In a past line of work I was helping a woman move into a retirement home. It was a nice enough building, a good ten or so stories, with a few self contained flats on every level. It had a nice big communal room on the ground floor, and a rota with social events and activities. For the next three months or so, part of my job was to make sure that she was settling in all right. I visited several times, and although the flats were full, on every single occasion the whole place was completely empty. Besides a single member of staff, in the halls and communal areas there was no one ever to be seen.
I would meet with the member of staff in charge. She made it clear quickly enough that the reason the place was so quiet was because the residents were mostly men. “They just keep themselves to themselves.” Asking a little further, she explained that this was the case consistently in every place that she had worked—the women were mostly sociable, engaged with activities, while most of the men were all but completely reclusive.
I find the isolated world of individual men one of the biggest unspoken issues facing our day to day lives. Suicide rates in men are consistently between three and five times that of women across the world, which suggests a common isolation, and could be seen as the most extreme form of withdrawal. The perpetrators of school shootings are more often than not male—an extreme result of not relating to the people around you. We don’t go to the toilet in groups, we aren’t supposed to cry. Men are saddled with a lot of guilt for the state of the world and there aren’t many platforms to share it all. Of course I’m speaking in generalisations, but unfortunately, somehow, for men to heap everything on their shoulders and keep it to themselves seems to be the norm. It’s the beginnings of an idea as to why so many men depart, and some explode.
It’s going to be a tough one to bring into the open, but for starters, I think the best beginning is to realise how many other people feel that same appeal in solitude. And I’ve found it in the most unlikely of places: from a song I always took to be calming, reassuring and relaxing. I’m talking about “Waterloo Sunset,” written and performed by Ray Davies of The Kinks.
The song is a surprisingly fantastic insight into choosing to be alone. I had always taken it to be a serene, dreamy tune about just appreciating something simple that is right in front of you. Just before writing this article, I was thinking about that image in the lyrics of someone in their room, who wonders about a couple meeting at the station very close to him. Then follows the line “But I am too lazy.” I’ve been through my own phases of depression, my younger brother even more so. Laziness is a common theme when emotional issues aren’t being acknowledged. It’s a way to explain away anxiety. My older brother has said that for years he thought that my younger brother’s lying in bed throughout the day was just laziness. Seeing a hint that this song might be about withdrawal, I went back to look at it from the beginning, in a new light.
“Dirty old river, must you keep rolling / Flowing into the night.”
The opening, making a plea for the river to pause, for the world to stop turning, is far from the serenity that I was expecting. For those who don’t know the place, Waterloo Station is the busiest railway station in Britain, right in central London. The description later of “Millions of people swarming like flies” makes it quite clear that this isn’t the most appealing place to the solitary voice of the song. From the opening lines, it moves on to describe feeling dizzy at watching busy people, the bright light of taxis, general city noise. I had always thought the next line was “but I don’t feel afraid”—setting up a reassuring punch line about looking at the sunset. It’s actually “but I don’t need no friends”. This comes a bit out of the blue for me. The question isn’t why doesn’t he need friends—why does he bring it up at all? Why does he see this scene and declare that he doesn’t need them now? Maybe he’s turning away from the world below, the one he feels that he should be engaging with. True or not, he’s turning away from those he should feel at ease with.
The chorus could now easily be about someone who doesn’t want to, or never leaves the house. He looks at the world from his window “every day”, using the excuses of the the cold weather to stay home at night—“chilly is the evening time.” He resolves that just staying and watching the sun setting is enough for him. I’m reminded of the time I’ve wasted flipping TV channels, scrolling through pictures of kittens, lurking on message boards—getting caught in a bit of a loop so as not to make the next decision. My brother would talk about staying just one more hour in bed, and then another, and another. Maybe I’m misinterpreting, maybe he is just saying “Waterloo sunset’s fine” to mean that he enjoys it. But he’s not calling it great, or beautiful, or moving, as so many poems and songs about the setting sun ramble on about. It’s fine. This will do. I don’t have to move from here.
Terry meets Julie
Back to the couple—“Terry meets Julie, Waterloo Station, every Friday night.” This isn’t a song about two people meeting up; for a start, they don’t show up until verse two. It’s about someone who can’t really relate to them. The voice in the song thinks about these people, but doesn’t feel that he can join them. And just as Jesus shows up in the film Ben Hur and steals the show, this couple become the focus: they are the real event, which he stays away from. The song ends with their walking away together. The man sitting alone in his room has no story: he is deliberately avoiding everyone else. Like the recluses of retirement homes, he is left on his own.
I now think that this is a song about depression. And I don’t mean that to be a downer—I think it shares something rarely touched upon, offers up insight, and is absolutely touching and beautiful. Other than feeling ‘dizzy’ there’s no mention of feeling down or sad—that’s not what solitude and avoidance are about. One of the main symptoms people with depression describe isn’t upset, but detachment.
It was only when researching this all further that I found out that Ray Davies is bipolar, and would have undoubtedly experienced some serious lows, even if he wasn’t directly writing about them. Last week he sang his song at the Olympic closing ceremony—it was hailed as “an anthem for London.” But I can see something far more personal, powerful and actually quite comforting in Waterloo Sunset. It’s not about London any more than it’s about Terry and Julie. I can identify with it. I’d like to think that many others can too.
I encourage you to go back to the lyrics, have a read through, or better yet, listen to the man himself sing the song. And if at times you struggle to open up to others, if seeing friends feels like an effort rather than a joy, if you just want to be on your own and be distracted. Know that many others feel just like this too.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
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