Tuesday, November 30, 2010
When Isabel Gillies gave up an acting career in New York to move her family to Oberlin, Ohio she felt her life was close to perfect. Her husband had a teaching job at the University and they could give their two little boys a more carefree childhood in the country.
When they bought an 1877 redbrick house, built by a mason, Isabel felt all her dreams had been realised. The perfect house for the perfect family. As she notes in her book, ‘I’ll never be able to write about how great it was.’ Only it was not meant to be. Within months of moving in, her husband announced he was leaving Isabel and the boys; her perfect home metaphorically falling down around her.
Last year, Isabel published a memoir Happens Every Day chronicling this crisis time of her life. Beautifully and intimately written, it reads as a conversation between friends and is extremely difficult to put down. Told without anger but with insight, understanding and compassion, Isabel’s story is compelling and will leave readers wanting to know more... thankfully, her next book is due to be published in August 2011.
Home has always been important to Isabel, even when she was young, ‘When I got married and really had to make a nest for little ones, I don't think the idea or feelings about the home changed very much, it's just that before I felt like I was playing house and then suddenly it was the real deal.’
In Ohio, her redbrick house became an emblem for a perfect family that Isabel soon discovered no longer existed. Did such a devastating experience change those feelings about what ‘home’ really is for her?
‘I never in my life thought I would live in a house like that. I had grown up in apartments, and this house felt so REAL. I felt I had to treat it like a respected elder in the community. It sort of felt like mine, but really I felt it belonged more to American history. I respected it more than I lived in it. I think I would have grown to feel like it was mine, but I didn't live in it for very long.’
‘There were bats in the attic of that house, and 100 year old glass windows. It was a trip. I felt that had my kids grown up in that house, it would have sunk into their bones - all that history. I thought they would be able to feel that house wherever they were in the world.’
Renovating it into their ‘dream house’, Isabel could imagine her family growing old here together. As she wrote in her book, ‘Everything was planned out for our big family life for the next 20 years. Anyone who walked in the doors could feel that.’
When she became concerned about her husband’s feelings for a colleague who was also a friend of Isabel’s, she felt their home would communicate the stability of their family, ‘I wanted everything to look as calm and pretty as possible. I also wanted her to really get the picture of just how lovely the life going on inside this brick house was.’
She writes in the book that when she realised the marriage was falling apart, she still believed the house would save them, ‘The room started spinning, but my eyes found the side of the counter. Josiah and I had spent hours deciding what shape the curve of the counter should have. There are many different grooves you can choose or you can have it quite plain. We chose to have one groove in the middle of the curve. Elegant and simple. I held onto the counter and felt the groove under my hand, reminding me that we had built this house. We had chosen colours and fixtures and a life.’
But it was not enough. As Isabel tells me later, ‘It was an important place because as much as I loved to have it, it also taught me that home is a lot more than a house.’
‘When I think of that house now, it seems sad to me... Maybe you never can feel anything but pensive about the place where a family you loved ended, or rather, changed.’
‘When I think of the frumpy, funny faculty house we rented before we bought the brick house, I feel happy.’ Despite being ‘worn from years of professors and their families making their lives for a bit of time in it’, Isabel felt very strongly about this home, ‘It was a bird’s nest that just stays in the tree for years while different birds use it to raise their young. It was warm, generous, and smelled of must and wood.’
Leaving Ohio meant moving back into her parents’ apartment in Manhatten, the home Isabel had grown up in. ‘All my feelings about home and what I had built and what had gone away and what was ahead of me, had been put in a powerful blender and I didn't know which way was up.’
‘However, all the good feelings about a home are inside you and are impervious to the blender. They travel with you no matter what is going on in your life. So, in many ways, my feelings about home in my twenties and when I was in Ohio, and then when I was back in New York and even now, are very much the same.’
Now remarried, Isabel, her husband and her sons still live in Manhatten in an Upper West Side apartment. ‘Again, even though our home is probably the most grown up home I have ever made myself (I am 40 after all), I still feel like I could be in the apartment I lived in when I was 23.’
The relationship she has with ‘home’ is no different today; ‘I love the time at the end of the day when I know the kids will be home soon from school and then my husband will follow soon after from work. I wander around and plump the pillows, neaten the mail table, turn on lights in the bedroom and start to heat up whatever is on the stove so it smells good when they walk in.
Home, for Isabel, is still and will always be about creating a safe, happy nest for her family; ‘I hope that maybe if I do all that stuff, it will go into their insides and they will take a homey feeling with them wherever they are, whoever they are with, and for the rest of their lives.’
For more information about Isabel, visit her website here.
For more information about her memoir, Happens Every Day, click here.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
In our last house we found a letter in the ceiling. When my parents ripped up carpet in their Mountains cottage, they found newspapers from the 1940s. Kate Morton recently talked about finding ‘to-do’ lists in the back of a cupboard in her childhood home. And yesterday my five-year-old dug up a piece of broken crockery in our garden.
It’s white porcelain and was obviously a plate or saucer as you can see the rim on the back of it. A pale blue flower is painted on the porcelain giving the impression it was once part of a ‘good’ china set. Or ‘from the olden days’, as my son said. It’s rubbish but it feels like treasure.
I have always loved old houses; not just aesthetically but because I really believe that old houses carry the stories of the people who came before us. How else is it that houses have ‘feelings’ about them?
I’ve thought a lot about the families who lived here – we have a list of all the previous owners dating back to 1883 – but I’ve never found any evidence of their existence. Until yesterday.
How did this piece of china end up at the back of our garden? Who used to eat off it and how did it get broken? Perhaps it was thrown in frustration after an argument about renovating?! Or perhaps it was innocently dropped by a child who was too scared to tell their mother. Maybe they had been playing tea parties with the wedding china and buried the broken bits hoping no one would ever notice the missing plate?
I think we might re-bury it so its story can continue. It belongs with this house and one day, years from now, another five-year-old may dig up their very own treasure.
In other ‘housekeeping’ matters, I will shortly be posting an interview with American author Isabel Gillies about what happens when your house metaphorically falls down around you as it did when her marriage collapsed.
I have just been interviewed by my cousin-in-law about my thoughts on home. Aside from being extremely stylish herself, she also has a very stylish blog, Wilona and Me. If you’re after ideas on decorating and design definitely have a look. Thanks Meagan, it was lovely of you to ask me!
Friday, November 19, 2010
"Have you ever wondered what the stretch of time smells like? I can’t say I had, not before I set foot inside Milderhurst Castle, but I certainly know now. Mould and ammonia, a pinch of lavender and a fair wack of dust, the mass disintegration of very old sheets of paper. And there’s something else, too, something underlying it all, something verging on rotten or stewed but not. It took me a while to work out what that smell was, but I think I know now. It’s the past. Thoughts and dreams, hopes and hurts, all brewed together, shifting in the stagnant air, unable ever to dissipate completely."
And so we enter the crumbling castle of Kate Morton’s third book, The Distant Hours. It’s a castle that feels so alive it’s a character itself. As a reader you feel the weight of its secrets, the burden of bearing witness, the consequences of acts occurring within its walls.
There is no greater joy than to be transported to another world through the pages of a book and in all Kate’s books that other world happens to be between the walls of a home. A grand house, a walled garden and little cottage, a castle: all remain as vivid as the characters who inhabit them.
Says Kate, ‘It’s one of my favourite parts of writing; creating the home in which my people move.’
‘For me, as a person, not just a writer, I adore old houses and buildings that feel like they bear the imprint of previous lives... the generations of people who have lived and loved and fought and worried and dreamed within their walls.’
Growing up in one of the original farmhouses on Tamborine Mountain in South East Queensland was a reminder to Kate they weren’t the only family ever to call this house home; ‘It was the sort of place where you’d open a built-in cupboard and find traces of people who’d been there before... an old to-do list, a single shoe.’
‘My mother is a second-hand dealer and she’d go to deceased estates to help families sort through belongings and work out what was valuable and not. I’d go with her sometimes and I felt I was seeing a house without its inhabitants but still wearing the clothing of the inhabitant, which was extremely poignant.’
‘We’d sort through old journals, letters, doctor’s reports, minutiae of someone’s daily life that’s not really valuable to anyone else but paints a picture of them. Even as a child I really got that and was moved by it.’
And now as a writer, Kate remains fascinated by such stories, ‘My favourite thing is the way the past and present touch one another. I’m not interested in the past without the present.’
In all three books, the past leaves an indelible print on the present and it is through the built environment that Kate so evocatively captures her characters’ journeys; ‘The atmosphere of the house pretty much parallels the atmosphere I want the book to have: the feeling it gives the characters when they are inside and the feeling it gives the readers when they inhabit it with the characters.’
The built environment, fully formed before Kate begins writing, also helps her get to know her cast; ‘I learn more about my characters as I watch them go inside and walk around the rooms, I see how they live and breathe there. It’s like a film inside my head, but a film where you can feel things and smell things. The atmosphere is so alive and I just write that down as I’m experiencing it.’
When reading The Distant Hours, it’s hard not to feel transported into a ‘whispering’ castle that ‘bore the unmistakeable signature of stillness... a depth of aloneness – loneliness almost – cloaking me’.
Or feel anxious; ‘the ominous creep beneath my skin? Perhaps it was only that a gust of autumn chill came then, seething beneath the door, angering the lock so that the key fell to the floor.’
When Edie, the young woman who comes to visit the castle, ends up having to stay the night Kate skilfully conveys the oppression and fear she feels; ‘Things are otherwise when the world is black. Insecurities and hurts, anxieties and fears grow teeth at night. Particularly when one is sleeping in a strange, old castle with a storm outside.’
But what about when one is sleeping in her own art-deco era home amongst the hills, antique shops, cafes and workers cottages of Paddington in Brisbane? ‘The atmosphere of my home is definitely created by sounds from outside’, says Kate. ‘The possums and turkeys on the roof, so clumsy and loud, the possums sneaking under the eaves and running under our ceilings, branches scratching against windows.’
‘But after a boiling hot, humid day, one of the best sounds is those big, fat raindrops starting to fall on the corrugated iron roof... and a vivid childhood memory would have to be the noise of the iron roof contracting under the really hot sun.’
Since becoming a mother, Kate feels she has been searching for ‘the house’; ‘The one where your children will look back and think “that’s where I grew up, that’s where I skinned my knee, those are the stairs we fell down, this is where we had Christmas”, all those markers of a human life. I don’t know that I have found that house yet. Maybe it doesn’t exist or maybe it’s a dream.’
Or perhaps she has already found it; ‘Home really comes to life with the sound of my husband playing the piano and my children making noise. Suddenly I’ll turn around to see a seven year old wearing rollerblades inside or I’ll hear the sound of little bottoms sliding down wooden stairs... All the people I love most are within its walls, making noise, being themselves and living their lives.’
Much the same as her characters really.
For more information about Kate Morton’s novels, visit her website here.
To read her journal, click here.
Author image © Fiona Harding
Book cover images courtesy of Allen & Unwin
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
You can’t miss the child’s red shoes that adorn the cover of Tessa Kiros’ cookbook Apples for Jam. Her book stands out amongst the hundreds of other cookbooks appearing on the shelves in bookshops because those slightly scuffed, well-worn shoes suggest that behind this cover lies something more than lists of ingredients and cooking methods.
I recently showed a friend of mine who is an amazing cook this book... just as she was leaving after a cup of tea. She opened it up and within seconds closed it again.
‘Oh no, don’t do this to me’, she said as she stroked the cover – those shoes – ‘If I start now I’ll need to read the whole thing in one go!’
And she’s right. Another friend had loaned it to me and I lost a few hours of the afternoon inside its covers. And I keep dipping back. It’s not just for the food but the story Tessa weaves in and around the recipes. Here are those stories of life; universal memories of childhood, moments of motherhood, of creating a sense of family and the security of home through the meals you cook for those you love.
And to top it off, she lives in Tuscany.
Having worked as a chef in London, Sydney, Athens and Mexico and travelled the world, Tessa’s food is a rich blend of many different cultures. She is also the author of five other cookbooks, the most recent being Food From Many Greek Kitchens. While Apples For Jam is about the recipes she remembers from childhood and those she cooks for her own children, her latest book sees her visit the Greek kitchens of her friends and family.
But today we are visiting her kitchen; the one she shares with her husband and two daughters in the hills of Tuscany. And while we’re in the kitchen, why not start with what it’s like to cook there.
‘Italy, or at least where I live – in the countryside in Tuscany has wonderful ingredients. It is difficult not to notice what the earth is giving us all the way through the year. The slow and steady cycle of things here. The repetition each year. In that way for me it is different from living in an international city where almost everything is available.’
So what does Tessa enjoy cooking the most? ‘There are many meals depending on the time of year. In Summer we love barbecues; huge salads outside and ice cream and picnics in the garden. In Winter we’re inside around the fire; roasts, roasted vegetables, mashed potatoes, pies... I love pies for the family in winter, and warm crumbly kind of desserts with a splash of colour... yes that would cheer things up.’
The kitchen has always been the heart of the home for Tessa. And not just for cooking, ‘Whether it be to sit at a table with tea and biscuits and friends, or spend time in alone... The kitchen for me should flow into the rest of the home.’
After becoming a mother, she found that her thoughts about food and cooking changed, ‘Nourishing young ones is a grand responsibility and a wonderful opportunity. I shop mainly for organic produce these days and since being a mum I am far more aware and more careful about what I will serve. I see food now also as the building blocks and the fuel that we need to proceed. Not just the sheer enjoyment side of it. I try and twirl them together now.’
In Apples for Jam, Tessa likens feeding a family to ‘stitching all the bits together on a steady thread'. As she explains, ‘It’s about holding it altogether. If that is our job for now then let us do it well. Once our place is to prepare the meals we should splash them with love and any extras that we can and still do it elegantly. Nobody wants to know the other details. Just if you did it and if you did it well. A family has many needs. Varying dynamics. Sometimes we need to rise above and take in what we need to do instead of getting stuck in the stickiness of it all.’
What food memories does she hope to leave with her daughters? ‘I would like them to know about food, where it comes from and that what we put into it – our efforts, our beliefs are what will show up in our pots and on our plates. I would like them to remember tasting different ingredients, food from different cultures and above all to have their own lovely warm and aromatic memories of what they loved as children all the way through their adulthood – not that it was a drag and they had to eat zucchini.’
Not surprisingly, Tessa’s feelings about home have always been and will always be closely intertwined with food; ‘For me home is a cosy open place, where people join at meals especially or over tea. The family materialise out of their various corners for lunch or dinner and then often disappear again. Bringing them all together in this way has an almost magical quality to it.’
Her most favourite time of year in the kitchen? ‘Christmas at home I love.’
Luckily Christmas isn’t too far away so what better excuse than to include a festive recipe from Tessa’s latest cookbook, Food From Many Greek Kitchens.
KOURABIEDES BUTTERY ALMOND CAKES
These are icing sugary/buttery, and melt-in-your-mouth honest bundles enjoyed at Christmas.
Makes about 22
50 g (1¾ oz/1/3 cup)
almonds, skin on
250 g (9 oz) unsalted
butter, room temperature
2 tablespoons icing (confectioners’) sugar
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
1 tablespoon brandy
300 g (10½ oz/2 cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
about 250 g (9 oz/2 cups) icing (confectioners’) sugar, for dusting
Coarsely chop the almonds into small pieces. Toast in a dry frying pan over a low-ish heat until just coloured. Cool.
Whisk the butter in a bowl using electric beaters until it is very pale and thick, about 8 minutes.
Add the icing sugar and whisk it in well. Add the egg yolk, vanilla and brandy and whisk them in well too.
Sift in the flour and baking powder and beat them in until you have a smooth dough which is hard to keep mixing with the beaters. Add the almonds and mix them through with your hands.
Press the dough into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 to 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to180°c ( 350°f / gas 4 ) and line a baking tray with baking paper.
Break off pieces of dough, about 30 g ( 1¼ oz ) each, and roll them into balls, slightly flattening the tops.
Put them on the tray allowing a little space between each one. Bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool on the tray for about 15 minutes.
Dust about half of the icing sugar onto a tray or large plate or your tin where you will store them.
Gently move the kourabiedes to sit in a single layer in this, then sprinkle the remaining icing sugar over their tops so that they look like they are snowed in. Will keep in a tin for many days.
Recipe and images from Tessa Kiros: Food From Many Greek Kitchens, published by Murdoch Books RRP $69.95
All other images courtesy of Murdoch Books
For more information about any of Tessa’s cookbooks, click here.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Why does it seem wrong to have your normal weekly breakfast on a Sunday? On those Sundays when I do just throw a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and pour a mug of tea while pulling out the boring Weet-bix carton from the pantry for the kids, I find the day feels distinctly un-weekend-ish.
On a Sunday when one of us does pull the carton of eggs out of the fridge or finds a packet of bacon in the back of the freezer, the day feels much less structured and full of possibilities. Strange, given that there are only so many ways a Sunday can be full of possibilities with three children and one who sleeps in the afternoon but there you go: the power of bacon.
Today there was no packet of bacon. There was a tub of fresh ricotta, however, and a husband who reached for Bill Granger’s ricotta hotcakes recipe. What better way to mark a Sunday and particularly fitting as I am currently writing up an interview with cookbook author Tessa Kiros. It wouldn’t feel the same if I was eating a buttered slice of slightly stale multigrain while writing about her kitchen in the hills of Tuscany, would it?!
Her interview will be posted shortly, but in the meantime here’s that Sunday Ricotta Hotcakes recipe... the only downside was that with five of us there no longer seems to be quite the same number of hotcakes to go around.
Bill Granger’s Ricotta Hotcakes (taken from Sydney Food)
1 1/3 cups ricotta
¾ cup milk
4 eggs, separated
1 cup plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
Place ricotta, milk and egg yolks in a mixing bowl and mix to combine.
Sift the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add the ricotta mixture and mix until just combined.
Place egg whites in a clean, dry bowl and beat until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites through batter in two batches, with a large metal spoon.
Lightly grease large non-stick fry pan with a small portion of the butter and drop two tablespoons of batter per hotcake into the pan. Cook over low to medium heat for two minutes or until hotcakes have golden undersides. Turn hotcakes and cook on the other side until golden and cooked through.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
‘That’s what we do here, my mum does storage’, Fiona Chandler recently overheard her six-year-old daughter tell a friend who had asked why there were so many boxes in Fiona’s home office.
‘Oh,’ answered her friend, ‘We have stuff everywhere at our house.’
‘So do we,’ her daughter sympathised, ‘My mum just works out ways to hide it.’
Indeed her mother has worked out many ‘ways to hide it’ and three years ago turned these solutions into the storage brand Fiona Kate.
Living in a small house with two small children and another on the way, Fiona saw how much clutter the family had accumulated but had never found a successful way to store it; ‘Every time I thought I’d found something to store all the toys, baby clothes and books in, they would either break or the kids would get paint on them and it was too expensive to go out and buy another 10.’
‘I tried wicker baskets that just got dusty and were too big so all the small toys would disappear to the bottom. Plastic tubs just looked ugly. I couldn’t find the right sizes to fit my shelves or I’d go back and the shop wouldn’t have the same colour. I just wanted something useful that I would never have to think about again.’
Working as an Art Director designing homeware brands, Fiona decided she should just make her own boxes. ‘I wrote down a list of all the things I wanted: it needed to be strong, fun, classic and flexible enough to carry a child from baby to teen and beyond.’
From experience, Fiona knew that corflute, a strong propylene, would be the most durable material she could use. She had a prototype made, let the kids play with it, made a few changes then had them made up.
It wasn’t long before girlfriends were asking where she had found the boxes and soon after her house was used in a magazine photoshoot. One of the staff saw the boxes and asked to include them in the photos. More people started asking about them and suddenly Fiona and her husband realised they may have stumbled into a business.
‘I would never have thought this would be a business idea or that I would ever start up a business. I was just trying to solve all my own storage issues!’
They decided to see what would happen. ‘I said to my friends “these are the sizes I’ve made. Can you go home and tell me all your storage issues, measure the sizes you need and what colours you want?”
With all their feedback, Fiona made a few more prototypes which were tested by ‘jumping, sitting and dragging’ and before long had the finished product out in the marketplace.
As her four children have grown, Fiona has stumbled across different storage issues to those she had with a house full of babies and toddlers. But, as the boxes have been designed to outlast any childhood phase, she has found that what first housed nappies moved on to housing blocks, then lego, then trainsets, and now stores a soccer kit.
Fiona spends a lot of time designing and redeveloping her products in much the same way as she did when making those first boxes. ‘I use it and use it to make sure it will work and last. I give it to the kids to try out... they enjoy helping. Actually they most enjoy telling me what’s wrong with it. It’s like I have my own quality control team.’
Sometimes the kids come up with their own storage issues that need solving. ‘My oldest son sleeps on the top bunk and wanted something to keep his lego men and other precious things out of the way of the other kids. “I can’t sleep with a box, Mum” he said to me but he wanted something to put those things inside.’
‘I designed the ‘Storage Bandit’, a little woollen bag, and gave it to him to test out. He loved it so I gave one to each child and all of them used it for something different. I then gave it to a few girlfriends. I didn’t tell them what it was for, just asked them to use it. None of them ended up giving it to their kids. One used it next to her front door to keep her keys in, another used it on her desk and another in her car. Everyone could find a use that suited their needs so I will sell it now.’
As everyone has different needs and all houses have different storage problems, it has always been important to Fiona that her brand is able to be used in a multitude of ways to solve a multitude of problems.
When asked to pick a favourite product, she is quick to choose the crate box; ‘It’s got handles, looks stylish, I can carry it around, it goes camping and to the park and all I have to do is wipe it down. We’ve used it to carry food for parties to the park and then it becomes a table too.’
When the family renovated their home, not surprisingly, built in storage was well thought out. ‘I don’t like clutter,’ says Fiona, ‘but we have an extraordinary amount of stuff that has just become well hidden.’
‘Every corner of the house was used and many features have two uses. The kitchen bench seats open up for storage, the kids have bench seats, cupboards and bookshelves in their rooms. All are easily accessible so the kids are able to get to everything.’
‘I don’t need a tidy house but I do need a systematic house and then I find life much easier. The kids know where everything belongs. There are hooks for hats, there’s a book cupboard. I try to make it easy and doable.’
So, does a systematic house make the morning rush to get six people up, dressed, fed and ready to get out the door for work and school easier? Fiona laughs. ‘My system for the morning would have to be... I shout about socks a lot!’
‘I’m not the best mother in the world or the best housekeeper. I don’t get stuff done on time and I don’t have it all sussed. We’re just an ordinary family trying to work it all out. But I do think that anything that drives you mental you just need a solution to. Otherwise you end up being that shouty, scary woman!’
To find out more about Fiona Kate products, visit the website here.
To read Fiona's blog, where she answers commonly asked questions about all things storage, click here
All images © Fiona Chandler
Monday, November 8, 2010
What happens when you move overseas only to feel more ‘at home’ than you do in the country of your birth?
Louise Craig moved to England at the age of 26 and from the moment she stepped off the plane, felt she was home. Here she writes about the experience of falling in love with another country...
‘It’s nearly 12 years since I left the place where I was born; six years since I left the country where I grew up. I’ve lived in four cities and 12 houses. Every move’s been for a good reason, another step along in life. But now I’m ready to stop for a while – not because I’m tired, but because I finally feel content.
The odd thing, or so my friends tell me, is that I feel content in a place that isn’t home. I’m an Australian living in London. I’m supposed to be here for a ‘working holiday’, experiencing life abroad before I go back home to settle down.
But what if I never get around to going home?
I grew up not so much feeling that I didn’t want to be in Australia, but rather that there was a wonderland out there, far, far away, called England, and that I was destined to be there. It was a place of good manners, proper tea and sturdy cakes, E-types and plummy accents, tweed and pinstripes and Liberty prints. It was green of hill and cool of weather, and as far from humid, big-country-town-like Brisbane, where I was born, as I could get.
The trouble was, I’d never actually been to England. But I couldn’t rest until I discovered whether my fantasy world was real. At 26, when I finally organised myself to travel there, it wasn’t for a holiday – it was to live. I left my job, sold what little I owned and banked heavily on the fact that I’d like what I found.
Friends and family wished me well, but also that I should find what I was looking for. What was that? Proof? A place to satisfy my Anglophilia? My spiritual home?
The proof came the moment I arrived. It was real – what a relief! And the satisfaction arrived very soon after. Every building, every street, every garden square transported me to other times in history and connected me with thousands of characters who once occupied the same space. Even now, with childlike wonder, I’ll break into a spontaneous smile as I walk along the street – I’m really here, really part of this other world.
I’ve fallen in love. In central London, where I live, I don’t get mad on the Tube or upset at the grime; I relish the cold and the grey; I’m at peace with the gaudy neon advertising signs that tower over Piccadilly Circus. Rather, as the Gallagher brothers would say, it’s the little things that make me so happy: the old-fashioned curve of a street lamp, the red of a pillar box, the whirr of an electric milk float early in the morning.
I make a game of picking out Margo Leadbetter types doing their weekly shop in Waitrose, and I’m the only person I know who, when it rains or snows, opens the window and pokes her head out to enjoy it.
Eventually I took my first holiday back to Australia – in the July two and half years after I left. Friends and colleagues in London gasped that I’d left it so long (not to mention remind me, in astonishment, that it was winter ‘down there’).
Naturally, friends and family in Australia asked when I would be home – for good, they meant. My instinctive reaction was to reply that I’d be going home at the end of this holiday. A perceptive aunt tut-tutted and reminded me that I meant I’d be going ‘back’ not ‘home’. Suddenly, I didn’t know what I meant.
She asked, too, whether I felt as if I’d been to England before. Gosh – yes. There is a chilling, yet reassuring, sense of familiarity about the place. But why? Is it because I spent the 26 years before arriving subconsciously swotting up, watching thousands of hours of BBC television and reading mountains of Tatler and British Vogue magazines?
Is it that my head has lived in England all my life, but the rest of me in Australia? It would certainly explain why I could explain what Quaglinos, an OAP and a double-yellow line were before I’d even stepped foot on English soil.
But during that holiday ‘home’, I watched an Australian travel program on television in which they provided advice on visiting London. Tellingly, a lump rose in my throat as I watched the images of where I now live and work and play. I missed it and felt homesick.
I couldn’t understand why because, in London, I had the same, more understandable, reaction when the ‘So where the bloody hell are you?’ advertisements for Australia appeared on television. It occurred to me, painfully, that I wasn’t at all sure where the bloody hell home was.
Arriving back in London at the end of that holiday, the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac at Heathrow and two things happened: a huge grin cracked across my face and a light bulb went on in my head. I was home again. I’d just given myself permission to have more than one.
Some might say I’m naïve to the realities of living on this expensive, overcrowded island. Whatever it seems, this England affords me an overwhelming feeling of contentment and a place to rest my spirit. I’m learning that home is wherever you choose it to be: where you are happy, where you feel an affinity, where you have people you love, where you’ve been for so long you can’t remember being anywhere else.
So, have I found what I’m looking for? It’s a question I hardly dare ask myself; except to say I don’t feel as if I’m living away from anywhere. I just feel at home.’
All images © Louise Craig
Saturday, November 6, 2010
After talking to owner of Armchair, Pip Robb, about the personalities of her many armchairs it made me think more about furniture and how strongly it can relate to home.
Is there a piece of furniture you would rush to save in a fire? Or if you were moving overseas would there be a piece of furniture that would have to go with you to make you feel at home?
Have you inherited special pieces from your family or your partner’s family? Have you invested in a special piece that you plan to have in your home forever (and perhaps hand down to your children?) Or is your most precious piece of furniture something you’ve kept from your childhood home or something you found on the side of the road and restored yourself?
Ok, I’ll go first.
For me, and not because I am copying Pip (!), the piece of furniture I can’t imagine ever being without is an armchair. Favourite because of its history and the story it now has to tell.
When I was pregnant with my first child, like many mothers, I loved the idea of having an armchair in the nursery. My grandparents lounge set, which they had owned throughout my lifetime at least, had an armchair which in recent years my grandfather had stopped using. Its fabric had worn out, one of the legs was bent, it was now squeaky and uncomfortable.
He happily gave it to me and we had it reupholstered and restored. Not knowing what this baby was, I decided to go for a red fabric and knew also that it would be a fabric that could move beyond the baby stage easily.
It was perfect for feeding and then as my daughter grew older, perfect for reading bedtime stories. As each child came along, the chair moved in with the baby. Now that there are no babies, the chair has become the reading chair. Often I will find any of the children sitting on it while looking at books and sometimes all three there together.
It’s a piece of furniture that will always remind me of our early years together learning to become a family.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
If you had to give a piece of furniture in your home a name or personality, what would you choose? What piece of furniture is imposing enough to be singled out?
For Pip Robb, owner of Armchair store, it would – obviously – be an armchair. In her life as an interior designer she found herself constantly searching for armchairs for clients; a statement piece for their homes.
Never able to find the right armchair in the right fabric she would often end up finding old armchairs and have them restored and reupholstered. Having always loved armchairs and buying her first one as a design college student, it wasn’t long before she realised she wanted to open up a store based around this particular piece of furniture.
Three years ago she opened Armchair and today remains passionate about chairs from all different eras. ‘Often it’s the shape of the chair I love; shape can be truly beautiful.’
Finding the chairs involves trips into the country, auctions and second-hand stores. It might take a while before the right fabric comes along to give the chair a second life in a new home; ‘I get quite attached to them as they are around for a while. I don’t recover them straight away until I know what personality the chair is.’
Pip likes to give her chairs a completely new life so a fussy chair might end up in a plainer fabric while a retro chair may be given a floral makeover. ‘I’ve recently bought a chair for myself and it’s still in its original vinyl. I adore its shape, it’s very round, retro and vintage with gorgeous lines. I can’t upholster it until I find the right fabric and that may be a while. I want this chair to stay forever so I will probably end up choosing a plain colour to make it more versatile.’
Once the chair is in its new fabric, Pip is ready to name it. ‘All our chairs have names. I started by giving them numbers and it seemed wrong. They have too much of a personality to just be a number.’
As well as thinking about the new life the chairs are given, Pip is constantly reminded of their old life and their original homes. ‘When the chairs first come in they all have a different smell. Some smell like mothballs while others might smell like lavender. Some have scuff marks on the legs; others are filled with horse hair. I’m always thinking about who the previous owners were and the rooms the chairs have sat in for years.’
‘One chair came in all torn with writing all over it; it had been in a uni student's home and I wondered about all the things it had seen and been through. Another chair had a plaque with a person’s name on the bottom of its leg. It had come from a nursing home and obviously its owner had brought it from their home when they moved in. I couldn’t upholster it for a long time and eventually I took the plaque off as I had to take away its old life completely before I could give it a new one.’
After being reupholstered, Pip feels that the chairs really do have another chance with another family. ‘People get so excited and passionate about the chairs so it’s nice to think it’s going to be loved in a new home.’
Customers will also come back to tell Pip about how the chair is enjoying its new home. ‘A husband and wife came in to buy a chair for their living room soon after they married. A year later they were back, pregnant and looking for a chair to use in the nursery. Once the baby was born they came back to introduce me. I love that the chairs and this store are becoming part of a family story and history.’
For Pip and her partner Andrew, it is objects that create their sense of home and continue a family story. ‘We’re renting but it feels like home because it’s the objects we have that say home to us. We’ve inherited most of our objects from our parents. I have a bookcase I grew up with and Andrew has an armchair given to him by his grandparents.
I have a collection of jugs I use every day – for flowers or to serve on the table – and that reminds me of my mother and grandmother. I still use a bowl my mum used for serving salads when I was a child. You need lots of those things around to remind you of where you came from.’
And there is still that armchair waiting for its chosen fabric.
For more information about Armchair, visit the website here.
401-405 Pacific Hwy
Crows Nest, NSW
Monday - Friday
10:00am - 6:00pm
Saturday - Sunday
10:30am - 4:30pm
All images ©Pip Robb
Monday, November 1, 2010
A month or so ago, we suddenly got cold feet about renovating. The reality of three to four (or six?) months of living through it seemed a little overwhelming. One of the mothers at my daughter’s school told me that they used a camping shower in the backyard when their bathroom was renovated (for four whole weeks...), another told me that if we didn’t move out we would be lucky to finish the renovation still married. Obviously, both comments caused concern.
I’m not a camper and the thought of showering in our backyard which is bordered by three other houses and quite overlooked is not really the same as open-air showering at the beach or in the wilderness, is it?
And there is no way our budget is going to allow moving out. It will barely allow for the actual build, we’re discovering. There goes the marriage.
So, we decided to take a look around. But moving will mean leaving this suburb. A suburb we have grown to love. Yesterday we had lunch with friends around the corner and afternoon drinks with friends up the road. I go to the supermarket, bookshop, cafes and always bump into someone I know. The school is a five minute walk away and the preschool another five minutes. I realised how hard it would be to give those things up.
Now that I have children and spend my days walking around the neighbourhood rather than driving out of it to an office every day, I’ve realised for the first time since my own childhood that the neighbourhood has also become home.
I have a couple of friends who are thinking about moving and to get a bigger house or a larger block of land they will have to move further away. Their partners are fine with leaving the suburb – yes, the commute is greater but they will have more outdoor space for the kids – but my friends are not. It’s not their houses they are sad to leave, having definitely outgrown them, it’s their neighbourhoods and the lives they have made within them.
All the negatives about leaving centre around the neighbours, new friends made at the park around the corner, or the local playgroup or cafe. Their sense of home encompasses more than what lies behind the front gate during this stage of their lives.
And ours too, we’ve decided. We’ll have to take the chance on our marriage and living in disarray for possibly more weeks than I care to consider. We love this house, renovated or not, but more importantly we love where this house sits; in a spot we definitely want to sit for a while longer.
So while I sit, I have also been busy talking to some interesting people about home lately. Stay tuned for interviews with Pip Robb, owner of Armchair, Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan founder of the amazing American food blog The Kitchn, Fiona Chandler from storage box company Fiona Kate and Isabel Gillies, author of the absorbing memoir Happens Every Day.
I am also about to interview international best-selling author Kate Morton on her thoughts of home and how she manages to create characters out of the houses she writes about in her books. I’m looking forward to hearing about her own 100-year-old house...