It was truly the most incredible steak. Not because it was cooked to bloody perfection, but because I got to eat it without a side of small talk. I got to eat it alone, in a rather fabulous restaurant, with a bubbling glass of champagne.
Doing things alone has been a long-term love of mine. Even as a kid, I’d shun friends to read by myself. And rather than be offended, my pals would know I’d hang when I wanted to. But that acceptance didn’t follow me into adulthood. As I got older, my love of flying solo would trigger a strange, squashed-up face as people tried to work out what was wrong with me. To this day, my grown-up friends are flummoxed when I tell them about an amazing restaurant or hotel I’ve visited, all by myself. Friendship shouldn’t mean an open invitation to every moment in my life but, sadly, that’s how most people see it.
Solitude makes uncomfortable viewing, especially when chosen by a woman. Maybe it’s because we are hard-wired to seek out companionship and those who don’t are seen as freaks. Or maybe it’s just plain fear. We can’t bear to see it. Once, forgoing human company for a caramel Magnum and cinema trip to see Black Swan, I was accosted by a couple who wanted to check everything in my life was OK. It’s this kind of allergy to being alone – and seeing others spending time alone – that we really need to ditch.
Because I was OK. I had a relationship, I had friends. And now I have a child, too. But I’ve always liked doing things alone as a way of recharging. Life is busy and I find social interactions can be draining.
In the early noughties, the perception was definitely worse than it is today – and alone meant lonely. I blame Bridget Jones and her stark warning that bitter loneliness would result in sob-singing All By Myself into a bottle of red, a portrait of abject misery.
Fortunately – and ironically – I’m no longer so alone in my desire to sometimes embrace loneliness, but I think more of us could join the party (or not) and society’s aversion to seeing people alone still exists.
In January, the Government appointed a loneliness minister and a multimillion-pound fund to tackle isolation, stating that it was as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Of course, for some, especially the elderly, it’s a distressing problem and I’m lucky that I always know I have family and friends to go home to – but characterising all of us solo types as a problem is wrong.
And in 2018, more of us are doing an antisocial backflip. Being alone or, more specifically, enjoying activities alone, is now fashionable for modern, busy women. We’ve been rejecting relationships and cohabition for years now, and that’s still on the rise. In fact, 34% of Brit households have one person living in them and that’s expected to rise from 6.8 million people to 8.6 million in the next 25 years. That’s not just stubborn, independent grannies refusing to leave their beloved rural homes, but fabulous solitaires in metropolitan cities who are definitely not crying into their Malbec, singing Céline Dion. Yes, interactions with friends have their own benefits, boosting us with happy chemical dopamine, which helps fight depression. But give me a few hours alone and I feel much more invigorated than if I’m battling a social hangover after an afternoon with mates.
The biggest shift, of course, is now we’re never really alone. Our phones have become our social crutch, our plus-ones. e restaurant Lorne in London’s Victoria has counter-style seating to cater for solo diners. Co-owner Katie Exton says 95% of people using them are on the phone for the duration of the meal.
I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this. My phone is almost another finger attached to my hand. It also makes the perfect dinner companion. Instagram makes my food look tastier than it was and Twitter makes me sound funnier than I really am. And I don’t have to go through the awkwardness of splitting a bill.
But it’s too simplistic to attribute every social shift to our unwavering addiction to our devices. Modern women are far busier than our grandmothers’ generation, and work on average 10 hours more than our contract states. Never mind the roles we might have in supporting our friends and family, while negotiating social pressures and pretending we’ve got time to look like Gigi Hadid.
Every so often, I need to remove myself from the daily grind to catch my breath. And it’s liberating. It wasn’t that long ago women didn’t have the freedom – either financially or socially – to sit in a restaurant and order themselves a steak with a few glasses of champagne. It’s a luxury I celebrate. After all, we solitude lovers are choosing to spend time with our favourite person – me, myself and I.