Kirstie Allsopp: 'I don’t want the next generation of women to suffer the same heartache’
Property expert Kirstie Allsopp talks about her mother’s death, and advises girls to shun university in favour of buying a flat and having babies
Kirstie Allsopp’s mother died in January and, although the property expert is usually open to chatting about absolutely anything, she says: “I’ve been doing a few promotional things over the last few months and for the first time in my life I’ve said: 'I don’t want to talk about it.’ This is the first time I’ve said anything.”
Lady Fiona Hindlip was 66 when she succumbed to breast cancer after a 25-year battle.
“And, you know, my mother’s life wasn’t defined by cancer in any shape or form. She got it, she had it, she was fit and healthy. She was staggeringly brave. But I can’t sort of…” Allsopp breaks off for a bit. “You’re very close to your mum, aren’t you? And you can’t take that away from someone. It’s appalling. Losing your mum is ----. As a lifestyle choice, it’s just ----. There is no way of getting away from that. But her extraordinary bravery is something that I admire so much.”
Allsopp was only 17 when her mother was first diagnosed. “I can’t say how our lives or her life would have been different,” she says. “It’s just what it was.” One day – not now, it’s still too soon – she would like to write something about how Britain deals with dying, in the same vein as Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death.
“We don’t get it right in this country. We don’t get it right by any stretch of the imagination. In fact,” says Allsopp, gathering pace, “we may get it more wrong than any other country in the entire world. And so I think that there is a moment to just do something and say: 'OK, this is how it’s done in Turkey,’ for example. They are buried immediately in the Muslim and Jewish traditions. And then for 30 or 40 days you stay at home, everyone comes round and they all talk about the person who has died. I think you need that.”
She remembers the first day she went out after her mother died “and nobody said anything. My mum left very specific instructions to be buried within 24 hours. But with most people, nobody is in touch with you for seven days, because that’s the sacred period between death and the funeral when nobody thinks they are important enough to be in touch with you.
“Then there’s the funeral, where people either do or don’t come. And then that’s it. It’s over, not discussed. We are supposed to move on, except of course we can’t. It’s a slammed door which you cannot reopen, and it’s a huge door. So we do get it wrong. We don’t have the traditions in place. Whatever the traditions are in other faiths, they’re better.”
We are in the bedroom of her Holland Park home, where we have met to discuss the craft fair she is launching in August. Except, as she tells her PR on the way up to the bedroom: “You know I won’t say a damn word about it.”
The 42-year-old has never skimped on saying what she feels. It is both her charm and her curse. For some, the idea of a woman who has made her living selling bed linen and homeware having an opinion is simply too much. Allsopp thinks schools should ban homework, and has little time for women who think we should all give birth in our bathrooms. Today, her bugbear is marriage.
The Location, Location, Location presenter has two sons, aged five and seven, with her partner, the property developer Ben Andersen. They have never married, and that has always struck people as a bit odd – as Jenni Murray once told Allsopp while interviewing her on Woman’s Hour: “You’ve always seemed like a married kind of person.”
Allsopp admits now that, as a girl in her early twenties, marriage was always her goal, “but then I realised that 22-year-old men didn’t want you to make them a shepherd’s pie.”
It wasn’t until she was in her thirties that she met Andersen, 10 years her senior and divorced from his wife, with whom he had two sons. Today she is sporting the diamond equivalent of the Rock of Gibraltar on her wedding finger, but she is very clear that it is absolutely not an engagement ring.
“Everyone gets in such a twit about it,” she says. It is on her ring finger, I point out. “But I’ve always worn something there. This is just something to mark the fact it is 10 years since we met.”
Does she want to get married? “No, not now. I think we probably will end up getting married, as it is the world’s greatest tax dodge” – the romance! – “but I have just been to too many weddings and seen too many women lose the plot. We’re completely, completely, completely committed, and blissfully happy. But in my particular circumstance and Ben’s particular circumstance there is just too much pain wrapped up in marriage to make me want to do it.
“I have many friends who are divorced. I’ve been to family weddings that haven’t been much fun. I’ve seen so many people spend an insane amount of money [on their weddings]. It’s not right what people do. It’s not right the money they spend. People can’t pay off their student debt, they can’t buy homes. There are people who have come to me looking for a house. They have a £30,000 deposit and then they are spending £20,000 on a wedding.” A look of exasperation crosses her face. “It’s ludicrous. I think we need to step back a little bit.”
The other day, she was in a little village in Devon, near where she has her second home, “and there was an old fisherman’s hut and in it there was a photograph on the wall of a wedding. Three girls with bouquets were going down the high street. Do you remember, at the end of Pride and Prejudice that they [Jane and Lizzie Bennet] marry together? People used to share their weddings. It wasn’t just about one person. I spend my whole professional life being the centre of attention and maybe that’s what it’s about. I don’t want to be that in my personal life.”
She says that the people close to her who think they should get married have only reinforced her decision not to. “I think that there is a side to me that is a bit perverse and more unconventional than the stereotype people have of me.”
But she still holds some controversially traditional views. As we talk about the housing crisis – she thinks self-build is “ridiculous”, that residential property needs to be built above commercial units and that solicitors, surveyors and mortgage providers need to be brought to task on the length of time between making an offer and completion – she declares: “Women are being let down by the system. We should speak honestly and frankly about fertility and the fact it falls off a cliff when you’re 35. We should talk openly about university and whether going when you’re young, when we live so much longer, is really the way forward.
“At the moment, women have 15 years to go to university, get their career on track, try and buy a home and have a baby. That is a hell of a lot to ask someone. As a passionate feminist, I feel we have not been honest enough with women about this issue.”
Allsopp is fully aware that there are people who will find her opinions grating, preaching as she is from a fabulous central London home. “But I don’t say it from a position of smugness. I only whistled in there by a miracle when it came to children. This isn’t something I’ve just decided in an arbitrary way. [Fertility] is the one thing we can’t change. Some of the greatest pain that I have seen among friends is the struggle to have a child. It wasn’t all people who couldn’t start early enough because they hadn’t met the right person.
“But there is a huge inequality, which is that women have this time pressure that men don’t have. And I think if you’re a man of 25 and you’re with a woman of 25, and you really love her, then you have a responsibility to say: 'Let’s do it now.’ I was lucky with Ben that he absolutely wanted more children immediately and he was very committed to that. But men need to know, men need to be taught in school that there is a responsibility, that if you love someone, decide if you want to have a child with that person or not.”
It is strong stuff. The PR is hovering over her, trying to signal that she has to do photos and some video, and then also get to a charity lunch on time, but there is more! “I don’t have a girl, but if I did I’d be saying 'Darling, do you know what? Don’t go to university. Start work straight after school, stay at home, save up your deposit – I’ll help you, let’s get you into a flat. And then we can find you a nice boyfriend and you can have a baby by the time you’re 27.” I can almost feel the heat of bras around north London self-immolating as she speaks.
But, like it or not, she does make a pretty convincing point. “Yes,” she concedes, “that might sound wholly unrealistic. But we have all this time at the end. You can do your career afterwards. We have to readjust. And men can have fun after they have kids. If everyone started having children when they were 20, they’d be free as a bird by the time they were 45. But how many 45-year-olds do you know who are bogged down?
“I don’t want the next generation of women to go through the heartache that my generation has. At the moment we are changing the natural order of things, with grandparents being much older and everyone squeezed in the middle. Don’t think 'my youth should be longer’. Don’t go to university because it’s an 'experience’. No, it’s where you’re supposed to learn something! Do it when you’re 50!”
Allsopp didn’t go to university but I can just see her at lectures and working on dissertations. Anyway, it is almost time for her to go to her lunch, and then she has to prepare for her appearance on Question Time. She suddenly remembers the craft fair, rattles through some spiel about it, and attempts to show me how to make a fascinator out of some tissue paper. She’s quite some woman, that Kirstie Allsopp.