Despite its quaint seaside charms, Hastings Old Town on a grey blustery day, is, well, just that, grey. But as I step over the threshold of Maggie Alderson's handsome Georgian house, it's rather like when Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz sets her feet upon the Yellow Brick Road and everything turns from monochrome to glorious Technicolor. The house is absolutely drenched in vivid, scintillating colour.
Maggie is former editor of Elle magazine and the Evening Standard's ES magazine as well as Mode – Australia's version of the British society and fashion bible, Tatler. Having seen The Devil Wears Prada I am stupidly expecting to be met by a rather chilly fashionista, but although Maggie is certainly very soignée in her cropped navy jacket and trousers and silk Hermés scarf, she is disarmingly down to earth. She has even bought cup cakes for us from Hastings WI market and she quickly produces mugs of tea and coffee. Having lived in Primrose Hill, and then Sydney for eight glamour-filled years, a little coastal town must seem quite a contrast, but Maggie's life has seen some dramatic changes. Although she is still engaged in journalism, since returning from Australia, Maggie has been writing successful novels such as Pants on Fire, Cents and Sensibility, Mad About the Boy and the latest one, How to Break Your Own Heart. In fact this latest period in her life now sounds a little like one of the plots of her books: "Successful writer and editor takes up fabulous job in exotic destination, then meets and marries handsome international footballer, before they return to her native shores to settle down happily and produce beautiful and talented daughter." But reader, it really did happen, though I'm intrigued as to why Maggie and "Pop" (Radenko Popovic) chose to settle here.
"My best friend Josephine Fairley lives here," says Maggie, "and we often came to visit. She was always telling us how fabulous it was in Hastings, and once we had Peggy, it slowly dawned on us that it really would be a good idea. We tried the countryside in Herefordshire, but it was too remote for us. There's so much going on here, and so many creative and interesting people." But does she miss the fashion world? "Well, of course, I loved the Paris fashion shows, but newspapers are really my thing. I worked as a 'Senior Writer' at the Sydney Morning Herald with a brief to bring more sophistication to the paper. I remember at my interview, the editor asked what kind of story I would write and I happened to know that the world's most famous diamond cutter was arriving in Australia the next morning to cut a particularly huge and remarkable diamond. It was one of those Alan Sugar-type moments and he just said 'You're hired!'" Journalism is certainly a rich vein to mine for her novels. "The great thing is the mix of people. At the Standard in London for instance, I worked alongside both polished aristocrats and rackety dog racing correspondents. There's just a brilliant buzz to a newsroom."
Maggie has to be extremely disciplined about her work now that she is based at home. Articles are written at a desk at the top of the house, but the novels are created in an office in Wellington Square, where she has no telephone or internet connection, and, therefore, no distractions. Having her daughter Peggy, means that she can't just leave the house untidy, or the dinner uncooked, so she has to be disciplined to stop working too. I'm interested to know how she begins writing her books. It's quite a leap from journalism to fiction, so it makes sense when she says that she always starts with an issue that she wants to explore. The characters then seem to take on a life of their own and although she knows how the book will begin and end, what happens in between just develops along the way.
This rather adventurous attitude to life is also reflected in the eclecticism of Maggie's house. The high fashion influences are certainly evident. For instance, when I remark on the vivid pink walls of Peggy's playroom, Maggie agrees that it's a real Diana Vreeland pink. Sketches and drawings by fashion illustrators are everywhere in the house and photographs, too, attest to her fabulous contacts book, as famous Antipodean wit, Kathy Lette (a great friend) appears alongside certain rather chic royals; but there's far more to this house than a lot of souvenirs of a glitzy life. Rather than a slavish following of the latest trends, there's an obvious love of the unusual and unique. There are proper garden flowers everywhere: bunches of lilacs in purest white and deep magenta from the WI market and delicate aquilegia and candy-coloured snapdragons from Shimizu flowers in Hastings Old Town. "There isn't a single piece of new furniture in this house," she says. "When we put in the kitchen, we found a carpenter who built something to my own design. He made a unit to look like a free-standing dresser and I added odd handles to all the cupboards to make them a little quirky. We moved the doors and made a pantry and a laundry room, found some tongue and groove board to match the original Georgian wainscoting and I painted it all in Farrow & Ball 'Pointing' to reflect the light coming in from the street above. We made use of what we already had, and in this age of recycling and thrift isn't that more appropriate?"
We drink our coffee in the dining room, sitting on metal garment factory chairs at a dining table made from salvaged railway sleepers in front of an old meat safe. Maggie shipped all three items back from Australia along with many other pieces, some of which were making their return journey to Blighty. The curtains at the window are a 1950s Sanderson print. "I worked at the Sanderson showroom in London after university," says Maggie, "and developed an enduring love for their designs." Pictures on the wall are a mix of the vintage and contemporary. One is an oil painting of asters, found in Norman Rd, St. Leonards, while others were bought at degree shows, were presents from friends in the fashion world, or else, have been painted with rather precocious ability by six-year-old Peggy, who attends Claire Fletcher's children's art club in Hastings.
We climb the narrow stairs to the hallway where there is a group of Parisienne-style line drawings. The largest was created by the friend who built the kitchen – and who also happens to be an illustrator. Maggie took him to the Paris fashion shows as a thank you and he has perfectly captured the febrile atmosphere of the event. Peggy's playroom is a little girls' dream space with its doll's house and wooden 1960s 'kitchen'. The walls are painted in flamboyant 'Kinky Pink' by John Oliver and one is completely papered in a collage of pictures of animals and children cut out from magazines.
We climb the stairs again, passing a framed drawing of Dorothy's ruby slippers with a line from The Wizard of Oz: "If I click my heels three times…" There are more pictures on the landing, united by gold frames that seem to glow against the pale 'Green Verditer' paint, though here, it is closer to aqua than the original Georgian hue that's sometimes called 'Mineral Green'. The bathroom is a strong turquoise blue with panelling above the roll-top bath. Maggie says she wants to change it to a more restrained Dior grey, but if she does so, she may have to remove the 1950s curtains with their delightful pink and red Sweet Williams print. There are more junk shop paintings and an invitingly plump velvet sofa covered with quilted throws and floral cushions.
At the very top of this vertiginous house is the guest bedroom where Maggie keeps an impressively orderly desk. Either side of the bed, a pair of white porcelain lamps in the shape of cherubs sport blue and white striped lampshades set like hats, at a slightly racy angle. A small vase displays some beautiful shell-pink 'cabbage' roses (from Shimizu Flowers) and there are photographs and original drawings dotted about. A door to one side looks like an ordinary cupboard until Maggie opens it to reveal a walk-in wardrobe that's a kind of fashion editor's Aladdin's cave, with marshalled rails of clothes and colour-co-ordinated rows of shoes and bags.
Finally, we descend to the drawing room. A dazzling sunshine yellow, its classically Georgian bow window is dressed with bright glazed cotton curtains to match. Edged with white pom-pom trimmings they are elegant, but have a touch of whimsy. "There's almost no space for a curtain rail," says Maggie, "so Lorraine, from Well Hung Designs, who made them suggested the soft pelmet." Two chocolate brown sofas face each other but are not quite a matching pair, though they were found together in the same Hastings junk shop. They're scattered with cushions made from vintage linen and a new Designer's Guild devoré velvet that also covers a pair of rather handsome fauteuil-style chairs that complement the sofa in the bathroom. The floor is covered with antique Persian rugs collected by Maggie's great uncle, and the walls display bold pieces of contemporary Australian art. Regretfully, it's time to step back into the more monochrome street, but the character and colours of this house have been a tonic for the senses.