“Alone now, there is nothing but my breath.
I scream and that turbulent fury that rages from my mouth,
Is silence. In the darkness.”
Marius Brill (Aged 14)
So, whilst wiry, post-pubescent, me was wondering if Faber & Faber was going to recognise my genius; fat, middle-aged, me would happily put the gun I was clearly looking for, to the temple of that spotty youth and end his tortuous self-obsession whilst simultaneously sparing the world his awful poetry. And, you know, juvenile me would have thanked the wrinkly old git with the Glock because, “yeah, I’ll be dead and then they’ll be sorry… and then someone’ll publish my poetry and the world will mourn the loss of my depth and potential.”
But somehow future me shouted loud enough through the temporal ether to convince teen me to bury my cheerless odes in a woollies notebook at the back of a cupboard. And though I was almost certainly anticipating a time when the world would finally recognise my virtuosity and cry out for my youthful insight, I can now only be grateful that it went no further than beneath a shoe box of multi-coloured Kickers.
Rediscovering that blacnk verse is not just acutely embarrassing, it’s a painful reminder of how difficult and angst ridden and confusing and troubling becoming a teenager can be. But if the pain of post-adolescence is like permanently having fillings drilled, being a parent of teenagers is unceasing root canal treatment.
When 14-year-old me stomped up to my bedroom to be alone it wasn’t actually to be alone. Yes I wanted to physically create the separation I felt from the parents who were failing to understand my vast emotional intellect, I wanted them to feel guilty for their shortcomings, but mainly I wanted to be with my pen, a spiral bound notepad, and my entire, imagined, future audience of adoring poetry-reading fans. Which, as it turned out, was exactly the same number as my present, real, adoring poetry-reading fans.
Now my youngest child has entered the teen trials. And she wants to be alone and she stomps up to her bedroom but not, fortunately, to write nauseating poetry (I don’t think) but to be alone with all her peers who have also disappeared, phones in hand, to be “alone” too. You’re never alone with a phone! Except, you’re always alone with your phone. The teenage bedroom has, since its invention, been the human cocoon from which, hopefully, a butterfly will eventually eat her way out of. And as hard as it is to be an adult and end a sentence with a preposition, it is harder still to transition from a constantly hovering “helicopter parent” to a long distance bomber parent who rarely gets flight clearance so tends to store up complaints to carpet bomb a month’s worth of problems in explosive, eye-streaming, outbursts.
Being alone is never actually about being alone, it’s about not being with others. The times change, the technology changes, the aspirations change but the urge, and the history, repeats itself from one generation to the next. Being alone is an act of glorious selfishness, only really possible in the narrow vision of an adolescent mind, because it tries to deny, and by that prove, you have an integral role as part of a larger community. The temptation to indulge in a “splendid isolation,” when you feel misunderstood or treated unfairly, is partly to punish those you are leaving and partly to try to prove independence. Both, of course, core adolescent impulses.
Kids need to grow up and feel independent. What’s wrong with a bit of alone time?
Nothing…. when you’re talking about kids.
But of course, I’m not. The problem comes when an entire nation behaves like a moody, depressed, anxiety-ridden teenager.
The term “splendid isolation” is one John Major has used several times in his attacks on Brexit. It, in fact, refers to the 19th century British government practice of avoiding permanent alliances with other European countries; particularly during Lord Salisbury’s premiership from 1885-1902. Historian Harold Temperley summarised it as, “Non-intervention; no European police system; every nation for itself, and God for us all; balance of power; respect for facts, not for abstract theories; respect for treaty rights, but caution in extending them … England not Europe… Europe’s domain extends to the shores of the Atlantic, England’s begins there.”
Of course we had an Empire to fall back on, so we held all the cards in trade agreements, but by not getting involved, by withdrawing our political strength, we allowed European countries to escalate their posturing and military peacocking. Aspirant empire builders, Russia, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, even Belgium went through a series of treaties, agreements and alignments trying to leverage their own might. By the turn of the century when a Britain vs Germany naval arms race began, politicians started to realise the country was dangerously exposed by its lack of European allies. In 1898, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, who tried twice unsuccessfully to negotiate an alliance with Germany, said, “We have had no allies. I am afraid we have had no friends … We stand alone.”
By abandoning involvement in Europe, Britain had no skin in the game. It was unable to broker peace and the bristling European powers were getting ready to prove their superiority. As any GCSE history student will begin their ubiquitous 20th Century essay, “There were many causes of the First World War…” But first among them was a policy that came to be known as the “Splendid Isolation.”
This month, a hundred years after the guns fell silent, when the death toll could finally be tallied, we will remember the 40 Million soldiers and civilians killed in the war and by the flu, famine and disease that followed in its wake; the war to end all wars. So why are we forgetting what got us there in the first place?
Yes, we’ve all wanted to do a Greta Garbo and get some time out. We’ve all wanted to storm up to our rooms and lock the doors. But, when we leave and prioritise ours needs, we ignore how intrinsic we are to the framework, the stability, the unit that as social animals we are all a part of.
No one, thankfully, will remember my teen poetry, and policy during Britain’s “Splendid Isolation” is historical marginalia in comparison with what followed, but on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we will remember. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember.
A version of this article first appeared in print in