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 cafĂ© 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.