Liverpool: A mini adventure

As I mentioned  million times recently, the 4th of May was my birthday and I decided that I wanted to go to Liverpool for the day. I had never been (much to the dismay of my neighbour who is from Liverpool and has been telling me for 14 years to go there… I do listen eventually) and since I wanted to do something, I thought why not.

We decided on the sensible course of action and took the train, better for the environment, better for sanity (the M6 around Birmingham is hell any day of the week) and with a family railcard also a lot cheaper (on this trip we saved 50%, neat).

The first thing that struck me coming out of Liverpool Lime Street was the epic scale of the buildings. Someone once told me that Liverpool is a London in the North of England and I can see now why. Pillars, columns, statues, little parks, grand street and small alleys and buildings from all stages of history. A sight to behold for sure (even though, you have to remember where the money came from to fund all of this, slavery and exploitation of an Empire).

We first went to the Walker Gallery and my husband would have gladly stayed all the day, inspiration for him was lurking around every corner. A nice little treat for me were found in the modernist room, I had no idea that a couple of paintings were to be found here that I had wanted to see in the “flesh” for some time.

Lunch was had at Casa Italia and it was the absolutely perfect pick: It hails back to the 70ies and has the vibe of German Italian restaurants, which made me incredibly happy.

A walk through the streets down to the docks and the Museum of Liverpool, Tate Gallery and RIBA Gallery completed the day. Much art, much food and the soul was filled again.

The plan is to do more of these mini adventures: Hope on a train, travel, explore and then come back home. It oddly felt like a proper break and was the best birthday present I could give myself.

Can you live ethically? Part 1

A few yeas ago, I read Eva Wiseman’s article about the Dilemmas of Trying to Live Ethically. It profoundly changed the way, I looked at myself. Up until that point, I considered myself as living very ethical. I am vegetarian and have been for a long time. Most years, I did not set a foot in a plane, we only own one car for environmental reasons, we mostly buy second hand clothing. I thought I was doing really well on the ethical smugness bingo card of life. Hm, maybe not.

Try as hard as you might, there is truly no real way of ever living fully ethically. The sheer fact of my existence will hurt people somewhere, so I thought, I go through a day and look at some of the items, I use every day and their ethical impact. This will be talked about in various blog posts, because this is going to get long. Mainly because there is a lot to consider and also: I think about this stuff a lot, I got a lot of emotions and thoughts.

Breakfast:

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I like to start my day with coffee. In fact, I am a huge coffee drinker, we go through three to four packs a week. I know. We buy fairtrade coffee and for a long time, I kidded myself that I was doing something great here. Coffee is a huge problem and fairtrade is only marginally better. The price of coffee – like most commodities – is traded on an international basis, meaning that price fluctuations are subject to supply and demand. Regularly, coffee prices crash and fall below the price of production leaving many farmers with earnings that are below the price of production. By buying coffee (Fair Trade or not), I am actively condoning: Poverty, child labour, poor working conditions and environmental degredation and habitat loss.

But surely, I hear you say: Fair Trade must be better. Hm, well, a bit. But there are some key issues. First of all, the grower has to pay (yes, you read that right) to be certified (the same goes for Soil Association Accreditation, thus why there are so few fair trade organic coffees, because who can afford this). Imagine, me telling you: Hey, let me raise you out of poverty, but first give me some cash, so you are allowed to use my brand designed in some rich Western country. Another problem is the fact that any bean can be Fair Trade and thus quality does not come into the equation, resulting now in many roasters shying away from Fair Trade coffee. And thus there is a surplus of coffee… so Fair Trade coffee grower now sits on their beans. The guaranteed price is no good to them, then. It also means that the base price guaranteed is the most they will ever get. The next issue is one of accessibility: Those growers who need it most cannot access it. Fair Trade is ruled by cooperatives in countries that are already further ahead in development, which means that small farmers in countries without such development are being left out and have no access to Fair Trade. Bureaucracy is another issue, fair trade policies require a meticulous paper chain to demonstrate that their rules are being adhered to, but this is prohibitive to many farmers, who either lack the skills, time or monetary incentive to do so, thus benefiting the co-op model over the individual farmer. Very little money actually goes back to the individual farmer, most of the surplus ends up with the co-op and is used for infrastructure building offices and warehouses, which is truly not of benefit for the individual farmer at all. Another issue is that Fair Trade says little to nothing about the ecological and environmental impact of coffee. Coffee used to be grown under a canopy of trees, but the growth in demand means that for the last 20 years or so, a switch has been made to sun cultivation and thus a loss in habitat.

Some of you may say, well, I drink coffee from the Rainforest Alliance growers. Yes, it is true, that Rainforest Alliance, a relative new kid on the blog in comparison to Fair Trade, only gives their seal to growers who don’t deforest for coffee production. They guarantee no minimum price for the coffee though and there has been a lot of controversy in recent years with regards to labour rights violations, some journalists even called it defacto slavery with workers being kept in wage poverty.

So should we all just stop drinking coffee? No, we cannot because this would be ethically horrendous, the impact on the livelihoods of millions of people involved in the growing and production of coffee destroyed. I have no clear answers as to what is the best possible way to deal with this. According to the Ethical Consumer, the best way to go at the moment is to buy Fair Trade and Organic. They also recommend some coffee brands and highlight some coffee schemes that are interesting. Pods are never a good solution.

So these are my thoughts on coffee and I have not even eaten anything yet. Tomorrow, I shall be looking at the ethical implications of flour.

 

Recursion by Blake Crouch

42046112Time travel techno thriller. An alliteration that promises entertainment. Well, it does when the author is Blake Crouch.

I read Dark Matter last year and it was thoroughly enjoyable, so I was excited when Recursion arrived in the post by the publisher.

Barry, an NYC cop, starts investigating a suicide caused by FMS, False Memory Syndrome. More and more people seem to get this disease, suddenly they find themselves with memories of another life and this memories are so real that they find it hard to distinguish between their lived reality and the memory reality.

The other story line follows, Helena, a scientist who wants to build a memory chair, to help with Alzheimer’s to hold on to their memories. A rich investor offers to assist her and she finds herself on a mysterious oil rig, with all the funds she could ever dream of, but also an inkling that things may be more sinister than she thought.

I actually read this on my birthday. We too the train to Liverpool for a day in galleries and eat food and drink coffee and the train journey is 90 minutes each way. And it was the perfect book for it. It really messes with your mind and the implications of time travel technology in the wrong hands: Let’s face it, we can never have such technology, even if it is possible, because humans would abuse it.

Like Dark Matter, it has the “must turn every page” effect that is essential for a book of this type. I mean, who wants to read a slow moving thriller. Ok, some people may be into that, but I for sure want to be at the edge of my seat, gripped and unable to put it down. And this book delivered just that.

Wakenhyrst by Michelle Paver

40725252It was not me who discovered Michelle Paver about five years ago, but my daughter when she pulled “The Wolf Brothers” off the shelf at our local library and then read all six books of the “Chronicles of Ancient Darkness” in short succession. So you may forgive me, that I had Michelle Paver down as a middle grade author until I saw Wakenhyrst on the shelf at the same library but this time in the adult section of “new and notable releases”. The magpie on the cover sealed the deal, because I adore the birds for their chatter and cheekiness.

The story starts in the 1960ies, when a journalist tries to uncover more details of the events in 1913 that lead an eminent historian Edward Stearne to be sent to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital after committing a brutal and random murder. The journalist in the 1960, intrigued to find out more about Stearne after a historian finds some paintings by Stearne done during his time in Broadmoor. He comes to a different conclusion as to who committed the murder and thus we are thrown back to 1906. We meet Maud, the eldest daughter of Edward Stearne, who at the time is 9 years old. The whole family is under the thumb of Stearne who has imposed so many rules about what the family is allowed and not allowed to do. Maud tries to make sense of the goings on in the house and we work our way towards that fateful day in 1913 with utter relentlessness.

Paver demonstrates, that you can have unlikeable characters that are engaging. So often when a story features loathsome protagonists, authors forget that the reader still wants to find out why they do what the do, how they became the way they are and how they feel about the consequences of their actions. Naturally, Stearne is utterly unlikeable, a tyrant, he clearly has been mentally unstable all his life, but because he is financially independent, a landowner, a scholar, he can do pretty much whatever pleases him. As for Maude, I was never quite sure, how much I could trust her, but I certainly felt for her. Whatever she did, I could understand her reasoning, her motives.

Maud is caught up in the rules of the society of her time. Her father knows that she is intelligent, at the same time dismisses her as a stupid girl. She is self-educated because nobody cares to educate her, so she often comes to wrong conclusions. Utterly alone, she has no confidante, no support and when she turns to the stalwarts in her society for help, she is dismissed and threatened. It makes for a claustrophobic, dark experience, when you put yourself in Maud’s shoes.

I adored how Paver made the natural surroundings in the book of central importance to the characters: Stearne who fears the marsh and the fenland and Maud who feels truly herself when she is in the wildnerness of the fens, a forbidding place, but the only place she can truly be herself. Religion is an important aspect of the book, but nature is the true spirit in this book, where absolution and judgement takes place. Nature wins.

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Paver is a truly gifted storyteller, it is rare for me to read a book that I cannot put down and essentially, I read this in one sitting. So you may imagine my pleasure to realise that she has written more books for adults. And thus, the TBR has grown and I am delighted.

46 things on my 46th birthday

First of all, this Saturday is my birthday. Another year around the sun and it has been a good one. Mostly. And that’s what counts. I am grateful for each and every year on this imperfect planet. Age is a privilege denied to many, so many people will never get to be 46. I say this every year, so get used to it.

I thought I share a list of 46 things. This is stream of thought and it was kinda strange, where my thoughts took me.

  1. I wish I could quit Facebook for good; communicating with my Any Book Bookclub is the only reason I am still on there.
  2. I am 10 times failed vegan. I shall keep trying. But I have been vegetarian for 18 years.
  3. I have always been an old soul.
  4. I prefer old things to new things.
  5. Cake is my weakness.
  6. So is bread.
  7. I love carbs.
  8. I love hot beverages, coffee, tea, hot chocolate.
  9. Raspberries with white chocolate, strawberries with dark chocolate.
  10. I love paintings where we look onto a scene through a door/window. Like this painting by Hopper.  41OCGNj2XHL._SX425_
  11. I want to live in Scotland (no surprise to anyone).
  12. I like lists (obviously).
  13. Apart from my wedding ring, I hardly ever wear jewellery.
  14. And I would have never thought that I would wear a wedding ring, either, but I do.
  15. I believe in the “Your wound is not your fault, but it is your responsibility” as in, you cannot go through life hurting other people just because you got hurt.
  16. When I see someone reading in a public place, I will do all sorts of contortions to figure out what it is. I will not walk up and chat unless they put the book down. Never interrupt anyone’s reading time, you don’t know how rare it is.
  17. I prefer mountains to the beach, although mountains and beach both work fine. Beach and flat lands not so much (Sorry Netherlands, you are grand for other reasons).
  18. If you talk about a thing and I know a fact about the thing (or an entire book about that thing), I will have to tell you. Please still like me afterwards. It’s like hiccups, I cannot help myself.
  19. I believe that you can change direction at any point in life, I am currently going through a directional change of sorts and it is painful, but I have done it before and I can do it again. I am not a rock.
  20. Salad without dressing is pointless.
  21. I always plan the next holiday
  22. In fact, I have an entire folder with holiday cottages and other accommodation that I find randomly on the internet.
  23. I have a whole philosophy based on how to find the right holiday accommodation for myself and the fam.
  24. I hate the term “strong woman”. This article shares some of my reasoning. It’s just such a stupid cliche!
  25. I cannot do a flat lay instagram post to save my life and I am ok with that.
  26. I am not a French tuck kinda person. More a “do you have that top also in extra long” woman.
  27. Any recipe stating “one clove of garlic” should not be trusted. Always add at least 5, it’s the way to happiness.
  28. I love roller neck tops but cannot wear them because as soon as I have one on, I feel like I cannot breathe. It makes me sad on a regular basis.
  29. I like spending time on instagram and posting photos and no, I don’t think that time is wasted. Online has brought me some of my most cherished friendships. I work from home, so instagram is my watercooler.
  30. Twitter, however, makes me often depressed and I strictly limit my time on there.
  31. We served Red Lentil Curry at our wedding and sang bad Karaoke in our flat. Best day ever.
  32. I was a wedding and portrait photographer for a few years. It killed all enjoyment of photography and made me realise that I am terrible at peopling.
  33. I was a good photographer though.
  34. Finding booktube was one of the best things ever.
  35. Some days cooking is the greatest stress relief ever. Other days, I would gladly chuck the pans in the bin. I am a person of multitudes.
  36. My love with Scotland began with this book, read while in primary school. 41Hp-E6ajeL._SX279_BO1,204,203,200_ A book about spies during the Cold War set in the high moors of Scotland. I loved everything about it. The English Title is “The Hill of the Red Fox”. I was in love with all things British as a kid. Scotland, England, Wales. Loved it all. I often pretended that I was secretly the child of a British General (I grew up in what was the American Sector, there was no British Army anywhere, but details, who cares about those) and that he would come and take me home to this castle in Scotland. Still waiting.
  37. I was obsessed with Hans Moser and Heinz Ruehmann as a young child. In fact, I loved all the old German comedies. My grandmother would often sing this one and so did I.
  38. If I had more space (as in space inside and outside the house), then I would have more books and more animals.
  39. I have a 100% success rate of surviving stuff.
  40. If I lived before the end of the witch hunts in Europe (which ended roughly in the 1750ies), they would have burned me. Not a cheery thought.
  41. A cheery thought is cake though. And I love all the cake. You bring cake, you make me happy. ( I know I mentioned cake before, but all good lists talk about cake at least twice)
  42. Another cheery thought is chocolate: Milka or Ritter Sport. I miss the crazy Ritter Sport flavours something rotten at times. I never had this Chocolate Brownie flavour, if you have contacts at Ritter Sport ask them to send me some trial packs 🙂 Ha, as if. 100g_BV_SchokoBrownie_D_NEU_800px-640x571
  43. I have lived in the UK for 17 years. Still get homesick from time to time. Like right now, I think it was the talk about chocolate.
  44. I don’t like champagne, I would always prefer a glass of whisky.
  45. When a list is titled “Must read for xxx”, I will never click on it. It shall remain a mystery.
  46. And so this is it. Happy Birthday to me.

 

Fled by Meg Keneally

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It is a rare thing to read a historical fiction novel with a female main character that is truly a main character in her story (well, unless she is a Queen). And more often than not, when we have such a story, it comes entirely from an author’s imagination. I guess that is because so little is often known about women’s lives in the past, but I think it’s also a sign of publishing trends that there is simply not much published along these lines. A few each year, but more likely then not, women are portrayed in their relationship to the men in their lives, but I am glad to report, that Meg Keneally’s book could have never been called the Fisherman’s Daughter.

Jenny’s father was a fisherman and after his death, his daughters and wife are left to struggle on. The 18th century was brutal to women in general, but especially when left behind without “male” protection and income, society was simply designed for women to be dependent on men, so without that, Jenny’s life soon spirals into financial misery. Somehow she falls into becoming a robber on the highways, which inevitably ends her in court and then on a transportation ship.

Jenny has not been given many choices in life, but her will to survive and struggle for liberty is second to none. Even as a prisoner, Jenny rarely wavers in her sense of self and keeps a level of agency many female characters in novels lack: She is the engine that drives this story and this is what made it such a fantastic read. The book is harsh, unjust and brutal in places, but also just so full of hope.

The story is based on the life of Mary Bryant and the author outlines in the afterword the similarities and inspirations for the story and the reason why she decided to base a character on Mary rather than trying to tell Mary’s story. And I appreciated that a lot. I always prefer if a story is told in that way, as I find myself otherwise unpicking fact from fiction. But a word of warning: Try not read anything about Mary Bryant’s life as this will spoil some of the major plot points in the novel. And you would want to enjoy them without expecting them to happen.

Meg Keneally is an Australian author who has co-authored books with her father Tom Keneally, these books are highly rated and I shall get my hands on them soon. Fled is her solo debut.

Certainly a book, you should pack into your suitcase and take with you on your summer travels, or read it at home with a cup of tea and be grateful that you don’t live in the 18th century.

Published April 15th 2019 by Bonier Zaffre
Paperback, 400 pages

 

Best Toys I bought as a Parent

My daughter will be 13 this year and over the past year, we sorted through all her toys and passed on all the things that can be passed on for others to play with. I reflected on the things that got played with the most and the things that just lingered. I also thought about the things that stood the test of time and did not break over all the things that we had to bin, not fit for purpose anymore. If I had my time again, I would be a lot more forward of what type of toys I would allow the house to enter. The list below features my top 5 of best toys – naturally given the seal of approval by the kid.

  1. Wooden Blocks

 

Hours and hours spent building things with blocks. We had all sorts of blocks (most of them bought from Myrida Online (https://www.myriadonline.co.uk/) – I am not getting paid for saying this, I genuinely love their stuff. The blocks have been passed on to a 12 month old last year and apparently and I am sure she loves them. The play value of blocks is amazing. My daughter played with them from about 8 months until 10 years old. They featured in play with other toys or by themselves. They became houses, castles, money, food, roads, minecraft inspiration….

2. Schleich Animals

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They were coveted in my childhood – mainly the Smurf figures they did back then (and still do), but the child loved them. Often played with in combination with the wooden blocks, incredibly portable, durable and the items I find the hardest to part with. I not her. It is amazing how many of those you can collect over 10 years and thanks to birthday gifts, she has a great selection and I love them. But more importantly, she loved them. They were constantly played with, inside and outside. In the bathtub. On holiday. Yes, they are not cheap, but they are such good quality that several generations of kids could play with them. (https://www.schleich-s.com)

3. Cars

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My daughter was never into dolls, but she loved cars. We made a point of buying die-cast model cars, which you can often find in charity shops. In fact, most of her collection came from there and they scrubbed up nicely with a bit of soap. Again, not a cheap item to buy new, but second-hand, we often got a car for 50p.

4. Cookie cutters for play dough

cookiecutters_all_08ead53c-fb94-40d7-bfed-3aa2ef669935_1024xI would lie if I said we only use the cookie cutters for play dough, essentially it is my selection but yes, we did use them a lot and we made a lot of play dough over the years. I prefer the home-made version because it is cheaper, smells better (hello cinnamon play dough) and is less crumbly. Also if they accidentally eat it, it’s fine. Play dough is always a reliable distraction on rainy days, but I had 10 years old quite happily playing with play dough.

 

5. Pens and paper

This may be a no brainer, but I think my approach has always been: Buy the best possible drawing material possible. Printer paper is fine, but rubbish pencils and pens will frustrate any budding artist.

When she was a toddler, I got her Stockmar wax crayons. (Again Myriad Online stocks them). I used them in Kindergarten when I was a kid and they are still good. They last forever as well and in fact, we still have loads of colours (she used the black completely for scratch out pictures) and yes, they still get used.

 

When she got older, I got her Faber Castell pencils. Seriously, the best colouring pencils in the world. Some friends thought I was crazy, but I believe that good tools will just give you more enjoyment and again, the pencils lasted for years. I got her for Christmas a new set of the polychromous since after 6 years, most colours were used up. She will spend pocket money on special colours in art shops. Needless to say, she loves drawing and art. And I credit – at least in parts – access to great quality pencils for this. Yes, they are expensive, but buying tons of sets of bad ones, will cost you more and give the kid less enjoyment.

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If I had to do it over again, I would say to friends and relatives: Get a couple of Faber Castell pens or another Schleich animal or even a die-cast car from the charity shop. She will be happier for it and her imagination will be nurtured.

What was your favourite toy as a kid? What was your kid’s favourite toy?