EVENT REVIEW: George Monbiot and Ewan McLennan: Breaking The Spell Of Loneliness

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Wednesday 12th October
The Miners’ Hall
Review by Amrita Paul

Listening to Ewan McLennan sing was like walking through an emotional minefield. Hosted at the beautiful and grand Miners’ Hall in Durham, Mclennan’s voice echoed through the air, making it seem that even inanimate objects were rising in the awareness that none of us are truly alone.

Last year when writer George Monbiot wrote an article in The Guardian about the crippling social and personal effects of loneliness, the article went viral and the reaction was beyond his wildest imagination. Seeing the subject resonate with so many people, he decided to take it forward but wanted to avoid the irony of being stuck at his desk alone while writing about the effects of loneliness.

The collaboration between McLennan and Monibot came about by chance, after McLennan had written a short musical piece about the experience of being stuck behind an elderly woman in a queue. Reaching home, McLennan describes how he felt guilt for his lack of empathy, wondering if the woman’s conversation with the shop assistants was her only opportunity to interact socially that day. McLennan nevertheless finished his piece of writing, and decided to send the end product to Monibot; partly due to appreciation of his music, and partly due to McLennan’s own lack of musical knowledge – which he stresses repeatedly during tonight’s event. Attending the resulting collaborations’ premiere, I felt part of their journey, from exchanging rough scratches of ideas, to completing an entire album together.

Monbiot says, ‘As a species we are steeped in history and social solidarity. We have this incredible ability for empathy and we cannot cope without the engagement of other people… Research shows that we feel emotional and physical pain through the same neurological pathways in our brain. Yet, a physical ailment is taken much more seriously than an emotional turmoil. Just a hot bath is enough to fix the latter.’

For we are the homo economicus, the self-maximizing man fending for himself, elbowing everyone out of his way. Monibot explains that the way society functions has a trickle down effect on our kids as well. That when housing estates are not built in a way to help children play and engage with the environment, and streets are packed with cars and traffic, children are left without any space to ‘be without adult supervision and form their own tribes. It keeps them from discovering their own limits and capacities.’

This, coupled with the fact that there are few organisations working dedicatedly towards helping individuals with mental health problems, further exacerbates the situation. As a result the number of people turning to the police for counselling has increased by 50 per cent in the last three years. Monibot says, ‘But we are not like that, we can reconnect. And Ewan and I wanted to use the organic power of music to bring people together.’

The album is appropriately called, ‘Breaking the Spell of Loneliness’. It evokes a distinct nostalgia of the past, of how far we have come, of communities who have reclaimed public spaces, of strong bonds between generations. In spite governments telling us to only look out for ourselves, people have constantly reached out and helped one another in moments of need.

Before the audience dispersed to buy the album and interact with the duo at a nearby pub, the event ended with a choral rendition of an old favourite, ‘Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, some day.’