“And how do you think you are going to cope when I cast you off to this island, alone?” That’s often the final question on Desert Island Discs, before the guest chooses his or her favourite song, one book, and a luxury item of their choice. (Did you know that Sue Lawley – as guest, not presenter – chose an ironing board?) “Not very well,” I lean into the radio, answering for them, projecting my ill-conceived preconceptions onto persons I don’t know. I generalise – as there is a huge variety of guests on the show – but many of the castaways are public facing entertainers and therefore, by nature, one would assume them to be gregarious, extroverted, and outgoing socialites. Certainly, some of them decry the idea of solitary life on an island as a fate worse than death, the vilest ordeal imaginable. A lot, though, are thoughtful about being alone, realistic about those they’d miss, but aware of their own need (albeit not endless) for contemplation, quietude and time alone.
We are quick to label people as either outgoing or shy, but we are, each if us, a mix. As Carl Jung said, ‘There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.’ Of course, it is not as simple as extroverts being chatty and introverts quiet. It’s about where you draw you energy from; introverts recharge by spending time alone and extroverts gain energy from the company of other people. I go through stages of both. Lately I’ve been drawing on others but now I’m entering a period of hunkering down, going it alone. Alone amongst people: in cafés, galleries, libraries, walking in urban parks. Just like I’m doing right now, sitting in a quiet seafront café in Portobello, watching the sea mist thicken. Outside, a straight-backed man rides a horse on the beach. Inside, a golden Labrador sniffs at my feet as his owner tries to coax him back with scrap of bacon rind, left over from his morning roll. A young man in headphones nods vigorously in time to whatever is being poured into his ears. Two women catch up over mid-week breakfast, while the server behind the counter mindfully washes down trays. It does recharge, yet it is far from being truly alone.
I’m reading Cheryl Strayed’s book, ‘Wild’. Now that is alone. In it, she exiles herself to walk 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail – California, Oregon, Washington – hoping the extreme introversion and aloneness in the wilderness will bring her a cure, catharsis, restoration from the turmoil and unravelling of bereavement and divorce. It seems to work. Her ‘problems’ disappear in the face of seeking to exist and manage day to day on a remote, challenging trail. Her analysis of being alone interests me. It is a radical alone, one that few of us will ever experience, one that Desert Island Discs rather fancifully presents in cartoon form. Strayed says, “Alone had always felt like an actual place to me, as if it weren’t a state of being, but rather a room where I could retreat to be who I really was. Alone wasn’t a room any more, but the whole wide world, and now I was alone in that world, occupying it in a way I never had before.”
My rather watered-down version of alone is enough for me to be getting on with, but I do admire her spirit, self-sufficiency and relentless embrace of alone. I haven’t got to the end of ‘Wild’, so I don’t know if Cheryl makes it to either her geographical or emotional destination, but I do know she didn’t have an ironing board in her back pack.
‘When I’m Alone’ by, Siegfried Sassoon
“When I’m alone”—the words tripped off his tongue
As though to be alone were nothing strange.
“When I was young,” he said; “when I was young…”
I thought of age, and loneliness, and change.
I thought how strange we grow when we’re alone,
And how unlike the selves that meet and talk,
And blow the candles out, and say good night.
Alone…The word is life endured and known.
It is the stillness where our spirits walk
And all but inmost faith is overthrown.