The Charm of Lonely Places
When we imagine where in the world we’d be happiest, we’re often prompted to imagine places filled with people; a cosy home with family, a party with friends, a busy office or bar, well-lit streets teaming with cheerful faces…
But defining happy places in these terms misses out what can be the deep appeal of far less publicised and distinguished sorts of environment: locations that are starkly downbeat, empty, melancholic, architecturally compromised and isolated – but where we nevertheless experience a deep pull, coming to feel, perhaps, that we belong here far more than in the gaiety, elegance and colour of familiar vistas.
We may have an instinctive sense that we are true natives of the isolated motorway diner at 11pm. Or of the open road, under a boundless sky in which a billion stars are starting to appear. Or of dusk at the container port – or of night under the shadow of vast electricity pylons marching across the landscape to an unknown city whose eerie orange aura glows over the hills.
In these lonely, isolated places, we have an opportunity to meet with bits of ourselves with which the routines of daily life don’t allow us to commune. We are keeping an appointment with a disavowed side of our characters, and can have internal conversations of a sort that are drowned out by the normal chatter, the smiling and the casual enquiries of our regular lives. We are recovering a sense of who we are, turning over memories and plans, regrets and excitements – without any pressure to be reassuring, purposeful or just (so-called) normal.
The bleakness all around is a relief from the false comforts of home. We don’t have to pretend any longer. The environment supports us in our wish to own up to a sadness we have had to hide from for too long.
The fellow outsiders we encounter in these lonely places seem closer to offering us the true community we crave than the friends we should supposedly rely on. In their sad faces and grief-stricken eyes, we recognise the most sincere, bruised bits of ourselves. They seem like our true brothers and sisters – also unable to accommodate their characters within the strictures of the ordinary world, outcasts and – in their own way – visionaries.
There can be something almost beautiful about the ugliest kinds of lonely places: plastified, brightly lit, garish, cheap. The lack of domesticity, the pitiless illumination and anonymous furniture offer an alternative to ordinary sentimentality and good taste. It may be easier to give way to sadness here than in a cosy living room with wallpaper and framed photos.
If we are defined by the places where we feel ‘at home’, some of these may have nothing at all to do with homeliness as we presently conceive of the term; and yet they may comprise our truest and best homes nevertheless.