24 December 2006

The Invisible Man

"He was a bit of a dandy," said one woman, who did not want to be named. "He used to wear one of those smart raincoats. He had his hair in a quiff and he was always immaculate. He was a very quiet fellow but I think he prided himself on how he looked."

Like all of those who had contact with Gerald Noble (pictured in the goalkeepers shirt) that woman did not consider him to be a friend. For whatever reason, he seems to have been difficult to get to know. It is known that he was married to a woman called Kathleen and had a daughter, but he rarely discussed his personal life. The couple divorced in 1973, and Gerald Noble had no further contact with his family.

I read about his life after it had ended. The newspaper article was titled 'The Invisible Man' and described how he lay dead in his home for five months before being discovered. A couple of days later, another Guardian story described how Carol Vincent's body was found in her tiny studio flat in Wood Green, London with a bag of shopping by her side and Christmas presents lying under the tree. The 40 year old woman died alone, and lay unmissed by anyone for more than two years while her television set blared and post mounted up. She was finally disturbed in January 2006 when rent arrears became so high an officer from the local housing association took a locksmith to force entry and repossess the flat. By then, she was so badly decomposed she had to be formally identified by comparing her teeth with dental records and a photograph of her smiling.

Ireland is a funerary culture; there are more ceremonies and rituals attached to dying than any rite of passage: the notion of no one to mourn your passing is unimaginable, an unspeakable indignity. In a country where everyone around you makes it their business to know everything about you, this would never happen. Perhaps if you grew up in a valley of squinting windows, you’ll understand why those stories haunted me all this year.

While the cases of Gerald Noble and Carol Vincent are extreme, they’re not unique. In the UK. local authorities are obliged to carry out funerals where there is no family or friends to make the arrangements: in the 182 councils who responded to a recent survey, more than 11,000 such funerals had taken place over a five-year period; two-thirds were for men, the majority older men, who were two-and-a-half times more likely to die alone.

Loneliness will have had a greater impact upon Gerald Noble and Carol Vincent than the abstract notion of not having someone to mourn for them after they'd gone. Official figures show that a third of the UK's 10.5 million over-65s live alone; around 1.5 million are classified as "socially isolated", meaning that they have no weekly contact with either family or friends. While over half of people between the ages of 15 and 35 speak to or see around 20 people on an average weekday, only a fifth of people over 65 can say the same.

We can all understand why people don't admit to social isolation: there is a stigma around being alone that makes it difficult to admit to feeling lonely. It is seen as a failure. A high proportion of older people take their own lives; 12% of the population, they make up 20% of all suicides.

I can't be the only gay who read that description of Gerard Noble and started to wonder... recollecting some of the older gentlemen that I've seen standing alone in a gay venue over the years, not looking as if they're after anything in particular, not looking as if they're enjoying themselves, not looking as if there's anywhere they'd rather be.

It’s Christmas, gentle reader. Some of us are busy, enjoying our own spring, summer, or autumn… but let’s think about the season of winter. Lets make choices to ensure that we end life on our own terms, and at the same time lets take a little responsibility for those in our environs.

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