Cliff Richard. Hands up anyone aware who Cliff Richard is. Right then. Not many.
Well when I was a very young fella, Cliff Richard was always on the radio singing a song about being a bachelor. The song begins with the singer informing his audience that his dad said to him, “Son, you are a bachelor boy/And that’s the way to stay/Son, you be a bachelor boy until your dyin’ day.”
As I remember it, there was some scoffing about Cliff Richard’s assertion. Nobody decided to be a lifelong bachelor unless they were, you know, peculiar. The point of life was to get married, have kids and then expect your kids to get married.
The loneliest figure imaginable was actually a familiar one – the single man, a farmer tied to the land, without a wife, loneliness in his eyes when he came into the town to do business, seeking solace in drink. One of the greatest Irish poems of the era is Patrick Kavanagh’s epic The Great Hunger, a magnificent portrait of just such an isolated, desolate farmer, described in the end as “a sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.”
Today, things are different. According to a jaunty documentary airing tonight, there are more than 100 million single people in the U.S. It’s a major trend in society, is the gist. And it’s an interesting trend but the doc tends to err on the side of generalities. A topic not covered in it is the current trend of grown men with, ah, unreliable incomes, living in the basement of their mom’s house. Anyone who has been following the antics of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s cronies will have spotted that trend. A doc on that crowd I would really like to see.
Anyway, Flying Solo (CBC, 9 p.m. on Doc Zone) is the doc in question and it tries to cover too much ground in an hour. It begins by suggesting that after 200,000 years the pattern of human existence has changed. “The number of adults living alone has tripled in half a century. In Canada, for the first time in history, there are more one-person households than couple households with kids. In North America, more than 50 per cent of us are single. It is also the fastest rising demographic in China, Europe and the Middle East.”
This is all very well, but Flying Solo (directed and produced by Scott Harper, written by Elizabeth Hodgson) is very much about white, middle-class people in North America. The experience of others in the matter of marriage and solo existence is bound to be rather different.
Still, it offers a few insights within its limitations. We are reminded that, historically, aloneness had the status of punishment – exile from family and home was the sentence for a crime and solitary confinement was the ultimate penalty in jail. Now, we are told that a complete rethink of the solitary life is required. “There is no history, no culture around singleness yet,” an expert says.
That’s true, perhaps, but a trip to Balthazar restaurant in New York, where people dining alone get special treatment, isn’t much of an illumination. Nor is the news that many adventure-tour companies cater to single people, travelling alone, much help.
We meet a single, divorced dad in Washington, who talks about it being hard to give up his singleness now. We’re told a lot about the singles scene in New York. As if we didn’t know about that from many TV sitcoms. There’s a guy we meet who explains that there’s no furniture in his apartment because everything is about “moving people to my bed.” Good luck with the subtle approach, sunshine. We also meet, all too briefly, Barbara Feldon, once the co-star of Get Smart, now aged 80 and, we’re told, someone who has long believed in the single life. But it’s a fleeting encounter with her.
The really interesting segment is about the backlash against the solitary life. Sure, some experts say, it’s easier to live alone because you’re never really alone when you have social media. But, it is also suggested, narcissism is a driver of the trend to the solitary life. Basically, a lot of people want to live forever as they do in their 20s. A woman who writes those books about how to get a man and marry him, says that she has a warning for women in their twenties who plan on staying single. The warning is that as women get older, there will be fewer men interested in them and a single life will be truly, brutally single.
That’s a bit harsh. But it is one of the more blunt, thought-provoking things said in a superficial doc about bachelor boys and girls who plan to be that way until their dying day.