Sunday, 31 December 2017

Black-Eyed Peas!

I have a whole raft* of ideas for traditions, old and new, in 2018. The first is to honour my Southern roots in the US by eating black-eyed peas on New Years Day to bring good luck in the coming year. I hated them as a child and negotiated with Mom down to three: she thought eating three black-eyed peas might just be enough to save me. 

I love them now. We had a large ham over Christmas and I saved the fat from it to flavour my beans. We buy dried beans -  some of every kind they have at the Asian grocery in Brighton Grove - and a large bag of polenta (corn meal) about every 2-3 years. It takes that long for us to finish them off. The beans soak for about 24 hours and cook in the crock pot for a few hours on high. I generally cook about three cups of dried beans at a time and freeze the cooked beans in smaller portions. Nothing suits beans and ham like some hot buttered cornbread. That was Mom's comfort food and it has become mine as well.

Here in Britain black-eyed peas are sometimes known as cow-peas, which is perhaps too close in my mind to 'cow patty' to sound attractive, but I can see why one might think they bear markings similar to a cow, mmm perhaps a British White?

...there is nothing so easy to create as a tradition.
                                                     Sir Walter Scott

*How is it we use the word 'raft' to refer to a large collection of things when it is clearly a flat wooden thing for floating on water? Turns out that went from the North part of Britain over to the US:

 Do you have a tradition you observe for the New Year?

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Cousins of Some Fame

Do you have any film-related Christmas traditions? We have faithfully watched Hogfather every Christmas for about a decade. Or rather Bill has, it tends to put me to sleep for some reason. Anyhow, I fought back by obtaining White Christmas.  (Also, I finally got him to watch Love Actually and he Actually decided he Loved it, which was a nice surprise.)

Anyhow, I thought I spotted the name Robert Altman in the White Christmas credits. As Hogfather (part I) began I grabbed my laptop and tried to find out how Robert Altman (of M.A.S.H. and Gosford Park fame) was involved with White Christmas.  Turned out he wasn't, the name was in fact Alton, not Altman, and I lost interest.

But then I Googled Vera Ellen, given that Mom was always a major fan and it sort of rubbed off on me. I was electrified to read that the first husband of Vera Ellen was named Robert Hightower. It was also moderately interesting that her second husband was Victor Rothschild of the Jewish Banking Family Rothschild. Only moderately because I'm not related to the Rothschild's, so far as I know, chance would be a fine thing... I am, however, a Hightower, or rather my great-grandmother was. 

It is generally agreed amongst Hightower genealogists that all the Hightowers in the US descend from a Joshua Hightower who left England for the Virginia colony in the mid-1600's. I looked at people who were DNA matches for me and/or four other maternal cousins who are Hightowers. There were 300-some DNA matches who had the name Hightower in their family tree. I could trace - in a rough & ready sort of way using other people's family trees - them all back to Joshua. So I'm ready to claim any Hightower as a cousin (even if it is 11th Cousin or something silly). 

So who was this Robert Hightower who was married to Vera Ellen? I can show you a photo of him on his second marriage (to yet another dancer).  I'm still researching what I can document about his life and there are some rather sad stories (I've never claimed to have a 'normal' family). However, it seems that he also had a brother and a sister who were successful dancers, though not on the scale of Vera Ellen.  More about them later.

And then, looking for one Hightower dancer, I found yet another, one I should have known about as she was from Oklahoma. If you wish, you can watch Rosella Hightower dancing. I think she is absolute magic!

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


I found this photo I snapped on our last day in Basel last May. I think it was a big motivator for finding a dressmaking class. Although I like fairly plain clothing, there is something special about a hidden detail - the collar band or under collar, a pocket or coat lining - that can make a garment feel really special. None of the pieces I've made so far has been anything but straightforward, but I can see a day when I indulge myself.

We (re) watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them last night. If J.K. Rowling's imagination, Eddie Redmayne's perfect awkwardness or the spectacular creatures weren't enough, consider that the film is set in 1926 in New York and the clothes are to die for. I fell in love with the leather collar band on Newt Scamander's coat in practically the first scene and was captivated by the costumes ever after. I'm not the only one taken with that coat. 

There are entire Pinterest groups based on just figuring out how to make this coat. I'm not telling Bill I found a place where you can buy them in 'adult' men's sizes...

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Hardwood Cuttings

Another gardening workshop that both Bill and I attended at Greenwolds Plant Centre was about hardwood cuttings. I'd always heard about being able to take cuttings of some plants but wasn't sure how that worked.

Adam had taken a large number of cuttings from various bushes in their nursery in Blyth. With these he shows us the portion to take, pretty much the growth that took place in the last year. He showed us how to look at the different colours of the branch from the darker, dryer part near the root to the lighter colour towards the bendy part at the end, the softwood. He told us to cut straight across on the bottom of the cutting and on the diagonal at the top, so we'd always know which was the top end when planting. Another tip he gave us was to look for the nodes, sort of like joints, and to always include three.

He gave us tall pots (he had a name for them, but I've forgotten it) with compost in and had us push in our cuttings to where the middle node was just above soil level. That way, if the bottom node didn't take root, the middle one might. He said generally about 60% of cuttings will grow. His description of propagating his stock at the nursery made me think perhaps money does grow on trees. 

For a fiver each, Bill and I came away with about 10 sticks each, including at least two potential willows, buddleias, rose hips and climbing roses plus several other I didn't catch the names of. I've no idea where we'll put them all, but it seemed a great adventure on the day and it was fun to have Bill along for a change.

As advised, we've just left them in the back garden for the winter and then we shall see what happens in the spring!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Grandmother's Birthday

I was wondering what else I might say about my Grandmother, born this day in 1898. She lived to the age of 91. Having been to the GP yesterday for my five-year check up (the NHS doesn't do annual check-ups for my age group), I learned that my blood pressure is once again its usual nice low range and so I have renewed hopes... pending any further news in a few weeks when the blood work comes back.

Anyhow, it occurred to me I'd not looked up any historical information on Booneville, Arkansas (Logan County) so I went to my trusted source for such things, . If you don't know about this amazing website you should familiarise yourself with it. I've found endless biographical details of ancestors in Virginia and elsewhere. I've found great historical texts on homemaking. When last month's issue of Threads magazine recommended a couple of books on pattern making, I found one of them on and downloaded it - completely free - instead of paying anywhere from $24-104, the prices I found elsewhere on the internet. So, when this website asked for money, like I do with Wikipedia, I paid up. It's a valuable resource I'd like to see continued.

Sure enough there was a book online called Biographical and Historical Memoirs of Western Arkansas. I didn't find any family names listed there, but then I've only had a brief scan of the relevant chapter. I was very excited to read that the Logan County Courthouse had burned down. This is something my Grandmother mentioned a number of times, laughing that no one knew when she was born so she could tell anyone she was any old age at all! She didn't take into account that the Census records of 1900 would have her pegged down. 

However, the story in the book about the courthouse burning reports that it happened in 1874! She wasn't born until 1898. Then again, the book was published in 1891, so perhaps it burned again since publication? And now I'm going to go back and see if her family was even in Arkansas yet at the time of publication. Maybe I should look for a book on Tennessee...

Sunday, 3 December 2017

False Memoirs?

I see I visited the library last spring - no surprise there. However I took photos of a display about a group of books, with the title 'False memoirs? Decide for yourself'. I'd only heard of a couple of them, but was intrigued by the titles and the idea they might be questioned. The collection included:

The Girl with No Name, by Marina Chapman. This lady describes the experience of having been raised by monkeys. 

Papillion, by Henri Charriere. You may have seen the film, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. A surprising number of these potentially false books have been made into movies.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson. This is a man telling about building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Controversy follows. Sad that his co-author committed suicide.

Worlds Apart, by Azi Ahmed. Muslim girl trained to be a housewife joins the SAS instead. Not everyone agrees with her account of that experience.

In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Originally hailed as 'pioneering work in true crime genre', later there were some flaws uncovered.  

Sybil, by Flora Rheta Schreiber.   I remember the TV show starring Sally Field and I believe that many years ago I actually read the book. Turns out it was all a hoax.

Don't Ever Tell, by Kathy O'Beirne. About her experience of abuse at home and in Catholic institutions, and then being called a liar by family members. True or not true, it doesn't sound a very pleasant book to read. 

The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, by Dennis Avey. Did he or didn't he?

Go Tell Alice, by Beatrice Sparks as Anonymous. Published in 1971 as an actual diary of a teenager on drugs, it is now thought to be anti-drug propaganda by Sparks, a Morman youth counsellor. I totally missed this book as a teenager and have only discovered it now - 46 years late to the party...

The Long Walk, by Slavomir Rawicz. We're talking really long walk: 4000 miles from Siberia to India. Easy to dismiss as unfeasible but if he didn't, apparently it is thought someone did.

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey, by Blain Harden. So there are some inaccuracies. 

If these weren't enough I found this article which lists a few of them, plus others, including It's Not About the Bike, by that man I pretend never existed.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Update on Narcissus

The bulbs I planted a few weeks ago have come along nicely, though the grey, rainy background doesn't do them justice.  One of the tricks Fiona passed along is to use twigs from tree branches to support the long spindly stems. She suggested white birch, but since I only had copper beech, that is what I used. No ribbon or string required, just let the branches embrace the flower stem and it all seems quite natural. I'm loving what I learn at Greenwolds Plant Centre.