LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Living as a single person - George McCall
Date of photography: 4th December 2016
George is in his 70’s and enjoys the single life, a life he still fills with a plethora of creative endeavours. George was born in war-torn Britain when the social norms about marriage were still quite rigid: to opt out of marriage and to choose the bachelor life was exceptional. Ironically, married life proved to be a profoundly disappointing experience for thousands of more conventional souls, for whom it was more like a prison sentence, that is, until the divorce laws were greatly relaxed. In a society where 45% of marriages now end in divorce, and often in misery, George doesn’t regret his choice.
A mild-mannered man of unassuming character, George McCall has been a London resident for over 50 years. Now in his seventies, George is not yet in retirement: he can still be seen regularly performing folk songs before lovers of live music and he’s been doing similar gigs for almost 30 years. Born in Scotland, he couldn’t wait to break free and to start living - his spirit might not yet have been properly defined but his need to get away and explore the world took him first to Australia for a spell then, having trained as a Graphic Artist at the famous Glasgow School of Art and later at a Design College in London, he became one of the first people to produce iconic, screen-printed t-shirts worn in their thousands by the famous, the infamous and by ordinary Londoners keen to plug into the vibe of swinging, ‘Flower Power’ sixties London. Carnaby Street was his mecca as it was for anyone in fashion who wanted to break the old rules and explore exciting alternatives - “It was like a breath of fresh air in a grey and miserable Britain,” says George with a twinkle in his bright blue eyes.
George can still transform with practised ease into an impressive performer; given his extensive experience of singing and playing in front of an audience, this is hardly surprising. For years, he’s appeared weekly at The Brewery Tap, in Brentford, together with a team of the most extraordinarily talented and varied musicians, all equally committed to the Keep Music Live cause. Born in Ayrshire, the home of Robbie Burns, he remains proud of his Scottish heritage and for over three decades now he has performed an extensive collection of Scottish folk songs, although his complete repertoire is, of course, considerably wider. Formerly a member of the well-known band, Captain Swincreativeg, he has performed at many of the capital’s music venues, mainly as a vocalist.
But George is much more than a folk singer. Having attended Art School and subsequently qualified as a graphic designer, George has filled his unostentatious west London home with paintings, sculptures and a myriad of objets d’art, most of which reflect George’s well-trained eye for what are often extraordinarily beautiful, period pieces. He is frequently seen at many of the local creative venues, admiring the work of budding artists, scrutinising what’s on offer at the local auction houses, listening to the latest work of local poets, but above all, being part of a vibrant local community of music makers.
George was born in war-torn Britain and grew up in the post-war years, when the social norms about marriage were still quite rigid: to opt out of marriage and to choose the bachelor life was seen then as exceptional. Ironically, marriage proved to be a profoundly disappointing experience for thousands of souls who were rather more conventional then George: for them, married life was more like a prison sentence, that is, until the divorce laws were greatly relaxed. Now, almost 45% of marriages end in divorce and the illusion of marital bliss continues to be regularly shattered.
George refers to his own home life in Scotland: “I was myself the child of divorced parents at a time when the stigma of divorce was immense; indeed, for most ordinary folk, divorce itself was almost unattainable. Living as a married couple was the almost universal norm, seen as the ideal basis for a happy home and for raising children.” It is hard to ignore such social pressures but perhaps it was exactly because of them that that’s just what George did. He has remained single all his life and has no regrets about being different. “Of course, I had a number of girlfriends and some long-term relationships but, to be honest, I never really wanted to commit myself fully to anyone.” George is a creative spirit and in many ways staying a wholly free spirit was an essential component of his creativity. “I have always been, and continue to be, part of a community of music performers. I have made many long-term friendships through my performing and I love to live the way I do. Yes, there are occasions when I may feel a bit lonely, but that happens even within families.” George concludes: “Of course, I have known a number of couples who’ve remained happily married for many years but I never envied them, nor do I feel any sense of regret.”
Despite the rise and rise of the single household, our society still struggles to accept someone on his or her own, yet today, being alone through choice can be liberating and empowering. So perhaps, argues Hannah Betts in a recent article, paraphrased here, it’s time we recognised the attractions of ‘singularity’.
Almost a third of Britons now live alone and the statistics are rising exponentially. Singleness has gone beyond the Sex and the City platitudes of the last century to become a material and philosophical state that individuals increasingly choose, be they men or women. To the question: ‘What has changed most about society during our lifetime?’ a reasonable answer might well be: the evolution from the stigmatised ‘spinsters’ of our childhood, via the skittish, no less pilloried Bridget Jones ‘singletons’ of our youth, to the notion of the ‘singularist’, which is how some middle-aged singletons might currently define themselves. For all the Establishment’s endeavours to cultivate the marital unit, and to court the much-fetishised ‘hardworking, middle-class family’, it is the singles who are the growing power group in our culture. For, despite the financial disincentives enshrined in various elements of the taxation system, despite the fact that living solo is estimated to cost an extra £250,000 over a lifetime compared with being coupled, and even despite the dreaded hotel single room supplement, the number of British people going solo has risen dramatically in recent years.
Almost 2.5 million men and women aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in their own homes and, according to the Office for National Statistics, the number of such sole occupants has risen by 833,000 in the past two decades. Even though the more hysterical voices in the media may view “sterile” female singleness as “a plague” and “feckless” male loneness as “an infantile indulgence”, there are expected to be at least a further two million adults living alone by 2020.
In western Europe, we often hear these days about professional women who struggle to find what they perceive to be suitable partners for marriage. At the same time, there is a growing number of young men who choose, quite deliberately, not to enter married life. George made his decision to remain a bachelor at a time when the single life was still looked down on. Thankfully, much has changed and making the decision to stay single is now far easier - living alone has become commonplace and acceptable. This is an indication, one might hope, that these days we are freer to follow our aspirations, inclinations and feelings rather more than previous generations were, no longer having to adhere slavishly to rigid, hand-me-down social norms. For the secular, marriage is very much a social construct, and one that is clearly not well-suited to everyone.
Text edited: 4th January 2017
Text re-edited: 9th March 2019
Page modified: 2nd April 2019