Looking deeper into the findings by Relate that one in ten of us do not have a close friend

The headline in The Guardian is here. The full report by Relate is here. (Note it’s good practice when blogging in response to a newspaper headline to provide links to the original source the article is based on – as newspapers often overlook this). There’s also an interesting thread on loneliness in The Guardian here. I’ve blogged about loneliness as a public policy issue here (in late 2013 – subsequently picked up by Labour MP Tom Watson who wrote about the issue in The Sunday Mirror newspaper) and my personal experiences soon after leaving the civil service three years ago (see here).

How we live and where we live

A recurring theme from the comments I’ve seen posted online is about shared experiences and regular contact with people who you have positive things in common. All of these seem to be common factors in reducing feelings of loneliness. When I compare them to my own life experiences, I can see where the gaps are. I may have had regular contact with people at work, but we didn’t have shared experiences. I may have had shared experiences with some people, but didn’t see them regularly. Where I had both of the first two, I didn’t have many things in common beyond one or two hobbies – such as dancing.

Combine that with the sort of housing that is being built. Rabbit-hutch Britain. Gated developments. The closing down of public buildings and community centres. Furthermore, combine this with increased instability in the workplace. The rise of zero-hour contracts – fine for bosses but how can you plan ahead if you don’t know how much you’ll be earning next week? House prices and rent costs completely out of sync with salaries and wages – what would society look like if both were much lower? What would society look like if you could meet your essential expenses with a little bit to spare working a four day rather than a five day week? What about the increasing distances (and time taken) to commute to work?

‘What is there for those of us in our 30s-50s in Cambridge who have no children or who are not part of Cambridge University?’

I was asked this question by a couple of people earlier this summer. It got me thinking because before I moved to London, I had a very vibrant social life in Cambridge. In my mid 20s I never felt out of place at student events – it was only a couple of years previously that I was a postgraduate myself. Fast-forward a decade or so and having attended a recent talk, I remembered feeling distinctly…’out of place’. In the discussion, we noted that there were people trying to self-organise – eg this Meetup group (and note the numbers). Yet as this comment in response to my last blog states, rising land values in Cambridge are making things very difficult for community groups to find decent premises.

What can local institutions do?

This tweet caught my attention recently

It got me thinking about what I did and didn’t do in my late teens. I still assumed that adults – and more importantly local institutions either didn’t get things wrong or could not be influenced. It’s easy to look back and say I should have switched subjects, classes, teachers or even institutions – but not when you put yourself in the context of that mindset at the time.

For those not aware, I’ve been snapping at the heels of various institutions for quite some time – Be the change – Cambridge being the culmination of a lot of this work. My view is that local institutions in Cambridge can have an indirect yet significant impact on reducing loneliness and isolation. This was something that was picked up in a workshop I went to for adult education tutors run by Cambridgeshire County Council. As me and Ceri Jones are running a 10 week course called An introduction to social media for social action at Parkside in Cambridge we were invited to what was an enlightening workshop with other tutors. Visualising the collective impact of all of us was what I took away from that workshop – as well as thinking how we could increase that impact.

Roots not chains. Wings to fly with strong branches to land on

The above song by folk group Show of Hands is one I stumbled across a few years ago. They wrote this in response to Labour minister Kim Howells’ comments from 2001 (see here). That plus the group were at the forefront of stopping political extremists from hijacking folk music for their own ends (see here).

In my case, I was never able to settle in either Brighton or London after leaving Cambridge. In the nearly two months I spend in Vienna in 2006, I asked myself if it was a city I could imagine myself living or working in, in what was the future. Again the answer was ‘no’. In those days I always pictured myself of moving out of Cambridge permanently. Today, I can’t see that happening. Hence going back to some of my childhood roots to shape my own future – and that of my home town. And at the same time, confronting my own demons whether they be mental health ones or loneliness & isolation ones.

The principle of the subheading ‘roots not chains, wings to fly and strong branches to land on’ is about a balance between having a place called home with a supportive community, and the ability to move as and when you feel you need to. In my case, too many local institutions were chains, not roots. At the same time, while I was able to metaphorically fly to Brighton and London, I couldn’t find strong enough branches to land on. I wonder how many new arrivals to Cambridge experience some of the feelings I felt when moving to Brighton and London? Hence for me the importance of strengthening community groups.

And finally…?

Back to the Relate report, the scale of the findings indicates a possible public policy response. What I don’t know is what that response should be, and which people or institutions could lead on that response.


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