There are few sentences that can strike fear into the heart like “I’m not sure if you just said this because you were drunk, but…”
Reader, I enjoy a bit of a tipple. And sometimes, when I have been tippling a little too hard, I do and say things. From eating McNuggets out of my coat pocket on the 73 bus to inexplicably treating a group of my friends to a full rendition of Sweet Transvestite from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, it’s fair to say that I have experienced my share of post-night-out blushes.
Meaning that when my friend uttered the above, I was ever so slightly apprehensive. I braced myself.
“I don’t know if you just said this because you were drunk, but do you remember us deciding to join the office choir after Christmas?”
I did not remember. And I had absolutely, 100% just said it because I was drunk. I burst out laughing, took another sip of my wine.
“Let’s do it.”
Which is how I found myself spending my Tuesday lunchtimes crammed into the hottest room in the world with forty assorted colleagues, trying to read the words to an 80s ballad off a fuzzy projector. And friends, it is an absolute joy.
One of the greatest things I’ve found about being a grown up is that the concept of “cool” starts to lose its grip. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been cool. But when I was younger, the idea still seemed important. As a teen, I didn’t much care about fitting in with the popular crowd, but my purple eyeliner, green converse, one-of-the-lads schtick was just another version of “cool”.
When I started blogging in my early twenties, I was floored every time I realised that while people love quirky, weird little you on the internet, they don’t expect you to actually be like that in real life. I’d go along to events, sure that being cool didn’t matter anymore, only to be devastated when I was met by a wall of glossy-ponytailed sneers.
Jesus. Cold sweats. Anyway, where were we?
Oh yes, choirs. And coolness.
Being in a choir is not cool. It is just not cool. Bless Pitch Perfect and their little acappella hearts for trying but it is not cool. Because at the heart of the thing, almost every variation of cool is about not giving a shit. And being in a choir is inherently, unavoidably earnest. There is no way to appear nonchalant or aloof while singing “Only You”. It is a space entirely free of irony.
At first, this is debilitating. As soon as you enter that room, there is no way to pretend that you’re not keen. The terror that someone will notice that you’re in a choir because you want to be in a choir and not because you just, like, happened to be in this room, so whatever, is overwhelming.
Then an amazing thing happens. Once you realise that there is no point even attempting to appear cool, you’re free to completely lean in the other direction. The pressure goes.
You start to spontaneously click your fingers. Maybe you throw in a little shimmy every now and then. You high five people. You admit that “Only You” is an absolute stone cold banger. This is the least cool thing you’ve ever done, and it delights you. The whole idea of “cool” starts to loosen and rinse away.
We make happiness very complicated sometimes. In our hobbies, in our work, in food, in sex, in exercise, in our choice of books and clothes and words, we carry this bizarre idea that doing something just for the sheer, unadulterated joy of it is frivolous, undignified, maybe even a little embarrassing. We’re frozen with the worry of what other people will think of us. And there’s something blissfully freeing in knowing that people already think you’re ridiculous, so you’ve got nothing to lose by screaming the high notes of “Walking on Sunshine”.
That’s right. I decided I was learning to drive. My youngest cousins were now zipping around the road with gay abandon, while the thought of so much as sitting in the driver’s seat of a car still filled me with unmitigated dread. It was time. My other half and I made a deal: by the end of the year, both of us would have learned to drive. All well and good. Until the traitor actually booked some lessons.
I was furious. And then terrified. And then furious again. One of the many excellent things about my other half is that he is constantly challenging me, pushing me, believing in me so ferociously that it forces me to back myself. He is my biggest cheerleader, refusing to let me away with ducking out on myself, especially if he suspects I’m doing it because I’m scared. He is the best and I hate him. I passed my test on December 18th, with a whole 13 days to spare.
So, what did the experience teach me? Well, it taught me how to drive a car. I am now judged to be safe on the road. Most excellent, and god help us all. But it turns out I picked up a few other things along the way.
I am bad at being bad at things
Oh, friends, this is one of my least affable qualities. I know it will come as a shock to all of you that I too am a mere human with flaws and hangups, despite the unflappable paragon of grace and elegance I’m sure you see on this blog. But dear god, I am so lucky I was smart at school.
I talked about this a little when I took up yoga a few years back. I absolutely cannot cope with not being immediately good at things. I don’t know how. If I can’t do the thing straight away and if I am not instantly better than everyone else at the thing, I tend to flounce off, insisting that the thing is boring and that I never even wanted to do it anyway. I know, I know. This is categorically Not Great. I’m working on it.
It is impossible to be immediately good at driving. Yes, some people might be quick learners, or have brilliant reflexes, or amazing spatial awareness. But no one gets into a car for the first time and knows how to drive. I found this endlessly hard and frustrating to begin with. I’d trundle along, sweating buckets and internally screaming at my instructor to please, please, for the love of god, please just tell me that no one has ever driven so beautifully at seven miles per hour.
During one particularly massive huff, one of my pals gently suggested that not immediately being good at driving was why I was paying someone vast sums of money to teach me. This gave me some very sound logic with which to battle my ridiculous ego.
Don’t get me wrong, the ego was still there, but with great effort and practice, I forced it to just sit there and deal. It became apparent very quickly that being defensive and impatient was not going to get me anywhere, figuratively or literally. I forced myself to admit when I wasn’t sure, to ask for specific practice on things I knew I wasn’t good at, to appreciate the process of learning and improving. I’d love to tell you that this was a huge awakening for me and that I’m now throwing myself into new learning experiences but alas, I am still the worst. But we survived. Sometimes, your ego gets bruised and that is a thing you just have to deal with. You will survive. Which brings me rather neatly to…
You can live through a bit of discomfort
I’m a bit of an overthinker. I can go from zero to existential crisis in seconds. I once ruined my own Christmas holidays by wholly convincing myself that I had left the oven on and my flat was going to burn down and kill a bunch of innocent children, probably on Christmas Eve. I hadn’t, of course. It was totally fine. One of my gravest regrets in life is teaching my other half the word “catastrophise” and therefore giving him the vocabulary to call me on my shit.
Anyway. This overthinking tendency combined with the aforementioned ego means that when I am not good at something, it inevitably gets blown way out of proportion. I work myself into complete, overwhelming panic. And when that happens? I flake.
I thought about cancelling every single driving lesson I took. As I improved, I started to enjoy the actual time in the car but the hour before never got any easier. Somewhere between the evening before and the hour before, the dread would set in. I’d notice that my jaw was clenched, that I felt sick, that I was lightheaded. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was worrying me but the feeling was clear: I was terrified. Literally every time, I’d pick up my phone to call in sick. One text message, and I could make the fear go away for a while. I didn’t cancel a single lesson.
Partly, this is down to the nature of driving lessons. I was working to a deadline, somewhere in my future, the magic number of lessons when I would be ready. Cancelling would have meant adding two hours onto that total, somewhere down the line. It wasn’t really getting rid of the fear, it was just kicking the can down the road.
So I learned to sit with my fear. To accept that it was there and do the thing anyway. Even when my legs felt like wooden blocks and my teeth were literally chattering with terror, I forced myself down the stairs and into that driver’s seat. I’d talk to myself gently, like you would to a very little kid, telling myself it’s going to be okay, it’s going to be over soon. I learned that running away isn’t the only option when you’re terrified. You can accept that something is going to be hard and uncomfortable, but that it won’t last forever. You can go through it and be absolutely fine. No matter what that fear tells you, you can learn to drive in Tottenham and live to tell the tale.
The right teacher is everything
I think we have established that I can be a delicate little flower when the mood takes me. The upside is, I know where my weaknesses are and I’m pretty good at insulating against them where I can. So the first thing I said to my instructor was, “Just a heads up, if you shout at me, I’ll cry. Sorry, I don’t mean to, it’s just an embarrassing reflex.”
He laughed and recounted the time one of his pupils got so terrified, they decided to shut their eyes on the road. He took the wheel, told them to take a deep breath and open their eyes again when they felt ready. I knew I’d picked the right guy.
He gently coaxed me down residential streets at seven miles an hour, made me stick my tongue out when he noticed I had stopped breathing and when I blithely followed a double decker bus straight into a bus stop, interestedly inquired, “So, what we doing here then?”
When I informed him that we now lived in the bus stop, he laughed uproariously, made me stick my tongue out and softly coached me back out onto the road.
Driving is hard. Getting on the North Circular roundabout is hard. Learning to do anything new is hard. There’s no sense in making it harder with the wrong teacher.
I’m taking my first road trip at the end of this month.
I learned to drive with Chris at BSM. This is not a sponsored post or a collaboration, I just had a really great experience with them and would wholeheartedly recommend for anyone learning to drive in North London.
Hello, my darlings. Long time no see. Have you done something different with your hair? It’s really working for you.
Well here we are. 2019. The glitter of New Year’s Eve is behind us and hopefully the hangovers are too. We’re trying to readjust to eating three meals a day, instead of three cheeseboards and a Baileys before noon. We’ve all been reminded of the horrifying truth that keeping a roof over our heads requires us to get up in the middle of the night, wrestle our way onto public transport and deal with the mountain of things that have been piling up since November, when we started to say “Oh, probably not worth starting this until the new year, really”.
MANY FREAKING THANKS FOR THAT ONE, PAST FIONA. Jerk.
We’ve got a brand new year stretching out in front of us and boy, are we ready. We’ve got everything we need: the enticingly blank planner, the sexy new workout gear, the to-be-read list, the vegan cookbook, the enthusiastic list of resolutions. January is a brilliant time for a complete reinvention, apart from that it’s January. It gets dark at 3pm. We’re all still 40% chipolatas and 50% trifle. We have literally no idea what our work email password is. And now, as the glamour of New Year’s Eve fades into last week and the new year descends fully upon us, we are possessed with one single, unifying thought.
So, in the face of all this adversity, what’s a girl to do? Here’s what I think: instead of putting your existing self in the bin, put the idea that you have to reinvent yourself in there instead. That’s not to say I don’t love a resolution, I do! In fact, I’ve written extensively about my love of the promise that a new year brings. But when we’re making our resolutions, I like to focus on the parts of myself that we want to make bigger, not smaller. We should be looking at the new year, not as an opportunity to chop ourselves back, but as an opportunity to grow. To bloom.
Come with me, lovely readers, as I kick the absolute arse out of this metaphor and tell you all about how I plan to fill the garden of Fiona with endless flowers in 2019.
Does that sound like an innuendo? Whatever, we’re going with it.
Hold your horses, before we get excited about floral borders and blossom trees draped in fairy lights, we have to do some ground work. We need to do some personal weeding.
Goddammit, why does everything sound like a euphemism? I’m trying to be profound.
Weeding falls very much into traditional new year’s resolution territory. These are the bad habits, the timewasters, the energy drains that take root and grow out of control. These are the things you want to cut down.
But Fiona, didn’t you just say we weren’t focusing on chopping back? Quite right, dear reader, I did. But we weed because we love our garden, not because we hate it. We weed to make space for the things that make us happy.
Some weeds take up lots of space but are easy enough to dislodge. Spending five hours a day scrolling social media at the expense of things you actually want/need to do, for example. Buying a tray of shots, even though you’re already living in your overdraft. Others take root deeper and are harder to pull up. An alcohol problem. A relationship that makes you feel small. A job that you hate. These are weeds that burrow and spread their roots through your whole life, choking out everything else, starving and wilting everything around you. When we pull them out, we’re probably going to drag up a lot of other stuff too. The garden might look worse than when you started. But weeding out these consuming, destructive parts of your life gives you the space to flourish. And my love, you deserve to flourish. Take your time. Go gently. But go.
Weeding isn’t a reinvention, it’s a tidy up. When weeds grow in a garden, we recognise that the garden still exists underneath. Even when things get really wild and overgrown, the garden is still there, just waiting to be unearthed when you’re ready. We don’t berate a garden for growing weeds, we know it’s impossible to keep a garden perfect forever. It’s a process, a project, just like we are.
All of us have bad habits, annoying tics, vices big and small. That’s okay. We don’t need to be perfect all of the time. We just need to keep gently nudging ourselves in the right direction, tugging up weeds when we can.
And when we can’t? We stick our chins in the air and say that it’s a deliberate wildflower meadow, actually.
Now that we’ve made all that lovely space, it’s time to start filling it up again. We weed, and then we plant.
Planting resolutions are both the best and the worst kind of resolutions. They are the resolutions that are most likely to change our lives, but they’re also the ones we’re most likely to give up on because sometimes, they take a long, long time to show any results at all. Some planting resolutions are like rhubarb. You half arsedly tend to them and suddenly, you have rhubarb coming out of your eyeballs. Others are like that bamboo that just chills out underground for four years and then grows 30 metres in six weeks.
God, I’m rambling, aren’t I? It’s because my brain is still mostly trifle post-Christmas.
Planting resolutions are the ones that will literally sow the seeds of your future, in big and small ways. Opening a savings account. Washing your damn face every night. Learning a language. Making a friend. Taking a class.
I like to think of these as planting resolutions, because it helps me to be patient. Anyone who knows me, or who has been reading this blog for a while, will know that patience is not one of my strong suits. I want instant results. I want immediate change. I want to be the best at the thing right now, or I’m not interested.
Thinking about these kinds of resolutions in this way helps me to relax. Just because I’m not seeing results right now doesn’t mean that I’m wasting my time. It doesn’t mean they’re not working. Sometimes, they’re just getting themselves together underground, waiting for the right conditions to blossom. When I think about them like this, it gives me faith.
Oh hell yes, now we’re getting to the good stuff. You’ve cleared your space, you’ve put in your planting work, now it’s time to harvest that good stuff.
Flourishing resolutions are the ones that allow you to exploit all that hard work you’ve put in. They’re the ones that dare you to be the best version of yourself, to go out and grab the life that you want. Pick those flowers that last year’s resolutions planted.
Did you give up smoking and put all that money into a savings account? EXCELLENT. Time to book an amazing, life altering holiday.
Did you limit your social media time and take a class in creative writing? Then it’s time to sit yourself down and write that novel you’ve always dreamed of.
Did you move away from your controlling parents and go to therapy? Then maybe you’re ready to invite some new love into your life.
New year’s resolutions tend to inspire feelings of guilt, of absolute drudgery. Too often, they’re based on the idea that whatever you were doing last year, you were doing it wrong. Whatever you were doing, you were doing it too much. Or maybe not enough. But whatever it was, it was definitely wrong. I hate this.
Thinking about resolutions like I do lets me get excited about the prospect of new year. It gives me a brilliant chance to stop for a second and see where I am and where I want to go. My new year’s resolutions give me the chance to purposefully and unabashedly bring as much joy into my life as I can.
Yank out that draining frienemy. Plant those gorgeous career window boxes. Dance under your canopy of inspirational blossom trees. Stretch a metaphor until it snaps and then stretch it some more. Structure a whole entire blog post around it and laugh because this is your life, my love, this is your garden and you can do anything you want to with it.
It’s just two weeks until this year’s Race for Life, and I’ve decided that we’re raising a thousand pounds this year. We are currently in terrible shape to hit that goal, but we’re going to do it. I can feel it in my bones. I’m sending it into the universe. Manifesting it like a boss.
This year is a big one, pals. My amazing, excellent, unstoppable mum celebrates her ten years clear this year. And that deserves £1000. It just does.
Our Race for Life journey has been a long one, spanning seven years so far, and some of you have supported us all the way. I love you, from the very bottom of my heart. But after seven years, I can imagine that you might be feeling a little…what’s the diplomatic phrase…sick of the sight of us.
So! To combat the inevitable Fiona fatigue, I thought this might be a good chance to have a chat about what the heck your money has actually been achieving over the past seven years, other than stroking my ego. And for that, I’m going to get a little help from my glamorous assistant…
Cancer is a thief. It steals our friends, our loved ones, our heroes. But it also steals time. And the money that you have donated over the past seven years is helping families steal back time every single day. Ten years clear sounds good, doesn’t it? Ten whole years pinched back after cancer tried to take them away. Here’s what that really means.
My mum got to see me turn sixteen. And then eighteen. And then twenty one. And then twenty five. And now I’m old, so who really cares what comes next. But thanks to advances in cancer treatment, she got to see me grow from a gangly, awkward teenager into a gangly awkward young woman.
She got to see Sophie turn thirteen. Isn’t that wild? She could have missed those sweet, sweet teenage nightmare years. And then sixteen. And then eighteen. And then twenty one.
And just as Sophie turned twenty one, she got to turn fifty. Chaos ensued.
She got to see me graduate. Later this year, she’ll get to see Sophie do the same thing.
She got to marry this old devil, after we’d all given up hope that he’d ever get round to asking.
She got to meet her first grandchild.
She got to see our football team lift the Scottish Cup. I think this might have been as good as the grandchild.
She got to meet the boys who’d make her girls so very, very happy.
She got to see me realise a lifelong dream and write a book. She got to see that book win a competition. She got to see me sign with a literary agent because of that book. And hopefully, someday in the not so distant future, she’ll get to see my book published.
She got ten years of Monday mornings, Friday nights, crazy parties, cups of tea, shopping trips, holidays, Facetime catch ups, bickering arguments, raucous laughter, kitchen dance offs, walking her dog, snoozing on the sofa, baking cakes, drinking in the sunshine, watching TV, clock watching in the office, sitting in traffic jams, eating in restaurants. Ten years of living her life that she almost had stolen away from her.
I cannot even begin to tell you what a gift every single day of those ten years has been. The big ones, the little ones and everything in between. Every single day has been a priceless, indescribable privilege. I race for life because I have a debt that I can never even begin to pay back. All I can do is try to pay it forward.
There are some sights that just can’t help but put springtime on your mind. Buds aching with blossom, lambs frolicking in the sunshine, Fiona in bright pink warpaint.
Well, would you look at that! That’s right folks, the other signs of springtime may be lagging behind but the Sister Act Race for Life team are right on schedule, ready to kick cancer’s ass and clog up your Facebook feeds until you give us some money.
This will be our team’s seventh Race for Life season, and it’s going to be a big one. If you’ve been here through all seven years, you might want to go stick the kettle on and catch us in a couple of paragraphs. If you’re joining us for the first time, welcome to the party! Grab a french martini and settle yourself down on the cushions with us. Come on, scootch in closer, we’re all friends here. Alright, good. As always, our story starts with this cracker:
When I was fifteen and my sister Sophie was just eleven, our mum was diagnosed with cervical cancer. This was, and remains, one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to live through. Anyone who knows Sophie or me will know that our mum is the biggest and most important person in our lives. From her top notch dancing skills to her fondness for needlessly extravagant party organisation and her ever excellent advice, the loss of our mum would have left a hole in both of us that nothing could ever fill. And the world would have been deprived of the greatest strawberry daiquiri mixologist it has ever produced.
Luckily for all of us, my mum beat cancer with great style and aplomb and now spends her time cruising around the Caribbean, applauding in the cinema at Zac Efron movies and forgetting to buy her daughters birthday cakes. Truly, she is the greatest.
And in fact (if you checked out of the story because you’ve heard it seven times and it’s boring the arse off you at this point, now is the time to check back in), even though we run the Race in her honour every year, she is one of the reasons that this year’s race will be so special.
*pause for dramatic effect*
This year, my mum will be celebrating TEN. YEARS. CLEAR. How good is that? Ten whole years. Make no mistake, this is happening because of organisations like Cancer Research and I plan to celebrate by raising a great, huge chunk of cash for them.
An artist’s impression of me arriving at Cancer Research HQ:
There is another reason that this year’s Race for Life will be a special one, and it’s a reason I wish we didn’t have.
Every year, our team has grown bigger as Sophie and I rope in more and more family members. But as I was looking back through my old Race for Life stuff, I noticed that something else gets bigger every year too.
Every year, we have more people on our back signs.
Every year, we have more people to race for, who are fighting cancer, or who cancer has taken from us. And this year, we are making an addition that has broken all of our hearts.
This year, we lost a grandparent. Liam, my stepmum’s dad, my baby sister’s popsie, passed away in October. My words aren’t enough to tell you what a loss this was for us, what warmth and joy and sweetness he brought to all of our lives.
We’ve had so many moments of joy in the seven years that the Sister Act team has existed, but cancer keeps taking people from us. We’re not going to stop until cancer does.
This week, so quietly that I didn’t notice until it was almost over, an anniversary slipped by. The 31st of January this year marks four years since I opened my computer, set up a website and started typing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here, but that wasn’t really deliberate. Over the past couple of years, I’ve seen a lot of bloggers fall out of love with blogging, become disillusioned with the whole thing, taking “digital detoxes” that stretch on and on until their sites quietly disappear. That’s not what happened with me. Maybe it’d be a better story if it had. But the truth is much less dramatic. I was focusing elsewhere, working away on other things.
I signed with a literary agent last year. I expect if you’re here, you already know that. We spent the better part of last year working together on my first book. We sliced enormous swathes from it, polished other parts until they gleamed. She showed me how to be ruthless with my edits, gently rebuking me, “Fiona, this is you trying to show how clever you are. That’s not what’s important.”
And I learned to laugh as I snipped away at the manuscript, because she was right.
She unearthed the gems of the story too, showed me how to weigh them in my fingertips, how to hold them up to the light. Four full months after we began working on the book, we were finished. It was transformed, immeasurably better than what we had started with. I had worked so hard and it had paid off. We’d spun straw into gold.
No one wanted to publish the book. That’s sort of the thing with writing, I guess. You have to start fully in the knowledge that no one might ever read it, and you have to pour your whole heart into it anyway. And that is the scariest thing. But also, eventually, it’s a comfort. Publishing is the goal, of course it is. I’d be lying to myself if I said that it wasn’t. But it’s not the purpose. Becoming a writer seems to be learning that lesson over and over, the gradual teasing apart of process and outcome until every pinprick rejection hurts a little less. That the book might never sit on a stranger’s bookshelf doesn’t make me less proud of it. It might not have hit that elusive goal, but that doesn’t make it a failure. In fact, it is my most resounding success. To work hard on something, to put a whole piece of myself into it, to produce something that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is good, that’s the success. That was the purpose.
This month, we start work on the next book. We dust off our scratched knees and we try again, because writing is in me, rooted deep within my heart. I can’t help it. I write, words upon words tumbling out of me always, even when no one else sees them.
Which brings me back, in a clumsy sort of way, to the Escapologist’s Daughter. My beloved little corner of the internet. I’d apologise for the tangent, for the tangled story, the strange way I’ve gotten us here but four years in, my darlings, I suspect you’re well used to that by now.
I’ve never fallen out of love with my little website. Four years after my first post, I’m still as fond of her as ever. And I think that’s because, just like with my books, it’s all about the process. For a while, at the very beginning, I tried to become A Blogger. I was sent makeup and moisturisers and tongue scrapers, and dutifully wrote about them. I learned about SEO. I tried every single week to force myself into a blogging schedule, to schedule my tweets on the bus to my office job. I attended blogger meetups in swanky bars and dealt with the fallout when glossy, gorgeous bloggers realised that the quirky oddball that shone through my writing was actually just who I was.
When you read those years back, you can hear my voice straining, cracking under the pressure of trying to become something. When really, me and my blog, we didn’t have to become anything. We just had to be. This website, just like my novels, just like my endless, countless pages of scribblings in notepads, it’s mine. It’s only mine. I can write about travel and mental health and Harry Potter. I can write poems about sexual assault and instructions for election day and post photographs of me wearing outrageous lipstick. I can be a thousand things, noisily celebrating my multitudes and thumbing my nose at the idea of having a niche. I can use a thousand commas per post and mix my metaphors and write sentences so twisted, so meandering and complicated that sometimes, you have to pause and think, wait, where did this thought start out? I can post on Mondays, or on Saturdays, or Wednesdays. I can post three articles in a week. I can leave it untouched for six months, knowing that when I’m ready to come back, it will be there waiting for me. I can do this because this space, this writing, it’s mine, and I built it brick by brick for me.
Despite all of this, maybe because of all this, the blog and I, we’ve grown. You are here – hello! Somehow, inexplicably, despite my ramblings and my breaks and my self indulgent sentences, you allow me and my words into your lazy Sunday evenings, your Tuesday morning commutes, your lunch break. And that, to me, is the basest form of magic.
I’ve gone on far too long, god, aren’t these things always too long? But before you go, I’d like to share one more story, one more tangent about these four years.
I turned twenty six this year, and a funny thing happened. Every single person I saw on my birthday nudged me knowingly and said with a smile “Nearly thirty now, eh?”
As you may have noticed, I don’t really buy into the idea that your life is supposed to look a certain way, or follow a certain path. But even so, it’s hard not to see thirty as a deadline. With all the will in the world, I haven’t quite succeeded in drowning out the significance of thirty as a milestone. After all, if I don’t make a thirty before thirty list, what’s the point in continuing?
I am, of course, exaggerating for dramatic effect, but there’s no denying that the idea of hitting a whole new decade, of leaving my twenties, is going to force me to stop and take a look at my life. And since turning twenty six, that milestone feels like it’s coming at me faster and faster. Four years, after all, isn’t that much time. How much can I really do in four years?
And then I look at the little blog. The little blog that started as a ramble, as a way to deal with feelings I couldn’t even acknowledge I was having. That started out with 3 pageviews a day, all of which were my dad. Four years ago, I had never been paid for a piece of writing. I had never written a formal pitch. I had never spoken in front of an audience of strangers or marched in a protest or been on TV. I had never finished a piece of writing longer than a couple of thousand words. Me and the little blog, we’ve come a very long way in just four years. And I love you for coming along with us. Who knows what the next four might have in store.
I am going to start putting my phone down at nine o’clock, because holding my Twitter feed three inches from my face while I’m allegedly trying to sleep is decidedly not awesome.
I’m going to toss that dried up, miserable packet of baby wipes that sits on my bedside table. At night I’m going to take off my makeup with creamy cleanser and a hot cloth and breathe a long sigh as I feel the day slide from my face. I’m going to floss my damn teeth.
I’m going to get into bed and light my l’Occitane candle and delight in the fact that it is my most frivolous and favourite indulgence. I’m going to ask the boy how his day was and I’m going to actually listen when he answers. I’m going to read and write and stretch, even if it’s only wiggling my fingers.
I’m going to dust my bedside tables and deal with the piles of things that mysteriously accrue around me. I’m going to do my dishes and buy fresh flowers, because I deserve to live somewhere beautiful.
I’m going to stop pouring £20 a week into mediocre supermarket sandwiches and revive my budget spreadsheet, because clawing my way to the end of the month like Leonardo DiCaprio in the freaking Revenant just isn’t cute any more.
I’ve written a little before about the fear of taking myself seriously. Isn’t it scary, to admit that we want things, or worse, that we think we deserve things? It’s so much easier to be the quirky, ditzy, ever-so-relatable girl, than to try and become a woman to be reckoned with.
I’ve always been a bit of a calamity. Recently, I was listening to a serial killer podcast on a bus, when a woman’s elbow became entangled in my hood, yanking my coat back into my throat. I naturally assumed that Ted Bundy had risen from the grave to murder me on a central London bus. Upon sharing this story with my friend, she laughed and shook her head.
“Why does this stuff alwayshappen to you, Fiona?” she asked.
Reader, I don’t know why this stuff always happens to me. But it does. I am unlucky in deeply unlikely but often hilarious ways. I’m the clumsiest person that I know. I snort when I laugh and have absolutely zero control over my limbs or my hair. I’m a relentless overenthusiast. I’m never going to be described as stoic or graceful or even particularly composed. None of that gives me an excuse for being a perpetual teenager. Just because I’m not serious, doesn’t mean I’m not serious, y’know?
But being serious sounds like the worst, doesn’t it? Serious women are unlikable. They’re high maintenance. They’re uptight. So we go the other way, leaning gleefully into the “hot mess” archetype that has sprung up around us. We brag on Twitter about having 17p in our bank accounts, or eating pizza for breakfast four days in a row, or showing up to work hungover for the third time this month. We watch films and TV shows where women buy clothes instead of paying their rent and show up late for everything and don’t know how to turn their ovens on. I think sometimes we make bad decisions and justify them to ourselves in the name of “self care”. And while I’m a big fan of taking joy wherever you can, this kind of stuff isn’t working for me any more. At the age of twenty six, it just isn’t cute anymore. Sometimes self care means getting off your ass and getting your shit together.
I have no intention of becoming high maintenance or uptight. I have no intention of aiming for perfection because…well, where’s the fun in that? But I also can’t justify treating myself like garbage and then expecting other people to take me seriously. So I’m getting out of my own way. I’m taking a little responsibility for my life. I’m daring to see myself as a woman who deserves better than the bare minimum. I’m going to make a real effort to live with purpose, with determination and with as much grace as a calamity like me can reasonably aim for.
Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana, is one of those places that feels as though it’s been lifted straight from the pages of an old picture book and dropped accidentally into our world. Bric a brac houses scatter up impossibly green hills, little splotches of burnt orange, sunflower yellow, periwinkle blue. Ornate bridges and cobbled streets wind around the river that cuts through the centre of the city. The boats that meander up and down often carry musicians, so soft music mingles in the air with the smells of water and cooking and hot stone. The castle perches on its hill, watching over Ljubljana, its towers visible from almost anywhere in the city.
This isn’t a city that lends itself to a rushed, metropolitan city break. The pace of life here is slower. Tourists and locals alike drift gently through the pedestrianised old town, drinking in the beauty of their surroundings. At night, the restaurants along the river throw open their doors and light their candles and the people spill out onto the riverbanks, eating and drinking and dancing and laughing. It’s impossible not to be charmed.
On our first day in Ljubljana, Niall and I plan to do a walking tour of the city. Unfortunately, we settle a little too comfortably into the laid back lifestyle and end up snoozing and eating pastries in our apartment until 11am, missing the start time for the tour. C’est la vie. Luckily for us, Ljubljana old town is tiny, easily walkable from one end to the other in no time at all. We wander up and down the river, snapping photographs of the beautiful buildings and bridges, occasionally stopping to point and say “I wonder what that is. Dunno. Lovely though.”
Reader, we probably should have gone on the walking tour. But reader, we have such a wonderful morning that I don’t really have any regrets. If you’re there for the history, absolutely get yourself on a tour. If you’re just there for the pretty things, you’ll be fine just wandering.
If you’re planning to visit Ljubljana between March and October, make sure you’re there for at least one Friday. On Fridays, one of Ljubljana’s biggest squares is home to a street food market like no other. The Open Kitchen gives Ljubljana’s best chefs a chance to show off their wares at a fraction of the price you’d pay in their restaurants. Striped green and white tents fill the square selling gourmet pad thai, vegan cakes, enormous burritos, local gin, barrels of mussels, Slovenian sparkling wine. The white wooden tables fill quickly, so we perch on the steps of the square and watch the world go by. We originally wander in for lunch and end up being so bowled over by the food that we come back for dinner. Steaming spoonfuls of spicy chicken served in crisp, warm roti wraps and plates of soft, pink filet mignon piled on herb crusted potatoes…this is no ordinary street food.
Niall genuinely looks a little frightened as I unhinge my jaw like a boa constrictor and shove this entire plate of steak into it.
After lunch, we head for Ljubljana’s castle. You can walk up to the castle but I am spectacularly full and Niall politely declines my request that he roll me up the hill, so we take the funicular railway. The railway has us at the foot of the castle in a few minutes and also gives me the opportunity to make “putting the fun in funicular” jokes several more times than is really necessary. At least I make myself laugh, and I think we can all agree that’s the important thing.
The castle is an amazing building, a bizarre warren of wooden beams and formidable flagstones spiralling upwards to a gorgeous courtyard. If your other half is, for example, a geeky structural engineer, they’re sure to enjoy the step by step explanations of how the castle was restored. But don’t worry, the castle also houses plenty for us normal folks too. While we are there, we explore a National Geographic photo exhibition, a tiny little chapel, a free outdoor library and of course, spectacular views of Ljubljana.
There is also a museum of puppetry squirrelled away somewhere so if you’re into being terrified, go wild!
On our second day, we head out from Ljubljana to the very place that had caused me to book the trip in the first place: Lake Bled. Pals, I booked a holiday based on someone else’s Instagram post and I have absolutely zero regrets about it. Bled is about an hour outside Ljubljana and the bus runs straight from Ljubljana bus station every hour for about €7. If you’re planning to go on the weekend, book the bus in advance. I did not know this was a thing you had to do and end up only getting on a bus because I look so crestfallen that the nice lady calls us over when she got a cancellation and sells us two tickets on the spot. Great success. Lake Bled is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been in real life. Maybe with the exception of seeing the Northern Lights, I can’t remember many other things that have taken my breath away like this does. I literally scream on a bus when we round the corner. Never go on holiday with me, I am an embarrassment.
I feel like the rest of this post should just be photographs but this is the kind of scenery every writer dreams of describing, so I’m going to give it a go. The lake pools in front of us, glassy and impossibly, impossibly blue. If you lean over the edge, the water is clear enough that you can see all the way to the bottom. People swim alongside tiny fish and haughty swans and I am furious that I haven’t brought my bathing costume. The snowcapped peaks of the Alps stretch out in the distance, giving way to emerald hills. Bled Castle clings to the rocky cliff face on one side of the lake, on the other side, is a tiny island, housing only a church. To say that this place is like a fairytale is hackneyed. It doesn’t do it justice. And also, since In Bruges, I can’t hear that phrase without hearing it in Brendan Gleeson’s accent. But really. It is.
We take a rocky wooden pletna boat out to the island and climb the 99 steps to the church. I inform Niall that traditionally, men are supposed to carry their wives up the steps as a sign of strength and devotion. Niall tells me to piss off. I make him take a romantic selfie. He is furious.
The church houses a Wishing Bell, which you are supposed to ring three times. If you truly believe in God, your wish will be granted. As I’m not sure me and God are entirely sympatico, we settle for tossing a lucky penny into the lake and directing our wishes to the goddess of love whose temple stood on the island before the church.
You can walk all the way around the lake and also up to the castle. But we only have a few hours in Bled and I have other things on my mind. If I haven’t yet convinced you that Bled is where your soul belongs, brace yourselves. You see, Bled is home to a proud culinary speciality. One which has become so iconic that it has actually become a symbol of Bled. And that speciality is a cream cake.
Find you a person who looks at you the way I look at cream cakes. We head to Hotel Park, the original home of the cream cake and sit on their terrace overlooking the lake. The cake is a little like a vanilla slice, but twice the size and with double the cream. It is gorgeous. Go to Bled and get one immediately. Waiters fire out cream cakes at a frequency I’ve never seen: it genuinely seems like everyone on this terrace has come for the cake.
This is another excellent thing I discover about Slovenia: going for cake is a thing. It is a completely normal, acceptable thing to go into a restaurant or a cafe and only order dessert. This is Lolita’s bakery in Ljubljana. We nip under one of their umbrellas to shelter from a sudden rainstorm and end up ordering rather a lot of cake. I eat multiple different cakes each day. Sometimes, waiters suggest specific wines or liqueurs to match the cake you have ordered. I genuinely think this may be the secret to happiness.
Cake and liqueurs at Vander Restaurant.
Slovenia is a beautiful, surprising little country and one I’d definitely like to see more of. Book yourself a flight, and make sure to pack a couple of princess dresses.
Election day is drawing nigh and campaigning is reaching fever pitch. You forget what it was like to have normal post. All of your TV shows have been replaced with party political broadcasts. You pick up a piece of fruit and it starts talking to you about dementia tax. That’s what it can feel like anyway.
This Thursday, the nation will take to the polling station to choose what kind of a country we want to be for the next five years. The opinion polls are doing their best but there’s one unknowable factor that will genuinely determine the election’s outcome: who turns up to vote on the day.
Hopefully, lots of people have become engaged in the last few months. Say what you like about our times, they’re certainly not politically boring. If you’re new to voting or are considering voting for the first time in a long time, this post is for you! I’m not going to tell you who to vote for, that’s entirely your call. What I am going to do is run you through exactly what happens on polling day, telling you where to go, what you need to do and hopefully showing you how quick and easy it is to make your voice heard. After all…
Before election day…
In the run up to election day, there are a few things you need to do.
Most importantly, decide who to vote for!
All party manifestos are available online, but if you’re not particularly enthused by any of the parties, a non-partisan website like Who Should You Vote For will ask you to rate some of the main policy ideas of the three major parties and tell you who will best represent your interests.
If, on the other hand, the only thing you want from this election is to see the back of the Conservative government, this website will tell you how to use your vote to the best tactical advantage.
Check where your polling station is!
Your polling station will be a public building, for example a community hall or a school, in your area. Shortly before election day, you should receive a polling card through the post, telling you where your polling station is. If you do not get a polling card through the post, don’t panic! You can vote without one. If you don’t get a polling card and you’re not sure where your polling station is, get in touch with your local elections office. They will be able to point you in the right direction. Contact details for local election offices can be found here. You must vote at the correct polling station, so if you’re not sure, it’s worth checking!
On election day…
So, the day has finally arrived and we’re all ready to exercise some democratic rights. Hooray! Now what?
When to vote
On election day, your polling station will be open from 7am until 10pm. You can show up at any point during this time but bear in mind that the early evening is likely to be busiest. You do not need to book a slot, just go along whenever you are ready. If there’s a queue, rejoice that so many people are taking part in our democratic process and stay there. This shit is important, you guys. As long as you are in a queue by 10pm, you will be allowed to cast your vote.
What to take (and what not to!)
If you have it, take your polling card with you. If you don’t, or you forget it, don’t worry! You don’t need it to vote. It is just a handy tool that can help the polling station staff find you on their register quickly.
You do not need ID to vote. There have been hints that this might change in the future but for the moment, you can leave that passport at home.
Another thing to leave at home? Your “I Heart Corbyn” t-shirt. Political clothing or paraphernalia is not permitted inside a polling station, as this could be intimidating to other voters.
You do not need to bring a pen with you. Pencils will be provided in each polling booth.
What happens inside a polling station
When you enter the polling station, there will be a registration desk in front of you. If you have your polling card, hand it to the polling station staff. If not, they will ask you for your full name and address. They will mark you off on their register and give you your ballot paper.
If there are other people waiting, you are welcome to talk to them about the weather, their lipstick, the Great British Bake Off…anything except the election. No election chat is permitted once you are inside your polling station.
There will be a number of private polling booths set up. Take your ballot paper to one of these booths before making your choice. The ballot paper will show all of the available candidates for your constituency. The name of the party leader will not be on your ballot paper. Your ballot paper will show the name of your local candidate, and which party they represent. If you’re voting for Corbyn, select the Labour candidate. If May is your dream Prime Minister, you’re looking for the Conservative candidate. You get the idea.
Put one cross in the box opposite the name of your chosen candidate. For general elections, we use a first past the post system, which means you only make one choice. Do not make any mark on your ballot paper other than your cross, as it might render your vote invalid.
Once you’ve put a cross in your candidate’s box, fold your ballot paper in half and put it into the ballot box. The box should be clearly marked but if you are not sure, your polling station staff should be able to help you.
Once your ballot is safely in the box, you’re done! Go buy yourself a pint and congratulate yourself on participating in our democratic process. If you fancy taking a selfie, this is the moment. Photography inside polling stations is frowned upon, as you may accidentally reveal your ballot paper or someone else’s. Once you’re outside, however, go wild! I love an election day selfie.
The result of this election absolutely hinges on who turns up on the day. Historically, the most privileged among us are the ones who turn out to vote. If you feel like politicians don’t represent you, this is the moment that you can take back the power. Make them sit up and listen. Use your voice. Use your vote.
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?