Spending a Sunday afternoon recording a Radio 4 show in the library of the Wellcome Institute, near its cakes and pickle jars, is just the sort of thing that would be expected of me.
I was taking part in a recording to conclude the Anatomy of Rest series. It was a calm and poetic countdown of the top five activities that people partake in to find some sense of calm.
In at number 5 was “doing nothing”, though it might just as well have been called “slobbing around”. It was the only one on the list that I find to be an uncomfortable activity, or inactivity.
Four was music and I would certainly drink to that, though drinking did not make the top 5, which surprised me, but as we all know, “oh no,doctor, I only have about ten units a week and most of that is communion wine”. Nature was at number two. Francs Bacon (painter not chicken refrigeraror) would not have liked that, as I had read that morning how much he despised the birdsong of the countryside, preferring the cacophony of drunks in Soho drinking establishments. Reading was number one, and I would add browsing to that, but it wasn’t my survey, so I can’t.
I was given number three, solitude.
“I am a loner by choice…not mine, everyone else decided for me”.
As a child, my preferred games were of solitary characters. I would be Robinson Crusoe or an astronaut who had crash landed in a strange murky and wooded planet. I probably wanted more friends, but I have grown to be satisfied with my own company.
Long before Morrissey celebrated the Cemetery Gates, I would hang around graveyards, particularly fascinated by the lone war grave in the country churchyard with the soldier’s bugle cemented into the stone.
My work necessitates being gregarious, so my play can be play alone. I am happy to drink alone, to go to movies and theatre alone, to be lost in a book alone. Solitude does not have to happen in private, there is the joy of public solitude. After a small town gig, where I have been loudly showing off to strangers in an art centre, after the transition from performance, via post show chats with audience members, I am delighted to spend the final hour before closing time in a quiet pub, lost in a pint and a book.
Luis Bunuel wrote, “I like solitude, as long as someone drops by to chat about it from time to time.”
I can enjoy solitude because I know there are escape hatches into social whirls if I ring the bell for attention.
In our gregarious times, where if you’re not being social in reality there is a virtual socialising constantly jabbering, solitude is still viewed with suspicion.
Have you ever laughed while sat alone on a bus? The tribe grow suspicious. How dare that man imagine something in his head that has brought joy, the elders must be informed, he must be thrown out onto the waste ground as the Number 73 careers past the demolition sites.
There must be shame if signs of contentment, even happiness, are shown when not in company.
(I am always in company, I have a very busy inner monologue).
Positive solitude is forgetting the judgement of others. It is not being on social media, you may be alone, but you are also in a screaming pit being relentless jostled by emoticons and expletives if you are there.
Some years ago, I went to an Edward Hopper exhibition. I had been warned that the lonely figures in his paintings were so melancholy that I may depart the Tate with an oily black dog hovering above me. As it was, it was hard to feel the loneliness in rooms so busy, filled with voyeurs elbowing everyone out of the way to ogle the lonely people.
On the wall hung a painting of naked woman sat on chair, looking out of a window.
“oh how sad”
“what could be going through her mind?”
And I thought maybe what is going through her head is “hmmm, skirt or trousers”.
I look at the diner in Nighthawks with hope not despair. “I hope I am sat in a New York diner on my own at 3am, at the very least, I’ll feel like I live in a painting” and at the most, I’ll experience those spikes of delight that appear without warning and disappear when observed, but you know they were there in you for a little while.
Colin Wilson wrote of peak consciousness, those moments when you suddenly realise you are experiencing a rare sense of utter delight at existence. I remember sitting in a cafe with cake and coffee and a big bag of secondhand books and comics. The background music was low enough that it didn’t need to hijack your thoughts, and I felt delight to be in this version of my movie.
Do not be suspicious of your sometime desire for solitude, you can find your own flotation tank without shutting a lid and lying in saline, but be happy that loneliness can be a choice not a necessity.
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