The friend who acted as best man at my wedding is still single. Gifted with good looks by his Italian mother, he is educated, well-travelled, wry and caring. Why then, at 50, does Nick have nobody to care for, save himself? There are reasons I can guess at, but there is also a general trend which he fits into. The number of people who live alone aged between 45 and 64 – my age group – has risen by a quarter in a decade. Of them, there are 1.2 million men reported to be living alone, and 1.1 million women.
The rise in the number of middle-aged singletons is not widely reported. We worry more, rightly, about the number of elderly folk whose loneliness can be terminal. But the rate of increase in solitary living is higher among men like my chum than it is for pensioners, who tend to be isolated by widowhood, rather than by divorce or never having married.
I thought about Nick as I scrolled down remarks left recently on the Telegraph website. They were in response to a full-page feature the paper had done about big families, prompted by reports that Jamie Oliver and his wife were hoping to “do a Rees-Mogg” and have a sixth child. The article included pictures of my children and quotes from my wife and me.
Unusually, the majority of the online comments left at the bottom of the piece were supportive. But there was one correspondent, “David Harvey”, who said that the Braziers “aren’t doing the world a favour by producing so many children, we have enough already”.
Dear reader, that passes for polite intercourse by the standards set by what has gone before. The last time I speculated on the benefits of a bigger family in the Telegraph the spittle really flew. Of the 55 comments left, most were critical and frequently ad hominem. I was variously described as “mad”, “selfish”, “unbelievable”, a “scrounger” or a “loony”, and in a more thoughtful adjective, “self-justifying”. One respondent suggested my family and I “should be shunned and vilified”. Another seemed to imply that I might put my children to death if their carbon footprint grew too big.
How many of these armchair Malthusians know people, or indeed are themselves, like Nick? The growth in single-occupancy dwelling is driven sometimes by choice, often by circumstance. Whatever the reason, living alone is not seen as a badge of environmental shame, certainly not in the way that having a home packed to the gills with children seems to be. Fields are being forfeited for foundations to satisfy a demand for housing that has several causes. The growth in solitary living is one of them. The growth of families like mine, I submit, is not.
Our eldest daughter, Edith, has left home for university. She takes her role as a sort of surrogate mater familias seriously. After she left, each sibling found an envelope on his or her bed inside which was a short manual of sisterly advice. For mother and father there was a photo album, chronicling Edith’s home life from nought to 18. Mum and Dad were suitably moved.
Her 14-year-old sister, Agnes, is never slow to recognise enlightened self-interest in the actions of others. She was quick to point out that Edith, as a first-year student embarking on an expensive course of tuition, had a strong financial motive in making her parents dewy-eyed.
Depictions of Catholicism on the television rarely end well. One exception was the BBC’s Broken. The story of a northern parish priest, played by Sean Bean, prompted the Radio Times to say: “If The Handmaid’s Tale makes you despair of religion, try Broken.” If we can overlook the increasingly common – but relativistic – use of the word “religion” instead of “Christianity”, then the headline is apt.
We watched the series a little while after it had aired and found it nuanced, subtle and touching. The story builds to a climax in the final episode in which it is Sean Bean’s Fr Kerrigan himself who is absolved. And by his own congregation. The series sees him, as many parish priests in reality must, deal with parishioners who are in debt, denial and despair. One is suicidal.
As the final credits rolled, a slate appeared on screen, with the usual contact details for organisations offering help to those struggling with the sort of personal misfortune explored by the show. But one was missing. My wife and I turned to each other and, in a cherished moment of marital synchronicity, yelled at the TV: “The Catholic Church.”
Follow Colin Brazier on Twitter: @ColinBrazierSky