That’s Stella again, my great grandmother riding a motorbike. The photo reminded me that it’s important, if not vital, to get out of the house and do something wild, weird, or bizarre.

For the past two years I’ve been running on the fumes of Punchdrunk, the production company that created The Masque of the Red Death in 2007, an immersive theatre experience based on the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. At that time I was in dire need of refuelling. While in the middle of re-structuring my memoir, I was losing steam rather quickly; a leaky gas tank, if you will.

Punchdrunk transformed the entire premises of the Battersea Arts Centre, a five story Victorian building, formerly a Town Hall. Imagine roaming one of the largest buildings in your town or city after dark and recognizing nothing about it. Imagine being given a big white plastic mask, which you must wear at all times except in the Palais Royale, a music hall somewhere in the building that you must remember to find.

The hook-nosed masks that seventeenth-century medics thought would protect them from the Red Death inspired the creation of the masks.

Bloggers warned us to wear sturdy shoes and have an even sturdier heart because some experiences were genuinely frightening. And lastly, it was suggested that if you were prepared to investigate on your own, ditching those who went with you, it was then that the most interesting things happen to you. I ditched.

With all the advice I was still ill prepared for the evening. The white mask was surprisingly comfortable and offered anonymity. And I soon learned it distinguished the actors from the audience, helpful when one is immersed in a promenade production.

For three and a half hours I walked room-by-room, floor-by-floor. The mask made it slow going in the dark. I was forced to move my head in a different way and had little to no peripheral vision. The sound effects throughout the building were enveloping, my heart thumped to a world-weary sound I found impossible to describe. I felt I had walked into a nightmare in the mid nineteenth century.

I came upon a room where an unusually tall man dressed in a black cape and top hat dressed others in black capes. I stood in line to receive mine; he tied it just under my chin without a word. It was a strange, silent dance. For the rest of the evening, our capes rustled through rooms; we looked like blackbirds with white beaks.

I saw a man being buried alive in a wall. I walked though a fireplace. I climbed countless stairs to the attic in which a wooden platform crossed the eaves and led to a murderer’s bedroom and hideout. Hanging in the washroom were bloodstained clothes. I was the only person in the attic. I got out of there.

Four floors down in the basement was a well-stocked wine cellar and a coffin.

I picked up my pace and followed the stories of several different characters by running after them room to room. The opium den was very nice as opium dens go, a man smoked, and after which, fell into that deep sleep. A black cat, a real one, and I sat in a deserted parlour; I rested, fully expecting something to jump out at me. The fact that nothing did was probably the point. I witnessed the purchase of Victorian potions in a small apothecary; the characters stood so close to me that our arms touched. A man with a doctor’s bag rushed past, I ran after him to the bedside of the sickly and deranged Madeline, Usher’s beloved sister, as the doctor attended to her.

A character grabbed my arm in the crypt and looked straight into my eyes with an unspoken plea and anguish. I stumbled upon a dressing room of the characters that were playing actors in the performance at the Palais Royal, which I still had not found. A fight broke out. The closet in the room revealed a secret door to another room into which the quarrelling male characters disappeared, shutting the door in my face.

I found the Palais Royale, a music hall, complete with a stage, a bar, chairs and tables littered with white masks. I removed my mask, too. Several other faces were as astonished as mine, most of us were thirsty and ready to throw back much-needed drinks.

Our emcee appeared in his gender bending glory and a fetching tutu.

The emcee hopped off the stage, something he was wont to do, and sat on my lap. He stayed in character and told me I had the strongest thighs he’d ever known. I don’t blush easily, but blush I did.

We drank and watched the show in which one of the performers hanged himself. A group of characters burst in and told us we must put on our masks and leave the Palais Royale immediately. We were ushered out into a dining hall where a raucous dance scene around a dining table made us fear for our safety. A dancer landed on my foot.

Again we were pushed out with alarm and taken through halls and doors and finally into a grand ballroom. It was then and only then that we saw there were hundreds of audience members. We had passed through so many rooms and so many floors that it was impossible to calculate how many people were in the building until that moment. Frankly, I was so thoroughly absorbed that the thought of large numbers never entered my mind.

The grand finale unfolded in the ballroom where dancers commandeered the floor in dreamlike, yet frantic choreography. Just in case Punchdrunk takes to the road, crosses oceans, or somehow transports this incredible event to you, I will not spoil the ending.

After we sucked in the night air and found an open restaurant, my husband and our friend exchanged stories. Our three accounts were different. They experienced things I had not even seen. Two months later I went again with another friend before the show closed. I found rooms I’d not entered before, storylines I hadn’t followed the first time. I learned that other theatre groups were embedded in the main production, like the macabre puppet show into which my husband had been dragged. The dragger made a point of locking the door.

When I was very young an eccentric old woman befriended me. She introduced me to her favorite writer, Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve written about her in my memoir and I’m certain that my view of her became clearer after Punchdrunk brought Poe back to life.

It’s time again. I’ve received the call of the wild. A train ride to Dover, a walk along the white cliffs, one named after Shakespeare… if it’s good enough for him. Then I’ll enter the stomach of the cliffs, and descend into their bowels where secret tunnels have been carved out of the chalk. I’m expecting claustrophobia to be sure, crypt-like tunnels full of rooms. I’ll go in January when it’s cold and bleak, when I’m sure to be blown around by high winds at the edge of the cliffs where it’s wild and woolly, the Channel angry and brutal.

Inspiration. It comes in the strangest forms at the most opportune times. But only if you…

Get out of the house. Do something that scares you.


I’m sitting on the floor of John Keats’ parlour. In this small room he wrote, fell in love with Fanny Brawne, became ill and thought himself a failure. The fireplace that warmed the room is original to the house, as are the wooden shutters that flank the tall windows from which he ached for a sighting of Fanny in the front garden.

The house sits on the edge of everything, the edge of Hampstead High Street, the edge of the Heath, the edge of South End Green. When I first moved near Keats House it was closed for refurbishment. I made a regular pilgrimage to the street, hoping to find the gate open and even considered climbing over the fence. I wanted to see inside the house before the surgery was over and the facelift complete. A couple of times I got lucky, found an open gate and intruded upon the builders and restorers. They lounged on the grass in the back garden in their pristine white coveralls, white coats and white caps, eating fat sandwiches they then washed down with cups of tea. I asked if I might enter while they had their lunch. Certainly not. Could I walk around the grounds? Yes, but careful of the scaffolding.

What a holy mess. I put my nose against one of the windows and it was clear why they wouldn’t let me in. I slipped away from the workers and found the front door open.

After a four-year restoration Keats House is open to the public. I continued to walk by and decided to give it a couple of weeks to avoid the first crowds. And here I am now, the only person in the entire three-story house, except for the gentle lady who took my £5.00.

Everything smells new. The paint is fresh; the Regency patterned wallpaper is clean and smooth. The colors, mostly muted, are soft and calming. In 1818 when Keats moved in, the house was only three years old and considered to be very modern. The wonder of wall-to-wall carpeting had just been introduced. I expected wood floors and Orientals throughout. Instead, I sit on a pattern of red and gold swirls in keeping with the painting that hangs above the fireplace depicting Keats sitting in this room with such a carpet underfoot. Today, the sun streams through and lands on the spot where he propped himself up by leaning over a chair while sitting in another. It appears to be an uncomfortable way to read.

Truthfully, it is Fanny Brawne’s presence that is most keenly felt in this house.

The Brawne family and Keats lived separately in this house, which at the time was two attached houses. They fell in love through their common walls. The engagement ring Keats gave Fanny is displayed in a wood and glass case alongside her soft leather needle case, a sewing box, a wide hair ribbon and delicate bracelets. Strands of Keats’s hair make up the strings in a lyre brooch. Fanny’s fashion plate book, in which she kept cuttings of fashions of the time, was not a whimsy, nor were the sewing utensils mere symbols of feminine chores. In today’s world she might have been a fashion designer.

I wander upstairs. On the landing I am astonished to see three headless mannequins draped with costumes from the movie Bright Star, Jane Campion’s brilliant movie set entirely during the period Keats lived in this house. I almost touch them; I want to very badly, but having worked in a museum at one time, I know better. Fanny’s dresses are wisps of floaty white linen, one further enhanced with a striking cherry red, short knitted jacket. Keats’s deep blue-green linen jacket and tan stirrup britches are as slender and petite as the dresses.

It’s quiet. I move to Fanny’s bedroom where the walls are covered in putty colored wallpaper in a playful design. The carpet is woven with green leafed twigs; it suggests the view from her window. The room is small like all the others, like his.

Upon entering his bedroom, on the same floor, I'm immediately drawn to the copy of his death mask; the sculpted head sits atop a stand that brings the mask to his full height – five feet, one inch. I sit on the floor next to the high tester bed mindful of the flash of the camera’s red light. No one has yet come to tell me I shouldn’t sit. They must see my pen and notebook. It’s close in this room. I feel a little claustrophobic.

I make my way down two flights to the lower level where the air is cooler. The floor is made of stone in the Brawne kitchen. A lantern hangs on the side of the fireplace. It’s sparsely furnished with the exception of one gigantic cupboard and sideboard combination.

Soon this house will be flooded with people. The film opens on November 6 and they’re expecting large numbers to flock to Keats Grove. I am told the production team thought the house too dull, the rooms too small and the setting too urbane to properly depict the setting as it was, thereby abandoning any idea of shooting here. That was before the transformation.

I wonder what Keats would make of all this. His most famous works were written in this less than spectacular house in what was then just a small village north of London. His critics were harsh and contributed to his opinion that he would most definitely die a failure. Think of that. I’ve heard a few people say that we shouldn’t use the word ‘try’, that we either do some thing, or we don’t, that there is no trying. I think we could do without the word ‘failure’, because as long as we try, we are not failing. Even after death.

I walk the Heath almost every Friday. In the heart of London, it’s still an amazingly wild, expansive piece of land where one is easily lost in its woods. But I will never walk it again without thinking of Fanny Brawne, who donned the severity of a black mourning costume when her fiancĂ© died, and roamed the Heath frequently for over three years, her figure like a blackbird in the woods.

Years later Fanny married a Mr. Lindon. When they were of age, she confided in her three children and showed them her love letters from Keats, She made them promise to never reveal to their father that she had been previously engaged. After their parent's death, in a controversial act of profiteering, the children, led by Herbert Lindon, sold the letters at auction. It is to Fanny and her children we owe the story of Keats House.


I witnessed a crime from my kitchen window last Sunday morning. Stirring around the kitchen sleepy-eyed, I made coffee while I habitually looked out the window. We live on a leafy street in northwest London, a good street in a good neighborhood. Sunday mornings are the only time the street is devoid of traffic noise. Our one-way system doesn’t stem the flow of pizza delivery motorbikes, child carrying vans, lumber toting trucks, Porsches from our banker contingent and the odd Prius and G-Whizes, although they’re well-behaved and don’t drive us mad.

Thieves are also aware of our sacred morning of silence. The man I saw was blatantly without disguise, his face naked for me to see and remember, which I do. He was tall, dark haired, olive-skinned and wore a beard. His beard was not closely cut, yet didn’t conjure images of Walt Whitman either. It was a Mama Bear beard, right in the middle. The criminal was nicely dressed including a leather jacket, which is why when I first saw him try to break into the private gardens that are entered between the houses, I thought maybe he was lost, or a new resident; although, my instincts told me otherwise, told me I should watch him.

Then, in the broad daylight at 8:30 in the morning he broke into a car. I saw him fiddle with the lock, open the hatchback and rummage around. I raised the window noisily and stuck half my torso out the window. He heard me at once because our windows creak like an old lady’s bones and the sound carries half way around the world. Maybe you’ve heard our windows.

He looked up at me and took his time about moving away from the car.

“What?” He said.

I said nothing.

“What. What can I do for you?”

I remained silent.

“What. Let me see.” He pointed at our house. “Okay. I’ve got your house number. I know where you live. I’ll be back.”

Quite astonishingly he slowly walked away while he continued to threaten me.

“I know where you live. I’ll be back, I’ll be back.”

After I lost sight of him I thought of calling the police and I bemoaned the fact that my phone was upstairs and that I didn’t snap a photo of him. I threw on some clothes and wrote a note to the owner of the car, then ran across the street and placed the note under the wiper.

I never heard from the owner of the car.

Sunday will roll around again before I know it. What would Jimmy Stewart do?


“August is not my favorite time of year. My father was buried in August; the sun was very bright and it was humid and steaming hot. It was so hot that I refused to wear black.”

Those sentences are drawn from my memoir about growing up in a funeral home with my charismatic mortician of a father. Every year when the anniversary of his death descends on me I always forget that Elvis died a week later that same year – 1977. I liked Elvis very much, but I loved my father and he was the true sovereign of my life. So while the earth that covered his fifty-two years was still moist and fresh, I heard that Elvis, a young king in his own right, had died in the bathroom of Graceland. I felt nothing, numb from the previous week’s events.

There were similarities between the two. My father was a bit flash. He loved good quality fabrics and expertly tailored clothes and daringly branded himself in them; he wore his suits with an unusual flair and talent, especially for an undertaker. When Elvis wasn’t slinging around his god-awful costumes, he was pretty sharp, too. My father’s quiff, disturbed forever by a distinguished balding, at one time rivalled Elvis’s jet black head.

Elvis and my father were Southern boys and possessed a distinct gift with women that can be found nowhere else in quite the same way. The flaw that marked them both hurt their wives, two women who wrestled with their adoring love for these rogues and a constant need to re-evaluate their marriages.

Some wicked little thing was born while they were in service to their country, my father in World War II and Elvis in Germany in 1958; it dogged them for the rest of their lives. My father, cold and hungry, trembled in a trench and dodged his buddies’ body parts as they flew past him and thus took his first drink from another soldier’s bottle. A sergeant introduced Elvis to amphetamines when they were on manoeuvres and we all know how that ended.

A friend said that she always felt August was the true end of the year. It was for Elvis, it was for my father.

At some point in September a sharp air arrives and I wake up, relieved that the dull ache of August is over.


When my eyes are weeds,

And my lips are petals, spinning

Down the wind that has beginning

Where the crumpled beeches start

In a fringe of salty reeds;

When my arms are elder-bushes,

And the rangy lilac pushes

Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!

Light your tinsel moon, and call on

Your performing stars to fall on

Headlong through your paper sky;

Nevermore shall I be cursed

By a flushed and amorous slattern,

With her dusty laces' pattern

Trailing, as she straggles by.

Dorothy Parker


My husband was once in the fashion business; he designed and sold clothes from his shop in London’s West End where he hosted many luminaries in the worlds of politics, entertainment, advertising, and so on. Although its outreach is global, the fashion business is a small town. Twice a year one tends to see the same people in Milan, Florence, Paris, Berlin, and London. They take the same airline, stay in the same hotels, eat in the same restaurants and find time to shop in the same stores when they’re not scurrying around to appointments.

My husband never did that. After his buying appointments, or after a big show, he drifted to out-of-the-way cafes in less desirable areas of town. You haven’t lived until you’ve lined up at the Hare Krishna cafeteria in Milan, or discovered the only vegetarian restaurant in Florence. A museum was more inspirational to him than the newest club or bar. And he usually shopped for antiques or furniture rather than spend moments of stolen time off in a clothing store, the pastime for the fashionista. He grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the Marais before anyone else would be seen dead there. At first my head turned towards the glitz and glamour of St. Germaine, but I soon began to look forward to the unusual.

The first time I went with him to Florence he forgot to warn me about the cobblestones and the long hours of standing and walking. I almost crippled myself wearing the wrong shoes. He also forgot to tell me that smoking was allowed in all of the buildings, offices and showrooms and that I would reek of it for a week. I came near to passing out from dehydration for lack of water and fresh air. The water was my fault.

Dog-tired at the end of a crazily packed day, there was nothing more exquisite than to sit at a table in a noisy but baronial restaurant with the fine aroma of juicy grilled portabella mushrooms served by career waiters who seemed to have nothing else on their minds other than their desire to see us beautifully fed. I held back from plopping my entire face into a bowl of lemon infused pasta made by the hands of an Italian mamma. To then further indulge in a plate of profiteroles smothered in chocolate sauce so delicious that I still remember the first bite, well… damn.

However, the habits of eating and sleeping came a lowly second to the rituals of clothes designing, buying appointments and the planning of a new season. The clothes my husband designed and sold were not cheap. But ten, twenty years ago more people could afford better quality clothes. And clothes were designed to be perennial. The new coat would pass fashion muster for more than one season. Labels were discreet. People desired to express their personality and weren’t swallowed up into a large corporate brand.

After he left the business to strike new stakes, there have been times when I have sorely missed those days of high fashion and the pleasure of the touch of hundreds of the finest fabrics. To have such luxury at one’s fingertips is a privilege. One of those nostalgic moments hit me solidly in the face when I found myself in Primark. I swore a private oath that I would never give in and step across the threshold. But I did. How do they do it? How can they sell clothes so cheaply? I bought a sweater for £3.97. I don’t think I’ll do that again. Surely and sadly there must be child slaves sewing away in some god-forsaken warehouse. Where is the Jamie Oliver of the rag trade? I don’t mean to single out Primark. There are plenty of wholesalers and retailers who sell their souls for a buck, a pound, a Euro.

So as this unexpected wave of nostalgia washes over me I give you circa 1820 drawings taken from a private collection. Unfortunately, not mine.


One doesn’t much think of anything particularly exciting going on in Holborn, and with good reason. Holborn is the “small town” of lawyer-ville, a solicitor’s haven, if you will. Men and women carry black leather box-like briefcases. Assistants roll flight bags behind them and women wear sturdy shoes and clothes that make them unhappy. The Royal Courts of Justice live in Holborn and have done since 1882. Quaint streets are hard to find and the pubs and nightspots have serious names like The Knights Templar.

But there is a small plaza in the center of it all, an unlikely location for a very nice little hair salon where I go to touch up the roots with K. who survived a three-week tour of Mexico oblivious to the panic that surrounded her. She thought that for some reason everyone wore masks in Mexico, quite like the Japanese when they have colds.

I can’t read without my glasses and I can’t wear glasses in the salon or they’d look like a room full of infants had dragged them through brown paint. So I try to write. I’ve read that many writers can work anywhere. I can’t. I need a semblance of calm and most of the time the slightest whimper can blow my concentration to smithereens. And it is for this reason that I spend about a half an hour eavesdropping; although the falderal that takes place is so loud I can hardly be accused of being a nosy Parker.

A middle-aged woman bursts into the salon with a teenage girl trailing her.

“This is Lucy" (not her real name). She booms. “She’s just won a BIG talent competition and she’s going to be a BIG STAR. She’s down to London to record tomorrow and we want to make her look really, really rock and roll. We want her to look edgy, really trendy, and really rock.

K. smiles and nods, “Okay.” And then wisely asks if she has something particular in mind.

Oh yes. Oh yes.

The lady, who seems to be Lucy’s advisor, friend and expert, gets her arms and hands going and says extremely loudly, “I’m thinking purple tips. You know, put some layers in there, tip them with red or purple, you know, very rock and roll.” As if we needed reminding. “Yes, I think purple, yes purple.” Lucy, who looks very sweet, but not very rock and certainly not very roll, has not said a word. She’s very short and petite, and I’m wondering how long ago she gave up dolls.

K. nods again with a forced smile and I think is struggling with the idea of ruining Lucy’s gorgeous waist length, thick brown hair.

Next up, the stylist. He arrives quietly at Lucy’s side, makes mirror eye contact with her, says hello and asks, “So what are we doing today?”

The lady, horrified, says, “Oh! You haven’t been briefed?" He says, no.

“Lucy has just won a huge talent competition and she’s going to be a very BIG STAR …” Word for word she goes through it again – we all do.

The stylist gets the picture and goes away to leave K. to begin the process of livening up poor old Lucy’s dull hair, which of course is not dull at all. Meanwhile, the lady pulls out a bottle of makeup remover and cotton pads from her bag. She begins to dab at Lucy’s eyes until they’re smeared with the last traces of her mascara. Finally, after three dabs Lucy is without. I wonder if this was pre-planned. I carry a lot of things in my bag, but never a bottle of eye makeup remover.

“Promise me something Lucy.” The lady pleads confidentially.

“Okay,” Lucy speaks.

“No, really. Really promise me something.”


“Promise me that you will never, ever wear black eyeliner ever again for the rest of your life.”


“You’re going to be a BIG STAR. You have beautiful eyes and you don’t need black eyeliner.”

In comes lady number two with a camcorder.

Lady number one: “Okay Lucy we just want you to do a short piece about how you’re here at the salon and you don’t know what’s going to happen and you’re really scared. Ready? Go.”

Lucy: “So here I am at the salon with K. and I don’t know what she’s going to do to me and I’m really scared.”

And then - can you believe it - I have to have my hair washed.

Back at my station I hear lady number one say, “This is going to be very rock, very rock,”

In a small, soft voice that I think must turn into something unrecognizable when she sings, Lucy says, “But I’m singing pop songs tomorrow, not rock. I don’t sing rock.”

I’m always in such a hurry to get out of the salon, but not today, a day when I am desperate to see the purple tips, the layers and the pale eyes of Lucy, the young girl approaching BIG STARDOM. I’m done, blown dry as a bone, a dab of shiny product rubbed on to finish and I can’t think of one good excuse to continue to sit in their company without appearing to be the eavesdropper that I am.



It’s been the worst week for modern British politics, and for many of us, maddening.  Forget the expenses debacle, although how could we.  It’s those two seats won by the British National Party that deeply worries me.  There goes that trip to Yorkshire this winter.  All other parties have condemned the vote and the BNP, but there exists an anger and dissent that runs so deeply in the UK that those who feel disenfranchised have lashed out with their vote.

We’re told that many who voted for the far, far right aren’t aware of the bigoted and racist past, present and future of their new party.  Their representatives have disguised themselves in a dangerous cloak of rhetoric regarding their genuine care and protectiveness of the British people.  Good god, they even spout that they’re not racists.  They represent themselves falsely.  Their additional mission’s bulls eye is immigration.  I’m an immigrant.  Should I take this personally even though I’m a white American and not the brown and black skin they normally target?  Do they mean to target me as well?

And what a blow to those veterans who walked and wheeled themselves to Normandy again, sixty-five years later, only to be slapped in the face with the victories of the same sort they fought so bravely against.  Is the irony lost?

The leader of the BNP received eggs in the face today outside Parliament, but somehow that doesn’t make me feel any better.  A small little town, a village of unwieldy bigotry is growing here.



The Expert at the Card Table

He looks like Hugh Grant except everything about the conjurer is longer; his face, his limbs, and these days, his hair.  His name is Guy and he’s a full time barrister who moonlights as a card sharp.  There’s something to say about that, but I’ll leave it to his clients. 

He walked onto the stage in white tie and tails, the Full Monty, as it were. By the way, did you know that the Full Monty is not about taking your clothes off, but putting them on?   In the early 1900’s a three-piece suit tailored by Sir Montague Burton, creator of the largest menswear manufacturing business in the world at the time, was known as the Full Monty, and customers asked for the Full Monty by name.

Guy said something about being overdressed as he removed his jacket, hung it on the old fashioned coat rack and then reached for a book that lay on a Victorian card table.  This book has been in publication since 1902 and is the grande dame of all books about card manipulation, also known as cheating.  

Guy’s slight of hand was interwoven within a narrative about a card sharp in the early 1900’s who because of his cheating ways was responsible for the death of an opponent who committed suicide when he lost the shirt off his back and everything else.  Guy isn’t an actor but I found myself more involved in the story than in the tricks, maybe due to Neil Patrick Harris’ direction.  Yes, Doogie directs, it was his first.  This directing debut took place at the Mernier Chocolate Factory in Shakespearean Southwark, our old stomping grounds.

The Chocolate Factory houses a full restaurant, a theatre and an art gallery. 

A small, but important note here about the absence of chocolate at the Chocolate Factory.  We had dinner before the show and there was not one sliver of chocolate to be found - not even on the dessert menu.  Good lord.

I admit that I’m not too impressed with card tricks, but my husband loves them.  I appreciated that a large flat screen TV, previously hidden on a black draped wall above Guy’s head, came to life.  It ruined the Victorian atmosphere, for suddenly we felt like we were the audience members of the gambling channel being treated to an intimate look at Guy’s incredibly long fingers as he did the deed.  

The narrative was compelling in that tale of trickery, deceit and death kind-of-way and he told it seamlessly while he used audience members to prove he was the real deal.  Couldn’t resist that.  Guy’s best trick was The Reformation in which a card was torn into quarters and restored in front of our very eyes.  Great, but… WHERE’S THE CHOCOLATE?