13 April. The Guardian’s Book of the Week (#TheGuardianWeekly) is David Vincent’s The History of Solitude which comes out shortly.
Rarely has a book publication been more well timed. I am struck by his reminding us that “in the 19th century, only 1% of the British population lived on their own; in 2011 it was 31%.” Right here in the block of apartments in which I live, I estimate about one third of the occupants are living alone – many elderly people. Solitude, of course, is not the same as loneliness; living alone does not make you lonely. But I ponder the condition now of both the many solitary and lonely elderly people in this time of lock-down. They are more dependent than they could have foreseen. We are all dependent on armies of (mostly) low paid workers who soldier on with little recognition – although their importance does seem to have seeped into the public consciousness, but they are more dependent. From my balcony I see care workers come and go (twice preceded by the arrival of ambulances), I see a constant procession of delivery vans bringing all sorts of necessities, I see garbage removal trucks faithfully doing their thing. A couple of days ago I leaned over the balcony and caught the attention of one of the garbage men and said, “thank you”. I was surprised at the response. He called the attention of each of his four colleagues, in turn, to look up and get their own personal thanks. Small recognition.
Elderly people in care homes are obviously dependent but their situation has become dire – almost beyond belief. Every day, as one government official or another intones the death toll for the previous 24 hours, he or she adds “and that excludes deaths in care homes.” They are not allowed visitors, they get sick, and they die. Attendance at funerals is not allowed. Solitary, uncounted, unremarked – except in that callous give away line.
Again, it is the care workers or nurses that might be there at the end – if they have the time to pause. My daughter is a nurse (not in a Covid ward) and asked one of the Covid nurses what she does when the end is nigh. She said, “If I can, I sing for them.”
The next edition of The History of Solitude might have a whole new chapter recording this extraordinary time.