Lonely This Christmas?

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Holidays are coming. Just like carols, mistletoe and Coca-Cola truck, the Christmas advert are a tradition that is here to stay. John Lewis have developed a fairly sold formula for their ads: a well-known song covered by an up-and-coming singer in breathy tones over soft focus shots of children/animals/snowmen preparing for Christmas. All of which is meant to distract you from the fact the purpose of the advert is to charm you into spending even more money at John Lewis. However I love Christmas so I will try and park my cynicism to one side for the sake of being festive. This year’s advert, “The Man On The Moon” is no different. Whilst it’s not clear why this old man has been sent to live on his own on the moon the message is clear enough: reach out to people who are lonely this Christmas.

The advert was made with the help of Age UK to raise awareness of the issue of loneliness. Although not currently classed as a mental health issue, loneliness is closely linked with mental health problems. A study by the Mental Health Organisation found links between loneliness and problems with the cardiovascular and immune systems;  you are more likely to be ill, less likely to sleep and more like to overeat and drink if you are lonely. It’s a real problem: 51% of people over the age of 75 say their main source of company is the television and it is estimated that 10% of the over-65 population feel lonely all the time. That’s approximately 900,000 people that feel as though they have no one they can reach out to. The Campaign to End Loneliness got together with Channel 4 to make this video which really brings home the issue. “It feels as though you’ve been dumped in the deep end and there’s nobody there to rescue you.” (A little heads up: this video is probably not to be watched when tired or emotionally unstable.)

It’s not surprising that so many elderly people feel isolated. Local communities have become fractured, particularly in large transient cities like London. Community centres, libraries and other local spaces have been closed down, there are no longer local pubs at the end of every road – ultimately there are fewer opportunities for people to congregate. That and people are moving around with increasing regularity (there have been 3 sets of tenants in the flat above ours over the last 5 years.) Research carried out in 2013 found that a third of people would not recognise their neighbours. People are more likely to move away from their home town; it’s not taken for granted that people will live close enough to their parents and grandparents to look after them and keep them company as they get older. Interestingly, whilst I was researching this post I found out that research shows that Southerners move twice as far from their home as Northerners. Make of that what you will.

So with all this moving around how do you create a community? It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked working in schools – the school community provides support, friendship and, in some cases, husbands. But what about if you don’t have children that are school age or you aren’t a teacher? People are trying to answer this question and find new ways to build communities. The Sunday Assembly is a “secular” church. It provides the community of a church but it is inclusive of all – no matter what they believe. Their argument is:

“Why do we exist? Life is short, it is brilliant, it is sometimes tough, we build communities that help everyone live life as fully as possible.”

Taking a more practical approach, Streetbank have tried build communities in a slightly different way. Streetbank describes itself as a “movement of people who share with neighbours.” Type in your postcode and you can borrow anything from a lawnmower to a hoover from the people in your area. It’s the 21st Century equivalent of borrowing a cup of sugar.

Jumble Trail is another fantastic idea my friend Kirsty told me about. The idea is communities host their own jumble sale. Anyone who wants to can set up a stall selling art/second hand clothes/food/homemade lemonade. People can come and buy from one another, meet their neighbours and other local residents.  Anyone can set up a Jumble Trail – just follow the link: http://www.jumbletrail.com

This issue of building communities came up at Labour party meeting about Mental Health that I attended a couple of weeks ago. I raised the point that activists are willing to knock on hundreds of doors to get people’s votes but most (myself included) haven’t EVER knocked on their neighbours doors to ask how they are. Jumble Trail and Streetbank are both fantastic ideas but its unlikely your 87 year old neighbour has heard of them. Sometimes you need to go back to basics. I’ve suggested a Christmas Cheer campaign to encourage people to get to know their neighbours and the people that share our streets. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you regularly pass someone on your street make the effort to smile and greet them. If you live in London you may look a mad person but persevere.
  • Send Christmas cards to your neighbours. Even if you don’t know their names – use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself.
  • Have a Christmas Song sing-a-long! You only need a flyer and a few posters. Maybe invite a few friends and mull some wine to get the singing started.
  • When the last tenants moved out of the flat above us they put the things they didn’t want to take with them on the wall outside: old toys, furniture etc… Slowly but surely all the items went. If there had just been a person “manning” the wall it would have been a fantastic way for people to have met.
  • Set up a Facebook Page for your street. People can post about events, share news and keep in contact even when they’re not able to meet face-to-face
  • Campaign together. Want to improve your local park? Too much rubbish on the road? Nothing brings people together faster than a shared cause. Start your campaign and pool the skills and ideas you have on your street.
  • Finally, if you know that there is an elderly person living alone on your street take the time to get to know them. Find an excuse to knock on their door and strike up a conversation.
Of course the only flaw in my “door-knocking” campaign is that we don’t answer our front door unless we are expecting guests. Why?
Really though, if we can’t reach out at Christmas when can we? So be brave, don’t worry about looking mad, take a deep breath and knock on that door. If there is a Christmas message that can apply to all of us in multi-cultural/multi-faith 21st-Century Britain, surely it is: “you don’t have to be alone.”

Eat. Read. London.

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For a literature geek like myself London is a treasure trove of literary history. Walk through this marvellous city and you can find yourself in a pub with Keats, Byron and Shelley, strolling alongside Sherlock Holmes on your way to work or walking Kensington Gardens with Elinor Dashwood. London is full of nods to some of the most renowned authors and poets of all time. If you’re only partially/in no way interested in literature you’ll be relieved to know that many of these historically significant sites are also pubs. So, walk with me through my favourite parts of the city and I’ll share with you what you should eat, drink and read.

Fitzrovia

What Is It?

Famously the centre for artists and writers, Fitzrovia has been the stomping ground for Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. It is well documented that Woolf walked the streets of London to clear her head of dark thoughts and get inspiration: “I’m so ugly. So old. Well, don’t think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives.”

Start by taking in Woolf’s home on Gordon Square which became the meeting place of the “Bloomsbury Group” – a group of writers and artists Woolf’s brother knew from Cambridge. Woolf would walk along Piccadilly, Whitehall and through the St James’ Park which I would recommend if you fancy stretching your legs. Make like Mrs Dalloway and buy yourself some flowers from the Flower Shop on Goodge Street on the way.

I’m Hungry!

Although she wasn’t a big drinker, Woolf was known to occasionally frequent the Fitzroy Tavern. Today it’s a Sam Smith’s pub which makes it one of the most reasonably priced places for a pint in London. All beers are vegan and additive free and there is also a very reasonable food menu.

If it’s too early for a drink then get yourself to Workshop Coffee for one of the best flat whites in the city served by the friendliest staff.

What Should I Read?

    

Baker Street

“It is my belief Watson, founded up my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

What Is It?

In case you’ve been living inside a tree for the whole of your life Baker Street station is beautifully clear about its literary fame. This is the only entry dedicated to the dwelling of a fictional character rather than the writer. You can go and visit the home of Arthur Conan Doyle (it’s in Norwood) but why would you when you can go to 221b Baker Street and have your photograph taken wearing a long coat and a deer stalker? The museum itself is well worth a look although be prepared to queue.

I’m Hungry!

The Volunteer

Nestled conveniently at the top of Baker Street is The Volunteer a cosy pub with log fires and comfy seats. Take a good friend and share a bottle of wine with one of their delicious roast dinners – there is no finer way to spend a Sunday afternoon. If you have the energy you can even have a game of Scrabble afterwards…

If you don’t have the luxury of an afternoon free to hole-up in a pub on Baker Street then never fear – take a quick walk to Marylebone Station to my new found favourite place in London: International Cheese. I could write a whole blog post about this place but I’d rather you went and experienced it for yourself. In fact, forget all the literary stuff and just go here. Now. Go, order the gorgonzola and apple croissant and a coffee and thank me later.

Cheese 1 Cheese 2

What Should I Read?

Hampstead

What Is It?

There are many reasons to visit Hampstead: the heath, the Everyman cinema, the pubs but next time you’re there take a walk to the home of John Keats. It is widely believed that Keats wrote “Ode To A Nightingale” whilst sitting under a plum tree in the garden of his Hampstead home. Look next door to see the home of Fanny Brawne (Keats and Brawne were a 19th Century Ross and Rachel.) Or at least they would have bene had Ross travelled to Italy and died of TB, alone and in terrible pain.

I’m Hungry!

Work up your appetite with a stroll through Hampstead Heath to Spaniards Inn – Keats’ preferred watering hole. An atmospheric pub with beams and dark wood panelling and an excellent menu. Order the steak sandwich and wash it down with one of their local brews.

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What Should I Read?

Highgate

What Is It?

Highgate Cemetery is the resting place of many a literary giant: Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Douglas Adams to name but a few. It’s certainly worth a respectful stroll and it backs on to Waterlow Park which is hands-down my favourite park in London.

Why are we here? Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For his final, drug-addled years Coleridge lived in Highgate with his friend (and doctor) James Gillman on The Grove. His house is not open to the public (although there was an opportunity to buy it a few years ago for those with a spare £7m lying around.)

I’m Hungry

In the evenings, Coleridge would wander over the road to one of my favourite pubs in London. I’ve dragged many a weary, hungover friend up the hill from Highgate station with the promise of the food here. It’s The Flask – a historic pub that claims to be the site of the first human autopsy and boasts Dick Turpin as a patron. Now I don’t know if either of those facts are a) true or b) related. What I do know is the Flask is the perfect place for risotto, crumble and a Mongozo banana beer or three. In fact, maybe just get a window seat and view Coleridge’s place from the warmth of the pub.

What Should I Read?

Clerkenwell

What Is It?

Love him or loathe him (and I LOVE him) you can’t write an article about London’s literature without mentioning Dickens. London is the opening word to Bleak House, one of his most famous novels. It’s difficult to pin down an area you should visit as Dickens wrote about vast areas of the city. Like Woolf, he would stroll the city for hours taking in his surroundings that he would later turn into vivid descriptive writing. I suppose, as always, his house is good place to start. It’s now been turned into a brilliant museum so jump off the Piccadilly Line at Russell Square and get yourself to 48 Doughty Street.

I’m Hungry!

“A man in a velveteen coat sits in the parlour of a low public house with a small glass strongly impregnated with the smell of liquor.”

The man in this case is Bill Sykes. The “low public house” is the fictional The Three Cripples. Surprisingly there is no pub that goes by that name but it is generally accepted that Dickens was writing with The One Tun in mind. Dickens was a patron of the pub between 1833 and 1838 and published the first instalment of “Oliver Twist” in 1837. Saffron Hill is a 10 minute walk from Dickens’ front door. There you’ll find The One Tun – order a small glass strongly impregnated with the smell of liquor and imagine you’re a Victorian pimp. 1833 the pub probably didn’t serve Thai food but we’re in 2015 so forget the authentic Victorian experience just this once and order the sambal prawns. Dickens would have done the same if he’d had the chance.

What Should I Read?