George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan at St George’s Bristol

Emotional and physical pain travel the same neurological pathways, George Monbiot tells us in his introduction to ‘Breaking the Spell of Loneliness’,  a project for which this political/environmental activist and celebrated journalist has teamed up with social commenter and folk musician, Ewan McLennan. But, Monbiot clarifies, visible injuries are treated with more compassion, given more remedies, than invisible ones.

Fuelled by individualism over community, automation over the human touch and competition over cooperation, Loneliness is a symptom of a sick society, riddled with emotional pain. When Monbiot published his post on this very subject two years ago, it went viral and he was asked to write a book about it. The world needed to know more. But the understandable desire not to be cooped up alone in irony for years, a self made victim of isolation, led Monbiot to approach McLennan with the idea of converting his findings into song. Songs to be shared, collectively if possible, in places such as St George’s, here as part of the ongoing Bristol Festival of Ideas.

This is a celebration of society, Monbiot’s essays and McLennan’s music streamlining ideas of solidarity into our heads and the desire for change into our hearts. The journalist’s experience of standing behind an elderly woman in a hardware store, telling the cashier her life story (maybe the only person she’d talk to that day) translates into a heart-wrenching tale of a life lived and people gone in ‘These Four Walls’, “one winter’s morning Roy never woke …” Research into the exploitation of immigrants working in London hotels triggered McClennan to write ‘I’m Coming Home’, whose lyrics evoke in me memories of Stephen Frears’ all-revealing film ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ (Monbiot was inspired by the Maid in London blog). And Monbiot has been banging on for years about the need to get our kids out of the home and into the wild, shouting about the importance of nature and childhood tribes, both for the good of our mental health and socialisation and this translates into the beautifully melancholic ‘The Child Inside’ – “Dandelion clocks unblown, conquers … uncollected.”

In their individual styles, both these men have a brilliant way with words and they bounce well off each other, each one obviously admiring the other’s talent and passion. This concert might be preaching to the converted and most of the audience here are middle-class, white, very likely left-learning (folk musician, Guardian writer – that figures) so it would be interesting to see if there are ways of pushing these ideas out to the wider community. That said, I think everyone at St George’s Bristol left the venue buoyed up with having shared an important experience, of wanting to be together, of doing more to alleviate loneliness. Community matters.

I for one will continue to read Monbiot’s blog, listen to McLennan’s music, be involved in the local community and encourage my daughter to build dens with her friends and camp out under the stars. It’s important, though, that we throw off rose-tinted spectacles of the past and realise that our present and future together is what matters because the world has changed; we just need to reignite our love of fellow humans and the world around us. We might just find that the fire never really went out.

Click on the links for more information:

St George’s Bristol
Bristol Festival of Ideas
Breaking the Spell of Loneliness tour dates
George Monbiot’s blog
Maid in London blog

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