Living with loneliness -

Robert Edwin Graham

Date of photography:  19th September 2017

Robert was never a loner but having lived long enough to bury both of his parents and his two brothers, he now finds himself an old man living on his own.   Thousands of Londoners, both young and old, will relate to his story about loneliness and the ways different people cope with solitude.  Nevertheless, the myth that solitude and loneliness are more prevalent or acute in large cities is indeed just that, a myth.   Those who live in rural surroundings (including what is often perceived from afar as the idyllic life of the English village) are often lonely simply through circumstances:  perhaps no-one, or hardly anyone, lives nearby, or if they do, they may not be the sort of people one could comfortably associate with.   Indeed, someone from the country recently said:  “I have good friends and I feel lonely!   It is the general state of us humans.”

The full story:

London is a famous metropolis and it no doubt holds many statistical records but who would guess that, out of 18 world capitals, London is deemed the loneliest and least friendly city of all, with Madrid, Melbourne and Lisbon being seen as the friendliest.   Time Out’s 2016 online survey of 20,000 respondents found that  55% of these felt that London could sometimes ‘feel like a lonely place to live’.   Speaking to other people on the tube is reserved for the truly brave;  if you risk it, your fellow passengers will probably think you’re ‘off your trolley’.   In the same survey, only seven percent of Londoners felt that their city was a good place to meet people, and even fewer, a mere four percent, thought it was good place to find a lover or a partner.   Somewhat to the contrary, it is worth noting that over 30% of respondents did make friends through work.  The under 24’s and the unemployed felt the most isolated, while amongst the retired population, people often suffered from isolation acutely and often in silence.

As a society, we seem to find it hard to talk about such feelings of loneliness, about lives lived unwillingly in solitude, so finding someone to take part in this project, someone who would discuss the topic candidly, was not going to be an easy task.   It was therefore a happy privilege to be invited, one sunny autumn afternoon, to the home of Robert Edwin Graham, a gentleman of 72 who now lives alone in a flat in north-west London, and Robert was willing to take part.  

He welcomed me with the sort of friendly smile that radiated humanity and kindness, and invited me into his impeccably well-kept home - nothing was out of place.   The walls were adorned with handsome reproductions of paintings, pictures of birds, many beautifully decorated plates and, most importantly, with photographs of his family, some taken in the very early days of popular photography. This had been Robert’s parents’ home and this is where he and his two brothers grew into adulthood.   Sadly, both his parents and his siblings are dead now but their images and their precious possessions remain on display, continuing to provide an essential component of Robert’s domestic world.   In the corner of the room, in its cage, a brightly-coloured budgerigar hops from one perch to another;  occasionally, it sees the flash of its own reflection in the tiny suspended mirror and, thinking perhaps, however briefly, that it is not alone, it sings beautifully, if only for a moment,.

I take the liberty of asking Robert to tell me something about himself and his past, so he does:  “I was born in 1945, in Farnborough, in what is now the London Borough of Bromley, when flying bombs were still raining down all over London.   We were very much a working class family:  my father was originally from Northumberland and went down the pit as a coal-miner at the tender age of 12 - that was the norm then.   My mother was one of four sisters and she too started work at 12 - she went into domestic service as lots of young girls did.   Actually, she was a scullery maid, a demanding, disagreeable job that was usually seen as the bottom end of the domestic hierarchy, but she worked hard and she was employed by a number of families.   When my parents married, they settled in Bermondsey, in south-east London, and then my father joined the Navy, signing up for 12 years;  this took him all over the world, including to China and to South Africa.”

“Despite his long absences, the family grew.   We were four brothers, originally, but one of my siblings died as a young child.  Then the family moved to north London, to just off the Finchley Road, and into a council flat with a little garden - for the first time, my brothers and I were able to play in our very own garden.   When the Second World War erupted, my father stayed in the Navy for an additional six years.   With him at sea for eighteen years all together, our childhood was characterised by our father’s frequent absence and, as young boys, I think we really felt it.”

“I  went to a local primary school in north London and then on to what was our local secondary school, in Finchley, Kynaston School (originally a technical school and now Quintin Kynaston Community Academy).   I left school at the age of 16.   I did OK, but I wasn't especially academic though I was good at any work that involved my hands.   I went on to spend 29 years of my life working in the power stations of the Central Electricity Board and in that time, I witnessed at first hand all the technological changes that came about with regard to power generation.”

“With the exception of a period of three years, when I was in my 50’s, when I found myself out of work, I was in full employment throughout my career, right up until retirement.   For the last 11 years of my working life, I worked as a caretaker at Kynaston School, where I’d been as a boy - this time, I could see at first hand just how much hard work the teachers do, and how much dedication they invest in their jobs.”

Robert takes a brief break from the interview and serves us tea in the best china cups.   He shows me the fine studio portraits of his father, looking very handsome in his Navy uniform.   Robert recently donated quite a few of his father’s photographs, diaries and service memorabilia to the collections at the Imperial War Museum.   “Milan, I felt it was important to preserve these things;  it is our family history, of course, but it is also part of the history of this country and as I am now the only one left, I feared that, after I’m gone, most of these things could just end up in a skip, and become landfill, and that would be such a shame.”  

“I’ve lived in this flat since 1953;  in fact, the whole family lived here at one time.   My elder brother, Ken, was the only one who left;  he got his own place when he was 20.   Mind you, that meant that for the first time in my life, I had a room of my own.   My other brother, Douglas (Doug) who was also older than me, continued to live here with my parents, though he travelled extensively.   We were a happy family really, very close, very caring for each other.”   Robert pauses for a moment, with the slightest glint of a tear in his eyes.   “Then, almost 25 years ago now, both of my parents died.   That just left me and Doug here in the flat.   Then, about two and half years ago, Doug became seriously ill;  he developed a severe form of Motor Neurone Disease and I had to nurse him almost to the end - in effect, I became his carer.   I loved him as a brother and I would never have abandoned him.   He finally died, about four years ago, at the age of 72, and I was left all alone here in the flat, in what had once been a bustling home to all our family.   My surviving brother, Ken, died six months ago.”

“I was always surrounded by my family, and while there was a stage in my life when I wanted to marry, somehow I never did.   I became a Borough Councillor and, for a number of years now, I have been very active in St Mary’s Church, at Kilburn.   My faith is deep and strong, and I go to church four or five times a week.   I was a Church Warden at St Mary’s and I am proud to say that I was involved in the appointment of Father Andrew Foreshew-Cain - he was described as a “hard working diamond” and that’s exactly what he turned out to be.   He became a member of the Synod and he transformed the church into a genuinely, all-inclusive place of worship, but a place that was also the caring hub of the community.   Sadly for us, he has recently left, after 19 years of loyal service.   The fact that he had the courage to marry his long-term, male partner, against the rules of the Church, certainly helped to move that cause forward but the repercussions for him personally, they cost him dearly.   Almost the entire congregation supported him and we all felt that he did the right thing.”   (Fr Andrew’s story is told in an associated article, Married Gay Clergy.)

“Milan, it was only after I’d buried my brother that it dawned on me that I was the last surviving person in our family.   I came home, closed the door behind me, and I cried for a week;  I felt completely alone and miserable.   I wasn’t able to talk to anyone and this feeling I had, of total solitude, was almost beyond words.  That was the time when I even contemplated suicide, I was that low;  I just couldn't stop crying.   I felt I had no-one who cared,  no-one who knew what it felt like, no-one to turn to.   Then one day, I found the courage to confide in Father Andrew:  I don’t remember much of what he said to me, I felt so numb, but we hugged each other, two human beings connected, and we cried together, mostly in silence.”

“Usually in the evenings, I took to looking at the picture of my mother, and I felt her love for me, so somehow, over time, I did find the strength to carry on.   I felt that, perhaps, life was worth living after all, and that I must keep going.   I watched the spring blooms reaching for the skies once more, and I began to feel that I could be part of life again.   Of course, I still feel very lonely sometimes, especially when I have to deal with life’s practicalities, with the complications of officialdom, and also with the various health complications that come with advancing age, but somehow I manage.   I even found the strength to fight off two young burglars who were breaking into the flats around us.”   (This happened only a week before I met Robert in his home but thankfully, the event, however serious, does not seem to have damaged his equilibrium - in his life, he has undoubtedly had to face and overcome greater traumas than this.)  

I asked Robert what he felt was the hardest thing about loneliness.   “Milan, it is partly to do with age;  when you get old, it gets that much harder to form new relationships.   Also, in the past, I have always been a quite private, shy person and shyness can be a serious impediment in making connections with others.   My work as a Local Councillor and later, as Church Warden, helped me a bit to overcome my shyness, gave me the confidence to talk to people.”

“At the end of the day, when I return to my empty home, yes, I do feel lonely, but my dear budgie greets me with a little song and over time, I have developed mechanisms to cope with the loneliness.   Through the church, I now have about ten people whom I could surely describe as friends.   We are ageing together and together we fight on.   We care about each other;  we see each other regularly;  and we organise trips and visits to museums and galleries and suchlike.   Most of us are in our 60’s and 70’s, we are all members of the congregation, and we do stick together.”

“I also continue as a pastoral worker in our church.   I visit people in their homes, at their care homes or in hospices.   I talk with them as much as they want but mostly, I just listen.   If they want to, we can pray together, or I can simply hold their hands.   By being actively involved in pastoral work, I have also found a way of combatting my own feelings of loneliness.   So, if I had one bit of advice to give to anyone who felt lonely, what I would say is:  ‘Get involved!’”

By way of offering some sort of context to Robert’s story, I referred to an article by Kit Buchan, recently run in The Guardian;  he had interviewed a number of Londoners courageous enough to talk about their experience of loneliness and how they coped with solitude.   A 27 year-old young woman, Sonja, talked about how she had had to learn how not to sit at home alone but to force herself to go out and meet people, how to go to new places, and how to get involved in various activities;  and how glad she was that she did.   Waiting for someone to come along and knock on your door is never such a great idea.   Conversely, Andrea, a man of 39, felt that trying to escape the feeling of loneliness somehow made it worse.   Having learned to live with it, forcing himself to try to escape it always made the loneliness more acute.   At the age of 52, Wilhelm thought that the best answer was to ‘make peace’ with loneliness, and to learn to live with it - trying to escape it could almost become an obsession.   And, of course, there are always those like Agelica, who is 61 and who is convinced that loneliness is really a state of mind, a state that means there’s something empty in oneself.

Nowadays, many people access one form of social media or another and, while the feeling of loneliness is as old as humanity itself, this means of making contact is undoubtedly a new phenomenon.   The ability to connect with thousands of individuals, both in our own country and throughout the world (the English-speaking world anyway) now plays a significant part in lots of people’s lives.   Though it can be argued that it’s perhaps better than nothing, I remain to be convinced that the new social media provide an adequate substitute for real, direct human contact.   Indeed, evidence is starting to surface that shows when the social media are used extensively as the primary connection with others, this results in real isolation and accentuates the sense of loneliness.   Social media can give one the illusion of being part of a community, of belonging, and of being understood, but that dream rapidly fades when the WiFi goes down and the hard reality of solitude stares us in the face once more.  

A recent study of young people’s use of social media, by psychologists at the University of Pittsburgh, revealed that such usage was more likely to make them feel socially isolated and more alone.   And a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine indicated that too much time spent on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Reddit and Tumblr “may elicit feelings of envy and the distorted belief that others lead happier and more successful lives.”   As relatively early studies, these findings should no doubt be treated with caution;  all they may indicate, in fact, is simply that those young people who already feel socially isolated are more likely to embrace social media and to spend greater amounts of time using it, for want of anything more sociable to do.   However, there are concerns that a significant increase in mental health problems and social isolation amongst young adults might indeed be an indication that the excessive use of social media is increasingly displacing more authentic and worthwhile social engagement, viz having real-world interactions with people who are in what might be called, the ‘tangible vicinity’.

The myth that solitude and loneliness are more prevalent or acute in large cities is indeed just that, a myth.   Those who live in rural surroundings (including what is often perceived from afar as the idyllic life of the English village) are often lonely simply through circumstances:  perhaps no-one, or hardly anyone, lives nearby, or if they do, they may not be the sort of people one could comfortably associate with.   Indeed, someone from the country recently said to me:  “I have good friends and I feel lonely!   It is the general state of us humans.”       

Human beings are basically social creatures and while we can certainly survive living alone or in partial isolation, it is almost never a desirable or fulfilling state of existence.   Some individuals on the autistic spectrum can be more or less ‘locked within themselves’, finding it extremely difficult to form relationships, or to share with or connect to others, but they too are often heavily dependent on the support of the people around them;  without that support, they would probably perish.   Over the centuries, certain individuals have chosen to enter into a state of self-enforced solitude as a part of a religious or spiritual quest - they will often claim to have achieved something like a state of nirvana, peace with themselves and the world, without any need for the company of others.   But for most of us, instead of seeing solitude as a normal part of the human condition, we see it as something to be feared and dreaded;  we perceive it as a kind of social dysfunction or personal failure, a disease perhaps, something that needs to be cured.   And, of course, we can all sometimes experience solitude even when we are living within a marriage or some other close relationship, or are surrounded with our own family.   Even at a busy place of work, surrounded by many colleagues, we can all, from time to time, feel alone.  

Text edited:  10th October 2017

Page modified: 9th April 2019