hg: A Lonely City

A new city. An isolating job. Unapproachable neighbours. A long, cold winter. Loneliness.

This was my experience for the first six months of living in Newcastle.

It feels strange admitting this. Almost taboo. But loneliness is a common problem and needs attention.

A book I read last month - Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman - is about a chronically lonely woman who lives a secluded life, surviving empty weekends by drinking two bottles of vodka. Honeyman says the character was inspired by a newspaper article about loneliness, which featured “an interview with a young professional woman, living in a big city, who said that she’d often leave work on Friday afternoon and not speak to another human being until she returned on Monday morning.”

Having been lonely myself, and now beginning to find a sense of belonging, this book helped me to look back and make sense of how I’ve been feeling. The lack of human interaction is now obvious, the nagging depression understandable.

Another story that comes to mind is that of Christopher McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp. He struggled with the oppression and cruelty of society and decided to abandon it altogether. After months of travelling across America, he strode off into the Alaskan wilderness to live off the land in solitude. It wasn’t long before he realised his mistake. Loneliness is too high a price. He finally observed, “happiness [is] only real when shared.”

Thankfully, I didn’t end up like Alexander Supertramp or Eleanor Oliphant, holed up in an abandoned school bus in the Alaskan tundra or inebriated for days at a time. Things could’ve been worse before I realised the importance of human connection. I just needed to experience acute loneliness in a new city.

It’s a strange paradox - being surrounded by thousands of people in a city and feeling lonely. Of course, it’s normal to feel lonely in a new city. It takes time to meet people and form lasting friendships. And I’m sure my expectations of the vibrant social life I should’ve been having only exacerbated my loneliness.

Nevertheless, the cocktail of new environs, far from family and friends, and working outdoors during a trying winter with no sense of community amongst my ‘colleagues’, created the perfect storm. I retreated to my flat and relied on my relationship with Naomi.

I can’t help thinking there were other causes too.

For example, I have a recurring fantasy every time I walk down my road. It’s a nondescript street. A collection of terraced houses, lined by tarmac and parked cars. But when I stroll along, it becomes pedestrianised, the tarmac grassed over with a small path meandering through. Trees line the path and picnic benches are dotted around in their shade. Front gardens are planted with wildflowers and vegetable patches.

Not only would it be cleaner, quieter, safer, healthier, and better for the environment, it could also encourage communities to mingle more in this shared space, making the common silence between neighbours easier to break. Certainly more sociable than a curt nod as we rush to our cars for the morning commute. Speaking of cars, they could be parked in the back lane with the bins.

We also have a fantastic chance to fulfil such fantasies. In case you haven’t heard, the high street is dying and air pollution is bad. Rather than cause for panic, this strikes me as an excellent opportunity to make our streets about more than shopping, overpriced food, and car parks. We could reclaim some streets as public space to meet and socialise for free. Imagine artist spaces, community cinemas and gardens, libraries, urban farms, pop-up food halls. There’s plenty of ideas already being done on a small scale and my bet is they mitigate loneliness.

Aside from fulfilling my grassy, tree-lined fantasy, isolation can be tackled in many other ways. Perhaps the most intriguing to me is semi-communal living.

Housing projects like these give occupants their own flat, complete with kitchen and living area, and also provide a communal kitchen and dining area on the ground floor. Shared dinners are held a few times a week and everyone is encouraged to mingle when they fancy. This strikes me as the best of both. Private space when you want it, plus shared space to have a meal with neighbours.

As an environmental analyst called David Roberts once said, “the ingredients of resilience” are “overlapping social and civic circles, filled with people who, by virtue of living in close proximity and sharing common spaces, know and take care of each other. The greatest danger in times of stress or threat is isolation. Finding ways of expanding public spaces and nurturing civic involvement is not just some woolly-headed liberal project - it’s a survival strategy.”

We like to socialise because we need to socialise. Even a self-proclaimed introvert like me needs companionship.

If I’ve learnt anything, it’s the importance of valuing friendship and making the effort to be in company. To laugh and share a home-cooked meal. To lounge in the park on a sunny afternoon. To drink and dance. To feel comfortable and supported in a community. That sounds like a pleasant “survival strategy” to me.