The theme is loneliness. The vehicle: a Guardian columnist and a folk musician. The sound bite, "we stand together or we fall apart." If you like the sound of this, read on.
I'm not sure exactly what I watched tonight. A lecture? A monologue punctuated with music? Or a conversation? The final product came about, we were told, by hop-skipping the following trail: an overheard conversation in a hardware store; a lightbulb-moment about loneliness; a subsequent newspaper opinion piece; an unwanted book deal; a search for an alternative platform; and, finally, a collaboration of words and music—a lyric sketch.
"If I am to love then you have to die.
This, my friend, is a time-honoured lie."
Lyrics such as these were beautifully rendered by Ewan McLennan (accompanying himself on guitar, harmonica and banjo), and interspersed with what I would describe as 'evidence-based storytelling' from George Monbiot; a kind of verbal opinion-piece ostensibly backed up with scientific research.
According to Monbiot, the human being is a uniquely hypersocial mammal, for whom the craving for company confers a distinct evolutionary advantage. When the human being is involuntarily separated from others, it feels an emotional pain as strong as physical pain—which we idenitify as loneliness. An epidemic of this loneliness is sweeping the country, fuelled by, amongst others: neoliberal economic values, aggressive individualism, mental health underfunding, social media, landowners, and cars. And in the face of this scourge, we the people must reconnect with each other.
We were told at the start that the event would be uplifting—and I suppose it was, in a genteel, non-threatening kind of way—but it also radiated a seriousness bordering on melancholy, an elegiac flavour that would infuse one's thoughts long after the evening was over.
One particularly moving story was McLennan's, gifted to him by his grandmother, a tale of solidarity in a Scottish tenement block: of a communal pot of stew habitually spiralled up and down staircases, each family adding their contribution; of resident rats put to good use, caught and flung at wolfish rent-collectors in collective defiance. This was not the expensive, formal provision of compassion that society has come to expect, the type that requires bureaucratic institutions, philanthropists or fundraisers; this was people reaching out to their families, friends, and neighbours, and doing what they could for each other; people seeing a world beyond their own nuclearity—and being kind to it.
To me, these stories were more powerful catalysts for reflection and change than rhetoric or science. Shout-outs to some local social initiatives (Ami, The Big Lunch, and The Phone Co-op) made the evening relevant to Oxford, and the task of improving social connectedness became not so daunting because here were real-life examples of people doing it. The point of the event was for the artists to start a conversation, and for us to finish it. In fact, it should have been held in a pub, library, or community centre, if any still exist.
After a long time of sitting and listening, we were asked to