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In the crowd, all alone

19 December 2014

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MORE than four million people will spend this Christmas alone. Statistics of this kind are a seasonal ritual; but Professor Christina Victor told us on Woman's Hour (Radio 4) last Friday that Christmas was not the worst time of the year for people who feel lonely. Friends, family, and neighbours do make an effort around Christmas; it is those long summer days that are worst.

If that seemed to take something of the sting from the BBC's special day of programming, "A Life Less Lonely", it was only in the cause of presenting a more nuanced, and, ultimately, more powerful message about what it is to be lonely. It is not about social isolation: it is about the gap between our expectations of and our actual social engagement.

Thus loneliness can afflict those in company just as profoundly as the elderly and infirm; and the examples presented during the day on Radio 5 Live included a university student living with 14 others, a father bereaved of his son, and the runner Paula Radcliffe, convalescing in a Limerick hotel-room with an ice-pack on her ankle.

Is this a political issue? The Minister for Care and Support, Norman Lamb, declared on You and Yours (Radio 4, Friday) that "The state can't make people happy." We need, he said, to (re-) learn neighbourliness. And, as an octogenarian, Kate Torkington, reminded us on Woman's Hour, it is not good enough to treat the lonely, in particular the elderly, as if all they need is somebody - anybody - to talk to.

Social relationships require time to develop; and people do not relinquish personalities, tastes, and interests when they enter the Third Age - a point that apparently went over the head of the presenter, Sheila McClennon, when, as her closing question, she asked Ms Torkington what advice she would give to all the lonely old people out there.

Every cause appears now to have its special day. But what about Learn to Love the Swastika Day? (13 November, since you ask.) The initiative is the idea of a tattoo parlour in Copenhagen, which, despite what you might be thinking, is not a neo-Nazi outpost, but the centre for a campaign to de-stigmatise the ancient symbol.

In Reclaiming the Swastika (World Service, Wednesday of last week), we heard how ancient it was - at least 4000 years - and how recently it had been used in branding products and institutions: Coca-Cola used it in the early 20th century, the Girls Club of the USA published a magazine called Swastika, and the symbol was painted on some RAF planes as late as 1939.

So universal is it that some theories associate the swastika shape with naturally occurring patterns; one favoured by palaeontologists associates it with a pattern found on the inside of ivory tusks, which would also explain the early use of the swastika as a fertility symbol.

The India-born presenter Mukti Jain Campion grew up understanding the swastika as emblematic of well-being and good fortune, and, in the course of her documentary, interviewed an Auschwitz survivor about the appropriateness of displaying various versions of the swastika. With several of them he had no problem; but why, he asked, wear it as a tattoo? Somehow, I don't think the 13 November celebration is going to catch on.

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