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After ten days alone, only The xx at Brixton Academy can make me feel normal again

Very quickly, it becomes clear that loneliness doesn’t suit me.

I’ve been on my own for the past ten days. I mean, there’s a 15-year-old in the house with me, and a 19-year-old, too, but teenagers live in their bedrooms, emerging only occasionally to announce that they’ve gone vegetarian, or want a Pink Floyd poster, so they’re not much in the way of company. And it doesn’t take long before I start to feel that I’ve become a slightly different person, that I’ve changed or reverted to type. I get a glimpse of the person I’d be if I were alone all the time.

I rattle around the house and I don’t sit in my normal corner seat of the sofa watching telly: I sit at the kitchen table instead and watch it on my laptop, and at night I creep back into the rumpled sheets of the unmade bed, refilling the impression I made last night. And like Joni said, “The bed’s too big/The frying pan’s too wide”.

Ben usually keeps up a constant soundtrack in the house, which is fine by me, a perk of living with a DJ, but now I’m in charge. I listen to Roxy Music, and Solange, and Elastica, and Liza Minnelli, and then I start on Rickie Lee Jones, and remember being a teenager listening to Pirates, always with a cigarette in my mouth, and when that’s done I watch the eight-hour O J Simpson documentary, and Mean Streets, and then Catastrophe, and then I sit up late reading The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson.

Twenty years ago I wrote a song called “Single” in which I asked myself: “And how am I without you?/Am I more myself or less myself?/I feel younger, louder/Like I don’t always connect . . .” I wonder the same things now. There’s a strangeness about being on your own, the sense that you are an odder person than you realised. Being in company, or with a partner much of the time, involves constant tiny adjustments and compromises, moments when you subtly shift in order to fit in with someone else. Your edges get smoothed off. You mirror each other and become more alike, which makes you feel normal. But when there’s no one to notice what you’re doing, or eating, or drinking or watching, and you can make all your own choices, you wonder whether your choices are weird.

In her book The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone Olivia Laing writes about how loneliness makes people hypervigilant about social threat, always on the lookout for rudeness and rejection, which inevitably leads to lonely people becoming more isolated and suspicious. “What this means is that the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact . . .”

That isn’t going to happen to me in ten days, I realise, but on the other hand I can sense very quickly the creeping isolation that comes upon you. You can feel not just odd, but invisible. As I sang in “Single”, “. . . if no one calls and I don’t speak all day,/Do I disappear?”

I don’t want to disappear and I don’t want loneliness to grow around me like fur, so after a few days I kick against it, and decide that the antidote is going out. I go walking with one friend, and have coffee with another, and dinner with three more, and then go to see The xx at Brixton Academy. It proves to be the perfect evening. Their songs revolve endlessly around the difficulties inherent in bonding with other people, trusting and believing, loving and being loved.

Everything about them hints at isolation: unshowy on stage, they look a little lost in the lights and mirrors, Romy’s guitar lines inhabit an empty, echoey space, and images of loneliness recur – “I can’t hold on/To an empty space”, “I go to those places where we used to go/They seem so quiet now/I’m here, all alone”.

They capture something specific about human awkwardness, especially during that youthful phase when you’re all elbows and feelings, but their music luxuriates in the experience, and out of it all they create a kind of desolate euphoria, so that by the end of the gig the balcony is shaking and we’re all dancing and singing, hands in the air, united and comforted, all of us alone together.

Next week: Kate Mossman

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.