Lifestyle with Mary Gilliatt
Advice From The Past

I have long thought that people don’t really change so very much over the centuries. What makes the difference, or, as many people call it, progress, is the continuing discovery of new materials and technology. This was particularly proved to me when I was doing the research for my Dictionary of Architecture and Interior Design when I saw that there was literally very little that was new in the world.

I remember giving a talk in Washington and showing slides of some 17th, 18th and 19th century chaises longues along with those of the early 20th century le Corbusier and Breuer and, to my delight, members of the audience being convinced that the 17th century version was actually the newest.

Certainly, over the last 2000 odd years we know that our actual thought patterns seem to have been much the same while the profound reflections of the writers and philosophers of early Greek and Roman, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, Indian and Far Eastern civilisations have not really been surpassed. 

But those 2000 years don’t count for so much when we look at 17,000 year old wall paintings of animals in the Lascaux caves in France and wonder at man’s ingenuity even then. In the early part of this century„ those interested, marveled even more as we heard about ancient cave and rock paintings in South Africa which were dated as an incredible 40-60,000 years old. And now, extraordinarily, a mixed group of archaeologists and scholars from all over the world have discovered  an actual workshop with delicately-made tools from animal bones; finely worked weapon points; and, most extraordinary of all, ochre and red paints (mixed in Abalone shells with charcoal, mammal bone marrow and iron oxide powder), adhesives and powders in the Blombos cave in South Africa (some 200 miles East of Cape Town), which they identify as 100,000 years of age.

Blombos was not a dwelling cave, it was literally a workshop, a place where people actually came to work 100,000 years ago. Other scientists are reporting exciting finds in other sites all over Africa and John Noble Wilford in a recent NY Times article  said the Blombos scientists are talking of the discovery of ‘extraordinary conceptual abilities’; an obvious ‘elementary knowledge of chemistry’; ‘a benchmark in the evolution of complex human cognition’ and ‘the gradual assemblage of the package of modern human behaviour in Africa and its later export to other regions of the old world’.

Once again, in fact, ‘Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose’ except I wish those slave traders had known all that noble tradition of the discovery and dissemination of knowledge all over the world, before they exported and sold their disrespected human cargo from Africa.

Also, I’d love to know how those 100,000 years ago guys first came up with using (scholars think) warmed bone marrow (before the bones were made into tools?) mixed with the ground ochre rock or red earth and little bits of charcoal and a sort of iron oxide powder to make paint with no written recipes. And they were mixed in Abalone shells which may have provided food a few days before.

Talking of which I saw on the web today an advertisement on a health site which read ‘Eat and live like a caveman for a perfect diet’ and extolled the virtues of The Paleo Recipe Book with 320 recipes in 18 food categories just as they ate in Palaeolithic times. Certainly, those 100,000 year old caveman workers were hardly despoiling the planet.  It’s food for thought about what exactly progress is, as well as health.

Some Thoughts About Colour

Here in the South Luberon in Provence where I am truly lucky to live, we have had a stunningly beautiful September: cloudlessly blue and blazingly golden by day with a liquid, pale gold wash of light in the evenings. It is therefore, I imagine, as hard to believe in the only too realistic economic maelstrom that is distressing so much of the world as it must have been to credit the impending war in those late Summer days of 1939. I am only reminded of this grim comparison because it was made so recently by one of the European financial handlers who said the situation was as bad in its way now, as it was then.

Consequently, as I was meandering down my favourite lane yesterday afternoon I was determinedly reveling in the here and now and delighting in the extraordinary tangle of varying greens interjected by the scarlets and oranges and brilliant yellows of berries, the deep, dark russet rose of turning vines and the odd gentian blue flower. It made me think yet again of the bugbear I have about the verbiage of colour. And note the verbiage. I do not say the language of colour or even vocabulary although to me so many of the terms used to describe such visual delights are not so much meaningless as annoyingly detracting.

I fully realize that terms like ‘advancing’ and ‘receding’ colours, ‘complimentary’ colours, ’primary’, ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ colours, ‘saturated’ colour, ‘muted’ colour, ‘accent’ colour and the ‘colour wheel’ are meant to introduce logic, order and therefore understanding and confidence into an unruly subject. And I certainly understand that people, whether students or amateurs of design and decoration, really want to know about every aspect of colour in order, they believe, to more easily devise colour schemes and how best to use them. But as I have watched students struggling earnestly to assimilate this vocabulary I have always questioned whether such terms and, in the worst cases, something akin to rules, can really help with such an essentially emotive and visual subject which is so bound up with the elusiveness and play of light.

You have only to remember how many times you have heard people say things like ‘But I hate green’. Or ‘I find blues so cold’. Or ‘I always love reds’ to have to concede that colour definitely arouses strong and, when you get down to it, mainly illogical emotions which no amount of constructive terms can alter.

Many of these terms stem from the cleverness of the British physicist, Sir Isaac Newton, who developed the original colour wheel when he was studying the effects of a beam of light through a glass prism way back in the 17th century. As we have been taught ever since, a prism splits light into the colours of a rainbow and the colour wheel is therefore the prismatic spectrum displayed in a circular form. This wheel consists of twelve colours from which all other colours, tints, hues, gradations of colour, are derived.

To be even more precise, it is based first on the three primary colours (red, yellow and blue) which are spaced equally around the circle. Between these are the secondary colours (purple, orange and green, which are mixtures of red and blue, red and yellow and yellow and blue). And the remaining six colours are tertiary colours. That is to say that they are made up of equal quantities of primary and secondary colours.

So far, so good. But do you see what I mean?  Even that little bit of information takes away the joy if you like, and certainly the spontaneity of the very many juxtapositions of colours to be seen in nature.  Over and over again I have seen people conscientiously jotting down this sort of information to the detriment of actually really noticing the gradation of colours around them and playing around with the various combinations as if they were in rooms, which, after all, is what creating colour schemes is all about

So my point, sacrilegious as it may seems, is how useful is it to have colour explained. Not only can we get so many visual ideas from the patterns of nature, but the more you look the more you come across. Notice too, all those luminous colours and variations that you find in pre-17th century paintings and illuminated manuscripts by artists who did not have the benefits of Newton’s discovery. Or in very early oriental rugs still to be seen in museums whose usually rural makers could hardly have learnt anything from the same source.

I’ve said and written it many, many times before and I have no doubt I will say and write it many, many times again, that most people learn more visually by really looking at what they see than they ever do from learning theory. ‘Look and ye shall see’ can hardly have been more true. 


Don’t Throw Away Those Plastic Water Bottles

If you are conscientious about trying to save the planet there are too many contradictory or conflicting assertions like in theology or medicine or science - often called the theology of our time. Only last week I was reading that we should not really drink bottled water - I can’t remember for what particular reason, probably because of yet more plastic bottles cluttering up the planet  (but what about places where the drinking water is not safe?), and this weekend and tonight I heard two really good practical reasons to drink it, at least out of plastic bottles - in order to guess what? To save the bottles.

The first one came from Liz Rich, my astonishing one woman The Week friend in NY who sends me so many valuable daily snippets. This one was a simple and fool proof way to fasten your trash or rubbish bags or plastic food storage bags without struggling with ties or bands. Simply save your bottles and cut off the tops at the neck complete with screw on bottle top. Thread the top of the plastic bag through the neck and screw on the top. Result a completely waterproof and air tight bag.

The second one came from a great breakthrough in the Philipines and could be used anywhere in the world where electricity is so expensive it is too hard to afford for far too many of the population or else is non-existant.

Fill your empty plastic water bottles with regular water and a little baking soda then cut out a circular or square piece of cardboard for each one. You then make a little hole or holes in your clay or corrugated iron or straw roof. Stick the necks of your bottles through these in the morning and slip over the cardboard circles or squares just under the ceiling to keep them in position. The water will trap the sunlight which will then light up the darkest rooms with each bottle producing 50-60 watts of light - and it costs nothing to run.

I could segue into all those people who are now beginning to use used cooking oil (often out of plastic bottles) to power their vehicles instead of petrol or gas. But that’s another story.

Not So Crystal Clear

Due to some weird machinations with blog.spot and Google (or could it possibly be that I am even less computer literate than I thought?) I have not been able to post a blog for at least the last 2 weeks. Nor, I hear, from certainly efficiently computer literate people, have they been able to add comments. No doubt my 4 year old Aussie grandson would have fixed it in a flash, or certainly any one of his older siblings or cousins. Never mind, my good and clever friend, Tori Winn of digital advertising distinction, simply switched servers to tumblr.com and all appears to be back to normal. Or what I consider normal anyway.

Talking of what purports to be normal or whatever we ourselves think of as normal, I was reminded of my blog of August 15 ‘An Eye for Detail’ by one of my oldest and dearest friends who is Australian and also, by some felicitous stroke of luck, my son’s mother in law and thus a joint grandmother. She had just had a cataract removed and, like other friends of a certain age who had undergone the same procedure remarked that suddenly everything looked so alarmingly clear and sharp-edged and, worse, how awful and disillusioning it was to look in the mirror (though to everyone else who knows her she is still a beautiful woman).

This made me reflect that the phrase ‘In The Mind’s Eye’ was sometimes a better or more comforting place to linger than reality. Whatever reality turns out to be. But then what about ‘Beauty Lies in the Eye of the Beholder’? As, of course, does ugliness. And where does that leave ‘Seeing is Believing’? Or, what do we really mean for that matter when we talk about ‘An Eyeful’? Then I happened to read a review in the Sunday New York Times  by Kathryn Schulz of a new book by the film director, Errol Morris, called Believing is Seeing. Mr Morris has only limited sight in one eye and lacks normal stereoscopic vision and Ms Schulz explains that he talks about the inevitable idiosyncrasies and distortions involved in the art of looking - my italics.

Yes, the art  of Looking, I thought, which some of us seem more adept with than others especially those who are painters, or art critics, or graphic designers or architects or purport to be interior designers. But what if I, or anyone else for that matter, had 20/20 vision either naturally, or as a result of cataract removals; would my or their choice of colours been entirely different? Or the way we juxtaposed shapes? Or our whole concept of space? This led me to colour blindness and the frustration it often causes interior designers who have clients - usually men I must say - who have complained that warm, clear apricot walls for example, looked so dreary and muddy. But what if the interior designer his or herself was colour blind and did not know it? And from that I segued to the subject of early paintings. 

Right up to the late 19th century when photography was first introduced, painters would only have been able to paint by daylight or from memory with the aid of notes and sketches and by rush, or candle, or oil lamp light which surely would have distorted their colours however clear their notes. From Degas onwards, painters have been greatly helped by photographic references, not to mention increasingly efficient electric lighting and over the last century or so increasingly  efficient glasses or contact lenses for those who knew their eyesight was poor. But all those early Flemish and Dutch painters of interiors with their joyous shafts of sunlight would have had to have worked early-ish in the day or when they knew the sun hit. Otherwise they would have had to work from memory by candlelight or ancient lamps not to mention with eyesight impaired by the strain of trying to read,or write or work by such light. They must have seen differently to most of us. No wonder Rembrandt’s paintings for example, were so often shadowy and mysterious with every bit of light a bonus (he might well have been a late riser of course) and what a wonder, in the circumstances, that Vermeer, on the contrary, managed so often to fill his rooms with such a burst of light.

So what if our vision is clouded and we don’t really know it? Or if our vision suddenly becomes a great deal clearer than most? Obviously we all do see things quite differently just as we seem to hear - or think we have heard - or understand things quite differently. This latter was never more apparent to me than as a new young journalist on a National newspaper when 7 or 8 people I knew from other publications were on the same story and reported it with such amazing variation.

If you really start to try to think clearly about seeing what you are looking at and wondering how differently people did see things in the past, or if you, yourself, were quite wrong in your visual judgments, it can become quite confusing not to say depressing. So maybe we should not even try. Just see what we see and know what we think we know and take comfort that some of us can see in a more nuanced way than others and point it out in paintings that we can stop and appreciate second time round as it were.  Not to mention the people who can somehow create beautiful interiors out of the same materials and furniture that look like nothing in particular in other people’s hands. But then, not to make too fine a point of it, beauty really does lie in the eye of the beholder.  

How To Make Water From Scratch

Some years ago some clever guys produced a spoof magazine based on Martha Stuart’s Living and re-named it Is Martha Stuart Living?  One of the straplines on the cover was ‘How to Make Water From Scratch’ which most people thought hugely funny though at that time it might have seemed to Ms Stuart’s thousands of adoring groupies that if anyone was going to do it, she would.

But now, Lo and Behold, another extremely clever guy from Texas called Terry Le Bleu has actually gone and done it.  He has not only pipped Martha to the post - which is no mean feat -  but has made a huge contribution to mankind. I mean it must be. His machine called ‘The Drought Master’ currently produces between 5-7 gallons of pure water (its been well-tested) a day and a gallon takes only 4 cents worth of electricity. All you need is a convenient plug and, of course, the machine. Each of the latter onlytakes 2 hours to build.

I know this fascinating titbit of information (which might be being blasted all over the world for all I know, tucked away as I am in rural France) to my American friend Liz Rich, who is a sort of one woman The Week and daily provides me and many other fortunate friends with articles from media all over the USA which she thinks might amuse, bemuse, arouse, fascinate, irritate, rouse ire and certainly keeps one up with the political scene. I don’t know how she does it but she too is a gift to mankind - or the mankind that know her.

Actually my first thought, apropos of the blog I wrote last week about reinventing the loo or john, was whether Bill Gates and his wife have heard the good news and whether some fixer is going to get Mr le Bleu and his ‘Drought Master’ together with some of these scientists funded by the Gates’ Charity and now busily trying to invent lavatories that will use the least possible energy and water - or none - to work well in the worst possible conditions and be reasonably comfortable. Once invented the new loos can be provided to those billions of people who have never had the blessing of a proper loo.  Or maybe someone has thought of a meeting already. It seems a shoe-in.

Mr Le Bleu appears to be a modest man who does not shout his splendid gift to the world. One of his machines has been going 10 years and is still working well. I guess it was a prototype he really wanted to micromanage to make sure it worked otherwise why have we not heard of this splendid invention before?  Republican Presidential Hopeful and Governor of Texas, Rick Perry has one. Maybe to keep it by him to prevent him getting hoarse when he is carrying on so about Mr Bernanke, the President of the Federal Reserve, not being welcome in Texas, rashly printing money as he does.  I know the machine is quieter than a refrigerator so it would in no way drown him out.

http://droughtmasters.net/

In praise of Village Life

For most of my adult life I’ve lived in great cities: Paris in the 1950s as a student; London from the mid-50s to the 1980s; and Manhattan, NY from the early 80s to the mid 90s. All of which I’ve hugely enjoyed. The houses I’ve lived in in the country both in England and the US have been right in the country. And I’ve hugely enjoyed them, too. But for the last 10 years I’ve lived in a small working village in  the Luberon,in Provence, called La Motte d’Aigues, literally translated as the mound (or clod) on the (River) Aigues. Though the Aigues has not flowed for many a decade.



I stress the word working because many of the hill villages around, or les villages perche’s as they are known - though not so perche’ when it comes to lovely Lourmarin which is decidedly flat - are in your face beautiful and quite obviously ancient and therefore a magnet for tourists. Sometimes too much of a magnet as one hears from residents fed up with their windows constantly being peered into if they don’t want to sit in the dark behind shutters.

But the road to and through and then out of my village makes it seem as if that is it and fails to reveal the quirky old tangle of handspan-wide streets creeping up the hill behind with their own ancient window-boxed stone houses. So, most people do not have the chance to find its antiquity unless they are particularly curious or determined, and, let’s face it, fit - in the old-fashioned way. It’s a steep hill to climb. So the tourist industry is not part of our immediate village though just down the street, now lined with newish houses, we are fortunate to have L’Etang de la Bonde, the one and only lake in this whole area, which is also quite diffident about being seen from the road despite its cafes and a couple of  bars and its superette (mini supermarket) for the campers, some of whom come year after year for the tree-lined beaches and calm stretch of water benignly over-looked by its turreted chateau. And now there is the restaurant with its broad terrasse overlooking the water, called, surprise, surprise ‘The Restaurant du Lac’. This was started, or rather, revamped and restarted, by my entrepreneurial elder daughter, Sophia Gilliatt and a dear friend, William Ledward and supported by a few generous, again English, friends as share holders. Jane Hayward and I did the design and decoration and since it appeared in  the Bib Gourmand list of the 100 best new restaurants in  France and in the venerable Michelin  it is beginning to be beset by lunchers and diners as well as people staying in its three rooms upstairs. A fail safe for those who have come from a distance and do not want to drink and drive.


It’s an agreeable feeling for the English to have started a restaurant in France but the chef, Philippe Sublet, is decidedly French though he worked for some time with Heston Blumenthal at The Fat Duck in Bray, near London, one of the UK’s three Michelin stars establishments. So far, however, he shows no sign of putting egg and bacon ice cream on the menu or any other Blumenthal clever, chemical concoction. He is decidedly his own man.

But away with family plugging and unashamed nepotism (what else are self indulgent blogs for?) and back to village living, or, more precisely, my village. This happily occupied  ‘mound’, this built-on over generations ‘clod of earth’ - if you go by the dictionary - is semi- surrounded by cherry orchards and olive groves but mostly vineyards. So it mainly lives on agriculture and in particular, viticulture. This is most noticeable in the Autumn or Fall during the grape harvest when the whole place smells like an over-used wine bar and most normal sounds are drowned out by the putter, putter of ageing tractors hauling carts stuffed with wobbling bunches of grapes to local wine makers.

This putter, putter is itself occasionally interrupted by the explosions of shot guns in the frosty mornings echoing from the lower slopes of the mountains and the woods denoting the hunting season once again.
Rabbits and hares and small birds and game birds and the occasional boar and deer fall victim to the happy trigger-triumphant hunters so if you are venturing into the surrounding country you have to be careful to wear a bright sweater or jacket.

We are lucky with our amenities which certainly makes living easier all around. We have a good school so that encourages a lot of young families unlike so many French villages who take on the Gallic versions of God’s waiting rooms with apparently cheerful resignation. We have a Post Office, a big wine Co-operative, a bar which also sells coffee and newspapers, and a pizzeria. We also have a small square with lots of parking - though its only a 3 minute walk from me - which holds two good doctors, a hairdresser, a boulangerie (‘try not to live more than 5 minutes from a boulangerie’ someone advised me some years ago) and a particularly well and imaginatively-stocked little supermarket with excellent fresh local fruit and produce and goats’ cheeses, all regular groceries and a whole side wall of wines and spirits  as well as anything else you’d need to live comfortably.

Then there is entertaining. We have, like most villages around, a series of almost weekly excellent concerts. In fact, Le Roque Antheron, only 20 or so minutes away, is famed throughout France for its Summer Chamber Music concerts. Our music-making takes place in Le Temple at the top of the hill, an early 18th century Huguenot church which the village stoutly defended through all the anti-Protestant risings. The village behaved equally stoutly in World War 11 as hosts to the Marquis and members of le Resistance. A nice woman almost opposite me grew up with a slow stream of allied army members and Resistance fighters hiding in her parents’ attic. She learnt to be both secretive and natural and still lives in the same house.

We can easily drive or take a bus to the amenities and Festivals at Aix en Provence or Avignon. Or to the almost daily morning markets which take their turn in the surrounding villages. Although actually, we have the crowning glory in that direction: our unique night market on Thursday evenings throughout the Summer months when we have live music and dancing and stalls for this and that and great bonhommie. People come from all around and bring picnics or just buy food and wine from the stalls and everyone, but everyone dances under the cherry trees until 11pm, whatever their age. The extraordinary thing is that an hour later there is no trace of any activity and this is the same after every village market.

Travel is good too. The TGV station to Paris (in not much more than two and a half hours), or to Nice Airport for the USA, is only 40 minutes away between Aix and Marseilles and it is not many minutes more to the Marseilles airport at Marignane where you can fly to the UK or pretty well anywhere in Europe.  As for local travel we have a good bus service and we are saved the nerve-wracking driving in the narrow streets and treacherous corners of the old hill villages which rarely have room for more than one car at a time or the heart-stopping reversing all the way down the long hills one has just inched up, or precariously backing round a blind corner to give way to a tourist bus.  They are stunning old villages but not built with cars in mind or even carriages. So that is that.

In villages you can be independent but always have neighbors on hand should you want or need them. You can lock up and go away for a week, or a month or even a year without fear of burglaries and vandalism unlike houses more out in the country. And although its lovely when young to have a swimming pool and a garden in the sun you don’t necessarily, when you are older, have the time or the energy or the money to spend on their maintenance. I have two spacious terrasses which are quite green enough for me: one for eating (I happily accommodated 15 for dinner the other night) and one for sunbathing and admiring the panoramic view of the mountains with the lovely old roofs of the village below. Indeed, I’m sitting at the table on the shady, verdant eating terrasse in the  afternoon sun as I write. A good glass of Rose to hand from my equally good local friends at Chateau St Esteve de Neri (again, would you believe it, English) and life seems very pleasant.

Altogether I highly recommend village life as a good alternative to cities for people  d’un certain age. Particularly, of course, my village.


An Eye For Detail

I have a cleaning lady who I like very much and who cleans quite well. But she is absolutely hopeless at seeing if beds are not made properly, pillows and cushions not well ordered, if things are out of place or plants and flowers not watered.  Just because I do like her I find it hard to keep telling her what she has done wrong though I’ve tried and tried again to demonstrate how I want things to look if I happen to see their disorder when she is around. She just does not get it.  And I reflect in my frustration just how many people do have an eye for detail, or an eye for color and a natural sense of style. And if you have to be born with it like an innate ear for music, or if you can learn it.

When I was younger I was always trying to tell people in my various books and in talks how to really look at things. How to actually see instead of just passing over as it were. I thought people could learn good color sense, how to arrange objects, how to juxtapose things well. I thought I could encourage people to learn to memorize certain arrangements they liked, or ways of doing things, or different styles and why. Or at least, I thought, they could learn such things from books and articles in decorating magazines even if they could not keep ideas in their heads and had to keep referring.  But now that I am old I realize that on the whole you have to be born with that sort of sense of style or at least be curious about why some things work well aesthetically and some don’t - even if you are not actually conscious of aesthetics or what they mean.

So the gift of curiosity is probably one of the main things to hope for in a child. Not the peeping Tom sort of curiosity of course, but the gift for wanting to know about things, to always be learning whatever the field, whether it is how things are, how they work or how they look.

By the same token, I suppose, It is so cheering to work with clients who have ideas of their own, who can articulate what they want, with whom you can work absolutely together filling in each others’ gaps as it were. From whom, of course, one  can learn oneself.  I am profoundly lucky to have worked with such people including - or because of - some who I have worked with for over 20 years

I see, or fear that this blog is turning out to be more philosophical than practical and not like the one run so admirably and efficiently by my good friend Jean Nayer called The Happy Home Workshop with all its good ideas.  Well, I suppose there is no harm in that. It takes all sorts as they say. And its good, after all, to stop every so often to think around things. Or to be like that late 19th/early 20th century tramp poet, William Davies, who wrote: 'What is this world if full of care/We have no time to stand and stare.’

The Glass Half Full

One of the unexpected advantages of growing up on the East Coast of England during World War 2 is that so many things that people now take for granted became actually, for me, a treat. And I think it was because of this that I remain an optimist. A regular Polyanna one might say.

There we were with German bombers zooming over us night after night; sirens fiercely wailing and screeching; our garage hit by an incendiary bomb; a German pilot dropping dead in our field and his plane in another; searchlights raking the sky, blacked-out windows a must; no electricity; water that we took turns to pump up from a well twice a day and heated in what we called ‘the copper’; no heating except for log fires and bomb craters all around our house from off-loaded cargo on the planes’ way back. And that’s how we thought life was since my brother and I were too small to know anything different.

We played in  the craters and imagined it was like climbing mountains - or so we thought. Nor did we think the Germans meant to bomb us particularly, for why would we be a target? When the Searchlight Camp down the road was turned into a German Prisoner of War Camp we used to have the prisoners working in our garden and to help grow vegetables and fruit. My mother gave them cups of tea and that awful ersatz ‘Camp’ coffee that was all the coffee we had then. They played with us children and we saw that so-called enemies could also be decent, nice guys. After the war, some of them actually came back to live in the country. We learnt early too, that life was precarious. That young British soldiers from a nearby camp who had taken us for exciting rides in their tanks down country lanes did not necessarily come back. Friends and relations died before their time.

Happiness in the Winter was being read to by the fire by the mellow but parafin smelling light of oil lamps. Or sitting around the radio to listen to the news and various radio programmes eating marmite and dripping on toast. Or playing Ludo or Snakes and Ladders or Monopoly. And going to the cinema in the local town when we all had to stand up for the National Anthem each time it was played.

In the Summer it was picking wild flowers, trying to roller skate, the smell of new mown hay, playing around on the swing my father had fixed to a branch of an oak tree and learning to swim and paddle a punt in the river that flowed lazily along a couple of meadows away. I still have a deep scar on my right shoulder from squeezing under the barbed wire with which everyone was forced to surround fields. Of course we had no TV and did not even know of its existence till we saw one in somebody’s house in the late 1940s. Our greatest food treats were Heinz Tomato Soup which I once poured down the telephone when my father was on the line, thinking he should enjoy it too. Oh, and the once a week treat of current buns made only on Fridays by the village baker. I was ecstatic I remember, on my 9th birthday to get a cardboard box of crayons.  That same birthday for which my mother, who had been saving food coupons for months in order to make some cakes, ruined them all by adding some peppermint essence by mistake for almond. She cried with frustration for that - and much else I am sure. We were so upset and actually quite frightened for her upset.

We looked longingly at old advertisements for Fyffes bananas in the greengrocers (there was not a supermarket in sight then) because if we had ever had them before the war we had forgotten the taste. In 1945 I heard that a shop in the next village 7 miles away suddenly had the fruit. I cycled there as quickly as I could to try and buy one or two. They had all sold out but the shopkeeper gave me a banana skin which I was so thrilled with I took the nasty, brown, slimy thing onto the school bus the next morning.


I have been reflecting on my childhood and how excited we were when the war ended and a year or so later we actually got electricity and could just switch on a light. I thought of the irony of this when some 25 years later I wrote a book on Lighting…How lovely it was too, to be able to turn on a tap and have hot and cold running water without having to pump it up. Then there was the brilliance, to us, of our first black and white TV set,  the subsequent wonder of colour and the joy of receiving and reading books.

I have been reflecting particularly of course, because of the sadly shocking British riots and the looting whatever the tangle of causes.  Despite  deprivation in the mid 20th century - and it was nothing compared to France and Germany, Eastern Europe and the Near and Far East - we were, on the whole, happy and content - because, as I said, we did not really know of better things - and therefore so many improvements afterwards seemed such a bonus - even in the much derided 1950s which seem much more bleak looking back than in the actual living.

 In our present and questionable consumer society when pretty well every convenience is taken for granted; when expensive trainers and jeans et al for the young seem to be de rigeur whatever the income;  when conversation for so many seems to mean concentrating on a social network (blogs, of course, being an exception) or in texts whether under the table at a restaurant or dinner party, or in full sight walking down the street - or even whilst driving - at the expense of face to face, I suppose we might stop and think of this too though my older grandchildren tell me its simply generational.  But how can we get back that sense of all being in things together? Of the actual good things that can - and should - be done. Of the general good of country rather than awful unthinking partisanship?

When my Australian grandaughter, Rosy, about to become 10 but then aged 8, wrote a speech about ‘The Apple Revolution’ and pointed out the heavy march of virtual conversation at the expense of the real thing - and real friendships for that matter - I took heart. ‘Out of the mouth of very babes’ etc. Or perhaps I’m being Polyanna yet again.

This might seem a long way from helping with decorating and life style issues. But it’s not really. The desire to preserve what is good regardless of fashion, making the best of things, taking the rough with the smooth, realizing that sometimes better things come out of the seeming worst, all those old cliches would not be cliches unless they had some truth and were thus worth repeating. Think on it. Compromise is really an art in itself. All these little and not so little strictures are very much a part of lifestyle or the style of life we want to live now.

Reinventing The Loo

I don’t know how many people bother to be grateful about having flush loos, whatever the design. But we should. Quite apart from clogging up sewers in our so-called civilized countries, some 2.5 billion people are without access to the now venerable technology, and must use simple latrines, holes in the ground or just whatever spot they can find. And this, as we know, spreads often-killer diseases apart from being hugely uncomfortable.

I was therefore so interested to see from an article in The New York Times on August 13th by Anne Eisenberg, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have given $3 million to researchers at 8 universities challenging them to create new loos that need not be connected to sewers, or to water or to electricity lines and that should cost less than pennies per person per day to run.

One of the new ideas already on show is a compact chamber that runs on solar power from a roof panel. It was developed by the California Institute if Technology in Pasadena and cost $400,000 to develop. Obviously it will need to be mass marketed to the nth degree to end up costing less than pennies per person, let alone creating enough roofs and panels, but still, its at least a good start in loo reinvention.

Years ago I wrote a history of the bathroom and was fascinated by the long and checkered tale of the lavatory from the passable early Egyptian, Greek, Islamic and Roman attempts which were only to regress in the murk of the Saxon, Norman and Medieval period. Truly the dark - and dirty - ages. Most people think that the first prototype flushing loo was created in the 19th century in Victorian England by a Mr Crapper (hence the slang ). But a reasonably well working flushing variety was actually invented in the 16th century in England, in Queen Elizabeth 1’s time. But was turned down as unsuitable or unfeasible. I never did find out why. Now, thanks to the charitable Gates we are finally about to see huge changes some five centuries on. We really cannot say now that ‘Plus ca change etc…….’  

Just to introduce myself

You know you must have been around an awful long time when something like the following anecdote happens to you. I was walking down Madison Avenue in NY a couple of years ago and saw a newish  furniture/design shop. I went into it and was more or less  immediately confronted by my first book English Style (published 1967) opened up and resting on a plinth. ‘Good Heavens,’ I said. ‘Where on earth did you get that?’ ‘Why do you want to know’ said a couple of young men in attendance.  ‘Because I wrote it.’ I said. ‘It was my first book.’

'Are you Mary Gilliatt?' they said with some astonishment. 'We thought you had died years ago.'

So there you go. But I’m still around and grateful for it. Not least because over the last 5 decades that I have been involved in decorating, decorators and architects I have seen things go round and round again and again and again. And I am still working. I have a job with clients in NY with whom I have been working over 20 years. Not because I’m particularly slow but because they always seem to have something new that they want done. I finished the house of some clients in the South of France last year and a new restaurant right on a lake also in the Luberon in the South of France, called Le Restaurant du Lac, mentioned this year as one of the 100 best new restaurants in France by the Michelin Bib Gourmand guide. They even mentioned the designer which is unusual for the Michelin Guide.

I’m also still the design consultant for the US franchise decorating company, Decor & You. And I still travel regularly between the UK and the US, Europe and Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. In the circumstances I decided it could be a good time to start a decorating blog and try to answer questions and needs on design as best as I could. Or anything else to do with life style for that matter seeing that I have been around so long, travel so widely and seen so much.

At the Restaurant du Lac. My writing desk with adjoining terrace, Provence.

At the Restaurant du Lac. My writing desk with adjoining terrace, Provence.