An artistic response to the crisis of loneliness in the modern age, this musical performance came about through a meeting of minds. EDWIN GILSON found out more.

IN 2014, journalist George Monbiot wrote an article for The Guardian pronouncing this era the “Age of Loneliness”. His basis for this declaration was multi-faceted, informed by deep structural trends in recent British history and alarming statistics linking chronic loneliness to death, but the message was clear: “We cannot cope alone.”

Monbiot wanted to explore the epidemic further, but, understandably, he “could think of nothing more depressing than sitting on my backside documenting social isolation”. This is where Scottish songwriter Ewan McLennan came in. After hearing the singer on the radio, Monbiot was “transfixed”. Some time later, he wrote McLennan a fan latter. Then the pair had dinner. When Monbiot proposed writing an album about loneliness McLennan agreed, albeit with “trepidation”, according to Monbiot.

“I wouldn’t say I went into it with trepidation, more interest,” says McLennan ahead of an appearance at the Brighton Festival, where the pair will perform their record Breaking the Spell of Loneliness.

Tracks include the banjo-infused Reclaim the Streets and Such a Thing as Society, both of which emphasise the importance of community and rebel against the apparent isolationism of British life. But how has it got to this point? McLennan has a few theories. “The British nature seems to lend itself to people keeping themselves to themselves and being more introverted. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Our suspicion is that the politics Britain has pursued over the last few decades has intensified that feeling of loneliness.”

The songwriter lists a number of specific factors within the spectrum of that “political trajectory”, from the jargon of politicians – “there’s no such thing as society” as one example – to the running down and de-funding of unions and community centres. It’s easy to see why Breaking the Spell of Loneliness was chosen for the Brighton Festival given that Kate Tempest’s mission is to spread the arts to a diverse audience, including social hubs in Whitehawk and Hangleton (with the initiative Your Place).

“A lot of communities have never recovered from that running down,” adds McLennan. “It’s a particular route that we’ve gone down intensely.” In a talk about the issue of loneliness, Monbiot voiced his belief that political disengagement was a big factor in isolation, adding that existing merely within the “economic order” leads people to live for themselves only.

McLennan agrees that there has been a “real disengagement in parliamentary politics” and that “a lot of politicians don’t speak to people or their interests” but he does see encouraging signs. “In Scotland, around the referendum, we saw a massive increase [in political engagement] on both sides but particularly the pro-independence side. Society suddenly became very politicised in Scotland. In England recently, Labour became the biggest political party in Europe in terms of members. There are signs that this isn’t a politically dead time.”

If McLennan sees positivity in these social progressions, the minor miracles that have been known to occur after Breaking the Spell of Loneliness gigs are also a source of hope. The singer jokes that audience members are asked to do something that is “very unnerving for British people” – turn to the person next to them and say hello.

In opening ourselves up to others, we can go a small way to forming connections and activating empathy – fulfilling the mission statement of Monbiot and McLennan. “When we rely on ourselves alone we become very unhappy,” says McLennan. “We rely on each other completely for our mental wellbeing and happiness. We need society.”

Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, The Spire, Eastern Road, Brighton, Sunday, May 7, 8pm