Over Christmas, my grandma knitted baubles to hang on the tree in her communal front garden. As people walked past, they’d look up and notice the woollen snow drops. Kids especially, they’re far better at spotting things than adults. They’d grab a sleeve, point upwards and giggle at the tree’s winter gear.

One morning someone dropped a package through grandma’s door. It was filled with chocolate and on the envelope was written: to the neighbour with balls. Every time grandma picked up the envelope she laughed again. She loves that this funny new tradition makes strangers smile, that it can brighten someone’s day. And her neighbour reaching out with that little gesture made a big difference to her too.

Two fifths of older people say TV is their main form of company, roughly two million adults say they can go a week without having any contact with anyone, and nine million adults in the UK say they are often or always lonely. I’m currently working in a bookshop and occasionally I’ll speak to a customer and wonder if that’s the only conversation they’ve had all day.

Social contact can reduce physical pain and loneliness can enhance it. It guts us mentally and physically, and it’s not just the elderly who are suffering from it. Dozens of reports demonstrate that those in their twenties are more likely to suffer from loneliness than those in the fifties, predominantly brought on by lack of stability through the housing crisis, the economy and the job market (social media is at the centre of many of these conversations too). The government’s recent installation of Tracey Crouch as the Minister for Loneliness suggests intent to take this modern disease seriously and to create platforms of support.

In the period immediately after University it is hard not to feel a bit lonely. After the bustle of being busy every day, being part of multiple clubs and communities and different groups of friends, all fifteen minutes apart, you suddenly feel thrown into the ether with nothing to grab onto. It’s hard not to feel a little bit emptier.

If you haven’t got a job lined up you might move back home but your friends might be doing a course a year longer than yours or a year abroad. You might one day google how to make friends as an adult and it might not seem like anyone has the answers. Your family might largely cook and clean for you so you might revert back to an ungrateful, complacent teenager. You might worry constantly about finding a job, get 43 rejections and then give up. You might take up running for a week and then decide you’re doing a marathon so that you have purpose. Then you might get a job in catering and learn that you should only ever love someone who is kind to customer service staff and that you’re too tired to train for that marathon.

Everyone might try to give you advice and you might write a lot of lists and watch a lot of Netflix and half-heartedly fill in more job applications for things so far from anything you’re interested in that you might almost kid yourself that you want to go into data analysis.

Somehow, eventually, it might start to get better and you might get a job in a bookshop that you really like and the job might come with people you really like too and it might feel like a lucky package deal to have stumbled into.

And eventually you might realise that everyone still feels lonely, every so often, some far more so than others. So when you’re working in your new job you might remind yourself every so often that each little chat you have can matter. And in a bookshop, talking about your favourite stories, it almost feels like you’re sharing new friends.

Forgive me. During university it’s easy to fall out of love with reading because you have to do it. There are deadlines and essays with print too small and PDFs you can’t turn round so you have to read holding your laptop upside down, and there are some really dull books that you have to pretend to have read, and you feel guilty if you pick up something for fun when you have so many unread pages for your seminar tomorrow morning. When the freedom of reading whatever and whenever you like returns, and when you’re surrounded by miles of books every day, it’s tricky not to feel romantic about stories.

It’s the tilting pile of books on the bedside table, mutating and growing like ravenous weeds taking over the room. It’s stuffing a book inside a jumper to protect it from the rain. It’s rolling through the tunnels of the tube looking up just enough not to trip as you turn a page. It’s putting a book on the edge of a table at dinner in the place of a phone. It’s the scraps of paper spilling out of pockets from recommendations to read. It’s walking through the shop and knocking over a pile of books and picking them up and feeling that hunger for words and thinking yes these are the ones I want next.

One of the reasons we love stories is that they take us into other people’s lives, so that for a while we can control who we are spending our time with and what kind of characters they are and we can then get lost in their words. If you’re struggling with a new move, or a loss, or somehow a lack of self, those characters can help you feel a bit less lonely. Just like walking past my grandma’s garden and seeing the damp woolly baubles hanging cheerfully from her tree.

Last year Louis Menard wrote an article in The New Yorker about why we read and why we write. He wrote this about poetry, but I reckon it stands for most stories:

“Maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.”

– In Defense of Poetry, Louis Menard, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017

 

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It is hard to look at anyone else when Denise Gough is on stage. I’ve never seen her perform before but I now very much want to again. She just seems so normal, you could bump into her in the street. She is a real human being. She is a seriously good actor.

People, Places and Things is very Headlong. In both Gough’s character’s drug-induced state, and later in her withdrawal phase, things warp and scrunch and flash and clones appear and disappear. They’re good at messing with our heads to show how messed up hers is.

“I was talking about theatre”

It’s about acting and stage directions and the complexity of being a human being and drug abuse and lies and the importance of having someone you can rely on and how everything is easier with alcohol to knock down your inhibitions and numb you that little bit but then it’s also about the numbness of being unable to react to something in the way we feel we’re meant to, like death. It’s about the pretence of acting and how maybe that’s easier than real life. In a wonderful, powerful rant she lists everything that is wrong in the world and says it in a way that makes you think, yes, this is all true. It’s a Men In The Cities-type rage at the world.

I’m not sure I believe in spoilers unless it’s about the end of Rebecca (grandma, I’m looking at you). But if you haven’t seen it maybe skip the next two paragraphs.

She- Sarah, is an actress. (“No, I’m a seagull”). She’s a drug addict. She goes to rehab. She takes a long time to co-operate with them. She goes through withdrawal. In rehab she hallucinates. More versions of her appear from the bed, they climb out like in a horror movie and crumple around the room. She does that really well- she feels all crumpled, like it would take the whole world to get her to stand up straight.

Quotes are dropped in from The Seagull (which Headlong did very well a few years ago. I sort of despise Chekhov after studying The Cherry Orchard but I very much enjoyed their The Seagull), A Streetcar Named Desire and Romeo and Juliet. My History teacher died when I was in year 13 and at our memorial assembly an English teacher read out the same R&J quote they use here.

When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night”

For a play about grief, this feels rather fitting. As she says it, giving it as an example of the wonderful language actors have the privilege of speaking, I can see him sitting on the edge of the wobbly plastic chair in Room B, chewing gum and telling us that we can do anything.

I think that’s why I like theatre. It connects you to moments of life. It reflects bits of it at us in a different way as in those distorted mirrors at funfairs or the grubby reflection of the glass on tube doors. It makes you feel things and think things and want to do things. It makes you want to change the world, and it makes you believe that that might be possible.

There’s a word that means the feeling of understanding that everyone else has individual lives and has their own set of thoughts and worries and fears- sonder. This is the kind of play that makes you realise that. This the kind of play that makes you look at the person sitting next to you and wonder if they’re okay, if you’re okay, if any of us are actually okay.

Maybe we should go for a drink and talk about it.

Maybe not.

National Theatre, Dorfman 01/09/15

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