There was an intriguing article in the Guardian archives by Andrew Martin. He started on the theme of “banter” – that typically male characteristic where you basically talk crap, exaggerate accomplishments and take the piss, whilst informing someone that they’ve performed well in this regard, “like an 18th century Swordsman.” The main characteristic of banter, “mateyness,” has pervaded media, from Radio 5 Live to Dave and even BBC TV: he compares the solitary Barry Norman of Film 1988 talking directly to camera, with the banterous Claudia Winkleman having co-hosts on Film 2011. The overwhelming intimation of these chummy presenters is that you cannot be alone, in TV or society. And electronic connectedness means we are compelled to keep up the banter at all times and in all places.
Ironic, then, that psychologist Anthony Storr would suggest that “solitude is the school of genius.” Some of our greatest minds – Locke, Kant, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer – were lonely men who achieved great things, but were fairly miserable gits, with pretty limited banter by all accounts. Martin suggests that all this banter and social media interaction is a product of the “feminisation of society… because women are associated with the art of talking… in an amiable and self-disclosing manner.” Being a man who writes of (and occasionally participates in) fairly masculine adventures, I thought I’d explore this concept. The inference is two-fold: if talking is girly, then solitude must be manly; and solitude results in achievement.
Solitude has been a factor for some of our greatest adventurers: Stafford, Outen and Hadow have all spoken of the peace that comes from being out there, away from the rest of the world, on a mission. But, is it the solitude that they seek? Hadow has often talked about anthropomorphising his kit to overcome the madness of loneliness; one of the central components to success of Stafford’s Amazon journey was finding a travelling partner in Cho; Outen tweets and blogs throughout her journeys, and tells us that her isolation is the biggest challenge on expedition. I think it’s the achievement and process that makes these adventurers and writers great, not the fact that they did it alone. They don’t seek solitude for its own sake: isolation is just a necessary part of achieving their goal, whether writing deep philosophy, or traversing isolated tracts of the world.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Dave Cornthwaite the other day. Dave is renowned for his long adventures on land and river, his latest being to Stand-Up Paddle Board the length of the Mississippi. His was a solo mission. But he was not alone. He was constantly meeting people, tweeting and blogging. When he comes home he writes books, does talks, meets people and creates new projects. It’s Dave inherent friendliness, interest in people and (yes) banter that makes him such a successful adventurer, whom people are interested in.
So, whilst solitude allows us to focus and achieve our goals, its nothing without the banter. And whilst Social Media allows us to banter with the world, it’s still the old-fashioned, gobbing-off-with-your mates-in-the-pub that makes solitude worthwhile.