Life on Mars

"I was on Britain's Best Dish!" says Alastair Fairley with a grin, as he shows me into his kitchen. "I cooked pear and frangipane tart with homemade vanilla ice cream, and John Burton-Race said my ice cream was the best of the series! Actually, I'm not sure how I ended up doing that. I watched Come Dine with Me with some friends one evening when we got a bit tipsy and they insisted that I should apply. I did and there wasn't a space for me, but then one of ITV's producers phoned me and asked if I'd like to do the Britain's Best Dish programme. Puddings are apparently in quite short supply on those things, so they were keen to have me on. It was great fun too, but really hard work, and so difficult to work with things like pastry and ice cream under all the studio lights. I was pretty fed up with that recipe by the time I'd finished!

"I love cooking, especially Mediterranean food, and I love to experiment, but my real motivation is to share what I cook with friends. I get a lot of inspiration from the vegetables and herbs that I grow in the garden and from Hastings Farmers Market where my friend Dave works at the stand for Judges, my sister Josephine's bakery, in the old High Street, and with that connection I always have good bread in the house! The kitchen table and chairs were a local find and they're very simple, but that's how I like things. I don't have a lot of fancy gadgets, but the domestic meat slicer is really useful. I lived in Spain for a number of years and they're not uncommon there. It means that if you keep a salami or chorizo in the larder, you can always conjure up a big platter of cold meats that never seems to fail to impress when people drop in unexpectedly."
Alastair's house is built on one of the steep slopes that are characteristic of Hastings and so the kitchen, being at the front of the house, is situated below ground with a lightwell rather than a view. To compensate for this, Alastair planted ferns in the base and his friend Linda King painted a mural on the wall behind. "The scene is of Newlyn harbour rather than Hastings, but I know it, having walked there and found the exact spot where Linda painted this from.

"I sort of built the kitchen myself, I made all the shelving and cupboards, or should I say 'bastardised' them, and I made the plate rack over the sink too, but this one is more useful than most because it also acts as a dish drainer, being open underneath. I've done a lot of carpentry over the years, but I'm completely self-taught. It's a skill I've developed out of sheer necessity, but it's also quite satisfying. I've just built a 'tree bog' for my brother-in-law. His company is called Carbon Gold and he makes a charcoal compost produced from kilns, some of which he has in the woods near Fairlight. He uses the kilns to demonstrate the technique to people interested in the product. To accommodate the visitors he asked me to build a 'tree bog' so that they have a toilet to visit rather than just disappearing off into the woods! It's not the toilet that produces the carbon gold - but obviously it does produce its own form of compost! I've also been designing gardens too, I've always done architectural line drawings and scale plans, and I designed and built the garden here, as well as the conservatory."

Making his way towards the rear of the house, Alastair pauses in the sitting room that is painted a rich, British red with a gold picture rail. Alastair's love of travel is evident throughout the room, from the oriental rug on the floor to the kilim-style printed fabric that covers the armchair. The yellow sofa, too, is covered with a brocade that features exotic animals such as elephants and camels, but this seems to come as a surprise to him. "Do you know, I've never noticed." He laughs, leaning forward to inspect it as if for the first time.
A series of fine pen and ink drawings dominate one wall. "They're scenes from my travels in Australia. I've always had the travel bug, even from quite an early age and I've still got all my notebooks from my student days." Alastair then produces a number of small sketchbooks from the bookshelves. He opens them to reveal neatly written records of his travels along with wonderfully evocative drawings and sketches from around the world. "My family has quite a few connections with the Far East, as my father was born in Malaya. My grandparents lived in India too, and my grandfather was in charge of designing the Indian telephone system.

"I used to do quite a bit of travel journalism - in 2001
I was in America on September 11th on a travel assignment in Maine and found that because all the flights were grounded after the attack, I was then stuck in Boston, which quickly became the focus of the investigation because the hijackers had begun their journeys there. I remember looking out of my hotel room window, on the 80th floor of the building, and seeing an American F14 fighter jet zooming past, it was so low it was almost at eye-level with me. It was weird being caught up in all that, and the American media in full force is quite a sight - one side of the main square in Boston was completely taken over by all the television crews' huge vans and satellite dishes. Of course the British papers couldn't get any reporters out there, so I ended up filing loads of copy for them and reporting to the BBC when I got back, but people forget now, just how chaotic things were in the first few days after the event. America just seemed to go into panic mode."

"It was good to get back here," recalls Alastair, sinking into an armchair. "I've gradually become more and more caught up in local matters and especially in the regeneration of Hastings. It all began when I got involved with the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill. In 1992 I was contacted to see if I could help to publicise the efforts to save what was a terrible wreck at the time. The pavilion was Grade I listed and one of the most remarkable International Modernist buildings in Britain, designed by architects Erich Mendelsohn, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, and a Russian, Serge Chermayeff. The Labour Junior Minister and Mayor, Earl De La Warr had commissioned it as a new kind of Winter Garden for the town. It was intended to be a 'people's palace' to provide culture and entertainment for the masses and it staged concerts, lectures and there was a library, café and even deck-games on the roof. I think it was a symbol of the kind of hope for a better future that people had after the First World War, but of course, during the Second, it was a highly visible landmark and so suffered quite a lot of bomb damage in the German air raids.

"Originally, my role was to write articles and chronicle what was happening. We got lots of coverage in the architectural press but then along came the National Lottery, thank goodness, and we got a grant large enough to restore it properly, because I don't think it would have happened otherwise. But that wasn't quite the end of the story because the council at the time just couldn't see what to do with it, and at one point, were going to allow it to be turned into a pub. We began a public campaign and it rallied supporters all over Britain and abroad and fortunately, someone on the committee, I think it was Jill Theis, had the wisdom to write to the Queen Mother, who had opened the building back in 1935 when she and her husband were the Duke and Duchess of York. The Queen Mum was appalled by the prospect of it becoming a 'public house', so luckily, the combination of both royal disapproval and public pressure resulted in the idea being quietly dropped. We were thrilled when our Lottery bid finally succeeded and the restoration went ahead. It's such a magnificent building." Alastair was asked to write the book on the building's history, a copy of which sits proudly on his bookshelves. "It inspired me that perhaps we could achieve the same sort of thing in Hastings. I had already setup the Hastings Art Forum to help develop the town's burgeoning arts scene. Through that, I landed the role of chairing the town's Strategic Partnership and campaigned for culture to be taken more seriously here. It was amazing when the Jerwood Foundation became interested in us - I think they could see the potential, so they invested in the town. Their new Gallery on The Stade should be completed next year which will be fantastic. I think it shows what you can achieve if you try.

"After that I wanted a break from fundraising and campaigning, but of course, I couldn't stay out of it for long and I was asked to join the Heritage Lottery Fund. Working on the committee there is amazing, it is such an enthusiastic team and a fantastic organisation. We are able to look at all kinds of projects and make a real difference to people's lives. There's an awful lot of reading up to be done," says Alastair, gesturing towards a fat envelope of documents on the table, "but it's an incredible privilege to be involved.
"This room is a good one for quiet reading but the first thing I had to do when I moved in was to paint the walls, because the very nice lady who had lived here before, had seemingly decorated well enough, but it turned out that she had simply painted around the furniture, so once it was removed, the room was really rather strange."
Against one wall stands an intriguing looking chest, embossed and stamped with intricate patterns and painted in rich green, red and gold. "It's made of tin and it's a linen chest that we found dumped by the side of the road in Spain. My then partner and our children and I lived in Spain for a while and one day were in our VW camper van on the way to Granada. When we saw this we knew we just had to have it. The van was already full of stuff, so we pulled out all our luggage and re-packed it into the chest.

Luckily, it just fitted into the boot and then when we reached our campsite, while everyone else was unpacking their tatty plastic bags we very grandly took this out."
Alastair then proudly shows off the conservatory that he designed along with the garden beyond. "We found the Gothic windows at an architectural salvage yard and designed the room around them. I divided the garden into four zones, each was 12 foot square - one is the conservatory, the next the deck, then there are two further zones in the garden. I realised that this space also had the same proportions, so it made things quite easy.

The decking posts were old groynes salvaged from building works on Hastings beach and the garden benefits from the shelter of an old Victorian school, whose wall is so tall that it acts as a wind-break and throws heat back into the garden in the summer. It means that the tomatoes and more exotic things really thrive."
Climbing the stairs, Alastair passes photographs and paintings of his children. They are shown in exotic locations such as Lake Titicaca, on the border of Peru and Bolivia, and the hints of a rather bohemian family life are confirmed when Alastair points out that some of the canvases have been painted by his mother-in-law, whom he calls the "marvellous" Molly Parkin, an artist and author renowned for her unconventional life and views.

The bathroom features a driftwood mirror that Alastair made, and more examples of the model lighthouses that he loves and keeps all over the house. "Oh, and I have Paula Yates' loo!" he adds. "We were good friends and her kids and mine used to play together a lot. She was a wonderful person and so beautiful. It was terrible when she died, but when her house was sorted out, one of Paula's friends asked if there was anything that I'd like, and so I asked for the loo seat, because I had fitted it for her. Paula bought it in France - it's rather beautiful actually, with these exotic fish, shells and sea creatures captured in resin. And I remember when she asked me to put it in for her, she was really happy, it was a good time in her life, so although a loo seat might seem a strange thing to remember her by, I'm glad to have it."

On the top storey of the house, the guest bedroom is painted a strong forget-me-not blue. A low, cane-backed chair is upholstered with a cobalt blue and lime green Designers Guild fabric, the reverse colourway of the curtains, and there are more bright green accents around the room. The freshness of the scheme is softened and warmed by the plain pine chest and chest of drawers and there are framed vintage posters and photographs on the walls, including a 1920s photograph that has been embellished with a pattern around it made from iridescent butterfly wings. "No one would be allowed to make anything like that now," says Alastair, "but it catches the light in here in an extraordinary way." The main bedroom is decorated in a rich ochre yellow and the bed is dressed with navy and white linen. There is a camphorwood chest "another souvenir of Grandma's travels" and against the other wall stands an imposing marble-topped Biedermeier style chest of drawers. There is a collection of family photographs on the top, including one of Alastair's mother with a large number of children arranged in, around and on top of their Lanchester, a huge charabanc-like vehicle. "That was taken at Pevensey Bay. We've always had family connections down this way, so it wasn't such a big step when I moved here."

Above the bed is a painting by the Grey Organisation, an artists' collective that was active in London in the 80s. "I worked in Soho at the time and there was so much going on, with the Blitz Kids, Boy George and Robert Elms. The painting's called 'Off to Taboo' named after a really wild club, run by Leigh Bowery, where absolutely anything went. It attracted a really fashionable, trend-setting crowd and it was a really exciting time to be in London."
Back on the ground floor, the last room to be explored is Alastair's study. He has constructed his own bespoke desks and bookshelves and the dark blue walls are covered in photographs from America's space missions of the 1960s and 70s.

"It was the golden age of space exploration, when the US and USSR were in fierce competition with one another. My father, Peter Fairley was the Science Editor at ITN. He was known as 'the Face of Space' and had unique access to NASA and the Apollo space programme. As a child I thought it was pretty cool, but I had no idea until quite recently that he had accumulated so much material. My stepmother rang me some time after Dad had died and said that she was getting rid of his boxes of old files from the attic, unless I wanted them, so of course, I said yes. I brought back these scruffy old cardboard boxes and was amazed to find so many fascinating pictures and documents. Of course, there was no email in those days, so my dad travelled to the US in person and was given photographs and material to be used for the news, but he also collected autographs and memorabilia for me and my brothers and sister.

It was really touching to find all these things. He'd never told us about them and I'm so glad I got the chance to save them before they went to the dump. I've contacted NASA and found we're able to reproduce the pictures and sell prints. I teamed up with the photographer Steve Pyke, who took portraits of all the surviving astronauts and the film-maker Nichola Bruce who made a film about his work and now we have a touring exhibition called 'Man on the Moon'. I named the archive after my father: 'The Fairley Archive of Space Exploration'. Since I've been involved in the arts for so long I guess I know a bit about framing and hanging exhibitions but it's funny how this one came about from a find in an attic. It just goes to show, you can't really plan things, one thing just leads to another."

Address Book:

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming