A sad bar overlit,
I’ve come to praise not dismiss,
So sang greatest living Australian Robert Forster in the opening lines to his 1996 song entitled (wait for it) Loneliness.
Like so many great pop laments, this song speaks (sings?) of a sense of comfort, even perhaps glamour, that can be extracted from this infamously parlous state. ‘Loneliness is a cloak you wear’ sang another Brother from another mother. This is the sort of garment you slip into, the better to drink and think. Hell, the better even to exorcise the stink of a bad love, a great wrong, a terrible day in the office. Remember them?
Of course rock ‘n’ roll metaphor is fine and dandy. It’s how the bards of recorded sound replayed our lives back to us in glorious miniature. Who doesn’t enjoy checking in at Heartbreak Hotel for a cathartic 2 minutes 8 seconds (complementary mope included). Heartbreak Hotel, incidentally, vastly better prospect than that ghastly one in California. For one thing you can leave any time.
The raw human existential stuff that this word ‘loneliness’ etymologically evolved to help us describe, feels like it’s somewhere else these days. Tethered and caged, as in a Victorian freak show where we pay a shilling to gawp. It’s a cautionary tale. Something that’s as taboo in its public expression as breast milk. In both instances, this says a whole lot more about the onlooker than the expresser.
Outside of a last orders karaoke attempt at Roy Orbison, who can honestly direct a variation of the word ‘lonely’ at another human being without feeling a tinge of shame? We simply aren’t meant to be lonely anymore in this age of super information and technological wonder. We’re closer together than ever! And sure it’s the globe that’s shrinking before our very eyes rather than us just getting fatter during lockdown, right?
And after four decades of being collectively basted in liberating Thatcherism, it just isn’t the done thing is it? Men need to ‘man up’, women ‘catch a grip’ and anyone else can just stop whining and get on with it thanks very much. Loneliness is a monochrome Samaritans advert during Loose Women or that ‘crazy old cat lady’ down the road. Hell, it can even be said – in fact has been said – that ‘loneliness is a crowded room’.
Even when we are in the midst of it, we still can’t quite put that word to use. ‘I am lonely’. To give you an idea of quite how disassociated I am from the word loneliness, this is the sixth time my Word autocorrect has stepped in to help me spell it. I CAN’T EVEN SPELL LONELINESS (seventh time).
When approached to contribute something on the subject of loneliness, my first thought was ‘Sorry. NO clue’ swiftly followed by a sour Proustian rush of what it felt to have your heart, guts and soul all suddenly dive-bomb to your boots and have your world extend exactly as far as your outsized Depeche Mode tee shirt happened to billow outwards in a mild breeze. Stirring stuff you’ll agree. Had I ever thought to put a name to these moments? Good grief no. Did I know exactly what these moments were when I was actually living them? Hell yes. If asked at those times if I was lonely, depending on the decade, I’d have shot back either with a dismissive punky sneer, or a studied nonchalance. But, when given the opportunity to hear Robert Forster sing Loneliness, in any decade, I swoon and I tap and I sing along ...
Walk tall walk out
Leave me here but not without
So, halfway through this attempt to write something diverting here, I finally realise WHY I’m writing this – always a great relief to a writer.
From the first time I heard Heartache Avenue by one-hit wonders The Maisonettes when I was seven, to my initial encounters with social rejection in the schoolyard at roughly the same age, ‘Lonely’ and I have been lifelong, if often unwitting, companions. And so, in keeping to my specious theme of how the cultural and the personal interrelate, the following episodes of loneliness are also the sort of bookends of my relationship with David Bowie. When I found, and then later lost him. Just like we all did I suppose. But I don’t know you. I barely know me. And that’s all I’ve got to go on. Having said that, I desperately want you to like me. So, I’ve added these couple of deep cuts on the end of this cool mixtape I made for you. And hey, if you won’t go out with me, at least appreciate the cool tracklisting yeah?
My sixteenth summer was one of intense loneliness, but I did not admit that, of course. At this stage I had whittled the few friends I’d accumulated down to a perfect zero. Not only did I have zero pals, I was also constantly scorchingly aware of this absence, quietly aching with the burden of such an appalling metric.
Heck, I’d seen Pretty in Pink, even the nerds had their place in the intricate fabric of school life. Not me though, daddio. I seemed to instantly alienate and deter people. Maybe I was odd. Maybe using the word ‘daddio’ didn’t help. Or ‘crikey’ for that matter. Then there was ‘blimey’. Yes, I actually ‘crikey’d. Still do. Three more apposite words if I’d been into personal inventory instead of bad poetry were ‘lazy’, ‘awkward’ and ‘weird’. I was academically unspectacular in a school that valued and expected academic spectacularness. I wasn’t socially acceptable enough to partake in that other hallowed pillar – sports. Even though I was quite good, honest. I did have undiagnosed ADHD mind you. So there was that. I possibly wasn’t aware of the rules of fitting in whilst also expecting to be given special dispensation on the very same. I also had a fixation on David Bowie. Mr Murphy from across the road had lent me a Bowie tape the year before. ChangesOne or Ziggy Stardust, I honestly can’t remember which. What I do remember vividly was that I seemed to get on much better with grown-ups rather than people my own age. This was perplexing. Again I silently raged and fumed, and told myself ‘when I’m 30 I’ll be a hit on the grown-up circuit’. That was slim to no consolation. Thirty was an inconceivably epic length of time away. I’d nearly be dead by then for god’s sake! A much larger consolation was discovering David Bowie. Like the little outsider boy cliché I tragically was, I lay in bed at night with my headphones on listening to Life on Mars, Sound and Vision and that one where he sings about a man-eating television. It was as if he was singing to me. Sorry, he WAS singing to me, for me, about me. It was so intimate, so unearthly, but in a way that made perfect sense to me. And it was impossibly moving, although I would not have called it that at the time. I used to count the hours of those long summer days until I could jump back into bed and go about the giddy business of decanting David Bowie’s music directly into my head. Then once more, from morning to nightfall, a vast sunlit plain of despair opened up. I was fighting with myself and fighting with my parents in equal measure. It often felt like I was trapped in a dismal coracle, bobbing along on an endless, empty grey ocean, in the midst of an even greyer fog. I’m pretty sure I even wrote a poem to that effect. No friends, no prospects, the very idea of sex was fanciful. That would also have to wait until I was 30 I imagined, by which stage I’d be too crocked to ‘do it’. How infinite in naïvety and certitude is the mind of a teen. And so …that was and is loneliness. I knew it then and I know it now. I was desperately helplessly unhappy. The worst thing about it was, to the untrained eye of my parents it seemed that I was simply being obstinate and annoying. Well, even more than usual. This is the first time I’ve given that period it its proper name. Its unsavoury due. We all wrote poetry back then by the way. Don’t judge me too harshly …
Roughly twenty-five years later, on the morning 11 January 2016, I turned on my radio as usual. This is still my preferred method of protracting that luscious intermediary state between sleep and wakefulness. A bishop was talking about David Bowie. That seemed particularly odd. Why was an Anglican bishop talking about Bowie? He’d just released Blackstar of course, but I didn’t imagine there was much material there for an ecclesiastical thought for the day. It was enough to prickle my drowsy interest though. A few sentences later, even though neither the bishop or the interviewer had specifically said David Bowie was dead, it was abundantly clear that David Bowie was dead. It may have been the tone, or the fact they might have used a word that was in the past tense. Was, did, played… Whatever, it hit me like a frying pan in the face. That day – a Monday – was a blur of vodka, confusion and despair. I expect it was that way for a lot of people. Some of you may even be reading this. If you weren’t one of those people, you may also be surprised, and maybe even a little disapproving, to learn that what followed the initial shock, came grief, and then, unexpectedly, a terrible engulfing loneliness. A sense of being unmoored, abandoned in a vast and indifferent universe. At the age of 41 too! As predicted, I had acquired some friends by my 30s (and even, miraculously, managed a little sex). Those that knew me well enough to know that I’d be upset got in touch. I was shocked by just how much emotional capital I’d unwittingly invested in this wonky-eyed bloke from Kent. And he was just a bloke, after all. It still seemed unreal that David Bowie COULD die. The psychodelicate stock market crashed that day, less than a decade after the banking crash. Yes it was that devastating to me. But the sheer inconsolable loneliness that I felt after the death of a musician who I hadn’t really paid much attention to in years was so real I could taste it. Exactly like the shattering moment you realise your parents aren’t in fact immortal beings with god-like powers. For a while in fact, it felt identical to the loneliness reserved for the loss of a parent. It was a loneliness that also directly related to my teen life before David Bowie. BDB if you will. All Bowie fans have their own BDB of course. It’s the
demarcation between existing with the possibility of excitement and living with the excitement of possibility.
Then something even weirder and surprising and profound happened. After the cold-shower shock of grief dissipated to reveal a slightly embarrassing but very real sense of desolation, I finally started grieving for my own real life father, who’d died some years before. Psychologists do your thing, but Bowie’s death somehow unblocked a longstanding emotional constipation. It was a syrup of Zig, if you will (or won’t). It was strangely empowering. The singular loneliness of grief is real. It’s an enduring irony that the one thing we definitely share on this planet is an ability to grieve in a way that is distinct from anyone else on this planet. You could say we’re all grieving snowflakes. And it’s a lonely business being any sort of snowflake.
And there you have it dear reader. After years of avoidance, and in the absence of any original thought, I’ve finally been compelled to talk about loneliness. My loneliness. Like ridicule, it’s nothing to be scared of. I still can’t spell it, but it feels OK to stake this small claim of ownership. We really should talk more about loneliness you know. Or failing that, we could just sing along …
Same sex as me
She’s the same sex as me
* Robert Forster, 1996