Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Tearing Up the Rule Book

Yesterday I was trawling the ‘fashion’ section of a charity bookshop, snatching a half hour’s gasp of time away from the library - where, obviously, there just weren’t enough books... There were all the usual suspects on the shelves: ghastly/ brilliant 80s beauty manuals, the odd exhibition catalogue, loads of outdated sewing guides full of oversaturated images, one absolute gem from Taschen on the history of lingerie (which I promptly snapped up), and several publications that I’m going to lump together under the genre: ‘clothes-shaming-masquerading-as-self-help.’ You might know the sort. Mostly from the late 90s and early 2000s, they’re something of a peculiar institution – their patron saints in Britain being Trinny and Susannah.

For anyone unaware of this duo, they were mainly known for their TV show called ‘What Not to Wear.’ That says it all, really, doesn’t it? The entire premise was rooted in the idea that women were getting it wrong, and needed guidance to improve: requiring rules about how to hide their upper arm fat or compensate for small boobs. I used to watch it with my mum, and remembered it being relatively innocuous. Having spent some time on Youtube today revisiting their offerings, I was shocked. Not that I should be, really. They were only saying what so many others did (and still do) about female appearance - that it’s something to tame and transform into a state of relative acceptability, and that women are inadequate and thus must make up for it (in their case, usually with a tasteful wrap dress).

As a kid, I just liked the makeover aspect. Woman in a baggy cardigan transformed into slightly prettier woman in a brightly coloured dress with a belt emphasizing her waist! With a make-up artist on hand to complete the metamorphosis! As a society we love a good old ugly duckling to princess narrative. It’s a narrative that has fuelled myriads of TV shows, magazine articles, films, and books. It can be a very compelling one too, no denying it. Sometimes transformations can be truly magical. I think that every time I put on an item of clothing that suddenly makes me feel different: whether it’s a grey, silk dress that makes me want to slink around like a 50s screen siren, or a pair of boots that add extra flair to my step. Age 14, making myself over into someone who wore fancy vintage dresses and silk shirts was super-significant. It helped to shape who I am now.  

What bothers me though is the number of those narratives that are built on a foundation of shame. That’s all I could think about when revisiting ‘What Not to Wear’. Maybe it gave some women positive new ways to approach their wardrobe. If so? Brilliant. But, to me, it reeked of the expectation that we should feel shame about the skin we live in, shame about the ways we present ourselves to the world, shame at being too large, too ugly, too hairy (ugh!), too unwomanly (double ugh!!), too much of this and not enough of that. In one segment, they asked a variety of women “Is there anything you don’t like about your body?” When one answered “no” and walked off, they joked, “she’s lying.” Because, of course, women do not possess the capacity to fully love who they are and how they look…

This isn’t even really about a slightly trashy TV show that had its moment and has now, thankfully, faded into little more than a footnote. It’s about questioning this generally bizarre idea that clothing could ever be something one could get ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, according to an external set of values. Moreover, a set of values partly built on the idea that there should be a fraught relationship between flesh and fabric. The clothes-shaming publishing trend may have dwindled, but there are still plenty of outlets hollering about how we should dress around our bodies, rather than for them (and feel bad about any lumpy bits in the process…) 

I should point out here that of course we have processes of trial and error. Of course we all have - I think? - managed to wear hideous things, and may do so again. Of course we can acknowledge that outside help might be useful in pointing us towards dressing in a way that, ultimately, makes us feel fabulous. Of course we can learn to choose clothes that might flatter our particular body shape, and celebrate others who do so. But all of these judgments should ultimately come from a place of viewing clothes as something exciting and full of potential. NOT from a place of deficiency or disgrace at letting your bingo wings roam free (a phrase which still makes my mind boggle).

Too much of the fashion industry - and, ya know, capitalism in general - is built on making us feel like we’re not enough. As someone who now revels in striding around in gale force winds wearing ankle-length leather coats, the only response I can offer is blunt: fuck that. Avoid those who think that dressing should be an apology, a way of making up for something you lack. Dressing shouldn’t be an apology, but an act of joy. Joy that is yours, and yours alone, to own, in whatever way you see fit.

This post felt like an appropriate illustration because the one thing you can't see in the pictures is the number of people out for a walk throwing bemused stares in my direction  as I balanced on top of a pile of rocks, up a hill, in wind strong enough to nearly knock me over (the things we do for pictures, eh?) Once upon a time that would have fazed me. But now I just find it amusing. I assume I'm providing some kind of entertainment. And I'm certainly dressing entirely, utterly, and only for myself. Everything here is vintage or second hand (apart from the wellies - not shown - which were temporarily removed and kicked to one side). 

Monday, 25 January 2016

Deranged Poetesses, and Other Tales

What does a 'deranged poetess' look like to you? Would she have an unkempt mass of long, frizzy hair? Ink-stained fingers and pens tucked behind each ear? Long flounced skirts that rustle with every step? A wardrobe of velvet, lace and satin mottled with age? A neck looped around with hundreds of pendants? A black cat at her ankles and an owl circling her head? Bits of crumpled paper spilling from her pockets – leaving a trail of crossed-out lines behind her as she walks? (Actually, scratch the walking. Surely a deranged poetess could only glide...)

I wish. Apparently though, it’s the label you get saddled with if you dare to criticize the way a man wrote about a female poet. Yeah, that’s right. Because you know, all those silly, mad women with their words and voices and ability to exercise an opinion! More than that, women who dare to write poetry themselves, and celebrate others who do so! But, being female and deranged and all, they get that special ‘ess’ added on the end, just to make sure that people wouldn’t confuse them with, you know, one of the serious male poets. (If anyone feels the need to criticize my interpretation by the way, don’t worry! It’s tongue-in-cheek, just like the ‘deranged poetess’ label! God, why is everything taken so seriously?!)

If you want to read more about the whole saga, check this out here. What the story essentially distils down to is Sarah Howe, this year’s brilliant recipient of the TS Eliot Prize for poetry, being criticized in various publications in the wake of her win. The essence of the critique? She must have won it because she was female, because she was Anglo-Chinese, because she was under 35, or because she was (in the Private Eye’s charming phrasing) “presentable.” To be honest, the Private Eye column – which you can read here – is by far the most frustrating. The implicit message is that a woman could never win on merit alone. Surely there must be extenuating factors? Reasons to explain away the hideous anomaly of recognizing the talent of someone other than an old, white man?  

The ‘deranged poetess’ label though comes from the writer of another profile for a broadsheet newspaper – which, in itself, I’m not that interested in talking about. Instead I’m fascinated by how far its echoes reverberated. The phrase appeared in a throwaway tweet defending the profile. Soon after, #derangedpoetess began trending. Some of the tweets were sharp and witty, pointing out what a great name it’d make for a poetry collective. Plenty were angry. Hashtags like this become a flashpoint, a catalyst, something tapping into deep-seated frustration that stretches far and wide. In this case, it’s about the literary world’s continuing problem with women. To be brilliant, young AND female is, apparently, too much. The youth bit in particular. Such excess must be tempered with a heavy focus on appearance, perhaps, or the ins and outs of personal life (see Jonathan Bate’s treatment of Sylvia Plath in his new Ted Hughes biography – skewered by Janet Malcolm here). Personal lives can be fascinating, by the way, but there’s a time and a place and a way of approaching that should compliment that creator’s work, rather than undermining it.

Essentially, in the face of huge numbers of utterly fantastic female academics, poets, essayists, novelists, thinkers, playwrights etc etc etc, there are still a fair number of petulant men who wish to maintain the status quo. That’s what struck me about the Private Eye piece. It sounded like petulance hastily masked with scorn. How dare anyone other than the usual formula be recognized! How dare the normal balances of power be ever-so-slightly tipped!

The few poems of Howe’s that I’ve read so far sound alive, full of revelry in the potential of words, their sound and shape and vivid texture. (FYI, if you’re a certain type of male literary critic, you can dismiss this as “florid”). So much of the time I find contemporary poetry oddly stiff and clinical. This was a delight by comparison.

Before this all kicked off, I had a conversation on the phone with my mum about what a great surprise of a win it was. I first heard about it through listening to Howe talk on an excellent Guardian Books Podcast, also featuring Emmy the Great – both discussing their creative processes, their heritage, and the differences between poetry and lyrics. I’d listened idly whilst cooking dinner, noting the name and relishing what I’d heard, but not necessarily inclined to follow it up. A few days later I saw the hashtag, followed up the story, and wondered whether to laugh or cry. In the end I opted for another phone-call with my mum. Now I’m much more likely to buy Howe's winning collection: 'A Loop of Jade'. Maybe that’s one great thing to take from this.

This whole storm also, aptly, re-stoked my fire for poetry – both reading, and writing. There’s so much to delve into, so much to think about and distil down into the rhythm of a line. I want to carry on crafting and learning and doing more in the way of performance poetry. In the meantime, I like the idea of joining this flock of deranged poetesses – perhaps in a red lace dress, with a grey wool cloak and the wind whipping through my curls. Maybe even with two or three white, wild ponies in the background... That’d definitely be how a deranged poetess presents herself, right?

Everything I'm wearing is vintage - all bought second-hand. Another shoot done over Christmas in a pocket of sunshine. Talking about women and poets, by the way, my friend Izzy has written a poetry collection called (somewhat aptly for today's theme) The Voices of Women - just published - and you should definitely take a look at her blog post all about it here

Monday, 18 January 2016

The Magical Power of The Clothes You Just Can't Get Rid Of

I’ve slipped into a strange ritual whenever I go home for the holidays. I enter my bedroom and spend about half an hour joyfully reacquainting myself with all the books and clothes I’ve missed for the last few months. I revel in the space. I make elaborate plans for creative schemes. Then I feel an itch. A rather small but ever so insistent one. It’s the itch to sift and clear and get rid of stuff. This has happened several times now. By the evening, that recently immaculate carpet will be a sprawl of junk, boxes, bags, and whatever I’ve decided needs to be sorted that time. First I did my bookshelves and paperwork. Next time it was arts materials and magazines (I now have a HUGE vanity case stuffed with clippings and pages ripped from old issues of Harper’s Bazaar).

Over Christmas I faced down the most unwieldy challenge of them all: my clothes. And by clothes, I don’t just mean a handful of items being set aside for a charity shop. I mean a thorough decluttering of everything from vintage dresses to much-too-tiny gloves to broken jewellery that hadn’t seen the light of day since I was 15. I’ve done this before, getting rid of things bit by bit. But this was by far the most comprehensive purge. If it didn’t fit, was never worn, or wasn’t stunningly extraordinary enough to hold onto for the sheer merit of one-of-a-kind design, then it was going. I’ve already alluded to the growing number of suitcases stacked with treasures to sell on at some point (probably next summer, when my degree is done). Well, I added at least another two or three cases’ worth this time. It was ruthless. It was wildly gratifying.

Not gratifying in a Marie Kondo ‘the right way of tidying will change your life, your mindset, your future and make your hair glossier into the bargain’ kind of way though. I am such a huge lover of stuff: the stories, the satisfaction, the tactility, the material pleasure of junk. It’s more to do with streamlining that junk – and making it (slightly) easier to close my wardrobe door.

I hit a few stumbling points though. Having set out those loose parameters, I kept unearthing items that, despite being highly uncomfortable and hardly ever worn, just had to stay. I couldn’t bear to part with them. Case in point: this fifties tweed wool hacking jacket above. It is exquisitely cut, immediately makes me feel like some kind of delightful parody of ‘rural dressing’, and, to top it all off, has the best turquoise satin lining you ever did see. The downside? That tweed is bloody itchy. (Even with a layer underneath). The moment I slip it on, I’m pulling at the collar like a fidgety child. Despite fitting in all the right places, I can feel my irritation levels rising rapidly in the first few minutes of wearing. Yet every time I’ve pulled it off my coat rack and thought about parting ways, I’ve been impelled to return it. Look at my colour, my shape, my wonderfully retro label, it whispers – or would, if clothes had the capacity for speech. (I reckon this jacket would have a seductive and sassy tone). Back it goes, happily nestling once more among the yellow cape, two satin evening coats, and a small army of blazers – all of which get worn. Promise.

Second case in point: these vintage velvet trousers. Again, a great fit. But the high, tight waistband scuppers all plans of airily floating around in black velvet and a silk white shirt. I’m too busy making a scrunched face at everything suddenly being much too constricted for my liking (can you tell yet that I don’t like uncomfortable things?) Yet, as with the jacket, it's impossible to throw them onto the pile of ‘clothes to go’. Neither is one of a kind. Neither has any great narratives attached, or memories that mean they're worth holding onto for sentimental reasons. They’re nicely designed, but not gasp-inducing. Both should, for practical reasons, be jettisoned. Yet they have this strange, inexplicable staying power. They demand to remain in my room. 

I’m kind of glad though. Much as I enjoy the odd bout of ruthless elimination, I’m pleased that some things have proved themselves exceptions to any kind of rule. Maybe I’ll hold onto these two items for years. Maybe they will, finally, have to leave during the next round of sorting. But either way, they’re staying put for now – and they made a fine pairing for a blustery, ankle-chilling, pond-side shoot in the winter sun. 

No explanation required for the main garments here, as I’ve already spent a frivolous amount of time dwelling on them. The shoes are another long-ago-charity-shop purchase that nearly went – but those pointy toes were the saving grace. That, and the quality of the Italian leather. I’m also wearing my mum’s vintage belt and a H&M Conscious blouse.

Tuesday, 12 January 2016


Dressing up boxes have always played a significant role in my life. As a child, they were where I’d head in search of new characters. My mum’s former days as a drama teacher led to rich pickings: everything from bright fabrics to pirate hats to an especially gorgeous turquoise jacket flecked with beads and mirrors that I adored unreservedly. Witch, princess, orphan, whatever... That box gave room for trying personas on for size, playing around with their possibilities, and then folding them away again.

In my teens the basket under my bed became a repository for ridiculous shiny leggings, broken ball-gowns, lacy things, and a fair number of faded vintage frocks. I still have it now – stuffed with more dazzle and cheap decadence than a girl could ever require. Plenty of things that once lived there have migrated through to my actual wardrobe (and vice versa - there’s an ebb and flow between the two). It houses lots of items erring towards the outrageous, the ridiculous, the highly impractical, and the ripped/ badly dyed/ too-small-for-anything-other-than-posing-in-for-photos. It’s a basket stuffed with potential performances.

In light of the sad news of David Bowie's untimely death, I’ve been thinking lots about dressing up boxes. And performance. And characters. And my early teens. All of those things string together to form a glittery little summary of my relationship with Bowie. At secondary school, he was a shared secret with my friend Caitlin. Well, not really a secret. More a thing we felt we both had some kind of ‘in’ on – this weird, brilliant singer from the seventies who none of our peers gave a shit about. (I should point out here we partly discovered him through watching Life on Mars – hey, every generation finds their own access point).

It was a fertile imaginative time. He perched alongside Kate Bush, The Bell Jar, old Audrey Hepburn films, new fashion magazines, and my recently rescued great-grandma’s hats – another constellation point when it came to forming and navigating an identity of my own away from school.

See what I’m doing here, by the way? I’m building a myth. Easy enough to do – re-spin a story, weighting it in a particular way. In this case? Foregrounding Bowie. If I’m entirely honest, I can’t actually recall how much of an individual impact he had on my life at that exact point. I have no tales of everything changing when I first heard his music, or him suddenly making it “ok” to be different (how glorious that he did that for generations though. How utterly glorious! Reading so many accounts of the various ways he galvanised and validated people has been truly special.)

He was significant, undoubtedly, but rather as part of a collage of books, films and music choices that, then, felt excitingly non-mainstream. They were mine (well, mine and, in his case, Caitlin’s). I know they already belonged to many, many others around the world too, as most great things do, but there’s something so fresh and explosive about being 13/ 14 and discovering these cultural lodestars for yourself.

Bowie would probably have approved of any kind of myth-making though. That was what he was all about: stories. It’s the element I love most, after the gorgeous, brilliant music. Not one I really picked up on at first, either. In fact, keen appreciation for his various characters came later, in line with my developing interest in clothes and dress and the outfits we choose to face the world in; it’s an interest that’s still evolving. Bowie’s magic shape-shifting quality, the ability to form and reform and then reform oneself over and again with a wardrobe change and a new creative project… That’s what gets my heart beating now (and my fingers itching for more glam-rock leotards).  

Earlier today, I watched this documentary. It reminded me once more that transformation is such an incredible tool. Present yourself as a rock god, an alien, a visionary, and people will believe it. I love the brio, the conscious artifice of each metamorphosis – often so meticulously designed to provoke effect. That’s the gift I’ve chosen to revel in today. The gift of recognizing that dressing up can be extraordinarily powerful. It allows you to tell stories, remake yourself anew, shift the way you're viewed. Most importantly, it also gives you space to play. It’s not quite the same as being a child running around in a pirate’s hat. But it springs from a similar place of roving imagination. And what a gift that is.

Another form of myth making here in these images – the location being an ancient stone circle that has stood atop a hill since the Bronze Age. Some of the stones are little more than rocks nestled low to the ground. Others stretch upward – odd, lumpy oblongs offering praise to the skies. All of them are dusted with lichen. They’ve attracted their own fair share of myths and folklore over the years. Witches, magic cows, all sorts... It felt only right to add another possible story to them by pulling this dramatic number out of the dressing up box (bought for £3 at a vintage fair in Oxford) to leap around in. I didn’t have a specific ‘character’ in mind, but something alchemic happened with the combination between location and outfit: a sort of just knowing how to pose, where to stand, what to do. An enthralling (if freezing and blustery) half hour of being transformed. 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

A Love Letter to Charity Shops

Some time last year, I had an idea. The kind of idle thought that flutters into your head and stays there long enough to be scribbled down, forgotten about, and unearthed again several weeks later. "Why not do a whole shoot with charity shop clothing?" Even though that's the basic remit of this blog, I wondered what it would be like to do similar in a professional context - working alongside an expert team, and a rail heaving with second-hand wares. I mentioned it in passing to my then-agent Josy Spooner at Models 1 (she's now busy taking time to travel around the world, making me envious with her photos). She said it was a great idea, and suggested she did the styling. Together we cooked up further plans, scheming and assembling and gathering until, finally, one day, we drove down to the photographer Saskia Lawson's studio in a car stuffed full of the most delectable garments you ever did see. Plenty of them ended up on camera, with a whole host of charities lending us the most brilliant clothes. Lauren Alice did wonderful seventies-inspired hair and make-up, and I gallivanted around in coats, beads, layers and ruffles to my heart's content. 

It was an incredibly special project to collaborate on - leaving me thrilled all over again with the creative possibilities to be found in modelling, celebrating beautiful clothes, and participating in the kind of project where you leave utterly exhausted, utterly satisfied, and utterly eager to see the images. On top of all that, there was the privilege of seeing a fledgling idea through to the finish. The final destination for the shoot was Tirade magazine. You can see the full feature here. I also wrote them a little piece in praise of all things second hand. For long-term readers it does tread more-than-familiar ground, but I thought I'd post it here too - mainly because it was very fun ground to re-visit and to think about again. 

Big thanks to the EXCELLENT team of women I worked with on this, and to all the charities who gave us the chance to play around with their clothes - you'll see that they're credited in the images. 

(Something of a) Love Letter to Charity Shops

I fell in love with all things second hand when I began raiding my mum's clothes aged thirteen - stealing away her careful collection of fifties tea-dresses and sixties coats. They were stored right at the back of the wardrobe, and I can still recall the complete excitement of unearthing several plastic boxes filled with satin and lace and wool. Unlike the other stuff I owned, mostly bought on the high street, these garments were imbued with magic: they’d had previous lives, previous stories, previous ways of being worn. Putting them on was transformative. A long, black translucent dress with a nipped in waist and a full skirt made me feel like a witchy ballerina, while skeleton print Jean-Paul Gaultier jeans (found in the local charity shop for mere pennies) were so bold, I wondered if I would ever muster the bravery to wear them outside…

It wasn’t just about the wares I could plunder though. Alongside the rather exciting assembly of items already owned, my mum also introduced me to the art of sifting through charity shops, flea markets and vintage stalls in search of new (or rather, old) prized possessions. I was hooked. I still am. Very little thrills more than finding an original 70s suede coat for 50p at a jumble sale, or unearthing a beautiful cocktail gown in a branch of Mind or the Red Cross that simply must come home. To me, it’s all about the hunt – and the unexpected possibilities. You can go second hand shopping with an agenda, with something specific to seek out, but often the best purchases are the ones you couldn’t have foreseen.

That’s one of the qualities I love best: the chance for stumbling across, well, anything. The most beautiful coat ever – the kind to wear day in and day out all winter. A gorgeous, fitted shirt. Some kind of long, swishy skirt that will provide endless opportunity for dressing up. Maybe just the perfect polo-neck. Who knows? Beyond that though, there are the other advantages: the bargain prices, the sustainability points, the chance to speculate on who owned that item previously (where did it go? What events did it see?), the chance to consume in a different way. It’s a way that requires time and patience, but offers up plenty of reward in return.

I must admit it’s hard to write about charity shops without resorting to metaphors about magpies, or treasure hunting. They’re the perfect analogies for the processes involved: searching, sifting, rummaging, gathering, collecting, accumulating. And, just a like a treasure hunt, sometimes you’ll unearth a massive gem, and sometimes there’ll be nothing at all. Part of the process of shopping second hand is knowing that you may return empty-handed too. Always worth the search though.

Perhaps I’m giving too much credit here, elevating second hand purchases to some kind of lofty level. But they yield an awful lot of pleasure. Why not celebrate that? For this shoot, there was so much joy to be found in sifting through the rails, gasping at the gorgeous wares on offer – all those decades and designs nestling side by side. All of them offered up a character to play at. I switched from sexy to languid to outrageously fabulous, each garment dictating the mood. When modeling, I’m used to being dressed in whatever is deemed ‘on trend’ or ‘next season’. As fun as that is, here I got to enjoy something much closer to the way I actually shop and enjoy getting dressed.

I gain a huge amount of my confidence from what I wear, and some of that confidence is certainly derived from always being open (at least sartorially) to the unusual and the exciting. Much as I appreciate and adore the other types of delights to be found in buying shiny, new, bang-up-to-date things, I think that charity shops will always have my heart.

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Hope is the Thing With Feathers

I’m sitting in the family living room, a glass of prosecco by my side, laptop on my knees, and my dad muttering grumpily behind as he clatters around the kitchen. The fire is lit. The sofa is cosy. I’m tired, but in that satisfied ‘I’ve-filled-my-hours-to-their-absolute-best’ kind of way.

This morning I was standing at the top of a huge, blustery hill with views stretching thirty miles away beneath me: fields, valleys, green dips and curves, patches of rain. Intermittent flashes of sun between the grey, too. The second of three locations used for blog shoots, much of the day has been taken up in dashing between the car and the chilly outside world. Three spectacular sweeps of landscape. Three rounds of my fingers reaching freezing point. Three rounds of “well you didn’t bollocking say to stand there, did you?” (My dad and I swear as much as we collaborate when it comes to photos). Only one moment of climbing a slippery, muddy five-bar gate in 70s heeled go-go boots though – in pursuit of the pictures above.

Plenty of laughter and bickering all the way through, as well as the sheer elation of tumbling back into the warmth after we were done. A 31st of December full of mulled wine, muddied stilettos, raging winds, and a small herd of wild ponies trotting past us.

I feel contented right now, full with the riches of today. Lucky, too. Of course this is meant to be a time for taking stock of the last twelve months. As I wrote exactly a year ago, “It seems natural. A kind of drawing of breath, giving space to process what's been happening. We like to slice our experiences up into these increments, marking the passing of each year with simultaneous retrospection and promises to be better, do more, improve this, and cut back on that in the months ahead.”

Well, today I’ve been drawing breaths, but mainly through relishing what was around me. Relishing the absolute privilege of love, safety and the ability to be creative – to dress up in ridiculous clothes, hang out with my family, and call it a day well spent. That shouldn’t be a privilege. But at the moment, it feels like one.

Taking stock of a previous year is interesting, because two things clash. What do I process, personally, from 2015? And what do I process globally? With the former, I can readily acknowledge that this last year has been among the most intense of the last twenty: for better, and for worse. A year full of things I could hardly envisage on the cusp of last January. Marvelous new people (SO many of them) and unprecedented opportunity aplenty, with a good dose of golden memories on the side. Lots of not-so-great bits too. It’s important to acknowledge the light and the heavy. Both are equally valid. Both have threaded this merry-go-round of twelve months together.

With the latter though, I’m aware of how precarious things have been worldwide. They always have been precarious. Probably always will be, too. But both home and abroad, the measure of bad news has been relentlessly appalling. We all know it. We know that it feels overwhelming and frightening. All we can do is to respond on an individual level – do what we can, where we can. Individual actions are, we hope, cumulative. Added together, they expand and inflate.

‘Hope’, by the way, is a word I’ve thought about a lot recently. It’s a good word. A strong word. A settling word. A word at the heart of a beautiful project put together by my friend Flo Morrissey (I contributed a poem called ‘Starlings’, which you can hear here). I obviously have my personal hopes for 2016: a motley collection of aspirations, excitements, causes for celebration, and the odd dash of nervousness about all that I’m keen to work for and see happen. Things are on the horizon - the publication of my book, for one. The finishing of my degree, for another.

There are also lots of larger hopes extending outward; hopes where the control lies in the hands of others. For those we can only lobby, raise our voices, donate where possible (whether time or other resources), and refuse to sit back and be passive. ‘Hope’ is a proactive word. It requires doing. And it’s a word I’ll be raising several glasses to this New Year’s Eve.

The rain has been unremitting these last few weeks. Today we were lucky enough to catch several small windows of brightness - something that's sadly scant right now. Sending plenty of thoughts to those affected by the extensive flooding, especially in parts of the North of England and in Scotland. Totally devastating and, as George Monbiot pointed out, partly a result of years of short-sighted, government-directed land-management as well as the protection and drainage of wealthy landowners' upland grouse and game shooting playgrounds at the expense of the towns, villages and cities down stream... 

During this dash along a country lane, I chose the wonderfully impractical combination of a 60s handmade vintage dress (a Christmas present from my fabulous mum) and my very trusty, much battered and muddied vintage boots. The post's title is a line from an Emily Dickinson poem, which felt especially appropriate thematically - and rather timely too - as I read the gorgeous and moving 'Grief is the Thing with Feathers' by Max Porter, in a single sitting this morning. 

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

On Celebrating Others

What qualities do you admire most in other people? Wit and intelligence? Empathy? Self-awareness? A good sense of humour? That simple-but-crucial thing of ‘being kind’? They’re definitely all on my list – along with an array of other possibilities (being a fan of floaty sleeves and general dressing up helps, but it’s not crucial). There’s something else though… A quality, or rather an ability, that I’ve only begun to properly appreciate in recent years: the capacity to celebrate other people.

It’s a very telling one, that. Willingness to nod to the achievements/ news/ work/ general character of someone else is pretty much always a good sign. Hugely enthusiastic too? All the better. It’s the ones who are continually bitter that you have to watch out for (which isn’t a dig at strong opinions or critical stances, by the way – that's a whole other important category…) What I’m really talking about here is the sheer joy of recognizing the people who get a kick out of supporting others – being vocal where praise is due, or lending an ear, a hand, a word or two of encouragement. It’s the opposite of pulling rank, or aiming a well-placed put-down, or generally assembling a ‘me vs. them’ mentality.

If you wanted to use a vaguely long-winded analogy involving a ladder (and frankly, who doesn’t want to do that?), we’re talking here about the people who help others to climb, or reach back down from wherever they are to offer help – rather than jealously guarding each rung in turn, and pulling the ladder up behind them.

As well as appreciating that capacity for celebration, I’m also profoundly grateful for it. We often talk about having that one teacher who pushes you in the right direction – perhaps commenting favourably at just the right point, or giving you the book that suddenly makes sense of something that was previously murky. But the ones who’ve been crucial to me are actually an amazing bunch of (mostly) women who, at one point or another, gave a nod that I was doing well and should continue to work at it. People like my 'fairy' godmother Soma, who once bought me a vintage Chanel dress, and has offered up so much encouragement over the years – as well as challenging and pushing my thinking.  

There are so, so many others, many tracing back to my first few times of attending London Fashion Week. There I encountered photographers like Dvora, Vanessa and Jennifer who all took me seriously as a 15/ 16 year old – boosting my confidence when clothes and blogging were a means to escape the confines of rural life. I also met and talked with the amazing Caryn Franklin. She listened to my thoughts, and subsequently let me write this for All Walks – my first foray into investigating my early experiences of modeling. It was also one of my first proper forays into the power that writing has to connect, spread, and generally yield up intriguing conversations. As a result of that piece I met Erin O’Connor (who is grace and generosity personified) and Kay Montano (who has since let me sleep on her sofa many a-time, and always provides good wine and great conversation). Through Kay I was introduced to the utterly extraordinary photographer Susannah Baker-Smith, who I’ve now worked with on all sorts of occasions. All these women are linked by their glorious aptitude for scooping up and celebrating others.

Celebration, of course, takes many a form. Listing them all here would be not only tricky but tedious too. It has found some interesting new footing online though. Despite the very necessary dialogues we need to continue about the vitriol that seethes easily when people are hidden behind screens, it’s also crucial to acknowledge the nice pockets of the internet… And there are lots. Lots of small, well-formed pockets where genuine praise outweighs anything else. From the early days of the blogging community, through the remarkable individuals shouting about each other’s work on social media, there’s the odd, glittering space where mutual approval presides. People like Louise, Angela, Emma, Daisy, Anna, Lally, Mel, Bella, Vix, Izzy, Rebecca, Tara, FloFlo (another one!), Rosianna, SinĂ©ad, and a ton of others, are particularly good at it… And they're just the first handful of names plucked up. There are so many more, 

Essentially, we should celebrate those who celebrate others. Doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge jealousy or frustration along the way. In fact, it can even be about wielding those feelings productively – applauding the stuff that is SO fantastic that you’re horribly envious, and then working out what you can do in response, that is yours to own.

It’s also about continual interest in what’s going on around you – championing the good and the great. Doesn’t matter if it’s tweeting an article you loved, offering your time/ help to someone, reveling in the thrill of new conversations with interesting people, or simply congratulating a friend who made progress that they’re proud of. In all cases, the principle is the same: it’s one of looking beyond yourself, and getting bloody excited by all that everyone else has to offer.

I began thinking about this after being featured on the wonderful Olivia's blog. Head over to read my thoughts on work, writing, favourite books, and (but of course!) Kate Bush. Liv is someone else who is especially good at championing others - she is warm, enthusiastic, always engaging to talk with, and as beautiful inside as she is out. Also, incidentally, someone else I first met at LFW. It was a pleasure to be interviewed and photographed by her. She kindly let me repost those images here. Everything I'm wearing is second hand, other than the boots, which were from Jack Wills. 

Friday, 4 December 2015

I Wrote a Book

When’s the right moment to grab an opportunity? Always? Only when it’s right?  Perhaps depending on how much else you’ve got going on? This is a question I’ve asked myself a fair few times since beginning university. The reason for asking? For the last two years, I’ve been balancing my degree with something a little more unusual – a book deal.

I’ve referenced it in hints and whispers here (and elsewhere), keeping it ticking along in the background while continuing with the merry-go-round of essay deadlines, blog posts, journalism elsewhere, and that general thing of trying to maintain a life... But now, finally, it’s something I get to shout about here: on the platform that was instrumental in helping to kick-start it all. And that is thrilling indeed.

So, the basics. My book is called 'Notes on Being Teenage'. It’s being published in June 2016 with Hachette Children’s Books (Wayland imprint). It has a GREAT cover - not because it has my face on it…but because I love the design.  It’s going to be an actual, tangible thing that will appear in shops - rather than an endless series of documents and PDFs and emails. To say "I’m so excited" is to somewhat underplay my sense of enthusiasm.

The clue is in the title, by the way. It’s primarily aimed at young women aged 14+. Inside there are eight chapters, covering everything from body image to mental health to social media. Want thoughts on charity shop tips? Selfies? Consent? Difficult friendships – and wonderful ones? Feminism? Writing? Online communities? Family stories? How the fashion industry needs to stop peddling such a limited version of ‘fantasy’? Asserting your right to look (and be) fabulous? All that, and waaaaaay more.

There’s plenty of personal stuff in there too: from watching my dad experience depression, through to worrying about the possibility of remaining single forever and ever ad infinitum. But alongside the autobiographical, there are the voices of so many other young women. In the course of writing this book, I spoke to nearly fifty teens and twenty-somethings. Each with their own backgrounds, opinions, perspectives, and ways of seeing the world. Many are quoted. All of them influenced what I was writing about. ALSO, I talked to successful individuals from a variety of industries. There are Q&A’s with amazing people including Kate Nash, Louise O’Neill, Eleanor Hardwick, and Rosianna Halse Rojas. It has been a labour of love, but such a worthwhile and satisfying one too.

Earlier today, the cover was officially announced by Maximum Pop Books (see the feature here). On there, I wrote this about the book:

“Basically, the entire publication is one big, sprawling set of ideas, essays, lists, interview, stories, bits of advice, and a whole load of notes on what it means to be teenage… I wrote it because I think that young women are brilliant - because I think their voices and concerns and ambitions should be taken seriously. I also wrote it because I wish I’d had something a few years ago that didn’t patronize me, or package up my experience of being teenage into a number of bullet-pointed ‘Issues’ with a capital ‘I’.”

There are plenty of other reasons for writing it too. You’ll be hearing more about some of them in the coming months. For now though, I’m taking a moment to revel in a mix of relief, pride, and anticipation (a little nervousness too, admittedly). I have spent so much time inside this book, reading and thinking and talking with people and writing and revising and editing and polishing, that to get to this point feels utterly magnificent.

I don’t go in for easy ‘inspirational’ sentiment, so I’m not going to say that writing a book was “always what I’ve wanted” or a “dream come true.” I will say this, though. I love writing. I think words are the most wonderful, pliant, exhilarating medium – much as they can be frustrating, at points. To get to write something like this has been a privilege. I’ve had this blog since I was 14, and have been doing journalism on and off since I was 16. I have been given some extraordinary opportunities along the way, and worked bloody hard for others. A mix of luck and graft, if you will. At 20, I can see just how much there is left ahead to learn and work on. There’s an awful lot of possibility ahead. This book feels like the first, wonderful step along the way, and oh I can’t wait to share it.

You can preorder Notes on Being Teenage here, and I'm sure I'll be tweeting plenty about it too. 

The cover was shot by the brilliant HarleyMoon Kemp, with Lulu Plews doing an EXCELLENT job on make-up. Huge thanks to everyone at Hachette, especially my editors, and a special big thank you to Diana Beaumont at UTA - I feel so lucky to have such a wonderful, warm, smart literary agent. 

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Telling Stories

I grew up in a story-heavy household. Greek myths rubbed shoulders with the Brothers Grimm. Margaret Mahy sat on the shelves next to Enid Blyton. On the landing we had collections of folklore from around the world: Czech, Japanese, German, Australian, Welsh (all translated or retold, of course. I speak nothing else beyond very, very bad GCSE French). I mainly remember them in snatches now, the odd character or detail. What remains is that sense of being immersed in numerous worlds – falling into the pages and inhabiting whatever landscape was present, be it forest, castle, bustling city or an early 20th Century England filled with plummy accents and dastardly criminals.

A little later on, I discovered Alan Garner – first via The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (set in Cheshire), then The Owl Service (set in a remote Welsh valley). I’ve since filled in the gaps with Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, Red Shift, and his excellent set of essays The Voice that Thunders. Garner’s sense of place informs everything. The landscape is not merely interwoven with the story. It is the story. He draws on some of the eeriest mythology and imagery you’ll find in children’s literature (well, if you count it as children’s literature, which it’s really not. Go read him now, regardless of your age). He writes with bite and earth. Each sentence is perfectly weighted, each book unnerving and wonderful - somehow both ancient and timeless.

I’ve been thinking about Garner again, on two counts. First, I’m currently writing about one of his essays for some coursework (picking his images and observations apart is a laborious joy). Second, last month I went to a talk in Oxford titled Spectral Landscapes: Explorations of the “English Eerie”. There his TV episode To Kill a King was discussed, alongside a variety of other things: archeology, poetry, rituals, folk horror, films. With the latter, we saw three short pieces by Adam Scovell – small, self-enclosed narratives filmed on Super8, brimming with shaking reeds and mysterious shadows. The theme of the evening was a sense of unease and of Otherness’ specifically located in the English landscape. It was marvelous - full of flickering points and embers of ideas to consider further.  

When I left, I cycled home in the cold, poured myself a large glass of wine, stuck on PJ Harvey, and began scribbling copious notes. I’m not quite sure why the event had this effect. Perhaps because it articulated lots of the things I want to read and write more about: psycho-geography, the aesthetics of decay, the complex relationship between literature and place. Perhaps because it linked to all sorts of creative projects I can’t wait to explore when I have the time. Mainly though, I think, because it tapped into some type of nostalgia: Robert Scovell’s beautiful adaptation of Robert Macfarlane’s Holloway filmed in a different part of the country to the one I grew up in, but still recalling the thrill of the area where I grew up. I too trekked up little gulley-ways and splashed along river-soaked furrows hidden behind hedges. The sounds of shivering leaves and cooing wood pigeons and the dripping of rain from trees are all intensely familiar. Nothing makes me feel calmer than the fall of late afternoon light on woods (well, quite a lot does – but it certainly does help…)

There was another link too: this blog. Despite there being a distinct lack of unease or spookiness here, I've always enjoyed dressing up in eerie, unusual, vaguely spectacular ways: donning a white 50s lace wedding dress to haunt a crumbling cottage; pretending to be both Snow White and Rose Red; hanging out under weeping willows in a black ball-gown with voluminous sleeves; emulating Kate Bush (regularly); standing on a rugged hilltop in long grey skirt and long grey cloak; getting chilly in a 70s synthetic wedding dress (notice a theme?) at twilight; spending time at Orford Ness under a glooming sky; wearing green satin next to a tumbledown farmer’s shed with a corrugated roof; adding a home-made crown of ferns for some impromptu photos next to a Welsh waterfall (in fact, the photos are broadly split between English and Welsh surroundings). All of them are about momentarily fantastical stories: the stories of places I was in, the stories I played at inhabiting with particular clothes and poses for half an hour or so. All of them are stories about and in the landscape too: full of spindly trees and green brooks and piles of rocks that once formed the boundary lines of a home.

All of this has its own distinct form of selective nostalgia attached, too. It’s easy in retrospect to forget the biting cold that accompanied the poses, the flinches at wind hitting bare skin, the absolute relief of throwing back on a jumper, coat and boots at the end (something I wrote about here). What remains afterwards is the image. Me, in a variety of costumes in a variety of places over the last six or so years: my face changing shape, legs lengthening, body shifting from lines to curves, hair getting incrementally shorter and curlier, style changing subtly. Nervous, elfin girl through to confident young woman. Teenager unhappy at school through to student looking towards the end of her degree. Some things remain though: I'm still someone who bloody loves a good costume, a good character, a good narrative, a good excuse to pose at the top of a hill in ridiculous heels and a vintage ball-gown. Long may that continue…

This vintage dress (temporarily stolen from my mum) is the most ridiculous, glorious thing ever. The sleeves alone could be written about at length. I shot this when I was back home last month. I'm already looking enviously at that carpet of yellow leaves - so bright by comparison with the current grey of November. Here I opted for sensible boots rather than impractical heels. All the better to stomp and swirl around in.