Thriving at home

The internet is veritably heaving with articles about how to be productive at home. I’ve read a few. They’re fine, if a little facile.

For me, what is more important is keeping a sense of life progressing forward during this weird time.

I thought I’d share a little about what I’m doing around the house to: a) keep moving forward, b) enjoy the quiet time without pressure to be social, c) getting distance from my work when the house has become my workplace, and d) do more ‘quirky experiments’ (see my post from May).

1. Bread

In fairness, this is not really new for me; I’ve been baking bread for some time.

Sourdough seems to be the bread du jour, with many millennials growing their first sourdough starter. Really, though, you can bake immensely satisfying and tasty bread with ordinary baker’s yeast. I’ve done both. Anything with a longer proofing time (e.g. overnight) will taste leagues ahead of store-bought bread, and the process is really rewarding. Admittedly, it’s not for the patient – but there is a definitely joy in the wait and the reward.

Bread

A good start is the Overnight White from Flour Water Salt Yeast by Forkish (fantastic author name for a food book).

2. Growing – and growing to eat

Garden peas

We don’t have a large garden, and it’s largely paved, meaning most of our growing happens in pots and a couple of elevated beds. I’m really enjoying pottering about each day. Some of our plants have been with us for years, and we’ve now got carrots, mangetout, strawberries, peas, celery, lettuce, spring onion, tomatoes, potatoes and herbs (including bay tree, parsley, mint and others). Some of these have been re-grown straight from kitchen scraps that would have otherwise gone in the bin.

It has been particularly fun to see some of the plants I’ve grown from seeds thrive – special shout out to my peas, madly climbing our homemade tepee trellis.

I’ve also started a worm compost with an Urbalive unit, reducing our food waste.

3. Fermenting

Most people – including myself, until recently – associated ferments with deeply unpleasant, stinky, odours. I’ve learned that a lot of what we eat is actually fermented – from naturally leavened bread, to wine, beer and sauerkraut. I’ve tried my hand at a few now, including carrots sticks with cardamom, kimchi and sauerkraut. Some have failed – the sauerkraut was particularly over-ripe, but some have been great!

My favourite by far has been tepache, a Mexican pineapple. See recipe here, and the It’s Alive video version here (with the inimitable wourder-drinker, Brad).

Tepache

For bonus quirk – I’m trying to make the top of the pineapple shoot out new roots so I can grow a new plant).

4. Gaming

Again, not a new one – but I’m really enjoying Red Dead Redemption 2 😉

5. Reading

Again, the two people who regularly read my blog will know that reading is not really a new habit for me. However, I started the year with a resolution to be more intentional about the types of books I read – to ensure I was being strategic. Lockdown, for me, has been tricky with reading. I am often tired at the end of each day, as the work and general stress of the situation has got to me. When I have enough energy, though, reading has been a constant source of joy. I am currently enjoying Montefiore’s biography of Jerusalem, and Wilcock’s analysis of Revelation (only coincidentally on the topic of apocalypse!). See my reading post from March showing some things I’m working through or have just finished.

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Stay safe.

What I’ve been reading – March 2020

Right. So we’re all locked in together in a COVID-19 state of joy. Here’s some of what I’ve been reading lately (and what I’m currently working through). I’m already 8 books in this year, because I had a lot of time on my hands in Amman!

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Necropolis, Catharine Arnold: This one charts a course through London’s relationship with its dead. Where and how does it bury its dead? The subject is a little dark, but ultimately it’s a fun romp through a kind of history that isn’t often written about. What is amazing is how major shifts in history radically change approaches to mourning and storing of the dead.

Jerusalem – the Biography, Simon Montefiore: I’m a quarter through this one and it is amazing! I struggled a bit with ‘the’ London biography, but this one is leagues ahead in terms of accessibility, flow and storytelling. I am looking forward to seeing how he dances his way through the fraught modern era. But really – isn’t all of Jerusalem’s history contested?

The Rule of Law, Tom Bingham: Our whole society is predicated on the rule of law. We obey the law, and so does everyone else. Without it, the economy dies and so does society, really. A rather topical read, given what’s going on (and what I’ve spent the last few months working on).

Misery, Steven King: Somehow I missed this modern classic before now. What a gripping, frightening, tense read! He really was the master. Was the whole thing a metaphor about his hatred of his cocaine addiction? I don’t care. It was just a good story.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaiman: I’ve never read (as an adult) a book where the first-person protagonist was a child. I LOVED this book. Highly recommend for a quick weekend read.

First you Write a Sentence, Joe Moran: Have been trying to improve my writing but there aren’t very many good practical books that give you writing building blocks (other than Steven King’s On Writing). This one boiled down to “Don’t be too noun-y. Except when it makes sense. Or too verb-y. Except when you want to. And don’t use too many parentheses (except when you should).”

Preparing for Easter, CS Lewis: Who doesn’t love CS Lewis? This devotional has a thought for every day of Lent. Some days are better than others. It has been a very thoughtful journey so far.

Bonus – Ginger Pig Meat Book (because I want to be better at cooking), Easy Learning French Grammar and Practice (because I want to improve my French).

I’m also still slogging through the 15-book Wheel of Time series. More on that later.

I still need to do my 2019 wrapup. Maybe. One day.

Winter Reading List – 2019-20

Here’s what I’m reading for the holidays. I’ve tried to post less frequently about my reading habits (as I worry it makes me a relentless bore), but, well, this is my blog, and you can always keep scrolling if you really want to.

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London: The Biography – I am sure Ackroyd called it ‘the’ biography rather than ‘a’ biography to appear as the definitive story of London. Interesting and unwieldy it is; definitive it is not. Great to focus on ‘life’ in London but you can’t really tell that story without telling the story of power, government or politics as well. Plus, it is SO long, and I feel as though I have been reading it all year (which is nearly true). (Goodreads)

12 Rules for Life – like marmite, Jordan Peterson seems to have split my friendship group (and not on the usual left/right dichotomy). I’m about halfway through this and have not yet decided my view on it. Peterson is unquestionably smart and well read, but sometimes uses words so carefully that you wonder what he really thinks (see: gender roles). Also, I am having difficulty identifying with a lobster, and my back is already pretty straight. (Goodreads)

The Green Mile – somehow I have never read this nor seen the film. I haven’t started yet. I enjoyed Stephen King’s ‘the Outsider’ last summer. (Goodreads)

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount – John Stott is a master and his writing is imbued with such grace and humility. I have loved this walk through the most important sermon ever preached. I will be sad to finish it because it has been such a joy. (Goodreads)

A Short History of England – this has been on my list all year, but it arrived yesterday, and I am super excited to read it. (Goodreads)

I’m going to indulge myself and post a year-end ‘books I liked and hated this year’ at some point soon. Sorry (and Happy Christmas).

What I’m Reading: At Home by Bill Bryson

I could read Bill Bryson all day. Who couldn’t? It’s like having a good chat at the pub with a life-long mate, who happens to be strangely well-informed and articulate.

91w+3DAuHpLBryson’s writing tends to meander off into strange specificities and peculiarities; an engaging collection of facts told in a jovial way. At Home is no different: it is through-and-through Bryson.

Loosely set as Bryson walks through his home, a former parsonage in the English countryside, each chapter deals with a different room and how that room has shaped by – and been shaped – the private life of humans.

“Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”

As is inevitable for Bryson, a large part ofthe tale is not just of the home and of humans, but of America and England. Development in the home is often (rightly) framed within greater geopolitical shifts (and vice-versa, in the case of the nineteenth learned clergy he spends time extolling at the beginning).

Each room gives us a glimpse of how we got there, and how we changed along the day – including in our diets.

“One consequential change is that people used to get most of their calories at breakfast and midday, with only the evening top-up at suppertime. Now those intakes are almost exactly reversed. Most of us consume the bulk–a sadly appropriate word here–of our calories in the evening and take them to bed with us, a practice that doesn’t do any good at all.” 

At Home has a lot going for it, but it did take me a while to read. The narrative structure works well as a way of bringing the facts together, but it did mean that it lacked a collective theme (except in the very broadest sense). At times, you have the sense that you were being led taken on a very long walk for no reason other than the very long walk.

However, each chapter stands on its own. It can easily be set aside and enjoyed in bite-sized chunks.

Approached with that in mind, it may well have been a more enjoyable read – just take your time and stroll through the house slowly.

What I’m Reading: Fayke Newes by Derek J Taylor

For anybody with even a passing interest in democratic institutions, it was jarring to hear the American president describe the free press as the ‘enemy of the people’.

‘Surely’, I thought, ‘surely we have now shifted the Overton window to a new extreme!’

It turns out that I was dreadfully wrong. The ‘Media’ and ‘the Mighty’ have fought for centuries with mud-slinging, lies and aggression (and counter-aggression).

Fayke Newes cover

With a delightfully irreverent cover, a title of faux-medieval origin and the (current) American president in Henry VIII’s garb, Derek J Taylor’s latest book immediately invites us to place modern ramblings about ‘fake news’ into their rightful historical context.

Taylor begins the tale with the Western world’s favourite serial husband (Henry, not Donald). And with his decidedly Trumpian cry of ‘false fables and tales’ against an opponent, Henry VIII is an excellent place to begin.

Charting his way through Tudors, wars and revolutions (of both the bloody and industrial persuasion), Taylor’s mapping of the relationship between those who make the stories and those who tell them (or both, simultaneously) is an engaging read. Their co-existence appears to be a form of uneasy symbiosis; the mighty providing the fire, and the media, the oxygen (or does that make it antibiotic?).

A particularly engaging part of the book involves the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst and her WSPU did not gain real traction – despite serious action – until the media picked up the story (one way or another). The sheer starvation of information or recognition meant that there was no real engagement… until a turning point. And with the media attention came real reaction from the mighty – to the press and to the suffragettes. And so the cycle continues.

A lengthy historical tome this is not. A salutary lesson: more likely.

Fayke News is published by the History Press. Additional details and vendors available here.