‘All The Lonely People’ is one of the best books that I’ve read in a long time. It is life-affirming and uplifting without being sentimental or overly optimistic. It’s a book where nothing much happens except that I get to know Hubert Bird and share his experience of life. By the end of the book, I was very glad to have met him.
Hubert and the people around him seemed real to me. He’s from my parent’s generation but much of his life overlaps with mine. I recognise bits of myself in him. He has also had experiences that are beyond my own: racial abuse, becoming a widower, learning to live without the person who meant most to him. The people around Hubert Bird are drawn so well that I can hear their voices as clearly as those of people I’ve met often, so I feel as if I joined a whole community by proxy.
‘All The Lonely People’ is a simple story with a couple of big surprises along the way. It’s the story of a life, told backwards and forwards at the same time, which means that I came to understand not only who Hubert Bird is now but who he used to be and how and why he’s changed. Hubert is in his eighties. He came to England from Jamaica in 1957. That’s a lot of change to cover. I’m in my mid-sixties now and when I look back forty years, I know the guy who had my name then but I also know I’m not him anymore, not exactly anyhow. It was nice to read a book that understood not just that people change but that they remain the same and on any given day, who we are now is shaped by who we remember being and who we hope to become.
We first meet Hubert Bird in the present day, when he’s in a grumpy old man mood. As soon as I read the opening paragraphs, I knew that I’d enjoy spending time with Hubert because we get grouchy about the same things. It starts:
‘Moments before Hubert met Ashleigh for the first time, he had been settled in his favourite armchair, Puss curled up on his lap, waiting for Rose to call. When the doorbell rang he gave a tut of annoyance, wagering it was one of those damn courier people who were always trying to make him take in parcels for his neighbours.
‘Would you mind accepting this for number sixty-three?’ they would ask.
‘Yes, me mind a great deal!’ he would snap. ‘Now clear off!’ and then he would slam the door shut in their faces.
As he shifted Puss from his lap and stood up to answer the door, Hubert muttered angrily to himself.
‘Parcels, parcels, parcels! All day, every day, for people who are never in to receive the damn things. If people want them things so much why them no buy it from the shops like everybody else?’
I also like that ‘Moments before Huber met Ashleigh for the first time‘ phrase. It’s typical of the light, skilful foreshadowing that Mike Gayle uses. He gently flags that I should pay attention, then leads me off into something else for long enough for me almost to forget, so that, in this case, by the time we meet Ashleigh, I’m going. ‘So this is Ashliegh’ although I still know nothing about her.
In the present day, Hubert is an old man who has become disconnected from the world through grief. He is a man who lives more and more in his own head, spending hours in memory and imagination. Then he gets caught up in events and we watch him slowly, almost reluctantly, re-engage with people.
In 1957, Hubert is a young man filled with energy and optimism. A member of the Windrush generation he leaves behind his mother and siblings in Jamaica to find work in England. He faces the open, violent racism of the 1950s and battles through to find true love.
Part of the appeal of ‘All The Lonely People’ is that it demonstrates the value of an ordinary life well lived. At the heart of the story is Hubert’s relationship with his wife, Joyce. It tells of their courtship and marriage, of the hatred their mixed-race marriage provoked, even in Joyce’s own family, and of the children they raised together and about the changes that growing old brings. It also tells of the losses Hubert endures, the grief that overwhelms him and the isolation that engulfs his life.
Mike Gayle uses Hubert’s life as a way of helping us understand how loneliness can slow overtake us, becoming a self-perpetuating habit that shrinks our lives and undermines our confidence and our self-worth. Along with this understanding, Mike Gayle brings us hope and reminds us that we can find ways to make each other’s lives better.
The way into hope starts with who Hubert Bird is. He’s a man with a soft heart and that soft heart is what makes him accept being adopted, first by a persistent cat that wouldn’t go away and then by his new neighbour and her little girl. The neighbour is Ashleigh, a single mother, new in London, recently arrived from Wales, who talks constantly and who sounds more confident than she is. One of my favourite moments of the book is when the shell of Hubert’s isolation is cracked open when Ashliegh’s little girl, still a toddler, walks confidently across Hubert’s threshold and expects to be accepted.
By a series of unexpected but plausible and ordinary steps, Hubert not only starts to connect with the people around him but, along the way finds himself becoming a minor celebrity for trying to ‘End Loneliness In Bromley’. Mike Gayle captures the dynamics of local politics, the flavour or amateur interest group meetings and the feasting of the press of ‘human interest’ stories perfectly.
There is one big surprise in the book. I won’t share it here. It’s important that it comes as a surprise. Some readers may struggle with it as it changes our understanding of the narrative in important ways. I thought the book was much richer for it. It made me look again at Hubert’s grief and his reaction to it. It made him even more real and made his ability simply to continue seem more of a victory than I’d realised.
By the end of the book, I wanted to thank Mike Gayle for writing so clearly and honestly about the destructive power of grief and offering us some hope that life can be made better by the healing qualities of helping others and of making friends.
I recommend the audiobook version of ‘All The Lonely People’. The narration by Ben Onwukwe is excellent. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.