Monday, 5 November 2018

Walking in the Air: 40 Years of The Snowman

I’ve always been a hungry reader. My mum tells fond stories of buying herself extra sleep time when I was small by leaving a pile of books at the end of my bed for me to busy myself with when I inevitably woke up, alert and ready for the day, pre 6am. She’d come in to find me absorbed in all sorts of marvellous worlds and words and images, from Quentin Blake’s angular scribbles to Shirley Hughes’ perfect evocations of childhood imagination.

Among the pile, Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman frequently featured – especially as the year tilted from autumn into the season of eternal hope for snow. We had a tiny copy that could balance perfectly on one palm, the spine already cracking. By the time it was passed onto my younger brother the pages would be looking distinctly ragged.

I’d all but forgotten about this miniature book until Barbour got in touch to talk about their upcoming Christmas campaign with Penguin, focused on the 40th Anniversary of The Snowman. I immediately went away, re-watched the film adaptation (my heart still leaping at those opening notes of ‘We’re Walking in the Air’) and, next time I was home visiting my parents, sought out this delicious little book once more – opening it to find our surname written in the front in biro. I promptly sat down and reread it, struck immediately by its simplicity; the way in which Briggs’ illustrations tell such a sweet and ultimately elegiac tale of childhood imagination.

It felt like an apt process for a story that’s generally so well-beloved: handed down from generation to generation, as so many good books are – from parent to child, perhaps, or in our case, sibling to sibling before lingering on the bookshelf waiting for rediscovery. Who knows who’ll get to enjoy it in future... In that respect, it’s similar to a significant piece of clothing going through multiple pairs of hands, taking on different meanings at different points – but still with an ongoing thread of connection.

I ended up thinking a lot about the parallels between handing down books and handing down clothes while subsequently filming this video focused on Penguin and Barbour’s collaboration – culminating in their own short film further exploring a narrative of imagination and fervent, festive hope.

There we ended up discussing everything from family Christmas rituals to the satisfaction of a good winter coat (like this one above, which I’ll be wearing for many a blustery walk this year) to the ways in which stories continue to accumulate new meaning as the years pass. In doing so, it was lovely to return to such familiar, snowy terrain for a while – and feel a crackle of satisfaction on navigating an old favourite anew.

This is a sponsored post. The coat, jeans and jumper are from Barbour, and are very cosy indeed. You can also see this piece on their blog. Photos by Andrew Fusek Peters - aka my brilliant dad - during a very cold, very crisp hilltop walk. 

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

All Change

Summer ending. Days getting shorter. The return of coats: suede, denim, tweed, wool. The anticipation of wood-smoke. Damp mornings. Crisp air and sunlight through thinning trees. More trousers: tartan, velvet, linen. Layers. Evenings spent inside cooking rather than reveling in the last of the light.

This year the move towards autumn feels particularly acute. Unsurprising, given the last few months’ endless offerings of sun and heat and bare-legged antics. Now, sitting at my laptop and staring out of the window at the blank, grey sky, those very recent days of uncomfortable heat – days where I worked from home in cotton shorts and a sports bra because literally any other option was too sweaty – feel vaguely unreal. Almost blurred around the edges.

I like this hazy quality they’ve acquired though. It was a summer that swept by at high speed: full of swims and picnics and reading and writing and afternoons sprawled on the Heath and dinners and gorgeous company and streets still radiating heat at midnight. A summer of Florence and the Machine on repeat, her soaring voice the ideal accompaniment to weeks that felt simultaneously fleeting and endless. A summer of revelations and lazing and a handful of glittering experiences to be clutched close forever more.

A summer of frazzle and frustration too, those temperatures unbearably, increasingly oppressive as sleep became scant and the process of leaving the house often felt fraught. I think I’m glad now to be rolling forwards into a month that’s more settled. There’s a different momentum here. A quieter, more focused one.

There’s nothing revelatory in what I’m saying here. The whole shiny-shoes-and-jumpers-back-to-school mood is the staple of endless articles and tweets and artful Instagram shots. I’m not adding anything to that. Just, I suppose, marking the shift for myself. New things ahead. Work to get on with. Staggeringly scary to-do lists to tick off.


It’s good to pause and take stock as well. Alongside the fun, this summer I had various things published or broadcast that meant a lot to me. I wrote about a ridiculously glorious, opulent trip from Venice to Paris on the Orient Express for Suitcase magazine; discussed Virginia Woolf’s ambivalent relationship with fashion for So It Goes; spent some time thinking about the joys of a mid-morning skive from work for Oh Comely; looked at the intriguing legacy of Gala Dalí for AnOther; and spoke to various brilliant women for Violet Book. 

I also read poems at Urban Outfitters, Curious Arts Festival, and Isabella Fox, chaired events with Charly Cox at Waterstones Gower Street and Lorna Tucker at Port Eliot Festival, and paid homage to Kate Bush and Derek Jarman (among others) in this video filmed at Avebury – but more on that soon…

Perhaps the two things that meant the most to me though were an article I did for The Queer Bible on what writer and illustrator Tove Jansson came to signify to me as an adult, and a radio essay I wrote and recorded for BBC Radio 4’s Short Cuts on dancing, sequins, and dating women. Both made for the first times I’ve properly attempted to explore my sexuality in writing (in short form prose at least – watch this space on various overambitious book/ poetry projects...) In doing so, both felt like they marked a change. One I hadn’t expected to be as powerful as it was.

Here's the thing though. Even in the gaps between working on these pieces and seeing them published/ broadcast, I can see how they've already become time-stamps of a previous self: one who was a little more tentative and unsure, who was still figuring out exactly what needed articulating (to myself as much as anyone else). If I tried to put together either of them now they'd be wildly different again. But that's always the way with personal writing. So much of it is moored in the particular point at which it was made - a little, written anchor gesturing towards a specific set of circumstances and experiences. And I'm glad for the anchors. And glad for the way in which things continue to shift. And glad to run full tilt into another season of change. 


Photos taken by my mum the week before last on a quick jaunt home. Gave me a real shot of nostalgia for my teenage years with all those afternoons of jumping out between bursts of rain to get images for the blog. Honestly maybe the best thing about autumn is that I can now wear this stupendous men's suit she found for me in a charity shop for £7. SEVEN POUNDS. It fits like a dream, and in it I've never felt suaver... 

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Another Round of Writing About Modelling

Last September I went to a model casting. It was my first in years. For various reasons I’d taken the decision to leave my second modeling agency two months prior, and had, at least for a little while, assumed I wouldn’t be having much to do with that particular side of fashion.

Then I got an email asking whether I might attend a casting for a show at LFW. I shot one back explaining that I wasn’t sample size, but would happily come along. That was fine, they said. They were looking to cast a diverse array of women.

Spoiler: they weren’t. At least not when it came to body types. At least not when it came to anything above a size 8-10.

When I was eventually ushered into the room to try on various garments, I realised I’d made a mistake. The clothes were stunningly beautiful, but some didn’t even do up on me - while others that I could just about wriggle into obviously didn't suit, given the way the fabric was straining at the hips. When I came out in the first outfit, I knew I’d been rendered invisible – no longer of interest as everyone’s eyes slid over me in the direction of the next potential model.

I re-dressed, said “thank you,” grabbed my bag, and had a quick cry in the toilets before I left the building.  

The main moral of the story here is that I probably would have made a dreadful full-time model. Castings are, by their nature, impersonally brutal: a process of continually vying with others, not to mention being assessed on plenty of factors and aesthetic decisions entirely beyond one’s own control. In this instance my look – whether or not that involved my body shape - wasn’t what the team wanted. And that’s just the way it was.

The other, obviously linked, moral is that I’m no longer really used to feeling invisible, or existing in professional spaces where the surface is the only thing that matters. Spending most of my time as a writer, it was somewhat jarring to be flung back into a world where my ability to string a sentence together didn’t matter a jot.

Back at home after that casting I scrolled through my Instagram and did something I hadn’t done in ages: bombarding myself with image after image of actors, models, singers, influencers, and online ‘it’ girls. All slender. All outwardly successful. My brain immediately switched back into that tiresome, screeching register so many are familiar with: exercise more, eat less, whittle down the amount of space I take up, and then oh then oh then….

Luckily, I quickly shook it away – and went for a bracing outdoor swim. But as with every (now rather rare) time my head takes a nosedive back into the realms of you’re-not-enough-as-you-are, I surfaced feeling frustrated. Not so much for myself – other than the obvious initial bruising of ego – but, once again, at all the ways the fashion industry seems to spend more time making women feel less than, rather than uplifted, by the ways they are represented and catered to.

In amongst that little round of self-destructive scrolling, one thing had helped. I’d finished by looking at Charli Howard’s account, taking solace in seeing a body that wasn’t all taut angles. A body with stretch marks. One that functioned, and was gorgeous, and SHOULDN’T IN ANY WAY be considered radical, given that it still fits all sorts of normative ideals, but did feel important to see that particular day.

I remembered this recently when I finished reading Charli’s book Misfit: a frank, moving, often darkly funny account of mental health, modelling, and her decade’s struggle with eating disorders. Our experiences in fashion are very, very different. All I’ve ever really had from agencies is indifference, rather than the truly atrocious comments and expectations she dealt with. But I still recognised the world she described. One that claims to peddle fantasy, yet continues to make plenty of people feel pretty shit.

Charli also makes some important points about fashion’s frustrating categorisation of body types. It’s not even worth going into the clusterfuck of implications found in those loaded words ‘plus’ and ‘sample’, because that’s a whole other piece, but, like her, I also want to see more women who exist  somewhere between those two weirdly rigid points. As Charli points out here (and I wrote about a few years back), those of us who are a size 10-12 still linger rather awkwardly in the middle.


Modelling is a very complicated thing to talk about, not least because I’ve recently begun to question this strange, continued need I seem to have to visit and revisit my experiences in writing. It’s been an ongoing topic over the last five years: from initial reflections aged seventeen for All Walks Beyond the Catwalk, through to an essay for Buzzfeed last summer wrangling with the consequences of having been celebrated for my looks long before I’d developed an adult body shape, let alone a clear sense of self.

Along the way I’ve talked numerous times – in articles, in my book, in interviews – about the need for ever more plurality when it comes to size, skin colour, age, and physicality (on a related note, I recently re-watched Sinéad Burke’s brilliant TED talk on navigating the world as a little person, and how design should cater for everyone – it’s brilliant. Go watch it.) I’ve also tried, where I can, to shout about all of the brilliant campaigns, individuals and designers who are doing fucking fabulous, exciting, goal-post changing things - and producing wonderful imagery in the process. 

So why am I here, writing about it again? Is it just the ultimate form of narcissism – a near half-decade’s worth of quite articulate frustration at this industry because I’m still aggrieved that it never properly wanted me? (Even if, as with the ‘cool girls’ group at secondary school, I didn’t really want to be a part of it anyway…) A way of making sense of things in words? Just Good Content for a Blog Post?

Maybe this time round it’s because I’ve been thinking again about how deciding to leave my model agency – shifting from being able to describe myself as ‘a model’ (noun) to being someone who ‘occasionally models’ (verb) – felt like another chapter in that exploration. A pretty crucial one.

It took a few months, and that strange casting, to realise that doing so really had clicked a switch. It meant I’d stopped feeling – at a very low, almost indiscernible level - apologetic and inadequate and weirdly convinced that the work, and crucially, the money (hey guys! Guess what? Writing really isn’t that lucrative! But I’m working on it!) would just start rolling in if I stopped eating bread, started doing squats, and spent more time talking to hollow people at hollow parties. Actively removing myself from that was a relief. It meant I no longer checked my emails continually, wondering whether I was ever going to get another shoot, and berating myself as though this were somehow my fault.

Underneath all that though, I have to be honest. I think I carry on writing about modelling because I still love it - not to mention plenty of the more fantastic aspects of fashion. There are days when there’s nothing I’d like to be doing more than wearing outrageous clothes and a face full of make-up, or flitting around the Scottish coast in a series of brightly coloured gowns, or enjoying knowing how to work the right angle for a studio portrait. Maybe it’s just a classic case of grass being greener (it's especially seductive imagining the heady power of transformation when I’m still here, in my dressing gown, bashing out sentences on a laptop). But it’s a skill I continue to value. One I’ve often relished developing over the near last decade.

This shoot for Pippa Small Jewellery above seems the perfect example of that. It’s one of my favourite modelling jobs ever: a week last August in a painted caravan in the woods, each day spent disporting myself around stone circles, hilltops, lakes, and orchards, draped in a rainbow array of jewels (and very little clothing). Along the way there were wild ponies, an owl, and a domed dacha that I’ve been dreaming about living in ever since.

It was wonderful not only because of the setting - my beloved Shropshire hills! -  but also for the glorious sense of creative collaboration. I’ve worked with my friend Susannah Baker-Smith on various shoots before, and her photos of me are ones I’ll always treasure. In this instance, there was a particular kind of alchemy between the place, the jewellery (Pippa is a genius with stones, and I was often reluctant to relinquish my decadent strings of crystals), and the work taking place both in front of and behind the camera.

We were a small team of three - me, Susannah, and the lovely India from Pippa Small – dashing out of the car between rain squalls, or finding the best patches of light among the trees for me to sprawl in. It was a tiring week, but one that felt good for being tiring. The fact that I then got to write poems for the catalogue (see here and here) was the cherry on top of a deeply joyful job.

Looking back at these photos, I also like the fact that in every one I’m fully inhabiting my body: actively and inventively (such a lot of strictly held contortion for ‘natural’ looking poses, not to mention having to pretend the weather was easy and breezy rather than liable to cause dramatic shivering!) Here I am: windswept, sun-lit, glittering with jewels, and fully visible.

The stunningly talented Susannah's work is also currently being exhibited at Festival Circulations. If you're in Paris, definitely pop along - and see if you can spot my spinal surgery scar making a cameo.. 

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Land of Reinvention

The dress was scrunched up in the bottom of a bargain basket - the kind where everything is 50p, and the vast majority of items are very creased, very ugly, or very suspiciously stained. And yet, there it was. An intriguing ball of pink shimmer: somewhere between Barbie and Betty Draper (not a massive leap, given), with extra-added tawdry glitz. 

I pulled it out, sized up the slightly uneven straps and lining peeping out from the hem, and decided to take a chance. How could I not when the colour and cut immediately made me think of sixties parties, strained conversation, one too many glasses of wine, and the thrill of flitting down streets in bare legs and a thick coat? It was cheaply glamorous, and probably entirely, completely uncomfortable to wear…

It’s funny, isn't it – trying to articulate those half-flickering images we conjure up while shopping? But it’s what we so often do with clothes, especially before they're on our body. We look at them, and project onto that shape, that design, that particular silhouette, the person we might just be if we only put that garment on…

Maybe this person is you, but more practical in a robust-looking pair of Levi’s, or slightly sexier in a dress with a keyhole over the cleavage, or ready to stare down the scariest of meetings in killer ankle boots. Perhaps it’s another person altogether, embodied in a gown that suggests a palatial house, rich spouse and two ugly, tiny, yapping dogs, or a boxy black velvet jacket with military frogging and all the trappings of a goth princess who wanted to appear unapproachable but actually ended up looking like she got stuck in Camden in 2009. (Actually, neither of those sound especially appealing. Oops.)

I do this all the time when browsing. It’s registered almost without me being aware of it: this fluttering sense of abundance, of all the possible versions of myself – for better and worse - on the rail (or spread out on a sheet on the ground, or found in a 50p basket). If I choose the tailored pencil skirt and pair it with a white shirt with a stiff, ruffled collar, I’ll be a slightly different individual to the one who goes for the sweeping seventies dress with sleeves large enough to smuggle a sleeping kitten in.

See, although the ultimate aim with shopping, usually, is the locate the items that work – the ones brilliant enough to be carried home – half the pleasure can be found in this question of what-if and just-imagine. In this kingdom of the hypothetical, anything could happen. You’re fragmented into a thousand and one potential reflections. Hall of mirrors. Land of reinvention. You could be a flower child, seductress, king, airily cool minimalist, or the kind of art gallery owner you’ve never met but know must exist because you’ve seen them featured in ‘real women’ shoots in glossy magazines.

I like to think of it as the inverse Bluebeard’s closet: a space bursting with life, with all the shapes of all the women yet to be, the women who could wear them, live in them, move in them.

Of course, that’s also how we get suckered into buying so much. The whole shopping experience is geared towards tugging not only at our imagination, but our aspiration – and sense that happiness/ confidence/ beauty/ status/ power might just lie in the acquisition of an especially expensive handbag or new dress. A well-curated mannequin suggests an enhanced self, an ideal self, a projected self, a possible self that could be brought (or bought) into existence if you only had the right clothes.

But I’m still invested in the idler, more inventive side of all that imaginative potential; the chance to briefly think of clothes as costume, each offering its own accompanying character or mood. Without that chattering internal monologue, I probably wouldn’t have bought this shiny confection and ended up running around the rhododendrons last summer: briefly echoing each overwhelmingly brilliant explosion of pink. Of course, there I felt less like Betty Draper than some weird, well-attired wood nymph bemoaning the tightness of her skirt when it came to clambering up trees. Somehow though, that was even more perfect.

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