Sunday, 26 January 2020

Farewell Europe: the long road to Brexit

Toby Helm in The Guardian

Last week, with the end of the UK’s 47-year membership of the club of European nations just days away, I looked back at some newspaper cuttings from my time as a Brussels correspondent. A picture of worried-looking farmers eyeing up their cattle at a market in Banbury stared out alongside banner headlines. “British beef banned in Europe. Cattle prices fall. School meals hit. EU ‘rules’ broken.” Among the many crises in British relations with the EU down the years – from Margaret Thatcher’s bust-up over the European budget in the early 1980s to the UK’s exit from the ERM in 1992 – the beef war between London and Brussels ranks among the biggest.

It was 29 March, 1996, and the European commission had just announced a worldwide ban on the export of British beef. The EU’s executive opted for decisive action after the Tory government admitted there could be a link between “mad cow” disease and the mutant strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease which could kill humans. I had been in Brussels less than three months. It was a huge story, and reading through articles I had written at the time, it felt like yesterday. But what was most striking, as my mind fixed again on events of 24 years ago, was how relevant that one prolonged and tortuous episode seemed today, in the context of Brexit.

When the European commission dropped its bombshell, France and Germany had already imposed their own unilateral bans on British beef. UK ministers had announced that millions of cattle across the UK would have to be slaughtered. Thousands of schools took meat off their lunch menus. Beef prices tumbled. Inevitably, in those testy post-Maastricht days of Tory rows over Europe, Eurosceptic MPs blamed the Europeans. The late Sir Teddy Taylor, a hardline anti-EU campaigner on the Conservative backbenches, urged retaliation in the form of a ban on French wine and French beef, while Bill Cash, still a Tory MP to this day, wanted to take the European commission to court.

Throughout that spring and summer, the crisis widened. This was a time when the ambitions of the EU’s true believers in Brussels, Bonn and Paris were at their height. Helmut Kohl and Jacques Chirac were planning the launch of the euro, for the big leap towards political and monetary union that the Maastricht treaty had charted a course. Europe’s leaders were preparing also to admit several countries of former communist eastern Europe. The enlargement project was one of which the UK thoroughly approved. The British government believed in a Europe that was “wider not deeper”.

But John Major, who had launched his premiership in 1990 with a promise to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”, found himself trapped politically as the BSE disaster worsened. The rightwing tabloids were in full anti-EU cry, demanding he fight the beef ban like he was Margaret Thatcher. In an editorial at the end of March, the Sun warned that the survival of an independent UK, no less, was at stake: “If Brussels has the power to stop Britain from selling a product anywhere in the world, then we are no longer an independent sovereign nation with control over our own affairs,” the paper said. “We are just one of the herd. John Bull has been neutered.”

Back home, Tony Blair and New Labour were racing ahead in the polls. On 21 May, Major went for broke and, to try to calm the “bastards” in his own party, announced that the UK would refuse to co-operate in EU meetings until further notice. British non-co-operation with Europe – and its policies – had become official policy.

FacebookTwitterPinterest 16 April 1975 “We are inextricably part of Europe. Neither Mr Foot nor Mr Benn nor anyone else will ever be able to take us ‘out of Europe’, for Europe is where we are and where have always been.”
Margaret Thatcher addressing the Conservative Group for Europe in thes referendum campaign. Photograph: AP

It was no small move to make. In areas where British ministers had a veto in council meetings, non-co-operation meant they would effectively be blocking EU decisions, thwarting European plans for deeper integration. In mid-May 1996 Major told the House of Commons: “Without progress towards lifting the ban we cannot be expected to cooperate normally on other Community business. We cannot continue business as usual within Europe when we are faced with the clear disregard by some of our partners of reason, of common sense and of Britain’s national interest.”

Non co-operation quickly took relations between London and Brussels to a historic low. For the first time in more than two decades serious questions were being asked about Britain’s membership, publicly, by senior British and European politicians. The beef crisis in itself was an isolated, very specific issue. But the way it had spiralled had highlighted deep faultlines in a relationship between a member state determined not to cede powers, and much of whose media was virulently anti-Brussels, and the proponents of a postwar European project that had as its entire purpose the unification of Europe, and the necessary surrender by participants of ever more sovereignty to the centre.

EU leaders were beginning to wonder if the UK could continue as a full member if it was prepared to put spanners in the works of integration whenever it had a grievance. In a newspaper article in early June 1996 the then European commission president Jacques Santer warned that “l’heure de vérité” was approaching. The late Sir Leon Brittan, then the UK’s commissioner, sensing a potentially disastrous breach, told UK businessmen in the same week to start speaking up for Europe “if we are not to be lured, step by insidious step, on the dangerous path towards leaving the European Union”.

This coming Friday, 31 January, at midnight in Brussels, and 11pm UK time, it will all be over. The worst fears of the pro-Europeans here and on the continent will have been realised. The Union flag will be lowered overnight, discreetly at the European parliament buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg and at the UK representation in Brussels. The UK will be out. The flag that will fly until Friday in the EU capital’s parliament building will be moved to the House of European History museum nearby. British membership will thereafter be a piece of history on display. In London, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government will project the moment as the beginning of a new dawn. No 10 will stage a special lights display at 11pm. Ten million commemorative 50p coins will come into circulation before the end of the year. Johnson will be one of the first to receive one.

For those of us who have spent so many years watching the UK’s relationship with the EU closely, the final act of leaving will be hard to take in. In the minds of everyone in the EU who had always wanted the relationship to succeed, there will always be deep regrets, and questions that can never fully be answered. Could it have worked? If so, was the EU or the UK, or were both, to blame? Which British and EU leaders fell short? Or was it always doomed to failure?

FacebookTwitterPinterest October 1992 John Major calls for the UK to remain at the heart of Europe in his leader’s speech at Tory conference.“There is nothing that can stir the heart like the history of this country. But it’s a different world now. Our families … know we can’t pull up the drawbridge and live in our own private yesterday. Change isn’t just coming, it’s here. I want Britain to mould that change, to lead that change in our own national interest. That’s what I mean by being at the heart of Europe.” Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

As we prepare to leave, I asked diplomats, politicians, journalists on both sides of the channel why they thought Brexit had come to pass and they cited a multitude of reasons. The deep differences in postwar attitudes between the UK and its European partners; poor leadership in the EU and UK; a constantly hostile British media, and sheer bad luck and timing.

Sir Nigel Sheinwald, a former UK ambassador to the EU and Washington, believes all these factors played their parts. “Europe always seemed a matter of choice, not necessity for the UK, unlike for France and Germany,” he said. “Successive generations of British political leaders failed to explain the realities and the centrality of our membership, preferring to live with, rather than confront, decades of British media little-Englandism. Then the short-term perfect storm – the impact of the financial crisis, the anti-establishment mood, and the open goal left by Cameron’s casual failure of leadership and Corbyn’s Euroscepticism.

“Brexit was never inevitable, and the irony is that we are leaving an organisation more aligned than at any time since we joined with the British priorities of free trade, competition, active and responsible international policies, and cooperation on security.”

The German MP Norbert Röttgen, who chairs the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag, suggested the idea of the UK leaving was always so alien and nightmarish for EU leaders that they blinded themselves to the warning signals. By the time of the 2016 referendum the chance to find compromise had been lost.

“For the EU it was unimaginable that a country might choose to leave the union,” Röttgen said. “As a consequence they underestimated the severity of the situation and gave David Cameron nothing to work with during the referendum. To be fair, given all the opt-outs the UK already had, that would not have been easy, but the EU’s lack of trying was a mistake.” The German MEP David McAllister, born to a Scottish father and German mother, and who was bought up in West Berlin, says the UK’s decision to opt out of the euro and Schengen open borders agreement was a turning point which took the UK down a road to disengagement from the core. “The beginning of the end was Maastricht. Not joining the two biggest projects, the joint currency and Schengen.” But enlargement to the east – which, ironically, the UK had championed – also played its part, he believes, creating huge new issues around freedom of movement which the UK could not resolve with its partners before the eventual referendum. “Free movement was vital for those new members and they did not want to give way.”

As in any marriage there were happier times. After Edward Heath had taken the UK into the European Economic Community in 1973, successive prime ministers – Thatcher, Major, Blair, Gordon Brown – all entered office proclaiming themselves strong Europeans. Even Cameron said he wanted his party to stop “banging on” about Europe. In 1975, addressing the Conservative Group for Europe, before the confirmatory referendum later that year, Thatcher proudly proclaimed her pro-EC views, and taunted Labour over its European divisions. “We are inextricably part of Europe,” she said. “Neither Mr Foot nor Mr Benn nor anyone else will ever be able to take us ‘out of Europe’, for Europe is where we are and where have always been,” she declared.

But for every UK prime minister since the 1970s, rows with Europe were always round the corner. In her first years in No 10 Thatcher fought and won a bruising battle to cut the UK’s payments to the European budget, before securing the EU rebate at Fontainbleu in 1984. After that, however, she was a tireless champion of the European single market, before falling out with Jacques Delors and Helmut Kohl over their plans for full monetary union in the late 1980s.

FacebookTwitterPinterest 23 January 2013 David Cameron announces a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.“We will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice. To stay in the EU on these new terms, or come out altogether. It will be an in-out referendum.” Photograph: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

Charles Powell, her foreign policy adviser at the time, says her European enthusiasm went in phases. “Rather like Picasso she had her blue and her pink phases,” Powell says. “For five-and-a-half years she was very awkward over the budget. After 1984, however, it was more positive as she drove the single market forward. Then she felt betrayed over the single currency.” But he insists she never contemplated leaving the EU.

Many in the EU believe it was Thatcher who set the direction of travel. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, says she introduced the idea of “exceptionalism” (rebates and opt-outs) which undermined Europe’s unity and efficiency.

“It started with the rebate of Thatcher,” he said. “By granting something like the rebate you encourage those who don’t want or like the basic story of the European Union. The consequence is that the EU is not effective because of these exceptions. It cannot act there, it can only partially act here. That then fuels the Eurosceptics again, who say ‘you see it doesn’t work!’ By creating these exceptions we planted a seed to make the EU ineffective, and for the exiteers to make their case.”

For Major, who succeeded Thatcher, the crises never ceased. The UK’s exit from the ERM in autumn 1992 was one from which he never really recovered. He fought and secured the single currency opt-out from Maastricht but the “bastards” in his party never let up. In the later days of his administration he tried to convince EU leaders to adopt ideas for a two-speed Europe in which the UK would be in the slower lane but, by that stage, they were waiting for Blair to win the 1997 election and open a new period of positive relations.

I can remember the excitement in EU circles at Blair’s first European summit in late May 1997 after 18 years of Thatcher and Major. At that meeting in Noordwijk in the Netherlands the Italian news agency, Ansa, headed its main report “Tony Blair, Superstar” and Italian journalists called it “Blair day in Europe”. Labour’s election manifesto had left open the possibility of the UK joining the euro when the conditions were right. Blair was genuine and serious about wanting to change the mood.

But he had won the support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, including the Sun, for the 1997 election and Alastair Campbell clearly spotted danger. Campbell arrived on the European scene appearing disdainful, no doubt deliberately, of many of the EU’s complex and arcane debates, describing them as “eurobollocks”, because he feared a tabloid backlash if Blair was too pro-EU.

At the same meeting in Noordwijk he accused me of “going native” for writing about voting systems in the EU, which he had not by then got his head around.

There was a smugness about the Blair administration – remarked on by his own officials at the time – in its early dealings with the EU, which infuriated European leaders. Within months, rows blew up between Blair and Brown on the UK side, and Kohl and Chirac on the other, as the UK demanded the right to be present at meetings of European finance ministers whose countries had agreed to join the euro, despite the UK having refused to commit itself to entry.

At one summit in Luxembourg, Chirac became so irritated that he told Blair he would have to learn to bow his head three times to the tricolore before he could earn his spurs in the EU. The greatest frustration came when EU leaders realised that Brown had, with his adviser Ed Balls, designed a foolproof means of blocking Blair from joining the euro, through his five tests. Verhofstadt and other leaders say Blair, whose relations with Chirac and others deteriorated further with the Iraq war, had a chance to change the course of history but fell short.

And so after Brown’s difficult premiership, in which he promoted his ideas of Britishness far more than any European vision, came Cameron, who had launched his bid for the Tory leadership with a pledge to take the UK out of the main centre-right grouping, the European People’s party, positioning himself initially as a firm Eurosceptic. When he called the 2016 in/out referendum he promised to renegotiate a better deal for the UK in the EU that he hoped would persuade people to vote to remain. The rest is history.

He failed to secure sufficient concessions from the EU to win over fellow Tories, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who would campaign to leave. Cameron opened the door to a British exit and the British people walked through it on 23 June, 2016.

Cameron is the name most often cited in the EU as people search for individuals to blame for Brexit. Röttgen says: “At a critical time, when the UK needed true leadership it had poor political personnel in place. David Cameron proved to be a coward, lacking the kind of statesmanship John Major had demonstrated during his term.”

But Röttgen knows, as does everyone, that it was the entire European political class that failed to stop the “unimaginable” happening. His fellow countryman McAllister – with British and German roots – is more mournful ahead of Brexit day. “It will be very sad,” he says. “I hardly know anyone who welcomes this and who will not miss the British, their pragmatism, their humour, their knowledge. January 31 will be a very emotional day. I do not want to be in Brussels on the day the Union Jack is taken down.”

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Don’t panic, humanity: selfless billionaires will save us all

The Earth may be burning, but have no fear – Elon Musk assures us there will be plenty of jobs on Mars writes Marina Hyde in The Guardian


When humanity’s dying stragglers mark up the final tapes for the time capsule, I hope they’ll call this episode A Great Week to Bail Out an Airline. Even as David Attenborough warned of Earth’s “crisis moment”, the UK government rescued ailing airline Flybe on the basis that some people can’t get to work between Wales and Scotland or wherever any other way. Eventually, surviving businessmen will be able to row between mountain peaks, but for now corporate efficiency trumped the climate emergency. Or the “climate debate”, as some still have it, even though it’s the sort of debate that should ideally ensue when I tell my children not to run in the road – ie, none.

And so to the global backdrop. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, must be religious, on the basis he’s offered “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of Australia’s raging bushfires. In any reasonable theology, however, Morrison’s decision to serve in a cabinet that abolished the country’s climate commission, to slash fire and rescue budgets, and to ignore repeated concerns of fire chiefs would suggest he’s going to burn in hell. Or in Australia, which will probably be quicker. 

Watching the unprecedented fires provokes a strong sense that the Earth is bored with the series, and is fast-forwarding to the end. In fact, there’s a school of thought that says we should stop having the climate emergency discussion in terms of us killing the planet, and reframe it to acknowledge that it will be the planet killing us. Instead of seeing Mother Nature as a sort of ethereally benign matriarch, it would probably get more people in the right headspace if we thought of her as Medea, or Karen Matthews.

Morrison has a spiritual twin in Richard Branson, who – as part-owner of Flybe – was one of the rescue plan’s impoverished beneficiaries. Branson’s private Necker Island has twice been ravaged by the effects of extreme weather events in the past few years, an eventuality that always sees him pose for angry but determined photos among the wreckage, presumably in a bid to garner sympathy. You own three fucking airlines, Richard. It’s like watching Dennis Nilsen whinge about his drains.

Perhaps Richard will spend some of the funds the loan has saved him on suing the NHS again. Either way, the Flybe rescue has angered the Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, among others, who say it amounts to state aid. I’ve always nursed a sort of horrified respect for O’Leary, as one of the few mega-businessmen who declines to come out with his mask on. I’m certainly on board with his absolute refusal to give a toss about people flying to Warsaw for £8.99, who still go to the papers in outrage because he wouldn’t accommodate their cello in the cabin.

Seven years ago, O’Leary applied to run test flights which would see strap-hanging standing passengers, and floated the idea of bunking travellers in the hull. A reminder that while you shudder at news stories of asylum seekers strapping themselves to landing gear, Michael sees the future of the Stansted-to-Tallin route. He’ll be around to mark the UK’s glorious freedom from oxygen, you can bank on it. Ditto Mark Francois, who will crowdfund any pearl divers who didn’t drown when the Philippines went under to swim down to the Atlantis of Westminster, and film themselves bringing a hammer silently to bear on the barnacle-encrusted Big Ben.Given all this, I’m tempted to call it touching that we seem to have outsourced the problem of what to do about humanity’s future to the likes of Elon Musk. But in the interests of accuracy, I probably have to alight on tragic and embarrassing. The tech moguls are a class of people we know are literally building post-apocalyptic compounds in New Zealand and who literally want to buy the blood of the young. They’ve murdered the entire concept of metaphor; they’re hardly going to stop at the population of Osaka.

Musk this week claimed he wanted to put a million people on Mars by 2050, explaining that “helping to pay for this is why I’m accumulating assets on Earth”. Sure. Boss it like a space pharoah. Alternatively, America might recall it’s seen guys like this before. Despite bewitching the government into giving him multi-multimillion-dollar contracts for warplanes throughout the second world war, Howard Hughes never produced and delivered a single one.

According to Musk, there will be “plenty of jobs” on Mars. I bet there will. But given how absurd anyone connected with space exploration will tell you his scheme is, it’s probably time to accept that Elon’s more realistic 400-seater spaceship will be filled with female pop stars half his age who haven’t read the small print about their half of his contract to supply them with sustenance on Mars. The rest of us can look forward to his thruster engines scorching a simple farewell message into the last remaining bit of Earth yet to be burned: “BYE PEDOS”.

The ludicrous trust placed in Musk or Jeff Bezos or even Bill Gates derives from the fact we don’t really know what to do with the planet’s billionaires, who are richer by several orders of magnitude than Gilded Age titans like Andrew Carnegie. The obvious answer would be to tax them, but our stunning failure to do so is forcing us to insist they’re just perfect for the role of saviours. It’s difficult to think of a worse casting decision, except maybe that Bond movie where Denise Richards plays a nuclear physicist.

The times call for supranational cooperation. Instead of seeing the EU as its best hope, though, the UK will be begging for chlorinated scraps from a US president who has long dismissed the climate crisis as a hoax, and who recently enlivened his announcement of further deregulation by saying he’s found a book on climate change he’d like to read. The title of that book? Donald J Trump: An Environmental Hero. He will naturally be bolstered by that certain stripe of US politician whose default take is that Greta Thunberg should be in school. One of their schools, presumably, to up her risk of facing an active shooter.

So yes, at this stage in the game, you have to think it would be quite the twist if capitalism ends up being the hero all along. Even the British Museum has asked one of its biggest sponsors, BP, to sit out a forthcoming exhibition: the display of 28,000-year-old archaeological treasures that have been revealed by the rapidly thawing Arctic permafrost. The Natural History Museum has swapped the famous dinosaur skeleton in its entrance hall for the blue whale, to focus minds on rising sea levels. Perhaps the British Museum could chuck a single-use defrosted mammoth out on their forecourt, then hope the smell reaches Westminster and “sparks a debate”.

Tactically benching BP shows the sort of dimly sentient self-awareness humanity should have been exhibiting in the 1980s. It’s a much-suppressed fact that humans had the knowledge and chance to stop global warming in its tracks in that decade, but were bested by their greatest enemy: more self-interested humans. So the moment was lost. And here we are. In retrospect, that was criminal insouciance on an existential scale – the planetary-level version of the time one of his staff asked Michael Jackson why he didn’t stop all this stuff with the young boys. Jackson’s reply was simple: “I don’t want to.”

Why are Indian Muslims still protesting?

Thursday, 16 January 2020

India's Constitution Has Moulded the People and That's Why They Are Challenging Modi

The agony of weekend loneliness: ‘I won't speak to another human until Monday’

For growing numbers of people the weekend is an emotional wilderness where interaction is minimal and social life non-existent. What can be done to break this toxic cycle asks Paula Cocozza in The Guardian?

‘I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned.’

On Saturday morning, Peter got up and went to the supermarket. He carried his shopping home, and took care of his laundry and ironing. In the afternoon, he browsed a few record stores and later he cooked himself dinner; always something adventurous on a Saturday night. Afterwards, he hit Netflix. And in all those hours, in common with many of Peter’s Saturdays, not to mention his Sundays, he had no meaningful interaction with another human being. “The only person I spoke to,” he says, “was the lady who came over to verify my bottles of beer at the supermarket self-checkout.”

During the week, Peter, 62, is too busy to be lonely. His commute from Brighton to London means that his working life is “a tunnel” he enters on a Monday and from which no daylight is glimpsed until Friday. But just when Peter re-emerges, he is stymied by an overwhelming sense of loneliness. Instead of providing respite from the stress of office life, a chance to reconnect with family and friends, the weekend looms as a vast emotional and social wilderness that must be traversed before work takes hold again.

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Peter dreads the weekend. But he is far from alone in this. He is one of nearly 200 respondents, from Falmouth to Jakarta, who replied to a request on the Guardian’s website for readers to share their experience of weekend loneliness. The youngest respondent was 16; the eldest in her 70s, and between them, the pain and isolation recurred in countless iterations.

Despite all this, the phenomenon of weekend loneliness has scarcely been studied. “It’s not something that’s been researched at all,” says Pamela Qualter, professor of psychology for education at the University of Manchester. She led the BBC’s Loneliness Experiment last year, and “found that there didn’t seem to be a time of day [nor] a season when people felt especially lonely. But we didn’t ask about the weekend.” So what does weekend loneliness look like, who experiences it – and what might be done to alleviate it?

“We define loneliness as the difference between the desire or expectation of what life should be like, and the reality,” says Kellie Payne, research and policy manager at the Campaign to End Loneliness. For those who experience loneliness primarily – or only – at the weekend, this painful discrepancy is intensified by the sense of being at odds not only with the world outside the door, but with one’s capable, sociable weekday self.

A personal, internal division emerges. Liz is 41, with a rewarding job and family nearby – but she is living two lives. “In the week, I am a contented, fulfilled person. At the weekend, I feel like a lonely outcast,” she says. Increasingly, she finds herself out of step with her social group where she lives in Somerset. She runs her own training business from home, so weekdays are busy. But this is exactly when her married friends want to meet for coffee “and a moan about their husbands”.

Liz would like to see these friends at the weekend, too, but when Saturday comes, “it’s unsaid – but it’s like they’ve closed the doors to me. Weekends are for couples. It would be unheard of to invite me to a dinner party, because I’m single,” she says. “I wake up on a Saturday and feel down. It’s a struggle to pull myself out of bed if I have nothing planned.” When Monday dawns, “it is always a relief”.

For Liz, the loneliness of the weekend is exacerbated by an additional, painful sense that she is not only alone but locked out – “banned from the weekend”, as she puts it. Between Monday and Friday, she enjoys her neighbourhood, but at the weekend, the streets and parks seem to transform. They become questioning, forbidding, to the extent that Liz wonders if she has “absorbed” her loneliness from her environment, now full of couples, families, groups.

“What’s interesting to me is that I’ll sit on my own in a cafe easily in the week,” she says. But the same cafe at the weekend is a space she cannot enter. Even walking the dog takes on a different cast. “I don’t feel conscious at all during the week” – but on a Sunday morning, the same walk feels acutely sad.

“As psychologists we talk about the looking-glass self,” Qualter says. “How your feelings about yourself are influenced by how you think others see you. The public space changes, becomes occupied by other people … It’s no longer your space. You feel uncomfortable because you don’t fit.”

“I hear this a lot,” says Sally Brown, a life coach and counsellor. “It’s like people have two personas. The weekday persona is busy and confident. But the weekend persona is lost and vulnerable.”

But is Liz really projecting her loneliness on to others, and imagining the way they see her – or does society read people who are alone in too predictable a manner? Peter believes he passes through his Brighton weekends undisturbed because he is regarded as a harmless eccentric. “The bachelor is something of a social misfit, but an acceptable one,” he remarks.

A person who enters a public space alone will often be read as best left alone. Mark is 32 and recently returned to London after a couple of years travelling. Going to the pub to watch football one weekend, he took a seat at an empty table for six. Quickly the pub filled. But Mark sat alone and undisturbed for 20 minutes before anyone asked if they could take one of the five free seats around him. “I guess they think you are going to be bringing extra people, or you’re weird,” he says wryly.

Brown, who sees many clients in their 30s and 40s, thinks this disconnect is “related to those transitional times when your peer group may have moved on to a stage you haven’t yet reached”. And, of course, may not wish to reach. Mark’s friends, like Liz’s, are mostly in relationships. “It can happen really fast. All of a sudden, your group isn’t there any more. You are second-tier friendship, relegated to week nights. You’re not in the couples’ dinner party or playdate scene. You start to lack confidence in connecting, so hesitate to suggest things. You assume you are not welcome at the weekend and withdraw … It becomes a toxic circle.”

Brown’s belief that loneliness at the weekend arises out of life’s transitions resonates with Kate. At 61, hers is a different kind of shift to Mark’s or Liz’s. Kate sees herself moving “from motherhood to single life again”. She uses the word “transition”, especially when she reminds herself, while she sits alone on Saturday nights, that she has raised her girls well, that the loneliness is just another challenge to overcome.

Kate, who lives in Cardiff, has two grown daughters whom she raised alone. Her weeks are busy with work and friends, and sometimes her children, if they happen to be nearby. But her weekends, like Peter’s, are “very long and quiet … I will not use my voice or speak with another human until Monday.”

For Kate, the silence of the weekend is wrapped in another sort of silence. She cannot speak of her loneliness to anyone, least of all her children.

“They would be devastated,” she says. “In a way, promoting their education, encouraging them to be social and confident … That has been to the detriment of me. The more they achieve, the further from home they have moved. But I wouldn’t change it, because it was my duty as a mother.”

Seven times during the course of an hour-and-a-half’s conversation, Kate worries that sharing her loneliness with her children would “burden” them. The word feels heavier each time it lands.

While silence protects her daughters, and preserves their sense of Kate, and Kate’s sense of herself, as “strong and capable, someone they can talk to”, it compounds her remoteness. Although she exchanges WhatsApp messages with both children every weekend, these seem to make no impact on Kate’s underlying isolation.
FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘The idea of being retired is horrific – then all days will be like weekends.’ Illustration: Monika Jurczyk/The Guardian

She has a “wonderful relationship” with both daughters, but their closeness makes the pain worse – because how can they not see?

I wonder if Kate’s daughters ever ask her what she did at the weekend, and Kate says she has been wondering about this, too. They don’t. “At some level – not consciously – they are worried about the answer.” In the meantime, her children’s absence weighs “like a bereavement” and the loneliness hits hardest at certain predictable moments.

Just as Peter sits down to his adventurous dinner, picks up his cutlery and feels instantly lonely – despite his efforts in the kitchen – so Kate reels from her plate.

She is at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum to Peter. “One of my favourite go-to meals is a couple of boiled eggs and a piece of toast,” she says. It’s a classic comfort meal that Kate routinely enjoys. But last weekend, she sat down, cracked open the egg, “and I thought: ‘I can’t do it.’ I have had that meal so many times, I just couldn’t eat it.” She threw the food into the bin.

Kate is approaching retirement. “But the idea of being retired is horrific – because all the days will be like weekends.” So what can she, or anyone, do to try to stem their weekend loneliness?

Sarah, who is 44 and lives in Surrey, asks herself this very question. “What can you do to alleviate your loneliness? We’re all struggling. Everyone I know has less money to spend.” She, too, is a single parent; and as her daughter, 18, becomes more independent, Sarah feels increasingly lonely at weekends. “What exacerbates the loneliness is that I’m a very sociable person,” she says.

To counter this, she keeps herself in a state of perpetual readiness for last-minute invitations. “It’s good to be seen as someone who will say yes – because you get asked again. I’ve been very lucky to be an emergency plus-one in quite a few situations,” Sarah says. She is aware that this won’t sound lucky to everyone.

She has filled in for her best friend on a trip with her friend’s husband to Secret Cinema. And she has made up the numbers at a wedding. “There is a kind of currency to being a couple,” she says. “That’s the word I want to use – a currency that makes couples worth more in social situations.” (Conversely, of course, the cost of living is lower for them, too.) So does being available at the last minute represent a kind of personal devaluation?

“I think that’s fair to say,” she says. “I’d much rather be turning up with someone. But I really appreciate it when I’m included. I love it. I think it’s important to be the person who says: ‘Yes, sure, I can sit next to whoever.’”

Sarah and I are speaking on a Saturday afternoon. If she were not talking to me, she says, she would be writing an email or doing housework. She has a natural positivity and a bright voice that belie the sadness she feels on her most solitary weekends. If her daughter goes to university next year, the weekends, and weekdays, will further quieten. Like Kate and Peter, Sarah is conscious of the life change that looms.

So she is quietly hatching plans – to move, maybe, depending on her daughter’s movements. And in the meantime, she offers to babysit for friends, hopes for a leisure revolution for single people, and says yes to as many invitations as possible.

“It comes down to keeping the communication lines open, and initiating,” Brown, the life coach, says. Some of her clients have resolved their divided lives by adding structure to their weekends. Loneliness creates passivity in friendships, Brown warns. “There is a sense of ‘I can’t make this happen … It has got to happen to me’”, which can make people who are lonely less inclined to make an effort.

With some clients, Brown has mapped on paper their social circles and groups. “It’s amazing how many people they come up with.” Others’ “proactive approach” include cultivating regular haunts (because being among fellow regulars can feel a bit like being among friends) and attending groups or clubs through the website Meetup.

“That journey can involve some extra loneliness if you find a group you don’t fit with,” Brown warns. I think of Peter, who dropped out of a walking group after a woman berated him for describing himself as “a sad old bachelor”. (“You mustn’t say that,” she told him. “You must say you’re alone and happy.”) Or Kate, waiting for her children to ask what she did at the weekend. Or Mark, who sometimes finds Meetups “a group of lonely, desperate guys”.

“It’s about keeping going,” Brown advises. “If after two weeks you’re not connecting, move on.” Loneliness is complex, she notes. “It can impact those who crave time to themselves after a week at work”; a double bind in which company is both a salve and an impediment.

Peter, for instance, used to volunteer, but, he says, “it cut into what little weekend time I had”, which makes me suspect that as well as hankering for connection, he also cherishes his time alone. “People talk about the difference between being alone and being lonely,” he says. “I am slap bang in the middle of that.”

Meanwhile, Kate is thinking of fostering children. When Peter retires, he might travel the UK and explore a new culinary continent: veganism. Liz has been broadening her group of friends, “meeting new people who aren’t so stuck in the couple thing”. Mark is considering a move to a livelier part of London. And Sarah reminds herself, on her loneliest Saturday evenings, when no last-minute invitations materialise, “to look at all the positives. It’s really hard, but try to embrace the aloneness, the solitude.”