The Story of a Story

The door was green, was the thing. Rockpool green. Christmas tree green. Proper fairytale green. The kind of green door that you could definitely imagine a dream come true waiting behind.

Her name was Sophie, was the thing. Like my sister. It made me feel a little like I had my Sophie there with me. Could feel her squeezing my hand, see her rolling her eyes, hear her telling me to stop fannying about on a cold doorstep and just knock on the green door already. She’s always made me brave, my Sophie.

In September, I wrote a post about admitting that you want things and having the courage to really back yourself and go after them. Lots of people reached out with lovely comments. One of them was Julia Silk. Julia is a literary agent. She had seen that I had written a book and wondered if I was still looking for representation. I was.

I sent her over my manuscript straight away. She came back quickly to say that she loved the book but as it was a YA, she didn’t think she was the best person to represent it. I was a little sad…I mean, what a story, right? Getting an agent directly because of a post about asking for what you want. The stuff of fairytales.

(Like that door. Don’t worry, we’re getting there.)

Julia and I stayed in touch on Twitter and chatted often. In December, she retweeted a tweet about a writing competition into my timeline. The deadline was that night. I almost didn’t enter, you know. There was an entry fee and after a year of pretty brutal rejection emails, I’d started to think that maybe this book I’d written just wasn’t the one. In the end, I decided I had nothing to lose.

At the beginning of December, I found out my book had been longlisted. From 715 down to 26.

At the turn of the new year, I found out I had been shortlisted. From 715 down to 5.

At the end of January, Gareth Osborne was announced as the winner. You can and absolutely should read his amazing opening chapter here. I wasn’t too disappointed about not winning. It was incredible just to see my name and my photograph on the site, to know that kids had read my book and they’d loved it.

The day after the shortlist was announced I got an email from an agent, congratulating me on being shortlisted. Her name was Sophie, was the thing. It turned out that she worked at the same agency as Julia and Julia had passed my first chapters to her. She wondered if I’d like to come in for a cup of tea and a chat.

I painted my nails soft eggshell grey, because I always feel more together when my nails are done. I stood in front of my colleagues at work, squinting at my outfit and asking “Does this make me look like a creative young professional?”

They assured me that it did.

And this was how I ended up standing on the doorstep of that lovely green door. I’m not sure what I expected a literary agent to be like, but I was terrified. I had built the publishing world up in my head to be an army of stern headteachers, wagging their fingers and tutting at my book. But of course it’s not like that. Of course, like everything else important in this world, it’s run by women with twinkly eyes and firm handshakes, who laugh loudly and often, who have shelves and shelves and shelves of books. Women like Sophie. I went in expecting a job interview. I got a conversation instead. I’m not sure I paused for breath for the entire time I was in her office. Her excitement about my work made me excited and I talked quickly, waved my hands around wildly, cracked a thousand terrible jokes.

She wanted to read the rest of the book.

I sent it over and tried, unsuccessfully, not to refresh my email every five minutes looking for a response. I’ve had lots of agents request my full manuscript, was the thing, and thus far, none of them had decided to take it on in the end. I went for breakfast with Julia, who assured me that Sophie had been incredibly excited after our first meeting.

I’d been so excited too. But she could still hate the book.

At the end of last week, I got an email from Sophie to say that she’d be reading the book and getting back in touch this week.

I took a few photos that would go nicely with an announcement blog post. Just in case.

On Sunday, I put a tiny bottle of prosecco in the fridge. Just in case.

On Monday, I opened this blog post and wrote the first sentence. Just in case. Then, I slammed my laptop closed, sure I’d have jinxed it.

On Tuesday, I spent two hours on my hands and knees fixing a toilet. I hoped that the email would come. What a story, right? It didn’t.

When the email finally came, it came on International Women’s Day, because of course it did. I was on my way to a drag show, because of course I was. I was wearing lots of purple lipstick and the biggest earrings in the world and I was drinking terrible wine out of a plastic pint glass. Because of course I was.

I signed with Sophie Gorell Barnes of MBA Literary Agents at 5pm today. What a story, right?

What You Deserve

This week, apropos of nothing, I started to make a list on Twitter of things that, in my opinion, make life worth living. The list ranged from ducklings to lipstick to that moment when someone unexpectedly understands a really obscure reference you’ve just made. People started to join in and before long, my notifications were filling up with tiny little pleasures and moments of everyday gratitude.

Things are so difficult for so many people right now and I have very little time for those who insist that we should all just be a bit more positive. Positivity doesn’t help the women who can’t access domestic violence refuges or our Muslim friends who are being harassed and intimidated or the people who are denied the healthcare they need. When “being positive” means refusing to acknowledge that things are hard, it stops being helpful and actually becomes oppressive and harmful.

But. The flipside of this is also true. Just because things are difficult and the world seems to be falling apart, you don’t have to stop enjoying things. In fact, I think that when the world is collectively struggling, it’s more important than ever to take as much joy as you can wherever you can find it. We will all be fighting the good fight for a long time and honestly, it seems likely that things are going to get worse before they get better. Which means we need to keep ourselves strong. We need to remember to feed our souls as well as our rage, to keep our warmth as well stoked as our heat. So without further ado and with no more half baked philosophising, here are some little joys that you (yes, you, reading this right now) deserve to have in your life.

  1. You deserve to put your pyjamas on the radiator in the evening so that they’re all toasty and lovely when you put them on. There is no reason in the world for you not to do this every single night.
  2. You deserve to wash out old jars and fill them with tealights. You are a magical princess (this is very not dependent on your gender, people of all genders are magical princesses) and deserve a grotto of beautiful light to live in.
  3. You deserve to own a really sharp can opener and a really sharp vegetable peeler. This is a very boring thing that will improve your life immeasurably.
  4. When you get into bed, you deserve to take hold of your duvet by the corners and whip it upwards, letting it slowly settle back down onto your body. This is the best feeling in the whole world. Double points if you can get someone else to do it for you.
  5. You deserve to cook yourself really brilliant food. I am the queen of eating cereal for dinner when the boy is away because it seems silly and frivolous to cook a proper meal just for me. It is, in fact, neither silly nor frivolous. You deserve to eat food that makes you feel brilliant. Whenever you can, invest that time in yourself and cook yourself up something amazing.
  6. You deserve the biggest, softest towels you can get your hands on. You should probably also put these on the radiator when you get in the shower for the toastiness reasons outlined in point 1.
  7. You deserve to sit in front of a crackling real fire at every available opportunity.
  8. You deserve a few quiet moments every day to have a cup of tea (or whatever you fancy) and just breathe.
  9. In addition, you deserve to drink from a beautiful china teacup, or a gaudy patterned teapot, or an enormous tankard, or a champagne flute, or anything else that brings you joy.
  10. You deserve cream on your hot chocolate.
  11. You deserve to stomp on really crunchy leaves.
  12. You deserve to pet that dog over there.
  13. You deserve to laugh, to proper belly laugh until your sides hurt and tears are streaming down your face, regardless of whether or not anyone else found the thing funny.
  14. You deserve to light a beautiful candle by your bedside and read until you fall asleep.
  15. You deserve to stand outside on bitter cold nights and look up at the stars.
  16. You deserve fresh flowers.
  17. You deserve to stand still and watch the sunset, from the moment the sky starts to turn pink until the very last embers of light dip beneath the horizon and know that no matter who you are, how successful you are, how much money you have, it will always be this beautiful.
  18. You deserve cheese and onion crisps in your sandwich.
  19. You deserve sandwiches cut into triangles.
  20. You deserve a hot water bottle under your feet.
  21. You deserve a really good stretch in the morning. I’m not suggesting you get up and do sunrise yoga every morning because, seriously, not for everyone. And by everyone, I mean me. But you deserve a proper, joyous stretch from your toes all the way to the ends of your fingertips.
  22. You deserve to eat really delicious cake with a fork and pretend that you’re fancy.
  23. You deserve scalding hot showers with incredible smelling soap.
  24. You deserve soft, clean socks.
  25. You deserve joy.

25 at 25

As I may have mentioned just once or twice, I turned 25 at the turn of the New Year. It’s an odd sort of age. You move up an age category, into the 25 and overs, so everyone younger than you thinks you’re completely ancient, while everyone older claws at your face in empty horror and yells about how you’re still just a teeny tiny little baby. Regardless of whether you think I’m utterly over the hill or basically a jumped up toddler (both true, if I’m being totally honest), I’ve now been on the earth for a quarter of a century. And during that time, I like to think I’ve learned a couple of things.

People who are older and wiser than me, feel free to turn away now. Everyone else, here are 25 extremely important things I’ve learned in my 25 years.

  1. Girls are brilliant. Seriously, really brilliant. I spent a long, long time as one of those girls who was only friends with boys because there was, like, so much less drama. Now that I have a girl gang, I literally don’t know how I got by without them. Turns out, boys are just as dramatic as girls. It’s just that girls are socialised to see each other as competition. Bust that cycle. Lift each other up. Who runs the world? Girls.
  2. Don’t use those spot pad things on your face. Your skin will never forgive you, even if you spend ten years treating it like a god damn princess.
  3. Everything you are wearing and doing right now is going to make you cringe in ten years, especially the stuff that you think is super cool, so wear what you want. Those folks laughing at you will be cringing just as hard as you in 2027.
  4. It’s important to know when you’re standing up for yourself and when you’re picking a fight just to be a dick. I will deny this vehemently if confronted but about 80% of the arguments I start are entirely me being a needless dick because I’m in a bad mood/have hurt feelings about a totally different issue/am tired/hungry/cold. Learning to swallow that impulse to lash out has made every single relationship in my life better.
  5. Most things can be made better with a kitchen danceathon, a long bath, a cup of tea, some Sudocrem or a really good red lipstick.
  6. The best, scariest things in your life often take only ten seconds of mad, terrifying courage. Take a deep breath, summon your courage and do the thing.
  7. Food has no moral value. Eating only green things is not a substitute for a personality. Nor is always being game to finish a packet of biscuits. Cake is not naughty. It’s a basic human right.
  8. Sleeping naked on clean sheets is the second best thing you can do in a bed.
  9. Don’t save your best things. You deserve them now. Use them now.
  10. Say “I love you” when it’s true. Say it often.
  11. Sometimes “self care” means planting yourself in a squishy chair and bingeing 8 hours of TV. Sometimes it means getting off your arse and doing your damn dishes. Be honest with yourself about what you really need.
  12. If the dress is pinching a little at 7am, you’ll be dying in it by noon. See also: shoes that hurt just a little when you put them on.
  13. The best love is about warmth just as much as it is about heat. There is nothing more underrated on this green earth than someone who makes you feel safe, someone who makes you feel cherished.
  14. You will never regret taking that photo. Even if you think your hair is a mess, even if you’ve worried people will think you’re a bore or laugh at you posing. You’ll never regret having it.
  15. Conversely, THERE IS NO REASON TO VIDEO GIGS ON YOUR PHONE. Your video will be dreadful and your tiny, grainy screen is in the way of everyone trying to actually see the stage.
  16. Having savings is a really good idea.
  17. Never apologise for taking joy in things. Disney movies, corny pop music, obscure metal bands, foreign literature…surround yourself with things that lift your soul.
  18. Taking a really long walk is the best way to get to know someone.
  19. Having travel plans go horribly awry is also a good way to get to know someone, but in a less awesome way.
  20. Asking for help almost always goes better than you think it will.
  21. People have the boundless ability to surprise you, sometimes with their cruelty but more often, with their kindness.
  22. Time taken to hang out with people you love, read books, cuddle animals or stare at large bodies of water is not ever wasted time.
  23. Don’t let this big, weird world turn you hard and cold. Cynicism is just a way for people to pretend that they’re clever, without actually putting in the work to be clever. Stay soft, stay kind. If anyone gives you shit for this, set them on fire.*
  24. It’s okay to have no idea what you want.
  25. It’s okay to change your mind.

*Please do not set anyone on fire.

The New Year

And that’s it over. The champagne has been drunk, the kisses exchanged, the confetti swept up. The new year is upon us and it’s fat and glorious with possibility.

I wrote last new year about why I think new year’s resolutions should be about becoming, rather than changing. A fresh start should be something exciting, a time to be celebrated, not something to beat yourself over the head with. I promise, no matter how much growing you have to do, you did fine last year. You did great, in fact.

When I sit down to write my goals for new year, I try to think about what parts of me I want to make bigger, rather than the parts I want to make smaller.

This year, I’m going to take scalding hot showers, even though they’re bad for my skin, because they make me feel alive. I’m going to read dusty old classics and trashy crime novels and appreciate that both of them feed my soul in different ways.

I’m going to wear lipstick in a wild rainbow of colours and learn to walk in those shoes that make me look a million dollars. I’m not going to go running, because I hate it. I’m going to stretch because I want to take care of my body, not because I want to change it. I’m going to dance in my living room until my heart pounds.

I’m going to eat my vegetables and I’m going to have seconds of pudding because both of those things are nourishing if you allow them to be. I’m going to bake outrageous cakes, even if the boy and I are the only ones who ever see them. I’m going to stop splurging on makeup only to scrimp on skincare. Goddammit, I’m going to moisturise.

I’m going to call home more and take more photographs. I’m going to laugh louder and sing when I cook. I’m going to seek out adventure, whether that’s halfway across the world or in the park at the end of my road. I’m going to pet more dogs. I’m going to climb more trees and take picnics and go paddling in the sea. I’m going to practise my German until the rust falls off.

I’m going to wear pretty dresses and slouchy jumpers and flirt with my boyfriend and kiss as much as I can. I’m going to think more and smile more. I’m going to be grateful. I’m going to be brave. I’m going to get involved in my community and speak up against the things I think are wrong. I’m going to write write write.

Whatever you choose to do with your 2017, I hope it is spectacular. I hope that your year is filled with love and laughter that makes your sides hurt. I hope you catch sight of yourself in the mirror and think, hey there, awesome. I hope you have the courage to be the most yourself that you can possibly be. Happy new year, darlings. Happy, happy new year.

Power to the Girls

To the littlest Longmuir,

In the past day, the internet has filled up with letters from women to their daughters, sisters and granddaughters. Many of them have been written by women much wiser and more talented than me (like this one!). This one won’t be much different, except that it’s for you.

kiera

You already know that America has picked a bully for its leader. There are a lot of reasons that this happened but here’s a big one: his opponent was a woman. In more than two centuries of voting, they have never, ever picked a woman. This time, it looked like they really might. The fact that they didn’t is a big loss. It hurts. But here’s the one glimmer of hope: someday, they will. Somewhere out there is a little girl like you who will be president someday.

Here’s something you might already know, and you might not: being a girl is really hard sometimes. A lot of people will think that they know who you are and what you are like, just because you’re a girl. It can get pretty overwhelming sometimes, pretty exhausting. Sometimes, you’ll feel like giving up, making yourself smaller or quieter to escape. From my heart to yours, I’m sending you all the courage in the world and saying don’t.

I know that you know all of the words to Matilda by heart, and if she doesn’t mind, I’m going to borrow a few of them. (She’s much cleverer than me anyway!)

Even if you’re little, you can do a lot.
You mustn’t let a little thing like little stop you.
If you sit around and let them get on top
You might as well be saying you think that it’s okay.

You can do anything that you put your mind to. You can become Prime Minister. You can write a book. You can run away and join the circus. You can be a scientist, who helps cure devastating diseases. You can design incredible buildings or beautiful dresses. You can do anything. And the only thing you have to do to get there is to try. Try, try and keep trying. Put your hand up in class. Read about Violet Baudelaire and Hermione Granger and Mia Thermopolis. Write down your thoughts and trust that they are important. Know that your voice matters. Learn to believe in yourself, even when other people don’t. Watch Mulan and know that you should never learn your place. Watch Legally Blonde and know that in your life, you will come up against countless Warners and Callahans who will underestimate you right up until you take their job and do it better than them. Sing in the shower. Wear pin badges. Google Maya Angelou, Sophia Duleep Singh and Ida B Wells. When you’re old enough, vote.

You are powerful beyond measure. But, to quote a great philosopher (Spider-Man), with great power, comes great responsibility. See, another reason that the bully won is because people are poor and alone and frightened. And when people are frightened, they can become cold and hard and selfish. When you are frightened, it can be easy to see everyone else as the enemy, out to steal what you have. My gorgeous girl, I need you not to do this. The world is a strange, scary place right now and folks like me need the people growing up after us to be better than us. The world needs kindness and warmth and big, open hearts. The world is full of people of wondrous variety: girls, boys, people in between, white people, black people, Muslim people, poor people, disabled people, gay people, young people, old people, and every single one of those people deserves to live a beautiful, happy life, just like we do. We are so lucky to have what we have, and when you are as lucky we are, it is your responsibility to share it.

Don’t let the world make you afraid of people who are different from you. Listening to people different from you is how we learn. Don’t let the world dim that wonderful, generous spirit I know that you have. Take your old toys and clothes to the charity shop, so that someone who needs them can have them. Pack a shoebox with surprises and send it to somebody who doesn’t normally get Christmas presents. Don’t be scared to tell adults that you have ideas. When I was little, I asked the people in my mum’s work to help me pack shoeboxes and ended up with a whole living room full of presents to give people. More than 70 kids got presents that year because I believed in myself. Stand up for what you think is right. Don’t join in when your friends tease that weird kid in your class. Don’t let anyone else tell you what to think – not even me. Be nice to other girls. Help them reach for their dreams and they’ll help you reach for yours. Love as openly and as massively as you can. Never stop believing in the power of kindness. And never, ever give up.

I’m going to finish with one last quote, something that I told your other sister many years ago, and something that I really, truly believe for both of you: kid, you’ll move mountains.

All my love, forever,

Fiona.

An Early Christmas Miracle

img_4622

Those of you who have never heard me speak might not know that I’m from what I fondly refer to as a shitty little town. That shitty little town was the making of me, giving me a sharp, dark sense of humour, a deep appreciation for how lucky I am and an accent, the hard edges of which no number of years in Edinburgh or London will completely smooth over.

It’s also a town that is ravaged and gutted by poverty. At the end of August, the area I grew up in was named as the most deprived area in Scotland, again. Paisley is a funny little place, years of rich culture and history barely managing to peep through an ever thicker tapestry of neglect. There are towns like this scattered all through the UK, ignored and belittled by the government, shut off and punished for the unforgivable crime of being working class. We’re lucky that the formidable Mhairi Black was elected our local MP and has spent her time in parliament shining a light on the effects of government policy on the people of my town. Change needs to happen and I couldn’t have picked a better person to fight for it than a stubborn wee Paisley lassie.

But change can be slow. And while change is happening, real people are suffering. The people of my town aren’t cute political stories or examples to be sneered at. They’re people, and they’re hurting. And so, while one of us fights for change in Westminster, the rest of us stubborn wee Paisley lassies have to step up. Enter the amazing Jodie Campbell. I went to high school with Jodie and even back then, while I was practicing snogging my pillow and insisting that I preferred being friends with boys because there was “like, so much less drama”, Jodie was making a difference. Every time I spoke to her, she was cooking up a new scheme to help someone who needed it. She is an absolute angel.

Last year, she hosted a Christmas dinner. She fed almost 200 people who were put forward by homeless charities, local food banks and housing associations and who otherwise would have been spending Christmas alone. Christmas can be an especially hard time of year for vulnerable or lonely people and I’m sure that if any of you have ever struggled, you know that the value of a kind word, a bit of company and a hot meal simply can’t be overestimated. It can literally save lives.

And this year, she’s doing it all over again! I know, I know, I hate bloggers who start talking about Christmas in October too. But organising something this big means that she needs money in advance. Please, if you have anything to spare, think about helping someone have a wonderful Christmas. I have over 4000 followers on Twitter. If every one of you donated a pound, we could make such a huge, incredible difference. Forgo a morning coffee and donate £3. Take packed lunches to work for a week and donate £10. Instead of buying that new dress, donate £20 and treat someone to a hot meal. I’m not a good enough writer to tell you how close to my heart this is, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say that I’m tearing up a little. Okay fine, I’m tearing up a lot.

If you donate, you will officially become a member of the #stubbornpaisleylassie club, which I have just made up, so that in itself is reason enough to do it. I will also send a Christmas card to everyone who donates, so be sure to give me a wave over on Twitter if you decide to make a donation. There’s nothing more Christmassy than magic. And there’s nothing more magical in this world than kindness.

I Want It All

fiona

This month, I’ve been asking people to nominate me for a Cosmo Lifestyle Influencer Award. I’ve asked people for nominations like this before and normally, it goes something like this:

*shy wave* Oh, hello, I was thinking, er, maybe, if you’re not too busy, you might nominate me for this little thing. *runs away*

I cocoon myself in relatable, cutesy self deprecation because god forbid I own up to actually wanting things, or worse, thinking I deserve things. Writing is a bit of a funny thing. It’s something I do for fun because I like to be creative and it helps me to work through my thoughts and figure out how I really feel about things. When I write, mostly I’m writing for me. But it would be an absolute barefaced lie for me to say that I don’t care if anyone reads my stuff. Because when I write, I’m also writing for you. I write because I feel like I have something worthwhile to say. I write because I think that maybe my words will make someone feel less alone, less weird, less hopeless. I write because I want to make people feel things. But when I admit that, I’m also admitting that I think I have the talent to do that.

There’s a blogger who I’ve followed for a long time, who has just landed a regular column in Grazia magazine. In part, this happened because she is wildly talented. But mainly, it happened because she spent three full days putting together a proposal for her column, including three sample columns, so that the editors would get a feel for her voice. She spent three days putting together a package that said “I want this. I deserve this. And here’s why you absolutely can’t disagree.” She completely, unabashedly backed herself. And it paid off.

I spent my first year in London working as a temp. I interviewed for a whole bunch of permanent jobs and got turned down for every one of them. Do you know why? Because I prized my likeability over my ability to do the job and saw the two as totally incompatible. After a year of wondering whether I’d still have a job next month, I got angry. I was invited to interview for the job I was doing on a permanent basis for the third time and this time, I went in with the attitude of “Here’s why you absolutely cannot afford not to hire me.” One of the interview questions was “If your team mates were to describe you in one word, what would it be?” The first time, I answered “enthusiastic”. This time, I answered “competent”. They offered me the job on the spot.

I sometimes wonder how much earlier I could have gotten the job if I’d been less embarrassed about owning my shit and admitting that I actually thought I was up to it. Because here’s the thing: self deprecation is all well and good on Twitter or with your friends but if you’re going for a job, pitching an article or asking folks to nominate you for an award, people have no reason not to believe you if you tell them that you’re mediocre. It takes balls to ask for the things you think you deserve. It takes balls to commit to working hard for something. It takes balls to take yourself seriously. Because sometimes, you do all that and it still doesn’t pan out. But really, what else is there? So here we are. I’m owning up. I want people to read my words, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. I want to be published in lots of different places, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. I want to write an amazing book, and I think I’m talented enough to achieve that. It’s scary, admitting that you have the ability to do something, because then you have no excuse not to work your ass off and do it. But I’m over getting in my own damn way. I’m finally convinced that I deserve the things I want.

Now, to work on convincing everybody else.

Apple Therapie

Do you remember that scene in Bruce Almighty where everything gets really out of control, so Bruce goes and mops a load of floors? I think about that a lot. I realise that an old Jim Carrey movie might be a slightly odd place to look for life lessons but inspiration comes in many forms.

Sometimes I feel really overwhelmed, often for no reason at all. One of the worst things about having a powerful imagination is that you spend a lot of time powerfully imagining that everything is going wrong. Some days, out of nowhere, I’ll feel as though someone has yanked the rug out from underneath me and I’m struggling, teetering, trying not to fall. When that happens, all I can do is press reset. And pressing reset usually involves doing something simple, something methodical, something that forces you to slow down and take your time. For some people, it might involve mopping a whole lot of floors. It might be alphabetising your bookshelf or colouring in or writing a letter. For me, it’s baking a pie.

20160811-DSCF3991

I measure out 260g of plain flour. I use a cup to measure, so I’m never sure how close to 260g I actually am. It doesn’t matter. This doesn’t have to be precise. I add 150g of hard butter, cut into cubes. Using my fingertips, I gently rub the flour into the butter cubes until I’m left with a mixture that looks like fine breadcrumbs. Don’t squash your mixture. Take your time, I tell myself. There’s no rush. I close my eyes and take a deep breath and I feel the soft flour and the cold butter in my hands. I feel the puffs of powder that escape from my bowl and coat the kitchen worktop. Inevitably, I end up with a smudge of flour on my nose. That is fine.

I add cold water, tiny bit by tiny bit, mixing with a knife until a dough starts to form. Every time, I’m sure my mix isn’t going to come together. Every time, it does. I think about that a lot. I get my hands in and knead it a little until it forms a smooth ball. I wrap the ball in clingfilm and put it in my fridge while I prepare my apples.

I use between 3 and 5 green apples, depending on how big they are. Bramley apples are best, but any tart green apple will work. I promise, it’ll still be delicious. I peel each apple in one huge, snaking twist and drop the rind on the counter like my Auntie Kathleen taught me, to see the initial of the person I’m going to marry. I wonder if I know anyone whose name begins with an “O”. I chop my apples. If you like a chunky pie, chop large pieces. If you like it smoother, chop little ones. Both are delicious.

I put my apples in a big pot with a splash of water and I sprinkle over a few tablespoons of soft brown sugar. I turn the heat on very, very low and put on the lid. Every so often, I take off the lid to stir and watch the sugar turn to caramel and let the drunken smell of sharp stewing apples fill my tiny kitchen. You can add cinnamon if you want to. I don’t. After about 15/20 minutes, I turn off the heat and let my apples cool down a little.

I push everything to the side, because our kitchen is so little that there’s only really one surface. I dust the worktop with flour. I usually dust everything else in the kitchen with flour at the same time. I have a rolling pin now, like a proper grown up, but until recently, I just used a litre bottle filled with cold water. This works just the same and helps keep your pastry nice and cold. I don’t have a pie dish, so I grease a round cake tin. The best thing about making pie is that you can almost always make do with what you have. It always works out fine.

20160811-DSCF3986

I take my pastry out of the fridge and chop a third of it off. This will be the lid of the pie. I drop the bigger piece onto my floury surface and knead it into a big circle. Sometimes it breaks. Sometimes it sticks to the surface. This is okay. It can be fixed with a dab of water or a smattering of flour. I carefully place my dough circle into my cake tin and use a little blob of dough to push it into the base. I trim off the untidy outside with a sharp knife. I pour in my apple mix. It’s almost always too hot. It always, always smells divine. I roll out my pie top and press it over the apples, using a fork to crimp the edges. This makes it look like a cartoon pie. This makes me smile. I roll out my trimmed edges and slice and press them into beautiful patterns. I make enormous flowers and pretty, lined leaves. I place my decorations on top of the pie and brush the whole thing with a beaten egg. If you have a pastry brush, use that. I dab it on with kitchen roll.

I realise I’ve forgotten to preheat my oven. I roll my eyes, but I don’t beat myself up. I’m feeling gentle. I’m feeling like being kind to myself. I set the oven to 200C and put the pie in straight away. I’m dimly aware that this probably isn’t the right thing to do but it doesn’t seem to matter. I leave the pie in the oven for half an hour while I clean the flour from every nook of the tiny kitchen.

After half an hour, the pie is golden and crisp. If it isn’t, I stick it back in the oven and put the kettle on. Once it’s ready, I pop it out of the cake tin and put it on a plate. I take a photo. I give myself a second to congratulate myself on making something so pretty. I put a little icing sugar in a sieve and sprinkle it over the top of the pie. I feel like a fancy chef when I do this. I cut a slice straight away, even though it hasn’t cooled and the hot apple oozes out. I pour double cream on mine, much more than is really reasonable. You can put ice cream or custard on yours if you like. I make myself a cup of tea. I sit in my comfiest seat, take a deep breath and eat an enormous forkful.

It’s never perfect. It’s usually messy. It tastes wonderful. Always.

20160811-DSCF3988

Being Brave, Being Vain, Being Fiona

I have a complicated relationship with beautiful. I’ve always been more likely to be called “striking” or “interesting” than “beautiful”, and always more likely to be called “funny” or “smart” than either of those. In my heart, I know that is an absolute strength. If I had to choose between funny and beautiful, I’d pick funny every single time, no questions asked. I know that I’m so much more than beautiful, that a beautiful face pales in comparison with a kind heart, a strong mind, a creative soul. And yet. And yet.

Like many girls, my “interesting” beauty became a battleground when I was a teenager. The frizzy hair, the generous nose, the chest so flat you could build an airport on it, they all became markers for how different I was. And I spent an unholy amount of my teenagedom wishing that I could just be the same.

F6

It’s exhausting being at war with your own face, you guys. Eventually, there came a point where I was too tired to keep hating myself, so I decided I was going have to love myself instead. I spent time getting to know my body, because it’s impossible to love something that’s a stranger to you. I started to notice my details. The smattering of chocolate drop freckles. The cupid’s bow you could cut yourself on. The stretch marks curving around my hips like silver lightning strikes. I dyed my hair red. I started to wear the brightest lipstick I could get my hands on. I started to upload selfies with gay abandon. When I felt ugly, I wanted to make myself smaller. After so many years of that, feeling beautiful feels like a brave, tiny rebellion.

F2

It’s also terrifying. See, women are supposed to be pretty but we’re absolutely not supposed to notice that we’re pretty. And we’re certainly not supposed to take any pleasure from it. We’re not to know we’re beautiful. That’s what makes us beautiful.

*One Direction dance break, because even though the message of that song is trash, it’s still an absolute tune*

There’s a photographer called Alex Cameron, who takes the most wonderful photographs. The first time I saw her photos, I thought “I want pictures of me that are that beautiful”. I was immediately ashamed that I wanted that. How trivial. How frivolous. How vain. For two years, I watched her photos pop up on my Twitter timeline and every time I saw them, I turned the idea over in my head. I’d justify and argue with myself and agonise because I was still embarrassed to admit that I wanted to look at myself and love how I looked.

F5Last week, I got on a train with a backpack full of my most favourite dresses and I asked Alex to make me gorgeous. I twirled and giggled and wrapped myself in leaves and flowers. I gleefully agreed when Alex complimented my bright hair, my green eyes. I loudly exclaimed “I FEEL LIKE A FAIRY PRINCESS” about seventeen times.

F4

F3

When she started to send me the photographs, my mouth fell open. She hadn’t changed me or airbrushed me. She hadn’t smoothed my personality over. My flyaway hair, my crooked nose, my goofy smile spilled from every single picture. All of my details, my gorgeous imperfections laid bare. I looked undoubtedly, unabashedly like me. Like no one else. I looked striking. I looked interesting. And I looked so, so beautiful.

F1

When Everything Is Broken

Everything has gotten a little bit out of hand, hasn’t it? The EU is broken. America is broken. The economy is broken. The Labour party is broken. The Conservatives are miraculously unbroken, which means that everything else in the UK is likely to be broken very soon. It feels like the past month has been a constant cycle of bad news layered on bad news layered on bad news and it’s hard not to feel as though everything is spinning out of control.

13606632_10154447727817868_6657381695665825400_n

I don’t know how to fix this level of broken. I really don’t. I don’t know how we get back from this, although I’m sure we will, somehow. I don’t think I’m alone in feeling helpless or powerless, and for the most part, I express this by turning into a giant howling ragemonster. But that’s not totally sustainable. And I’m gonna be honest with you guys, I’m tired. I am rage overtired and it’s making me want to melt into a little despondent puddle on my living room floor. Here’s what I’m doing to stop that:

I’m Surrounding Myself With My People

My Twitter is something of an echo chamber, filled with people who broadly share a lot of my beliefs and values. There are good and bad things about this, but right now, it’s exactly what I need. When it feels like the world might be populated exclusively by terrified, hateful people, it’s quite wonderful to be reminded that there are kind, soft, brave, generous people out there too. My entire Twitter community has banded together, some organising action and protest, some sharing sweet, fluffy news stories among all the chaos, some just offering a much needed hand squeeze. I purposefully surround myself with people who inspire me and god knows, I need a bit of inspiration right now.

I’m Doing What I Can

When you’re fighting a mess as big as this one, it’s easy to feel so paralyzed by the enormity of it that you end up doing nothing at all. When the entire world seems to be crumbling around you, where on earth are you supposed to start?

I’d say, start anywhere.

When the Conservatives won the general election last year, I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t let their brutality turn me cold or cynical. I promised that I would respond to their cruelty with kindness. I’m trying to do the same thing now. I give a tiny amount each month to the Trussell Trust and Centrepoint. I buy the Big Issue whenever I have enough change in my purse. Last week, I took a huge suitcase of supplies to the amazing Sisters Uncut, who are occupying an empty council house in Hackney and running free breakfast clubs for local kids.

IMG_3426

Realistically, not one of these things is going to fix all the things that have been broken. Realistically, I probably haven’t made any difference to the big picture. But maybe, somewhere in the UK, someone is eating a hot meal or sleeping in a warm bed or a child is going to school with a full tummy because of me. And that’s no small thing. Among all the headlines and the statistics and the political turmoil, people are hurting. Change can be slow and while we fight for it, people are hurting. There is nothing insignificant about reaching out a hand to someone who needs it, if you can. I can’t fix this mess. I’m not powerful enough or brave enough or clever enough. But I’m lucky enough to have things to share. So what I can do is be kind. And I intend to keep doing that for as long as I possibly can, hoping that some day, all of our tiny baby steps might add up to something bigger. How do you eat an elephant? One damn forkful at a time. Maybe we can eat the Tories the same way.

I’m Giving Myself a Break

More than once in the last month, I have felt like I was drowning. More than once in the last month, I have lain face down on my living room floor because I didn’t know how else to express the hopelessness I was feeling. It is so, so important that we are all fighting the good fight right now, but my darlings, you are of no use to anyone if you’re completely burnt out. I am giving you permission, right now, no matter how grim things get, to switch off. To turn off the news and binge watch a series of Pretty Little Liars. To do a happy dance in the street because you caught a Pikachu in the local park. To go see Ghostbusters and furiously tweet about how much you fancy Kate McKinnon. Just because there are bigger, more important things to worry about does not mean that you don’t get to be happy. Not allowing yourself to be consumed by all this badness doesn’t make you selfish or ignorant. It looks like we might be fighting this fight for a very long time to come, so we need you strong, my love. Take care of yourself. Feed your soul as well as your anger. Keep that little light inside you burning, whatever it takes. Take my hand, and we’ll fight together.