THE SOLITARY LIFE

When I was a kid, the only people I knew who lived on their own were a few old ladies. I assumed they were all widows, going by the sepia-tinted portraits of Brylcreemed young men I sometimes spied on the sideboard. They probably lost their husbands in the war; but if they were of actual pensionable age (rather than merely ‘looking old’, as anyone over-40 did back then), I guess some of them might have been widowed in the ‘14-18 bash as much as the sequel. It was a long time ago. I was given the impression the solitary life was reserved for a very narrow demographic; there was nobody in my wider family who lived on their own, for example. Aunts and uncles already out of their teens remained at home until they got married; that was presented to me as the natural order of things. None of them went to university either, so they didn’t even get to experience what now seems to be the routine route to liberation – even if returning to the nest as a debt-addled graduate with little hope of being a homeowner is the inevitable anticlimax to this adolescent interregnum.

Unlike my childhood, those who live on their own today aren’t necessarily ageing widows, and being the sole resident of one’s abode is no longer viewed as especially unusual or even a little suspect if you don’t resemble Ena Sharples or Minnie Caldwell. A 16% increase in the number of Brits living alone in the 20 years between 1997 and 2017 pushed the numbers up to 7.7 million; and whilst widows and widowers naturally still figure, higher divorce rates have played their part too; what used to be referred to as spinsters and bachelors are also far more abundant today than they were 40-odd years ago.

Interestingly, whilst there has been a 16% fall in the 25-44 age groups, the 45-64 demographic has seen a rise of 53%, with a higher proportion of both the divorced and the never-married filling the stats, reflecting changing social mores. Men living alone outnumber women – particularly in the 25-34 groups – until we reach the 55-64 groups, when the numbers even themselves out. The former groups mostly consist of the unmarried, whereas divorcees dominate the latter. All age groups, however, are less likely to own their home than married couples without children. Rented accommodation in later life can bring with it specific uncertainties and insecurities; higher levels of anxiety and lower levels of happiness are also attributed to living alone when compared to couples.

Of course, being alone doesn’t necessarily equate with being lonely; as Bryan Ferry once so memorably said, ‘loneliness is a crowded room’. Indeed, for every Eleanor Rigby, there is someone quite content to own their own space, especially if they’ve experienced an unhappy marriage or have made a conscious choice to avoid matrimony altogether. One’s profession can also play a part in the success of one’s living arrangements; some jobs are conducive to domestic bliss, whereas others encompass antisocial hours or are simply designed for solitude. I can certainly vouch for the latter. Unless writers could work out a way to ‘jam’ in the manner musicians do – perhaps sitting in a circle hammering away at their laptops in synch – it’s very much something that is allergic to the communal and enhanced by the absence of company.

The creative process can last days, weeks and sometimes months, during which time a writer must be the least desirable spouse it’s possible to imagine. Married men-of-the-pen who managed to make a handsome living from it have at least enjoyed the luxury of a ‘writing shed’ at the bottom of the garden; both Dickens and Roald Dahl famously retreated to theirs when the muse struck, and their families understood this meant ‘do not disturb’. Rented flats on the top floors of houses aren’t quite as accommodating, though at least the solitary life in such circumstances ensures that which Virginia Woolf famously referred to as ‘a room of one’s own.’

Naturally, for every plus to living alone there is a minus. Whilst there are many solitary dwellers whose boy/girlfriends regularly sleep over and therefore enjoy a ‘part-time’ relationship that can work for both parties, there are plenty more bereft of that option. If one has nobody to come home to of an evening or wake up with in the morning, the opportunities to self-indulge in self-abuse (and I’m not talking strictly masturbation) are myriad. With nobody to watch over you or rein in your excesses, the temptation to overdo it can be tempting indeed. The problem is, unlike being an overgrown Macaulay Culkin, the novelty of the home alone scenario ceases to be a novelty if it’s the norm. It’s easy to slip into the mindset that nobody gives a shit, so why should you; and that’s a hard habit to break, one that fuels such self-indulgence. Drugs are a popular passport to personal oblivion; but when it comes to writers, the demon drink appears to be the most common excuse for not knowing when to stop.

Although a considerable stretch from being a ‘proper alcoholic’, I admit that until relatively recently I was well on my way to having a serious drink problem; and what had initially emerged as a psychological crutch following a personal tragedy quickly morphed into the clichéd components of the author’s armoury. I completely fell for the stereotype of the death-wish wordsmith with the bottle of scotch and packet of fags as his constant companions and suffered the consequences in terms of the damage it does to those around you. When I belatedly recognised the damage it was doing to me, I finally did something about it – even though I left it far too late to salvage what it had already cost me. My stint as Ray Milland interestingly had no adverse effect on the work – which probably made it easier to avoid addressing the issue – but its slow-burning impact on my life beyond the written word was devastating.

I can take a less-than nourishing crumb of comfort from the fact I was a ‘funny’ drunk rather than nasty (like my father) or violent (like those found in Saturday city centres); but it’s not much in the way of solace when I reflect on what a selfish, nihilistic dickhead I was. In truth, I am profoundly ashamed of the way I behaved and no apology to the injured party can ever be good enough. But at least I’ve narrowed down my consumption from an average daily intake of two bottles of wine, a dozen glasses of whisky and half-a-bottle of vodka to a solitary Chardonnay one evening a week. I might drink it wholly alone, but at least it’s all I drink.

Food can be another casualty of the solitary life. The appeal of a hearty meal doesn’t necessarily escape those living alone, but the lengthy preparation can feel like an immense demand on both time and energy when there’s only one mouth to feed; the easy alternative of some microwaveable plastic that can be unsealed, heated and scoffed in barely five minutes reflects the fact that solitude sometimes breeds hostility towards the ceremonies reserved for couples. In contrast to the instant meal for one, preparing, cooking, stirring and serving a proper dinner for two is a ritual that can span an hour or more, albeit a ritual that – if shared – can be as exquisitely intimate an experience as any that two people can enjoy with their clothes on.

Living on your own, as with sharing your life, has the potential to be either a blessing or a curse depending on the circumstances; both arrangements have their advantages as well as disadvantages, and both should be tried at least once. I’ve known many a miserable soul trapped in a loveless relationship, just as I’ve known many a life and soul for whom the thought of having to share their space is anathema. Ironically, when one examines the statistics, one is very much not alone in being alone.

© The Editor

STATE AND THE UNION

It’s official. I am a dysfunctional human being and I am a problem for society. These are facts I’ve long suspected, but I required confirmation from an expert – preferably a happily-married rich man who lives on land owned by his even richer father-in-law. According to this expert, I frequently have inherently unstable relationships because I’ve never tied the knot; as a consequence of this, I commit crimes, I drink too much, I take drugs and I have fathered multiple children. Considering yesterday’s post dealt with the legacy of IDS in his stint at the DWP, it’s nice that the old egghead has provided me with something to talk about today as well as giving these often disparate posts a semblance of continuity. You can’t keep a good man down, even when his CV is illuminated by a stint as leader of his party so ineffective that he was axed before he had the chance to fight a General Election.

The notion that the root cause of society’s ills is down to ‘cohabitating couples’ deciding not to have their union certified by an archaic, style-over-substance ceremony in a House of God or a registry office is one I should imagine cartoon characters like Jacob Rees Mogg fully endorse – as long as the couples in question are of the opposite sex, of course; but it would seem the IDS theory conveniently excludes poverty, piss-poor job opportunities, low wages, long working hours, lack of affordable housing and a world in which putting the hours in has little or no rewards. The have-not drones are expected to be content with their lot when the haves parade their tax-free gains across the media, rubbing the nose of the plebs in it as they do so. Unless they get married, naturally; all their problems would be solved in an instant then.

The stock of IDS has now sadly sunk so low that he is reduced to speaking at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference rather than the official corporate shindig itself; but at least it gives him free rein to expound upon his increasingly detached-from-reality theories allegedly formed via his spell as Work and Pensions Tsar under David Cameron. He eventually walked out on this post, claiming Dave and Gideon couldn’t care less about anyone who didn’t attend even a minor public school in his resignation letter; stating the bleedin’ obvious, maybe, but a pre-emptive strike that nicely facilitated the IDS role as a prominent Leave cheerleader during the EU Referendum. The Brexit sitcom may be an ongoing Whitehall farce, though Mr Duncan Smith has no part to play at Government level, so is forced into falling back onto his former favourite subject as a means of garnering self-publicity.

IDS claimed men unbound by the burden of wedlock were ‘released to do all the things they wouldn’t normally do’; this implies married men are impeccable models of respectable probity, the kind of gentlemen who wouldn’t dream of cheating on their spouses, so bound are they by the contract they enter into as though it had the God-fearing authority of a Medieval oath. ‘They are out,’ he said, ‘no longer having to bring something in for their family…so levels of addiction, levels of high criminal activity, issues around dysfunctional behaviour, multiple parenting – all these things are as a result of the un-anchoring of the young man to a responsibility that keeps them stable and eventually makes them more happy.’

It’s rather quaint that IDS firmly believes the kind of irresponsible men he speaks of somehow didn’t exist when any cohabitating couples siring offspring required a ring on the third fingers of their respective left hands. The idea that this acted as a preventative aid to men who don’t have it in them to play the husband/father role from wandering and philandering is a tad amusing; in actual fact, it merely kept the wife in a state of permanent misery, unable to hook up with a far more suitable candidate because she was tied to a waste of space courtesy of the social contract that marriage represented in less enlightened days.

The mistake made time and time again by the likes of IDS or Peter Hitchens at his reactionary worst is that a union sanctified preferably by the Church of England is one that will be honoured by both parties; a pleasant, Ladybird book ideal that doesn’t necessarily equate with reality, the belief that a partnership sanctioned by the state has a stamp of legitimacy that negates the kind of activities IDS blames on ‘common law marriage’ is one that may well play to traditional Tory principles, but has no basis in fact. Being married to the ‘fragrant’ Mary didn’t serve as an obstacle to Jeffrey Archer playing away with a prostitute, after all.

Twenty years ago next February (on Friday 13th – an ominous omen if ever there was one), I came within a whisker of officially certifying a union that was destined to collapse into chaos courtesy of the other half; had she not changed her mind at the eleventh hour, I doubt it would have lasted much longer than Cher’s union with Duane Allman, one that resulted in the former filing for divorce within nine days of the wedding in 1975. This was long before the Posh & Becks/Jordan & Peter Andre showbiz blueprint of the wedding ceremony that has descended into a tacky festival of bad taste via Reality TV and its PR publications, proving to be a pernicious influence on the mindset of the young and responsible for vast fortunes squandered on ceremonies hosted by country hotels and stately homes that often have little bearing on the actual relationship.

As it happens, Mr Duncan Smith, I’ve never been married and I’ve never indulged in parenting of any kind (multiple or no); my addictions and criminal activity have been limited to a level that wouldn’t have troubled the tabloids, let alone the boys in blue; and tarring everyone from a low-income demographic with lazy clichés that suit your self-image as a patrician lecturer based upon a reforming nineteenth century model simply isn’t good enough in the twenty-first century. IDS says one in five dependent children have no father figure at home, adding ‘A child in Britain is more likely to experience family breakdown than anywhere else in the world’; that may well be true, but a sanctified C-of-E union isn’t the solution, and believing it is simply shows a genuine lack of understanding of (as someone once said) crime and the causes of crime.

© The Editor

HAPPY EVER AFTER

divorceIn the first of his two stints as Home Secretary during the mid-60s, Roy Jenkins oversaw perhaps the greatest reform to some of England’s most antiquated laws than any other person to hold that post in living memory – the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the legalisation of abortion, the abolition of the death penalty, and much-needed upgrading of the complex process surrounding divorce. Right-wing revisionists might like to lay the blame of the ‘Permissive Society’ and its subsequent social fallout at his door, but society had already changed even before Jenkins kick-started legislation to reflect the shift in mores. Of all the reforms Jenkins oversaw, perhaps the most historically neglected is the one concerning the dissolution of marriage. In some respects, I only wish he’d gone further and outlawed the whole rotten institution.

I admit I’m a biased cynic on the subject and this is a wholly subjective piece as well as an extremely cynical one. Please accept my apologies. I had to attend a lot of family and non-family weddings as a child and I yawned my way them all, even if attendance gained me a welcome day off school. And now your humble narrator has been named as co-respondent in a divorce case – well, I’m not actually named as such; I am ‘Mr X’, the wicked seducer in the cock-eyes of the law; and the law is a ass, as someone once famously observed. Actually, I bloody well wish said accuser would name me; what an addition to one’s Outlaw CV that would be! I demand to be named! Instead, I have to settle for anonymity and being a bystander in a case that needed instigating, even if it has been instigated on an utterly farcical premise that enables the accuser to maintain the moral high-ground.

If it can be said to end in farce, the beginning is no better. There may have been a little fashionable tweaking to the old ceremonial aspect of the union, but it essentially remains an archaic and outdated ritual that has no basis in the life to follow. Like Christmas Day, a wedding belongs to a fantasy industry that various parties with a vested interest in its continuation act as brainwashing cheerleaders for. Loathsome celebrity couples with more money than taste have served to promote it to a new generation of deluded little Disney princesses raised on a diet of Bridget Jones bollocks, though the inevitable nasty divorce that is the natural climax of the ill-matched marriage is something the starry-eyed in love with the theatre of the event always choose to turn a blind eye to.

The idea of a woman as a possession of the father that he then hands over ownership of to the husband is a ludicrous anachronism in this day and age, and has been for decades; yet still, even in Twenty-bloody-Sixteen, there has to be the father (or the next best thing) surrendering his property in a laughable mock-legal transaction. It may be chic for the condemned to now insert their own sappy vows in place of the official spiel, but beyond the day they’re uttered before an audience, their relevance is akin to a fading suntan two weeks after the return from an overseas holiday. But, hey, let’s not quibble over irrelevancies. Mum gets to wear her new hat and call on the Kleenex when the ceremony reaches its gut-wrenching apogee, and the local church is able to pay for the new roof as a consequence of hosting endless gatherings of this nature that are crammed with people who wouldn’t be seen within half-a-mile of the venue come Evensong. And let’s not forget there’s always the reception, the entertainment value of which consists of an aunt who drinks too much and an uncle who fondles a bridesmaid; and everyone plays their allocated part in a badly-scripted sitcom that should have been cancelled forty years before.

However, if one can just about stomach the OTT frivolity of the ceremony when two become one, what comes next is just as meaningless and has little to do with love; the breeding machine for the future society is switched-on and the wife endures ongoing physical traumas in order that the post-nuclear family can keep buggering on with its 2.4 children. The statistics regarding divorce demonstrate how futile an institution marriage really is – 42% of them in Britain end in divorce; and whilst divorce levels are currently at their lowest for 40 years, the failure rate remains high and the likelihood of a marriage lasting until one of the spouses passes away in old age is fairly rare these days, certainly since couples no longer have to be chained to one another till death do them part.

Before the reforms Roy Jenkins oversaw in the 1960s, divorce went through various stages of complicated legal and moral changes; indeed, until the middle of the nineteenth century it was the exclusive province of the Church of England and Parliament – an expensive and protracted process undertaken not by barristers, but by civil law advocates and proctors in Doctors’ Commons; an annulment required an Act of Parliament, which restricted divorce to the wealthy, if they were prepared to weather the scandal as their most intimate marital details were discussed in the House.

Anyone familiar with Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ will recall the agony of the working-class character Stephen Blackpool, whose estranged alcoholic wife walks back into his life and he cannot rid himself of her or marry the woman he loves until his parasitic spouse dies. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1937 at least made the process easier for women, even if the ridiculous employment of private detectives to prove infidelity kept divorce in the realm of the absurd; and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 – a direct result of Jenkins’ reforms – democratised it considerably. A marriage could be now dissolved after three years; the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 reduced that period to twelve months.

I find it hard to understand why anyone would feel the need to adhere to an irrelevance like marriage in 2016 when the old stigma of ‘living in sin’ has been mercifully consigned to history. The only question that passed through my mind when gay marriage was the hot topic keeping the classes chattering was ‘Why do gay couples even want to buy into this heterosexual museum piece?’

When the inevitable separation and eventual divorce comes, the legal minefield it opens up (and the pound signs it sparks in the eyes of solicitors) drags on and on to the point whereby both weary parties must find it hard to recall why on earth they bothered in the first place. Add children to the equation and you may as well look upon a marriage contract as a death warrant. The woman I stand accused of conspiring with in order to douse a deceased marriage in the flammable liquid of adultery will be free again one day, but until the day actually arrives the legacy of the tumour upon individual freedom that marriage represents will remain an impediment to that freedom. It is not ‘the wife’ who is the ball and chain, but marriage itself.

© The Editor