The handbag of God

When homeless people seem lazy, sleep seems a waste of time and sex even more so, you're ready to pl

Thatcher left a provocative taste on the nation's tongue both politically and domestically, whether it be the stale emptiness of hunger, or of the now soured cream atop a Black Forest gateau bought with new money . . . Yes, the handbag of God touched us all.

As my right foot reached the tarmac of the parking lot outside Great Meadow Productions, June 2007, and my left remained gripped to the carpet of an old black cab, I attempted to steady myself in pre paration for as graceful a descent as one can muster with three backpacks, six scripts and a satchel full of episodes of the former Yugoslavian hit TV series Tesna koza.

"Kevin" the cabbie craned his neck to spectate in silent satisfaction. Kevin had reminded me on loop round every bend from Borough that he knew where I was going and I didn't. As I spat myself out of the car he couldn't resist icing the sticky journey, caked in heat, by purring, "Now, have you got everything, love?" both sides of his mouth curling. I made my way into the cool tranquillity of a public toilet in the basement and began to talk to myself in the mirror. Once I'd stopped feeling the urge to punch Kevin, specifically Kevin, I then felt the urge to punch all men. And thus my understanding of Margaret Thatcher began.

"Go back to the literature" - Joan Didion

Many thank yous to Kevin later, the Great Meadow meeting having been successful, I found myself surrounded by great doorstops of cold, hard fact, with a sprinkling of fiction, most of them written by the good lady herself.

For Maggie, knowledge was as powerful as it had been for John Lilburne in the Fleet Prison during the English Civil War. For the actor, as Mike Leigh once told me, there are things one needs not to know, but, in some part of my psyche, Margaret Thatcher will always be prime minister. All through my childhood that was her job. My job was to complete the Lego space hub for a newly acquired caterpillar. My dad's job was to sell luxury Japanese cars to Geordies all day, then come home to my plastic construction site and tell me how great Margaret Thatcher was at her job, while my mum picked curtains for the new extension and my sister got her fingers jammed in the new VHS player.

The Grocer's Daughter was responsible for a significant boom in my household's economy during the 1980s, not least the upgrade from Betamax. It was therefore essential to attempt to forget everything I'd ever seen on Look North Tonight. I also realised after the first 50 conversations (enjoyable though they had been) that I should never tell anyone that my next role was Margaret Thatcher, especially men and drunk people at dinner parties. Everyone has an opinion.

Having studied the earliest footage available, I worked backward, chipping away at the shroud of preconception to explore the mental and physical enigma of this social-reform-hungry young thing, and here met the Margaret and the make-believe.

Playing "Kalina" the Croatian-Serb beautician by night, I spent the day in personal pre-production, dividing the 13-year journey to Finchley into three stages of her development - Innocence, Experience and Downright Ruthlessness - as the surest references to withstand a non-sequential shoot. When you're making a film for £2.50 you haven't got time to fanny about.

I sat in her bedroom on a soggy Sunday, stared out of the crescent window at Grantham below and thought, "Why not? Why not get the fuck out of here?" I smelled the worn, wooden fixtures from the shop below. I remembered having championed an ecclesiastic debate in church that day and anticipated the completion of darning my right sock before returning that night.

I was nearly apprehended for trespassing at her grammar school one morning, uninvited and skulking around for Roberts's residue, my escape not helped by my last-minute, conspicuous clothing choice of Iron Maiden T-shirt, violet leggings, and tutu the previous night as I'd rushed from the theatre to King's Cross.

"I am staying my own sweet, reasonable self" - Margaret Thatcher

It's strange when it happens. And it happens overnight. I started to stop "doing" her. Homeless people seemed lazy. Men began to irritate me. The sinking of the Belgrano seemed entirely justified. Sleeping became a waste of time, sex even more so. I developed a neck-jerk response to the dull question, "How does one balance a home life and a career?" My face made a smile but my eyes no longer wanted to follow suit. A new pair of eyes had opened within, and this time they were true blue.

"The people of Britain need to learn to eat their own two feet" - Spitting Image's Margaret Thatcher

Sympathy is human. Some might argue this is proof that Margaret Thatcher is the devil. The glimpse of an Oxfam poster, and penning that plea to Gordon Brown for Darfur asylum-seekers is back at the top of my list of priorities, but a couple of days pass and my letter drawer remains unleafed. That, my friends, is sympathy - shallow, dirty, Hallmark sympathy. Empathy is something different.

It's an extraordinary thing to feel the struggle of a woman who seemed so hopelessly alien, to feel every one of your nerve endings alive with tenacity, to believe above all else in social reform. Whether society at large feels it important to understand what really made the young Iron Lady tick or not, I certainly gained an invaluable understanding of how my childhood home - and many others - came to be Thatched.

Andrea Riseborough starred in "Margaret Thatcher: the Long Walk to Finchley", broadcast recently on BBC4

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Thou shalt not hug

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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:

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