Laura Brand: How to survive lockdown with little ones (and a big kid for a husband)

Russell Brand may have a reputation for his playboy past – but these days he’s happier road-testing kiddie crafts for wife Laura’s new venture. She tells Elizabeth Day why their unlikely love story works.

When Laura Brand was researching her new book, she had an unfortunate encounter with some turmeric. Her book, The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play, has just been published and is a charming compendium of easy activities and creative play for children, often involving things that happen to be lying around the house. One of the activities listed is making ‘bath paint’ – colourful paint that children can brush smoothly and safely on to the bath, but which washes off with equal ease. During the course of trying different recipes, Laura, 32, experimented with various kinds of food colouring. That was when she stumbled across the seemingly brilliant idea of using turmeric. ‘It made this unbelievably bright mustard yellow paint,’ Laura says now. ‘I was really excited.’

Laura Brand
Image: Jenny May Finn

She handed it to her husband, who was doing bath time with their eldest daughter Mabel, now three.

‘I said, “Guys, I’ve got this fantastic bath paint for you to try!” I hadn’t even thought about the staining properties.’

Laura put their youngest child (Peggy, now 22 months) to bed. When she returned to the bathroom, she was aghast.

‘There was turmeric not only over all their faces, hands and the bath but he had allowed Mabel to use it on the walls. So they were covered in yellow, which started seeping into the gloss paint and stuck there.’

It was only after a lot of scrubbing, a healthy dose of heavy-duty bathroom cleaner (left on for 24 hours), and ‘two Tangoed family members for a good few days’ that Laura decided to try again – this time with turmeric firmly crossed off the list of suitable colourants.

The process of trial and error was definitely worth it. The resulting book, which Laura also illustrated, is full of ingenious and inspiring ideas for parents to entertain their children. Most of it costs nothing – twigs are used for making dolls; dried flowers for decorating tea-light holders – and is written in an informative, chatty style that will be manna from heaven for mums and dads struggling to entertain their young children during lockdown. It also – brilliantly – has a ‘potential for mess’ rating accompanying each activity. Her friend, presenter Fearne Cotton, wrote the introduction.

The publication date of The Joy Journal was brought forward because Laura increasingly found herself answering questions from desperate lockdown parents on Instagram and realised there was a demand for her ideas.

‘Within the book, I’ve left blank pages and my main hope is that people can elaborate on things as much as they want. I do really encourage people to take the activities and recipes further in a way that works for them.’

As with the turmeric bath paint, Laura has made all the mistakes so that you don’t have to. Her husband has been a willing guinea pig (‘he’s very playful,’ she says), even though he has his own high-profile career as an author, podcaster, activist and self-described ‘public thought leader’ and is better known as Russell Brand.

Mr Brand, of course, used to have a reputation as something of a hellraiser – an anarchic stand-up comedian, a former drug and sex addict and the ex-husband of singer Katy Perry – but has now been clean for 17 years and is a passionate advocate of the 12-step programme. The image of him painting the bath with turmeric gloop with his young daughter is sweetly unexpected. But according to Laura, who has known Russell for 14 years, this is who he is behind closed doors. ‘He’s the person I go to for everything,’ she explains. ‘He is so supportive.’

It’s true that the two of them are very sweet together: the day before I interview Laura,
an Instagram video appears of the couple demonstrating how to make ‘squishy soap’ for charity (soap that squashes when you use it, making repeated COVID-19 hand-washing a far more enticing prospect for a toddler). In the video, Russell gets energetically carried away and Laura gently brings him back to the task in hand. He gazes at her lovingly; she finds him hilarious. She is naturally beautiful and at ease with herself; he fizzes and crackles with energy and smart one-liners.

Laura and Russell Brand
Laura with husband Russell Brand in 2018. Image: Andy Barnes/BACKGRID

Does it, I ask gingerly, ever feel like having three children as opposed to two? she laughs. ‘Oh yes, certainly,’ she says matter-of-factly.

‘I have to say sometimes, “Could you all just calm down?” It’s a lot but also Russell’s energy is unbelievable. In a way, it’s fantastic because he’s so playful and involved. He and Mabel have a very close bond. They tell each other stories and have whole storylines that play out with different voices and characters. He can go all day at that whereas if I did a minute of it I’d be exhausted.’

He ‘almost always’ does the girls’ bedtime and bath time, Laura says, putting paid to the idea that Russell doesn’t change nappies or do anything domestic – a rumour that circulated after comments he made to a Sunday newspaper in 2019 that she claims were taken out of context.

In fact, the Russell that Laura knows and loves bears little relation to the public caricature. They were first introduced by Laura’s elder sister, the television presenter Kirsty Gallacher, and dated briefly when Laura was a 19-year-old art college student and he was a nascent television presenter.

‘I really fell in love,’ she says now. ‘I’d never experienced love like that before – which made for a good story at the wedding.’

They parted ways and went on to have serious relationships with other people. Laura pursued a career in the hospitality industry, working long hours through the night, while Russell got more and more famous. It wasn’t until 2015 that their paths crossed again during a chance encounter when they ran into each other on a canal path in east London.

By this stage, both of them had changed.

‘I realised I couldn’t go on working in hospitality,’ explains Laura. ‘I’d hit a wall of tiredness. I’d discovered I really didn’t want to live in a city any more. I wanted to go back and find my creative side and when I met Russell [again], he also had this feeling of “I don’t think I want this.” I think he realised he couldn’t sustain that level of attention, that whirlwind where people are around you all the time… I remember him saying, “I think I want a quiet life and a family,” and it was exactly what I wanted. So then it was about seeing if we could build a foundation to make that happen.’

They started seeing each other again, but Laura – who was well aware of his reputation as a lothario – was clear that they would have to take things slowly if he genuinely wanted the relationship to progress.

‘We really courted in the old-fashioned way,’ Laura says now. By way of an example, she tells me she once mentioned to him in passing that she loved Japan, and for Valentine’s Day 2015, Russell invited her for dinner at his house. When she arrived, the door was answered by a woman in full geisha costume, and inside had been transformed with cherry blossom and hanging lanterns. There was a person to teach Laura how to wear a kimono and fresh sushi to eat. This, says Laura, is typical of her husband. ‘He’s incredibly romantic and he’s creative as well, so it’s never obvious but always very meaningful.’

They married in 2017, in a low-key and private ceremony. Her parents – the former golfer and European Ryder Cup captain Bernard Gallacher and his wife Lesley – ‘adore Russell’ and he is very much part of the extended family.

The Brands now live in a thatched Victorian cottage on the riverbank in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, where their neighbours include their friend, the chef Tom Kerridge. How has the family been coping with lockdown?

‘To be honest, Russell and I barely go out anyway,’ Laura jokes. ‘I’ve been trying not to put too much pressure on myself to do lots of projects and not to set unrealistic goals, such as teaching Mabel spelling, but I am reading a lot to her and trying to have quiet time – we haven’t always got the paints out making enormous amounts of mess! For my own sanity, I’ve relaxed my rules on watching stuff on TV – there are some moments when reality hits and I think, “Oh God, let’s just watch something so I can scroll through Instagram.”’

At home, Russell has been doing more cooking to help out and ‘it feels very balanced… I suppose the main thing that is keeping us sane is slowing everything down. For example,
I made a “spring banner” with Mabel and it took three days!’

Her husband, meanwhile, has been keeping busy recording new COVID-19-focused episodes of his Under The Skin podcast and posting inspirational videos for his two million Instagram followers. What’s it like living with a guru, I ask?

She grins.

‘Russell would be the first person to say I’m not somebody who is interested in watching a long-winded analysis of something,’ she says. ‘If I see him reading a long article and looking serious, then I go and ask him about it. He had Wim Hof [a Dutch extreme athlete who has developed a breathing technique to help him withstand freezing temperatures] on his podcast recently and he tried to make me do one of his breathing exercises. I gave up within three minutes. Russell was, like, “Oh my God, you can’t even sit still!” I think he finds it funny. I find it really hard to meditate.’

It’s clear that the two of them balance each other out. And for all that Russell might be the star in the outside world, it’s patently obvious to me that the real hero at home is Laura with her endless capacity for invention and her creative ability to entertain the whole family – even child number three.

Go on, make their day! …with two of Laura’s easiest and most fun-filled activities.

bubbles illustration
Illustrations: Laura Brand

BUBBLE PAINTING

You will need:

1 tbsp washing-up liquid

1 tbsp paint

1 tbsp water

Shallow dish/bowl spoon

Paper straw

Paper

Engaged for:

15 minutes

Good stuff:

Creativity, imagination, senses, speaking

Potential for mess:

Mess as standard for a painty, watery activity. Use a tray and all the spillages will most likely stay in one place.

Parental enjoyment:

Very beautiful result here, with coloured bubble patterns on the paper. We are building a stock to make into cards. Reminiscent of marbling ink.

Method:

Put the washing-up liquid, paint and water into a bowl and mix together until you can see bubbles appearing. Now make all your child’s bubble-blowing dreams come true by asking them to blow (not suck!) bubbles into the mixture through the straw. you will start to see the most fantastic bubbles appearing, all growing on top of one another until it’s a massive hive of bubbles. now put your paper gently on top of the bubbles. I usually have three colour mixes on the go at the same time in separate bowls, so you can layer the popping pattern by moving the sheet of paper from one bowl of colour to the next. Turning over your paper will reveal your colourful bubbles captured for ever.

eco glitter illustration
Illustrations: Laura Brand

ECO GLITTER

You will need:

Colourful dried flowers

Big green leaves

Scissors

Small glass jar or little glass bottles with lids

Engaged for:

15 minutes – a bit of foraging at the beginning and the cutting and putting together can be stretched out, along with label making and bottling.

Good stuff:

Creativity, confidence, imagination, senses, nature

Potential for mess:

Just a bit of floral debris. In fact, that’s rather joyful debris to have!

Parental enjoyment:

I wish I’d done this when I was little; maybe I did in some form during my floral-gathering and potion-making but there was less awareness about being eco-friendly then.

Method:

The sound of my daughter unzipping my make-up bag sets off alarm bells for me. It’s usually lipstick she’s after, but on this occasion, as I leap into the bedroom, I saw the lid being taken off a pot of face glitter! Sadly, I didn’t reach her in time to prevent the joyful sprinkling of it into the shag-pile carpet, or the shower of it all over her face and hair, because a toddler with glitter moves fast! The thing is, I LOVE and HATE glitter – it’s a pain to clean up, and as it is made of plastic it’s bad for the environment, too, but my goodness does it look pretty. I so often want to incorporate glitter into craft; however, I can’t face the utter destruction that it brings with it.

After realising that part of the joy of glitter for Mabel is the process of sprinkling, I decided to start making minimal-mess eco glitter for her. We use it with glue just like regular glitter but it is much less stressful and… natural!

Choosing the most colourful flowers you can, place the petals on a baking tray to dry out for 24 hours so that the glitter keeps better (find a warm spot to help them along). Then get some green leaves and cut them into tiny squares. Once the petals are dry do the same with them and mix with the leaves. Put the mix into a small jar with a lid and use it to decorate pictures and flower crowns or use as biodegradable confetti!

Laura’s book The Joy Journal for Magical Everyday Play is out now (Bluebird, £12.99; the activities above are taken from it). To follow Laura on Instagram visit @thejoyjournal.