Leaf Arbuthnot

A Humming Republic of Others


Somewhere in my friend Ayla’s flat in London is an A4 pile of emails written by me in 2003. I was eleven at the time, and a very young eleven: dorky, so freckled you could barely see my eyes, anxious that my new secondary school didn’t have a playground.

The emails are from me. But they’re also to me. That school year, I kept up an impassioned digital correspondence with myself. The exchanges are deranged, but also charming in their way. ‘How are you?’ I ask in one email. ‘Fine!!!!’ I reply the next morning, ‘how are you?’ These exchanges go on and on, chasing their tails. ‘Enough about me,’ I write to myself. ‘How are YOU?’

When word got out that I was sending these emails, some girls at my school found it weird. I had two options: play along with the joke or be humiliated and try to stamp the story out. I played along, which is how Ayla has the emails now: she found them so ‘random’ she asked to print them off in the computer room. I’m glad she did, as all trace of them would otherwise have disappeared.

The emails have been on my mind this year. The pandemic has forced each of us into a more intimate relationship with ourselves than we’d probably bargained for. I’ve spent the lockdown at my parents’ house in Berkshire where I’ve done the same walk, at the same time, every day for months on end. Pushing myself through fields whose seasonal shifts I’ve monitored, I’ve often felt enclosed in the same unhinged loop as those emails: how are you? And how are you? And how are you?

It’s been a lonely time for so many: the clinically vulnerable, barred in their homes, elderly people, single people, furloughed people unsure if they will have a job to go back to. Some, particularly parents of school- aged children, have been so frantic they’ve barely been able to wonder how they are. But many of the rest of us have felt like castaways with just a tiger and the sea for company. Busyness was a metropolitan marker of status before the lockdown; now it’s become a trigger for nostalgia. I long for the state of having so much to do that all contemplation and psychological pulse-checking is rendered impossible. Computer says no. Turn the music up, up, up.

Perhaps the most lonely moments of the last year have unfolded in hospitals. A friend nearly died of coronavirus, and remembers being wheeled through corridors and processed by health professionals in masks. He couldn’t hear what they were saying and felt bombed out, barely able to draw breath. He realised he’d passed into another world: become a patient, a set of symptoms, a case. The unassailable specificity of him was wiped away. He was translated out of the particular and into the general. Another coronavirus victim. One of a madding, coughing crowd. None of us expects the worst to happen to us, and when it does it strikes like thunder.

While it’s been an especially isolating period, mass loneliness is hardly new. We were talking about the ‘loneliness pandemic’ long before the actual pandemic. In 2017, the former US Surgeon General said the country was wrestling with an ‘epidemic of loneliness’. Theresa May decided the situation in Britain was grave enough to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City is one of a number of books on the subject that have come out in the last decade. I’ve forgotten nearly everything in Laing’s book, as I tend to with non-fiction, but two central messages remain in me and continue to light the way to hope. First: that great artists have been among the loneliest people. Second: that there is great art to be generated from the peculiar weight of feeling alone. Perhaps I should have known: one of the abiding images of loneliness for me has always been from the 1967 film The Graduate, and shows Dustin Hoffman underwater, trussed up in a deep-sea scuba suit. Its corollary image is of Hoffman floating around a pool on a lilo. He’s young and naive and handsome and exquisitely unreachable. These pictures serve as a reminder that beauty can be wrested from isolation, however searing.

Loneliness may have swung into publishing vogue in the 2010s but it has of course been twined with the human condition for a long time. Academic appraisals of loneliness in the West tend to track it to the emergence of individualism in the nineteenth century. Before then the word ‘loneliness’ seldom cropped up – it was even included in a 1674 glossary of rarely-used words (along with ‘attercob’, meaning spider web, and ‘glotten’d’, meaning startled). ‘Oneliness’ was used, to refer to the state of not being with anyone else. But the term seems to have had no emotional resonance, whereas now, the word for the state of being alone – ‘solitude’ – has a certain violet tint.

Loneliness became prevalent as people unwound themselves from their communities: moved to the big smoke, sacked their servants, cast their old and infirm into facilities. Studies suggest loneliness has become particularly acute in recent years, with the transition from rooted, reciprocal living to something cellular and jittery and insecure. The rot has reached the top of the tree: Donald Trump was described by his biographer Tim O’Brien as ‘one of the loneliest people I know’, and it’s become a cliché for elites to rue the loneliness of leadership. If you want to find an earthier kind of loneliness, download the dating app Hinge, where it is an unspoken rule of the game that you don’t confess to feeling lonely, unless you want to be pitied or ghosted.

Conditions that made people lonely before the pandemic have intensified during it: Covid-19 shortens breath but it also tightens psychological screws. I’ve come to realise how much energy I drew from moving between different social cadres. For the fortunate, pre-pandemic, the day consisted of visits to social playgrounds, in which we sent avatars of ourselves onto the swings. But the introduction of the social distancing measures – and the mantra to ‘stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives’ – sheared multi-compositional days down to hours spent in one grey monosyllable – ‘home’ – with all our selves crammed in one space. No fun at all.

Many older people, particularly those without internet or the will to master it, were already surviving off the leanest scraps of social interaction before the lockdown. Many will have found that their predicament got much worse when the government told them to stay indoors. The alertness to this group’s suffering has been a good thing. The fact that we in Britain have battled to preserve elderly life, with an ambition and commitment not seen during the 1918 pandemic, is a testament to how much more caring we have collectively become. But it’s clear that Covid loneliness has chewed the candle at both ends. Teenagers and millennials in particular have been whacked by this thing, stripped of the freedom to do the one thing many young people like doing most: pissing time up the wall with friends.

Children who got a daily intake of socialising at school have had to adjust to a stingier existence, in which it’s mattered more than ever how rich or cultured their parents are. Undergraduates have had to log into lectures from their sofas, as if that’s what university is about. Teachers have told me they worry their teen charges will emerge from this period with a stunted vocabulary, as they’re hardly spoken to at home. It’s tempting to be dismissive of the young and their mania for ‘socialising’ – the very word is bubblegum – but it’s vital to remember that at that phase in your life, before professional achievements count or families start to form, the sum of your existence feels very much like the sum of your friendships. Fortnite and Instagram only take you so far.

In the middle of the lockdown, I published my first novel, Looking for Eliza. The pandemic kiboshed any hopes I’d had of a booze-up, and I launched the novel on Zoom to a grid of waving thumbnail-people. I’d have preferred to publish the book at a time when bookshops were open, but the novel ended up being oddly pertinent. The story is about loneliness and how it can strike women of different generations and temperaments: Ada is a widowed poet in her seventies, while Eliza, of the book’s title, is scraping her way through a PhD on Primo Levi. Ada lives virtually under lockdown – the book starts with her having a traumatic encounter at a supermarket, after which she shuts herself up at home – but Eliza, who is 25, lives a more recognisably liberated life, drifting around Oxford on her bike, shagging strangers on canal boats and failing to find her place in the world.

In the novel, the two women find kinship and a modest sort of salvation in one another. It’s a hopeful story about the rewards of building connections across generations, despite the difficulties that age gaps can throw up. One of my favourite scenes is when Ada finally bites the bullet and asks whether Eliza is a lesbian, because she has short pink hair. Eliza explains that she’s bisexual. They have a conversation about gender and sexuality that is free of the judgement that these subjects attract online. I suppose I wanted to show that enriching dialogue about even the most contested ideas can still happen, when people show goodwill.

There aren’t, as far as we yet know, all that many positives to have come out of the pandemic. No doubt technological wizardry will emerge, and if the UK’s pandemic response next time round isn’t better, I imagine we’ll all have something to say about it. Of the few positives we know of now, the possibility of strengthened ties across the generations gives me cause for most hope. For all that it’s been a bleak period, a period in which calls to mental health and domestic violence hotlines have soared, there have been modest gains. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t broken out of their bubble in some way, to help or, just as important, be helped by, a stranger. The young have shopped for the old; they’ve collected their prescriptions and chatted to them on their doorsteps. The old, in many cases, have opened up their homes to the young, lending out their fabled spare rooms. The pandemic has brought home quite how interconnected we are, at both a global and a local scale. If the scholars are right in linking our self-sufficient, cellular lives with the rise in existential angst, some could emerge from this period strengthened against the call of loneliness.

The enemy is not ‘oneliness’. It’s not solitude. To be alone and to be happy to be alone is one of the richest states possible. But nor should the enemy be loneliness itself. I’ve gone through periods of searing loneliness in my twenties, and while none were cute, each was useful. The lonely individual joins a humming republic of others. Beauty, empathy, literature: all can be prospected from it. Often, of course, there are no gains. You stay in the scuba suit, but no one sees.

I still send myself emails. But mostly these days to keep words safe: articles I’m writing, chapters, notes. For a time a guy called Leaf worked at a rival newspaper, and used to receive my articles before they were out, then a panicked email begging him not to publish what hadn’t yet come out in my own paper. He was always kind and never scooped me.

The other day I received an email from myself that I’d scheduled in, months ago. I’d known I’d be in London the day I received the email. I’d anticipated, all that time before, that I’d be feeling stressed about something that I had to do. The email had an attachment. It was a photo of my favourite tree: a thocking great oak in the middle of a field by my parents’ house. I was anxious, as I’d known I would be. The tree calmed me down. ‘How are you?’ the email read. ‘I’m fine,’ I replied.


Leaf Arbuthnot
is an author and journalist. Her first novel, Looking for Eliza, was published in May, 2020 by Orion.

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