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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump