Can we defend good old-fashioned loneliness in the internet age? Photo: Getty
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The importance of being lonely

Is loneliness always a bad thing – or should we cherish our pre-internet memories of vacant and pensive moods?

I once spent two weeks living on my own in a cottage in Warwickshire. The cottage was in a small hamlet, down a little grassy lane. It was medieval, tiny and pretty (think Goldilocks’ cottage crossed with Mr Mole’s home.) I was there to work on a novel. And as well as being about three hundred miles from my own home, I also felt about two hundred years in the past – the reason for this being I couldn’t work out how to connect to the internet.

What followed, frankly, was one of the loneliest and most panicky episodes of my life.

Being alone for a long time takes a lot of getting used to (I normally live with my husband, three children and two quite demanding cats.) Not needing to even speak for hours – days! – felt extremely strange. And when there’s no-one else around to see what you’re doing, even something like sitting on a chair or switching on a kettle or deciding to go outdoors for a bit all took on an existential kind of enormity.

What I did have, of course, was plenty of time to think – and what I ended up thinking, was:

a) Oh God, I’m really lonely

b) This reminds me of my childhood

c) Will my family ever forgive me?

d) I have to start writing something

e) Oh! I’m beginning to enjoy myself.

I suppose a kind of survival instinct had kicked in at (e); and I could either go quietly mad or use the loneliness I was experiencing and do something with it.

Is loneliness, though – that bracing, Robinson Crusoe kind – becoming endangered in our socially-connected age? Being solitary in the twenty-first century seems like a very different thing from what it was a couple of decades ago. In a lone star spirit of enquiry, I asked various friends and colleagues what they thought. The playwright Oliver Emanuel, who’s recently returned from a writing retreat himself, had a similar response to self-exile as I’d had (ie, mild panic – “no internet and no phone – it drove me crazy”). The difference between us was that after a while I began to enjoy my internet-free existence while it seems, despite finding isolation useful for his writing, Oliver continued to miss it. But then he’s a playwright. And playwrights, he suggests, are social creatures on the whole. (“Though I still value loneliness. It’s a way of gaining perspective – a loss of other people – and that can be valuable. . .”)

Fellow dramatist and novelist Lesley Glaister agrees with this too. “I love and need solitude to be creative and to stay sane,” she says. “And in solitude my mind blossoms to fill the space.”  The words “sanity” and “loneliness” tend to go together, of course. As do “sanity” and “writing”. And the recent explosion (if that’s the right term) of mindfulness classes suggests we live in an age that’s seeking a generally simpler, less IT-fraught way of existing. (I also sought the opinion of a mindfulness tutor in fact, but he’d just headed north for a week of isolated reflection. . . which seemed like the coolest ipso facto response he could have made. . .)

It’s always been the case, of course – writers needing to be at one remove. Maybe this was most obvious during the Romantic days of Wordsworth et al, and their wanderings over hills and across moors. “The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself,” declared Jane Eyre – and her creator, Charlotte Bronte, must have known pretty much all there was to know about loneliness. But what is real solitude these days, and what is friendlessness, when we can see little pixelated versions of our friends any time we like? Technology has atomised us, as the artist Steve Hollingsworth puts it (who’s no technophobe himself, using electronics and computers in his own installations), “and there’s nothing lonelier than looking through a window at night and seeing someone staring into the white void of a lap-top screen. . .” Actually, when I think about it, I suspect writers like Mary Shelley or Bram Stoker might have relished the avatar-friendly age we live in.

I suppose what bothers me still though, is that if we deplete half our words and energy on social blah, what peace of mind will we have left to write with, and what will we consider at more than a white-noise level? And supposing this technological support-system was suddenly lost to us: what self-reliance would we have left? A creative loneliness – and not just “aloneness” – seems to me to have a real worth: being semi-permanently attached to people means we don’t suffer the same kind of terminal cut-offs we used to. And loss and missing and ruminating about people has always been so central in fiction (think of all the existential wondering that goes on in, say, Wuthering Heights or L’Etranger or The Catcher in the Rye.) Internet wondering seems a disjointed, fragmented kind of thing in comparison and sometimes not even all that advisable – googling old acquaintances and scenes from decades ago feels like grabbing too many snacks at a party, just because they’re there.

So how can we defend good old-fashioned loneliness? How can we hold onto it, amid all our other, noisier emotions? (Nobody ever said that grief doesn’t have its place, after all. Or guilt. Or even greed.) I suspect the effects of social media may not be quite such a disaster as all the hell-in-a-handcart warnings about it imply.  Wanting to be alone is probably the same as it’s always been: what’s changed is the younger generation’s ability to slip in and out of isolation (social media as background noise rather than foreground irritation. “Being alone can mean being on my own, in a room, with Facebook open in the background,” as Esme Jones, a student at Cambridge University puts it. “I feel distanced enough from it to ignore it if I’m really absorbed in my work. . .”) Perhaps it’s simply a question of knowing how to use it, and when to switch it off.

Meanwhile, maybe we should think about establishing something like the Real Solitude Association – it could be a bit like the Real Ale Society, where slightly angsty and oddly-attired creatives could get together (or not, of course.) Or we could reclaim weekends and Wednesday afternoons as days when you just don’t “connect”. Or start a cerebral version of the 5:2 diet (five days sociable, two days a hermit – or the other way round?) I never really appreciated Daffodils as a teenager, but I do now. Because we all need to lie around on couches occasionally, in pensive and in vacant mood. We all need to spend time alone. Sometimes, we might even need to be a bit lonely.

Ruth Thomas is a novelist, short story writer and Lecturer in Creative Writing at St Andrews University. Her latest novel The Home Corner (£7.99) is published by Faber

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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