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