The very fabric of life

Well, you can do rock climbing in the mountains, but generally when you go to the mountains, it’s more… It’s not as technical as rock. You can climb up a mountain, depending on the mountain, but it’s not so technical that you need loads and loads of equipment like you do with rock climbing. With mountains you don’t necessarily need a harness, whereas he’ll be in a harness…”

It wasn’t a conversation I was expecting to have in a fabric and upholstery shop, but then again “And we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry” isn’t a sentence I expected to write when transcribing the interview tape. 

The Whistler is with Denise Robins, wife of Adrian Robins, they of the fabric and upholstery shop of the same name in Guildford Road. We’re surrounded by rolls of beautiful fabrics and textiles and just lovely stuff you just want to touch and cover yourself with. 

Adrian’s not here – “Adrian’s off rock climbing in Scotland at the moment” – and Denise is only here because she’s done something unnecessary to her knee. “I won’t climb this year. I think… maybe the winter, late winter. But I think it’s a good six months.”

It’s a nice contrast, isn’t it? The delicacy of the fabric world and the out and about mountaineering and all that. 

“We’re passionate about the outdoors, which is quite funny because everybody expects us to be passionate about our home, and you know, we’ve got a nice home, don’t get me wrong, we’ve got a nice home. But it’s just a nice home. I wouldn’t say we were passionate about our home and about everything being just so, that’s not really who we are.

As much as they love fabrics, it’s the white knuckle stuff that’s in their blood. “We did loads of that. We still do. We were away every weekend in various clubs. We met in the Brighton Explorers Club, we were in the Sussex Mountaineering Federation, we were in Hastings Rock Club, the Brighton Excelsior Club. We were doing all that, all  the time working, that’s what we did. Yeah. And then when I was 27, I had our first child. So I kind of stopped all the mountaineering and stuff then because I just did stuff with the kids. Adrian carried on I just thought I was way too valuable to hurt myself!”

Do you still cycle and..

“Yeah, yeah, mountain bike. Adrian had a very bad cycle accident 15 years ago and he was told he would never work again.” 

Wow, what happened? 

“He’s like the bionic man. He was training, he was doing triathlons at the time, and we don’t know what happened, but he ended up in the back of an articulated lorry. He broke his back, very badly punctured his lung, broke lots of ribs, sustained a head injury because his helmet split into and was in intensive care. He had to have surgery on his back, so had bone taken from his hip, put into his back and he’s got big metal rods in his back holding his back together. And slowly, being Adrian and because he’s so fit, he got back to swimming and, and then wanted to work again. So he only actually ended up having less than a year off. And then he was back at work.” And now he’s off rock climbing in Scotland. Crampons and ropes and all that.

Denise is Brighton through and through. “Yeah my lot go back to the 16th century. My great, I think it’s great great great grandfather, was the last map person off the chain pier, the last person off the chain pier before it collapsed. He was head of maintenance or locked it all up or something. But it’s mentioned in a few books, because my maiden name is Fogden in which is an old Sussex name – and “Adrian Robins” the shop has been on Guildford Road since 1983.

“No, no, we didn’t have this one. Adrian rented the shop next door for two years. He’d finished an apprenticeship in town in upholstery, and then he set up on his own, and by time we’d got together this came up for sale, and he desperately wanted his own shop. So we sold my flat and bought this. When we bought it, it had been rented out to students as individual bedsits each room for about 10 years. It was utterly hideous. hideous, you know, it was it was so funny because we, you know, we were so young and people would come along and I just, I’d look at it and they just didn’t know what to say everybody thought we were completely mad. Because we had no money. And we bought this wreck. And, and they just say the word that was said all the time was potential.

1983. That’s a fair while ago. The area must have changed hugely since then. “There were lots of shops which have gone. We always fought to keep the shops because once they’re gone, they’re gone. They never come back”

Do you remember what other shops they were on this stretch?

“There was a restorer. That was a few doors down. There was a TV shop. Right on the corner. There was a basket making. That was a basket making shops and guys sat in there making cat baskets all day, and then at the top on the corner was like a wholesale butchers. Actually, this had been a butcher at some stage before because it had all butchers hooks in the ceiling.”

Or maybe that was just for the students. 

Denise, it should be said, is a great interviewee in that she likes talking. And she’s a terrible interviewee – because she likes talking. 

“Do you want to know about the shop?”

OK, let’s talk about fabrics. Do you design your own fabrics? “We used to do a lot of that years ago, but I like to advise rather than design. I like to tap into people’s personal taste, and then help them look good.

“There are certain things that we don’t do much, for instance and I don’t have many glitzy books here. They don’t sell in Brighton, I think there’s an understated look they want, people want things to look really nice, but not in a flashy way. 

“If I was going to say what’s the best seller, it would be probably plain and natural weaves. Very natural. So cotton linen blends walls, things like that. But sadly, plain, actually.”

And what’s your favourite?

“I love William Morris. I really like William Morris. I like prints. I like bold prints. So yeah, I mean, it’s you know, it’s funny when we were redoing our sofa Adrian said ‘Why don’t we just have plain velvet’ and I was like ‘No. No way’, you know because… we just shouldn’t.” 

Do you often find yourself talking to customers and they’ll pick something out and you think to yourself ‘Are you sure about that?’

“Yes, and I would say that because I really want people to be happy with what we’ve done. I’d be mortified if we did some work and then people didn’t like it, they felt that they’ve made a mistake, because it’s a lot of money. I mean, I’ll say to people, it’s not like a dress you bought that you can hide in the wardrobe and pretend you didn’t buy it. It’s a sofa, it’s a bay full of curtains. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.

“If you came in here, I would look at how you’re dressed and it would give me an idea of what to pull out. Some people don’t think they’ve got any idea, some people don’t even think they’ve got any taste, but everybody has. I find that quite fascinating.”

Have you noticed over the years, how tastes have changed? “People are far more conscious, environmentally conscious. I’m being asked for things that are natural, all natural fibres. I’ve got some (fabric) books that are made from recycled fabrics and things like that. Also I think the air miles of fabrics, people are more conscious of that, where things are made.”

It’s time to go. You don’t want to take up too much of people’s time so a bit of small talk while I pack up… 

Good luck with the physio and I hope you get out and about sooner rather than later.

“It’s OK. I’m not going to get back into it till the end of the year, and until then I’ll do all my water sports.” 

I thought you were resting up? 

“I’ve bought a paddleboard. And I’m a sea swimmer and try to do lots of sea swimming.”

Clearly we have different ideas about resting up.

“Yeah, I bought a dinghy and I’ve started sailing, so I’m a member of the Brighton Sailing Club as well. And I like to do some surfing if I can kneel OK.”

So there’s mountaineering, cycling, surfing, the dinghy…. Anything boxes not ticked?

“I’ve always been a bit of a thrill seeker. So… I’ve never done any diving and then somebody mentioned to me that where I’m going on holiday there’s a dive school… “

Adrian Robins Interiors

16 Guildford Rd

Brighton BN1 3LU

01273 329240

https://www.adrianrobins.com/

Editorial: October 2022

We don’t fly these days. Flying is, well, the planet you know. It’s My Fine Wife’s doing really – she’s more principled than me – but I agree with her, so we just don’t do it. But sometimes you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, and so a few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in row 5, seat A listening to someone telling me the exits are here, here and here. In Spanish. 

I haven’t been in a plane for years, since long before Covid, and I’d been unashamedly excited. We live, objectively speaking of course, in the best place in the UK, but there’s still something exciting and romantic about travel. When I was young, I used to go to Heathrow and just hang around, watching the planes fly off, wondering where they were going, fantasing about the adventures, wondering what it was like the other side of the “Departures” sign.  

I’ve been on a few planes since then, but there’s still something curiously glam about flying, still something a bit jet set. It’s kinda like still thinking a sun tan and smoking still look cool. But then again… they do still look cool. They shouldn’t, but they do. 

There’s nothing cool about row 5, seat A. I’m not sure Danny Wilde and Lord Brett Sinclair ever travelled Economy, and even if The Terrible Thing did happen I’m not sure I could get to the exits that are aquí, aquí y aquí because, as my new best friend, the guy sitting next to me, said “It’s cosy here, isn’t it”.  

It’s quick and it’s cheap and I suppose that’s good in a sense, but really. Think about it. Anything that sells itself on being quick and cheap… it’s probably not going to be a great experience. 

“Come and eat at our restaurant – it’s really quick and cheap”. It’s not where you’re going to go on your hot first date. On the other hand, I’ve just described the global fast food industry so maybe that’s not the best example.

The whole flying experience is  a bit odd. Before squeezing yourself into row 5, seat A you spend an hour and a half wandering around a faceless soulless shopping mall full of shops selling a variety of men’s clothes, women’s clothes, posh bags, shops that don’t exist anywhere else, shops that are completely empty. I walked into a men’s clothes shop, the t-shirts were all neatly folded into squares and the shirts were hanging up. I said “Hello” to the woman behind the till. She shuffled uncomfortably, like she didn’t quite know what to do. 

“It’s quick and it’s cheap” – and as clunky links go, this is up there – made me think about this issue of Your Mighty Whistler. The reason we don’t fly isn’t because the experience is rubbish; it’s because the planet. And if you read “Gull About Town”, Feedback Special and the interview with Philip Lymbery, they’re all also because the planet. Everyone likes quick, everyone likes cheap, but we’re a little bit past that now. We’ve got to really start being a bit more careful and if Philip Lymbery is right and there are only 60 harvests left… quick and cheap won’t cut it anymore. As mother used to say, you get what you pay for. Maybe it’s time to stop doing quick and cheap. Maybe it’s time to take a bit more care, to take a bit more time and if it costs a bit more, well do it less often.   

Gull About Town: October 2022

As we head into an autumn of change, the double whammy of cost of living and climate crises means fewer take away pizza boxes strewn across the city streets (Ed: you wish) and less in the bins behind the back of our favourite restaurants as they pare back their waste. And that is not a good look for the birds of Brighton.

But ‘eat less, but better’, is what Great Uncle Gull has always told us, reminding us what happened to our favourite childhood treat, the earthworm, when animals were put in cages in vast factory farms. So, your gull has taken flight to check out the latest plant-based kitchens and chefs who care about where their meat, fish and dairy comes from.

This Gull loves little more than good pub food, and particularly when it’s a pop up like Kokedama at the Roundhill with glamorous plant-based small plates. 

A peck at the leftover Gochujang Panko Cauliflower Wing and the skin-on Fries topped with Apple & Fennel Kimchi, Spring Onions, Gochujang Drizzle, Cashew Parmesan, Wasabi Mayo and Furikake sent your bird’s spirit soaring onto a passing thermal to check out its other locations in East Street and Lewes. But not before clocking that Sunday lunch roast is a feather light £15. 

Portland Road may seem a long old flight for a hungry bird, but the word on the wing is that Ciaran’s is a properly sourced treat for a Sunday lunch. Its crispy belly of pork with sage stuffing, roasted duck fat potatoes, glazed carrots, sautéed cabbage and apple cider gravy all comes from within a 40-mile radius. 

The pigs come from Calcot Farm in West Sussex where this bird has witnessed them larking in fields, playing with their siblings and pals until their time comes. She’s also spotted the Ciaran-mobile buying fish from Brighton and Newhaven Fish Supplies, the preferred fishmonger of the most responsible of Brighton eateries. 

His dairy is delivered from Bristol’s Estate Dairy which Cousin Gus from Southville, Bristol’s grooviest neighbourhood, says is the work of a collective of young passionate individuals dedicated to producing and bottling the highest quality milk and cream from the Chew Valley. He’s been very picky about tahe ethics behind his dairy since he developed a taste for ice cream on a brief visit to Brighton as a chick. 

It was Cousin Gus who spotted a cool young eco-warrior at Veg Fest back in 2013, feeding a Bristol crowd vegan sushi burrito and environmental activism like they were baby birds. Anna told them that they couldn’t love the ocean if they ate fish, and well, you can imagine how that’s gone down in the gull world. 

But when Anna moved to Brighton, set up Happy Maki in Pool Valley, the gulls were all over it, as were festival goers throughout the country as word got out about the fake fish that tastes so delicious. 

Let them eat fake if it helps them give up junk food. As the tractors harvest the fields of Sussex, this gull is up, up and away to pick at the worms coming back to the cow-mown farms, and breathe in the beauty of animals on the land. 

For more information, see Gilly Smith’s feature with Philip Lymbery

Too late to do nothing

Philip Lymbery, global CEO of Compassion in World Farming is busy on his laptop as I gaze out of the Eurostar window at the blur of green farmland between Calais and Brussels. “Where are the cows?” I ask idly. “I haven’t seen any cows for hours.” 

It’s 2017 and Philip and I are on the way to the European Parliament where he’ll host a conference about the impact of factory farming on the planet, which I’ll record for an episode of his podcast that I produce called Stop the Machine. Philip sighs and tells me a story of where the cows have gone, about the gradual and largely hidden industrialisation of some of Europe’s most famous foods including Parmegiano Reggiano and Grana Padana which is produced by cows who never see the light of day. 

Five years later, we’re chatting again about his new book, Sixty Harvests Left “a warning from the United Nations”, a clarion call to get animals back on the land before it’s too late.  I ask him about the outcome of the report, Hard Cheese that Compassion in World Farming published about that trip of his through the Po Valley to investigate the real story behind our most popular cheeses.

“It was about raising the issue that cows belong in fields rather than spending a lifetime in barns, sometimes even tethered”, he told me. “Some of them can’t even walk around the barns. We have started a dialogue with the producers in the consortium behind Parmesan and Grana Padana cheeses, but progress is slow. We need to keep up the pressure.” 

It’s more than just the massively important welfare issue; “I believe they’re misleading consumers who believe that the cows are living more bucolic lives. But it’s also that this intensification of farming practice is causing wider harms to the countryside. So things need to change.” 

Philip has painted an apocalyptic vision of the impact of food production on the planet in his books Farmageddon and Dead Zone: Where The Wild Things Were. In Sixty Harvests Left, he picks up the soil where farmed animals once grazed, naturally fertilising the land and providing rich pickings for the bugs and worms, and shows us what our junk food culture has done to it.  

“Our soil has been disappearing at such a rate that the UN has warned if we carry on like we are, then we have just 60 years left before our soils are gone,” Philip tells me for my podcast Cooking the Books with Gilly Smith. “No soil, no food. Game over.’

Philip is one of the most important campaigners against factory farming. He and I have worked together on his podcasts Stop the Machine and The Big Table, and he’s appeared with me on the delicious. podcast and Right2Food, the voice of the Food Foundation in a bid to change the food system. He’s clear about the relationship between buying supermarket BOGOF chicken in shrink wrapped trays, burgers from junk food outlets that contribute to the destruction of rain forests, the lungs of the earth as Philip calls them, to grow grain to feed cattle that should be naturally fertilising our soils. 

“It’s all inherently connected and not in a good way through factory farming. Animals like pigs, chickens and hens have been taken out of pastures and woodlands and kept in cages. And that industrial production of animals is usually accompanied by the industrial production of crops using chemical pesticides and fertilisers and monocultures of cereals and soya and similar crops. 

And in that transaction, what happens is that intensive production drives out biodiversity. It means that the bees that are needed for the pollination of our crops see their numbers plummet. It means that while birds and other animals disappear, the forests are wiped away. And as soils go into decline, so does the future of our food system.’

But Philip’s book is hopeful; if we change the way we eat and stop buying factory farmed meat, get the animals back on the land to naturally fertilise the soil, nature will do the rest, bringing the bugs and insects, the worms that aerate it and bring the life back.  

“I do think that there is a portfolio of solutions. Eating more plants, eating less but better meat, milk and eggs making sure by better making sure it comes from pasture fed free range organic. So broadly speaking, regenerative food sources, I think that’s really important.” 

Buying better sourced food, eating 30% less meat or going vegan or vegetarian – there will be enough meat eaters to support the high welfare farmers – is a no-brainer and reduces the weekly food bill. But it’s not enough; we need to be asking every restaurant waiter or chef where they source their meat, fish and dairy. At a particularly sparkly launch this summer, I asked the chefs where their ingredients came from. They hadn’t a clue. I wrote to the PR company. No reply. 

We’re blessed with great restaurants in Brighton, and most of them shout loud on their menus and their social about their ethical sourcing.