I want to be alone: the rise and rise of solo living

I want to be alone: the rise and rise of solo living
The Guardian
31.03.12

Colm Toibin, 56

No one told me when I was small that I could live like this. No one told me that by the age of 56 I would know all of the gay bars in New York city, most of the Irish ones and a good number of other bars, such as they are, in between. And that I would be content on a Friday and Saturday night at around 10 o’clock merely to feel that those bars were all still there, still full of people calling for more, while all I wanted was to be alone in bed with a book.

No one ever told me that I would be most happy in my life when I modelled myself on a nun who runs her own cloister and is alone in it, not bothered by the chatter of other nuns, or by the demands of reverend mother.

On Saturday I wake at six and relishing the day ahead. I teach on Mondays and Tuesdays; I have to reread a novel for each class and take notes on it. Nothing makes me happier than the thought of this. I often lie there until the seven o’clock news comes on, grinning at the thought of the day ahead.

All day I will read and take notes. The worst-case scenario is that I might need another book, and this involves lot of decision-making and self-consultation. It might end in a five-minute walk to the university library. But normally I go nowhere except to the fridge if I am hungry to see what’s there, or to the sofa to lie down if my back is tired, or to the rocking chair if I feel a need to rock.

Normally there’s not much in the fridge. In the kitchen there is an oven I have never opened. And there are pots and pans whose purpose may be decorative for all I know. But I know where all my notebooks are. They are all over the apartment. That is the best part. I can leave them where I like and no one touches them or wants to put them away anywhere. No one sighs about books and notebooks piled up. All of the notebooks have stories half-written in them, or stray sentences in search of a home, or musings that are none of anyone’s business. If I like, I can go to one of them and add some paragraphs. I don’t have to excuse myself, explain myself, or put on a distracted writer’s look in order to get down to work. Or worry that someone has, in my absence, opened one of my notebooks and found that they don’t like the tone of what is written there.

No one told me when I was small that there would come a time in my life where people would be judged by the quantity and quality of take-out menus for local restaurants. And that I could, without consulting anyone, at any time, make a phone call, order some food, and it would soon arrive at my door.

And then there is music when night falls. I can put on whatever I like, follow dark obsessions without worrying about depressing anyone else, or cheering them up for that matter. There is no one to question my sanity, my taste in music, or say: "That again? Not that again. Did we not hear that yesterday?"

And then there is the small question of alcohol. No one told me when I was a teenager that there would come a time when I would not bother drinking. No one told me that when Saturday night came, I would long to talk to no one and wish to go to bed early, and that my only moment of pure and capricious pleasure would be taking a book to bed that was not for class the next week. Otherwise, my life as a nun is a lesson to others, a pure example of good example. It has its rewards in the morning when I wake in silence with a clear head, ready for more.

Colm Tóibín is an author.

Carmen Callil, 73

I have never given much thought to living alone, because it wasn’t something I decided upon, it happened to me naturally. What with a childhood amid a vast family, then the convent, I was rarely alone. I shared a bedroom with my sister, life with my brothers and mother. One set of grandparents lived next door, the others across the road. Many aunts, uncles and cousins were only a yell away. The convent was black with nuns, its dormitories and classrooms packed with other girls. I left home when I was 21.

Almost immediately, I fell in love with a man who was, vaguely, married. An open marriage, it would be called today. For a decade or so, I wanted to be available for him, so I moved into a bedsit above a salt beef bar in St John’s Wood. That was 1964. I was 26, and I have lived alone since.

I very much liked being in love and repeated it all too frequently. But I also hated it. I have a photograph of myself aged two, in a pram outside Melbourne zoo. My chubby legs are battling to get out: the look of struggle on my baby face is tremendous. That is how I felt each time I fell in love and spent extended periods with the beloved object. Often it was boredom: hours spent doing what the beloved object wanted, rather than pursuing the thousand things juggling in my own head. When I was in love and thought of marriage, I always came to feel like that child in the pram.

Tussling with this incapacity came to an abrupt end once I started to work. I had been raised to think of work as a prelude to husband, children, home. Once I started Virago, in 1972, and then, from 1982, working at Chatto, too, boredom vanished, and the days and years fled by.

What do I like about living alone? The greatest blessing is the number of friendships you can indulge in, the number of people you can love. I love to hear their stories, follow their lives. This can become frenetic but you can always cross through a night in the diary with BED in capital letters and there is no one to say nay to that. I wouldn’t have minded having the children I could have had, but I have insufficient self-esteem to need any duplication of myself in the world. In truth, I have fretted more about my friends, my work and about understanding what is going on in the world than I ever have about failing to "wax fat and multiply", as the Catholic marriage service instructs.

Living alone means freedom, never being bored, going to bed at eight if I feel like it, feeding myself as I like, thinking, pottering and yelling at the radio without feeling a fool. I am never lonely as long as I am at home. I can decorate my house to suit my eccentricities – not everyone wants to live with 200 jugs and thousands of books. Every object in my home reminds me of one loved person or another. Knowing all my friends are dotted around, going about their business but available at the end of a phone is enough.

There are, and have been, great tediums. Men – Auberon Waugh and Lord Longford spring to mind – have occasionally insisted to my face that I was lesbian. I felt this to be an insult to women who are lesbians as well as to myself. I hate getting invitations addressed to "Carmen Callil & Friend" and am often tempted to bring my dog.

But there is so much to do, and to think about, and so many friends to love. They are my rock. If I am in trouble, they help me, and I don’t – and never have – worried about dying alone, because everyone does.

Carmen Callil is a publisher and author, and founder of Virago Press.