The Compassion of Solitude

I can’t imagine how grim it must be to be a senior member of the Royal Family and always in the public eye. I think it’s the difficulty of getting away from people that makes life in the modern world such hard work. When I emigrated to Canada in 1969 I was newly-wed, and even with a young wife by my side, I, we, found the loneliness of being in a strange new city almost overwhelming. Toronto seemed the coldest, most hostile place on earth – that is, for about three or four months, before slowly we began to make friends. It was then that I learnt the difference between solitude and loneliness: the first is achieved, the other is thrust upon you. But once you have experienced loneliness you are better able to appreciate solitude.

So why am I suddenly waxing philosophical when I ought to be writing about Alan Cadbury or the planting-out of my potatoes – or indeed some new archaeological revelation? It’s because I spent yesterday travelling in the Fens, on lonely Fen roads with vast stretches of empty fen dykes and horizon-to-horizon Fenland skies with clouds and sharp showers, swooping birds and towering pylons; even the many wind farms on the horizon looked exciting. It’s a solitary landscape, if ever there was one, and I find it’s good for the soul. Landscapes can do this for me: they provide a counter-balance to introspection; they lift and focus, yet they don’t shift your thoughts from where they want to go. I can’t find it within me to think of landscapes as sources of history and the understanding of ordinary people’s lives alone; these are mere academic justifications.

No, there’s far more to landscapes than rational thoughts: I find them more involved – wrapped-up, even – with my own life and ambitions. It’s strange, but I don’t find I’m travelling through a landscape, so much as with one; to me, they’re companionable and almost intimate – and very supportive in one’s darker moments. That’s why I find solitude in such surroundings feeds compassion and sympathy; it doesn’t instil jingoistic pride in Britain, or disdain for foreigners; if anything it fuels compassion. And for what it’s worth, solitude can be enjoyed with someone else, provided he or she is aware. That, surely, is the key to a long-lasting relationship: the ability to allow one’s partner time and space for solitude. And it’s becoming so difficult in this age of incessant Tweets and texts and emails – most of which are merely about the process of staying alive – of earning a living. Solitude, on the other hand, takes you way beyond all of that. But to where? I wish I could tell you, but it’s something you must discover, for yourself.

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