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. 
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