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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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder