You must believe me when I say I’m trying to lean into the autumn glee. I’m trying my hardest to marvel at the conkers and sigh at the sweaters, I promise. Clicking into the wholesome memes, Meryl Streep in a coat, George Costanza shifting into soup mode, I’m doing it, I’m doing my best, but truly my heart just isn’t in it. This year everything feels colder, somehow.
One of the targeted ads that I see online, slipping in between the aesthetic diet of seasonal coffees and cats in bed, is a competition to win a house. A whole house. There’s a picture of it, too, a gleaming new-build in a very green field, and every time it scrolls past I have a brief daydream about winning the raffle and moving in, and then it inevitably collapsing under the weight of my first footstep , or disappearing like smoke. I suppose it was this house, this idea that instead of a meet-and-greet with Britney Spears or ride in a helicopter, the fantasy prize in 2022 is a home, something equally far off and unlikely, that meant I wasn’t shocked when last month This Morning‘s “Spin to Win” wheel gave viewers the chance to pay off four months of energy bills.
Poverty has become entertainment. As proved by new reality series Make Me Prime Minister – “The Apprentice for aspiring politicians” – and the rise of “frugal-living” influencers whose popularity lies in their advice on how to cook a hearty dinner for under £1 or make your own luxury body scrub with old granulated coffee. It’s all for fun, a bit of a giggle. You have to laugh, don’t you, otherwise the tears would freeze on your cheeks.
Sometimes desperation is cushioned in a video game. In America, with its dysfunctional health system built on greed and sorrow, it’s become common for people to raise money for life-saving surgeries by crowdsourcing it from strangers online; a third of all cash raised on GoFundMe is for medical campaigns. Until recently, Britain has been spared that sour indignity. A GoFundMe spokesperson told The Face that over the past year they’ve seen a 300% increase in fundraisers related to energy bills in the UK.
“Meanwhile, a JustGiving spokesperson said that 4,000 fundraisers have been launched since January 2022 to help struggling households, a 20% rise.” Sometimes they work: Alistair from London raised £ 140 so his dad could put the heating on. Sometimes they don’t: Kelly from Gosport, a mother of four, only raised a quarter of the £2,000 she needed to pay off debts and council tax. But whether the money comes or not, this is a game that nobody wins; a million more people face poverty this winter. A fraction of them might have the time, internet connection and guts to expose themselves like this online (fewer maybe, when they realise talking about money involves slipping through decades of shame and awkwardness), but even if they raise the cash, next month the bills come again, and then again.
Like Edwina Currie’s energy-saving tips, or TikTok’s affordable beauty hacks, these fundraisers scratch the surface with a short, blunt nail. Nobody wants to beg for help; they want institutional support and radical policy changes – and the security of knowing their kids will eat tomorrow.
I fully intended to write a cheery column about autumn. The nights drawing in, the smell of woodsmoke, tea, all that. But certain details from certain news stories have a way of burrowing into my best intentions, like the school kid in London “pretending to eat out of an empty lunchbox” because they didn’t want their friends to know there was no food at home, or the others who were so hungry they ate rubbers. It’s becoming clear that one of the side-effects of the “cost of living” crisis is loneliness – people are forced to stay home, with “one-third of Britons” turning down wedding invitations because they couldn’t afford to go. Which is not to say they’re able to invite people round for dinner: a fifth of people say they can no longer afford to turn on the oven. The introduction of “warm banks” highlights how cold it is getting everywhere else.
All this, a bleak sort of tinnitus that rings through every conversation, makes it somewhat trickier I find to chirrup about “pumpkin spice season”, or the joy of slippers, or crumpets, buttered.
Every move towards comfort is hampered by discomfort, whether financial or political or weighted by guilt. Typically, a basic white woman like me should be striding through autumn leaves right now, wrapped in an obscenely large cashmere scarf, glowing from the inside like a three-bar fire. Delicate hands wrapped around a takeaway coffee cup, she’s talking about “that back-to-school feeling” and planning which boyfriend to fall in love with for winter. But instead, here I am in two cardigans, typing, foiled by death and politics. The pursuit of cosiness, a key part of my personality, has been disrupted. It is very hard to butter dread.
Email Eva at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @EvaWiseman