Real living: Inside... There was a crooked house

A narrow, wedge-shaped corner house in London's East End would not be everyone's dream home. But novelist Emily Perkins and artist Karl Maughan have lovingly transformed it into a Nineties urban fantasy, reports James Sherwood

James Sherwood
Saturday 02 May 1998 23:02

SPITALFIELDS is a block away from Artillery Passage, the place Londoners lovingly call "Jack the Ripper Alley". It is a Victorian quarter of the East End, architecturally unchanged since Jack's bodice-ripping heyday. The cultural shuffle of Asians, contemporary art galleries and old East Enders drew novelist Emily Perkins to her three-storey Spitalfields house. As the hub of London's contemporary art scene, the East End was a natural habitat for artist Karl Maughan, who shares the house with Perkins. Both are native New Zealanders who came to London because, in the words of Perkins, "that's what every 20-year-old New Zealander does as a rite of passage."

The hip currency of London districts rises and falls faster than last year's boy band. "The landlord bought the house 12 years ago for pounds 4,000," says Perkins, "which gives you a rough idea of how desirable this part of London was back then." The shape of Perkins's house is unique. Imagine a house on the corner of two streets, cut diagonally like a wedge of cake so that each room is triangular. A labyrinthine wooden staircase wraps itself around each floor from basement to second-floor bedroom. "I know the ground floor was let to a junk shop. But I'm sure it was originally a nineteenth-century home," Perkins says. "There was absolutely nothing twentieth-century in the house - no bathroom, no hot water - when we moved in. It was squalid.

"I think students had been living here directly before us. That may explain the terribly metallic paint on the walls and the rank carpets. Can you believe people put carpets over beautiful old wooden floorboards like ours?" The rickety wooden staircase is one of the most endearing features of the house.Exposed floorboards in the first floor office and second floor bedroom are true to the character of the house.

Perkins and Maughan are indicative of shifting priorities for this generation of house-hunters. The lack of a bathroom was secondary to having a stimulating view from the first-floor window of Perkins's writing room - the side- show that is East End everyday life - and proximity to Maughan's studio in Spitalfields. The actual furnishing of the house was, again, secondary to placing pieces of art made by friends of the couple.

Their first acquisition was an industrial sink unit salvaged from a restaurant in nearby Brick Lane. Above it, Maughan constructed box shelf units out of old packing crates, varnishing over the original "Fragile" stamps embossed on the wood. A larger version of the crate shelving serves as an open "cube" wardrobe in the bedroom. "I tell you no lie," says Perkins, "we practically furnished the entire house with salvage." The kitchen is dominated by what Perkins proudly calls, "a 1967 showroom cooker". It bears the legend "Carron Capri Three". It is brown with orange stripes and it belongs in a Mike Leigh movie. The only clue here to Perkins's profession is a tiny pack of cards produced by Penguin, with a Jan Tschichold classic book cover on the back of each card.

Emily Perkins is a no-nonsense New Zealander. She cringes when we put her gold high heel shoes into one of the pictures. "The readers are going to think I'm a real party girl," she says. In this month alone, she's been profiled by Harpers & Queen and Time Out and photographed by a New Zealand magazine. "When you're not used to this kind of attention, it's nice," she says.

Halfway up the staircase, sitting in the open landing, is a white-tiled shower. "It was constructed by a sculptor friend of ours, Arnaud Desjardin," says Perkins. And why would a sculptor turn to plumbing? "Because we paid him," she laughs. "It was the only place we could fit a bathroom of any description, but I think it works."

Perkins's first floor study is, predictably, piled high with books, copies of the New Yorker and paintings by Maughan. "I love having the real fireplace in here," she says. "It proves that the house was built this way and not converted. Can you imagine a nineteenth-century East End family of six living in this tiny house together?" A black antique chiffon dressing gown, embroidered with roses, hangs from a nail in the study above a Lloyd Loom ottoman found in Spitalfields market and an armchair "bought from a man on the street". Perkins spotted the ancient chest of drawers in the corner of her office being loaded onto the back of a van, and made the driver an offer.

Every window in the house is fitted with white Ikea blinds, although the only ones drawn are at street level in the kitchen. The top floor bedroom is the calmest room in the house: with white sheets to match the white walls, blinds and paper box lights from Habitat. There is another word processor perched on a desk next to the bed, but Perkins insists it isn't plugged in. "I confine my writing to the office. I don't want to commandeer the entire house as a work space," she says.

Now 28, Perkins won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 1997 for her collected short stories, Not Her Real Name. Her first novel, Leave Before You Go, is published this month. As one of the most prominent new novelists on the London scene, she is hardly living the Barbara Taylor Bradford high life. Thankfully, she doesn't write like Barbara either. "Karl and I are extremely happy here," she says. "I love having people over for dinner, so I suppose I spend a lot of time in the kitchen (which doubles as a dining room). We do have a basement bedroom if people want to stay over. They keep coming, so it can't be all that grim down there. I think the most important thing to remember when it comes to the interior of the house is that we do live here. It isn't always pristine but it isn't a show flat, so that's fine."

'Leave Before You Go' is published by Picador later this month

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