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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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