Wednesday, 16 February 2011


A number of times in my life I have had conversations with people who said they were lonely.  They never said they were lonely now, at the moment they were speaking to me, oh no, they were never lonely now.  That is much too hard to admit to.  To be lonely and to admit to it is to say to others that you have no friends, nowhere to go, or at least no-one to go there with - and that must mean there is something wrong with you, mustn't it?  Everyone has someone to go to places with.  When people go to the pub after work they go either with people or because they know other people who know them will be there.  People don't go to the theatre on their own, and only very exceptionally to concerts (does no-one else like the music you like?How sad/uncool/dysfunctional are you?), the cinema maybe, just occasionally.  Even the cinema is only really OK if it's not in the evening, or not the late evening,and if the film is an ancient classic, preferably part of a season, and preferably not in English.  The Coen Brothers' latest in a multiplex at eight on a Saturday evening on your own is not OK, but something from the 1930s by Ernst Lubitsch at four o'clock on a Sunday afternoon is.

People tell you they were lonely before.  They were living on their own in a part of town no-one they knew lived, and it was hard to get to, so they moved, and when you say
"But that was such a nice flat you had" they say something like "Yes, but I got lonely", and
you think, "Maybe, but I went to see you there, and we talked for hours, and you never told me you were lonely" because no-one can tell you they are lonely now.  We cannot admit it.  And yet we will happily admit that we are designed to live in groups.  We are.  A hamster is a solitary creature and wants no company.  If you try to keep two hamsters in the same cage they may fight, and will visibly feel intruded upon.  A rat is a creature that lives in a group.  It is cruel to keep just one rat, unless you are willing to interact with it for several hours a day, and not many people over the age of eleven or so have the time for that.  A cat walks alone, but will tolerate other cats sometimes.  A dog looks for its pack, and if it lives with humans they become its pack and its work too.  Border collies, bred to round up sheep, do this to humans if they live in a human family, especially one with children.  I have seen a border collie at a four-year-old's birthday party work for two hours, completely non-aggressively - no child was frightened - until eight or nine children had been corralled in a corner of the room.  They played in that corner apparently quite happily, patrolled by the dog and headed off by it, belly to the floor and eyes hypnotic, if any of them showed signs of moving into the middle of the room.  I have seen a rather less functional border collie show signs of panic, when its human family had guests for dinner and on occasion one of the guests, not previously known to the dog and only accepted because its human family accepted them, left the room to go to the loo.  The dog found itself locked out of the bathroom, and behaved like a lovesick teenage boy, whining and shuffling and panting outside the door, until the stray human emerged.

Humans live in groups, except when we don't, and we live in couples or alone.  We need the group which is ours, which is why most humans who live in groups which are not theirs are unhappy most of he time.  Military barracks, boarding schools and student halls of residence are all examples of this.

This is not anthropology - go to an anthropologist if you want that - it is a musing on loneliness.  Not on solitude.  Many humans in developed societies live alone, and most of them, especially when they are old, would rather not do so.  For most of us there is only one time in our lives when we actively seek out solitude, and that is in adolescence, when we go to our rooms.  There we might be sad, lovelorn, horny, dreamy, creative, stupid, sleepy, but we are probably not lonely.  When we leave that room and go to school we may be very lonely indeed, because at that age we are looking for new groups of our own, and we may not readily find them, or the groups we want to join may not accept us.

I have never really been lonely.  I have also reached the age I am almost never having lived alone.  I do not think these two things are connected.  I think loneliness comes from not finding your group, your family, not from not living with anyone else.  There is a line which comes I think from Germaine Greer "Many a housewife listening to her husband's breathing in bed is lonelier than the spinster in her rented room" - this far down the years we think, well yes, like der, of course.  But no, no of course about it.  I do not get lonely.  Many people do.  Many people, especially old people, spend much of their lives feeling lonely, even if they have been such people as to be mean-spirited and crabby and ignorant and censorious and filled with hatred, so that no-one much has ever wanted their company.  They loathe just about everyone they know and see, and they both fear and loathe those they know only from the media.  How alone, and how lonely, is an old person whose life partner has Alzheimer's and who cares for them every day but is not known by them?  I don't know.  I do know that someone should ask them.   Someone should go and talk to them and ask them how they feel from time to time, and not be offended if they are rebuffed.  Because they probably will be.

There are not many sounds that make me feel better than that of my husband's breathing in bed.  Even when he snores.  Well, maybe not quite all the time when he does that.  I often wake up, when he has either been out and I have not, or stayed up reading or watching a film and I have not, and it is two or three in the morning and I am just glad to hear him breathing next to me.  But that is because I am glad he is there.  The doors to the flats in our building are big and old and heavy (and the building service charge is outrageous, but that is another matter) and most of them have had the original glass door panes covered or blocked, and there is usually a peephole so you can see who is at your door.  Our hall is very long and has no natural light.  It has those recessed lights at intervals along it, and because there is no daylight the hall light is on whenever someone is in, no matter what time of day or year it is.  So when I get to our door, having stowed my bike and said "bonsoir" to anyone who is going in or out of the building as I arrive, I am always glad to see the light in the peephole.  It lights me up.  That is because I am glad he is there.

But he is not there, for weeks at a time sometimes, and I am not lonely, although I wish he was there.  I have always gone to the cinema by myself quite often, and still do.  When I was young, if there was a party I never minded going by myself.  I can do solitude.  I had an omelette and a salad and a glass of wine in a cafe tonight, by myself.  I don't really know what loneliness is like.


Anonymous said...

I far prefer going to the cinema by myself - I do not like the, no doubt self-imposed 'responsibility' of wondering what the other person thinks about the film. Ie - are they enjoying it and what if they're not? I hate havign to feel repsonsible for someone else's good time and cannot bear the puerile comments of those who have JUST NOT UNDERSTOOD IT.

I loathe other people being in the room if I am redaing a book. A newspaper is different. And I detest the sound of other people breathing - whether in bed or anywhere else. It would be far better if they just did not. I do not want to 'be on my own' in the sense of living on my own. But I would be quite happy to have long periods of knowign somebody was there without haviong to actually see them for long period of time. As I get older, I have less and less time to be bothered to put up with the sheer irritation of coping with other people when I do not want to do so. It would be nice to dial up a person like a curry and then finish them and throw the paper away, fumigating the house until another one is required.

Anonymous said...

I live alone, my choice. I don't want anyone pitying me, or insisting that I must have company or must be lonely. Or must stay in if I don't want to. Which I don't. Or intruding on my domestic space, or telling me how to live and how to organise my life or my home. Or vetting my friends or my correspondence or whining about getting my priorities straight (their euphemism for "put me first")

I am not lonely, I am not bored. Respect my choice and I'll respect yours.

Anonymous said...

My son had a Border Collie like that. With a toy in his mouth he would forever round up the children whenever they moved.
I took him for a walk once and showed him some sheep in a field and he looked the other way !

Jane Griffiths said...

How interesting - I was hoping for some insightful comments about what loneliness is like, and I got remarks about solitude. I know a lot about solitude but not much about loneliness. Still, fair enough. There is an area of Riga, Latvia, called "Zolitude" (same meaning), and buses have that as their destination. You wouldn't want to sit next to anyone on that bus, would you?

Anonymous said...

I have an elderly relative, physically frail but mentally sharp as a pin, who does complain (if that's the right word) of lonliness. She craves company - any company - just so that she can talk and be involved.

Several years ago I tried to persuade her to use a computer, but she was (indeed, is!) stubborn, and refused to learn. Now, with the internet, she would be in her element, because she could blog and twitter and interact in a whole new way. English is not her first language, so she already spends a lot of time reading books and magazines in French, German, Dutch, Spanish and Italian - if only she could talk to people, even on-line, in those languages I know she would be a lot more content. She is not "unhappy" - but she is lonely. And I don't know what to do to help. She lives a long way from me, and has a wide circle of friends, but they work, and have home lives of their own.

dreamingspire said...

Tom Paxton:

Angeline is always Friday, Angeline is spring forever.
Winter Angeline could never be.
Mister Wilson, old and smiling, lifts his cap as she is passing,
Bowing her politely on to me.

The week has gone its lonely way.
I've waited for my only day,
Away from shadows,
In her sunlight I can tell her, "I love you, Angeline."

Angeline is always Friday, suitcase on the rack above,
She hasn't even read her magazine.
Angeline is counting stations, 'til the one where I am standing,
Waiting for my only Angeline.

Its on "The Seekers Live at the Talk of the Town" (1968)

Jonny said...

I don't understand how my loneliness works. When I live on my own I'm not lonely. My aloneness feels like a grand indulgence: I eat when and what I want, watch what I want, read in silence or with music blaring, write, dance while I'm hoovering (actually I still do that).
When Tracey is here, I'm not lonely. I spend the day alone, but that becomes my routine - cooking, cleaning, gardening, DIY, my chores, my procrastinations. And if she's late back I'm still not lonely,; my solitude reappears as an evening's indulgence. I eat fried food. I write.
But when she's away overnight, or for a couple of days, I hate it. I feel a sort of lonely rage, and I'm always in danger of drinking. I want to communicate, phone friends, chat on t'internet, lock away the insane beast that wants to squat on me.
I really don't understand this.

Jane Griffiths said...

ah. *rage*. someone else once described loneliness to me as a kind of anger.