Tag Archives: Dennis Severs

Getting Literary

Some projects I’ve been involved with have blossomed over the summer.  Some have required little effort on my part, while others have kept me busy.  I’ve posted more video creations on my YouTube channel, and they continue to center around the television western Laramie.  I did an interview with a young graduate student and fellow blogger about my uncle, Dennis Severs, and it was published on August 15th in a UK literary magazine called Peninsula.  The online copy can be read and downloaded on their site in a pdf format.  My interview is on page 72.  I don’t know yet if this is a limited offer, so download it soon, just in case.  The other pieces in the magazine are worth reading, too!

A book cover designer in Canada used one of my photographs of County Mayo, Ireland, for a historical novel.  I haven’t read the book, but I do think my photo looks great!  The book is available through Libros Libertad.

I have another book cover to reveal, but it will have to wait just a little while longer.  In the meantime, I need to get back to reading again.  I realized this week that I haven’t finished a book in months.  Too much time in photoshop and learning video editing has replaced my reading habit.  My book club has selected State of Wonder by Ann Patchett for our September selection, so I’m eager to dive in.

The summer went so fast, and it never got warm here in San Francisco.  I wonder what September will bring…


Filed under Literature, Photography

Books on Kindle

This week, I have been forced to stop ignoring the Kindle.  I’ve resisted electronic book readers for several reasons:

1. I can drop a book from any height onto any surface, and it still won’t break.

2. I can loan a book to a friend after I’ve read it.

3. I like page numbers.  It’s not the same knowing I’ve read 37% of a book.

Reason number 4 used to be that I couldn’t use a Kindle for library books, but that’s no longer true here in San Francisco.  I don’t understand why I still have to be on a wait list for an ebook, but that’s a discussion for later!

I finally decided to give the Kindle a try, so I borrowed one from a friend to read Dragon Solstice by Nance Crawford.  Now, my friend’s Kindle is really old.  I think it’s one of the first ones, so perhaps it’s not fair to judge all electronic readers based on this version.  I don’t like how often I have to hit the ‘next page’ button, even after setting the font as small as I can comfortably read.  I also don’t like how the screen goes black while the page reloads, which is hard on my eyes.  Perhaps these problems have been fixed in newer versions.  I’m hoping someone here will fill me in.

In spite of my issues with the Kindle, I really enjoyed Dragon Solstice.  It’s a fairy tale adventure about a misunderstood dragon and a feisty little girl who get a bit lost in the forest and end up…no, sorry, I don’t do plot spoilers.  It’s a charming story, suitable for children but with plenty of wry humor for older readers.  It would make a good bedtime story read in chapters, since it’s not scary or violent.  At least, I think it would, since I don’t have any kids to try it out on.  If I did have children, I wouldn’t stop reading to them after they graduated from picture books.  I have great memories of my mother reading us books we could have read by ourselves, especially Roald Dahl’s James and The Giant Peach.  It would have given me the creepy-crawlies on my own, but having my mother read it made it tolerable.  I still love a good adventure, but I definitely prefer friendly dragons to giant bugs.  Dragon Solstice is at Amazon for Kindle and in paperback, and you can visit the author at www.NanceCrawford.com.

The Chatto & Windus hardback and the Vintage paperback

the Chatto & Windus hardback and the Vintage paperback

While I was browsing books at Amazon this morning, I decided to check the listing for 18 Folgate Street: The Tale of a House in Spitalfields.  It was written by my uncle, Dennis Severs, and I did the photography (not the illustrations—Amazon has that wrong).  It’s been out of print for years, so I occasionally look at the prices on used copies.  Today I found a copy of the Vintage paperback selling for $999.00.  The real surprise was discovering that the book is now available in a Kindle edition.  Nobody told me!  Hopefully the color photographs will look okay on an electronic screen.

sorting slides at Random House

sorting slides at Random House

I still find myself wishing I hadn’t been so naive when I submitted my collection of slides to the publishers.  I assumed that the photos that I thought were the best would be the ones they would pick.  Instead, a number of dark, fuzzy photos were chosen along with some of my favorites.  An experienced photographer would have known to leave out the not-so-good ones.  Once I turned in my photographs and signed the contract, I didn’t have anything to do with the publishing process.  The editor sent me proofs and sample covers, so I did get to see how the book was progressing.  Just visiting Random House UK was amazing.  Everyone I met there was delightful, starting with Jeanette in reception.  The best part?  Visiting the editors and leaving with as many free books as I could carry.  All I had to do was gaze longingly at the shelves of new titles, and they’d invite me to take some.  It was a book lover’s heaven.

Should you download 18 Folgate Street to your Kindle¹?  I’ll be honest.  There are some wonderful things in the book, but it’s quirky.  My uncle’s strong personality comes through in his writing.  He was a born storyteller who avoided the written word due to severe dyslexia, until he decided to write his book.  He worked for years writing and revising, trying to find the best way to express his ideas on paper.  Sadly, he died before the book was published.  I think his prologue is the best chapter.  As for my photographs, some of them are terrific.  Some of them are not.  One of them is a complete mystery to me.  The color image on page 24 (firewood in baskets with a broom on the stairs) is a flash photograph, and it’s not mine.  All my photographs were taken using available light.  I don’t know where that one came from, and it’s been bugging me for ten years.  It’s great having my own blog, so I can get that off my chest!

To read more about my uncle and see photos of him and his house, click on his name in the category cloud or in the tags above.

¹Or iPhone, iPad, BlackBerry, Android, PC or Mac


Filed under Literature, Photography

Royal Wedding

Today is the Royal Wedding.  It’s pretty amusing to see how it’s completely taken over American television.  I’m switching around channels this morning, and it’s all about the wedding.  Kelly Ripa on Regis and Kelly Live is wearing a bunch of feathers on her head that she calls a “fascinator,” competing with some of the amazing hats at the ceremony.  I planned on getting up in the middle of the night to watch some of the wedding live, but exhaustion won out.  There’s so much coverage of the highlights, I’m not worried about what I missed.  I mostly want to see footage of Prince Edward, but so far I haven’t spotted him.

I was seven the first time my family visited London.  My uncle, Dennis Severs, was a young law student there, and he was the best tour guide we could have.  One evening, he took us to Buckingham Palace in a light rain.  He was very secretive, refusing to tell us why we were there.  The sidewalk in front of the Palace was almost deserted.  Soon, a black car drove slowly through the gate.  The Queen was in the back seat, and she gave us the famous royal wave.

I visited my uncle again when I was sixteen.  It was my first time traveling to London alone, and I was pretty pathetic.  It didn’t help that I had mono!  The trip turned around for me when Dennis took me to watch the royal procession for the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday.  He found us a brilliant spot on the route,  right in front and only a few yards from the cars and carriages.  I had broken my glasses, having stepped on them as I got out of the bathtub, so I was holding them onto my face as the royal family rode by.   Prince Edward looked in my direction, smiled, and waved.  I was lovestruck.   I was charmed by his braces, but my uncle didn’t believe me.  He said, “The Royal Family does NOT wear braces!”  It took me ages to find a photograph of Prince Edward that confirmed my observation.  I spent the rest of my trip buying postcards and photo books of the young prince.  I sent him a birthday card that year, and I got a fancy formal letter from Buckingham Palace thanking me.  I framed it and hung it on my wall.

Prince Edward, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew (clockwise)

Prince Edward, Prince Charles, Prince Andrew (clockwise)

The following summer Prince Charles married Lady Diana.  When I asked my father if I could go back to London, he told me he didn’t want to hear one more word about it.  Looking back, I understand that he was jealous of the spell my uncle had over me.  It was a complicated case of sibling rivalry, and I was caught in the middle.  I was really hurt, though, and it kind of spoiled the wedding for me.  Still, like the rest of world, I was caught up in the pomp and circumstance of it all.  Diana was so young and pretty, but I was looking behind the royal couple trying to find Prince Edward.

Charles and Diana Wedding

I was so proud of Prince Edward when he had the courage to break family tradition, leaving the military to find his own way.  I was delighted when he started working in theatre!  My heart broke just a tiny bit when he got married.  I’ll bet there are lots of young women feeling the same way today as they watch Prince William get married.

In 1988, I went to Trooping the Colours.  This time I didn’t go with my uncle, so I experienced the event without his special magic.   I was squashed in the crowd several rows back from the barricade.  It wasn’t pleasant.  This event was the only time I saw Princess Diana.  Like most people, I remember exactly where I was when I heard about her tragic death.  I was so angry about the paparazzi and the role they played in her accident.  I hoped some good would come out it, that the press would stop hounding public figures so remorselessly. Nothing has changed, and the paparazzi are even worse now.   Let’s hope William and Kate are allowed some privacy and peace.

I keep crying as I watch footage of the wedding today, and I know it’s because of  all these memories of my uncle.  He introduced me to the romance, the pomp, and the history of all things British.   He died in 1999, and I miss him.

Congratulations to Prince William and his lovely bride!

Update:  Later today, I found photos of Prince Edward from the wedding.


Filed under Real Life, Travel

One Year Old

Reflections on my first year of blogging

Today is the one year anniversary of The Ugly Bug Ball.  I wasn’t sure I could keep it going, but here we are on post number 95.  100 would have been a nicer number, but I’m not complaining.  Honestly, my only goal a year ago was to find a way to stop driving my boss crazy.  She was tired of all my entertainment chitchat, so I took it online. 

A year ago, I was obsessing over Matthew Goode and Michael Sheen, and I was mourning the cancellation of EastEnders on my local PBS station.  I think I can be forgiven for neglecting Matthew Goode, since he hasn’t released any new movies.  Michael Sheen has been very busy, but I have to confess, I didn’t finish watching A Special Relationship.  All the politics went right over my head.  I still miss Albert Square.

A year ago, I’d never heard of Jonathan Jackson or his band Enation.  I didn’t know I’d be spending every weekday afternoon watching General Hospital to see Jackson as Lucky Spencer.   I was so excited when Enation tweeted links to my blog and even commented on one of my posts.  Now my current obsession is the Les Misérables 25th anniversary concert and some of the West End actors who performed in it.   Who knows what will entertain me next.  I try to “spread the love” by having lots of favorites, so there is always something new just around the corner.

I wish I didn’t feel compelled to check my blog stats so often.  I’m fascinated by how many visitors I get, and what brings them here.  It took me a long time to figure out that a portion of my “visitors” weren’t real, but spam referrers and creepy link posters.  Once I got over that disappointment, I soldiered on.  A dramatic change came a few months after I started, when the UK dating site with the same name was launched.   Suddenly, I had a dramatic increase in visits, but it wasn’t my Bug Ball they wanted.  Google soon sorted them out, although I still get a few strays.  My other wish?  That more people would leave comments.   Even after a year, it’s a thrill to know that people from all over the world are looking at my pages.

 I never really planned to be “Ugly Bug,”  but that’s become my username in various forums and sites that I visit, and when I leave comments on other blogs.  My gravatar photo is a damselfly, and I quite like that for a name, but I never got around to trying it.  It amuses me how some folks are uncomfortable with the word ugly.  I’m usually addressed as UB or Bug, which is fine, too.  I’m fond 0f that old saying, call me anything except late for dinner!

My most popular post this first year is  A Silent Scream, which talks about silent film.  Lots of folks out there are googling “Louise Brooks.”  A surprisingly popular one is All Thumbs, simply because of the photo of Hrithik Roshan’s double thumb.   Another entry that gets a lot of visits is In Remembrance: Armistice Day due to the WWI art.   My Les Mis posts have brought in a lot of new people, too.  I’m not sure how many more screencaps I will add, but at least my photoshop skills keep improving. 

New technology has brought big changes to my blog and what entertains me.  Last summer I got my first mp3 player.  Then my brother gave me my first digital camera, so I was able to start adding fresh photos.  I got a new Epson scanner, so old photos and slides were resurrected and added to these pages.  I learned how to make screencaps using Paint and Photoshop, and I learned that YouTube videos could be converted into mp3s.   Speaking of YouTube, I had no idea until last summer what treasures could be found there.  

Another big blogging milestone was when I started writing about personal subjects.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there.   Writing about my favorite uncle, Dennis Severs, was a wonderful way to share a few memories, and I found it deeply satisfying.   I’ve been neglecting my Stage Door Encounter series, but it’s been a fun way to combine personal experiences with my interest in actors.  

So here’s to one year and counting, and hopefully the best is yet to come!


Filed under Actors, Movies, Music, Television, The Internet, Theatre

Remembering Simon Pettet

I met Simon Pettet in September, 1986. I was in London visiting my eccentric uncle, Dennis Severs, famous for his restored Georgian house in Spitalfields. On my previous visit to the house in 1980, Dennis was living alone with Whitechapel the cat (aka Maj) and three kittens named Hackney, Stepney and Bethnal Green. Six years later, the kittens had grown up and moved out, Dominic the Footman was busy working about the house, and Simon Pettet was lodging on the top floor.

Simon was just returning to England after working at a summer camp, teaching art to a bunch of spoiled American teenagers. I arrived at 18 Folgate Street a few days before he came home, and Dennis couldn’t wait to tell me all about him. He was a 21-year-old artist who specialized in blue and white delft pottery. He had his studio nearby in the East End, and he would dash off to work on a series of “push-bikes” (never just a bike to Simon) that always gave him problems. Dennis described Simon as a true original. I didn’t need to be told that Simon was unique, because there weren’t many people who could live in that house with my uncle. Not only was there no central heating or electric lighting, but Simon’s bed was sitting under a leak in the roof. One night he knocked over the bucket balanced on the headboard and was drenched in icy water. Nights after a performance in the house, he would have to open his window and wait for the stench of rotting cabbage to clear before he could go to bed.

I knew what Dennis meant by “an original” as soon as Simon came through the door.  He wore heavy work boots, and he stomped across the floorboards, all elbows and knees and voice and energy. He burned bright,  and the words bubbled out of him. I loved him instantly. He told us how the American kids at the summer camp mocked him for calling erasers “rubbers,” and he was excited by the design on a can of American shaving cream. It was the only souvenir he brought back with him. He also had plaster gargoyles for the Dickens bedroom in his duffle bag, which my uncle asked him to pick up in New York. Dennis was so excited, we all rushed upstairs to put them around the Scrooge bed. Unfortunately, we didn’t secure them properly, and one of them fell on a visitor’s head the following night.

I could sit in my chair in the kitchen, with Maj on my knee, just watching Dennis and Simon all day. I would listen to them tell stories, usually about parties from the night before, as we made toast against the kitchen fire and drank coffee. One of Simon’s best stories was how he accidentally flipped a slice of gateau onto a white sofa at a fancy party, and he had to try to hide the frosting marks from the host. Simon also had a secret stash of objects he had broken in the house, hidden in his cupboard, waiting to be mended. Dennis knew all about them, but he pretended otherwise.

One of the best London nights I ever had was with Simon in the West End in 1988. I don’t even remember exactly what we did, probably just ate dinner and visited a few bars. It was his company and his conversation that entertained me. Even though I had known him for two years by then, I still had to explain to him that Dennis was my uncle and I was his niece, and how that was different from a cousin. Somehow he had never bothered to learn that stuff.

Another memorable outing we had together was in 1991, when Dennis took both of us to the National Theatre for my birthday. When we arrived at the theatre, I suddenly couldn’t remember if I had blown out the candle in my bedroom. I was horrified at the thought of burning down my uncle’s house. I started to fret, and I whispered my worries to Simon. We spent the evening giving each other panicked looks.  I even went to the pay phones at intermission, figuring that if the answering machine picked up, the house was probably still intact. After the play ended, Simon and I both urged Dennis to take us home. He wanted to get coffee and dessert, so we continued to suffer together. Of course, everything was fine when we arrived back at the house, or I wouldn’t be writing this. Dennis would have murdered me! Simon couldn’t help telling Dennis all about it later, though.

I was lucky enough to visit Simon at his pottery studio when he was painting a pair of delft shoes for the drawing room. They were meant to belong to Mrs. Jervis, and they were left by the fireplace in “The First Position.” Simon made many pieces for 18 Folgate Street, including the fireplace tiles in the master bedroom, depicting the neighbors who lived in Spitalfields. He made many obelisks, and there was also a series of mugs based on late 18th century semi-industrial ware. I have one of these mugs, brought to me by Dennis on his final trip to San Francisco.

The last time I saw Simon was in 1992. He was still burning bright, but he was dying of AIDS. He passed away on December 26, 1993, at the age of 28. Dennis died six years and one day later. Their work and my memories remain.

Simoninkitchen ps copy

Photograph ©M. Stacey Shaffer 1991

Photographs of Simon’s fireplace tiles can be seen here.


Filed under Art, Photography, Real Life, Travel

Happy Birthday, Uncle

Today is my uncle’s birthday, so let me tell you about him. Dennis Severs was born in 1948, just two days after Prince Charles, in Escondido, California. When he was in high school, he saved up his money and traveled to England. He loved it so much, he moved to London the minute he graduated. He was supposed to be studying law, but he was really collecting anecdotes, history, and furniture. He would use this collection to create a unique career and a lasting legacy.

Dennis had severe dyslexia, so reading and academics were a real challenge. In spite of this obstacle, or perhaps because of it, he became a brilliant storyteller, weaving together personal stories with historical facts and fascinating details about the way people once lived. He made dry history come alive. In the early 1970s, he bought a landau carriage and a horse, and he gave history tours through the back streets of Chelsea. Main thoroughfares change with the times, but he put together a route through streets that had remained relatively unchanged through the centuries. His tour was a journey through time, and he counted it a success when the tour ended with everyone in tears. The only other open landau in London belonged to the Queen, so they were often mistaken for each other. The carriage tour was a big success, but then Dennis lost the mews where he stabled his horse. Winter and bad weather meant that he couldn’t conduct his tours year round, so Dennis moved the tour inside, ensuring that he would always have a roof over his head.

Cratchit Corner watermarkDennis bought a derelict Georgian house in Spitalfields, so named because it once adjoined the medieval St Mary’s Spittal, a hospital and priory. In the early 1980s, this East End neighborhood was being restored and revived, attracting artists, writers, and musicians who formed a thriving creative community. Dennis renovated the house at 18 Folgate Street on a shoestring budget, often using wood pallets from the nearby wholesale vegetable market. He told me that he found a fire laid on the top floor that had never been lit, with crumpled newspaper that was dated the day of his birth. (I didn’t know whether to believe him, since his motto was “if it isn’t true, it ought to be.”) He filled the house with all the furniture, silver, art, and other treasures that he’d collected over the years, which his friends had been keeping for him in attics all over England.

Each room reflected a different period from early Georgian to late Victorian, so a walk through the house was another journey through time. The only electricity in the house was for his sound system, so when you were in a room, you could hear horses clip clopping outside, the rise and fall of conversations in other rooms, spoons clinking against cups of tea. Each room had its own scent, too. The kitchen was cookies baking, the dining room was roast beef, the drawing room was lavender used to freshen the rug, the smoking room was tobacco, and the poor apprentice’s room on the top floor was rotting cabbage and stale urine.

There were no red velvet ropes, so visitors could enter the rooms, sit on the chairs, and, if they dared, they could pick up objects and examine them. If they did, they faced my uncle’s wrath. Opening cupboards to search for signs of modern life was also frowned upon. Dennis would say, these visitors have been invited into my home, and I expect them to behave like proper guests. If he didn’t like their behavior, he would simply toss them out. He wouldn’t collect any money until the end of a visit, so he felt free to eject anyone without having to give a refund. And woe to anyone who asked what an object was worth. These people had obviously missed the whole point of his life’s work, which was to create a series of atmospheres that allowed you to truly go back into the past. It wasn’t about expensive antiques, and the key to his technique was mixing valuable pieces with junk scrounged from the Brick Lane market.

When the house tours first began, Dennis would do the entire three hour performance live, but he wanted visitors to focus on the rooms and not on him. Eventually he would start off in each room talking, then leave his visitors on their own listening to recordings of his narration mixed with sound effects. The “tour” was a concoction of English history and social customs interwoven with the story of the Jervis family, prosperous Huguenot silk weavers who set up their looms in Spitalfields after fleeing religious persecution in France. (There really was a Jervis family in Spitalfields, but the story Dennis told sprang from his imagination.)  By the time the tour ended in the Victorian morning room, the last two Jervis boys were dead on the battlefields of Flanders, and spinster Isabel Jervis had died alone in the old family house. On nights when I assisted behind the scenes, I would sit in the kitchen below, listening to the tape by the fading fire, and it was impossible not to cry.

I was sixteen the first time I came to 18 Folgate Street, traveling alone without my parents. I was unprepared for 18th century life. I fell down the stairs, cut my thumb slicing bread, stumbled around by candlelight, and couldn’t light a fire to save my life. Dennis didn’t have a bath in those early days, so in between trips to the neighbor’s to wash, I was covered in soot. Dennis never let me forget that my first question upon entering the house was “are there bugs?”  He tolerated me, probably counting the days until my departure. Then he had to endure my numerous visits over the years until his death in 1999. He died surrounded by close friends, and me, and his funeral was held at Christ Church Spitalfields, just a few days into the new millennium.

dennis-simon-dominic-and-me-3 copy

(back) Dennis Severs & me, (front) Dominic O’Ceallaigh & Simon Pettet 1991

Dennis complained that I was more interested in the people the house attracted than the house itself, and he also said I was a “conversation magnet” who distracted him from his work. I certainly grew very fond of Dominic the Footman and Simon the Lodger. I would sit by the kitchen stove in “my” chair, observing the endless variety of characters who dropped in. Maj the cat (short for Majesty, but officially named Whitechapel) would sit on my knee, digging her claws in deep whenever I got too comfortable. Still, I took enough interest in the house to take some photographs. Some of these were eventually used for the book he wrote, published two years after his death by Chatto & Windus. Dennis left the house to the Spitalfields Trust, and it is maintained by loyal friends as a private museum. It doesn’t have quite the same lived-in feel now, since he’s no longer there inhabiting the rooms, entertaining guests and torturing uninvited relatives. Keeping the house open to the public was his dream, and it is where his spirit lives on.

“And, dear visitor, take this as the motto of the house:  AUT VISUM, AUT NON! (Oh, for God’s sake!)  You either see it or you don’t.”  — Dennis Severs, 18 Folgate Street


Filed under Literature, Photography, Real Life, Travel