Sometimes you get this feeling, like you just need to leave. To run away, pack a small bag and go anywhere. Out into the country or over the sea. Anywhere you’d see a different sunset, anywhere no one would know your name. Anywhere you could be someone new.
And then you have one of those London days where cold clouds burn off too late and the evening is strangely sultry and everyone is looking around surprised like how did this come to be, and everyone has got in a park and all the restaurants have their fronts folded back and their windows open and people are sitting outside remembering romantic trips to the south of France. And you take a long back route walk home, see Georgian terraces turn into Victorian semi detached and then pre war semis.
Somehow the evening light is blue and not that smog smudgy grey. Everywhere looks beautiful, peaceful. There are no cars in the back roads, and for a moment you are so perfectly alone you can stand in the middle of the road looking up at the evening light, and the aeroplane trails in the sky.
Walking further, people begin to reappear. Couples leave the park, passing bottles of wine between them. A fitness group is drifting apart towards the stations or the bus stops. Every house that has a balcony has someone on it, and every flat roof has someone smoking a cigarette.
For a while the houses are so big, they seem almost American, and yet they are perfect in this south London suburb. As the road begins to climb the hill, every house seems to have roses in the front garden, their colours deepening in the late July dusk.
The music sings “how does it feel?” And it feels like rebirth. Like the summer light is washing away your cares, and each step of your tired leg is reminding you that you are not a rolling stone. You are not wandering through the world, these quiet streets are everything you’ve always known. This is your country, this is your sea. These simple curving roads where every house is different and new sit alongside old in a happy, relaxed jumble, just as beautiful as anything you’ve ever seen. As beautiful as the turreted mini mansions of the Washington DC streets leading up to National Cathedral, or the steeply winding back streets in the South of France.
You fall in love softly, with every quiet step, as true dusk falls. As you reach your own road, the only light is from flickering TV screens, and street lights half obscured by trees. No one stirs as you turn your corner, except the three street cats; milkpaws, colonel fluffy, and fatty tangerine, who wind themselves around your legs, head butting your shins with their soft faces, welcoming you home like a grand committee sent from heaven because that’s exactly what you need.
And then you are at home, leaning against the kitchen counter, waiting for the kettle to boil. Life is ordinary again, but the calm remains, born of a moment of quiet in the wild, a moment of wildness in the quiet streets. Solitude amongst a city of eight million, strangeness in a familiar land.
Loneliness is a funny thing. It can sneak up on you quite unannounced, a sudden realisation blooming from a nagging voice in the back of your head that perhaps things aren’t as wonderful as you thought they were.
And loneliness can take many forms. We’ve all heard about how lonely it can be to be in the middle of a crowded room and feel like there’s no one you can trust, or to feel like there’s no one you can pick up the phone to when you’re having a tough time. But there’s also the flipside to that. Sometimes, you know there are six people who’d drop everything if you called them in tears, but you don’t have anyone you can just get drunk with on a Friday night. And God, if it’s lonely being in the middle of the dancefloor sometimes, it’s far worse sitting alone in your house with one glass of wine (because more than one is tragic) listening to hundreds of people whooping and shrieking in the crowded bar that’s only over the road, and yet so far away.
I think society often perceives loneliness as something old people experience, or people who live in the country, but it can strike at any time, any age, and is probably affecting a lot of other people at the same time. Maybe you’ve started a new job and haven’t made any friends yet. Maybe you’re working a non 9-5 schedule and you always miss out on weekend hangouts, but find yourself constantly alone during the week. Maybe your best friend moved abroad. Maybe you’ve moved to a new city. Maybe you’ve just split up with your partner. Whatever the reason, it can be easy to get stuck into a rut, where feeling lonely becomes a recurring feature of your life. If you’re an extrovert, this can feel crushing, even like a physical pain as you wither from lack of social contact.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Simple steps can help you feel far less lonely, and even begin to enjoy your alone time. I hereby present the Extrovert’s Guide to Surviving Loneliness, written by a certified extrovert who once scored 95% in an extrovert/introvert study.
Reach out to people you already know
When you first realise that you’re feeling lonely, reach out to all those people who you keep meaning to meet up with but never do. Sure, it won’t give you anyone to hang out with right now, but if you keep feeling down because you always have to book time with friends a month in advance, book time with friends a month in advance! That way you know you have something to look forward to, and that your lonely situation is temporary.
Make the first move with new people
Even for extroverts making the first move with new people can be painful. I’ve just started a new job, and everyone has been really friendly. But I’ve still had to make the first move, introducing myself to people, asking about their projects, and finding out how the social structure of my new office works. Every time I do it I feel nervous and shivery and somehow too small and too big for my bones. But every time they smile and open up. Try and force yourself to introduce yourself to everyone you can, and you’ll be surprised how many people you can meet.
Start doing something that can help you meet people
It’s a cliché but it works. Try a team sport, volunteering opportunity or local campaigning group for a way to join in with something that provides more time for discussion and friendship than something like an exercise class. You don’t have to keep going if you hate it, but give it a real go. Something that locks you in to four sessions is good because it forces you to give it a proper try but doesn’t commit you long term.
Keep on the same timeline as others (as much as you can)
This is one for the freelancers and night shifters among us. It’s easy when you’re on a different schedule to end up sleeping in late in the morning, staying up late at night… and then never seeing anyone, even the people you live with. Forcing yourself to work a schedule as close to standard as you can means that if a socialising opportunity comes up last minute, you won’t have to miss it.
Fit people in to small times
Sometimes you can feel lonely for your friends even though you’re technically busy. Breakfasts before work with fellow early birds, business lunches with others working near by and Sunday night gym sessions can all be ways to fit socialising into your schedule and make sure you don’t end up missing each other.
Do something interesting on your own
It’s not the same as doing something with a friend, but try doing something that you want to do on your own with your alone time – seeing a movie your partner would hate, going to an exhibition at a gallery your friends would say is too far away. It won’t fill the friend shaped hole in your life, but it makes your alone time feel purposeful and gives you something interesting to say when you meet up with people. This was valuable advice for me when I was between jobs this summer – because people get nervous asking you how the job hunt’s going and having something else to talk about bridges the gap for both of you. If you can’t afford to go out, try making yourself a nice meal, downloading a film you’ve been meaning to watch and fixing a homemade cocktail. You’re not home alone under the duvet eating crisps and crying while watching Pitch Perfect for the third time, you’re a cinema connoisseur with a gourmet palate to match. Try watching the classics, then you can feel culturally well-educated next time you’re in company.
Make the effort
I’ve been saying I’m going to go to Leeds for about six months. Changing job and moving house threw me off course, which I know my friends will understand. But if I want them to stay understanding, now that I’m not crazy busy, it’s time to put in the effort. So go to your old colleague’s birthday – even if you won’t know anyone else. If you hate it you can claim a stomach ache or a family obligation tomorrow and leave. But you might love it, and if you don’t go, you won’t know.
Remember that others are probably often lonely too
It’s easy to think you’re the only one stuck at home with nothing to do on a Friday night or Sunday afternoon, but the chances are there are other friends out there who are feeling just the same way and who are nervous about contacting you because they think you’ll be too busy and dazzlingly sociable to want to hang out with them. Burst through that barrier and you’ll be surprised how many people are in the same boat.
It’ll make you feel better and it’s good for you. Seriously, if you have time just do more exercise.
Travel has become so much easier now that we have all this technology. Everywhere has wifi, you can use your data for free abroad, Google maps will navigate you around any foreign city without you even having to look up from your phone. It’s so simple.
And yes, having that technology is great. But you lose something at the same time. What might once have been an adventure becomes a pre-packaged trip; a pick and mix of interchangeable identikit elements.
I was reminded of this difference the other day. My long time travel buddy and I were in Amsterdam and he’d been told of a great bar in the North of the city. We tapped the address into Google maps and set off on foot. Three miles into the journey we became doubtful. We seemed to be walking through an unfinished housing estate, and I couldn’t envisage that there’d be a cool place to drink at the end of it. Filled with doubt and nerves, we almost turned back several times. When the paved road ran out and we emerged at a junction filled with gravelly holes, I really thought we’d blown it and were going to have to walk three miles home again. But then, between two lines of low concrete sheds, appeared a gate with the cafe’s name painted over the top. We walked through, and suddenly we were in hippy paradise. Tables in boats, floating man made islands, giant rocking chairs and rope swings.
I sipped my elderflower wine and laughed that I’d ever doubted we would find the place. I also felt a tiny bit sad. The harebrained scheme used to be a mainstay of my travelling adventures. A good harebrained scheme should involve the grain of a good idea swallowed up by a morass of questionable decisions. Essential aspects of the trip should be overlooked, and there should be a general air of danger, and a feeling that the whole enterprise is somewhat held together with spit and glue. This is the kind of travel that makes you feel alive.
To wit, my travel buddy and I once drove around the entire country, 1300 miles, without a map. We took off in the car with two dozen carefully curated mix CDs and a set of directions printed from google maps. We discovered at the first roadworks that the map in the back seat was in fact an A to Z of London. In these pre-smartphone, pre 4G days, we just followed signs for the north until we got back on a recognisable road. The same trip also involved an out of date map of Dundee that managed to send us into a questionable housing estate, a flood on the M90, conditions on the snake pass so bad that he had to take off his tshirt to mop the inside of the windscreen so we could see more than 18 inches in front of us, and some hairy moments in the Scottish highlands.
On another occasion we accidentally ended up sleeping rough in Leipzig train station because we failed to realise our overnight train from Frankfurt to Berlin was in fact a one hour train from Frankfurt to Leipzig, a six hour wait at Leipzig and then a one hour train to Berlin. When McDonalds opened at 5am it brought about a feeling of deliverance like the parting of the Red Sea. Astonishingly that wasn’t even the only time we slept rough on that trip.
A couple of years later, we embarked on a journey to canoe coast to coast across Scotland. Again, the trip was a mixture of careful planning and vague assumptions. We camped on beaches under the astonishing Scottish stars, and hitch-hiked with friendly Irish men to get to the fish and chip shop and the pub for a well-earned drink one evening. No one had a torch so we walked back by starlight. It was wonderful, it was haphazard, and it was a world away from the sterilised world of technology-aided travel that we knew. Wild camping meant no electricity (or showers or toilets for that matter) which meant no phones to guide us if we went wrong. None of us actually knew how to canoe, and it took most of a day for me to convince the others that it did in fact help if you rowed in time (“otherwise why would they do it at the Oxford and Cambridge boat race!”).
In a memorable incident, one of the guys accidentally kicked the other in the face, and it was left up to the medicinal whisky and small first aid kit to patch up the wound. It was unexpectedly 27 degrees, and we all burned and melted in various degrees. We had not anticipated that portage (moving the canoes around lock gates on the canals) would be so gruelling, and hadn’t rented a portage trolley. When it rained, it poured, and we were reduced to bailing out the boats with half a milk bottle. It was glorious.
That’s what you miss in this new world of sanitised travel. Adventure. It doesn’t matter which part of the world you end up in if you’re sitting on your iPhone posting elegant Instagram photos of your perfectly made up face. There’s no adventure. Adventure requires taking a leap, putting your faith in a slightly harebrained scheme. I’m not going to pretend it always works out; sleeping rough in a train station is awful. But we sat up all night and talked about things we’d never talked about before, stone cold sober, huddled in our sleeping bags. And living life with a few more rough edges helps you to realise that the greatest moments aren’t the glamorous ones, they’re the harebrained ones, the gaps in between.
A very long time ago (five whole entire years) I graduated from university on my 21st birthday. It was a momentous occasion. I thought I knew everything there was to know because I’d studied philosophy and answered difficult questions about the universe. I thought I knew loss. I thought I knew what life was going to hold. I thought I knew what hard work was. I didn’t know anything. Five years later I’ve learned so much but all I really know for sure is that there’s so much I don’t know. But in honour of my 26th birthday, here are some things I do know.
Forgive, but don’t forget the lessons you’ve learned. Forgive your parents for calling you fat as a teenager. Forgive your friend for getting so drunk on your 22nd birthday that you had to take her home and miss your own birthday. Forgive people for big things, forgive them for little things. The space that anger is taking up is all inside you – they probably don’t even know you’re angry. Let go of the anger, but remember the lesson. Be better than others have been.
You don’t need to be liked by everyone, you don’t need to like everyone, but you should never be a dick. I used to be so embarrassed about who I was. Then I used to show off about how quirky I was. Both those things are cringeworthy. What do you love? Go with it. I sew my own clothes. I have uttered the phrase “there’s a great song you have to hear by the guy from Deep Purple’s side project band” (it’s seven minutes of glory guys) and I’m not ashamed of that. I cry at adverts, like the Lloyds Bank one where the horse comes home from war. I’m who I am and I’m not ashamed of it. Some people aren’t going to like it and that’s fine, there are some people I just don’t click with either. We’re all adults, we won’t be mean, we won’t be cruel, we’ll just get on with doing us.
You’re going to make some terrible mistakes I stayed with a boy who read my diary. I hurt myself because I was afraid to admit that what I wanted wasn’t what everyone else told me I should. I took out an overdraft and a credit card when I really shouldn’t have. These things happen. Take a deep breath, square your shoulders and dig yourself out of the hole.
Make time for yourself Stress and burnout are real, and they’re miserable. Real life isn’t like university, you don’t get summers off to recharge. I worked four straight Christmasses after university, and four straight Augusts. I didn’t have two weeks off in a row for four years. That was dumb. I was so burned out I’d lost enthusiasm for everything I liked. I had to relearn how to listen to new music and read novels. Do something just for you at least once a week. Carve out the time. I go to Pilates twice a week, take a bath afterwards, and paint my nails. It’s unashamed me-time and it keeps me sane. Do what works for you, so long as it’s positive. Alcohol does NOT count.
Stop waiting for the cavalry. You are the cavalry. My boss said this in a work context the other week and I thought it was amazing and exemplifies so much of what I’ve learned. If you’re waiting to win the lottery, lose 100lbs, for the perfect man or job to fall into your lap, you’re going to be waiting forever. If you want something, go out and try for it. If you don’t know what you want, start by making sure you’re not doing what you don’t want and inch closer to what you do want from there.
Worse things are going to happen than you can imagine, better things are coming than you can comprehend.
When I was 22 I was made redundant from a job which although terrible, was the real job I’d ever had. I was single, broke, unemployed, friendless and hopeless. A week later I got the opportunity of a lifetime and got a new job in a field that I’d always wanted to work in. Within a month I had a great job, money in the bank, and had just met the love of my life. Bad things will happen. People you thought you could count on won’t be there for you. Loved ones will die. But new friends will reveal themselves in unexpected places, bad love will give way for good love. Never give up hope, and never judge. Remember the words of Baz Luhrmann: “never congratulate or berate yourself too much. Your choices are half chance”.
And one for the future… Be inspired by people younger than you
Because you have something to learn from everyone, and something to teach everyone.
A lot of people are going to disagree with Sadiq Khan’s decision to ban body shaming adverts, but I think it’s pretty great. There’s a world of difference between a bikini advert which is effectively saying “look at our bikinis they’re nice you should buy one” and an advert like this which says “you have to look like this to achieve the right to wear a bikini”
I also think the TfL director’s point that “advertising on our network is unlike TV, online, and print media. Our customers cannot simply switch off or turn a page if an advertisement offends or upsets them and we have a duty to ensure the copy we carry reflects that unique environment.” is a really good one. You can’t choose to avoid an advert like this as a way of showing your disapproval of it; it’s shoved in your face all the time. When these adverts were on, there was one opposite me on the platform of Tooting Broadway every day and to be honest, it did make me feel a bit shit.
We’ve moved on from the simplistic view that thin models cause women to have eating disorders (whoever could have imagined that eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with multiple causes!). But a relentless barrage of adverts, TV programmes, newspapers, people on social media, friends, colleagues, bosses, politicians, famous people and everyone else telling you “you’re not good enough” is real, and has a real psychological impact.
It’s hard to stay feeling confident about yourself, and your choices, when you’re constantly told they’re not good enough. I used to work in a job where everyone was on a diet. My boss was a size six and lived on cottage cheese and tuna from the can because she wanted to be thinner. Everyone was on the Dukan diet. People stared when I had pasta for lunch. I used to eat my lunch in secret so that I could avoid their stares. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t want to be thin as much as they did.
One of the most insidious trends in modern life is the idea that there is a perfect way to be, which you should be achieving, and if you’re not it somehow undervalues your other achievements. You see it with everything, and the pressure is on men and women: successful entrepreneurs have to be good looking, everyone needs a gorgeous partner, beautiful children, a lovely pug, and a perfect home to be photographed in so they can tag themselves on Instagram #blessed. And for women, underneath it all “you must be thin, above all else, in addition to everything else, and no matter what else”.
I don’t need to go in to how stupid this is as an idea – anyone with half a brain can see that being thin is not in itself something of an achievement. It doesn’t make you healthier, or stronger, or better prepared to tackle life’s challenges. It doesn’t improve your relationships with friends and family, and it doesn’t make you better at your job. And yet the pressure’s on, every day, to live up to this ideal. Adverts like this are the thin end of the wedge, but it’s not the thin end of a censorship wedge. It’s a wedge that threatens to split you open, so that you crack under pressure to be perfect. It’s to knock down your self-esteem because they know that it’s easier to sell things to people who are insecure. It’s to create a need for validation where none previously existed.
A fact I love to tell people is that women never used to face pressure to shave their legs – no one thought women’s legs were hairy enough to need shaving. But during the war, the Gilette shaving company worried that not enough men were buying razors. So they came up with the idea of marketing razors to women to shave their legs. And now every western woman feels self-conscious if their unshaven ankle might peek out of their trouser leg.
Banning a couple of adverts won’t change the world, but I like the message it sends. That advertisers will have to try a little harder for their money, that we don’t want to shame people from the walls of their daily commute, that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay to just go to the beach, lie in the sun (with suncream on of course), and just chill the fuck out and be who you are.
I bought a lovely yellow blouse recently and the first time I wore it several colleagues told me it looked nice. I told them it was from Zara, and they all remarked how much they loved Zara. “I never normally go in,” I shrugged, “But yeah it’s great.” They couldn’t believe it – Zara is the de rigeur choice of the fashion-conscious office worker. Well, that’s not strictly true. It’s the choice of the fashion-conscious office worker who is a size 12 or smaller. Because more than 90% of Zara’s clothes are only available in sizes XS-L, and by their own website’s admission, their large falls somewhere between a 12 and a 14. A quick scan of their website shows that of the 518 different tops on sale right now, only 19 are available in a size XXL, and only 150 in a size XL. In store, I’ve often noticed that the coolest, most magazine hyped clothes, are only available in XS, S, and M.
In previous years, I would have ranted about this “it doesn’t make economic sense! Where’s the capitalism in choosing to exclude half your target market? The average woman in Britain is a size 16 don’t you know?!”. But the dark truth is that averages hide a multitude of class issues. There’s an old adage that says that statistics is the discipline that proves the average person has one breast and one testicle, and never is that truer than when looking at size.
Sure, the average woman in the UK may be a size 16, but that size is not evenly distributed. When I look around me in upmarket Clapham brunch spots, rooftop bars in Shoreditch, popular instagram feeds, and even at the people around me when I get off the tube in Holborn, no one is a size 16. A toned slenderness is now the ultimate sign of status and wealth – a sign of leisure time, access to an expensive gym, the opportunity to cook and eat healthy meals. Fat used to be a feminist issue, now it’s a class issue. If I go home to my parents’ area, it’s a very different story. Fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, gyms are expensive – it’s genuinely difficult to eat healthily on a budget, especially if you’re on a zero hours contract or working two jobs and you never know where and when you’re going to be working so you can’t prepare yourself.
When I lived in Catford, there was a headline in the local paper: “46 chicken shops in Catford and NOT ONE GYM”. It says it all.
What Zara, and others (I’m looking at you, Urban Outfitters, Mango, & Other Stories and more…), have done may be distasteful but it reflects an economic reality that bleating about statistics hides. Being fat is associated with being poor, and not with aspiration. They are selling an aspirational image – they want to be seen on the backs of girls brunching in Clapham and dancing in Peckham. They don’t want to be associated with mere mortals who might have a spare tyre around their waist and might *gasp* be wearing their clothes in such undesirable areas as Catford – let alone somewhere outside of a chi chi urban destination. They feel that if they were, their cooler, richer customers might no longer wish to be associated with their brand. It’s like charities who reject donations from noted racists, knowing the good PR they receive will ultimately be better than the money. “Fat” women are the noted racists in this miserable equation.
There will be some people who think this is a good thing. That fat people should feel pressured into losing weight. That being a size 16 is in some way immoral. That the best clothes should be reserved for the people who look the “best”. This is bullshit on a variety of levels. For a start, for a 5’2″ person to be a size 12 is very different from a 5’10” person. For another thing, if a person has struggled with eating disorders, or is on certain medications, it could be healthier for them to hover at around a size 14-16 than to risk their mental or physical health trying to become a socially approved 10 or 12. People also carry weight differently – before I gained weight while working in a desk job, I was tiny on my bottom half and slipped easily into Zara sizing. But I’ve always had broad shoulders, a long back, and large breasts. I couldn’t be a size 10 up top without major surgery – far too high a cost for fashion.
Of course, Zara knows all these arguments, and so do all the fashion brands that choose to market exclusively to them. They’ve just decided not to care. It’s hard to know if body acceptance movements will bring about a change in their opinions or if they’ll stick to their ways. Either way, it brings a bitter taste to my mouth to know that it’s more economically profitable to judge half your potential customers as a low class liability than it is to cater to all who might want to buy your products.
I’m not sure when my love affair with nail polish began. Maybe it was watching Sally Bowles’ glittering talons in Cabaret, decadent even in the poverty and deprivation of Berlin in the 30s. Or maybe it was because painted nails were banned at school, and there’s always frisson in the forbidden. Regardless, for me nail polish was love at first sight. And since I left my strict school at 16, I honestly don’t think there’s been a single day when I’ve left the house without nail polish on. And any time friends visit my house, the box is soon lifted off the shelf and “nail polish night” begins.
It’s gone from a symbol of teenage rebellion to an elaborate ritual, and I think the ritual is half the fun. Cleaning off the old polish, trimming and shaping the nail, preparing the surface with a base coat, choosing an appropriately stylish colour, and finally adding a quick dry top coat. Sometimes I go around the edges with a make up brush dipped in nail polish remover to get the splashes off, or just peel them off in the shower the next morning. Either way, it takes about 45 minutes, and it’s some of the only time in the week that I sit still and take a moment to reflect. Sure, I could do that without nail polish – but I don’t think I would. In our busy modern world it feels unbelievably indulgent to spend 45 minutes doing effectively nothing once every five days. But that’s part of the joy of it.
Nail polish is completely pointless, like make up I suppose. But while make up tends to be done at the beginning of the day or before the night out, nail polish is best done at the end of the day, before bed. It can be a time of reflection, a time to look back over the day, a time to be still and quiet. It’s always the same process, and yet it’s always different. Every week brings a new colour, a new style.
Unfortunately, having waxed lyrical about how wonderful nail polish is, it’s also become a problem for me. I can’t fail to notice how thin and flaky my nails have become, how easily they split, and how often when the nail polish chips it takes a sliver of nail with it. They aren’t glamorous talons any more, they’re ever shrinking stubs. So I’ve come to the reluctant conclusion that I need to take some time out from my ritual of glamour and let my naked nails see the sun for a few weeks in the hope that it will tempt them back to strength. It’s going to be funny going out without my armour.
It’s going to be even stranger living without my ritual. I shall have to think of some new stress-busting evening activities. Any recommendations gladly accepted. In the meantime, RIP nails, and may you grow stronger soon.