'Of course, god never sleeps. For if he slept, what would happen to the solar system, and the growing plants, and the trees, and the tides, and the traffic? The whole universe would collapse.'
(Monica Dickens and Rosemary Sutcliff, eds., Is Anyone There? Penguin - 'A Peacock Book', 1978, p.66)
'I Am Lonely' presents an enormous contrast with 'La Plage'. There is one of the most pointed, individual narrative voices I have came across here; used expertly by Aiken to suggest a broader canvass of people with problems whom this voice could apply to.
Aiken captures the disturbing feeling of apartness from others, with the character logically extending this to think of themselves as a god, and that no other people or things have any life when they themselves are not watching over them. It is a bleak tale, which offers no easy ways out - crafted for a social purpose, as its placement within Dickens and Sutcliff's 'collection of stories and articles about someof the difficulties and uncertainties encountered by young people' attests. It is part of a book designed to commemorate 25 years of the Samaritans; founded by Chad Varah, a Lincoln-based Anglican, who represents the finer side of English Christianity, for example, campaigning for sex education and educating people about the dangers of cults such as Scientology. The Samaritans is a noble undertaking, as redolent of the post-WW2 idealism as anything; it is another mark of our times that fewer volunteers are now coming forward, and it has taken the likes of Phil Selway from Radiohead, himself a Samaritan, to promote the idea with younger people. The basic idea is well explained here:
'The Samaritans does not denounce suicide, but rather it provides entirely accepting and non-judging listening to callers. The organisation's vision is for a society where fewer people die by suicide because people are able to share feelings of emotional distress openly without fear of being judged. Samaritans believes that offering people the opportunity to be listened to in confidence, and accepted without prejudice, can alleviate despair and suicidal feelings.'
Dickens (author of the Follyfoot series amongst much else) and Aiken clearly embody this enlightened vision, children's writers of much distinction, who, from the 1960s supplanted the prevailing conservative ethos (whether One Nation Tory or even at times actively far right) in children's literature which had predominated. The book also contains pieces from Roald Dahl, Leon Garfield, Ursula Le Guin, Susan Hill, Jan Mark, Brian Patten, Alan Garner and Robert Westall; a role-call of the cultural point we were at in 1978. Aiken's 'Wolves' sequence of novels clearly must be read, it sounds fascinating with its Dickensian elements and the alt-history of a Britain that was never ruled over by the House of Hanover.
The front cover to the edition of Is Anyone There? from my parents' bookcase is more striking than the one above (found via Google Images); a red telephone box is in the foreground, flanked by houses and two archetypal 1950s/60s tower blocks - all in monochrome. This symbolic use of colour, red representing life and human contact, was of course used by Steven Spielberg in Schindler's List (1993), for Hollywood effect.
Aiken captures how the powerlessness leads inevitably into a misguided sense of powerfulness; an overwhelming burden and responsbility that the unnamed 'I' in the narrative assumes. That the character is unnamed entirely fits the Samaritan ethos, steering readers away from thinking of this as only a story. Of course, that 'only' is a misnomer; Aiken uses her considerable artistry to turn this individual's concerns from being a microcosm to a macrocosmic picture of how many such people think: 'It was a terrifying thought, that, in a way: I was responsible for so much, and there was no one to help me.' (p.64)
This unfortunate person's visions are revealed; quite how he has been dehumanised is plain in the disturbing metaphor of people as 'like heaps of empty clothes', collapsing when he is not presiding over them. (p.64) Also, when assuming the mantle of godhood, it only leads him to petty cruelties, even further alienating himself from others and further harming any residual self-esteem; the episode where he makes the boy carrying the cat trip over has a bleakness and sadness redolent of the older European fairy tales - Andersen and the Grimms, who will of course be covered in this exercise.
One might actually perceive a link with the Ramsey Campbell story I read a few days ago; the 'I' here, has, like Russell, experienced the end of what is implied to be a relationship - this time with a girl called Ailsa, who it transpires has died, being run over a week ago. Both stories show how destructive it can be when one is rejected or bereft; there is a void, nobody to turn to in a society perceived to be uncaring. As with Russell, memories predominate and chide - taking on even greater significance in the retrospective mind's eye; the idyllic picnic that the protagonist shared with Ailsa: 'it was such a beautiful evening and we wanted it not to end.' (p.62)
These doomed reflections on what has gone before are prompted by the second movement of Beethoven's First Symphony coming on the wireless in the hotel lounge where he is seeking refuge from people - manifested by his reading. The reading matter is not explained; in this particular case, it clearly makes no difference, provides no escape route from the demons and shadows. The setting, including the uncanny visitation of Beethoven's fugue, only prompts the narrator into forlorn reflections and then hardened actions.
This story has a terrible beauty about it; we might gain something as a people if it were a set-text in junior and comprehensive schools, and young people were able to talk about it. It allows us an insight into the thinking of somebody in an awful position; like Atticus Finch argued, there is nothing more important than for those in a civlised society than trying to get inside the shoes of those that are different.