, woollen, stockings and knicker line'; Knowles Brown the clockmaker had a silver clock in the window in the shape of a spaniel whose tongue moved up and down with every tick; small shops sold 'pennyworths of licorice'. 

Hampstead was literary, poetic, artistic, rural, part-bohemian, part-genteel. It was not a bit like Bloomsbury...Hampstead was 'undemanding' and 'homely'."

Fitzgerald's father and his brothers all went to Oxford. Two of her grandfathers were vicars and then bishops. The cosiness of their time is in part due to their station in life as much as in the time in which they lived. I'm always rather envious of the descriptions of the gardens / orchards / vicarages / country houses, all down south where they actually experience summer most years. 

My local library has only a couple of her books, but the Lit and Phil has more, including The Bookshop. I see that Hermione Lee has also written biographies of Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, also two intriguing books, The Lives of Houses and The London Scene. I don't think I'll ever run out of what to read!

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Vegetable Tangerine

Our next WI has started having Zoom coffee mornings with a theme. The next Saturday's theme is 'Positive things that came out of the pandemic'. I'm still thinking on this, but one of them I think is that people got re-acquainted with their kitchens. I think cooking from ingredients is a vital life skill and that it is idiocy to be dependent on eating out / fast food / processed convenience foods. I almost see it as a form of slow suicide. I've noticed the older I get the less moderate my opinions.

I can't say the pandemic reintroduced me to my kitchen, but rather it reminded me I had a load of cookbooks - and acquired more - with recipes I'd never tried. I started our WI's Food Group on Facebook and the lady who agreed to take it over - I can't run everything - felt that photos were important so I've tried to take pictures. Mine are never as good as hers - my kitchen must not have the right lighting, but Bill and I have enjoyed greater variety in our meals. 

The Food Group also introduced me to some new cookbooks called A Pinch of Nom. I guess 'nom' must be the British version of 'yum'? I like these books because they have calorie counts. I'm only interested in those under 300 calories. I generally find I can make the recipes faster each time I make them and find shortcuts. For example, I make cauliflower rice in the microwave rather than adding it to the chicken and spices in a Harry Dieters Fast Food recipe. 

One of Bill's favourites is from A Pinch of Nom and it is called Vegetable Tagine. I'm still working on finding shortcuts for this, but I already have substituted potato for the parsnip and swede I didn't have; also tumeric for the saffron I'm not likely to ever have and ground cinnamon instead of sticks. Also, this recipe says to use a large frying pan on top of the stove, not the conical shaped clay dish which is also called a tagine. The first time I made it I sent Bill after a pomegranate to garnish the dish, my first ever encounter with a pomegranate. I thought it was delicious, but awfully fiddly, even with instructions from the internet. Subsequent uses of this recipe have omitted that garnish.

 I struggle to say this word, wanting to make it tan-gine and then Bill turned that into tangerine. We're pretty silly around here sometimes. I wondered how one should actually say 'tagine'. It turns out that there are two ways, a British and an American pronunciation. The British word sounds like 'ta-ching' as in money. No doubt Bill will have fun playing with that as well. I notice the American pronunciation has a softer 'g', like the French use. Doing something other than way the French speak seems to be a hallmark in British differences. 

Wednesday, 31 March 2021

2021 Stack

Not having a lot to say these days, I thought I'd look at my photos for 'inspiration'. The first photo I took this year was of the books I got for Christmas. Hopefully none are from Amazon, but that's not in my control. I give Bill links to alternative sources and I know he feels much the same as I do about Amazon (or says he does) but I'm not sure where his kids stand. Mind, the presents they sent were all in variations of brown wrapping paper that can be re-cycled, so I'm hopeful.

The second photo is of a present from Helen, a cute idea but not likely to be used. It got a second photo because it has no name on the spine.

The Fashion of Film, Amber Butchart.  I'm a major fan of Amber Butchart and have been for several years now, ever since I stumbled upon the series A Stitch in Time. This book  like some of her others (I hope one day to have them all!) looks at categories of clothing that came out of certain types of films, such as Crime: Dressed to Kill; The Musical: Spectacular Fashion; Historical Epic: Dressed to Excess; Horror: Supernatural Chic; Romantic Drama: Seductive Style; Sci-Fi and Fantasy: Bionic Bodies; Art House and Independent Style with Substance. Unfortunately, I didn't come away with many ideas for clothes I might wish to wear, but there were lovely photos all the same.

The Weekend Crafter - Knitting, Catherine Ham. This is a book I found years ago at a thrift shop and it had several simple knitting patterns I meant to try. Unfortunately I must have loaned it to someone and it never came back. I would run into references to it and finally asked Bill to get me a replacement for Christmas. 

Cooking with Scraps, Lindsay-Jean Hard.  Unlike Hugh Fernley-Whittenstall's Love Your Leftovers, this isn't about mountains of meat but rather scraps of vegetables. Lately the cauliflowers Bill has brought home have been rather puny, more leaves than flowerettes.  However, I now cut off all the enclosing leaves and put them aside, which makes getting at the actual head easier (slides of roasted cauliflower are now a very popular main dish in our hosue). Then I slice off the green curly bits and steam them like I would spring cabbage or spinach. Finally, the white stalks that are left can be cut up into bits like sliced carrots or chopped (with the help of a Pampered Chef tool) finely to make cauliflower rice - a name Bill objected strenuously to until he realised how useful this was.

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein and The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. Something I can't recall dragged me back into my fascination with the interwar period, perhaps re-reading a Phryne book? I was dismayed to find that neither this biographical work or the cook book were available through my library, so I put them on my wish list. Sarah, Bill's youngest, was asking him what I wanted. I told him to tell her to surprise me with either this book or the cook book and she did surprise me - she gave me both. I've not read either front to back as yet, only dabbled here and there. I've been over run with library books for a while now, but I hope to make them a priority soon. They are very much of their time, but that is what makes them so fascinating. Apparently, Ms. Toklas was so awed by Ms. Stein's writing reputation that she didn't attempt to document her cookery until after the death of Ms. Stein. Can't say I've read any other writing by this august person. 

Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns, Natalie Chanin. I'm not sure this was a great idea. I was keen because I thought it came with a bunch of patterns. It does and it doesn't. The patterns don't work for every one's computer. Bill was thankfully able to make them work after a fashion. However, one either has to understand how to make them into tiles - which means you end up with 40 pages to put together with tape - or to pay for a specialist printer to give you a large pattern. I ended up doing a couple of them with a printer for about £10. So it's not really a great deal. Also, a lot of the patterns have to do with applique by hand, which is sort of their hallmark. Not my cup of tea sadly. I think I was blinded by the coolness of the reputation. I appreciate that if you live near Florence, Alabama, the vast array of 100% cotton jersey fabrics is seductive, but I can't see me paying $30 a yard plus postage and duty. However, I do hope that the patterns will help me to upcycle some of the thrift store sweaters I've acquired over the years.

Threads of Life, Clare Hunter. This was an excellent book that I've read about it elsewhere.

Friday, 26 March 2021

How Bad are Bananas?

So, on Tuesday I had nothing to say but I've finished a book since then: How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee. I was thinking he had invented the internet, but I had him confused with his brother, Tim. There are a few brain cells in that family for sure.

I can recommend the book for readability and for straight-forward explanations, but there isn't a great deal of good news in it. Frankly we'll all need to give up quite a bit of our comfortable lifestyles in order to save the human race and I don't see it happening, at least not until the planet gets fairly uncomfortable for a lot of us not at high risk. Which means it will be lethal for quite a few poorer people initially. 

He does give a good list of what we can do and one of the easier things is eating in season. He gives a list of fruits and veg grown in Britain by month. If we don't select from this group he recommends going for tinned or frozen to avoid air-freighted luxury items. Interestingly, bananas aren't much of a problem as they are grown with natural sunlight and the keep well enough to be shipped by boat rather than plane. So that's a relief. 

He also gives a website produced by the Marine Conservation Society to help people select the most sustainable fish:  Good Fish Guide

However, food only makes up a quarter of the average Brit's foodprint of 12.7 tonnes and we all need to aim for a 5 tonne footprint. Berners-Lee says a meat orientated diet can easily make up the whole of a 5 tonne foodprint. We have a lot of work to do!

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

No book to write about today. I'm in the midst of two: one of my favourites of the Sue Grafton alphabet detective stories (a re-read of course): S is for Silence. The other, Mrs Lincoln by Janis Cooke Newman. It is gripping, but of course it is fiction. However, Mary Todd Lincoln's Wikipedia entry suggests the novel is close to her life story and from that entry I gather she may have suffered from bipolar illness.

I went for a walk yesterday, something I've not done much of in weeks due to icy weather and then just lack of habit. I remembered to take my camera and take photos of the daffodils I passed - I've been watching them for a while now. I never cease to be uplifted by the long swathes of daffs the council have planted around the area. (Did you know that by definition a 'swath or swathe' is the width of a scythe stroke? - I didn't until just now).

I learned last week that a cousin had died from complications of Covid. He wasn't a close family member, but rather a genealogical discovery from some years back. I met him when we were invited to a wonderful cabin on Torch Lake, Michigan. Bryan was a few months younger than I. I particularly feel for his father, John, who is nearly 96. No one wants to outlive a child. 

Bill is out for a walk. I will venture into the pharmacy later today to pick up a prescription. We had tofu for dinner last night for the first time ever. It was a recipe from my Aunt Rita's Weight Watchers cookbook. 

It used a combination of hoisin sauce, chicken stock powder and garlic to flavour the tofu and broccoli. It was OK but nothing to be excited about. Given that the tofu cost about the same as stewing steak - bought for beef bourguignon later this week - I think I'd rather just eat beans than try to fake myself out with tofu. Should we ever completely give up meat, I might revisit that opinion.

This past week we've been arguing with a bird who wants to build its nest on the chimney pot of our dining room fire. It was winning, with us vacuuming the carpet in front of the fireplace twice a day and picking up the sticks that fell through. We don't begrudge it the space, it simply isn't safe and we didn't want to be picking up a dead bird or having cooked eggs on the hearth. So, we are now the proud owners of a 'seagull cage'. Only it turned out to be a black bird - probably a crow - who broke a twig off the tree just as the cage man was standing at the front door telling us of his arrival. The cage covers the neighbour's pots as well but rather than ask for half we just got permission to do the work. 

Earlier this month we had the tree 'trimmed'. Butchered would be more apt but, hey, it takes longer to grow back to a pesky height that way. 

I finished a longstanding project in time for WI Craft Group last night. It is a birthday present for Simon's girlfriend - who is now his wife of almost two years. I had initially tried to line it using some upcycled plastic but it was too stiff, so I had to take it apart and re-do the straps and lining. 

So I need to tidy the East Wing as it looks like the usual wreckage following a project. Yesterday I filed my FBAR form. This is the one where I tell the US government about the most money held in each of my foreign (British) accounts during the Calendar Year 2020. Nosy of them, isn't it? I'm almost used to the intrusion, but not just quite.

I've also nearly got my US taxes done, or rather the accountant in California has. Every single year I have to tell them to correct the same mistake; I shudder to think what other errors they make that I've no hope of catching. 

I've decided to bite the bullet and pay an accountant to do my UK taxes this year and - gasp - to do them early on rather than in January (when the payment is due). They no longer seem to me as simple as they once were, not least because I had endless trouble signing into the online account. I feel too old for this sort of hassle.

I planted two "chicken boxes" (black plastic trays that 20-some chicken breasts come in) with various lettuces. I hope to plant more with basil, coriander and parsley.  Bill found a text on his phone that our GP had tried to reach him with, but since he's already got his first Covid-19 vaccine from the national system, he's stuck with it. We both struggled to book my vaccination appointments on the national system but finally did - only one is 50 miles away in Darlington (in late Apr) and the other 12 miles away in Washington (in late Jun). So when he found this text with a GP's booking website, I had a go and got two appointments two miles away - the first is on Friday! When all goes well with that I'll ring up and cancel the other ones. The wonderful NHS is free, but rarely convenient or straightforward. 

I'm feeling rather sanguine as I have two purchased birthday presents in hand for Bill's upcoming birthday (73). One is a book that I think we would both enjoy (and he heartily approves of such purchases). The other is the biggest box of chocolates I could buy him without feeling I was hastening his demise.

Those are all my thoughts on this day. Happy St. Patrick's Day! 

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

 I seem to be reading more serious books these days. I recently finished Melinda Gates' book: The Moment of Life - How Empowering Women Changes the World. I found it almost astonishing that it happened to echo the message of David Attenborough's book that I wrote about last week.

There are chapters dealing with topics such as maternal and child health, education, child marriage, women in agriculture, unpaid work, women in the workplace and women excluded from society. Each of these chapters tells stories of women the author has encountered in her work for the Gates' Foundation. She talks about aiming to lift people out of poverty at the start and then discovering that empowering women was the key to that. They resisted this initially, calling it 'mission creep' but eventually the penny dropped. 

The stories don't just come from Africa or India, but from impoverished areas in the US, which I find appalling. Ignorance breeds ignorance wherever it happens. 

One of the stories that stayed with me was about Patricia, a woman farmer in Malawi. While the rest of her family and village celebrated Christmas Day, she was meticulously planting her small field, because that was when the rains were predicted to come. Farmers need five things to succeed: good land, good seeds, time, knowledge and farming supplies. The barriers between these things and Patricia existed simply because she was a woman.

1. Up until recently women in Malawi could not inherit land. A law has been passed recently but the culture is slow to change. Paying rent for her plot was expensive and prohibited her being able to increase the size of her plot. It also stopped her investing in improving the land. 

2. Her husband made the decisions about where the family's money was spent and she had no say so couldn't acquire farming tools that would make her work more productive or for other tools like cooking pots that would shorten her other work to make more time for farming.

3. Her husband also had the say over how she spent her time: collecting wood and water, cooking meals and washing up after, caring for the children. Any work to grow food for the family had to come after those tasks. Even had she the means to hire farm labour, the workers wouldn't like taking orders from a woman.

4. Even the quality and choice of seeds was influenced against her as a woman. Development organisations working to create seeds resistant to pests or to grow larger plants would speak with community leaders to get their input. Those leaders were always men who were most interested in crops they could sell, where Patricia wanted to grow nutritious crops to feed here children, like ground nuts (peanuts) or chick peas (garbanzo beans). And because the men didn't do the work in the fields, they never thought to tell seed developers to make tall plants: the women complained that harvesting short plants was hard on the back. 

5. Giving useful information to women about farming is tricky. Few poor households have TVs so radio was thought to be the best option, except that women don't control the radio dial. Most men would not wish to listen to an educational programme and would select something more entertaining, Also, women are not allowed out of the house without the permission of their husbands. They will be beaten - and believe it to be justified - if they leave without permission. The solution in Ghana was to talk with men to encourage them to allow them to let their wives meet together in groups of ten or fifteen. 'so she could increase the family's income'. 70% of the world's poorest people make money from growing and selling food from their small plots of land. Making those plots more productive would give families more money. 

Some time later, Gates attended a group meeting and was surprised when the group leader said

Raise your hand if - before you joined the self-help group - you could grow enough food to last your family the whole year. 

Not a single hand went up. Then the leader said

Raise your hand if you had surplus to sell last year.

Almost every hand went up. 

Patricia's solution was a bit different. A CARE organisation worked with couples and had them switch roles and role play. She was able to tell him to 'Do this, do this, do this, do this...' He came to realise that if she had no help in the household work then they would always be short of food. He became a more supportive husband and she finally had what she needed to succeed at her farming endeavours.

The book is careful to explain how empowering women also helps men: there is more food, children are healthier, there is perhaps money to educate their children which reflects well on the head of the family and, in one scenario, a man worked out that if helped his wife with the work - contrary to community expectations for men - his wife was happier and less tired and so their marriage bed was happier.

It is not just men who hold women down, but other women as well, particularly when it comes to female genital cutting (using the word 'mutilation' is derogatory and not conducive to discussing the issue with villagers). The consequences for individuals and for families aren't always obvious to people who blindly follow traditions and it is necessary to find ways to help them see the benefits of change. 

Another surprise from Gates' book was that she tackles the role of religion in suppressing and damaging women. I've ended up buying the book, as I did Attenborough's book, to re-read and study. 

My first choices for charitable giving have always been women's causes, particularly Planned Parenthood, women's refuges or homeless shelters for women. At the back of Gates' book is a list of causes she recommends, many of which she described their work in the book:

Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee


Family Planning 2020

Girls Not Brides

Kakenya’s Dream

Malala Fund

#MeToo Movement

Population Council



Save the Children


Gates Foundation