Monday, 2 March 2015

We Need to Talk About Blogging


Photo: Dvora for Vogue.co.uk 




Photo: Elena Molina for The Upcoming. Here you can glimpse my glorious Ops&Ops flats that I was wearing around Somerset House. Their new collection is released on March 4th. More on them soon...



Photos: Simbarashe Cha for Lord Ashbury

Why do I blog? I’ve asked myself this at various points since I began – often at times when it has seemed like a struggle to keep up with posting, or when I've experienced frustration at the way page views have diminished slightly in recent years. Maybe it’s classier not to acknowledge the challenges. But it’s certainly more human, and honest.

Plus, the answer that I consistently come back to is this – I blog because I love it. I blog because I adore great clothes and dressing up and interesting ideas and online conversations. I blog because, really, very little beats the satisfaction of knowing I’ve written something I’m pleased with (that doesn’t have to be passed through an editor, or given a news hook). Those evenings where I sit down in a fizz and flutter of thoughts, rapidly working my way through a first draft of three or even four posts in a row – oh, they’re the best.

Plus there’s the added satisfaction of occasionally meeting people who visit this little corner of the internet I’ve carved out for myself. I’m still kind of surprised whenever it happens. Sitting in front of a screen, you end up creating stuff in a weird vacuum-style space – not quite sure who (if anyone) is seeing it and responding to what you’ve flung out online.

I’ve now had this blog for a significant portion (more than a quarter) of my life – something I was reminded of when I spent a day at LFW recently, and got talking to various (very wonderful) people I originally met there, aged fifteen. That first time/ season, I’d taken my mum along – a detail that plenty of the photographers still remember, and they continue to ask after her. Some of them told me that I had made a bit of a stir on the street style circuit at that time. Although I was aware of the attention from cameras, everything felt so new and exciting that I just kind of took it for granted. I was from a tiny village. Suddenly having all this appreciation for my outfits was a form of both adventure and validation.

Many of the other bloggers I first met then have since turned their blogs into full-time careers, with huuuuuge followings, brand collaborations and brightly lit photos a-plenty; while lots of the the street style photographers are working for amazing publications. Fashion has sped up. It’s about the instant, the insistently ‘now’, the Instagram post put up quick-smart. Essentially, the relationship between social media, PR, the fashion industry and blogging has evolved beyond measure in recent years.

It's easy to fall into hard-line camps when discussing that evolution though. Innovation or frivolity? Creative or commercial? Airheads or clever business heads? Revolutionising the fashion industry or transforming it in damaging ways? Exciting growth or unsustainable pace? (I mean, yeah, it is definitely the latter with that one). It's easier to retreat into the realms of generalisations rather than interrogate these divides with any sense of depth.

Besides, you're allowed to hold two conflicting views in your head if you so wish. By way of example, I'm not the biggest fan of the kinds of style blogging now overwhelmingly celebrated (or at least gaining the most exposure) - slick, brand-led, frequently featuring white, model-slender figures. In fact, I've discussed the lack of diversity in the upper echelons of fashion blogging before – as well as giving an overview of what’s changed in recent years. Yet, despite all that, I can still respect the ways in which often relatively young women have built themselves up from scratch, working damn hard to get to the point where their blog becomes a business. They are usually enterprising, driven and very committed. That deserves to be applauded. I must admit, I admire it that little bit more if they weren’t already super-rich and very well-connected (isn’t that the same in all creative industries though?) Oh, and I DEFINITELY reserve the most respect for those bloggers who are genuinely nice and relatively uninterested in pulling rank. I mean, that’s a general life thing too, but it’s worth holding onto.

However, there's rather a lot of continued handwringing about commercialisation - as though the very presence of ads or collaborations completely undermines all sense of veracity. But bloggers do have bills to pay too. It's a time-consuming endeavour. Most of us dive into this online realm because we love clothes or conversation (or, for others, cupcakes - and beautiful food), but there's no harm in transforming that platform into a career - in fact, it's pretty impressive if you can manage it, and orchestrate your online presence into something lucrative.

There are some very interesting posts written by bloggers on this very topic that offer thoughtful insights. First, Olivia’s on why it’s ok to earn money from blogging. Also Emma’s, now a few years old, on the blogger/ writer divide and Kristabel’s on her answer to people asking her ‘So what do you do?’ All make immensely salient, smart points.

If we’re talking business though, this Texas Monthly piece is… eye opening to say the least – raising plenty of questions about transparency, the creative/ commercial divide and what ‘authenticity’ actually means now. I personally found it a pretty disheartening (but very compelling) read, reflecting a blogger ‘industry’ that’s so consumer oriented that there’s little mention of joy in dressing up, or approaching style as something inventive or intelligent. There are lots of exceptions to the rule, like Leandra Medine, but, well – they’re still exceptions. Plus, the article reflects a rapacious rate of consumption, with that persuasion to buy, buy, and buy some more buggering up our environment and leading to big worker rights problems.

I pretty much missed out on the first stages of the social media revolution – keener to focus on my blog (and to apply to uni!) than build up a following on lots of new platforms. Now, having belatedly hopped on board I spend a tad too much time on Twitter and Instagram, but enjoy them both on my own terms. Maybe one day I’ll use affiliate links, although that would be somewhat problematic given that most of my wardrobe is sourced second hand…! If I ever do though, I won’t feel guilty, because I know how much energy I pour into not just keeping the integrity of the blog, but keeping it going – full stop.

But I had a real moment post-LFW of wondering what might have happened if things had moved differently; if I’d monetized my blog, worn more ‘labels’, gone to a London-based uni and fully launched myself much more into the fashion industry? Where would I be now? Would I have tens of thousands of Instagram followers? Go to lots of parties? Measure my worth and professional standing just by page hits?

However, then I remembered that all my choices have been active ones, and that this is an immense privilege. Just as others have made canny, active business decisions, I’ve chosen to make room for the things I want to engage in while I’m still in full time education; before I have to earn a monthly income I can live on. For me, this has meant time spent in intellectual engagement and improvement; a huge focus on writing; assembling an immensely diverse social group; developing a span of aspirations that range from performance poetry to modeling to working on books. There are so many crackling ideas to develop and experiment with. There’s time to form an identity that isn’t predicated on maintaining an online profile; time for a working life where blogging is a part, rather than the whole, of my output. Space to muck up, make mistakes, and take chances.

This is about as subjective as it gets. Not a judgment on other blogging paths, but rather a recognition of what was right for me. Dipping back into the chaos of LFW for a single day this season was special. It allowed me to reflect a lot on how we define success and status, as well as to dwell on the experiences I was beyond lucky to access as a younger teen. But it also let me know that things are doing ok as they are – and that there’s still so much time ahead.

Thanks to all the lovely, lovely photographers who took my photo at LFW. Wonderful to catch up with Dvora and Craig in particular - and there was a fabulous moment of serendipity as the day drew to a close and I bumped into Simbarashe, having posted an old photo of his on my Instagram that very morning! 

I was wearing a hand-made vintage 60s/70s dress from Rokit, a green vintage coat that once belonged to my mum, a second hand shirt, my great-grandma's necklace, and a hat that first appeared at LFW in September 2011 (Craig and Dvora took my photo then too!) Both the bags were from charity shops. If anyone happens to see any other photos of me floating around, I'd really appreciate you letting me know.

It's been a busy month. This weekend just past was pretty momentous for all sorts of reasons (mostly to do with the book I've been writing) - all to be properly revealed soon. Take a look at my Instagram for some clues though. 

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Metamorphosis










For Christmas, I received a pair of socks. So far, so standard to the point of boring. However,  these weren’t just socks to hide away in boots or to put on when I need an extra layer – but ones with a very specific, personal pattern curving up the length of them: a softly swiveled set of (what looks like) vertebrae, white on black, x-ray style. I’d asked for a pair with books on them – but instead of the spines of hardbacks, I got some proper spines instead.

To accompany the images of these beauties, I wanted to use a piece I wrote last year, when I was going through a tricky-ish patch body confidence-wise (more on that at some point soon). It was an article commissioned for a zine put together by both the excellent photographer Eleanor Hardwick, who I've modelled for a few times, and all round amazingly lovely human being Olivia Aylmer - who I miss quite a lot now she’s moved back to America. The zine was called Shapeshifting – with all contributions on that theme (you can read a feature about it on Dazed Digital). I contributed a personal essay called ‘Metamorphosis’ - paying particular attention to the rhythm and balance of my sentences.  

I hesitated before putting it up here though, my internal critic going, “Oh god, not another bloody piece about your back? You’ve posted so much on that previously. Booooring.” But you know what? I live with my two thirds surgically fused spine day in and day out. Most of the time I'm not directly thinking about it, but that central column is always there, holding me up. It's what makes long days in the library uncomfortable, standing up for several hours at gigs a tough(ish) task, and heavy bags more of an aching burden. It's also what made me, to a certain extent, in that it's informed both my life and my work pretty significantly.  

Besides, this is still a piece of writing I’m damn proud of, and words are my primary way of unpeeling and reviewing various experiences. Thus it's also a subject I’ll probably continue to return to in years to come, seeing it through other lenses as I grow. In fact, there are already elements of what I said in this essay that I’d now approach differently, feelings I captured then that no longer apply in the same way. 

So here it is. Another set of reflections, another angle, another view…

Metamorphosis

If I define myself through my body, what am I? Arms, legs, a head, a heart, a set of cells renewing themselves? A shin often covered in bruises, cheeks that pink up after a single glass of wine, a height placing me taller than many others, curly hair that frizzes in rain? A muddle of desires and hungers and functions and sensitivities, just like everyone else?

Above all these details, there’s something else that comes first though – my spine. I’ve got a more intimate relationship with mine than most. It’s usually a component taken for granted, the hidden scaffolding holding up the rest of the skeleton. Like many other internal parts of the body, it’s often only dwelt on when it goes wrong. That’s what happened with me. I’ve seen multiple x-rays of mine, spent months unable to ignore its morse code message of aches and pains, eventually let a surgeon cut through my skin and nerves to manually set it straighter before stitching me back up.

The reason? Scoliosis. One year my spine decided to stop growing upward and began curving out to the side instead. Diagnosis came at fourteen. This process of twisting was labeled ‘idiopathic’ - no known cause. Just happens. That’s the way it is. Being female and teenage, I was among those most likely to be affected. Part of a statistic. That was little consolation though. I knew no-one else who had been through what I was experiencing. My friends were concerned about their boobs and newfound curves as their hips grew and their heights shot up. I was distraught as my rib cage shifted, my hips became uneven and my right shoulder blade stuck out into a lopsided wing. Others around me fretted over weight, I curled up in bed and cried at the hurt, the seeming injustice of being physically set apart.

I didn’t want to accommodate my shape. At school I was hyper-aware of how it looked in my uniform, my shoulder bulging beneath my horrible acrylic school sweatshirt. At home I hid it beneath silk shirts and big belts, hoping it might be invisible behind folds of fabric. I say ‘it’ for a reason – I wanted to separate myself off from it, not have to be responsible for my own physicality. I became increasingly envious of anyone with a straight back and symmetrical set of shoulders. They represented an ideal of normality that I couldn’t access.

It took roughly nine months between discovery and surgery. It’s a quicker trajectory than usual, but by the time of the operation my spine had bent into an S-shape measuring 80 degrees (think of straight as being 0). The solution involved two titanium rods screwed into my spine to keep it straight-ish for the next six months as artificial bone graft grew over the vertebrae, forming a solid mass. I was in intensive care for a night, hospital for a week and off school for two months. I relied on others to look after me, feed me, help me to learn to walk again. It was an odd experience full of intense trauma and pain, a small pocket of time where ‘usual’ life was suspended and left to hang. I experienced great kindness from some, bemusement or awkwardness from others.

Now, several years on, the middle of my back is a fused line of bone. I have a scar that runs its length, a pearlescent souvenir. The remnants of my metamorphosis can still be seen. My back remains uneven, my rib cage prominent, my waistline undefined. It is easier to deal with the skin, the scar, than it is with the structures that remain beneath.

It has been bewildering to inhabit so many shapes – my body changing form, without time to accommodate or acclimatize. I had a double metamorphosis – first from straight to curved, then from curved to mildly skewed. Sometimes I can look back on my pre-surgery body with a kind of unsettled awe, seeing the beauty in the twisted flaws. There is something compelling in the few snaps I have of my back, taken on self-timer in our bathroom just before surgery. All the usual lines have been disrupted, re-drawn with odd shadows and highlights. At other points the recollections hurt too much. It took me an incredibly long time to reach a sense of peace with my body’s appearance – and it’s a peace that can still disappear now.

Occasionally I think of the scar as a zip. I imagine unzipping that silver line of flesh to find the hunchback still hiding beneath. Because it stays, even after fusion. Physically it’s much reduced, but the emotional resonance lingers: the vulnerability, the feeling of being out of control, of not quite having ownership over one’s own body as it alters. I can be proud and strong and grateful, yet I carry these elements too - walking my own personal crooked mile.

With the socks - a present from my mum - I'm wearing a vintage sixties LBD, necklaces that belonged to one of my great grandmas (can't remember which one!) and a vintage hat bought from a market stall. The heels were from a charity shop. The matching curve of mossy grass in the lane behind: fortuitous.

Friday, 13 February 2015

The Year of the Polo Neck








2015 is shaping up to be the year of the polo neck.

That’s the kind of statement usually more suited to the pages of fash-mags than this blog, but for once I’m ok with sounding slightly hyperbolic. Mainly because it’s closer to truth than over-exaggeration. Like crop tops - but slightly warmer - suddenly they’ve infiltrated libraries and cafes and pubs and (in my case whenever I’m home) rural villages, all with a pretty understated elegance. Recently The Guardian, in a fit of tongue-in-cheek, even deemed them one of the top items for making yourself ‘look interesting’.

Personally, I didn't realize that my choice to indulge in something warm and comfy and versatile was a conscious decision to present myself as ‘interesting’ (besides, daahlings, I’d hope all my outfits do that. Ahem.) It was more a mix of thinking, “I cycle everywhere and these tops stop me from freezing quite so much” and, “if I wear enough of them, maybe I’ll look as chic as Audrey Hepburn circa Funny Face” (other options for emulation include Lauren Bacall, Maggie Smith, Sophia Loren, Marlene Dietrich, Diane Keaton, Brigitte Bardot or Jane Birkin, depending on mood.)

They are having a moment though – popping up all over the place, whether that’s on another girl in my Troilus and Criseyde class (Criseyde definitely could have rocked a polo neck, if she hadn’t been so busy being a fourteenth century love interest and all) or strung out over my Instagram feed. So many people suddenly affirming their love for the polo neck - pairing them with anything from suede patchwork miniskirts to jeans.

I’m actually a polo neck convert. Used to hate the things. For years I've had plenty knocking around in my tops and jumpers drawer, but found them uncomfortably tight and scratchy around my neck. They were reserved for those days back at home when the temperature felt even colder indoors than out. However, suddenly they make sense. So full of potential and possibility (especially after getting rid of the too-tight-necked ones). Now I can wear all my summer clothes in really chilly temperatures – plus there’s the ease of the way they go with kilts/ black velvet trousers/ floaty tunics/ eighties' party dresses/ lashings of red lipstick and liquid eyeliner. They are pretty much the equivalent of a kitchen cupboard staple, in that: they go with nearly everything, you can always rely on them as a basic, and you often get taken unawares and are slightly saddened when suddenly they’re nowhere to be found (probably because they’re all in the ever-growing laundry pile you’ve been ignoring). 

Maybe part of the power is that they can suggest anything from geography teacher to forties screen siren. They run the gamut from demure to louche to pretty sexy, and they’re equally as easy to reach for on days when you’re feeling tired/ hungover/ ill as they are when you’re all sparky and alive with ideas, full of clarity for the day ahead. Besides, it’s still bloody cold at the moment, and anything to ease the shivering can only be good.

As I write this, I’m actually wearing the one pictured here – today paired with a silk striped shift dress and a vintage navy Jaeger cardigan, as well as the brown Chelsea boots also featured above. Sadly doesn’t quite have the same grandeur as sweeping through the Welsh hills, glittering in a green lurex 70s evening gown. But it’s perfect for a day sitting in a café with my laptop, a large coffee by my side and a long word doc in front of me, waiting to be edited. Maybe I’ll ‘look interesting’ while I type. Maybe I won’t. But to be honest, who cares? Today I’ve decided my polo-neck’s message is this: I’m a woman with work to do, and I’m going to do it well…

Everything I'm wearing is second hand, including my trusty Russell and Bromley men's boots, which are becoming ever-more battered as I wear them day in and day out. Thanks to my dad for the photos. 

By the way, I recently did an interview with the lovely author Siobhan Curham, who has a book for young women called 'True Face' coming out with Faber in April. I discussed everything from childhood dens to struggling to fit in at secondary school to my absolute love for conversation.  

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Reckless

































One of my favourite forms of procrastination when I’m back at home during holidays is taking veeeeery extended coffee breaks with my parents. They’re both self-employed, so usually at least one of them is working somewhere around the house. We’ll sit, cupping warm mugs, chit-chatting over anything from practical tasks to new, fizzing ideas.

Over the Christmas break, there was one particular morning when I sat with my mum on the landing, weak sun straining through the windows (illuminating just how much dust had settled). Behind us was a bookshelf stacked with everything I’d had read to me, when I was a tiny toddler in dungarees and bobbly jumpers – plus the picture books, fairytales and traditional world stories I’d gobbled up before moving on to the more sophisticated (at that point) worlds of Enid Blyton. We spent ages cooing over some of the bright covers and battered, much-turned pages, recalling particular favourites, hunting along the spines for old friends and recalling narratives that had long lain dormant.

Then, squeezed in next to each other, I re-discovered two cherished gems. The first was Reckless Ruby by Hiawyn Oram (first published 1992, illustrated by Tony Ross), the second, Princess Smartypants by Babette Cole. Both, in rather different ways, are brilliantly feminist – smart, feisty (in the proper sense of the word) texts about girls who refuse to do what’s expected. I cackled with glee on re-reading them, nodding appreciatively at these strong-willed individuals who were bored of special treatment and the prospect of marriage. They both wanted to do stuff. Silly stuff. Dangerous stuff. Their own stuff.

Reckless Ruby skateboards and walks tightropes and (in my favourite ever picture-book image) smokes five cheroots in the shrubbery (!), all because she refuses to be “wrapped in cotton-wool and grow up to marry a prince”. Princess Smartypants sets a series of ever-more ridiculous challenges for her tedious suitors, and then still refuses the successful one – swanning off in her dungarees instead, with her menagerie of pet monsters.

I took such books for granted at the time – assuming that young women could do, or be, whatever they wanted. Classic fairytale plot-lines rubbed shoulders with rule-breakers and little girls full of rebellion. The idea of laughing in the face of both male entitlement and/ or the parental expectation of traditional stories was just as familiar as the archetypal ‘happy ever after’.

But I wonder whether Reckless Ruby would be published today? In an industry almost entirely dictated by market forces, children’s choices have, perhaps, been narrowed down. Oh, there’s magic and pretty dresses and gleaming teeth a-plenty, and fairies of every description. But the type of behaviour engaged in by Ruby - who “grew so reckless she said she could dive off any roof into a fishbowl…and dangle from skyscrapers by her shoelaces…and walk on water in lead boots…” - would it really make it past the shuddering health and safety concerns of 2015? Would Roald Dahl be published now? There was a genuine autonomy and free-spiritedness in many books from the end of the last century.  Is it still there in today’s crop? I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong (and I’d love to be corrected, if so), and maybe you can still find that kind of joy, play and sheer single-mindedness in contemporary children’s fiction, not to mention robust role models and strong endings. But if not, we need them more than ever.

(And if you don’t want to know how Reckless Ruby ends, look away now – once released from the tyranny of being expected to be ‘precious’ she’s able to ‘stop being reckless and grow up’ to be… a fireman).

To emulate Reckless Ruby's naughty antics and fabulous outfit, I used a vintage dress I bought in Paris last summer - pairing it with a hat that belonged to my great-grandma and some shoes from a charity shop. Many thanks to my brother for allowing me to clamber around his tree house. 
It's also been a busy few days for me. Earlier this week I had another article published on The Guardian's website, discussing the joys of junk shops and second hand finds to furnish your house-share or room in halls. Then the day before yesterday I went to protest far right French politician Marine Le Pen's appearance at the Oxford Union. I shouted, got very cold, and wrote it all up for The Debrief (which I'm super-excited about, as I LOVE their website). 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Grass is Always Greener








Outside my room at at home there is a very well stocked coat rack. Welsh wool capes, velvet blazers, long leather coats and big winter jackets are all squished together – shoved into this small corner of a corridor. It’s like the wardrobe leading to Narnia, but in reverse, my brother having to push past it every time he wants to leave his bedroom.

The size of this rack expands and contracts. Sometimes I’ll approach it with zealous resolve, loudly proclaiming I’ll cherry pick the favourites and get rid of the rest. Normally though this only ever ends in one or two items being packaged up for selling (I now have about twelve suitcases' worth of clothes to put online, eventually) or donated to a charity shop – the breathing space on the rack quickly plugged with another new second hand purchase or three.

Yet, I admit, I don't often wear much of what’s hanging there. The usual justification is that most are items much too gorgeous, ravishing or one of a kind to part ways with – even though they’re not practical for every day use. That’s why I have so many damn capes. One day, I hazily dream, I’ll have the kind of life that can necessitate two things: one, a walk-in wardrobe large enough to store everything with ease, and two, a social life requiring all sorts of fabulous, outrageous outfits. Whether either possibility becomes reality remains to be seen, but the upshot is that I’m keeping my great-grandma’s full-length red satin evening coat FOREVER.

So, bearing all this in mind, why did I end up coveting one of my mum’s coats? Considering just how many I had at my own disposal, eyeing up the one hanging in the hall instead was sheer avarice. Well, I guess there’s more thrill to something you think you can’t have – that mix of longing, desire and frustration (I may be more emotionally invested in clothes than I care to admit). Plus, it is pretty. It was a classic case of the grass - and literally the coat - being greener on the other side.

It worked out well in the end. I had a coat bought from a charity shop during the first year of uni, which I described in my Vogue Student Style piece as being  “the colour of well-brewed coffee with a furry collar and flared hem… a stitched layer of assurance to swing on when needed.” (You can see it here.) However, despite the boost of confidence it so readily offered, I eventually had to admit that it was also a tad too small across the shoulders and chest. My mum, more petite than me, offered an exchange. She’d give me the green sixties beauty I’d been lusting after in return for this flared brown Fifties one.

Many of us indulge in wanting what we don’t have room for or can’t have. How many times do we look at something in a shop, only to go “weeeeell, I don’t need it, and I’ve already got so many heels/ fifties tea-dresses/ silk shirts/ hot-pants” (depending on taste). But sometimes the inner child style petulance of “But I want it” comes out to play, making you dissatisfied with what you already have – craving the new, the next, the novel. Roald Dahl's Veruca Salt, eat your heart out.


I guess the beauty of clothes is that you can never have too many (ahem). I readily admire those like Vix who have a ‘one in, one out’ system where anything newly acquired means something older must be let go of, but I just can’t do it. I’m much too much of a seeker, a gatherer, a hoarder – but you know what? It’s ever so much fun.

Well, the origins of the coat have already been covered. The silk skirt is vintage (a Christmas present), the hat is from a charity shop, and the belt belonged to my mum. Those velvet ankle boots (sadly not particularly visible) were from ASOS. 

Monday, 26 January 2015

Settled








There are lots of things I’ve been thinking about recently.

Ok, that’s a banal opening to a blog post. There are always tons of things I’m thinking about - my mind jumping from all the coverage of Page 3 to conversations I’ve just had with friends about the weird nature of celebrity, to observations on how much I want to buy Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, to OOH look at that person’s hat! All in the space of a few minutes.

But there’s something specific that’s been looping through these other brain-mutterings and I find myself returning to it. Not sure why. Call it newfound New Year clarity (ironic, considering how adamant I was about not making resolutions), or just a congruence of time, place and circumstance.

Either way, I’ve been mulling over the relationship between confidence and contentment. To hone it down further, the consideration has been of how I currently view myself; how I feel about where I’m at right now. And I feel good. Pretty damn great, actually.

It’s surprisingly tricky to articulate without relying on clichés or irritating stock phrases. But I felt that a lot of it was caught in this absolutely bloody brilliant video that Lex Croucher recently put up, where she talked about appreciating oneself and asserting your own value. Those may be over-used phrases, but she does something both fresh and refreshing with them - especially in her practical tips for moving to the position of essentially knowing that you’re pretty ace, and being comfortable in acknowledging that. It’s a wonderful watch.

Every time I see women – particularly young women - talking/ writing about the power of self-confidence, it makes me incredibly happy (even though I wish there were a better term for it than ‘self-confidence’). So much of the time we’re told that it’s unattractive to be female and to embody satisfaction or out-spokenness or conspicuous achievement.

I’m not advocating rampant ego-centrism or narcissism here, by the way. You can be self-confident, and still humble. There’s a massive distinction between knowing your own worth, and thinking you’re some glittering gift grandly bestowed on humankind.

However, maintaining a sense of quiet assurance was a skill I took a long time to learn. Although by no means finessed, I’m much more comfortable now in being able to celebrate what I’m doing well - rather than remaining in a state of slight, gnawing dissatisfaction at what’s missing.

After all, we’re often encouraged to focus on the things we lack: the stuff we haven’t done yet, the areas we’re missing out, everything that could be improved. Whether that’s body size, not being in a relationship, seeing other people get things you want, work problems, not getting up at 5am to do yoga, a social group that doesn’t quite fit right… There are all sorts of markers we’re ‘meant’ to aspire towards, the suggestion being that without them, we can’t be at ease with ourselves.

This set of measures is ever shifting. Got a great job? Yeah, but you’re still single. Surrounded by wonderful people? Yeah, but they can all afford holidays you can’t. Feeling proud of a particularly good set of wardrobe choices? Yeah, but, there are so many things you haven’t achieved yet. Hit some personal goal? Yeah, but others are more popular/ successful/ admired. Know that others think you’re fun to be around? Yeah, but you could be more beautiful, or productive, or fit, or brainy. Those ‘yeah buts’ are really corrosive. They encourage you to see yourself as a summary of failings, rather than a fabulous, composite whole.

Of course, ambition to do even better at something isn’t bad. For many, it’s natural to keep on reaching for the new and the next. Lots of us like to see our own lives as a narrative where things move towards improvement. Ambition and big aims and the desire to strive for all sorts of things currently beyond grasp – how wonderful, and worthy of pursuit. Similarly brilliant are the smallest of achievements, the tiny things that seem inconsequential to others, but worthy of celebration by us, on completion. Complacency isn’t fun (personally, at least). But you know what? Contentment is.

To me, at the moment, contentment is something to do with knowing my own worth – in feeling settled with all that I already have, rather than constantly dwelling on what I haven’t yet got. It's in realizing there are so very many adventures possible, but also recognizing how many I’ve been making for myself already. It’s in taking each day on its terms, giving over enough time to myself – to lie on my bed listening to records, to go out and sit with a book and a glass of wine, to drink whisky with friends and have long, rambling chats about EVERYTHING, to enjoy long walks in the winter sunshine, and to take spontaneous trips to museums and films and plays. At the core, it’s in appreciating that I’m already doing pretty well.

All of this is wrapped up in confidence. Obviously there are all sorts of reasons - often with situations or events entirely beyond control - that make either contentment or confidence feel utterly out of bounds. Maybe both qualities have various privileges attached to them. In my own case, at least, I’m highly aware that I have time, health, financial security (while I'm  still a student: before I have to start thinking about repayment of my student loan) and independence on my side. Plus, as Rosianna Halse Rojas points out in her fantastically articulate video, it’s also totally ok to admit that you’re not ok – to be honest about feeling like you’re inadequate or not enough (especially when comparing oneself to this seeming image of 'perfection' so many people project online). Elements of what she said were very recognisable indeed. 

I don’t know what's switched recently. Too many things to try to untangle here. But I do know that in the first weeks of this year I’ve been making a concerted effort to harness both confidence in myself and contentment with what's in front of me. And it’s working, so far. I want to maintain this equilibrium, this sense of being grateful and excited and more sure of things. Maybe that’ll change (almost guaranteed - the one thing we can be certain of being change). But for now, it’s rather lovely.

The divine Dina of She Loves Mixtapes took these ace images of me in Oxford last weekend. We jumped around in the sun at the Botanical Gardens, and I also snapped these shots of her in all her Boden-coated glory. Here everything I'm wearing is second hand, other than the shoes - which were from ASOS. The necklace belonged to a great grandma, and the clutch is the vintage pyjamas case I keep my laptop in. This is just about the closest I'll ever get to comfort dressing. 

Out of interest, do people prefer the photos at this size, or a little larger? Would appreciate any opinions. 

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Opposite of Loneliness








I love discovering books in unusual ways – the collection of essays bought on a whim, the novel heartily recommended by someone you’ve just met, the poetry plucked from a parent’s shelf. I found out about Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness after seeing Emma Gannon (who has a fabulous blog, by the way) tweet about an event she’d taken part in at Blackwell’s, Oxford. I hadn’t known it was happening, and was frustrated to miss out, as it sounded very special indeed. But a few days later I went along to the bookshop myself, and picked up a copy (a treat to myself on finishing an essay), having a long conversation with the cashier about it as I paid.

The reason for the conversation? Marina Keegan’s collection of short stories and essays were published posthumously. She died several days after graduating Yale in 2012, aged 22.

So much of the media coverage has, both understandably and obviously, focused on the premature, unbearably unfair loss of a life that looked set to continue burning bright. It’s devastating that someone with such a capable and creative mind didn’t have years and years to expand her craft. Yet the stories and essays here demonstrate her growing command of expression, as well as a rigorous approach to self-critique.

I’m a little younger than Marina was, and it’s hard not to draw some comparisons, particularly as someone who writes an awful lot. The zest and drive and excitement for the future that she captures? They’re feelings I’ve had (and have). The kinds of techniques she uses to keep her text supple: the repetitions, the lists for emphasis, the rules of three, the addition of an unusual image in the middle of an otherwise pared back line? Yep. All ones I’m familiar with. The desire to improve, to create, to keep ambition galloping? Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes (see? Rule of three AND repetition).

But maybe I shouldn’t allow myself to compare – maybe that’s crass, a sign of my own youth, or at least a clichéd way to approach this text - and instead I should just read the book as a book, without regard to the circumstances of the author. It’s easy enough to do. Her voice is so fresh and full of clarity; deeply funny at times, carefully measured with pathos at others (seriously, there are so many lines where I pause, going, “damn, wish I'd come up with that.”)

I prefer her essays, but only because a.) I’m very much an essay girl, and b.) They’re so rich in minute observations. Whether she’s talking about generational hubris, food allergies, empathy for animals, or the contents of her car as the “physical manifestations of… memories”, she’s kind of dazzling. To me, the best essays pluck at the thread of something, no matter how simple, and hold it up to the light - making you stop, think, respond. Here the fine filaments of analysis and honesty are strong and flexible. She weaves them with care.

And yet there is something very special in her short stories too – namely their interest in various experiences instantly recognizable if you’re a late teen/ early twenty-something. It was only afterwards that I realized how unusual this is. Most of the short stories I've read are from decades past, or concern themselves with times of life other than being young, being a student, being at the very beginning of things. Whether the focus is parties, relationships or jealousy, the pages are full of sharp, focused insight. I nodded at so many little gleaned instances that resonated – either personally or generally. People talk about the ‘youth’ of this collection. But why not? She sounds young because she was young – but age is no barrier to being brilliant. 

For once, I’m struggling with what to write next. It’s hard to know how to conclude. But I’ll say this for certain - although right now words feel a little lacking, every time I’ve picked up The Opposite of Loneliness, I’ve felt more galvanized than ever to write, write, and write some more. There’s an energy to Keegan’s words, a crispness to her sentences, that’s very inspiring.

One of the most quoted observations from Anne Fadiman’s introduction is the claim that “Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” Sadly the two are interlinked, and probably always will be, especially as the literary world is often receptive to those who died before they should. But she is good. Very good. Good in a way that kind of hurts. Her book is one that makes you want to grab life - to do and be and make and reflect. That’s the kind of enthusiasm to nurture, to hold as close as possible.

Everything I'm wearing is second hand - the vintage 60s top recently found in a charity shop, and the velvet shorts cut down from trousers. Both the hat and the brooch on it belonged to family members. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

No New Stories








I’ve become a bit of an Instagram fiend in recent months (shameless promo! Hey, like books, trinkets, records and the odd selfie? Come, follow me). Blame it on the weight of work I’ve had to do. I have this weird inverse correlation with social media where, at times, the amount of deadlines I have becomes proportional to the number of tweets/ posts/ images I also post online. Not always. I’ve been trying to crack down recently. But still the desire to capture and publicise very small snippets of each day has certainly become more compulsive than it used to be…

There’s one knock-on effect that I would never have envisaged though. Since more and more of my ‘real life’ friends have begun following me on various platforms, (and vice versa), occasionally I’ll begin an anecdote, only for them to say “yeah, already seen/ heard about it on [insert form of social media here].” 

Case in point. I caught up with a wonderful mate over the Christmas holidays. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. We were browsing a vintage shop together, and I made an off-hand remark about having recently bought a blue, velvet cape (the one pictured in this post). Her response? “Yes, saw it on your Instagram! I was discussing it with someone else. We’re both envious.”

It happened again the other day. I was with a close friend in a café, wearing a yellow kilt. I quipped that I always wore it the wrong way around, because I preferred the pleats at the front. Her response was short. “I know. You wrote about it on your blog.” We both laughed at the slight bizarreness of an observation like that even being possible…

And those are just the clothes-related incidents. It’s slightly more frustrating when you’re burning to tell someone a particularly amusing tale, but your own desire to get it up on social media first foils the fun of the anecdote.

Yet it’s kind of fabulous at times too, the obvious pleasure being that we get to share and talk about things with a much wider group of people, who we wouldn’t otherwise know or interact with. It’s another space for discussing thoughts and films and food and essays and, well, silk pyjamas.

Naturally, for every story or snap that goes up online, there are also plenty more I reserve for a select few people – hilarious or interesting instances that are perfect to share with a close circle, but certainly not the internet at large.

However, there are occasional unexpected results – like when the online leads to marvelous offline moments. A while back, I wrote a post on my favourite cafes and cocktail bars in Oxford. Among their number was Turl Street Kitchen (somewhere I still spend way too much time/ money, but you know, they play Kate Bush and the Velvet Underground occasionally, and you could stay there from breakfast to after-dinner drinks if you were particularly keen…)

At the end of last term I left the library for a much-needed break, and, as I was queuing in TSK, caught a glimpse of a face that looked slightly familiar. I looked away, looked back again, and found that same person now glancing at me with an equally quizzical expression. So I went over and said, “Umm, hi. Do we know each other through Twitter?" And indeed we did! We had a brief chat, and I asked what he was doing in Oxford (he was on holiday) and how he’d ended up in Turl Street Kitchen.

His response? “Well, partly to do with your recommendation.” Yes, really.

Turns out that he and his girlfriend had taken some inspiration from that post of mine on places for damn good coffee. Then, with the best timing possible, his girlfriend appeared, saw me, and fished in her bag – pulling out a printout of that same blog post! The moment of meeting a stranger and her unfolding my words and images out her bag was… really quite something. I spent the rest of the day walking around with a pretty big grin, and telling far too many of my friends about the delightful coincidence that had just happened.


Just one small story that wouldn't exist without the wonders of online life. So, I think I’m ok with certain revelations/ purchases/ experiences/ observations of mine already being old news to some friends. Besides, we all repeat ourselves and I’m not quite as bad as my dad with multiple retellings of stories from the past (although perhaps that comes to all of us eventually…)

I actually realised after shooting this outfit that all the main parts of have appeared on Instagram over the last two months - the charity shop cape here, the dress (a gift from my fairy godmother) here, and the ASOS velvet boots here. All accessories are vintage.