Friday, December 31, 2021

20 ... 21 ... 22

As we continue to live in interesting times, here are some of my highlights of 2021. Most of them I have raved about already, so I'll just do a list with links.

  • The third edition of Astrobiology came out in August, it is no longer a brief introduction, just an introduction. This reflects the fact that the book now has more than 400 pages.
  • I've completed a 60k words draft of the biography of Heinrich our family cello, which is also a family history of sorts, and a memoir, and a rant about various issues from education through to plague policies.
  • In the course of my research for the musical memoir, I have had a closer look at some of the old photos I have and started turning them into a blog series called "Every picture tells a story." The 18th instalment went live yesterday, another seven are currently in the queue for publication. This twitter thread offers a table of contents for quick access to specific episodes. I was amazed to discover how much more I can find out about these pictures if I don't just look at the faces and go "ok, this is Aunt Such and Uncle So", but think about what makes it special and why it might be interesting for people who don't even know the persons in the picture. Some of the stories the pictures tell were new to me even though I had known the photos for many years. For the time being, I am limiting the series to photos that are older than me - maybe in its second year it will move on to those taken in my lifetime.
  • My Plague Year Bach Project (trying to play the cello suites) started in March 2020 carried on until June this year (interim report). Then I paused it for the summer, because there were now many opportunities to play with other people outside, and by the autumn I was struggling with a frozen shoulder, meaning I could just about maintain orchestra participation, but wouldn't be able to keep up the one hour daily practices for the Bach. Maybe next year.
  • Playing outside at the Florence Park bandstand has been a major success. In addition to the monthly slow sessions, we also played lots of informal sessions on the Sundays in between. On Wednesday evenings, members of Cowley Orchestra played chamber music (see my lists of duets, trios, quartets).
  • A major revelation on one of those Wednedays in the park was playing Dvorak's American quartet with a mixed bag of instruments including clarinet, oboe, flute, violin and cello, making it sound a lot more like the New World symphony. Afterwards, I discovered that the idea wasn't completely new, there is a brilliant arrangement for wind quintet. YouTube has live videos from the Amsterdam Wind Quintet (fourth and first movement) as well as sound-only recordings from the Royal Flemish Philharmonic (complete) and Meliora Winds.
  • As the weather turned autumnal and the orchestral and folkie activities moved back indoors (although Covid stats remained high), two of us carried on playing at the bandstand. Smaller ensembles need louder instruments to get heard, so it's mostly saxophone duos you can hear on a Sunday afternoon these days. Nothing like blasting out an ironic version of Sound of silence on the saxes. Seriously, though, a playlist of tunes that I am playing or trying to play is here. Note also that the tenor sax is ergonomically compatible with my shoulder problem, so for the time being, it is taking up much of the time I dedicated to the cello until the summer.
  • Plague Year Day Trips this year led us to Romsey, Bournemouth and Winchester (again).
  • Just one trip abroad this year, visiting Düsseldorf, Minden and Tangermünde. The latter two for reasons linked to the Heinrich biography. Photos from this trip are in this flickr album.
  • I completed the Lost cities series I started in late 2020. And managed to visit two of the lost cities, see the point above.
  • I managed to read a few interesting books.
  • After the blissful time without haircuts ended, I grew some more around my chin, enjoying the fact that I now have a fur pattern.

Overall, as getting things done, books read, and music played makes me happy, it's been a happy year for me in spite of all the rage at the death eaters, climate catastrophe, and all the rest of it.

Trying something new during lockdowns.

Thursday, December 30, 2021

five sisters, five decades

Every picture tells a story, No. 18

The five daughters of the station master of Adamsweiler all lived to a respectable age and had a tendency to regroup on family occasions so we have portraits of the quintet spanning half a century.

This one is the most recent I have, dated 1950, so presumably from Auguste's golden wedding celebrations. The place is Bad Münster am Stein, where Auguste lived with her husband who had worked at the post office.

A few decades earlier, the five of them with their mother on her 80th birthday in 1927 (the station master had died in 1909):

And then the classic 1900 family portrait outside the Adamsweiler station (which I've used in the master post on railway families):

In this one we have from left to right: Helene, Kätha, Johanna, Auguste, Anna. Good luck working out who's who in the other two. Their descendants are listed in the entry about the Kauer clan. (Quick cross-references to my branch of the tree: Helene married her cousin Julius, their first child was Ruth. I will have to reconnect with Johanna later in the series because she built the house that has preserved the bulk of our memorabilia.)

So much sh*t happened in the first half of the 20th century, thinking of the 250 years of life experience accrued between the first photo and the last just boggles my mind. Note also that their parents' magical recipe for long life did not work for boys: both their brothers died before reaching school age.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi
  18. five sisters, five decades

Twitter thread

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I'm writing.

Sunday, December 26, 2021

new from Simone de Beauvoir

I read all of Simone de Beauvoir's novels and some of her autobiographical writing at a young and impressionable age when sitting in a Paris cafe writing books was my idea of a sensible career path. (Now, of course, after the rather strict lockdowns they had in France, I realise that writing from where I'm sitting right now is much more sensible.)

Seriously, though, having been imprinted on Beauvoir as an intellectual role model, I was thrilled to see she's got a new book out, at the age of 110 plus. I only found out this year, when the English translation was published, but the original came out in 2020.

Les inséparables is a fictionalised account of her childhood friendship with and crush on school friend Elisabeth Lacoin, called Zaza, who died in 1929 aged 21. The account written in 1954 was deemed to be too emotionally sensitive to be published in her lifetime. A more distanced version was include four years later in Mémoires d'une jeune fille rangée.

In a detailed preface to this belated publication, Beauvoir's adopted daughter Sylvie Le Bon de Beauvoir explains the complex relations between the real life story, the short novel, and the memoir, which I found really helpful. It also comes with 18 pages of photos and copies of letters between Simone and Zaza.

I may be biased for imprinting reasons cited above, but I found the novel very moving and relatable (as we've only started saying long after it was written), and I'm very grateful that it came out at last. At 150 pages, the text is much more accessible than the memoir (which I bought 38 years ago but I'm not sure if I actually read it!), and I guess it might help to introduce new generations to the emotional and sensitive side of the great philosopher and feminist.

My editions of both books, own photo. I was too impatient to wait for a folio paperback to match my collection of Beauvoir's other works.

PS: My grandmother Ruth, shown here with a friend in her student days, was born the same year as Simone de Beauvoir, which makes the story even more relatable.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

finding Mimi

Every picture tells a story No. 17

Shortly after Peter the customs officer and Frieda the pianist had moved to Gronau, Frieda's mother, Luise, died from a tooth infection, aged only 48. Luise's mother died just two weeks after her, aged 75, for unknown reasons. In letters written around mother's day many years later, Frieda revealed that she never quite got over this early loss of her loving mother. Frieda was 25 at the time and had only recently moved out of the parental house by the railway tracks.

We don't have testimony from Frieda's widowed father, Heinrich (the station master at Minden Stadt), but just under two years after his loss he married Wilhelmine (Mimi) who was also widowed and I recently learned that she also lost children, not sure about the details. Her full name was Sophie Friederike Wilhelmine Franke (verw. Poggenklaas), so Franke was her birth name and Poggenklaas that of her first husband. Mimi was universally popular with all Heinrich's grandchildren and great-grandchildren and survived into the early 1970s. I don't have any data about her, but Frieda mentioned in a letter, using Mimi as a reference age, that Helene Kauer was about Mimi's age, and Helene was born September 1885. That would make Mimi around six years younger than Heinrich, and at the time of their marriage she would have been 45.

In line with the all round good-hearted personality attributed to Mimi, Heinrich and Mimi always look kind of quietly contented on their portraits, several of which were taken over the years at the railway properties Fischerallee 13 and later Fischerallee 11A.

The photo was marked as ca. 1950, which is also the time when they moved from No. 13 to No. 11A, so I'm not sure which garden this is. I've shared photos of both properties here.

I inherited the bible with which Heinrich and Mimi got married, which is a very beautiful one, but also got used, as she did leave various leaves from a day-by-day desk calendar between the pages, presumably looking up the context of whatever biblical wisdom the calendar makers had presented her with on that day. At the moment I can only find three of them, with the most recent dating from 1.3.1973. The date and place of the wedding in church marked in the bible is Uchte, 4.4.1930.

Sample page of the bible and sample calendar leaf.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)
  17. finding Mimi

Twitter thread

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I'm writing.

Monday, December 20, 2021

make antibiotics evolution-proof

My first article about the dangers of antibiotics resistance came out in September 1994, so I am getting a little bit frustrated that this problem hasn't been fixed in the last 27 years. We are now reaching a point where a post-antibiotic age, meaning widespread incurable bacterial infections wiping years off our life expectancy, is a very real possibility. While I was writing this feature, I needed a course of antibiotics myself, which very nicely focused my mind on what a post-antibiotic world might be like.

The only thing that cheered me up was finding that all the recent work I discussed is based on the premise that we need to find a fundamental new way out of the race we've been running against the evolution and spread of resistance genes. Basically, bacteria have been dealing with fungal antibiotics for hundreds of millions of years. Thus, thinking that we might overcome them with slightly different antibiotics was always naive. So if we want to win this, we need to find evolution-proof recipes.

My feature on the latest advances in this quest is out now:

How to avoid a post-antibiotic age

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 24, 20 December 2021, Pages R1549-R1552

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Drugs specifically suppressing virulence factors instead of eradicating the bacteria have been tried on Salmonella enterica serovar Typhimurium, among other pathogens. Here, Salmonella cells (yellow) invade a human gut epithelial cell (blue). (Photo: NIAID/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Friday, December 17, 2021

just take carbon

In my school days, pure carbon came in two allotropes, graphite and diamond. By now there are dozens of them, or maybe even an infinite number as you could stitch together any number of fullerenes and polyynes to produce a new molecule consisting only of carbon.

But even fundamentally new types of carbon materials keep popping up, so I wrote a feature on the latest patterns which is out now:

Carbon rapture

Chemistry & Industry Volume 85, Issue 12, December 2021, Pages 22-25

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (premium content, ie members only)

I'm loving the design of the first double page spread (although I'm not sure about the title).

In the same issue, on page 39, there's my long essay review of the book

Ethics of chemistry

by Joachim Schummer, Tom Børsen, eds.

which is much better than the previous book on chemical ethics that I reviewed. (I may have forgotten to publicise that review, as the book was really not worth promoting.)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)

Every picture tells a story, No. 16

Frieda the pianist from episode 7 met a violinist called Paul during her studies at Bückeburg, but somehow that didn't work out. Instead she found love closer to home. Her parents (Heinrich the station master and Luise the railway worker's daughter) had taken up a lodger in their flat overhanging the narrow gauge railway line at the station Minden Stadt. That lodger was a budding customs officer, and he introduced Frieda to his colleague, Peter Eberle (son of the baker Adam Eberle).

Peter and Frieda married in 1924, but still stayed with her parents in the flat overhanging the tracks (I do love that house!), had their first daughter the next year, then their own flat in 1926, but soon moved on to Peter's first proper customs role on an actual border, namely on the Dutch border at Gronau, where they stayed until the end of 1932 and had their second daughter.

I'm going on about this, because it dates the photo shown below, about which I wouldn't have known anything otherwise. You can see a car with the "NL" plate, so it must have been on the Dutch border, ie between 1927(ish) and 1932. The checkpoint was called Glaner Brücke, referring to a very small bridge across a brook which marks the border. Altes Zollhaus (old customs office) was where they lived, except for a period when they were moved to the Dutch side of the border, a move immortalised in the fact that, in December 1929, their second daughter was born at Lonneker (just north of Enschede, with which it was merged in 1934).

Peter is the second guy from the left, the only one not wearing a hat, for whatever reason. I have no idea who the other guys are and I'm no good at reading their clothes, so all hints appreciated.

This was as much as I knew until I started preparing this entry. Then I felt obliged to google the name of the border post and it turns out there is a flickr account that has an album with 114 photos of this border crossing from 1900 to this century (mostly from the Dutch side, where it's called glanerbrug). I'm still recovering from the shock.

The building we see in the background of our group photo, with the characteristic white stripes running both horizontally and also vertically on either sides of the windows, is recognisable in this lovely postcard from 1950:

Grensovergang 1950~, Gronau. Glaner-Brücke

as well as in several modern photos from the account holder, including this one from 2005 and this one from 2003.

The photos from the 1920s show trams as well as dense rows of mature trees lining both sides of the narrower road. In most views the buildings are obscured by the trees. Then the cars came and ate both the trams and the trees. In the most recent photos you mainly see cars.

After Gronau came a move to Hamm as well as, obviously, the Nazi takeover, but we'll get to that some other time.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother
  16. checkpoint Glaner Brücke 1929(ish)

Twitter thread

In a somewhat roundabout way, this series relates to my research for the family history music memoir I'm writing.

Monday, December 13, 2021

why the vaccine-only approach will backfire

After yesterday's announcement of betting everything on the booster programme to hold the omicron variant at bay I hear that the medical staff meant to deliver a million jabs per day from today were as surprised as the rest of us to find out about it from yesterday's speech.

Nothing wrong with protecting people with a third dose of vaccine, and I've had mine a week ago, but it's a bad idea to rely only on a vaccine in the face of a raging epidemic and do nothing else. Here's just one little number crunching to show why:

If the booster (or any other vaccine applied in an ongoing epidemic) is 90% effective in preventing undesirable outcome (eg hospitalisation, or deaths) and makes people feel safe so they engage in 20x more risky behaviour (eg take the tube to work and come into close contact with 60 people per day, rather 3 if they cycle to work; or they go out clubbing rather than staying safe at home), what happens?

The 90% efficient booster divides the likelyhood of the undesirable outcome by 10, but the behaviour change multiplies it by 20, so you get twice as many cases of the undesirable outcome. Which is why relying _only_ on a vaccination with less than 100% efficiency may produce the opposite of the desired effect. Behaviour/culture eats vaccination/policy for breakfast as the old saying goes.

I remember epidemiologists warning of this backlash effect since before we even had vaccines, and it's been the reason why we've had unsustainably high numbers since September inspite of good vaccine coverage, but the UK govt still does not understand this. So, starting from a high plateau we're going straight over the cliff with omicron again, and will need another screeching U-turn to sort this out. When will they ever learn?

Update 15.12.: Here's a good opinion piece from SAGE member Stephen Reicher on the mess we're in with omicron's arrival. As Reicher points out, the booster programme is a slow-acting measure, so the important bit is to have contact reduction to slow omicron down until the boosters take effect.

Friday, December 10, 2021

Diels Alder revisited

I don't often write about chemistry these days, but every once in a while I have great fun revisiting things that are so elementary and easy that even I can still remember them. Such as the Diels Alder reaction, which on paper goes like this:

Source

I wrote a news story for Chemistry World on an effort to observe the Diels Alder reaction happening on a surface, using atomic force microscopy (AFM). You can read the story here (open access if you haven't used up your quota of CW stories).

Sadly, the researchers had to make this very simple and elegant reaction quite complicated to achieve this. It made me wonder (after sending off the news piece) if biomolecules might offer a way of positioning a pair of simpler Diels Alder reactants on a surface.

It was long believed that nature didn't have Diels Alder enzymes, so various researchers took up the challenge to fill this gap and produced:

to catalyse the reaction.

More recently, however, natural Diels-Alderases were discovered, including this one earlier this year.

So there are plenty of biomolecules that by definition recognise and bind Diels Alder reactants. Surely one of them can be persuaded to handle the reaction in a way that is amenable to AFM studies?

Thursday, December 09, 2021

the case of the missing grandmother

Every picture tells a story, No. 15

Staying in East Prussia, here's another mystery that needs solving. Auguste Adschuck, born around 1865, died in January 1945 in the turbulences at the end of World War II, somewhere between East Prussia and the river Oder, so in today's Poland. The first version I heard was that after visiting family in the West she was trying to get back home to East Prussia. Written notes from one of her grandchildren now suggest she was fleeing from East Prussia to the West, which makes more sense. At a push, both versions could be true if she was attempting to return East and then had to turn around and flee westwards.

From a family portrait dated 1930.

We have no documentation of her birth, marriage or death, so even the name could be spelled differently. It sounds to me like it may have been a Polish name originally (maybe a longer one like Solodczuk) and there are multiple versions to be found in East Prussia including Odzuk, Odczuk, Otsick, Atschuk, etc. Her husband (Friedrich Kosmowsky) was born in Gerdauen, so for lack of a better clue it makes sense to look there. This website with church records from Kreis Gerdauen has some Adschuck entries, as well as Adschack and other variants, but nothing that could immediately be linked to her.

She had three daughter and five sons. The only two for whom we have birth details were born in 1899 and 1904 in Ernstwalde, Kr. Wehlau (just north of Kr. Gerdauen), so that's another clue. The sons include Friedrich on the fiddle photo (No. 5), as well as Ernst Leopold whose family appears in the photo from which I clipped her portrait. Descendants of her three daughters go by the surnames of Kalippke, Cichy, and Popp. All three surnames turn up in the Gerdauen database, although not necessarily with the specific people we're looking for.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia
  15. the case of the missing grandmother

Twitter thread

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

omicron blues

So here we go again, for the fourth time in a row, the UK govt (acting only for England as the devolved administrations have wisely gone their own ways) is doing too little too late and spouting nonsense while blatantly advertising the most important rule of all, namely that rules don't apply to them and their friends. (Impersonating police officers, anyone? Punishable offence for most of us, but not for the shifty character recently photographed at a dawn raid.) Their rules are only made for the rest of us, and we should be grateful, apparently. After today's news of how deatheaters are basically dancing on the graves of the people they killed with their stupidity (current hashtag on twitter: #ToriesPartiedWhilePeopleDied), I'm seriously running out of effs to give.

So, well, the science from wastewater monitoring (about which I've written a new article last week, due out early next year) through to vaccine development is still brilliant, but it doesn't save us from a never-ending chain of disasters if the guys at the top eff it all up. I could throw around some numbers etc, but probably won't bother. We don't have a shortage of scientific facts and figures, we just have a surplus of dangerous lunatics in high places. The immunisation against that is yet to be discovered.

What cheered me up immensely, however, was the recent front page of the taz (disclaimer: I own a share in the cooperative) linking the change of government in Germany to the change of coronavirus variant:

Source.

Rough translation: New Merkel variant prevails.

Oh, just now I also enjoyed the subtitles on today's Channel 5 News suggesting BJ was talking about Oma Crown. Sounds like a bilingual toddler trying to define the Queen.

Monday, December 06, 2021

rights of nature

Every once in a while we read in the news that a river here or a forest there has been granted legal rights, mostly the right not to be destroyed by human greed. Following a suggestion from one of the editors at Current Biology, I did a round-up of recent developments in rights of nature and examined whether it's more of a symbolic thing or actually helps protection.

My resulting feature is out now:

Reclaiming nature's rights

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 23, 06 December 2021, Pages R1505-R1507

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

The former nature reserve Te Urewera in New Zealand has now become a legal entity that effectively owns its land. (Photo: Department of Conservation, New Zealand/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Thursday, December 02, 2021

a patchwork family in East Prussia

Every picture tells a story, No. 14

Karl Franz Faust (1857-1938) and Wilhelmine Justine Domscheit (1863-1942), shown here in 1920:

married in 1896, after they were both widowed. Each brought along around five children and then they went on to produce another five, some of whom are in the next picture, which is the one I want to talk about. (Due to the poor quality of the original, it looked horrible in preview so I've moved the couple portrait up to the top to appear in previews instead.)

Their shared batch of children includes the one we're interested in, Luise Auguste (1898-1979), third from right, at the back, who postumously became my grandmother in law. Her parents are at the back too, and who the other ones are is anybody's guess - the one holding a baby could be the oldest daughter from Wilhelmine's first marriage, Marie Wittke, who married a Karl Witt and had her first child in 1915, which is about the time the photo was taken.

The photo is a tiny print held in a souvenir etui opposite a portrait of one of Franz Faust's sons from the first marriage in uniform. All of which supports a date during World War I. The postal address during the war was Friederikenruh, Post Eiserwagen, Kirchspiel Allenburg, Kreis Wehlau, East Prussia. Friederikenruh was a Rittergut ("landed estate" the internet tells me but I don't know where that leaves the Ritter=knight) with 95 inhabitants. All of whom probably worked for the resident knight in some form. Franz is referred to as a Kämmerer in documents, ie financial administrator. Franz and Wilhelmine's joint son Karl Otto, born 1895, also was a Kämmerer.

Auguste moved to Hamborn in the Ruhr area in 1922, but her parents stayed in East Prussia all their lives. They both died at Groß-Neumühl (Kr.Wehlau), which may be the place mentioned on the photo with the fiddle.

The next family portrait is from 15 years later (1930) and shows Franz and Wilhelmine with the family of Marie and Karl Witt:

Their ancestry is poorly recorded but interesting. The Faust lineage hails from Lablack, Kr. Labiau, where Faust families are documented since 1619. Domscheit is a Lithuanian name found in East Prussia - a famous carrier is the painter Franz Domscheit who changed his name back to the Lithuanian version Pranas Domšaitis and emigrated to South Africa. The history of the (mostly bilingual) Prussian Lithuanians is a fascinating one.

Their descendants could be just about everywhere - two of Wilhelmine's daughters from her first marriage emigrated to Australia.

PS No idea what the shiny round thing is. Born in 1857, he was too young for the war of 1870 and too old for WWI, so I'm guessing it can't be a military medal.

Correction: I just realised he went by his second name, Franz. His father was just Karl.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886
  14. a patchwork family in East Prussia

Twitter thread

Sunday, November 28, 2021

the importance of being Virginia

I finished reading The hours, by Michael Cunningham, which is a postmodern triple refraction (or maybe a fractured triptych?) of the theme of the novel Mrs. Dalloway and the life of its author, Virginia Woolf. As I haven’t read Mrs. Dalloway I am not really qualified to review this spin-off, but I’ll take the opportunity to convene all the books I’ve read that are in one way or another related to it or to Virginia Woolf. I had the idea when I read the scene where her sister, Vanessa Bell, comes visiting with her children, and I had to juggle a very complex network of memories of the same characters from other books. So here goes:

K, the art of love by Hong Ying (2002)

I loved this book way back when, should read it again. One of the main characters is based on Vanessa’s son Julian Bell (who appears in The hours as a child). The book was censored in China and studiously ignored in the UK.

Exploring bohemia by Virginia Nicholson (2003)

another favourite of mine, this is a non-fiction account of the unconventional lives of Virginia, Vanessa and the rest of the gang. This Virginia is Quentin Bell’s daughter, so the earlier Virginia was her great-aunt.

moving on from people to places, this 1950s book simply called

Bloomsbury

covers all the streets and many of the houses and historic residents, but hasn’t got much time for the bohemians of the Bloomsbury set.

Charleston by Quentin Bell and Virginia Nicholson, photographs by Alen Macweeney

This gloriously illustrated book about the Sussex countryhouse gives a very good idea of their interior decorations and art works. Should have reviewed this but didn’t obviously.

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf

I saw this play many years ago, memories are very vague, but I seem to remember Virginia was no more than a figure of speech in this one.

A room of one's own

I read this one, but again, memory is fading …

Maybe I should continue my studies with this new, annotated edition of Mrs Dalloway:

Thursday, November 25, 2021

school's out at Reichenstein, 1886

Every picture tells a story, No. 13

Returning to the in-laws in Silesia, here is Wilhelm Geppert, the baker from picture number 8 in his school days. We're not quite sure which one he is, but the streak in the top right corner may be a deliberate mark, and the boy closest to it has the right sort of head shape. He is too blurred for more detailed analysis, but let's pretend it's him.

To try and identify him we used his wedding photo (1912):

His name is on the back of the photo, too, with the beautifully handwritten inscription:

Als Andenken an meine Schulzeit
Reichenstein, d. 26.Juni 1886

So something to remember his school days by - sounds like his school days are over, but the scary thing is that he's only eight years old at the date given - he was going to turn nine in September. The four years we now call primary school may have been all the schooling he got.

Reichenstein (today: Złoty Stok) was in the Kreis Frankenstein and mainly known for its gold mine dating back to medieval times.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist
  13. school's out at Reichenstein, 1886

Twitter thread

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

cantigas de santa Maria revisited

As it's the 800th birthday of Alfonso X el sabio today, I've gone a bit wild on twitter and made a thread with some cantiga videos (only ten cantigas, not all 420, you'll be pleased to know).

I'm running out of time now, but at some point I will also have to spend some serious time obsessing with the two manuscripts that are now available online (since July or so).

The best thing I rediscovered in today's youtube raid was this video from Triskilian:

Monday, November 22, 2021

all about Allium

a rare excursion into food related botany with this feature sweeping up genome studies of garlic and onion, along with the recent discovery of a new Allium species. All in all, a surprising amount of really challenging science to be found around the plants in the Allium genus, which also includes leek, chives, and lots of ornamental plants.

Read all about garlic et al. in my latest feature:

All about Allium

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 22, 22 November 2021, Pages R1449-R1452

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Chives, unless they are eaten before they get the chance, produce decorative spherical umbels similar to the larger ones of many ornamental Allium species. (Photo: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay.)

Thursday, November 18, 2021

a young chemist

Every picture tells a story, No. 12

Richard was behind the camera in the last instalment, now here's the photographer himself, from the same stash of negatives, so presumably also from the time between 1930 and 1933. Not quite sure what's happening here, but he seems to be conducting chemical experiments at home. He was studying chemistry, maths and physics for a teaching degree. He appears to be having a good time, too. And a sense of mischief. (And no safety specs. Don't do that, kids!)

Another photo of a simlilar home-experimenting situation, this time looking more serious:
He went on to marry Ruth from episode 11. Although they took geographically very different routes before doing their last terms of university at Bonn, they were both born in small towns in Lorraine, and three of their four parents had lived in Alsace. (As Nazism got from bad to worse, they visited Strasbourg in the spirit of "while we still can".) And they each had one railway grandfather.

This photo is also on flickr (and a few others, too).

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth
  12. a young chemist

Twitter thread

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

elusive memories

Impressions of

Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue
Patrick Modiano

Rummaging around the library I inherited I discovered a few books by the 2014 Nobel laureate for literature Patrick Modiano, including this one both in the French original and in a German translation:

I loved the French title and the German cover art, so went on to read the original. It is very short, with chapters from different perspectives describing the comings and goings of people who remain enchantingly mysterious, plus, it’s Paris shrouded in darkness and a haze of nostalgia, so what’s not to like. I disapproved of the ending though. And I'm wondering if, by not saying much at all about the characters, the author lets me do all the work. I mean I do love his elusive protagonist, Jacqueline, but I realise that I may be projecting my own expectations onto a blank canvas here.

After enjoying the misty mysteries of this one, I also read Du plus loin de l’oubli, which turns out to be very much the same, with some of the characters possibly overlapping (hello again, Jacqueline!), except that now part of the story (?) is moved to London, which somehow put me off a bit. So I guess I know the pattern now, and I don’t have to read the third one I found, which is called Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Hanna and Ruth

Every picture tells a story, No. 11.

Ruth Düsselmann, the little girl on the steps of shop in Luisenthal grew up, and here she is in her student days in Bonn, sharing a giggle with her friend Hanna Dissmann (left). The photo was taken by fellow student Richard Groß, who may have known Hanna before he met Ruth, but he ended up marrying Ruth. Both Richard and Ruth were studying natural sciences for a teacher degree, so I'm guessing Hanna did too, but not sure. I did meet her once or twice half a century later, but didn't ask her any personal questions. Ruth arrived at Bonn University in the summer of 1930, Richard in the winter before, and they both graduated in 1933 (in a hurry as they were worried that their favourite profs would be chased away by the Nazis), so I am guessing the photo dates from between 1930 and 1933.

In these last five years, as various forms of 21st century fascism began to spread and eat away the progress we made over the previous decades, I often thought of my grandparents and what it must have been like for them, in their 20s, to see their world being pulled away from under their feet. I'm looking at these photos for a glimpse of who they were before shit happened - all I got to know as a child was the version after shit happened.

Richard was a keen photographer and left mountains of photos and negatives when he died. This is one of a bunch of photos I found as negatives of which I made small prints back then, in the late 1980s, so this is now the second time I am attempting to rescue this from oblivion. Here is another one from the same film, now trying to look serious:

There will be more photos from his vaults to be rescued for sure.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
  11. Hanna and Ruth

Twitter thread

Monday, November 08, 2021

citizen science then and now

Back in the happy days before Brexit and Trump became a thing, I regularly attended Earthwatch events and wrote stories about their exciting research projects around the world which are made possible by recruitment of volunteers who pay for the privilege of taking part. That activity faded away as the relevant contacts at the organisation kept being replaced by new people, and I lost touch at some point. Towards the end of the phase, I suggested writing a book to be released on the 50th anniversary of the organisation, splashing out on all the wonderful work they are doing around the world. Strangely I never got anywhere with this idea. Emphasis at the organisation shifted away from the volunteer-paid research expeditions and towards partnerships with corporate sponsors as well as more affordable activities closer to home, so that may have been one reason why I didn't get much response re the history book.

The 50th anniversary happens to be now, and as there have been a couple of new developments in citizen science, I have taken the opportunity to wrap up the 50-year history of Earthwatch in a feature on new trends in citizen science more widely. Ironically, one of the trends is to get rid of the citizen scientist altogether and just use their social media posts to algorithmically identify species observations.

The resulting feature is out now:

New avenues for citizen science

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 21, 08 November 2021, Pages R1403-R1406

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

Earthwatch Institute started out organising international research expeditions with volunteer helpers, but now also offers science projects closer to home. (Photo: John Hunt, Earthwatch.)

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann

Every picture tells a story, No. 10.

Julius Düsselmann opens a new shop at Luisenthal near Saarbrücken, around 1911. He is seen in the door without a hat, the child in front of him is my grandmother. On the side wall you can read (maybe, I'm struggling a bit with deciphering):

Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann
Billige Einkaufsquelle für Lebensmittel und ... waren
Kurz-, Wirk- und Wollwaren und Arbeitskleider (?)
Weine & ...

So I reckon you could buy food and wine and clothes there. The carriage looks like he even did home deliveries.

Looking for other examples, I found a photo using similar choreography, around the same time and same area, here.

Julius's (very) extended family hailing from Krefeld is here. His maternal family is the Imig clan from Simmern.

Julius (1883-1950) had a life of many ups and downs. After an apprenticeship as a Kaufmann, he allegedly wanted to fly Zeppelins, which didn't work out. Instead he served in the colonial war in 1904/05, about which I have another picture to share some other time. He came back with health problems, married his cousin Helene Kauer and settled for a life as a shopkeeper. First as an employee in the shop of a mining company in Merlenbach in Lorraine (today Freyming-Merlebach) then from around 1911 onwards, running his own shop in Luisenthal, near Saarbrücken. Today part of the town of Völklingen, this place is also characterised by mining and steel industry. The name is associated with a severe mining accident in 1962.

This shop seems to have gone well, as he also set up a second branch, managed by his sister in law. In 1918, however, as the Saar area came under French occupation, he retired from business on health grounds - a heart problem possibly caused by the tropical disease he caught in Africa (possibly typhoid fever), and retired to the countryside, always a bad idea if you ask me. Economic crises and hyperinflation of the 1920s forced him to go back into business, which led him to Rheydt, Königsberg and finally Bad Nauheim, all of which I have covered in my #lostcities series.

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900
  10. Consumgeschäft von Julius Düsselmann

Twitter thread

Saturday, October 30, 2021

how to become a station master

Two of my four railway ancestors were station masters at very modest stations, so I am on a quest to find out more about their role. First stop, a book meant to help candidates prepare for the exam to become as station master, by J. Wetter, second edition published by Baedeker at Elberfeld in 1889: "Die Prüfung zum Stationsvorsteher und Güterexpedienten, sowie zum Stationsassistenten im Deutschen und insbesondere Preussischen Staats-Eisenbahndienste" Now available at Google Books and in print from forgottenbooks – both use the same scan, which unfortunately has a few pages missing in random places.

By today’s (or even 20th century) expectations, the didactic value of the book is close to zero. The larger part is made up of mock exam questions and suggested answers, quite a few of which can be paraphrased as: Which rules apply to situation X? The applicable rules of the rulebook. I’m exaggerating only slightly. Moreover, some of the information would have been presented much better with the help of graphics, of which there are precisely none. Especially, presenting the geography of Germany and neighbouring countries in text form is a bit silly. The shorter second part is made up of mock exam essays on selected topics, including, hooray, the role of the station master (pp 298-303).

In this chapter and scattered across the rest of the book there are intriguing glimpses at what the station masters did, and what their working lives must have been like. Obviously there were vast amounts of workforce involved in everything. Guards along the tracks, signal operators, brake operators, workers, telegraphists. As this was before the telephone, every station used telegraph to communicate any problems down the line and to regional admin offices.

Passenger accommodation came in four classes. Complimentary travel for station masters was first class, for workers fourth. A station master moving station could claim two waggons for his belongings free of charge. Non-smoking as well as women-only compartments were to be offered in every class. Pipe smokers had to have a lid on their pipes. Children under four travelled free (but couldn’t claim a seat), aged four to ten they paid half price.

There are numerous rules on transporting animals, including horses, livestock, even wild carnivores, and how to label the cage if you ship a tiger or a whole menagerie by rail. I suppose circuses may have used the service back then. In other news, hopefully unrelated, we also get a whole chapter on rules around transporting dead bodies. Rules also for explosives, flammable liquids etc. It almost sounds as though the station masters lived dangerously with all these things travelling in and out of their stations.

There's way too much about book keeping and admin for my tastes, this must have been a nightmare. It's more fun to read about what to do after an accident. One ordinary person dying in circumstances not too spectacular doesn’t call for a big fuss. Any nobility being involved in or near an accident does, however.

The book doesn’t cite many references, but towards the end it mentions several times this “railway geography” by national economist Max Haushofer:

Eisenbahngeographie: Eine Darstellung des modernen Weltverkehrs mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Eisenbahnen (1875), which also looks interesting. Available on Google Books.

Seen on a recent visit to Minden - sheds at the station Minden Oberstadt, close to Minden Stadtbahnhof which was my greatgrandfather's domain for several decades. (own photo)

Thursday, October 28, 2021

a bakery at Lorsch 1900

Every picture tells a story, No. 9.

Adam Eberle (1863-1938) was born almost exactly a century before me, in the village of Ober-Mumbach in the Odenwald (today in the southernmost tip of the state of Hessen). He did an apprenticeship as a baker, went on the Wanderschaft as far as Metz, on his return married his cousin Anna Barbara Schütz (1860-1934) from nearby Nieder-Liebersbach and set up a bakery in the house Bahnhofstraße 27 in the small but historically important town of Lorsch. (The address doesn't quite make this another railway family, as the road named after the station runs orthogonally to the rail line and number 27 was in fact a few hundred metres away from the station. Passengers wouldn't normally have picked up their bread rolls for the journey at Eberle's bakery.)

The photo from around 1900 shows the house, with Adam, Anna Barbara, and one of the three daughters, probably the oldest, who was also called Anna Barbara, born 1893.

Let's have a zoomed in version too:

If the mother is pregnant in the photo, this is the last child on the way, Peter, who was born in 1900.

The bakery business wasn't all that successful, but it survived until 1930. Spartan living became a habit in the family. Troubles were sometimes linked to the protestant family from the hinterland not being accepted in the very catholic town. This was also discussed in the context of all three daughters remaining unmarried. However, the latter problem also had to do with World War I. Born in 1893-1897, the young women saw many of their male contemporaries going to war and not coming back.

The daughters kept the house (and the Spartan lifestyle) until 1973, when the last surviving daughter sold it to the town, which had it demolished to build an access road for a school, allegedly. The satellite view right now just shows a car park in the gap between numbers 25 and 29. The only place it could have given access to is the Nibelungenhalle. Anyhow, the baker's house has stayed in the family for over 80 years, which is good going.

UPDATE 13.11.2021 I just discovered a new upload of genealogical data on GedBas that includes our baker Adam Eberle. Although his wife is not named, as they are cousins it is easy to find her parents. Highlights:

An interesting family tree to compare and contrast to this is the maternal side of Grace Kelly - much of it is from the same corner of Germany and linked by names such as Treusch, Griesser, Eberle(in).

This photo is also on flickr.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert
  9. a bakery at Lorsch 1900

Twitter thread

Monday, October 25, 2021

keeping cool

Six days to go until the start of COP26 at Glasgow, so today's feature has a climate focus. I looked into the spread of air conditioning as a way of "adapting" to rising temperatures, which is, of course, one of many feedback loops making things worse, and at other good or bad ways of adapting to climate change, partially inspired by the book Great Adaptations, which I read for review recently.

So here are some things we can and some we shouldn't do as the climate catastrophe accelerates:

Keeping cool in a warming climate

Current Biology Volume 31, Issue 20, 25 October 2021, Pages R1363-R1365

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access again one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)

If the response to rising temperatures is the installation of more air-conditioning units, this will add to carbon emissions and thus accelerate the climate catastrophe. (Photo: Kars Alfrink/Flickr (CC BY 2.0).)

Thursday, October 21, 2021

bei Wilhelm Geppert

Let's have some bakers and shopkeepers now to continue the series Every picture tells a story.

The photo shows a baker's shop and family in Dörndorf, Kreis Frankenstein, Schlesien, around 1918. Today the place is known as Powiat Ząbkowicki in Poland. They are Wilhelm Geppert/Göppert (1877-1952), Martha nee Stephan (1887-1968), and their children Hedwig, Emma and Wilhelm Karl. The sign reads in full: "Bäckerei, Mehl- Specerei- Taback u. Cigarren-Handlung, bei Wilhelm Geppert". Meaning that it was a bakery also selling flour, spices, tobacco and cigars. I'm loving the Pipi Longstocking vibe radiated by the oldest, Hedwig, who postumously became my grandmother in law.

I also shared this photo on flickr earlier this year.

Every picture tells a story series so far:

  1. string quartet Wuppertal Elberfeld 1927
  2. greetings from Adamsweiler
  3. Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich
  4. quartet times three
  5. Neumühl 1923
  6. Tangermünde railway station 1889
  7. a singing lesson
  8. bei Wilhelm Geppert

Twitter thread

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

views of ships and cities

This blog's favourite industry painter, Alexander Calvelli, is opening his next exhibition this coming Sunday at Elmshorn (Schleswig-Holstein):

Schiffsblicke und Stadtsichten
opening Sunday 24.10. at 11am (until Nov 14)
Kunstverein Elmshorn
Torhaus Probstendamm 7
Elmshorn

more info (in German)

Here's a glimpse at a ship from the prospectus:

Thursday, October 14, 2021

railway families

Four separate lines of my family tree involved a family kept alive by a railway job in the late 19th and early 20th century. The four railway employees were from wildly different geographic areas and never met each other, but they all benefited hugely from the opportunities provided by the railways and there are intriguing parallels in their lives.

I've made separate blog posts about each of them already, but here comes the masterpost bundling the key information for the complete quartet, so I can draw comparisons and have all the links in one place. Arranged chronologically by date of birth we have:

1. Johann Anton Lütkemeyer 1843-1887 from Schwaney
job: railway worker in 1872 / railway guard in 1877, Gütersloh, presumably active from 1860s until he became ill with tuberculosis of which he died aged 44.
family: married Johanna Catharina Charlotte Kosfeld, born 1854 in Gütersloh. Five daughters and two sons born within 12 years of marriage, five children survived him. First son died within three months of his birth, not sure which child was the second to die early, as data are missing on several siblings.
blog entries: the Gütersloh connection

[ No family portrait known. ]

2. Christoph Gottlieb Kauer 1845-1909 from Simmern
job: severely injured in the war of 1870/71, joined new Alsace railways as compensation, moving frequently (children born in Mulhouse, Morhange, Fontoy). Final stop and career step: station master in Adamsweiler from mid 1890s to his death aged 64.
family: married Margaretha Imig, born 1847 Simmern Five daughters and two sons. Both sons died in early childhood, all five daughters lived to ages ranging from 73 to 87.
blog entries: greetings from Adamsweiler; finally, the Kauer clan; Gastwirthschaft Ferd. Weirich

The station master's family outside the station at Adamsweiler, around 1900. The daughters, left to right: Helene, Katharina, Johanna, Auguste, Anna.

3. Richard Groß 1852-1913 from Breslau (today: Wrocław, Poland)
job: railway (office) assistant active in Neurode (Silesia) 1880. Zella St. Blasii (Thuringia) 1882, Stendal-Tangermünde 1886 until his death aged 60.
family: married Maria Louise Mentzel, born 1844, twice widowed; one daughter, one son. Wife also had a son from a previous marriage.
blog entries: Tangermünde railway station 1889; a railway man; once there were emperors

Railway parents seated in the middle, the young folks around them are left to right: their son, Max Heinrich Groß, his fiancee Maria Pfersching, his step-brother Arthur Reim, and his sister Gertrud Groß. Presumably taken on the occasion of Heinrich and Maria's engagement in 1904 (they married in 1908).

4. Heinrich Nagel 1879-1952 from Neesen, today part of Porta Westfalica
job: joined Minden district railways as an assistant around 1900, rising through the ranks to become station master at Minden Stadt by 1914, serving until retirement in 1944. Housed in railway company courtesy flats near that station from 1914 to his death at age 73.
family: married Catharine Luise Lütkemeyer, born 1880, one daughter. Wife was the daughter of 1., but her father was long dead at the point when she found herself a new railway man.
blog entries: railway memories; finding Minden

Heinrich Nagel with his first wife Luise Lütkemeyer and their daughter Frieda.

Patterns and similarities

The first two families both had five girls and two boys each, each lost two children in the early years, at least three of the four casualties were boys. Not sure about the fate of the fourth boy, but there's a real possibility that all four boys died in early childhood and all ten girls survived, which would be a bit spooky.

In contrast, the other two couples only had two children and one child respectively. Each produced a professional musician (Heinrich and Frieda), which is the connection that motivated me to dig deeper into the railway families.

Number 2 and 4 became station masters with very modest stations under their command, but this would still have involved a number of workers to boss around. The status of that job is reflected in the fact that both families bought a massive 17 volume encyclopaedia (Pierer and Brockhaus, respectively). If you're wondering how to become a station master on the Prussian / German Empire railways, Google Books has a scan of the book: "Die Prüfung zum Stationsvorsteher und Güterexpedienten, sowie zum Stationsassistenten im Deutschen und insbesondere Preußischen Staats-Eisenbahndienste."

With an average lifespan of 60 years, I guess they fared about normally for their times, but not better. Note that only number 4 got to enjoy a period of retirement and significant overlap with grandchildren (one great-grandchild even).

All of them had an opportunity boost that has to count as social mobility, compared with their backgrounds. All except number 4, who only moved from his village to the nearest town, also achieved significant geographic mobility, with 2 and 3 ending up hundreds of kilometres away from their respective birthplace.

The wives of 1 and 2 also had railway employees among their brothers and nephews who were perhaps inspired by the precedents. As these two had very modest jobs, I don't think they had any real power in providing jobs for the extended family.

Bottom line, as one of my four grandparents and three of my eight great-grandparents were children of railway families, that makes me a 1/4 + 3/8 = 5/8 railway descendant.

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