“First I was mystified, then I was de-mystified,” says Leslie Banker whose three books all set about the process of de-mystification on two fronts: every day speech and culture in Britain and the subject of decorating. ‘Britannia in Brief’ (Ballantine Books) written together with Leslie’s husband William Mullins, is a genuinely helpful, witty guide to Britishisms and came about when Leslie realized that she just wasn’t getting the her British friends’ jokes. The books on decorating: ‘The Pocket Decorator and The Pocket Renovator’ (Universe) were written together with Leslie’s late mother, the well-known decorator Pamela Banker and Leslie has now moved back from Rhode Island to take over Pamela Banker Associates. In addition to looking after her four-year-old daughter she also run her second home accessories business, Empire Delicious. Following the sadness of her mother’s death last year, she says simply, “I think it’s good to be busy … What’s the alternative? Staying home and watching soap operas?”
We didn’t realize that you had moved permanently to New York because everything that is written about you centers on Jamestown in Rhode Island. Why have you moved back?
I grew up in New York and my parents moved to this apartment about 17 years ago—so it was sort of their empty nest apartment. Just when they thought they had got rid of kids and grandchildren, we moved back last fall. An extra space became available and they extended this apartment—a year ago, we came to live and I thought it would last a month or two, you know the whole family living together but it’s been great. And then my mom got sick and passed away and we stayed.
That’s very sad. And then you took over her design company—that must have been very scary.
It’s been an absolutely crazy year, but I grew up with the business and when I was little my mother ran it out of our apartment. I did other things in my twenties but in my late twenties, when I was a freelance writer in New York, I helped her set up her own office.
I’m not sure I would be in any fit state to take over a business once one of my parents have died … is this the way you are coping and processing her death?
I think it’s good to be busy and I think that I really love doing it and I think, “What’s the alternative? Sitting home and watching soap operas?” My mother loved what she did so passionately and the in the last couple of months of her life, what really upset her was just how much she was going to miss … she’d say “This!” and she’d be looking at the Winter Antiques Fair catalog. And I really love it too.
Are you able to say why you love it?
I love to be in a beautiful space. I think [the job] is part psychology—helping people figure out what they want. I love working with colors and the creative part of it. And there’s a kind of creativity to running a business. It’s not boring at all.
I liked very much something you said about planting grass over your vegetable garden in Jamestown and how it was a relief that you didn’t have to worry any longer about growing your own vegetables.
Oh yes! That was one of the best things I ever did. I’m such a New Yorker! I didn’t even drive when I got to Rhode Island.
Do you miss Rhode Island?
I love being back in New York. We still have the house in Jamestown and it’s very fortunate to have the combination and the escape—it makes you love each place even more but I feel really alive in New York. I love February in New York …
In Rhode Island it’s awfully quiet.
Is your husband also a New Yorker?
He’s American but he grew up in London and lived there through much of his twenties.
Oh, so now we can talk about your Britannia in Brief book that “translates” Britishisms for Americans. We’re both kind of fascinated by it in different ways because I’m British and Sian is American. You said you couldn’t get through a dinner party with British guests—what kinds of things were confusing you?
Well, you don’t want to sound dumb but when people are talking about politics [for example] you know in your head that the Tories are the Conservatives but don’t dare open your mouth. And there are all those British celebrities like Kylie … I can’t even remember her name …
Kylie Minogue … er, she’s Australian …
Australian! But she’s big there! You don’t know that if you’re American! There’s a little bit about linguistic references but it was pop culture mostly, like old British TV shows. And it’s just being in on the joke on … oh I’m drawing a blank … like I’d never heard of the Carry On movies.
Sian: Is that where that T-shirt comes from? [“Keep Calm and Carry On”]
Lesley: Oh dear … this will be a very useful book for you, Sian. Did you [Leslie] ever live in England?
I never lived in England but because of my husband we used to go back there quite often because he has friends there. And my mom was a total Anglophile.
That sort of British design now is not so hot in New York City—do you still go for what your mother did as a designer, the fairly traditional British style?
I think her design was not necessarily British but it was traditional with a foundation in classic design. I really learned design through her but everything has to be adaptable and if I do projects for younger clients, then you don’t put breakable stuff everywhere if they have kids.
Are you willing to put flat screen TVs in rooms?
I’d rather not. I do like a little TV in the kitchen.
I just stayed in an apartment where there were 13 flat screen TVs …
So you don’t miss a second of anything! I do binge watch television, like a whole weekend of Sex and the City. But that was a long time ago—I have to catch up on the newer shows.
I read something you said in answer to a question about giving advice to your own younger self and your answer was “Just enjoy life more.” Did you feel you didn’t allow yourself to enjoy life as much as you should have?
Did I say that? I think I did have fun! It’s important, when you just get out of college, not to worry too much about “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?”