A Sociological Autobiography: 40 – Alone in Company

Ron’s favourite poem was Gray’s ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’. In his old, tattered edition of the Oxford Book of Verse his marker long rested here. From memory, the opening verse runs:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd winds slowly o‘er the lea,

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

The verse as a whole captures the world, or rural idyll, of his imagination, and to an extent mine. And the last line without doubt marks a shared predisposition. As an only child I learned to live with and appreciate my own company. I remain content alone. It is a temperamental idiosyncrasy that can easily be misunderstood or recast as unsociability. Maybe it has been reinforced not only by being an only child but also by my marginalised status and identity as a sociologist in an assortment of London’s medical schools.

I was certainly deeply content doing the run of second-hand bookshops down Charing Cross Road, often spending more than was desirable collecting books that, surely, I would one day set about. Occasionally my enthusiasm and the size of our home and my office library would mean I bought the same book twice (my embarrassing record is the same book purchased four times). Thousands of books randomly stacked in each of two locations makes for confusion. In my defence I did and do read prodigiously. And reading is of course a solitary pursuit.

More predictably, I write alone. And to pick up an earlier theme, I often associate particular projects with particular places. Much of my contribution to the first edition of Sociology as Applied to Medicine, for which I was co-editor with Donald Patrick and which saw the light of day in 1982, was for example composed during those free-and-easy, biro-on-paper days in Wimpy’s cavern on Waterloo Station; odd but true. I am more flexible than I was place-wise, and now have a handful of regular haunts, few of which, I confess, suggest that I am any more fastidious about my surroundings than in years past.

There are two areas to elaborate on in this fragment. The first involves ‘being alone’ in the likes of Gray’s country churchyard. My father and I have, it seems to me, shared a capacity to ‘tune out’. If this is easiest when separated from others in a quiet and undisturbed rural setting, it is perfectly manageable in a bustling metropolis like London. Tuning out can donate a time and space in which to think (to hold one of Maggie Archer’s ‘internal conversations’); but it can also permit what I might call an ‘absence’, a time and space that remains blissfully vacant. I have a sneaking suspicion that whereas internal conversations are universal, absence, or vacancy, is a subversive gift (although others might be less generous).

The second area warrants a brief sociological excursus. This concerns ‘being alone in company’, a phenomenon beginning to receive more attention. I began to think about this in detail when Aksel Tjora and I planned our edited volume Café Society a few years ago. I have always visited cafes: indeed, it has been a Scambler family preoccupation, usually with books to hand. But as should already be clear I have for 40 years made a habit of reading and writing alone in company. Many of my internal conversations and absences have occurred in the vicinity of others. Thinking about it anew, I relish this solitariness in the company of strangers. And not least noisy strangers. Invited to lecture in Melbourne I found my hotel linked by tunnel to a 24-hour casino. Oblivious to time I sampled heaven; that is, until I was politely reprimanded for using my laptop in the betting arena (even then they found me a side room). I can cut myself off from proximate rowdiness, choosing when to be deflected or diverted. All I require is that people leave me alone. A darkened and booming disco or nightclub would do fine for my writing, except that my productive eccentricity would enrage owners and punters alike.

A related point – about which I have ventured a preliminary blog or two – focuses on the novel phenomenon of connected solitariness. This is not simply a matter of being alone in company. Independently of the presence of ‘actual others’ there now exists a ready panoply of social media and opportunities for ‘virtual’ relations and contact. In my case, emails, twitter, blogs and Internet surfing are diversions enough, and they leave me entirely free to decide when and how I connect with whom or what. What more could a solitary, anonymous author in a crowed public space ask for?

Like Ron I love Gray’s Elegy, and there is so much more to it than the mood its opening lines have summoned up for this father and son. I will likely return especially to the bedrock notion that things might have been so different for the dead and forgotten.








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