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
This article appears in the 22 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution