The Folk Singer, the Guardian Columnist, and the Epidemic of Loneliness

Paul Blakemore

“Ebola is unlikely ever to kill as many people as this disease strikes down,” wrote Guardian columnist George Monbiot. The column, The Age of Loneliness is Killing Us went viral. The following chain of events ultimately led to the recording of an album. Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness, and subsequent tour, in collaboration with musician Ewan McLennan. An album and tour with far-reaching intentions.

“Social isolation is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day,” the column continued. “Loneliness, research suggests, is twice as deadly as obesity. Dementia, high blood pressure, alcoholism and accidents – all these, like depression, paranoia, anxiety and suicide, become more prevalent when connections are cut. We cannot cope alone.”

George Monbiot is not known for his music, he is known for his activism. His books include the likes of Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2000) and Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (2013). He is also the founder of the website, offering rewards to those who attempt a citizen’s arrest of Tony Blair for alleged crimes against the peace.

Publishers approached him about writing a book on the topic of loneliness but he says he “could think of nothing more depressing than spending three years sitting on my backside, documenting social isolation.” He had to think outside the box.

So he decided that music was a better response, with its ability to connect people; to reach out, and to reach in. “There’s only one problem,” he explains in the trailer video. “I can’t play a note of music and my singing is banned under international law.”

Still, there is a jump from newspaper columnist to collaborative song writer. A shift in perspective is needed. Something had changed. A few weeks after his original column in 2014, Monbiot found himself trapped in a queue behind an elderly woman who was taking forever talking to the counter assistant in a shop. This vexed him; he was in a hurry, frustrated, impatient. As the frustration wore off on his way home, he began to berate himself for his lack of empathy for someone who, at the end of the day, just seemed lonely.  It’s a certain type of guilt that many of us will recognise. The poem that Monbiot wrote on his return home that day ultimately became the song ‘These Four Walls’ on the album. What initially seemed like a particular episode in that shop was actually a vivid illustration of the whole point that he had been writing about in his column.

“I can’t claim to make rational decisions about what I latch onto,” he told me when I asked what it is about the issue of loneliness that made him go so much further with it. “An issue fires my imagination or strikes a deep chord and I find myself urgently wanting to explore it further. This one was a bit left field. The decision to write an album came about accidentally, as a result of something I noticed in a shop. But I realised after beginning the project that I was exploring something that meant a lot to me, that I had a high emotional investment in it.”

It is both on a community level and on a more personal level that Monbiot’s emotional investment is based. “I’ve had some intense periods of loneliness,” he told me candidly, “especially when I returned to Britain after working for some years abroad. It’s not writing itself that has made me lonely, though it hasn’t helped, but a sense of disconnection from the people around me as I delve into worlds that not many others explore. There’s a difference between solitude and loneliness. There are plenty of times when I greatly enjoy being by myself; and plenty when I am surrounded by people but feel lonely. It hits me particularly hard when I’m around other journalists. With a few exceptions, they seem to inhabit a completely different world to mine.”

Monbiot sees a very specific element to the British way of thinking that leaves the door open to a sense of disconnection and detachment. “While loneliness is a global issue, and community seems to be under strain almost everywhere, there is something peculiar about Britain; our 'Keep Out' signs and private lives. I think it stems in part from the fact that, while other European nations had their revolutions, we went in the opposite direction, with the enclosure movement and the Highland Clearances throwing people off the land and ripping down communities. We never really recovered from that.”

Folk music is the voice of the people. From long before the electronic recording of voice, folk has been recording events and opinions in its songs. It adds up then that Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness was created in this form. “Folk song has always addressed the full range of human experience,” explained McLennan who is described on his website as ‘a songwriter for whom social justice is still a burning issue.’ “Love, drink, nature, war and more. Social issues are an inescapable part of human experience, something that shapes the kind of lives people live, so it makes sense to me to put this down in song. I think that music can shine a light on parts of life that are otherwise too hard to deal with. It can be an incredible way of recording and passing on the emotions and feelings that are bound up with social issues, to the point that people can tap into these emotions centuries later and gain an understanding that you couldn’t get from a history book.”

It is a very different project to anything he has worked on before. “Most, though not all, of the work I’ve done in the past has been solo, so it’s different in that respect. But it’s also different in the sense that I’ve been working from a concept, a set of ideas that George has developed, and so that has pushed me in directions and towards themes that I would not normally tackle.”

For most of the tracks on the album Monbiot wrote a sketch of how the lyrics may form the story of a song, and would then pass it on to McLennan to work on. “The approach I took really varied with each song,” he explained. “I’d say there aren’t any of the sketches that have remained in their original form, the same as how George handed them to me. Some departed a little from the originals, a few tweaks, a few lines taken out or added in, perhaps the meter and structure changed. While in others I used the original sketch more as a loose inspiration and guide for the song I wrote, but the lyrics that came out didn’t bear much resemblance to the sketch.”

From ‘The Child Inside’ about the estrangement of children from spending time outdoors, to ‘The Night Desk’ written after an evening Monbiot had spent at the reception of a police station, observing the stream of people passing through – the songs are formed around Monbiot’s original words. There are a few numbers on the album that break this rule however.  McLennan wrote the lyrics for ‘My Time And Yours’, a song about “… our loss of the inter-generational connection – our relationships with grandparents, neighbours, friends of a different generation and set of experiences.” It was an element that was important to him. “[It] was one that deserved treatment. My grandparents, with whom I was very close, gave me the stories and the inspiration for this song.”

The old classic ‘We Shall Overcome’ also nestles comfortably amongst contemporary numbers on the album. “It’s a great way to end the shows – with a song that everyone can tap into in their own way and with their experience,” explained McLennan, bringing us right back to the reasoning behind the tour and the album in the first place. “It’s also fantastic to have people singing along at the end, whether on the album or at the live shows. I was listening to a recording of this song one day during the early stages of our project and it struck me just how relevant the lyrics and the sentiments are to our project: ‘We are not alone/ We shall overcome some day’. It’s also great to finish the project with a song that radiates hope and collective strength.”

For the tour the performances were designed with the aim of bringing people together. Monbiot and McLennan approached charities for advice on how to make the gigs collaborative, inviting for people to participate. They also wanted a party at the end so that what happened on the night had a chance to travel beyond the performance at the gig.

“At the end of the performances we invite everyone to come along to a nearby pub and have a drink and a chat with each other. So we’ve had the chance to meet and talk with a lot of the people who have come to the gigs,” explained McLennan. “I found that lots of people have stories of the impact of loneliness, either theirs or friends’ or family members’. There have been loads of great moments, we’ve seen where people have got talking to each other and agreed to keep in touch, where people who are new to a place and a bit adrift get chance to meet people. We’re a shy bunch here in Britain, until we’re given the permission to talk and then you can hardly stop us!”

“Yes. Everywhere we’ve gone, we’ve met amazing people doing extraordinary things,” replied Monbiot. “There might have been a collapse in official support for lonely and vulnerable people, but the power of community is something to marvel at. Again and again we have come across wonderful voluntary initiatives. It’s not a substitute for government action – we need both – but it’s a sign of human resourcefulness and resilience.”

Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness is released on Fellside Records, with more shows planned for the summer.

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