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Only the Lonely

They say no one wants to be on their own at Christmas but, seriously, by 6pm Christmas Day who doesn’t? Yes somewhere someone must be having a perfect Family Christmas but it’s probably not you and, for many, the Family Christmas is just a bitter breeding ground for passive aggression, spite, petty vengeances, bleeding bitten-lip tolerance and a timely reminder why you no longer live with these bastards.
Why we keep going back, like a cat to eat its own vomit, is complicated: the myth of seasonal good cheer is pretty overwhelming, we’ve had a year to forget, the human condition errs on the side of optimism – hope springs eternal otherwise how do you explain Marmite Chocolate bars – or maybe it’s just because we are, at core, social animals.
But the stigma of being “alone at Christmas” persists and it’s the word ‘alone’ that’s causing mischief. It sneakily conflates two ideas that are more mutually exclusive than we imagine: being on your own, and being lonely. A physical state and an emotion. And though one could lead to the other, we’ve got to recognise that being on your own does not necessarily make you lonely and being in company won’t stop you feeling feel immeasurably isolated. In fact, if you’re Sartre, always a joy at dinner parties, “l’enfer, c’est les autres,” hell is other people.
Personally I’m never lonelier than in the company of half-wits – which, up until last years referendum, I had believed was a fairly limited set – so watching I’m a Celebrity… is like peering into the abyss. It’s chilling to watch the wretched misery of those so desperate for love they allow their abject failure to be exploited for telly on the off-chance some viewer might sympathise for a moment, or the cash fee will fill the void.  You can see the terror in the eyes of every contestant. And maybe part of the series’ success, in airing just before Christmas, is that watching the bleak, hopeless, attention neediness of these lonely desolate individuals, and fearing that “there but for the grace…”, it gives us each the strength to go home for Christmas, forgive our families, and give it one more go.
The worst thing about the “no one should be lonely at Christmas” meme is the temporality of it all. The rest of the year? You can sling yer hook; feast your mince pies on the door you clingy bastard.
In ancient civilizations, the worst punishment short of death, was banishment. To be cast out. They recognised that one of the fundamental needs of man is company. Even today the most feared part of prison is isolation. Loneliness is such an aberration to the human condition it lacks an antonym. Most emotions have an opposite: sad/happy, fearful/confident, love/hate but we have such a basic requirement to be social we lack words to celebrate the joy of good company. The closest we might get is ‘a feeling of belonging’ but then that doesn’t come without overtones of ownership and subsuming the individual.
 The novelist Kurt Vonnegut repeatedly returned to the idea that loneliness was the worst thing to afflict mankind. He said “the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” Vonnegut’s influence should not be ignored. His strange concoction of war-damaged cynicism, bittersweet humour, counter-culture, social comment, misanthropy and science fiction was one of the great literary backgrounds to the nerdalescence of our present tech giants. Loneliness defined the eighties geeks, banished by their peers, desperately trying to code friendship into a mesh of wires, cathode rays and silicone. The 1985 Pygmalion movie Weird Science, in which two computer nerds create the perfect woman with a back comb and a boobtube who might love them and make them popular, reflected this well-recognised commonplace.
The idea that loneliness was like a disease, and therefore only lacked a cure, echoed through the development of the internet from the very first ‘Bulletin Board Systems’ to today’s social networks; Vonnegut’s “stable communities”.
Real life started to ape Vonnegut’s narratives with the story of a geek called Steve who was, by all accounts, one of the loneliest men in the world. The sort of chap who always went the extra mile he used to point out that, “the extra mile is such a lonely place.” For years he tried to find a cure for loneliness. He built machines that would play games with him, gave them friendly names, pretty designs and then, in 2006 he found it. The cure. It was the tiniest gizmo; you wouldn’t think it did anything at all. It was a little box you could keep in your pocket wherever you went, and every time you felt a little pang of loneliness, you could take out the box and it instantly connected you with every other lonely person on the planet. You could share your misery, embarrassing moments, secrets, jokes and never, ever, be lonely again. Sadly, Steve died just five years later but the iPhone and its clones lives on. Now you’re never alone with a phone. Any moment you might be bored or could just take a moment to smell the roses, you’ve got the world of the lonely in your hand instead with their status updates and their crazy kittens. Instagram the hell out of those roses. Go girlfriend.
Of course even Steve didn’t think it was a real cure for loneliness, it was just a brilliant distraction from the pain. But what a world it has unleashed. According to John Lanchester in his brilliant history of money, “there are at least seven billion mobile phone subscriptions in the world (four and a half billion people have access to a flush toilet)… more than twice as many people have a mobile phone as have access to a bank account.”
It turns out our tech gods had feet of clay. They only understood the numbers, they took Forster at his word, “only connect,” and went no further. Educated in bits and bytes with the the voices of Vonnegut and Ayn Rand in their heads, none of them had an inkling of real politics or philosophy or history, none of them realised how powerful their machines were or how delicately balanced western democracy and academic leadership was. Now Twitter and Facebook are belatedly trying to shut the barn door. Erase the hate. Too late too late.
If you have the cash to get online every voice is equal. Populism is the only winner. Everything that made society reject Benthamite Utilitarianism two hundred years ago has been ignored. The greatest good for the greatest number right? And the greatest number should know what’s good for them, shouldn’t they? Yup! Brexit, Trump, Daesh, Alt-Right, Breitbart, Extremism… With social media it’s far easier to sway the public than being chained to “traditional media” with their ombudsmen and fear of being sued which actually meant they check their facts. Feed them fake news, feed them desire and stories and the lies that bolster their prejudices – the game has changed.
So lonesome no more. But this always on interconnected world has not raised mankind. It’s connected hatred, spite, passive aggression, petty vengeances and bleeding bitten-lip tolerance. On social media, on your phone, every day is Christmas Day.

 

This article first appeared in

Christmas Ghosts

As this year grinds to an end, you’re not alone in thinking “thank fuck for that.” It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that 2016 has been one of the crappest in recent history. Now, when the media traditionally do their rundowns of the year, all they can show is the world’s run down. It’s been a car crash year, whether it’s the whitelash rise of Farage and Trump, the deaths of icons from Bowie and Cohen to Wood and Wogan, almost an entire Brazilian football team and, most personally, my friend Adrian (AA) Gill, or just because Inferno, one of the most ludicrous films in history, was released. It seems the unpalatable prospered and the good died.

Now is the time to think of them. The dead have a history of being summoned up as the year draws to its end. The Christmas ghost story is a meme that stretches back much further than Dickens’ Christmas Carol. A quarter of a century before Shakespeare wrote his Winter’s Tale, it was already a tradition for Barnabus in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589) who says, “Now I remember those old women’s words, Who in my wealth would tell me winter’s tales, And speak of spirits and ghosts that glide by night.” It’s no coincidence that James Joyce’s The Dead is set at a Christmas time gathering.

In my own family it is Uncle Edgar who lives with the dead and loves to tell stories of our ghosts. He’s a fanatic for family trees and history, but then there’s not much to do out in the steppes of Norfolk where he lives, where the earth is steel hard in winter, the air is so cold just breathing in hurts and breathing out creates a fog thicker than Katie Hopkins. From his front window you can see for miles over the frozen levels, each tree a craze of lines in the flat December daylight.

Every other Christmas we schlep up to his house, a pretty converted vicarage with timber beams and a roaring fireplace beneath a mantelpiece hung with paperchains and festooned with Christmas cards mostly addressed to “Dear Valued Customer”. And every year there’s some relative he has discovered in the annals whom he reckons could just be a Royal bastard but more usually, with a bloodline chockful of cads and bounders, was a right royal bastard.

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Illustration ©Alice Stallard for KCW Today

Edgar lives alone but he always invites his mate Steve to Christmas. Steve’s a single dad with a tiny daughter called Emily who is the proud product of parental overcompensation. ‘Spoilt’, is too slight a term, like slightly off milk; Emily is the full Petri dish of bubonic fungal growth. Last year she was dragging around one of the most expensive dolls known to humanity, an “American Girl” almost as big as her. The sort that have such realistic eyes you will them to blink. But Emily had absolutely no sense of value. The doll was clearly pretty new when I saw it but she had already smashed the right side of its face, the head was cracked and deformed. She didn’t care.

I had come up ahead of the rest of the family to help Edgar with the dinner and avoid having to go with the rest of my family “last minute” gift shopping.

Emily answered the door and sneered at my Tesco shopping bags. “Where are the presents?”

“Nice to see you too.” Inside, I pulled my frost bitten muddy shoes off and traipsed the shopping bags to the kitchen. Emily stayed in the front hall, heaving her doll on to a chair. I put the food away while she gave her American Girl a gruesomely detailed lecture on road safety.

Edgar came in. “I thought I heard someone.” He gave me a hug. “You’re the first then?”

“Came to help with the food.”

“Plenty of time for that.” We went through to his living room where the fire was already roaring.

We drank and chatted as the light faded outside and Edgar told the story of a distant cousin of my great grandfather who had been a very successful medium when Spiritualism was all the rage. Recently he’d found an old newspaper clipping about a spirit visitation she had conjured up but I never got to hear his ghost story because it was then the rest of my family turned up, setting off a maelstrom of voices and activity. It was just before dinner when my youngest asked about Steve, who still hadn’t come down.

“Oh,” Edgar sighed, “he’s, he’s not coming.”

I wondered for a moment if something bad had happened; that was why he was looking after Emily.

“Emily, you know Emily,” Edgar said. We all nodded. “Last week she had an accident. Just outside here. He pointed at the dark window and we all looked up for a moment to see our reflections in the black glass. “Playing with a doll. Run over. By a van. Crushed her skull. Steve’s just not up to anything. She was his life.”

“But…” I started looking around for Emily.

I ran to the front hall. The doll was still there on the chair by the door. The head crushed, the plastic skull cracked, the glass eyes staring.

 

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For what we are about to receive…

She hands me an exquisitely wrapped box and smiles. “Happy Christmas”.

I open it, racking my brains for the appropriate response.

“It’s lovely.” “Thank you.” “That’s so thoughtful.” “How did you know?” “What an amazing idea.” “Oh that’s perfect…”

I’m impossible at Christmas (and birthdays). My phrasebook of gratitude is painfully thin. What’s more, I’m convinced that any of my utterances from it are totally transparent. I’m only trying to fill the void between my embarrassment at receiving a gift and my desperation not to hurt the feelings of the person who gave it. Because however lovely the gift, something tells me it’s not what I’m really grateful for and I’m in terror that I’ll be called out on my blatant insincerity:

“Oh, you’re just saying that.”

“No, no I was thinking just the other day I could really do with a… a um… nutcracker. And the fact it resembles a gilded scrotum makes it simply hilarious. And such a talking point. Thank you so much.”

My upper-lip-stiffening upbringing instilled in me an inflated sense of self-worthlessness; so spend over a tenner on me and I squirm with embarrassment. Then again, go for something under that price point and really, there is nothing I need, or want, that I haven’t bought for myself already. It’s Gift 22.

I realise that might seem bonkers but don’t give me a psychology book about it or, come December 28th, I’m off down Waterstones explaining how the book’s Jung, gifted and back.

“Actually it’s a sculpture Holly made of her baby brother.”

“Oh yes! Absolutely.”

“She made it in Play-Doh and we thought it was so brilliant we took a mould and a clever Chinese company on the internet made some lovely gold plated models.”

“Isn’t it wonderful? There’s an eye … and the nose poking out below it.” I fondle and tweak the little baby nose.

“That’s not an eye, that’s the belly button,” she says, archly.

In the artificial setting of the Christmas celebration, giving is easy, it’s gratitude that’s hard. Genuine thanks seems a sliver of an emotion, something that can just be glimpsed between the fear of indebtedness and the pride of entitlement. In America they try to get the whole thing out of the way early by having their ‘Thanksgiving’ a month earlier. But then, if Thanks is a gift in itself, you’re caught in an infinite paradigm: thanking people for giving thanks which they will need to thank you for ad nauseam.

My kids are no better. We love them and we’ve done our best to protect them from suffering any deprivation. We do our best to give them everything they need when they need it (or the day after thanks to Amazon Prime). So the presents under the Christmas tree are guaranteed to only ever be excess. We have wrapped the kids up as carefully as their gifts and protected them from tragedy. But in doing so we’ve deprived them of the opportunity to experience real gratitude. Even so, I’ve tried to teach them to say “Thank You” and ape the responses one might imagine being truly grateful entails. We’ve done all that and that’s all the thanks we get!

Not knowing how to be grateful is a true “first-world problem”. Genuine gratitude, in all the privilege and safety that being western and middle class bestows, is rarer than McTruffles because it depends on tragedy or misfortune to precede it; things we’re superb at avoiding. But a place to hide in the Holocaust, a solid Greek beach for a refugee, or a hand pulling you up from the window ledge of the Bataclan; when those who have been plucked from disaster try to describe their gratefulness it is as an emotional euphoria.

Cicero called gratitude “not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of all the others”. Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments wrote, “All the members of human society stand in need of each other’s assistance, and are likewise exposed to mutual injuries. Where the necessary assistance is reciprocally afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem, the society flourishes and is happy.” According to studies by scientists gratitude strengthens the immune system, lowers blood pressure, provides higher levels of positive emotions, more joy, optimism, and happiness and inspires altruism. It’s the ultimate thing that money just can’t buy. In this age and society of abundance, the one gift we could all do with eludes us.

But in that moment, holding my tiny golden scrotum, I look at my present giver and even I, with my pre-prepared stock phrases of appreciation, catch a tantalising vestigial sensation of gratitude: that my friends, and my family, still regard me as a part of them, still tolerate me, that they’ve pretty much forgiven my many many mistakes and, above all, can be counted on to be there with a bucket when I come down with a dose of schmaltz.

Happy Christmas (and thanks).

 

First published in

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