In a past line of work I was helping someone move into a retirement home. It was a nice enough building, with a few self contained flats on ten floors, and a nice big communal room on the ground floor, with a rota of social events and activities. I visited several times and, although the flats were full, the whole place always seemed completely empty.
The manager said the place was quiet because the residents were mostly men, “They just keep themselves to themselves”. She explained that this was the case consistently in every place that she had worked—that women were mostly sociable, and engaged with activities, while most of the men were all but completely reclusive.
I think that the isolated world of individual men is a huge, but unspoken issue. Across the world, suicide rates in men are consistently between three and five times that of women, surely the most extreme kind of withdrawal from the surrounding world. 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. 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.
It’s a big thing to bring into the open. But to start, it’s easy to find people who share that urge into solitude. I’ve found it in the most unlikely of places: from a song I always took to be calming and relaxing. I’m talking about “Waterloo Sunset,” by Ray Davies of The Kinks.
It’s a surprisingly fantastic insight into choosing to be alone. I’d always taken it to be a serene, dreamy tune about simply appreciating something that’s right in front of you. The lyrics paint the image of someone in their room, who thinks about a couple meeting near 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. It can explain away anxiety when not wanting to face the world. My older brother has said that for years he thought my younger brother’s lying in bed all day was just laziness. I went back to look at the song from the beginning, in a new light.
“Dirty old river, must you keep rolling / Flowing into the night.”
The opening, asking the Thames to pause, for the world to stop turning, is far from the serenity I was expecting. For those who don’t know the place, Waterloo Station is the busiest railway station in Britain, in the heart of central London. The description 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, bright lights of taxis, city noise. I had always thought the next line was “but I don’t feel afraid”—setting up a reassuring punchline about the sunset. It’s actually “but I don’t need no friends”. This came a bit out of the blue for me. My question isn’t ‘why doesn’t he need friends?’ but ‘Why does he see this scene and declare this now?’ Maybe he’s turning away from the world below, the one he feels that he should be engaging with. Either way, he’s turning from those he should feel at ease with.
The chorus describes someone who doesn’t want to leave their room. He looks out “every day”, using the excuse of the the cold 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’s just enjoying the view. But he’s not calling the sunset beautiful, or moving, like so many poems and songs. It’s fine. This will do. I don’t have to move from here.
“Terry meets Julie”
Back to the couple. The voice in the song doesn’t feel he can join them, and the song ends with their walking away together. The man sitting alone has no story: he’s deliberately avoiding everyone else. Like the recluses of retirement homes, he opts out.
I’d now say that this is a song about depression. And I don’t mean that to sound sad—I think it shares something rarely discussed, offers up insight, and is utterly touching and beautiful. Other than feeling ‘dizzy’ there’s no mention of feeling low—that’s not what solitude and avoidance are about. One of the main symptoms people with depression describe isn’t upset, but detachment.
Last year Ray Davies sang his song at the Olympic closing ceremony— hailed as “an anthem for London”. But I see something far more personal, powerful and actually quite comforting in Waterloo Sunset. I can identify with it. I’d like to think that many others can too.
I encourage you to have a read through the lyrics, 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 the same.