Sunday, 23 February 2014


Suddenly, without warning on Saturday night about 9:45, our electricity went out. I was in bed and Spiderman was washing up the last of the dishes before packing his gear for his early start to his volunteer job at the zoo when it happened.

On my end it looked as if Spiderman turned off the hall light to come to bed and then remembered something left undone and flicked it back on again only to decide, “Sod it! I‘ll do it in the morning!” and flicked it off again. On his end he says the kitchen light strained itself to brightness before fading out and dying as if that last burst of energy was all it could muster.


It was dark. Very dark. We called out to each other and once assured we were both alright began the task of finding light.


We have a torch, but no batteries. My father, ever ready with a working flashlight, would have been rolling over in his grave at our carelessness. Some discussion in the inky darkness led to remembering there was a fat candle and some matches left over from Christmas in a drawer. But which one? Eventually the candle was found and lit and a ghostly spectre glided down the hallway. Spiderman found the stool and stood upon it, lifted the Bayberry candle as it wafted out its faint perfume, and checked the fuse box.


No switch was flipped. He took a clue from the IT Crowd and tried turning it off and on again, but to no avail.   We did not know what to do and even one candle could not light the darkness enough to make a decision. The best decision was to sleep on it and hope it would right itself in the night.


This is not an unheard of plan, recently we discovered  that we must have had a power outage as the timer on the boiler was off. Our heat is set to come on in cycles throughout the day and night. Only when we noticed that the heat was coming on at strange times did we check the boiler and notice the evidence of a power outage. That righted itself, surely this would as well?


I slept fitfully in the night, waking up at intervals cold and in complete darkness--the warm, friendly glowing face of our bedroom clock was invisible. In the morning, it was clear that the power had not righted itself and we were still in the dark.


And the cold. Our heat and hot water and all appliances all run on electrics. So no heat mats for the spiders, no hot bath for me. No kettle boiled for Spiderman’s tea. Nothing.


In the early morning light--which was shockingly dim, we re-lit the Christmas candle and tried to figure out who to phone. Back in Louisiana we used to just phone CLECO. But we never had to report it here. Our energy provider is not local, they are a great energy company that provides 100% renewable green energy and no nuclear, but they ain’t from around these here parts. (As they say in one of the many Spaghetti Westerns I watched with my dad when I was growing up).

Eventually Spiderman got through and we were assured someone would be here within the next twenty hours. TWENTY HOURS! It sounded like an eternity.

I decided to try to wash my hair using only cold water which had me gasping and swearing at its briskness, but my hair turned out rather lovely and shiny--but this is not an experience I wish to repeat any time soon. However, Spiderman’s impression of me saying AHHYEEEEE! (it’s freezing!) followed by OOOooooOOOO (don’t I look purdy?)  had me in stitches.


In more ways than one. We were without power and I felt powerless to do anything. What else could we do but wait it out?  Patience is not my middle name, for a very good reason.

I had to go to Meeting for Worship as I have responsibilities there. Someone had to stay home and wait for the help to arrive. I was in a foul mood, full of anxiety and a million worries. I felt cold inside and out. I had planned to go late and just do my bit at the end and then come home. We were having a special lunch discussion today and I had longed to go to it, but the sense of powerlessness had frozen my heart and I could find no joy in it.

Go, Spiderman said. Go and stay if you want. Go and have fun. Go and feel better. Go and come home to me when you are ready.

So I did.

For the first 45 minutes of Meeting for Worship I felt as thought there was an icy hand squeezing my heart. This is what a panic attack feels like for me. I could not shake the feeling.
What if the spiders die because it is too cold?

What if all the food in the fridge and freezer go bad?

What if the repairman doesn’t come? (that has happened before after hours of waiting)

What if he does come at 4am? (they warned us he might)

  What if he needs to get in to read the meter in the middle of the night? (our meter is in a locked cupboard downstairs to which we do not have the key)


Every thought kept whizzing around in my head. I managed to analyse each one and think of how I would cope with it. Slowly, my heart stop hurting and the fear was leaving me. I did not feel powerful, but I no longer felt powerless. 


The feeling finally left in its entirety when I was able to stop obsessing about myself and started thinking of all those people in the UK who have suffered flood damage. They’ve got no power just like we don‘t and theirs has been out a lot longer than ours. . But the real difference is, at the end of it, they don’t have a home to go to anymore. And we do.


This is just an annoying issue to deal with, not a life or death situation. Not even for the spiders. It’s just not that cold and we can wrap their tanks with blankets if we are concerned. Suddenly I felt very powerful. I knew I could not be in control of the situation, but I could control how I dealt with it.  

I ended up staying for the lunch discussion and came away feeling warm and spiritually rejuvenated. I had many offers of help from the practical (take home this thermos full of hot water) to the unbelievably kind (you can board your tarantulas in our spare room if you are worried) but in the end, it wasn’t needed.

When I got home at 1:30, the house was warm and full of light. The repairman had come, fixed things and left. A second repairman had even come and left. The spiders were fine. Everything in the freezer was still frozen solid so that gives me hope. I only felt a few things needed to be gotten rid of the fridge (I just couldn’t be sure about the yoghurt) but the rest was fine.

While my heart was un-knotting itself, help was here and the problem was being solved. I was no longer powerless in every sense of the word.

We had light and heat and power.

I gained a better understanding of how to deal with difficult situations.


Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Same (Belgian) Time, Same (Belgian) Channel

I’ve just been reading a wonderful autobiography by actor David Suchet about his portrayal of the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot created by Agatha Christie called Poirot and Me. It is a loving account of the 25 years he spent inhabiting that character and is full of method acting anecdotes as well as descriptions of every Poirot episode ever filmed—which totalled 70 in the end.


But the thing that made me jump up and down and run around the room in a circle clutching the book to my chest was this. In 1990 he and his wife and children lived in Pinner.



Have your little grey cells worked it out yet?

In 1990, Spiderman and I were part of the LC/MC exchange student programme where we spent 3 months living and going to school in London. This programme opened our eyes to the wider world and once they were opened we could never look back. We got engaged on that trip and were married two years later and vowed that we would somehow, someway return to our beloved England.

And we did.

Alright, you murmur. That’s the 1990 part sorted but what has this to do with Pinner? Didn’t you just say you lived in London?

Just wait, mon ami, and all will be made clear.

We did a month homestay on the trip and Spiderman and I lived in Pinner a few streets away from each other. We knew Pinner had some famous residents:

Mrs Beeton and her husband were living in Pinner when Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management was published.

Sir Elton John was born in Pinner and grew up there. We actually sent him a large poster sized pen and ink drawing of Pinner High Street that he kindly autographed for us.

Simon LeBon of Duran Duran grew up there as well and attended the local Grammar school.

But in 1990, David Suchet and his wife and young children were living in Pinner! We were there, living in the same town as Hercule Poirot and we didn’t even know it!


Did we ever see him in 1990? At the supermarket? Hanging around the Woolworths? The park? Spiderman believes we definitely walked down Church lane where his house was at least once.

Spiderman also thinks we probably didn’t see him as he was busy filming Poirot. But I like that we were somehow entwined.

After all, David Suchet began playing Poirot in 1989 and Spiderman and I had our first date in 1989.

David Suchet was living in Pinner in 1990 and so were we.

David Suchet portrayed Hercule Poirot for twenty-five years and Spiderman and I have been a team for a quarter of a century.

So, mes amis—au revoir and merci.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Life Below Stairs

One of the things I like to do is to research a period in history and write a monologue and perform it for the children in my school to tie into their history topics. This is the perfect opportunity for a gobby show-off like myself to use my talents. I have a BA in theatre and I enjoy creating a character, designing costumes and making props and acting. The children really enjoy it as it makes history come alive and the teachers enjoy it because I can teach the whole of the lesson for them and they get some quality writing out of it. I perform the monologues (which run between 25-35 minutes) and then follow with a Q&A with me in character and then a talk by me about my research. The lesson can take a whole hour.

I now have a dramatic monologue complete with costume and props for all year groups. For year three--I am Rose Peppercorn, an eleven year old evacuee during WWII (Britain since the 1940s), for year four I am Boudicca, Celtic warrior Queen (Romans and the Celts), for year five I am Anne Boleyn (The Tudors) and for year six I am Flora Spencer, thirteen year old housemaid to the Greenwood family (The Victorians).


Yesterday I performed as Flora and I have to say it went better than my wildest dreams. This is the one with the most complicated set as I had to have a full bedroom set up--with a bed (actually a padded bench), an ornate wooden chair, a table with books, a nightstand with decorative china ornaments (bought for 50p each from various charity shops) and a small wooden trunk. There were loads of props as well.

Here’s Flora with her bucket and scrub brush. I actually had to scrub the stage on my hands and knees for at least a page of dialogue.

Here’s Flora emptying a chamber pot.  One of her least favourite tasks.

Many of the monologues require me only to pace around a bit or sit in a chair and occasionally pick up a prop and do something with it (Rose does some knitting and Boudicca threatens people with weapons quite a lot) but this one contains considerably more action as she must be seen to be working the whole time she is talking. So during the 35 minutes I am seen to make a bed, empty the slops, polish boots, sweep the floor, scrub the floor and dust.

It also differs from the other monologues as it breaks the fourth wall and I talk directly to the audience, pretending they are there keeping me company whilst I clean, but having them hide when the head housekeeper Mrs Hughes comes in to scrutinise my work.

I tried to make it a mix of historical truths about life below stairs (maids often slept in the attic and were not allowed personal possessions, that days were incredibly long for housemaids--18 hours a day was not uncommon, that being from the workhouse often meant you were paid less and treated harsher as if you were less of a person etc) but also to show how the cleaning would have been done (scrubbing floors on your knees using cold water--Mrs Beeton, who in 1861 published Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management recommended “cold soft water, a clean scrub brush and a willing arm” as the ingredients for a clean floor). I also wanted to tell her own history so as she cleans she tells the story of her mother who had been a flower seller in Covent Garden until she started coughing up blood and died. How Flora, aged ten, could not work due to taking care of her little two year old brother and ended up in the workhouse--where they were separated by sex and she never saw him again, despite his tender age. That her attempt to contact the workhouse and ask to see him were met with a letter that detailed his death in the most gruesome of circumstances--he burned to death getting too close to an open flame in a fireplace.

I chose this because through my research I discovered that one of the leading cause of accidental death of children under the age of five at this period in history was burning to death.  Some of it was the poor families often had no fireguards to protect you from the open flame but it was also due to the development of cheap flannelette fabric. It was very warm against the skin and exceedingly cheap to buy and was favoured by many poor households, but was also extremely  flammable. It also had the unfortunate property of melting onto the skin so if you were set alight wearing it, you died an agonising death with the fabric seared into your flesh. This is the fate of her brother. I set my story in 1872, but it wasn’t until 1908 that laws were passed about fireguards and non-flammable fabric was introduced.

She spends much of the monologue reminding the audience to stay quiet and not be seen because she cannot afford to lose her position, even if that position is not a happy one (she is paid half of what the other maid is paid due to coming from the workhouse).It ends on a tragic note for Flora, where momentarily distracted by hunger she carelessly drops a small china figurine while dusting. She offers to pay for it out of her wages and begs the Mistress to please have mercy on her and not send her back to the workhouse, but to no avail.  It ends with her going to pack her bags, leaving without a character reference.

This was the first time I had attempted it with the actual breaking of the china ornament. When it tumbled out of my hand the whole audience gasped! Seeing it really broken certainly made it very real for me and I cried real tears as she tried in vain to put it back together again before pleading with the Mistress. A small unfortunate side effect of breaking something was that I accidentally cut myself ever so slightly. I didn’t feel it but as I came out for the curtain call noticed there was a spray of rusty droplets on my white apron and I opened my palm to reveal a small drop of blood and so had to get first aid before the Q&A. Alas, one has to suffer for one’s art, luvvy. A quick glance at Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management revealed that a soak in cold salty water would remove bloodstains.

The best bit was afterwards, seeing the reactions of the children who were completely mesmerised throughout the performance. Even the naughty ones sat transfixed and at the end the naughtiest boy of all came up and asked to help me tidy the stage which I found extremely touching.  We had a full fifteen minutes of questions for me as Flora and it could have gone longer, but we ran out of time. The  main question was--What happened to you? Did you go back to the workhouse? So in case you wanted to know the fate of our heroine Flora let me warn you that it is a sad one. She tried to find work but no household would take her on with a character (a letter of recommendation). She tried to be  flower seller like her mother, but in February the flower trade was poor. She decided that if by the end of the week she had not found work she would go back to the dreaded workhouse. She didn’t make it. She was found frozen to death in a doorway. 1872 was a particularly bad winter and eleven other homeless people froze to death that night as well. It made the papers and Mister Greenwood, her former master (who believed it was better for a girl to work as a maid than in a factory because factory girls worked fourteen hours a day, not comprehending that housemaids worked up to eighteen hours a day) read it in the paper, but didn’t even realise that Flora was among the dead.

So no Charles Dickens happy ending, with rags to riches for her. But that is what life was like for those in the precarious position of being poor.

Poor Flora. But at least the children will never forget.

Neither will I.

I could not have created the character without copious amounts of research help from the Amazing Spiderman  He found me books about life in the workhouse and books about the working poor. He even located a copy of  Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management  and read pertinent parts aloud to me in a posh lady’s voice. Thank you Spiderman, for making this period come alive for me and keeping me in fits of laughter to keep me from crying at Flora’s tragic fate.






Friday, 14 February 2014

I know what you ate last Wednesday

*note* I wrote this in advance of Wednesday and then completely forgot to post it Wednesday or Thursday. Silly Spidergrrl. But if we are going to actually have What We Ate Wednesday posts then I need to get more organized. Just saying.

This tofu dish really hit the spot. Freezing water packed tofu and then defrosting it means it changes texture and becomes spongier and is easier to squeeze the excess water out so that more marinade can go in. Lovely jubley. I also marinated the tofu for 24 hours which really made a difference. 

The recipe is based on the Citrus Tahini Bowl  from my new favourite cookbook Isa Does It  by the amazing and super cool Isa Chandra Moskowitz. She suggested serving it with quinoa and steamed bok choy and fresh orange segments.

Problem one-we don’t have any bok choy and even if we did, we don’t like it terribly much. But we did have some baby spinach so we decided to use that in a salad-y format.

Problem two: I have never been able to do that thing where you peel an orange and then cut around the curve of the orange and take off the pith. My late mother- in- law was a whiz at it, mine just end up squished and horrible and look like they’ve been through the garbage disposal. Problem solved by using some tinned mandarin oranges which were a favourite from my childhood.

Our version of Isa’s Citrus Tahini Bowl

 To marinate the tofu--freeze overnight, defrost overnight in fridge then gently press all the water out and cut into triangles.



½ cup orange juice (I used the juice that came in the mandarin orange tin)

3 TB lime juice

1 TB Lingham’s chilli garlic sauce

1TB agave syrup

2 tsp toasted sesame oil

3 large cloves garlic cut into big chunks

Thumb size piece of gingerroot cut into big chunks

1 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

Marinate over night. Lots of overnights, I know. Just do it.

In the oven roast 1 cubed sweet potato, 1 chopped onion and 1 red pepper in 1 TB oil at 200C/400F for 30 minutes, stir half way.

 Cook quinoa in a pot while you pan fry the drained tofu until browned on both sides. RESERVE THE MARINADE! And then add the marinade to the blender with ¼ cup tahini and blend until creamy. This is what looks like gravy in the photo but was actually a lovely creamy, tangy, zesty dressing.

Serve the pan fried tofu with quinoa, roasted veg and a spinach salad topped with mandarin oranges. Drizzle the citrus tahini sauce liberally and say YUM!

The good thing about tofu is that you can reuse the marinade without the fear of e-coli bacteria like you have to worry about with chicken.

Now go and make it yourself!

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Amontillado the Upcycled bookshelves

Despite our vow of simplicity and giving away 365 unwanted items last year we seem to be in dire need of bookshelves. How does this happen? Probably because books are a close second to art when it comes to possessions that feed the soul. But we are also chronically short of cash and don’t feel right about buying something cheap made of plastic just because we need more shelf space.

Sometimes in this life it just takes the guts to ask. You might be told NO, but you don’t know until you ask.

I saw these wooden wine boxes at school in the basement. They were lovely, unfinished wood with interesting names of the types of wines burned into the sides. But what were they doing in the basement? A quick word with our caretaker Steve (the only person at my school to have more tattoos than me) told me they were earmarked for the skip. That’s the dumpster to all my American peeps. You can’t keep flammable wooden boxes in the boiler room, can you? Health and safety and all that jazz. So I asked our head teacher if we could have them instead of Steve destroying them  He said yes and Spiderman was round there the next day to help me carry 7 lovely wooden wine boxes back home.


The six that were the same size we stacked to make a cracking set of shelves.

Aren’t they gorgeous?


The one slightly larger one I turned into a box for organising my music stuff. So Tallulah, my sheet music and instruction book on how to play the ukulele are all together in a neat place, not lying on the floor.


If you look carefully in the last picture you can see my hat shaped like a giant piece of poo. Because everyone needs a poo shaped hat. It’s so I can dress up like the Little Mole.

But how did you come up with the name, Spidergrrl? I hear you cry. It was the Amazing Spiderman who thought it up. We were standing in the checkout queue at Waitrose discussing names. I was musing as we stood by the wine display maybe we should call it something like Pinot grigot when Spiderman said, For the love of God, Montresor! And I laughed and replied, Yes, for the love of God.


If you do not catch that literary reference, please do not trouble yourself. It is from the short story by Edgar Allan Poe called The Cask of Amontillado where one man lures another to the catacombs on the promise of some fine amontillado stored down below and then walls him up alive in there. Hence the pleading at the end.


Before you launch into me and say that amontillado is technically a sherry, we knew that. But it is alcohol nonetheless and literary alcohol at that. What other name would befit bookshelves made from discarded wine boxes?


So Amontillado is the name of the new shelves. You have to name your shelves so you know where to search. Is it on Ozma? Lizzie? Mama bear? Papa bear? Baby bear? How can you give someone directions on where to find a book without getting off your lazy arse on the sofa if shelves don’t have names?