night swimming

In summer I think about Hockney. But in winter, Hopper. Every night on the short walk back from the station I pass an office block,  a grey vacuum lit by the yellowish blur of artificial light. It’s a spectacle that only becomes apparent in the colder months and on days when the evenings seem to draw in before the day has begun.

I’ve been stuck on loneliness ever since I read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. There’s a chapter dedicated to Edward Hopper – about the way the construction of his cityscapes indicates isolation, about his subjects as uncommunicative groups of strangers and lone figures (often women) as posed to indicate despair. Whether or not loneliness was his intention, it’s certainly something that can be gleaned from his paintings. Laing is of course much more eloquent than I am in expressing this. You can read more about her personal study of loneliness in this Guardian article or better still buy the book.

The city at night is a contradiction between loneliness and frantic activity. My hometown is renowned for its nightlife – although as a veteran of failed clubbing excursions I can testify that you’ll struggle to find a good bar open past 01.30 on a weeknight. It’s a friendly corner of the world where drunk rituals like philosophising in smoking areas and doling out relationship advice in the queue for chips and gravy are very much alive.

Once the revelers head back there’s a brief window of time when the city is still, and I love this hour. There’s a word for the feeling it evokes – Kenopsia, which means the forlorn atmosphere of an empty place usually busting with people. I feel at peace with this type of loneliness because it’s so rare. I can appreciate it as a temporary transient state. There’s beauty in a near-empty urban environment – to hear the soft buzz of neon signs and the dawn chorus together in an unusual harmony.

Is loneliness still the same if you know it to be temporary? There aren’t many times in my life I’ve felt lonely. When I did it was accompanied by the crushing fear that it might be permanent.

I’m not sure I know where being alone ends and loneliness begins. They are certainly different. I’m also not sure if we can each be held accountable for our own sense of loneliness? How much of it is a state of mind as much as it is a set of circumstances?

In the past few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find peace in my own company. I listen to audiobooks when I go to sleep. I turn the T.V. on as soon as I get in from work. I read best on crowded planes or while my boyfriend sleeps in bed beside me. Even writing – which I’ve told myself I love – can feel like a painful type of quarantine.

Yet when I was younger I was a complete bookworm. I was too shy to speak up in school. I spent hours writing epic tomes in notebooks about fantastical worlds. I’m not sure when my happiness became reliant on the company of other people. I suppose my point is that age has increased my fear of being alone, despite the fact I am increasingly surrounded by people I love and who love me.

Returning to Hopper, my favourite painting of his is Automat (1927). In it a woman sips coffee alone at night. Her hat and coat are an indication of the season. She wears only one glove which critics have commented suggests she is in a hurry, or distressed, or distracted. Alain de Botton points to this in an essay titled ‘The Pleasures of Sadness’ stating that Hopper ‘puts us [as the viewer] on her side, the side of the outsider against insiders’. Perhaps this is why I feel so much affection towards this piece. I am intrigued in equal measure by the mystery of the subject’s story and by the elegance of her alone-ness.

So I’m beginning to practice being comfortable alone. The pinnacle of this is night swimming. My local pool is run down. There’s no heating in the changing rooms (by way of apology the staff pinned to the door a print out of a Clip Art polar bear with BRRRRR! SORRY’ underneath in Comic Sans). Most evenings they play Adele’s greatest hits over the speaker. I have to motivate myself to go as to leave in darkness often makes me anxious. When I enter the water my thoughts are louder than ever – still racing, still erratic.

When I’m swimming I think about Hopper and the woman in Automat then I’m slightly less uneasy. Everyone is an outsider sometimes, I tell myself. To be alone is necessary. When I’m night swimming I let my mind entertain Hockney too, and in particular his painting A Bigger Splash (1967). Even though it’s cold outside those vast expanses of Californian pastel blue don’t feel so far away when I’m alone but floating.


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