Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Notes on Having a Book Published









Outside, it had begun drizzling. I’d spent an hour faffing around, trying to find the ideal combination of red, white and grey. My bedroom floor was a blanket of clothes – dresses tried on and tossed aside again. By the time I’d slicked on my lipstick, the world outside was lowering and grey. Still, we went for it: hopping in the car, heels in one hand, a stack of books in the other. At the top of the hill we surveyed the scene; rain blurring the far-away horizon; gorgeous, slightly soggy hay-bales; fresh, damp, green fields. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It felt right. It felt like home. It felt necessary to clamber on the bales in heels, doing what I do best: posing in ridiculous footwear, in a ridiculous location, in a ridiculous vintage satin evening coat, balancing lots of books. To do that with my own books, full of my own words? A pretty unbeatable feeling. 

It’s been quite a time. A very quick slide forward from the academic world into the professional one: two months spent swinging between furiously typing things on my laptop, and lazing by the river trying to recover from exams. There have been looooots of celebrations, and scattering of great new opportunities. Oh, and there’s been the book. There was the launch, full of some of the best friends and colleagues a gal could have; the gut-twisting moment of knowing Notes on Being Teenage was making its fledgling way out in the world; the chance to write and talk about all the things I’ve been thinking about for years now and the giddy excitement, followed by a few days of bone-aching exhaustion.  Then there were the sparks of absolute glee on spotting it in places including Waterstones and Foyles. More than that though, there were plenty of conversations: the opportunity to talk with teenagers and adults alike about things I deeply care about, and they do too.

That’s what I keep on coming back to: the fact that there are so many more dialogues to open up. This is the tip of the iceberg, the edge of the plunge, the fringes of the fucking massive set of issues, possibilities and problems we need to unravel when it comes to being teenage today. I want to continue to play some part in that, to encourage young women keep on at it, to have faith in their own abilities, to know that their potential is huge. When statistics like this are released, showing that confidence rapidly plunges as girls move towards being women, we know that our conversations are still only embers. We’ve got plenty left to do to stoke them into flames.

But I’m optimistic. The more we talk and take action, the better. The more we speak up and make time to listen to others, the better. The more seriously we respond to young women’s challenges, the better. The more our books, films and other forms of media represent a vast, diverse range of women, the better. The more we let others know they’re not alone, the better.

In fact, the absolute best part of having written this book is the people who’ve contacted me to say: “this resonated”/ “I’ve never seen my experience reflected before”/ “it meant a lot to hear that.” If Notes on Being Teenage has achieved that for just a handful of young women, it’s already done its job. 

I’m also so proud to be part of a growing movement – something I’m going to expand on in my next post – alongside so many other women I massively respect, including Emma Gannon, Laura Bates and Louise O'Neill (as well as those with forthcoming publications like Akilah Hughes and Hannah Witton). It’s a good time to be writing, raising our voices, asking for better, and letting others know that there are so many, many of us thinking about social media/ body image/ style/ sex/ feminism/ gender/ school/ mental health/ self-belief and more. Plenty of us wanting to champion others. Plenty raising the volume. 

Talking of all things teenage, I’ll also be doing a round up of writing and features in the near future, but in the meantime… I wanted to let people know about three very thrilling things I’m up to in the next month. I’m at YALC this coming weekend, taking part in both their poetry slam (on the 30th) and the AskYALC panel on the 31st (tweet them here with a Q, and it might get answered during the event, where I’m appearing alongside Juno Dawson, Holly Bourne and Dr Christian Jessen, with all of us being kept in line by Gemma Cairney). Then I’ll be at Birmingham Waterstones on August 2nd to chair an event with Louise O’Neill and Eliza Wass. Come along for conversation about their excellent books. Then on August 26th, I’m heading up to Edinburgh for an event alongside Juno Dawson, where we’ll both be chatting about Mindful Teens. Somewhere in between all of that I’ll be trying to catch my breath.

I wrote two months ago that this is a time of beginnings and endings. It still is: and will continue to be for the next little while. But I’m intrigued to see what they hold. Hopefully more writing, more projects, more being vocal. Ideally some time off too. Definitely the space to play around with what comes next. (Side-note to any editors reading: commission me!! I finally have the time!) Hopefully a few more afternoons tottering around the countryside in ballgowns and stilettos too. 

My satin evening coat belonged to my paternal great-grandma, while the blouse was my maternal great-grandma's. The  trousers and heels are second hand. The books? Well, they're the model's own... 

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Swimming in Oxford







(1)

I’m at home in water. The minute it’s warm enough to go without tights, it’s warm enough to be shimmying out into rivers, lakes, and (dare I say it?) waves. At least, I like to think it is. Sometimes I’ll still wimp out, dallying at the edge, wondering if retreat is better. But often the promise of thrill wins out: the chance to fold up flickering, busy thoughts with my clothes and towel, leave them behind on the grass bank. It’s a way to pitch forward into something very immediate, to emerge again at the end somehow scoured.

That’s what’s so wonderful about swimming outdoors. You are distilled down to a body, a set of breaths, two blinking eyes on a level with banks, boats, and the small battalion of geese floating past. Everything is sensation. Everything is sight. The world is reduced to what’s in front of you. It’s about arms pushing against the current, legs kicking, chin lifted above the ripples. It’s about the sky: whether that’s low, grey clouds, or a perfect blue wash occasionally cut through with birds. It’s about measuring out your own capabilities. When to go further? When to return to shore?

(2)

It’s a taste I’ve learned from my dad. He’s the one I’ve been watching dash in and out of lakes and rivers for years, screeching all the way. The guy who used to get in a Welsh mountain stream in January, clad just in trunks, water shoes, and a striped woolly hat. Now he’s a little less keen on the winter freeze, but still loves plunging into (moderately) chilly water. Though these days I’m sometimes the one, err, lovingly coaxing him in: “But you wrote a whole bloody book about it! Call yourself a wild swimmer! Wiiiiiiimp.” (He won’t thank me for this).

The book he wrote is called Dip. Published two years ago, it chronicled his experiences with depression – and the role that swimming played in his recovery. It’s beautiful, lyrical and honest, anchored in those brief moments of revelation to be found in each new swim, each new step away from the depths of his illness. It’s been on my mind again recently because the play I co-wrote with both my parents, titled The Man Who Turned into a Sofa, was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (see my original blog post here). That’s also about mental health, about him, about our family. It’s up on iPlayer for another two weeks. Water turns up all over the place in that. In fact, my final line is, “I didn’t know if I’d see him swim outside again.” Sometimes I realize how grateful I am that I have done, that I continue to, that it’s now something we share.

(3)

Some of my best moments in Oxford have also been watery (or near-watery) ones. Evenings full of barbecue smoke and dips at sunset. Punting on the river. Wandering down the canal and out into the green beyond. Lounging on towels with books and picnics, a river close at hand for cooling off in. Hiding from the heat next to a lake under a homemade canopy strung out of scarves. Solo splashing at 6pm after a day running around London – hopping off the train and onto my bike, frantic to be in the cool. Group swims, all of us fanning out across the gorgeous, gorgeous water. Skinny-dipping after dark, the silk feel of river on skin.

Many of these moments have taken place in Port Meadow: an incredible, vast stretch of fields and water. Apparently the land hasn’t been ploughed for at least 4000 years. In summer the grass is peppered with people: dog walkers, old women reading books, teenagers trying to impress each other, families with picnics and children paddling in the shallows, couples wandering, huge gaggles of students with Sainsbury’s bags full of hastily bought food (and plenty of cans and bottles clinking around too). There’s something slightly untamed about it. Far enough away from the city to feel like you’ve escaped, but close enough to still hear the trains.

I’ve watched shooting stars there in high summer, huddled under a blanket with friends. I’ve stomped along the river’s edge in winter when things were bad, collecting myself back into something more solid as I walked. I’ve danced to ‘Wuthering Heights’ there. I’ve made it as far as the ruined nunnery twice, marveling at the buttercups. I’ve had heart-to-hearts there; laughed there; felt the warmth of good company there so many times.

In fact, despite a few visits just by myself, it’s mainly somewhere I associate with others. Nearly all of these moments are bright and glittery because of the people: a scattered bunch of brilliant individuals. The other evening I hung out with two of them, all of us trying to identify specific memories and specific nights there. They were hard to disentangle. One long round of swimming, cooking, eating, giggling, drinking wine, chatting, reading, lying on our backs with music playing and a huge silver moon above.

(4)

On the day my parents drove me to Oxford to begin my degree, leaving me nervously eyeing up everything I needed to unpack, they then took a trip to Port Meadow. Dad swam. Mum, unsurprisingly, stayed on the banks. While I was arranging images on my new pin-board, both terrified and thrilled by all the possible people I was about to meet, they were sitting in a spot I now know very well.

Up until recently, I’d completely forgotten that this had happened. Then a month or two back, I picked up a copy of Dip on sale in Blackwell’s. As I flicked through, my own name snagged me – from the ‘October’ chapter. There my dad detailed that strange day: dropping me off, driving away, going for a swim. I stood in the bookshop, transported back to my first, scary week of uni. I saw myself written about as someone else: younger, less assured, but eager for what lay ahead. I could make a distinction between her and me. It was a good one.

I loved dad's description of the swim best though – the sheer, giddy glee; the synchronicity of him choosing a spot that I would come to love so much; the fact that I’d entirely overlooked that connection, only finding it again as my own time at Oxford was dwindling. It felt right to rediscover at that point. Right to stand and relish it from another vantage point. Right to know I had a few months left to cram in as much swimming as I could while I was still here. So far, I’ve kept to that – though the rain hasn’t helped…

My dad took these pictures back in March when he visited me two days before my dissertation was due in. I was a frazzled ball of nerves and all-those-bloody-footnotes-left-to-do, but walking all the way to Port Meadow and back helped. At that point it was flooded: a lake sitting in the midst of the grass. I was wearing a dress I’d bought at a vintage market in Oxford the week before, and a coat given to me by a friend who no longer wanted it. Only a few months ago, and already a world away.