Shake Your Woolly Pom-poms: Winter’s Coming

As Noddy Holder once nearly said, ‘Its WIINNTTEERRR.’ I am, according to one friend, ‘a bit weird about winter.’ But although  I might be in a minority when it comes to the cold, as a nation, we can get quite emotional about the changing seasons. One in fifteen of us are affected by Seasonal Affected Depression, and the excitement that consumes us (and can grind us to a halt) during a surprise heatwave or snowstorm, although often mocked, is genuine nonetheless. We are obsessed with weather and the rituals that comes with the changing of the seasons, such as my family’s refusal to eat porridge before September 1st. My family in particular has quite visceral reactions to the shift in seasons. There are already complaints about the chilly mornings, the early nights and the mounds of leaves along the pavement – I truly believe that my mum in particular is only in England as a result of some terrible mix-up. Somewhere in Southern France, there is a sunburnt woman who dreams of the persistent drizzle of Manchester and a good stew.

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Frosty uni, toasty Lauren

Since the age of four, most of us have had our annual schedule set by school holidays, so it’s not surprising that as summer approaches, many of us are taken over by a child-like joy. We stroll around, happy in the knowledge that there is no maths homework looming, no presentations to prepare for. Instead we can wander aimlessly, spending our pocket money in Claire’s and slurping ice cream. Of course, the reality for anyone who has long since left education behind is that everything is exactly the same as it was two months ago, except that day drinking is now acceptable and it becomes clear that no jacket is the right weight for a British summer. But whilst we greet summer with open arms, winter is regarded with distinct distain. My mum has been campaigning for a christmas in the sun for years, and she’s not the only one who awaits the long nights and frosty mornings with a sense of impending doom.

I think its time, then, that somebody stood up for winter. The accepted rhetoric that November to February is a barren wasteland of drizzle and cynical christmas marketing means that you do have to search a little deeper for the joy of a cold day, but it is there. I find winter simply delicious. To be able to step outside onto a crunchy carpet of frost and see trails of mist rising off a river whilst wrapped up in an oversized jumper, or to cradle a hot cup of coffee and feel the warmth emanate through you; summer might be one long lazy dream, but winter is full of gorgeous snapshots like these. There is no better feeling than entering a warm building when your fingertips and nose are tickled pink by the cold, unless it is being curled up in front of Harry Potter with a toppling pile of lasagne perched on your knee.

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Winter bonus

Winter smells of gingerbread, pine trees and a the embers of a dying pub fire. Any and all clothing is allowed to be glittery, fluffy and knitted. The build up to Christmas is truly joyous – I dare anyone not to delight in a town sparkling with lights or the sincerity with which Father Christmas letters are written. And it’s not just the festive cheer that I adore. Winter brings people together. They check on their elderly neighbours, bake for the halloween/bonfire/christmas themed cake sale, meet up with far-flung family and friends. Like penguins in the Arctic, winter makes us huddle, sharing our warmth and protecting the vulnerable. Summer is fun, but winter is glorious, and it’s about time we donned a woolly jumper, grabbed a hot chocolate and embraced our inner penguin.

Puppy lovin’

I recently carried out a very brief experiment to see how many times in a day I could give my money or time a cause. On my walk to university, I passed four charity shops, all of which permanently need money and volunteers; I received an average of two emails a day asking me to donate or sign a petition; Facebook and Twitter were full of individuals doing incredible fundraising events with links to a JustGiving page. I have been one of those trying desperately to find the happy medium of raising as much money as possible while not annoying those around me – it is an infuriating and rewarding process that was almost as tricky as the marathon itself (#humblebrag).

With so many opportunities to give to good causes, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. As a nation, we are pretty good at giving money to charity, but less generous with our time. According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), the amount of money donated in 2017 increased, but the number of people giving has fallen, and generally less than 20% of us have volunteered at some point in the last 12 months. In our online world, it is easy to donate online or sign a quick petition. This online activism, or clicktivism, is often scoffed at but it is a crucial part of modern activism – Gina Martin’s upskirting campaign is a brilliant demonstration of how effective it can be. But there is still a need for good, old-fashioned volunteering. A donation cannot lobby MPs. A petition cannot run a shop. A hashtag cannot train as a coastguard.

Apart from a brief stint at the National Trust to get my Bronze DofE – which I am still yet to complete – I am as idle as the next woman when it comes to volunteering. But five months ago, a tiny bundle arrived in my life which convinced me that I can no longer get away with signing the occasional petition. After a bout of Multiple Sclerosis that led to substantial sight loss, my mum has always been interested in training guide dogs. This April that abstract interest materialised into a very real black and gold ball of fluff called Zoe, who collects dirty socks, can never refuse a puddle and patiently waits at the top of stairs. She bops smaller dogs on the nose, inhales her food and is learning to guide someone along a street. My mum walks her every day in her very important blue coat and we all take great delight in explaining that she is a guide dog puppy, and can therefore go wherever she damn well pleases.

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Zoe at eight weeks

For a whole year, the Woodhead world will be controlled by the demands of a creature who barks at her own reflection, before she hopefully goes to continue her training at Guide Dog school. Of course we will miss her more than I ever thought possible. Of course there is a chance that she won’t make it – guide dogs fail for all sorts of reasons. The hours of work that my mum has spent teaching her, worrying about her and loving her may result instead in a gorgeous therapy dog or even just an adoring addition to another family. But a couple of months ago, a partially sighted little boy and his mum stopped us in the street to enquire about the process and say hello to Zoe. Tiny hands followed the curve of her spine, prodded her oversized paws and brushed her mad-professor eyebrows, building a picture of Zoe through touch instead of sight. As they left, his mum explained to him that one day, he would get a dog like that. A dog who could lead him through life, explore countless opportunities with him and anchor him in a world that is constantly unfamiliar and hostile to those without sight.

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Zoe’s ‘Guide Dog Puppy in Training’ coat

It is encounters like this that have convinced me that by helping to train Zoe, my mum is contributing something immeasurable to society. Volunteering takes time, it can be boring and unrewarding. It is easy to feel that a day spent behind the counter of a charity shop, a weekend spent sweeping leaves, or a year spent walking a dog is only a drop in an enormous pond. We are constantly asking ourselves ‘what about x cause, what about y cause’ and it can stop us from committing to anything. But by committing to Zoe we have made a definitive impact. We are all able to make a difference, and Zoe has shown me that however small the drop is, you are still a part of that pond.

You can help support Guide Dogs UK here or search for other volunteering opportunities near you on the Do-it Database

Nanette

Hannah Gadsby is not a victim. Her story has value. She has a right to tell it, to be heard and understood. And she does it spectacularly.

‘Nanette’, Hannah’s Netflix special, is stand-up at its best, but it breaks all the rules of comedy as we understand it. It is a beautifully crafted tirade, a brutally honest lesson and a brilliantly funny show. Seamlessly weaving gender, sexuality and childhood trauma with art history and laughter, Hannah takes the audience through her story – the whole story, not one that has been sacrificed for a punchline – and uses it to demonstrate and rail against the abuse that she and others have faced. Growing up in Tasmania, where homosexuality was illegal until 1997, meant Hannah was a gay woman who had been raised on homophobia. The internalisation of this hatred led to an adolescence “soaked in shame” and it is Hannah’s journey from this confused childhood to her mother’s apology in the middle of Target that forms the basis of ‘Nanette’.

A story consists of a beginning, a middle and an end, but a joke, Hannah says, only has a beginning and a middle. The fact that she and her mother now have a fantastic relationship is no use to a joke that focuses on her mother comparing being gay to being a murderer – “well, you would hope it was a phase.” Breaking down the anatomy of a joke, Hannah describes how the comedian creates tension, and then saves the audience from the tension with a punchline. The best comedians are excellent tension diffusers, and Hannah has been diffusing tension all her life as a survival tactic. The story she tells of nearly being beaten up at a bus stop does not end where she leaves it, the potential threat dismissed in a funny quip. Later in the show she describes how the man came back to assault her, and the tension she creates is no longer diffused by cutting the story short with a punchline. She leaves it in the air, allowing the audience to sit with that tension as she has done all her life, refusing to save them from it. Stories, not laughter, is the best medicine, but only when told and heard in full. For years Hannah’s story has been frozen at its trauma point, the tension repeated every time she tells that story on stage – “you learn from the part of the story you focus on.” In ‘Nanette’ there is no manufactured relief through laughter, but instead, an overwhelming sense of catharsis that can only come when a story is told in its entirety.

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Photo credit: Marie Curie

Hannah has been performing stand up comedy for a decade, creating a career based on self-deprecation. ‘Nanette’ is a declaration of her refusal to do so anymore. For those “existing in the margins” self-deprecation is not a show of humility, but a necessity to seek permission to speak, a required humiliation. Occasionally, Hannah is mistaken for a man, and is amused by those who frantically apologise after calling her ‘sir.’ Instead, she points out that the mistake allows her to briefly be “top-shelf normal, king of the humans…a straight white man.” And it is straight white men who are at the centre of Hannah’s anger. For the first time in history, men are a “sub category of human.” Campaigns such as #MeToo and podcasts such as The Guilty Feminist mean that they are no longer neutral category creators, but are a category themselves. The show ends on a piece she addresses directly to the white straight men in the audience. She doesn’t believe women are better than men; they are just as fallible, just as corruptible. But power is in male hands, and those hands are not up to the task of wielding such a weapon. When Hannah says “I am not a man-hater, but I am afraid of men” she summarises how many women feel. Being afraid when you are the only women in a room of men, or walking home, or waiting at a bus stop – it is not tangible and it is not hatred, but it is omnipresent and oppressive.

There is so much more to Nanette than I have explored here. Hannah makes her art history degree both hilarious and poignant, talks openly about how mental illness is ‘not a ticket to genius’ but a ticket to nowhere and brutally dissects the gendered boxes we create from day dot. If she does quit comedy it will be a monumental loss, but she is a sparkling addition to humanity. If you haven’t yet watched it I can only demand that you do; if you have already, I can only hope that you look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers in a new light.

An Italian Love Affair

Before I begin, it is important to note that I am not a seasoned traveller and have been to Italy only twice in my life. I am not a natural in hot climates and I despise olives, anchovies and driving on the right. But as I sit here drinking my cappuccino and my insalate miste (pretty much fluent, I know), I can proudly say that I am of Italian persuasion. I adore the country, the people, the food…I am essentially a groupie for Italy.

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A trattoria in Corniglia

My parents first took my sister and I to Italy three years ago, taking us to the Amalfi Coast, Rome and Venice. On our second day, we were sat on a beautiful square, hands sticky with gelato, when an impossibly glamourous group arrived at the church opposite. Swathes of floral silks and gaudy linen filled the square until the church steps were heaving with beautiful young things, the air full of rapid Italian. Men with heavy gold watches and sky-blue shoes paraded across the piazza, women in red-bottomed heels postured on the steps and after an hour of blatant gawking it became clear that we were watching the most surreally beautiful wedding between two Roman gods. I was the captive audience to the unwitting performers, bewitched by the clash of cultures and beguiled by the grandeur taking place in this tiny village by the coast.But though the glamour of the coastal marriage gave me butterflies, what convinced me that this was more than a fling was arriving in Venice. Rome was beautiful, earthy, and baking hot, and we hiked from monument to monument, finding relief in the shade of gelaterias. But if Rome was a scorching summer romance, then Venice was my soulmate. It has a Dior store next to a shop that sells only theatre masks. It has tiny alleyways that require a deep intake of breath to squeeze through, only for that breath to be released in a quiet exclamation as you alight upon another beautiful, hidden piazza. There are artists on every corner and every snap even the most amateur of photographers captures is exquisite. Venice is a paradise, it is manna for the soul. You leave thinking that there must be something in the water, and that whatever it is has soaked from the canals into the very walls of the place, into the blood of the Venetians.

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The harbour in Porto Fino

As I type this I am again in Italy, having spent the day hiking through the Italian Riviera. I have wobbled up the Tower of Pisa, I have wandered through the beautiful hotchpotch that is Genoa and I have eaten slices of watermelon larger than my head. I have gazed through shop windows at Gucci bags and handmade postcards, chatted to a beautiful waiter and and a lady who was was so old and plump that she resembled a beaming walnut. I have been bitten by a horsefly, given myself wonky tan-lines and walked until I had blisters. But I have loved every minute and I intend to continue to do so. This is no fling – I am having a red blooded, full bodied Italian love affair.