The isolation of day-to-day life feels harder than ever to beat

Reaching out to other human beings ought to be the easiest thing. Why do I find it so difficult?

It's difficult, writing words for others to read. Not properly difficult in the sense of hard, physical labour, or difficult like learning to play the piano. Just difficult to know how to get your tone of voice right, how much to reveal and how much to admit. When I started writing things down it was a continuation of my childhood bad habit of talking to myself. Then you become aware of the audience and unless you're careful, you end up trying to second guess what the audience wants to hear.

So.

On Saturday we're shopping in The Lanes in Brighton. We are coming to the end of a week's holiday and it's time to buy a present for the good friend who's looking after our cats back in London. What do two middle-class gay men, wealthy by any reasonable standards, buy as a present for a single version of the same? Expensive bath foam, of course, from one of those shops which sell nothing else, shops that are both a delight (because lying in a hot bath, in the dark, listening to a Paul Temple mystery on the radio is a genuine pleasure) and an obscenity (because bath oil is bath oil is bath oil, regardless of the mark-up applied to the tube of sodium lauryl sulphate you buy).

But I'm happy, because the holiday has worked. We are both redeemed from the stress of work, for a time, and have slept well and walked dozens of miles along the coast and over the Downs. Life is good. We are lucky. The gift is purchased. We come back out into the Lanes.

And the sky darkens and the rain starts to fall and in the narrowing light I see my reflection on a plate-glass window, a comfortable well-fed man holding a preposterous bag of bath oil. I feel a warning stab of discomfort.

Because of the rain we head for the nearest cafe. As do dozens of other shoppers but we're lucky, we beat the queue and we get a window seat and blow on our flat whites and laugh at the drenching we received.

A man my age has the table next to us, hunched over a copy of the FT. Everything is neat, down to his used tea-bag, tidily placed on his saucer. But the cafe is filling up. A younger man approaches, balancing his bag and a cup of frothy coffee. He comes to Tidy Man's table.

"Is this chair free?"

Without looking up, Tidy Man grunts assent. Coffee Man slides into the free chair, but of course as he does so, his bag falls from his arm and catches the coffee cup, which slops some of its contents onto the table.

"Sorry mate."

Nothing. Nihil respondit. Coffee Man fetches a paper napkin from the counter. As he comes back I see him more clearly. His brow is furrowed with concentration and he seems to have a slight twitch.

He dabs at his spillage with the napkin. The table -- of course! - - has a wobble, so even as he mops up his own coffee, he causes Tidy's tea to spill. Tidy, who still hasn't acknowledged Coffee's existence beyond the initial grunt, picks up his paper and stands up.

"Bye then", says Coffee Man.

Tidy manages to filter past Coffee Man and exit the cafe as though the only human being in the shop.

I'm not explaining well why this upset me so much. There is a yearning for some form of human interaction from Coffee Man which is tangible. He frowns over his coffee cup. When he looks up I smile at him. But not for long enough, because I'm always hyper-sensitive to not give the wrong signal, and just as Coffee Man begins to return the smile, I break contact and look away.

In the street outside I say to Keith:

"Did you see that boy?"

And Keith says:

"Yes. A poor soul."

"I wanted to hug him, to tell him everything will be alright. But I couldn't even say hello properly."

"Everything won't be alright anyway."

We walk home along the seafront in silence. And I'm thinking: reaching out to other human beings ought to be the easiest thing. Why do I find it so difficult? Yes, I was projecting, but I'm more like Tidy Man in his self-contained space than I like to admit. Don't we all feel pain at isolation? We can see it but it's so hard to overcome, maybe it's always been hard but it seems to have become harder, I think we're more suspicious of the motives of others than we used to be. If I were of the left I'd make some excuse, as I'm on the right I make another, but that's all these explanations are: excuses for not touching. I remember my lonely weekends in Harlow, when I'd visit the supermarket solely in order to hear a human voice that wasn't piped in by Radio 4. I wonder at the effort it took for that young man, to overcome the problems life has thrown at him, to get his act together to come out for a cup of coffee and some social interaction, to end up receiving nothing.

The sun has broken through, I can feel Keith close to me, I remember that I'm not alone, and feel the weight of the preposterous bag of bath stuff in my hand.

"This is a stupid present for a man. We'll give it to your mum. Let's have Simon over for dinner one night instead. To say thank you properly."

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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