In the interests of explaining exactly what we think we’re doing here, and what this whole damn thing is about, the two of us sat down (in separate houses – like the Spice Girls, we actually can’t stand to be in the same room) and got our chat on about our spaces through the years and how life’s fed into our unshakeable – and surprisingly similar – thoughts on what makes a good home. Make sure you’ve got a brew, a snack and maybe a commode – this is going to be a long one…
A bit of background. Emma’s Mum died about seven years ago, of breast cancer, and Robyn’s Nan – who was like her Mum – died 18 months prior to that, also of cancer. So, trigger warning: we’re gonna talk a lot about grief and a bit about disordered eating and self-harm, and a bit about wanking. Does wanking need a trigger warning? Probably not.
E: when did we first start talking about doing something together?
R: think it was about 12 years ago..? I wrote that thing trashing Keane for your student magazine, after asking to do Bono who you’d already trashed, cos we’re the same
E: yes! Ok, so we liked writing together. And we liked each other
R: and I lived in the weird house by the graveyard
E: I think I only went there once
R: and it was filled with stuff
E: it was FILLED with stuff. Do you still have all the stuff?
R: you know, I have a lot of the stuff, but some of it was pure floral sofas, Gone with the Wind student retro vibes so that went on a bonfire when my Grandad wanted back the barn we’d been using as storage. I think the first home of yours I went to wasn’t until you were in London
E: yeah, my landlord was an architect and he’d renovated the whole house, but hadn’t installed a washing machine or an oven
R: there was no oven?
E: no oven. And a kind of mini beer fridge, but no freezer
R: was that the crappest crap flat you lived in?
E: it was definitely the crappest flat I ever lived in
R: I’m glad. Was that the first one you rented in London?
E: yep. £410 a month, all-in, with a top-up metre for gas and electricity
R: do you think that made the whole moving to London really stresso?
E: errrrrrr, I think I was so glad to be here, and I’d got a fancy job writing for Topshop.com and I was excited about everything. But home was not a happy place to be. Your time in London has been so much nicer, surroundings-wise
R: I have never rented in London
R: isn’t that mad
E: that is MAD. And fortunate
R: yeah man, straight to Jamie’s parents in Teddington for three years
E: because I know you didn’t really want to be in London anyway, and I think if you’d had to deal with the rental market as well, you might have ended up leaving
R: oh god yes – I get stressed out hearing about all the fees and the bastard landlords and stuff on other people’s behalf
R: I just need home to be predictable, manageable and safe
E: yeah, me too. Only last night Mr Crap Flat put my dressing gown in the wash, and the sink filled with putrid water and everything broke, so now I can’t use the kitchen sink or the washing machine
R: oh man – that sucks ass
R: do you think if we had the European model of long-term renting it would significantly improve your mental health?
E: what’s the european model? You just have a longer term contract?
R: people rent for decades
E: but then you’re locked in. And what if something happens or you hate it?
R: I think you can leave, but the market is much more long-term. People can decorate, and rents probably don’t get hiked yearly
E: we got this place after another, much nicer place we had fell through. Viewed it at night time and it looked fine, so we took it, because we had less than a week before we had to move out. And when I walked in on the first day, I thought, ‘Oh shit, I hate it’
R: oh, the crap flat. It’s one of the better flats I’ve been to, though
R: you hate it
E: it’s proper crap
R: if you could magic the crap flat into something else what would it be?
E: I’d magic it into a two-bed, high-ceilinged, wooden-floored loft-style place, with pristine white walls and so much light. And high up so people can’t park outside and look through your window
R: ohh like a big converted warehouse?
E: yeah, on the top floor. It’d be a bit industrial and a bit elegant
R: ahh, that’s what I’d like too – loads of light
E: you’d go for that over a house? I always liked the idea of a big, remote modernist bungalow
R: I think so but would I then think murderers are hiding all over it
E: ah yeah, Mr Crap Flat’s away for a week now so I can spend the entire time worrying about murderers
R: ha ha – bungalow
E: genuinely – I love the sense of space you get from being all on one floor
R: but how do you go to bed if you don’t go up the apples and pears?
E: you just sashay down a corridor
R: I think I need stairs
E: not a terribly minimal corridor with poured concrete floors and low lighting? Perfect for a murder
R: when we lived with Jamie’s parents we were in a top floor self-contained flat, and it was awful for my mental health – I felt like I was in a cage. Couldn’t argue with Jamie, so I had be be polite always. It was just a space that didn’t reflect me, in London, where I didn’t have a job. And I had to go through Jamie’s parents’ lounge to get out. The shitcom years
E: yeah, I think those transitional years are always so hard, and you look back on them and shudder
R: you’ve just got nothing of your own
E: when I think of the places I’ve lived, I shudder a lot
R: the one in Kentish Town wasn’t bad? But then it was probably a grief hole, so I can imagine you hate it in retrospect
E: yeah, a lot of bad things happened in that flat. Plus, it was damp and the landlord wouldn’t lift a finger to change it. It was a bad time. But also the first time I’d lived with friends, so the first bit was a lot of fun. Gin in the garden, and we had two neighbourhood cats who would come and join us for cuddles
R: do you think that cohabiting – even if it was with pals – made grieving harder? You’ve delved into it much more since you’ve lived with Mr Crap Flat
E: I think it’s complicated. I think both you and I lived, if not in denial, in a state of perpetual fear about what might happen, and that fear was not to be looked at; was too uncomfortable to sit with, but always there, like a little imp on your shoulder
R: oh god yes, I was psychically unable to think about it. My throat would feel like it was closing up
E: yep, I would shut it DOWN – always find something else to do, or to worry about. I think a lot of our eating problems were a distraction in that time. Like, what else can I focus on to make sure that I don’t think about it
R: oh, for sure, yes
E: a bit of partying
R: compulsive masturbating. Anything to feel a thing.
E: ha ha, really? I didn’t have that one – I had self-harm instead
R: Jamie worked nights so I’d just be like, ‘A wank then’
E: yeah, it’s a distraction, right? Plus, you get to feel guilty about it afterwards, so that’s a distraction too. Between us we’ve covered it all! So then I think in the aftermath of Mum’s actual death, I’d become so proficient at not looking at it, that I just carried on as normal. I remember coming back from Scotland, where she died, and choosing that moment to clear out my entire wardrobe. And I knew at the time that I was using it as distraction, but that didn’t stop me. And then I chose to stay with the awful man I was with, who treated me so badly: more distraction
R: I think I wore my memories of my Nan as a little emotional coat I took everywhere, but then focused on her and her wonderfulness so I didn’t have to address the death. But you definitely internalised it more – I passed it to people to deal with, talked about it constantly
E: that’s a much nicer way. I wasn’t good at talking about things, and I thought people didn’t want to hear it, and would leave
R: you popped it inside
E: in the lock box. You get grief-fatigue though – I couldn’t handle having the same conversation over and over
R: and you want people to have an impossible answer. The person who said the best thing was my mate Shell whose boyfriend died when she was 19
R: she said, ‘It’s shit, and it’s going to be shit for a long time’. And that sort of managed expectations
E: yeah, I think that about sums it up. Nobody said that to me. Nobody really said anything to me. I just went back to London and I guess everybody thought that was it
R: you should get offered counselling the minute you’re bereaved
E: you probably should. I think everybody should have counselling. If we were all better equipped to deal with our heads – if we all knew ourselves better, we’d all be physically healthier as well as more comfortable in the world
R: yes! And if we were empowered to say, ‘I am not ok’
E: which is why… wait for it… home space is so important – having your safe space in the world to be honest and authentically you
R: I honestly think there was a massive improvement when we moved into the flat after Jamie’s folks’. Because, I love them dearly, but I needed a nest of my own that I could retreat to, and I think from being little I’ve thought, ‘One day I will have my nice house and my nice family and no one can fuck with my shit again’.
E: and I’m so glad you do have that
R: it’s very empowering
E: you kind of fiercely pursued the opposite to what you had as a kid. You’ve created a loving relationship with a gentle person who adores you – it makes me very proud of you. You gave yourself stability
R: and I’m so bloody grateful for it
E: but it’s work, right? It’s work to keep those things going
R: I think you make choices – I prioritise my home and Jamie over other things. I could have a more buzzing social life, but I like being at home better
E: I always think you’re really social. I love being at home – it’s my favourite
R: I LIVE for people cancelling plans
R: bonus home time
E: that’s also introversion, for me
R: I think I’m an extroverted introvert – I present as extrovert to shield my introverted side
E: yeah, I did that for a number of years, I think. I remember being at my first proper house party and thinking to myself, ‘Right, Emma, people will like you if you seem confident, so just do that’. And I did, and they did, so it just continued for years
R: yeah, MAKE PEOPLE LAUGH
E: exhausting. Question: have you always been a confident decorator, or is it something that came with age?
R: always, since I was tiny
E: how tiny is tiny?
R: when we moved back into my house after my Mum left, I got my Mum and Dad’s old room, cos, you know, awkward for my Dad. And I had this whole lilac and mint green colour scheme, and I demanded my Nan got me loads of purple and green cushions, because Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen had done a cushion cubby on Changing Rooms. I was nine
E: I can totally imagine LLB being your youthful design inspiration
R: there’s a photo of me, also nine, on the front of the Ormkirk Advertiser in a full sequin bomber and velvet cap
E: so on-trend right now
R: I know, right?
E: do you think there was any connection back then, like, you as a nine year-old trying make nice the place that had felt bad – that could’ve been a place of bad memories?
R: oh, for sure! I was a terrible insomniac for about two years when my Mum left: firstly because we moved into my Nan’s which was a fundamentally terrifying old farm house, and then back at home it took ages for me to get back to normal. I’d wake up at 2am, get scared and then be up all night. I had a terribly overactive imagination
E: me too! Still do
R: but really jolly spaces are my way of counteracting that
E: you created your own jolly space. So, when you decorate now, do you still have that feeling of creating a sanctuary?
R: I think it’s about making everything feel like an adventure and lived-in and touchable? There are lots of warm colours and inviting fabrics and it’s a tactile space, and one I don’t feel nervous to occupy? I want it to be visually really exciting and maybe even distracting in its busy-ness but not somewhere that I couldn’t just lob myself on a sofa. Mainly-white spaces terrify me, because I feel like I’ll like smear chocolate on them, even if there is no chocolate. And there are definitely styles that feel too grown up. Oh god, am I Michael Jackson? Is this my Neverland?
E: is Cilla Bubbles?
R: ok, I want to know about your bedroom now
E: oh, it’s a sad story, but a really good example of who I have been in my life. So, we moved house when I was 10. My older step-sister had had the big bedroom at our old house, so my parents said I could have first dibs in the new house. My Dad’s Mum and Dad had donated a set of curtains and bedding for my new bedroom, but they would only fit in the small room. I wanted the big room so so bad, but I went for the small room, because I felt so guilty that my grandparents had given me curtains and they might not get used by me – like I was throwing the gift back in their face
R: oh, Emma – that makes me weep a bit. The day you say, ‘Give me that fucking big room’ I shall pop on a one man band and play around you for an entire day
E: when my sister left home I did get the big room, and it was Changing Rooms era, so we painted two walls cream and two walls taupe. Classy.
R: ha ha ha – ‘Have any colour you want.’ ‘A neutral, please’ Emma, aged 13
E: I’m nothing if not predictable! You spent a lot of time at your Nan’s, right? I’m interested in the fact that we both had access to two homes growing up, and what that means for a kid’s sense of personal style
R: oh yes, Nan’s was like a little safe space filled with stuff and adventure and just joy, and we lived there as well from ages one to three and nine to ten
E: and my Mum’s house was this beautiful, old farmhouse with loads of space and a definite tasteful vibe about it. I think it’s so interesting that it was our other home that informed who we are as home-makers now, rather than the places we mainly lived
R: I had a room in my nan’s but it wasn’t mine mine – like it was the spare room. And my Mum said she was going to decorate a room at her house for me, so I bought bright pink paint with my own money and then she just made it into a cannabis factory
E: that makes me cry
R: and THEN when my sister got her own room they used that paint and mixed with with white to make her a pink fairy room
E: WHAT THE ACTUAL?
R: I always wanted my Mum to make space for me in her life but she never did
E: but then you created your own Nan house in your bedroom at home?
R: yes, me and Nan made the Changing Rooms lime and lilac special
E: and now you’ve made your own space for yourself, and it is wonderful – a final middle-finger to everything that was denied you
R: as have you. Your massively calming space. Do you think it would be more calming if you could just do the things you wanted to it?
E: if I built my own place, it would be SO zen. Do you think that if you’d been allowed the pink room as a kid you’d still have such a yearning for all things bright?
R: at my Mum’s?
R: I don’t really know, I can’t really imagine a world where I would have been given it, you know? I think I’ll always love stuff though, and the distracting, story-telling nature of it. Our family love telling stories
E: tell me about storytelling in your home
R: well, the weasels, for example – so my Nan has the cheesiest sense of humour and her most-told crap joke was ‘What’s the difference between a weasel and a stoat? They’re weaselly identifiable because they’re stoatally different’. So a few christmases ago my Mum and uncle were pissing themselves for like half an hour before we opened our presents and all they said was, ‘We did not speak to each other about this’ as I opened two taxidermy weasels. The BEST
E: so it’s kind of about the moments of your life coming together to present a cohesive vision of who you are today?
R: yes! Good work, you’ve really summarised there. What about your lack of stuff?
E: I think I dress my space to create a mood or a feeling. We have no photos up, because I think if I have photos of people up I’ll find them distracting, or I’ll look at them and compare myself, which is never a good thing
R: but there are little memorial bits to your Mum
E: there are
R: and they are lovely
E: I’m all about personal touches, but everything has to fit together in the same mood
R: do you like having her around the house?
E: yeah, I do. Sometimes I remember that she had one of the things and that her hands touched it, and I get really sad. Like the radio, that she would have grown up with. Makes me remember that she wasn’t always my Mum – she was all these people in her life, and they’re all gone
R: ok that made me cry but is also lovely. Do you think she would have loved the crap flat?
E: she really would – it breaks my heart that she never got to see it. Your Nan would definitely have approved of Foxberry Towers, right?
R: she would have been all over it. She would literally have had it on a hoodie. She didn’t wear hoodies – maybe a sandwich board?
E: doesn’t it suck that they’re not here?
R: yeah, it sucks so hard but I think they’re both floating about somewhere feeling pretty smug we bossed it
E: I feel as though I’m at my best so far in life right now – do you?
R: yes, which is weird, cos I had to go through the worst to get here
E: I think that’s how we got to our best
R: how long do you think you’ll be in crap flat before you find somewhere you can fill with dogs, and will it be London forever?
E: I’d move now, and not London forever – London’s hard sometimes
R: ohh where then?
E: Scotland, eventually, or Cornwall
R: oh yes to Scotland! Ok, our partners are not the same as us. Mr Crap Flat…
E: very different, but also kind of the same inside
R: does he have strong opinions on what happens at the crap flat, or is he not arsed?
E: not arsed at all. He loves what we have, and he loves the Arnie and the Newcastle football squad, but he has not one design feeling about the place
R: did he have any input on the sofa
E: yep, I shortlisted, and then we chose the colour together, after I’d kind of already chosen. Oh, and he chose the telly
E: How about Jamie?
R: Jamie gives zero shits
E: he’s just happy to have a home with you in it?
R: he doesn’t like the leopard
E: oh yeah – neither does Cilla
R: he said there isn’t anything he thinks he’d put his foot down on
R: do you like doing the arty stuff? Cos you’re good at it, but does it stress you out?
E: I’m not creative like that at all really, and have no confidence in my abilities, so, like everything else in life, those bits are fraught with self-doubt. I’ll write you anything, but I never really exercised my visual creativity. Plus, making any kind of statement or putting anything of my own out there in the world for judgement is still uncomfortable. Weird that I started an Instagram
R: so you won’t be becoming a maker any time soon… What’s your most beloved thing in the flat?
E: Hippo. What’s yours?
R: probably the hangy chair
E: do you have any childhood toys still?
R: my Snoopy teddy that my Pa got me. Definitely not for newborns, but I think people gave fewer shits in the 80s. Who got you Hippo?
E: Mum made it for me when I was born
R: what a bloody Mum
R: Dad bought me snoopy when I was born. My brother’s bear was beary fur fur, which still makes me piss
R: what would you save in a fire?
E: Hippo, and Mr Crap Flat? And photos, obviously
R: Mr Crap Flat carrying hippo, nude
E: he usually is
R: how do you get zen when you’re in such close proximity to Mr Crap Flat?
E: I have baths. A hot bath, and then lie down and cool off after, but there’s very little alone time if we’re both in the flat. Do you and Jamie have zen rooms you go to to chill out?
R: he’s mainly in the kitchen, reading and cooking
E: and you’re camped out on the sofa with the dogs?
R: pretty much! What’s your most extravagant purchase?
E: well, sofa is the most expensive, but I think extravagant is probably the Casestudy Ceramics planter
R: fond memory of TCF?
E: long evenings spent on the sofa with Mr Crap Flat, being idiots. And you?
R: exactly the same. Oh and the nude decorating times. Any day in Foxberry Towers is pretty swell
Emma’s Top Ten Quick Question Rhyme Time
- Wolf from Gladiators or Mr Crap Flat? Much as I love Wolf’s stringy mullet and unitard, I’m sticking with MCF.
- Drink a pint of wee or fat? Wee. For sure.
- Eternally have to wear a hat or a cravat? Cravat. It could be my thing.
- Meeting on the move or sat? On the move – walking meetings are so productive.
- World’s biggest twat? Trump. Absolutely no contest.
- If you had to be one, which kind of big cat? Lion, right? They look so damn noble.
- Partying or pub and chat? The latter leads to the former, I think?
- Gloss paint or matte? Matte. I hate that bastard shine.
- Six million pounds to always live in the crap flat? Could I use the money to make improvements? I could just holiday a lot. I’d take the money. Would I..? I’m so conflicted. No, I’d wait until somebody gives me a free house. It’s going to happen.
- Lick a pigeon or a rat? Rat. I like rats. I’m licking one right now.
Robyn’s Top Ten Quick Question Rhyme Time
- Favourite day? Friday.
- Last time you had a pray? Ohh I did a little thank you to the universe this week actually.
- Semen moisturiser or poo hair spray? Semen, it’s full of protein.
- Tell somebody they have food in their teeth or don’t say? Tell them! Unlike my friend Jenny Holder who used to say, about 4pm on a working day, ‘Have I got something in my teeth’ and I’d be like, ‘No, do I?’. It was always a yes.
- Watch a whole season of football or have to play? Play the whole season? I might play it so I got really fit?
- Watch from the sidelines or enter the fray? Sidelines like a creep then leg in when I’m comfortable.
- Play it safe or make it risqué? Risqué all the way.
- Six million pounds to paint everything in Foxberry Towers grey? Arggghh. No. You keep your pounds.
- Leave quietly or sashay away? SASHAY AWAY, BABY.