CLARE PAYNE One: Valuing the single life. Reviewed by Shelley McInnis
One is driven by a keen sense of social justice, and an intolerance of all the ways in which society devalues those who, for various reasons, live alone.
If this is the age of single living, as Ita Buttrose proclaims on the cover of this book by Clare Payne, it is also the age of publishing books about going solo. Some of these, including Kate Bollick’s Spinster, are on my shelves. The latter was bold and beautifully written, but its content was distinctly American. I’ve been following the commentariat on the solo phenomenon and waiting for a homegrown book on the subject to appear. At last, it has arrived.
Clare Payne is a lawyer and ethics-in-finance guru, and it shows. Compared with Spinsters, One is all business, minus the poetry of Bollick’s prose but also, mercifully, its rather tedious romantic angsting. Payne’s is a short but comprehensive book, in style and structure reminiscent of Hugh Mackay, who is, incidentally, cited several times and credited as an influence. As is true of all of Mackay’s books, One is impressively well-researched and annotated, and good at garnering facts in service of its various arguments, all of which are uncompromising in their support of singles.
Payne’s book is not driven by any apparent need to make sense of her own personal circumstances: she comes across as a well-adjusted and high-minded person who happens also to be a solo parent and an accomplished marathon swimmer. What drives One is a keen sense of social justice, and an intolerance of all the ways in which society devalues those who, for various reasons, live alone. Instead of diminishing them, Payne suggests we should, rather, celebrate them for what they have achieved against the odds: against the currents, if you will, of social convention:
In ocean swimming, solo swimmers are more respected and revered than other swimmers. To swim solo is more of a challenge than being part of a duo or team that shares the load, swapping places and having breaks along the way. When a solo swimmer makes it to the finish line and stumbles up the beach, the crowd swells and roars with delight, because it’s a feat that is enhanced, not diminished, by it having been done alone.
Payne does not delve deeply into the reasons why singles are perceived so negatively by society but perhaps, she notes slyly at one point, there could be a spot of envy. In any case, lauded or not, embraced or not, their numbers are increasing. One in four households in Australia is currently characterised as ‘lone’, and this proportion is set to rise by as much as 65 per cent in the next couple of decades. This growth is happening all around the world, and not only in developed countries. The reasons for what Mackay has referred to as the ‘global warming of demographics’ are not explored by Payne, who in any case gives the distinct impression she is not in the least surprised by the fact that hordes are stampeding in the direction of the emotional stability she appears to enjoy.
What Payne does do in One is call out what she refers to as society’s ‘blind spot’ regarding singles, showing us how collective prejudices manifest, and how we justify these to ourselves. Single people have never had a better advocate, and if I were ever to be in the dock, a sheepish singleton accused of all the faults normally levelled at the deliberately unmarried and barren, I would want Payne to be in my corner, armed with the right fact to dispel whatever charge was being hurled at me. Singles are discriminated against in many ways, and these aren’t always as easy to spot as the single supplements charged whenever a holiday is booked. And no, singles aren’t any more selfish or unhappy than anyone else. The singular lifestyle should, perhaps, be seen simply as another expression of felicitous and natural diversity:
In researching and writing this book, I’ve sought to draw attention to what I consider a blind spot in our thinking about adulthood and the value of life. I believe a less simplistic and fuller understanding of identity, and the acceptance of the range of human emotions, is necessary in order to fully value individuals and celebrate all that makes each of us unique – including single people. Maybe then, when a single person walks into a restaurant and a waiter inquires as to how many to seat, they need not apologise with a ‘Just’ and can simply say, ‘One’.
Clare Payne One: Valuing the single life Melbourne University Publishing 2018 PB 177pp $19.99
Shelley McInnis is a Canberran who writes occasional book reviews and volunteers for various worthy causes, mostly to do with improving the quality of healthcare. She has been happily single for four decades.
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