Living alone

January 16, 2014 § 3 Comments

I’ve been living alone for exactly three years.

My flat is a tiny studio with huge south-facing windows. They let the sun in and the heat out; in winter the thin single-glazing is ice-cold to the touch and the Venetian blinds move with the breeze blowing through the glass. Condensation forms on the inside and drips down, making the white paint of the frames peel and the wood turn black.

Because of the size of the windows, you can lie in bed and look at the sky. Often a team of pigeons hurtles across it. I thought they flew that way, in tight intense flocks, and maybe lived on a nearby roof, until someone told me they only fly like that if they’re trained homing pigeons, let out for a cruise. I don’t know where they live, but they circle my own high birdbox of an apartment again, and again.

And now that time is coming to an end. I’m excited, not sad to leave. One of the features of city life is, I think, that you can make many places home, and I’ve never really missed a place once I’ve left it; even the huge apartment, with balcony and roof-terrace, that I shared in Amsterdam.

But I have learned a lot in St Albans Road, where you can see the Heath if you lean and look West. Where the willow trees still form a green fringe outside in the spring, even though they cut down one of the best ones and we didn’t — somehow– notice for days. Where the lido, cold as a glass of vodka, is just a couple of minutes morning cycle away, and you can wake to the sound of only birdsong in the first dark-light minutes of the day.


I’ve nearly finished Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy and my favourite chapter by far is on Epicurus (which is also the Consolation for Not Having Enough Money).

De Botton points out that we now think of an epicure as someone who might take delight in a huge cheeseboard, or read all the wine reviews in the weekend papers.

But in the Consolations, the philosopher himself seems to be much more devoted to finding the enjoyment in simple things than acquiring things which aren’t simple.

“[A]fter rational analysis, [Epicurus] had come to the some striking conclusions about what actually made life pleasurable — and fortunately for those lacking a large income, it seemed that the essential ingredients of pleasure, however elusive, were not very expensive” (p.56)

Some of the things that have made me happy in these three years have been the simplest — almost austere in writing them, though they don’t feel that way.

Order, Freedom

One of the best things about living alone is that everything is always where you left it. There are still two eggs in the egg-box, enough for an omlette. You can keep some autumn leaves in a jar and they don’t get subsumed by general clutter. On a Sunday night, you can sit on the windowsill with some wine in your favourite glass, and look at the lights of the building opposite, and know that in the room behind you the surfaces remain wiped down and clean, the washing is drying, and all your shoes are in a line (for the moment).

You also don’t have to tell anyone where you have been or how you are feeling. You can come in hot from cycling or soaked by the rain and leave all your clothes in an immediate pile by the door. If your blood-sugar is low (also from cycling) and/or you are drunk, you can head straight for the fridge and eat all the leftover lasagne, or iceberg lettuce dipped in mayonnaise. You can make toast and eat it in bed (though you probably won’t, because even after three years you still haven’t managed to buy a toaster).

You can’t have a conversation, which will sometimes be hard; but you also don’t have to have a conversation.

The next morning, you can get up at six and go swimming in a pond. No one will dissuade you, or hold you in their arms, and once you have swum you’ll walk back in the morning air with wet hair, feeling as alive as a frog that has just emerged from tadpolehood.

Heath with swan

Friends, somewhere

Having friends, as Epicurus also noted, is the only thing that makes this a really great way to live. Often they are somewhere else — Peru or Paris or asleep by their lover’s side — and that can be hard, especially at four in the morning. But Skype, email, text messages and even the very fact that they are scattered over time-zones mean that, potentially, they can bloom back into your life through a message, or an unexpected conversation.

“We don’t exist unless someone can see us existing,” is how de Botton puts it. Sometimes, living alone, you do have to remind yourself of your own existence, or be at peace with not being reminded (at least until the morning). But having friends somewhere makes the difference between being deeply lonely, and being skin-deep lonely. And the second, like vanity, is something we can surmount.

Rich pleasures that don’t make you happy

This week I went to the bar in the Shard, which has huge views and looks like the set of a James Bond tussle. Some of the cocktails cost over £15, and some of them taste quite nice. But do the leather walls of the lift or the mirrored walls of bathroom actually make anyone happy? Beautiful things can make us happy, but the bar in the Shard is not as beautiful as the sky when you’re lying in bed on a Saturday morning. The drinks aren’t as delicious as a nice wine in your favourite glass on the windowsill at home.

Through my work, which involves a lot of ‘rich’ places and things, I’ve learned what actually makes me happy. Today I had some truly delicious sushi for lunch. But it was a business meeting; we talked, we ate fast. There was not time to look at the food or savour it. I would rather have had a cheese sandwich, perhaps, and we could then both have eaten the sushi later, alone by a river.


I have had plenty of lazy time in my flat on St Albans road; plenty of watching series, surfing the internet, not getting on with things, putting my shoes in a line instead of writing, drinking wine and going to bed too late and waking up in the dark feeling like a failure.

But being alone so much does sometimes propel you into writing a poem, or even a really well-worded email; or making a birthday card; or working with photographs on your laptop and sharing them. I hope I make time for this in my new, shared home. As well as for all those friends, near and far, and the ponds, and the pigeons that fly so expertly and still need watching.

Heath trees

On my back

January 6, 2014 § 1 Comment

A year ago I started to get back pain, and though I’ve contemplated writing about it lots of times, I’ve never done so.

Mental pain can be quite interesting. Physical pain isn’t, which makes it an annoying topic of conversation, for which I often find myself apologising. Apologies, then, for discussing it here.

The back, though, is interesting. It has extraordinary power, both in terms of real strength, and also of endurance. It can be misused for years, every hour of every day, and yet it withstands — though not forever.

These are the main thoughts I’ve had about my back and backs in general, and of chronic pain in general, over the past year:

  • We are our bodies
  • Many people think pain is normal
  • Some people think pain is good
  • Many people think treating pain is virtuous
  • Some people think treating pain is self-indulgent
  • It is possible to be angry with and resentful, petulant and bullying towards, one’s own skeleton and muscle fibres
  • Without a working back, it is difficult to do almost everything

Our bodies “are ours, though they are not we, we are / The intelligences, they the sphere.”

John Donne’s lines rarely contain one clear message — and these are likely fully of meanings I won’t touch on here. But it’s a phrase that keeps coming back to me. Though our bodies are not everything that we are, they are us, ours in the fullest sense of the word.

Yet we don’t always think so. When my back hurts, I sometimes feel it’s misbehaving, a naughty child. It gets in the way of the article I have to write, or the research I need to do.

On one level I have known that my body is trying to tell me something; but it’s taken a year, and a series of increasingly specialised sessions with physiotherapists, to interpret the intense but silent communication (actually, not always silent; there are now frequent cracks from shoulders and clicks from the sternum with which I’m becoming familiar).

Presumably, there was a time when we were better at understanding how walking on two legs, carrying weight, playing and working impacted on our elegant curved spines. But when? I imagine medieval surfs crippled by the carrying of hay-bales weren’t any happier than average city office workers.

The pain is mysterious, and as such feels dangerous. But gradually I’m starting to understand more: about how tightness in the thigh of one leg might impact on the shoulders, for example. On how the stomach muscles can — and should sometimes be encouraged to — take over from those on either side of the vertebrae.

Stiff upper lip (and everything else)

At my central London workplace, I have complained a lot. I have had several physio assessments, resulting in the purchase of an expensive chair, an ergonomic keyboard and mouse and, most recently, a Swiss ball on which I sometimes sit. It seems to amuse and  occasionally annoy my colleagues. I feel I’m striking a blow for them; they probably think of me as that weirdo who sits on the fluorescent space hopper. My physical state is improved by all this, though by no means yet sorted.

But what about everyone else?

People often start conversations with me — usually because of the ball — about back pain, and so I ask them whether they also suffer. Everyone I have met so far has problems: everyone.

People think it’s normal. Some people even have a strange, perverse sense that it’s good. I know this, because I’ve had that sense. Maybe this is a sign I’m working hard, I’ve thought. Maybe it’s a punishment, and one that I deserve.

I don’t really believe this, and maybe no one rationally does. But perhaps it’s one of the factors that keep people from getting their own ergonomic chairs, or insisting their employers arrange for rooms where they can lie down for ten minutes a day.

No one demands this. One former colleague had such bad repetitive strain injury from typing that she couldn’t hold a glass of wine. I met another taking a tennis ball into the toilets – the only place she could go in the whole nine-floor building to do a few pain-relieving exercises.

The crunch

Suddenly, over the weekend, my back pain hit a new level — it was actually crippling, preventing me from bending forward enough to pick up something off the floor, or wash my face at a sink. I couldn’t swoop forward to stop a baby crashing into the corner of a table. It took me several minutes to work out how to put on a pair of pants.

Perhaps this is a signal, I’ve thought. I know what to do now to treat myself, and it’s worked over the last 24 hours. But knowing isn’t the same as doing, and I’ve also been neglectful, especially over a recent holiday, of doing the things I know will help.

Hence writing a reflective though – apologies again – not particularly insightful blog.

And reminding myself that the anger and fear that arise from pain shouldn’t be directed back at the body that ‘causes’ it. The intelligences need to kick into gear, and allow the time and space and gentleness to  let a startled muscle relax, or a tendon to loosen its wild grip on the ends of two potentially graceful bones.

Where Am I?

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