Letter from London: Only the Lonely

Stephen Rae and Sinéad O’Connor (as apparition of Virgin Mary) in The Butcher Boy (1997).

There is such a thing as a ‘Reconceptualising Loneliness in London’ report. I came across it by accident. It was commissioned by the Greater London Authority (GLA). It says there are 700,000 Londoners affected by severe loneliness. 12 per cent of these are young, 18 per cent are low-income, 15 per cent are LGBTQ+, 12 per cent are Single Parents, and 18 per cent Deaf and Disabled. As creative non-fiction king Tom Wolfe once wrote, ‘The whole conviction of my life now rests upon the belief that loneliness, far from being a rare and curious phenomenon, peculiar to myself and to a few other solitary men, is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.’ Principal areas for action by the GLA include ‘more connectedness’. What drives people towards loneliness, they want to treat as health risks, which is why the report is aimed at ‘policymakers, funders, charities, community organisations and individuals’. By building ‘kindness’ into systems, it hopes to win battles. In short, it wants a love-in.

Our family seem lucky in not suffering too much from loneliness, though I suspect humility in order here. As it happened, last week was a rare opportunity for me to spend some time with myself. After saving up, my musician daughter was away with a friend in Italy, gliding between Rapallo and Portofino. The artist and our musician son were seeing the artist’s family in the heart of the Cotswolds.

This was when south-east London suddenly rocked with news of Sinéad O’Connor’s death only a few miles away. Despite the acoustic guitar — a revered Martin — in a video she made of her recent move, being alone is not always melodic. In Sinéad O’Connor’s case, especially following the suicide of her 17-year-old son, she was often decrying in public an absence of family or company in her life. The Times last week reported neighbours as saying the singer had moved to south-east London to feel ‘less lonely’.

There was understandable anger and frustration to some of the responses to her death, and it was moving to see one of her CounterPunch articles put up here again. As many people know, Sinéad O’Connor was often grabbing the bulls of injustice or mental health by the horns.

As I went about my other business last week, I had the new Blur album ‘The Ballad of Darren’ on. Apart from tracks 2 and 3, it took me just two plays and I was in. Writer and ‘reformed comedian’ James Harris, who lives and works in London, described it as ‘like old Blur but wearier’. He was right. The weariness. I used to think Blur represented a kind of one-good-track-per-album occasionalism. Then I spent time in London’s Soho with bassist Alex James, a man of vast interests, and realised there was more to Blur than met the ear. For me, this new album sings of a hip worldliness waking up one day in a xenophobic nightmare. Oddly, it is not without hope.

For example, their song ‘Russian Strings’ is a powerful lament written from London to Russia with love: ‘Where are you now?/Are you coming back to us?/Are you online?/Are you contactable again?’ It comes with an animation of a soldier puppet that can never quite rise to its feet, drawn in doom-laden black and white, with the lyrics written underneath: ‘The tenement blocks come crashing down/With headphones on you won’t hear that much’. This song is smart to target solitary, intelligent, youngish Russians. Peace, which everyone in the world civilised enough craves, need not be in the hands only of old men. There are many liberal, young, exiled Russians in places like Istanbul, no doubt listening to this song. ‘There’s nothing fake on earth/There are strings attached to all of us,’ it continues.

Of course, the war in Ukraine — and repercussions thereof — are not all black and white. All manner of lonely contradictions are flying around. Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s ambassador in London for three years, has been relieved of his post for calling Zelensky’s rebuke of UK defence secretary Ben Wallace ‘unhealthy sarcasm’. This comes as reported Russian missiles hit Dnipro, and a leaked German intelligence report claims Ukraine’s counter-offensive making insufficient progress due to Ukrainian forces not following the training given by the West. This may be news to the Ukrainians involved in their possibly clever pincer move around the settlement of Urozhaine. (Could the Tenth Corps actually reach Melitopol or even Crimea?) Regardless, many of us listening to Blur just wish it would stop. The war, not the album.

Being a Russian in the House of Lords must be a pretty singular experience. Evgeny Lebedev, also known as ‘Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation’, I kid you not. Lebedev has just put something up on social media about what he calls the ‘hilariously miscalculated’ closure of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s Coutts Bank account, a story which began with merit but now drones on and on like a hoverfly breaking perpetual wind. Lebedev was attempting to place the story in the broader context of corporate virtue signalling, which according to him also ‘weaponised Russophobia’. Responses came hard and fast to this colourful son of a former KGB officer. ‘Are you sure it’s not less to do with corporate virtue signalling and more to do with an illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine?’ wrote producer and writer Danny Wallace. ‘Yes,’ added equally ridiculing comedian and writer Dom Joly: ‘Russia is clearly just misunderstood, thank God you are in the House of Lords to clarify matters for us…’ Meanwhile Lebedev’s biggest supporter — Daily Mail columnist Boris Johnson — has been writing about ‘Barbie’.

Okay, I admit there is nothing uncommon about being alone. But didn’t Buddha say we should apply ourselves to solitude because that is where we see things as they are? Everywhere we go, there is loneliness or isolation. Even the new London novel ‘Brian’ by Jeremy Cooper has the following: ‘He had joined a book-reading club, mostly of women, jolly, middle-aged, who ridiculed his proposals of novels to read, listened in silence to his halting comments on the book-of-the-month and moved promptly on to topics of their own concern. In another attempt at company, he took up football. Not playing, of course, he was hopeless at sport, but watching, becoming a home supporter at West Ham. This was a failure too, leaving him post-match on Saturday evenings with an even greater sense of isolation.’

Someone else in London who must have been feeling alone was American Kevin Spacey. The Oscar-winning thespian from New Jersey, a personal friend of Bill Clinton, was eventually acquitted last week here in London of nine sexual charges. This was after 12 hours of deliberation. As the final Not Guilty was uttered, the actor shed a tear and placed his hand on his chest, nodding thanks to the jurors. For many years, Spacey was artistic director of London’s time-honoured Old Vic. His ‘Richard III’ which was directed by Sam Mendes is still talked about, along with his celebrated version of David Mamet’s ‘Speed-the-Plow’ with Jeff Goldblum. He was a firm part of the city’s cultural life, and for this was awarded an honorary knighthood, the theatrics of which he must have enjoyed. From being treated only moments ago as a pariah, he is now already feted and enjoyed again, hanging out for example in the most visible corner of the Groucho Club.

My family is back now. Opposite the flat is a bus stop. In our different ways, we notice various people waiting for buses all the time. Rarely are these people not alone, with only the passing joggers enjoying company. I notice they don’t like to stand too close to one another, carving out great distances at the bus stop instead. (The opposite, if you like, of a rapidly unifying, still precarious, Africa right now.) People say that public transport, which we as a family all favour, helps engage us with our city, just as Andrea Riseborough’s character Hana in Zeina Durra‘s PTSD aid worker movie ‘Luxor’ says to her old Egyptian lover, being alone makes us feel a presence.

Talking of light in the darkness, Irish cinematographer Noel Donnellon, the talented brother of Paul Donnellon, worked with Sinéad O’Connor. He posted an image of the singer with actor Stephen Rea in which the singer was dressed as the Virgin Mary. ‘The best Virgin Mary I ever worked with,’ wrote Donnellon, aware of the irony of his remark.

Peter Bach lives in London.