MIXED BLESSINGS

I’ve never been too bad at not taking things for granted. I’ve experienced enough so far to understand what people have and do not, and that all lives are hugely different, for different reasons. For most of last year, the house we (very fortunately) bought was in flux. We built a bathroom in a bedroom, built a dining room in a bathroom, knocked down walls, drilled into foundations, sealed up doors, sanded floors, painted walls and, eventually, washed away the dust. I say ‘we’ did all of those things; what I actually mean is that four men were employed to do it. If you want something doing properly, and it involves knocking down the entirety of the bottom of a house, and you have your own job, it’s usually best to employ an expert. The project was difficult for them – there were many obstacles – and it was difficult for us – we lived in a room for six months eating toasted snacks or boiled noodles washed down with bath water. The process was enlightening in many ways. It literally lightened the house, which was the point, but also I learned a lot about our builders’ lives. One of them in particular, a 22 year old, had a lot to impart. Putin, Trump, guns, war, Donetsk, Kiev, billionaires, fighting in Shoreditch, the arts, coffee, business, Bieber – he had opinions on them all. And he spoke numerous languages so was able to tell me how many Moldovans lived next door (12, apparently). Whenever I would feel a bit sick of eating another cold brioche at the foot of the bed surrounded by boxes of dusty ephemera, I could think about something interesting the young builder had said that day and it would remind me that I don’t have to live in a room with four other people, or exist in a civil war, or fight to stay in my country or get a passport because my life is in danger. And now that all the hassle is over and the 22 year old has moved to the next job, I have a large, light-filled space, beautifully painted, sanded and oiled, to remind me that I am very lucky indeed.*

*On a practical note, unrelated to #blessed, I can highly recommend Danish floor oil, if you want to make the room even lighter, without going for that total white-out paint effect. It rolls on as oil and you need two coats. It creates the bleached Swedish effect but is much quicker. If you pay someone to do it for you, make sure they think it’s a good idea. The bloke who did mine was completely grumpy about it for two days and it made everyone miserable.

granted

Floors: WOCA Danish Floor Oil, http://www.wocadenmark.com; Rocking chair: Nuthall jumble, Bakelite sewing tin: Amsterdam flea market, Cream jug: Calverton car boot, Wooden bench: house clearance, Wooden box: Mary Magdalene Foundation, Tulips: Sainsburys, Joi de toile cushion: Newark Antiques Fair, Blinds: Primark tablecloth

 

 

 

 

 

 

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UNCONNECTED

While not a huge fan of its host, Timmy, and still slightly suspicious of his clothing and techniques, especially the banging of children over the head, I did enjoy Mallet’s Mallet on Saturday mornings in the 1980s. Designed for children, the word association game was far easier to play than the game I like to play in which the words must be the opposite: not associated. Our brains are hardwired to think in chains; you say milk and I think of cows, or babies, or missing children; you say rose and I think of pink or fragrance or skin conditions. But there is a way to break the chain. The technique is similar to one I used while on a gameshow about memory for which I devised mental stories to remember words that were unconnected. The story became a vision, which was then easy to recall while the clock ticked and the pound signs flashed (hundreds, not thousands – it was Channel 5). To think of words that are not connected, you simply have to think of the alphabet. A sequence of letters (not necessarily in alphabetical order, otherwise your cover will be blown, Rainman style), immediately brings forth a word that begins with the letter rather than the thought of the previous word. In the home, connections and juxtapositions are important, but more important are disassociations. A beautiful ceramic vase is more noticeable and more majestic in the bathroom than filled with flowers on a table; a framed cherished item of clothing, umbrella, scribbled note from a loved one or book looks cooler than a print or poster; and haberdashery doesn’t have to stay in the sewing bag – ribbons in the fruit bowl and a special scrap of linen hung on the drying rack. There are, as ever, a few rules, but not many: do not mix items that may cause a hygiene risk. An old ribbon next to an avocado is perfectly safe, but the same scenario played out with a roast chicken causes more trouble for everyone than a bang on the head.

faux

Bowl: house clearance, Avocado: Stratford Centre Market, Ribbon: Nantes flea market, Candle: Cire Trudon, Faux Hydrangeas: Williamson Design Florist, Perth, Fairy lights: Amazon.com and Ikea, Tablecloth: Mary Magdalen Foundation 

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

When you are decorating, renovating, or just rearranging a space, it can be quite tempting to stop before you’re finished, sometimes deliberately, for aesthetic reasons. I recently tackled the hallway in my new house. It’s narrow, uninviting and slightly dark, so I rather perversely made it darker so as to create the effect all magazines tell you will, by a comparative process, make the rooms off the hall seem lighter. I’m not entirely convinced this has worked, and I remain committed to the white wall as a rule, but the dark inky hue in the hall has certainly effected a definite change; it looks somehow more professional, smarter and more expensive. But much as I admire houses that are professional, smart and expensive, I don’t really want mine to look like that. There is something so appealing to my eye about unfinished business. Discarded fabric, bashed up furniture, pictures leaning against walls ready for their debut. Of course, this does not extend to all aspects of the home; dirty pans, wet towels, dead flowers, pyjamas on the bathroom floor, can all be chucked out or dealt with sharpish. But sometimes, when you’ve smartened up a bit of home, like the smudging of the perfect eyeliner or the undoing of a few buttons on a shirt, the space can really benefit from a bit of imperfection. That is my excuse anyway, and I’m sticking to it til I finish the job.

Hallway

REUNIONS

It would be remiss of me not to mention the political turmoil of very recent times. A group of power-hungry, mostly public-schooled men, stood up for something they said they believed in, argued with things they said were facts, and, when their hypothesis was accepted by a slim majority of people, rejoiced with such obvious dubiety, those in the slim minority could almost have thought the men didn’t believe it after all.

After the result of the referendum, many people thought they had felt the full force of bombshell that would hit them harder than anything in their lifetimes outside their personal spheres. Not so. We then lost a Prime Minister, half a shadow cabinet, most of the public-schooled men, a few homophobic pretenders, a wannabe (and a mother), and our national sense of identity in the bargain. A collective bigotry that had been on a low simmer was dialled up to boiling point, bolstered by the confident hand of safety in numbers.

I am unable to find a sassy way to segue into how interior design can offer solace. But I will say this: two days after the vote, I tore up the laminate flooring in my new dining room, hallway and living room. The floorboards below were different in each. One room was dark, dirty and slightly boggy, making the space look like an eighteenth century watering hole; the addition of some contemporary furniture jollying the boards out of their history into the future. The hallway was mismatched, bits of pristine wood jigsawed to fit in with those that had been there since the beginning; some sharp tacks and many different colours. The living room was smoother with more continuity; later additions by a canny builder who’d spotted an opportunity for significant amelioration. Afterward, tired by the sheer physical labour of hoisting hundreds of slices of melamine away from the true core of the building’s foundations, I felt a bit better. It is a mess, and needs some careful restoration, but it is the starting point for the kind of improvement that fills me with hope for what it might become.

 

image-12 copy

White and neutral chair: Nuthall jumble, White chair: Mary Magdalene Foundation, Blue chair: Hucknall Antiques Centre, Table: Mary Magdalene Foundation, Tablecloth: Nuthall jumble, Jug on table: Calverton Car Boot, Candles: East Dulwich Hardware Store, Candle Holders: John Player, Brass fish jelly mould: Hopkinsons Antiques, Bauhaus print: Bauhaus Archive Berlin, Filing Cabinet: ENO, Canvas bag: Hauser and Wirth Somerset, Grey file box: Ikea

 

 

 

PAST PERFECT

I recently bought a house; not in the perfect place, and not in the perfect shape, but certainly with perfect potential. The very first room for improvement was, without doubt, the bathroom. The exceedingly expensive price of the house generously included one of those 1960s bathroom extensions with a leaky roof, manky loo flush and dribbling shower which make visiting the gym vastly preferable to visiting one’s own facilities.* The plan to convert a bedroom into a bathroom was heavily cautioned by some; the wanton abandonment of a whole room was considered so drastic you’d think I’d announced the sale of my first new born or were partial to eating barbecued kittens for tea. Nevertheless, the bathroom was installed. The thing about an entirely new room in a house is that everything in it is so, well, new. But if you are anything like me, you will need to take certain measures to ensure the newness loses its sheen, much like I feel the need to tug strands of hair out of the perfect ponytail. With a new canvas, a few carefully placed old pieces look better than hidden among their ilk. Against the perfect new flagstone tiled floor, an old desk, stripped of white paint but still harbouring a few pale flecks, looks majestic, as well as serving as a vessel for cleaning products and razors. An antique stool splashed with hundreds of years of life’s stains is no longer a thing to stand on to reach shelves but an object of beauty. The only rule here is simple; stick to freestanding objects and keep everything else super clean; allowing a new sink, toilet or bath to be splashed with hundreds of years of life’s stains is definitely tantamount to barbecuing your cat for dinner.

*Which is really saying something because the showers at my gym are the kind that need restarting every five seconds, like playing a fruit machine in light drizzle

Mirror: Hucknall car boot, Faux Hydrangeas: Willamsons Design Florist, Perth, Tin bowl: Nantes Flea Market, Diptyque room sprays: Liberty, Grey jug: Jura, Falconware: Mary Magdalene Foundation, Wooden stool: Sheffield Antiques Emporium, Wooden desk: Newark Antiques Fair

Mirror: Hucknall car boot, Faux Hydrangeas: Willamsons Design Florist, Perth, Tin bowl: Nantes Flea Market, Diptyque room sprays: Liberty, Grey jug: Jura, Falconware: Mary Magdalene Foundation, Wooden stool: Sheffield Antiques Emporium, Wooden desk: Newark Antiques Fair

SOLID CHOICE

When the going gets tough, the tough get going, Billy Ocean often used to say. There are times when Mr Ocean is wholly correct, of course. But there are occasionally moments in life when we are out of control, where all that is called for is a retreat into madness, a lapse of strength and an abandonment of the stoic front. One day when I was much younger and persistently moaning about swimming at school, my dad told me, ‘sometimes in life, you just have to do things you don’t want to do.’ I have never forgotten it. I would use it every time I had to revise Chemistry, manage a cumbersome team, compete on Channel 5 against the Countdown champion when every other contestant had only been on The Weakest Link. Now, many years later, my dad’s words have come back to loom large over his cruelly reduced life. Mostly he uses them too, and forges ahead irrespective of what fresh hurdle the cosmos plonks down on his particularly painful track. But every so often, and with good reason, he falters, because of events entirely without his control; the hurdle growing so high it is insurmountable. Those of a stronger mettle than me might disagree, but I tend to think that there is great solace in beautiful, solid objects; their unflinching sameness over hundreds of years. After visiting him in hospital today, I too felt a loss of control, a gnawing lack of choice. But instead of reaching for the nearest table glass, I spent half an hour rooting through boxes. Finding faded photographs, school books, medical records and postcards en route, I was only after one thing: the beautiful, old, jade wine goblet with a cup etched with florals, a rim so thin you could almost cut your lips, a stem so pleasingly clutchable you can bolt a gulp of wine or throw it at a wall with equal relish. We all have to do stuff we don’t want to do. But when the going gets really tough, you can still choose to do things properly.

 

Green goblet

Painted stool: Nuthall jumble, Painted wooden box: NGHS, Green wine glass: the Barretts

SELL/BUY

I occasionally do car boots with my mum; by which I mean we sell things from our two car boots to other people (for charity) at car boot sales. ‘Doing’ a car boot can of course also mean that you buy things from people’s car boots at car boot sales. There doesn’t seem to be a distinction in the terminology of partaking. Which is appropriate, given that very often, when one ‘does’ a car boot, one also ‘does’ a car boot; the day always starts unfeasibly early, so, by 9am, having toiled for well over 3 hours, it’s time for a little wander to see what the field has to offer*. At my most recent sale, I needed only to stride 4 metres away from my car before I’d spotted some attractive wares. (Their owner was selling stuff out of a van, which does not technically have a boot, which, ironically, means he qualifies to do a car boot, but must pay a higher fee to enter). The man was selling all sorts of odd ephemera; door knobs, fishing tackle, unwanted Christmas cards and wool. He was also selling falcon ware (the really manky, hard-to-find kind that works well in the garden), huge china platters (that hold at least two large chickens for roasts), beautiful porcelain plates from Notre Dame Jerusalem (perfect for macarons, biscuits, pistachios) and cancel stick holders (for elegant dinners/Victorian dressing-up/discrete murders). He had just one sales strategy: put anything you want into a bag, and it’s yours for a pound. Moments like this rarely happen in life. They happen even more rarely outside of London. So with my head down and my eye in, I ‘did’ his van like a vulture, filled my bag, and, as it turns out, filled my boots.

*quite literally, as car boots are almost always in fields, unless in a car park – the worst kind of car boot experience

Pound shop

Cut glasses, pink Poole ware, Notre Dame Jerusalem side plates, Falconware, colander, large pie dish, metal candle stick holder, pink platter, green platter: all mine for £1, Hucknall Car Boot Sale, Nottinghamshire

 

CLEAR CHANGE

Another year and another chance to resolve to do something differently, or desist from doing something at all, or start doing something. If, like me, you subscribe to the notion that January 1st is not much different from December 31st of the previous year, then you might have decided not to change anything. Real change typically takes momentum, some perseverance, a good deal of time and effort. But at home, there are many things you can do to offer the pretence of change. I like to switch milk and gin bottles into water jugs and keep them chilling in the fridge. It makes me feel better for lots of reasons: I can keep my ceramic jugs as sculptures or vases, I can offer ice cold water to guests, I can drink a little less milk and gin, and they look really good hanging around in the fridge, averting the eye from cold onion gravy, hardened cake icing and rotting cabbage. Choose less known brands for the job though – it’s usually clear that the quirky artisanal gin bottle is full of water when placed on the table at dinner, but a full bottle of Gordon’s can, with no mixer in view, transmit unfortunate signals. Remember it’s baby steps at this time of year. Any water you drink is good for you and the road is long and bumpy. If you need to replace the water with gin at any point, you can. But never mix gin with milk. There’s ringing the changes and then there’s ringing NHS Direct; the latter of which is enough to weaken anyone’s resolve.

Milk Bottle: Whole Foods, Gin Bottle: Waitrose, Gold Glasses: H&M Home, Wooden Tray: jumble sale, Chair: Detling Antiques Fair

Milk Bottle: Whole Foods, Gin Bottle: Waitrose, Gold Glasses: H&M Home, Wooden Tray: jumble sale, Chair: Detling Antiques Fair

 

VISION OF LOVE

Some years ago, my dad lost the sight in one eye. Devastating as this was, it paled into comparison with the loss of hearing after that. Then indescribable pain, when gradually, over a tumultuous further few years, the vision in his healthy eye slipped away, as when slowly waking to reality from a really splendid dream. His fight and determination to keep going has ebbed and flowed, as it would to anyone not in a schmaltzy book or film. But in the rare Hollywood moments when he dares himself to think positively about still being alive, he can feel the sun on his face in the back garden, sitting on the bench. I often wonder, as most people do, but particularly those whose jobs or hobbies rely on vision, how I would cope. And the answer is that coping only happens when it is forced upon you. I think often too how I would decide what went where in my home, and how I would arrange my furniture or lamps. And the answer is that I would have help from someone who wanted me not to fall over. Aesthetic concerns are a luxury, just as living and breathing and walking and thinking. But just as we never know what will happen in the future, we can revel in the joy of what we have in the present. For me that means that I keep ripping up floorboards with a crowbar, endlessly rearranging small ceramic bowls on white linen, and painting pointless pieces of wood, while I still can. And when I’m with my dad, I can tell him what everything looks like, and put him in the line of the sun.

 

Sunlight

PALE AND INTERESTING

I have a friend who likes to wear white when she has a hangover. It makes her feel clean and fools her mind into thinking her body isn’t processing unhealthy volumes of vodka. In much the same way, I find I can improve my approach to an activity I’d rather not tackle by wearing exciting trousers or a ludicrous necklace. Fashion is not, as many who are uninterested in it believe, a mere window dressing of the body. It can make you feel less sick, alter your mood, or comfort you. Interior design is just as clever. While I am always a big advocate of a pure white paint job on every wall, I appreciate that some people prefer some variation. I will allow wiggle room for grey, blue and even occasionally green tones to adorn the walls*, but there is no more efficient way to lift the light, air and ceiling of a room than to cover it in the whitest of white emulsion. I accept that this strategy is not edgy, progressive or even interesting. But in the home, I want a blank canvas, for this is what all the best edgy, progressive and interesting artists begin with. And when I drink so much that I myself become a bit of a blank canvas, I need some clean white walls to look at while I process the vodka.

*that is all four walls by the way – what is this ‘feature wall’ concept? Dreamt up by someone selling paint, that’s what.

Clothes horse: antique, Tea towel: Ikea, Curtains: Jan Barrett

Clothes horse: antique, Tea towel: Ikea, Curtains: Jan Barrett