The hidden problem of loneliness now affects so many people’s lives across Britain that the government announced it was appointing a minister for loneliness.
In Wimbledon, two businesses have decided not to wait for a government minister to do something, and have set up their own projects to help people feel less isolated.
This month the Alexandra pub started Meet Up Mondays, offering a free lunch to anyone who wants to drop in between 12 and 2 to get some human contact. Meanwhile the Sound Lounge has timetabled Thursday at 11am as Friendship Hour, inviting people to bring a lonely friend along and enjoy free coffee or tea.
Culture Vulture and photographer Rebecca Cresta visited Meet Up Monday, and found it packed and animated with chatter. Pub landlord Mick Dore had organised a pub quiz to encourage people to get into teams and talk.
“Who is the film star who made 142 films, including True Grit?” asked Mick, as 36 heads bent down over their quiz papers. Local businesses have contributed prizes for a raffle.
To ensure the anti-loneliness drop in is as inclusive as possible, the sandwiches, baskets of chips and tea and coffee on offer are free. But although poverty is a cause of loneliness, shortage of money did not seem to be a common theme.
From the New Zealander far from home in his 20s to the Wimbledon great grandmother with mobility issues in her 80s, it was a surprisingly diverse group. The main thing they all had in common was a yearning to talk to another human being.
“People don’t open their doors to each other like they used to. I don’t know my neighbours,” said pensioner Angela, who has lived in Merton most of her life.
Mick has hit the national news several times for his public-spirited ideas. The Alex has been offering free Christmas lunch to people on their own, and this year 62 people turned up. Mick recognises some of the Meet Up Monday crowd as Christmas Day customers. A report on ITV News helped word of Meet Up Monday to spread, as most of the attendees are not on social media. Two ladies had come all the way from north London after seeing the television coverage.
“We know from Christmas Day that there are so many people out there, so many. But Christmas is just one day. I can’t just forget about those people for the rest of the year,” said Mick, explaining why he started the drop in.
He aims to create a friendly atmosphere so people can relax and have a laugh. “That lady over there with the stripy jumper was nervous as a kitten when she came in, but now she’s nattering away with people,” Mick said.