Dream line-up: the Cocteau Twins pictured in 1995. Photo: Kevin Cummings/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Twin passions

Toby Litt pays homage to the otherworldly gifts of Elizabeth Fraser.

Of course I made a note of it. Monday 31 July 2006. “X phones up with what he says may be a very interesting proposition for me – to help Elizabeth Fraser out with some lyrics. I said big yes. Her manager should be calling me later this week. Apparently, she’s been having trouble writing, and they are looking for a ‘poet or novelist’.”

X is a behind-the-scenes legend, a man who makes things happen. He’s promoted bands, programmed festivals. X did not wish to be named in this article but thanked me for my courtesy in asking whether he’d prefer a pseudonym or a letter from towards the end of  the alphabet. On Monday 31 July, 2006, X appeared to me pretty much in the guise of the Archangel Gabriel. My next diary entry reads: “I don’t believe this conversation took  place.” I had been transported, annunciated. Writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser was the dream job and couldn’t be anything other than a gift from God.

I noted down my surprise that the dream job hadn’t gone to the Scottish novelist Alan Warner, who wrote some great liner notes to the Cocteau Twins’ compilation Stars and Topsoil: “It was much better than any rave; I would take a little something and get the bus to the zoo, listening to home-taped compilations of the Cocteau Twins on my Walkman . . . The Cocteau’s music was damn good zoo music: exotic, sensual, mischievous, surprisingly unreal, like a toucan’s beak! . . . Of course, central to their sound has always been Elizabeth Fraser’s singular voice, this streamer-like instrument, completely on its own . . . an untethered but lonely thing.”

A lot of writers have attempted to describe Elizabeth Fraser’s voice and have ended up writing what ex-NME editor Steve Sutherland once called “mind’s-eye gibberish”. And a lot of listeners have tried to work out what words Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is singing and have concluded that it’s “mind’s-eye gibberish”.

To give you some idea how important that voice and that gibberish is to me, here are a couple of stats from my iPod. It contains 21.9 hours of music by the Cocteau Twins and/or Elizabeth Fraser – including B-sides, alternative mixes, live bootlegs, a cover of “Frosty the Snowman” and two adverts for Fruitopia. It contains, as far as is downloadably possible, everything Elizabeth Fraser has recorded.

And here are a couple of memories. My 16th birthday, sitting on the floor of my bedroom, having just set up my brand-new stereo record player and choosing to christen it by playing “The Spangle Maker” EP. This February, driving back from visiting my mother in the hospice, starting something, anything, by the Cocteau Twins on my iPod, getting in bed and pulling the covers over my head, going foetal. Elizabeth Fraser’s voice is part of my survival kit.

Back in the excited summer of 2006, when I mentioned to a few friends that I might, just might, be writing lyrics for Elizabeth Fraser – and then, in many cases, had to remind them of who exactly she was (“You know, Cocteau Twins, Eighties, indie band, ‘Song to the Siren’ – come on, you know”) – they usually made a joke along the lines of that being a bit like jamming with My Bloody Valentine on descant recorder. My chances of being (a) heard and (b) understood were about as minimal.

After I finished speaking to X, I didn’t even stand up from my desk. I wrote four or five lyrics straight out. This was the dream job. Fast as I could, I sent these and a few more lyrics to Elizabeth Fraser’s manager – and precisely nothing happened. I copied them out again, with my best ink-pen on my best paper in my best curly handwriting, and posted them to Elizabeth Fraser’s last-known record company – and nothing happened again.

Since the Cocteau Twins split up in 1997, Elizabeth Fraser’s fans have become extremely used to nothing happening. A solo album has been imminent for at least a decade. A Cocteau Twins reunion at the 2005 Coachella Festival crashed and burned. But there have been intermittent releases and some of them have been exquisite. Her Craig Armstrong song “This Love” gave Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions its only moment of true emotion. Her duet with Peter Gabriel, “Downside Up”, was the best thing to come out of the Millennium Dome (not hard, I know). Her little-known songs with the French musician Yann Tiersen, particularly “Mary”, are probably her best post-Cocteaus work.

There have also been moments of real crossover. Millions of people will, without realising it, have heard her singing (in Elvish) on the soundtrack to the first two Lord of the Rings films. She has toured stadiums with Massive Attack. For the most part, though, there’s been a deliberate avoidance of public exposure. She has lived in Bristol, raised her daughters.

And then Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons invited Fraser to take part in the Meltdown festival he was directing for Dream line-up: the Cocteau Twins pictured in 1995 London’s Southbank. She said yes. And over the past month, there have been a calm-sounding interview on the Today programme and adouble-page spread in the Observer. Plus, there have been a lot of mind’s-eye gibberish descriptions of the voice.

In all of this, there’s a tendency to forget the Cocteau Twins were, when not a trio, a particularly intimate duo. Without Robin Guthrie’s encouragement and love, Fraser’s voice might never have been heard outside her hometown of Grangemouth, Falkirk. And, despite all the subsequent collaborations, Fraser’s voice has never sounded so at home as within the vast soundscapes Guthrie created to support it. Aspects of his production that once sounded dated are now beginning to sound period. It is about huge, gorgeous, amorphous emotions – part-heroin, part-grief, part-pop. Fraser has subsequently talked about her “co-dependency” with Guthrie, but that interwovenness was the beginning of their craft. They were twins whose first record was called Garlands.

As far as X’s “very interesting proposition” went, nothing has continued to happen. No call came from Elizabeth Fraser’s manager. No invitation to a basement studio down in Bristol. No scribbled notes to bring back to London and turn into something singable. Instead, I kept going with the wordy half of songs. When I first met the composer Emily Hall, I gave her those four or five lyrics I’d written after getting the call from X. And, pretty soon, one of them will be released on a mini-LP of songs performed by Mara Carlyle, the pianist John Reid and the cellist Oliver Coates.

When the dream job failed to come off, my biggest disappointment was not that Fraser might not sing my words but that I might never get to be in a room with that voice. At first, I didn’t believe the Meltdown announcement. Thinking I might hear her singing live was, for me, roughly equivalent on the Jesus Fuck Scale to being able to catch a set by Billie Holiday. I was on the Southbank Centre hotline for two hours the morning tickets went on sale. When I finally got through, I was told that Fraser’s were the fastest-selling events of the whole festival.

I will be very surprised if the concerts don’t conclude with Elizabeth Fraser duetting with Antony Hegarty on “Half-Gifts”, a song whose lyrics transformed him back in 1996. “She spent her whole career singing in personal, intuitive languages,” he said in an interview with New York magazine. “On the last record, she started singing in English and the words were revelatory. The last line of the last song was ‘I still care about this planet. I still feel connected to nature and to my dreams. I have my friends and my family. I have myself. I still have me.’ I remember thinking, the most radical thing you can do . . . is to project hope.”

Some of us would have found it a whole lot harder to hope without that voice.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

Show Hide image

The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood