Several years ago, my boyfriend and I attended the Hay literary festival, and in an uncharacteristic fit of nostalgia I suggested we drive to the village in which I grew up, around 45 minutes away. We toured the landmarks – my grandparents’ house, where I was born, the primary school I’d attended – and, of course, my childhood home, the small end-of-terrace I shared with my two big brothers and my father, following my mother’s departure to a tiny flat a mile or so away.
Dan and I had been standing outside for no more than a minute or two when the door opened and a friendly older couple asked us if they could help. I told them I’d grown up in their house and they immediately invited us inside for tea. I feel tearful whenever I think of them, not only because their home – now bright, lovingly decorated and happy – holds so many unusual memories for me, but also because the owners were so generous and warm that I somehow felt more at home than I had when I could rightfully call that house my own. As they showed us around, sharing all the work they’d done over the past 30-plus years, the conversation turned to how they’d come to buy the place.
They told us that some time after my family must have left, a man had moved in – an older Englishman whose wife had left him. He had apparently become so depressed that he had developed a drink problem and become what we would now call a hoarder. There had been vermin, they told me. Litter throughout the house. Damp, mould. Every room was full of junk – old newspapers, broken furniture, filthy carpets, and bags and bags of rubbish. They were glad, they told me, that I’d never had to see my former home – the house we all loved – in such squalor. It had been a very sorry state of affairs. I nodded and smiled, because I had too much pride, and felt too much shame, to tell them – and my new boyfriend – that the Englishman was my father and the house sounded much the same as when we left it.
I tell this story because, as sad as it made me in some ways, that day also showed me how a house’s entire soul can be transplanted with proper cleaning, organisational care and a few cherished, meaningful possessions. Home, for me, has never simply been somewhere to eat, sleep and watch TV. Don’t get me wrong – I can think of few things I’d rather do, but to enjoy them to their fullest, I must first pay attention to the details.
Something as simple as repositioning your lighting or even just changing your bulbs can almost imperceptibly alter a room’s mood. The methodical, almost mindless, busywork of clearing out the freezer or kitchen crap drawer can be a living metaphor for processing your own cluttered thoughts and feelings. Home improvement is so much more than displacement activity because, unlike cycling through social media, it actually leads us to somewhere we’d like to be: a calm sanctuary to call our own.
Because of the unpredictable and precarious nature of my housing situation once I left home at nearly 15 and moved to London, I am undeniably obsessed with my house, which is the most important thing in my life after the people I love. Whereas I couldn’t wait to run from it as a child, my home is now the first place I run to in a crisis. I confess, I fetishise domesticity. Not in a frantic cushion-plumping, doorknocker-polishing, doorstep-scrubbing kind of way, but insofar as there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than on my own sofa or bed.
What the generous, warm and happy owners of my childhood home demonstrated that day was that the most beautiful homes are not made with money, they are made with love, and no amount of cash can disguise an unhappy one.
Home is where I feel safest, comfiest, happiest and most like myself. You may be the same. Our homes give us so much, I feel taking care of them is the least we can try to do in return. Here’s how I’ve done it …
How to make a home cosy (without buying anything new)
Cosiness is my religion. I can’t describe it as what is fashionably referred to as hygge, as that makes it sound a bit more “aspirational Pinterest board” than it deserves. I really do love nature, and the outdoors, but engaging with both requires more persuasion and effort than will ever be needed for me to lie in an elasticated waistband and watch a Scorsese triple bill with a nap interval. Cosiness is an essential component of inactivity. It is the difference between boredom and bliss. It’s a state of mind encouraged by the comfort and warmth of our surroundings.
Make everything a bed
It is extremely important to me, a slovenly homebody, that every soft seat in my house is a bed waiting to happen. If a sofa can’t be lain on comfortably, then it’s no good to me. An armchair that forces its occupier to sit upright like a Bond villain, rather than curled up like a cat, is a waste of space. So, to that end, I have Welsh wool blankets on every seat, and a hamper full of inexpensive but soft, machine-washable throws so that any of us can slope in and unthinkingly pull out something snuggly for watching telly or catching 40 winks with the dog.
Perfect your low-level lighting
Overhead lights (or the “big light” as it was always known to me until I met posh people) are primarily for switching on when you’d like everyone to bugger off. For almost everything else, side lamps are much nicer. Generally speaking, lamps with bulbs pointing upwards add mood and glow, and those with bulbs pointing downwards serve a purpose, such as easy reading or sewing. For the former, I find 60 watts is ideal. Reading or sewing lights are trickier – I can do no fewer than 60 watts, no more than 75, but an older person or someone with even weaker eyesight may need up to 100.
Hang some pictures
I have pictures everywhere, from nursery-school scribbles by my almost-adult sons and treasured photographs of my closest friends, to vintage film posters bought on eBay. My preference for most things is a white wooden frame with square edges, available on the high street. They’re much less expensive than the fancier ones and, to me, look the nicest – there’s a good reason why most galleries use them. I always hang my own pictures, because I invariably find fault when someone else does it.
1 Ensure your frame has an attached string or integrated hanging hole at the back, from which it can hang.
2 Measure 1.45-1.55 metres up from the floor. Mark it on the wall with a pencil. If you want to play around with placement, cut wrapping paper to the size of your artworks and experiment with them using Blu Tack.
3 If this is to be the only picture in the space, it’s usually ideal to place it at the centre point along the wall, with equal space on either side. If there are multiple pictures, measure to the midpoint of your chosen gap between artworks.
4 Stick some felt dots on the back corners of the artwork, to protect your paintwork. You can buy these very cheaply in hardware shops.
5 If your artwork is relatively light, you should at this point be able to hammer a nail into the wall, at your pencil mark.
6 If your artwork is especially heavy, get a picture hook that’s appropriate for its weight. The staff in hardware shops are very good at advising here. For a very heavy artwork, you’ll need a drill, Rawlplugs and a thicker nail. Drill your hole at your pencil mark, push in the Rawlplug so it’s snug with the surface of the wall, then bang in the nail.
7 Hang your picture from the nail. If you can’t see what you’re doing behind the picture, then lower a fork on to the nail, facing outwards, the tines straddling the nail at the centre. Then lower the artwork string on to the fork handle and down on to the nail. Remove the fork.
8 Place a spirit level across the top of your picture, adjusting the frame until it’s level.
How to clean your drinking glasses properly
I put all my nice glasses into the dishwasher except for very tall-stemmed ones that don’t fit. Then, every year, I soak them for a few minutes in cheap white vinegar, which rids them of all streaks and cloudy stains. If glasses emerge from the dishwasher with dried-on food, don’t put them back in, soak them in warm soapy water and finish off manually. For parties, I have the cheapest (about £1 each) red wine, white wine and martini glasses that live in the attic, descending for 24-hour periods before being packed away again in their boxes. They’re dishwasher-proof, kinder to the environment than disposables and after you’ve used them for just a few parties, cheaper, too.
How to remove the smell of cigarettes
Whenever we throw a party, I always promise my husband I won’t let anyone smoke inside. Invariably, the evening reaches a point where my kitchen-disco spirits are so high that I can’t face throwing someone who wants to spark up out into the garden. Luckily, I have my fumigation routine down pat.
First, open all doors and windows. Empty ashtrays into an outside bin, clean them with wet kitchen paper, then wash up as normal. If people have been smoking near sofas, or if you have carpets and rugs, sprinkle them well with baking powder (it’s worth keeping a flour shaker full of it – baking powder is useful for all sorts of household tasks), and leave while you do the rest.
Take a few small clean bowls, half-fill with water and add some lemon juice or slices of fresh lemon. Place each bowl on top of a radiator. Next, light a candle. I find Price’s inexpensive Anti Tobacco candles, available at hardware shops and on Amazon, brilliantly effective. You’ll need two, maybe even three, in the offending room. Throw any fabrics lying around – tea towels, abandoned sweatshirts and the like – in the washing machine. Vacuum up the baking powder on the carpets and soft furnishings. You’ll be good as new in a couple of hours.
How to repair wood scratches
Do not spray with furniture polish – it coats the wood and makes it harder for proper repairs to be done later. Instead, crack a walnut and gently rub the unshelled nut against the scratch, back and forth, to make it seem less obvious. If it’s something really beloved, bite the bullet and seek the expertise of a restoration service or french polisher.
How to make your flowers last
While I swoon over velvety roses and luxuriant peonies, I also believe there are few things lovelier than a jug of 99p daffodils. Cheap petrol-station, supermarket or greengrocer daffs, tulips, daisies, gerbera, goldenrods, sweet williams and carnations (yes, carnations), when grouped in single varieties rather than arrangements, can be utterly gorgeous and immediately uplifting.
Clean your vase properly
I hate cleaning vases, and if you do too, I recommend you invest a little over a fiver in some Magic Balls from Lakeland, John Lewis or your local hardware shop. Just pour them into the bottom of a dirty vase, add a little water, and swirl. They’re brilliant at removing scummy stains quickly and painlessly. Florists sterilise their buckets to prolong the life of flowers, but the chances of me taking the time to sterilise my vases are nil. That said, a cursory rinse isn’t enough, either. Bacteria cause flowers to decay faster, so give vases a good go with washing‑up liquid.
Start at water level – submerging leaves in the vase water will pollute it, and your flowers will be drinking dirty water, which will shorten their life and smell bad.
Remove the bottom inch of each stem
The ends of your flowers will be filled with air. You need to remove them to let the flowers have a big drink. If you have rose cutters, use those, but I don’t, so I use a bread knife (household scissors pinch the hard stems and crush them). Slice or cut through them on a slant to increase the surface area of the drinking hole.
Use the flower food
Flower food isn’t so much nourishment for flowers as a preventer of slime. Pouring it in will prolong your blooms’ health by keeping their environment cleaner.
Change the water
Murky brown water smells gross, looks ugly and accelerates the ageing process of your arrangement. Changing your vase water every other day makes a big difference and adds several more days of enjoyment.
Give it a shot
Many people swear by a dash of bleach in the vase water, and it certainly does help since it kills the bacteria. But, mentally, I can’t quite get past what feels to me, quite irrationally, to be a bit “murdery”. I prefer a few drops of Milton Sterilising Fluid or a dash of neat vodka, both of which work well.
A note on artificial flowers
I used to be a snob about them, but now think better of it because modern artificial flowers can be beautiful. They are also excellent if you are away from home a lot, simply find fresh flowers a faff, or you or a loved one are allergic to the real thing (more common than you’d think – I’ve somehow managed to marry not one, but two men with rhinitis. I daren’t hazard a third).
How to make your candles last
Are posh candles a waste of money? People are seemingly divided into those who love scented candles, and those with an almost principled objection to their existence. I’ve seen people become furious at the suggestion of parting with cash for something that they then set alight.
The light from a scented candle is the pleasing but secondary benefit of burning one. Its primary purpose is not as a light source, but as a room scent. If you want the soft, flattering flicker of candlelight, get cheap church pillars from Ikea. If you want to fragrance the whole house without wasting money, the following.
1 Wick-trimming is very important to keep your candle at its best. Take your unlit candle and trim the wick to a quarter of an inch with scissors or, even better, an angled wick trimmer. Never trim when the wax is still warm.
2 Light the candle and put it somewhere safe. It must be away from any draughts in order to burn evenly.
3 Keep a casual eye on it to check when the entire top layer has melted and become clear. As a rule, a single-wicked, standard glass-jarred candle (a 200g Jo Malone or Diptyque, for example) will take 30-40 minutes to reach this point. A travel-sized candle will take around half as long, but the scent won’t pervade as far into the house.
4 If your candle becomes black and sooty, the wick is too long. If it crackles and fizzes, it’s a little dusty; be sure to replace its lid between burnings, or give it a blow or a dust before lighting.
5 If your candle develops a central tunnel over time, it has one or more of the following problems.
(a) The wick is too short and burns down faster than it can heat the wax around it.
(b) The candle doesn’t have enough wicks – a very large one will need three or even five wicks to melt evenly. Never buy a large candle with only one wick.
(c) The candle has been placed in a draught, which is throwing the flame on a slant, meaning one part of the candle is being exposed to more heat than the rest.
(d) The candle has been relit while still warm. Candles should be left to cool and solidify between burnings.
When to save and when to splurge
Paint Anyone who has ever handed their decorators a load of overdraft-stretching Farrow & Ball will know professionals prefer to work with something costing half the price from the builders’ merchant. What pricey brands such as Farrow & Ball, Fired Earth, Little Greene, and Paint & Paper Library do absolutely beautifully is colour. If your heart is set on a specific hue, buy a sample pot and take it to a trade shop to be mixed up in a cheaper formula.
Vases Unless an expensive vase is a unique objet d’art, I can’t see the point in splashing out. A glass vessel is a glass vessel. Besides, as I know to my cost, vases smash.
Rugs I feel torn in saying this because expensive, handmade rugs are beautiful, and cheap, mass-produced rugs often aren’t, but there is a sweet spot where a rug is woven with some natural fibres, not printed on nylon, but still affordable enough for children and animals to run across it without you suffering an aneurysm. I’m talking about Next, John Lewis, Made.com, Habitat, La Redoute and the like, as opposed to high-end design specialists charging thousands. I write as someone whose dream rug is more than £3,000. Every time I daydream about owning it, I think of my dog emptying her bladder on its hand-tufted beauty and immediately feel better.
Toasters The less your toaster looks like a vintage Winnebago, the more likely it is to live a long life of toasting bread properly. I’ve never had any problems with an inexpensive Russell Hobbs.
Cushions The joy of cushions is that their covers can be changed quickly and economically whenever you feel the itch to freshen up a room. Spend money on the big stuff, then scatter cheap decorative items, such as cushions, with abandon.
Sheets It’s the done thing these days to quack on about thread count, but I am unconvinced. I’m fortunate enough to have slept in many a posh bed in multiple countries, and I can’t really tell much difference between the sheets of the rich and famous and my own bargains from Dusk. The most important thing is that your bedding is made from cotton or linen (anything human-made gets hot and cloying), fits your bed properly and is changed regularly.
Mattress You spend a third of your life in bed, so you’d be mad to scrimp on your mattress. The good news is that brilliant “expensive” mattresses are no longer anything like as dear as they were. Disruptor brands such as Eve, Casper, Emma, Allswell and Simba (of which I own two, but I’ve come to believe they’re all much of a muchness) make hybrid spring and memory-foam mattresses that conveniently arrive in a box and gradually unfurl in a deeply satisfying manner over a 24-hour period. They’re wonderfully comfy and, unlike the memory foam of the past, not at all cloying and sweaty. Also: buy a mattress cover – it makes a world of difference.
Bin bags Cheap black rubbish sacks – just don’t do it. They are the ultimate false economy. Even double layered (and therefore double the price), they will split and leave bin juice all over your floor.
Kitchen fitting A cheap kitchen fitted expertly will look way better than a luxury kitchen fitted badly. No exceptions. Good fitting is what makes a kitchen.
Pillows I am now a middle-aged woman whose neck is banjaxed every few weeks. I cannot stress enough the importance of good pillows that hit the sweet spot between soft and firm, don’t divot, and support your head fully (not your shoulders, which should never be on the pillow). If you’re vegan, this no longer means settling for an inferior pillow. There are now excellent feather mimics available for the same price as quality down. You will not be able to tell the difference, and wherever your preference falls on the soft/firm continuum, you will feel every extra penny spent.
Curtains Properly measured and made curtains add something to a room that those in a packet rarely can. Mass-produced curtains often look thin, flimsy and generic, especially those with the shoelace-hole style gaps at the top for a pole.
Towels When in M&S, John Lewis, Ikea or similar, it is always worth buying the heavier, fluffier, luxury towels over those on the value shelf. A few quid more will mean they stay flat instead of puckering at the ends, never become threadbare, stay soft and bouncy, and absorb moisture more satisfactorily..
Owning these items imparts an incomparable sense of gratification.
A small set of screwdrivers Various sizes in both flat and Phillips. Never use the wrong size as it will slip and very often ruin the slot in the screw head. An electric screwdriver is a great investment too.
Two pairs of pliers They are invaluable for most DIY jobs (pulling out pins, Rawlplugs, bending, twisting, wire-cutting, gripping and removing pins, and so on), but also for all manner of unrelated jobs, such as opening hardened nail-polish bottles, restraightening earrings that have become bent, closing necklace links that have come open, and more. I suggest buying long-nose pliers for most little jobs, but also some slip-joint pliers for bigger jobs (and jar opening).
Claw hammer Mine is 16oz and suits my frame and purposes. Useful for picture hanging and anything involving wood and nails.
Small hacksaw For when materials are too thick or solid for scissors or a Stanley knife.
Lump hammer For achieving a dull, blunt thud of a bang when breaking things apart or nudging dovetail joints into place. It’s usually best to put something soft (a towel) or firm (a chunk of spare wood) between the hammer and its target, if precious, to stop anything becoming dented.
WD-40 There’s scarcely been a time in my life when I haven’t owned a can of this almost magic water- and oil-displacing spray. You need some too, because, well, how long have you got? The following are just some of the things WD-40 does*. Stops shoes, and most other things, from squeaking. Removes water marks from glass. Cleans white trainers (though I prefer a Magic Eraser sponge, available from hardware stores). De-ices cars. Removes mug stains from many woods. Loosens stiff-hinged metal objects, such as pliers, scissors and padlocks. Releases too-small rings from your fingers. Un-jams zips. Cleans the annoying residue from stickers. Removes chewing gum and many stains, including lipstick and crayon. Shifts excess glue, even Super Glue. Shines silver. Adds slip to items that are stuck together, such as Lego bricks or pint glasses.
* I apologise to mechanics or DIY experts for the dozens of uses I’ve probably omitted
This is an edited extract from Everything Is Washable and Other Life Lessons by Sali Hughes (4th Estate, £26). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy from guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.
Join Sali Hughes live in London or online as she discusses Everything Is Washable with Caitlin Moran on 14 September. Book here.
September 3, 2022 at 05:59PM Sali Hughes