Belfast Telegraph

Who's lonely, lost and forgotten in today's world? Oh yes, it's JR Hartley

By Jane Graham

For me it was a rare, coveted stolen moment in the midst of a typically sane-threateningly busy day - half an hour alone in a coffee shop with just a book for company.

Buried in the pages of this month's escapist treat, I did what I usually do in such circumstances and pushed out all extraneous noise to slide into a private, cushioned cocoon of coffee, calm and literature.

Then I heard a voice. At first I didn't register what it was saying; just that something in its tone was pulling at me. It was male, elderly and eloquent - its general tenor of over-enthusiasm, suggesting excitement at having an audience, regularly tempered by the invasion of mournfulness, as if the temptation to surrender to melancholy couldn't be resisted for long.

"Every day you get up and think, do I have anything to do today?" it said. "Then you get up, get dressed and get down to the street to potter around the charity shops. I got this Schumann CD for £3 today, a real find!"

I looked up. It's not every day you hear such exaltation about 19th century German composers in coffee shops (usually Pampers versus Huggies).

The speaker was a man in his late 70s with a kindly, alert face, beautifully attired in a stiffly collared shirt and neatly pressed jumper. A combination of hope and inevitable frailty, he reminded me of J R Hartley, the fly fishing expert and star of the Yellow Pages TV ads.

He was talking to a much younger man in a velour jogging suit, who didn't look like he had a clue who Schumann was.

Then the old man said: "There has to be something in my life which transcends this meagre existence." And to my embarrassment, I felt a very public tear sliding down my cheek.

The situation became clear as I unashamedly eavesdropped for the next 10 minutes.

The young man represented some kind of be-friending organisation. The old man was a widower, with no children living near him.

He was clearly highly educated and prided himself on remaining informed about the world, from politics to art.

He evidently made an effort to maintain his standards and dress well, despite the fact he rarely spoke to anyone in the flesh other than local shopkeepers.

And he was desperately, painfully lonely, his head full of ideas and passions that no one wanted to share with him.

Last week research from Age NI revealed that the main concern for 58% of people over 55 in Northern Ireland is loneliness.

The charity's spokesperson said that winter further exacerbated the problem, forcing the elderly inside to confront the terror of an unobserved fall or deterioration in health, as well as a spike in heating bills (leaping monthly, and this year exaggerated further by a reduction in winter fuel allowance).

I began to write about the frustration and sporadic fear that many women feel as they get older and feel increasingly invisible in society as the first pangs of panic hit me personally.

But this overheard conversation forced me to think about the real unseen group in our midst.

Middle-aged mums may feel harassed and undervalued, but the stress of being constantly needed by our family is a blessing compared to the iron grip of day- to-day loneliness.

My J R Hartley has got me looking into volunteering for the first time in my life.

I feel indebted to him, wherever he is now.

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