There ain’t no Benediction  for the Lonesome


Feeling all alone and isolated, as anyone who has experienced intense loneliness can tell you, is an unpleasant, indeed hellish affliction. It is a medical fact, that those who dwell alone and who are without a partner, live shorter lives than those with the incomparable blessing of being with someone they love, or at any rate who they do not actually  hate. The other thing that seriously shortens your life, and rest assured it is not good old Masturbation (which can actually add at least a decade, if you really know what you are about) is doing an excessive quantity of night shifts. That would include no doubt the police, night-watchmen (do you ever get night-watchwomen, I wonder?) doctors and nurses, and I was going say small hours radio disc jockeys, but in fact they cleverly record their programmes in advance during the day.

I am going to propound a radical, and it pains me to be so boastful, but I would say a brilliant theory about the nature of human loneliness. I believe that it is entirely situational and contextual, meaning that in seemingly near-identical circumstances,  X and Y, you can feel very lonely in X, but not at all in Y. Let me give myself as a good example. Between December 2009 and the spring of 2013, I was up and down grieving after the death of my wife Annie of 30 years, who if not 120% perfection as a woman and a partner, was at least an unarguable 150%.  I was living alone in a big 4-bedroom farmhouse, a short way out of a small NE Cumbrian market town. My daughter Ione was at Leeds University for the first year after Annie died, then working in Leeds and latterly in Poland doing TEFL, aka Teaching English as a Foreign Language. What kick-started me out of my protracted stagnation, was that in March of 2013, I went to see her in beautiful Wroclaw, Poland and we had one hell of a time, both there and in the vibrant jazz-capital of Krakow. You might say it was the impetus of travel and as the Irish say ‘furren parts’, that gave me the right kind of energetic shot in the arm. Then followed an invigorating long weekend in Oxford seeing some close and very old friends, and after that a truly revelatory and very touching month in Albania and Kosovo, again with Ione. By then I was well on the road to having cast off any loneliness, but that said, I would bet a small fortune that if I’d stayed on in the UK, I would eventually have lapsed back into its hellish embrace.

Most fortunately for me, I was victim of an unusual and never declared tokenism, in the form of  institutionalised academic prejudice. I decided at first to make an income and support myself to stay in the UK, by applying for Creative Writing Lectureships in about 6 different English universities. I had after all published 10 books, some of them acclaimed by the likes of DJ Taylor, Jonathan  Coe and Adam Mars-Jones. I had also been long-listed for the Booker in 2003; had won the Dylan Thomas Award for short stories; and had in all about 25 years experience of teaching Creative Writing at Cambridge University (Madingley Hall) and the Arvon Foundation. None of that as it turned out mattered a flying  shite, and right enough it was  a complete waste of time me putting in those six mile-long applications to the half dozen universities. The reason was not because I am certifiably one of the lowest of the low, i.e. a  risible West Cumbrian, but because I did not have a PhD, a sine qua non of getting any kind of teaching job, in any kind of university, however third  rate the university might be. I happen to know a fair number of people who teach Creative Writing in UK universities, and aside from the fact that some of them have published very little, and certainly nothing of awesome distinction, I wouldn’t let them loose keeping canaries, much less shape the prose or verse of any neonate writer of just possible genius.  It is a harsh diagnosis but it happens to be true. If they had a student who was a genuinely massive talent, they wouldn’t recognise as much, and even if they did, they would not know how to help him or her. Ambitious and insecure literary  careerists, whose notion of towering achievement is to have two novels that have been both been praised not uneffusively on sweet as the sunlight Mme Frostrup’s whirligig bookshow on BBC Radio 4, such people cannot help the outstandingly talented, or even any very original students, any more than a timid and conformist and jobbing violinist could ever have instructed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

So, instead of staying in  Cumbria to fail to live on dwindling savings and non-existent welfare benefits, I came to Greece to start a fiction teaching business. From that day on, the 2nd of September 2013 precisely, I have I promise you, never felt lonely or depressed or isolated for even five minutes. As I’ve said, had I stayed in my vast and echoing North Cumbrian farmhouse, I would eventually have had a bellyful of being on my own, and would not have known how to remedy the inevitable loneliness. As for my unvarying happiness here on Kythnos, it might sound supine and smug, but in my defence I am in many ways as baffled as anyone else by the miracle. Why exactly my happiness and contentment should be so, is not easy to analyse in facile 1 plus 1 = 2 terms. My Greek is just and so adequate, inasmuch as I can get whatever I want and hold a simple conversation, but I cannot for example talk intelligently about the byzantine labyrinth of Greek politics, or in the abstract about crucial matters of the emotions, or the psyche, the latter a hallowed and beautiful Greek word you will note. On that basis I could never have a nice little Greek girlfriend here, unless she had incredibly brilliant English, as my Greek could only ever get as far as, Are you OK, and if not, would you like another wine? And then just possibly another one after that? And then why not maybe another teeny weeny little one after that, Sotiria, kopela mou?

This wasn’t intended to be an essay on me  but  a broader survey of  the difference between Solitude and Loneliness, and  as some of us know, the first one can be a real blessing if of creative and flexible duration, and if willed for in the first place. Very briefly though, when not teaching fiction courses, my life in Kythnos amounts to a regular routine of writing for this blog, reading fiction in Greek with the aid of three dictionaries, swimming and sunbathing at nearby Martinakia, and of an evening reading fiction in English and/or zestfully carousing in either the Glaros or the Paradisos. If I had had a routine as regular as that back in the UK, it would have felt oppressive and even prematurely senile, but not so here in Kythnos. That is why I initially said that loneliness and isolation are contextual and situational. Doing a repetitive daily routine called X in NE Cumbria would have driven me rapidly nuts, but a very similar routine called Y in Kythnos, Greece, keeps me incredibly content and dare I say it, now I am doing the blog as well, fulfilled.

But on the tantalising subject of willed for solitude, let’s move from Greece and North Cumbria to India, and the long held spiritual ideal for any pious male Hindu. Once he has faithfully married and tenderly cherished his beloved wife, and raised his children and fulfilled his dharma duties as a grhastha or householder, the truly pious Hindu decides to retire from the world and seek spiritual fulfilment by becoming an aranyaka. What this meant in practice was going into the forest with little but a mat on which to seat himself, there to sit beside a melodious  and serene river and meditate exclusively on the Divine. Pause now and very briefly ask yourself, can you imagine a retired bank manager called Billy Hodgkiss from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, pursuing a similar kind of austerity and dauntless renunciation by the purling brooks that weave their way around balmy old, palmy old  ’twistle? In this connection, somewhere around 1974, daringly scripted by UK Marxist playwright David Mercer, there was a typically radical and angry one-off TV drama (the genus no longer exists, whatever the lustrous buffoons in charge choose to tell you these days) which had a pared to the bone, alienated  and bemused individual played by Alfred Burke, stripping off and donning a loincloth and setting off as  wandering mendicant with a  stick bearing his few possessions, in order, guess what, to embrace solitude and hopefully find himself.  In the current UK context, when your average professional geezer retires, he does his best not to find himself, meaning he either goes in for endless golf, heavy boozing, clinical depression, online poker, or in the working class context, possibly doing nothing more than sitting with his mates all day on the public benches, trying to stave off, you’ve guessed it, loneliness. A few might embrace solitude by doing solo fishing and profit by the surrounding silence of the forest or the seashore, but that is hardly the same as entering the haunting sylvan mysteries to become a hermit. You’ll notice the topic of gender is massively skewed here. Some of the loneliest folk on earth are widowed elderly UK women, who feel unable to go into a pub or even cafe solo, so spend literally days on end seeing nobody but themselves and the television. Thankfully, you get none of that here on Kythnos where family ties are taken seriously, and the old are both included in everything and also have an impressively independent life. Quite regularly in the port you see a bunch of women mates in their 80s and older, having multiple coffees and enjoying themselves uproariously.

As a writer it always makes me laugh when occasionally you hear some fraught UK novelist, let’s call her Pamela Arblaster, dilating on the truly terrible isolation of being that hermetic yet ironically non-hermetic wonder, known as A Lonely Writer Cruelly Chained to her Lonely Laptop. The poor thing is stuck in her service-included London flat with her i-pad, i-phone, cappucino machine, choc digestives and yummy florentines, Radio 4 to hand when she’s stuck on her work of genius and wants to know about mortgage relief tax problems on the Money Programme. Aside from the fact that within walking distance of her flat, there will be a dishevelled homeless woman exactly Pam’s age and also called Pam, living rough in a cardboard box and who definitely knows what the raw edge of cosmic loneliness feels like, there are other minor factors to contemplate. Packing shelves in Asda in the small hours, as certain unemployed postgraduates have to do these days, will not only as a night shift shorten your life, it will also feel a very lonely as well as badly paid experience. One needs also to pull in the historical context. George Eliot, Dostoievsky, Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell and others, complained about various things in their life, but I don’t remember authorial loneliness and isolation in the practice of their art as part of the checklist. Dostoievsky was a gambling addict who wrote one of the seminal texts on loneliness called Notes from the Underground, but my guess is he was at his least lonely himself when stuck at his desk writing i.e. doing the thing he was born to do. For a few years in the late 1970s I had a fairly lucrative but unfulfilling job teaching an oxymoronic impossibility called ‘Liberal Studies’ in a Cumbrian College of Science and Technology. The entertaining and shamelessly reactionary students were the best thing there, but I was basically itching to be at home writing, regardless of a reliable income or anything else. I therefore felt all too lonely, surrounded by people in the shape of my fellow colleagues, whereas at home at my desk, doing what I wanted to do, isolation was not an issue.

In any case anyone, writer or not, can feel lonely and for perfectly good reasons. The trick is to do something about it, instead of choosing to go day by day down the sink. If you feel lonely as a writer you go out and do some shopping, or you drop in at The Computer Resource Centre as I did in my N Cumbrian town, and did my printing off there, not at home. I would chat to the nice women who worked there, and thereby I had a transient but satisfying social life. Then Annie came home from her business at around 7 most nights, and I always had an elaborate  vegetarian meal ready for her, which I’d prepared late afternoon. Then she died of secondary cancer in December 2009 and that, so to speak, was that.

Even that is not the end of the options for a notionally lonely home-bound author. One woman writer I know neatly side-stepped the issue by invariably writing her novels in longhand in the public library, then getting them typed by someone else. Another novelist I know of very substantial talent, simply did not have a private study, and would therefore compose all his books at the kitchen table, which was of course a thoroughfare for the rest of his clamorous family.

Then there was that illustrious gentleman known as Karl Marx. I was amazed to learn a few years back that he wrote some of his great works without benefit of a study also. As he put it, the kids racing round his table could make as much racket as they liked and it did not bother him. It was only if they addressed him personally, with their, ‘Hey Dad, about this £5/100 marks you won’t lend me’, that things seriously went to pot.

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