Reviewed: Solos on Loneliness

First person singular.

Solos on Loneliness
Radio 4

To a programme on loneliness (9 April, 11am), currently being pushed as a “modern condition” – families scattered, too long spent on computers with virtual friends. Yet this half-hour seemed instead to stretch down the decades to any time, any place, so long as there was a clock on the wall and a stove to boil water. These sounds turned up repeatedly. A timepiece ticked as someone spoke about being “embarrassed” by a life reduced to “hellos and goodbyes”. Water boiled loudly as another insisted “you just have to draw strength from being self-contained” (were we to imagine the cooking of a solitary egg?). The sound effects worked.

Anyone who has ever lived alone – I did for ten years – knows that time can both harden and soften a hundred times over the course of a day, and that the most innocuous of noises becomes distorted, giving you a strange, beckoning jolt, sometimes a whole new brain-rhythm. The programme was sensitive to sound in general and to the music of the human voice. One woman, a widow, recalled the times she would wake up with her husband and say, “What shall we do today?” Her inflection altered with the terrible happiness of the memory. A man who had lost family in a bitter divorce spoke about “falling down” a lot (“I need to talk to someone otherwise I will fall down”) and his tone flattened every time he said it, as though physically sinking back.

If the programme seemed at first to baby the issue – the psychosomatic peculiarities of being human reduced to the plain, quiet need for company – when the broadcaster Andy Kershaw talked about his overwhelming loneliness, he brought an enabling anger with him, challenging the world to bring him a more gadding, sybaritic existence (or return him the one that he lost). His loneliness didn’t sound modern. How could it?

A few hours later, The Essay (Radio 3) – 28 episodes in April, considering Anglo-Saxon figures of significance – included the bones of an anonymous smith buried in a field in Lincolnshire (“a lonely place, a marginal place”). The craftsman was found with his tools and holding a bell rung 12 centuries ago by the lone traveller to indicate that although he was that most frightening of things – solitary – he was not a threat. 

Many of us are lonely. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Centenary Special Issue

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition