He's an awful gossip, I'm a historian

Katie Grantthinks that Ron Davies' descendants will be delighted he got his name in the papers

Gossip, so the Bible tells us, is evil. However, Shirley Brooks, a 19th-century editor of Punch, hit the other truth when he observed that "the love of evil is the root of all money". Newspaper proprietors and diarists have learnt this lesson well. Indeed, newspapers are at present awash with gossip, from the sexuality of various cabinet ministers to the more amusing revelations from the safely dead Woodrow Wyatt.

The chattering classes, who have most to fear from it, are apt to deplore gossip. How could Lord Wyatt be so ungentlemanly as to reveal that his daughter only got into Oxford because he pulled the right strings? How could he reveal what Lady Thatcher privately thought of members of her cabinet? And how can the sexuality of Peter Mandelson or Nick Brown be anybody's business but their own?

Yet the truth is that while we deplore gossip, especially if it is about ourselves, we not only love it but we actually need it. Unless we are to go back to old-fashioned history - "one damned king after another" - gossip is what puts the flesh on the bones of the past. The Wyatt diaries, Glenn Hoddle's locker-room book on the World Cup and the tabloid headlines about Ron Davies and Nick Brown tell us far more about life in the late 20th century than the Court Circular. Social historians rely as much on the tabloids as the broadsheets.

It is a luxury for intellectuals to deplore gossip, and they are being disingenuous when they do. No less a figure than Geoffrey Brereton, fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, considered Jean Froissart, a contemporary of Chaucer and Petrarch, to be one of the greatest medieval European writers. Yet Froissart is, essentially, a gossip. This is exactly what makes his writing so important and so attractive. Froissart recounts, for example, while telling us that he cannot possibly tell us, that he has heard that the Duchesses of Normandy and Orleans were obliged to flee from the Jacquerie in their underclothes. This is clearly gossip but because it took place 600 years ago we choose to call it history.

Any lapse in time gives gossip status. Historians of Carolingian Europe spend hours discussing whether Charlemagne (d 814) kept his daughters at court because he wished to have sex with them. I hardly think this was considered a proper subject for conversation in the Great Hall. But now historians, who would never dream of buying a contemporary copy, long for a 9th-century Daily Mirror to see what the gossips were saying. People who in the 1930s would have felt uncomfortable reading speculation about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor now unashamedly watch television programmes and read articles about their private lives. Yet it cannot really be construed as in the public interest to know whether Charlemagne committed incest (especially as we have no means of ever ascertaining the truth) or what Edward and Wallis gave people for dinner. But because it is now "history" rather than "gossip" we read and speculate about Charlemagne or the Duke of Windsor with no sense of intruding on their private lives.

We also have the new phenomenon of "charitable gossip" exemplified by, for example, Clive James. These people deliver their revelations, in his case about the late Princess of Wales, with an air of moral righteousness because the money received goes to charity. As a member of the public I deplore this kind of Jesuitical reasoning. As a historian, however, I commend it because it is out of just such revelations that interest will be sustained in public figures beyond their deaths.

The royal biographers Andrew Morton and Penny Junor are busy bridging the gap between gossip and history. We despise them now but future generations will be grateful. In 200 years, students writing theses on the role played by the Princess of Wales in the destruction of the British monarchy will read Morton and Junor as essential sources, much as reading Froissart is essential for a more complete understanding of the hundred years war.

Lord Wyatt, it is true, was not trying to turn himself into a historian but was following Dr Johnson's advice and writing for money. As a result of what his daughter Petronella calls "his best joke yet", the Wyatts' finances are increasing even as their list of friends diminishes. A good joke indeed. Yet the point of good gossip - and Wyatt's is not just good, it is vintage - is that it is not a joke. Future Wyatt generations will certainly not want his diary to be treated as anything so trivial. They will be keen that its importance as a primary historical source is acknowledged. In time they will be gratified to read heavyweight articles in learned journals discussing the benefits to post-feminist woman of patronage at Oxford colleges and how the purchase of a Dior dressing gown for a child was symbolic of the decadence and vanity of aristocratic life in the dying days of this century. In the same way, what may have caused outrage in 1358 became, by the late 20th century, a matter of pride for the descendants of the duchesses who fled in their underclothes. A malicious slating of an ancestor by the 12th-century writer Gerald of Wales (he would have made an excellent right-wing tabloid journalist) is now a cause for celebration as it means that your family was once important. It is, perhaps, particularly important if your family is no longer one which would be of any interest to today's satirical writers.

Those chattering-class columnists who sanctimoniously decry tabloid speculation should beware of ridiculing sources which will be valuable for the future. And those who, like Ron Davies, find themselves the subject of the speculation should take heart. The headlines may be uncomfortable and embarrassing now. But once the gossip, "a sort of smoke that comes from the dirty tobacco-pipes of those who diffuse it" as George Eliot described it, becomes "real, solemn history" (Jane Austen), your descendants will be eternally grateful. Gossip may be evil but history is the stuff of which legends are made. Only be patient.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians

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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