Home alone

Now you can shop, work, socialise and entertain yourself without going out. But don't turn your back on the world, warns Christopher Middleton
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The Independent Online

Seven hundred years ago, you didn't spend more time at home than you needed to. Most houses had just one room with no heating or ventilation, and at night the whole family would share the same grubby bed with all their clothes on. They were the lucky ones, mind you; poorer medieval folk had to sleep on hard ground covered with rushes

Even 50 years ago, home was just a place you left in the morning to go to work, and in the evening you left it in order to go to the pub. Visit the tiny terraced house where Paul McCartney grew up in Liverpool (now a National Trust property), and you can see why he wanted to get out and form a pop group; there was hardly room in the front parlour for him and John Lennon to play a guitar, let alone swing one.

How different it all is today, when our homes are not just places we aren't ashamed of, but in many cases hugely proud of. Had Laurence Llewelyn Bowen rung your doorbell in about 1955 and suggested knocking two rooms into one and painting them purple, you'd have called the police.

These days, though, we're constantly on the look-out for suggestions on how to feather our nests still further. So comfortable have our homes become that some people never leave them. I'm not talking about old men who fasten their trousers with dressing-gown cord and shout at callers through the letterbox; I mean people for whom staying home is a "24/7 life-choice" - their words, not mine.

One such character is Steve; not his real name, because he enjoys his privacy. He's a freelance illustrator who's set up his office in his back garden (he calls it a shed, but it's a rather plush little studio). He shops online, sends in his work via computer or courier, and insists on conference calls rather than meeting clients because he says it's so much quicker and more efficient (and it means he doesn't have to go into town).

He's got two children, and is horribly smug about how he never misses their nativity plays or sports days, unlike other fathers who either arrive late and sweating or not at all.

"This isn't a lifestyle I'd have wanted at 20," says Steve (now 38). "When you're young, you need to go to an office, be part of a team. The way I see it now, the people I love are all around me, while the people I work with are all out there in my virtual community, at the other end of a phone line or computer screen. I'm talking to them all day, and believe me, come 6pm I don't feel like I've been deprived of human company; I feel like going in the house and having a nice quiet glass of wine."

And, like many of us, Steve generally hires a video rather than going to the cinema. It's all very neat, all very cosy - so why do I have this lingering feeling that it's somehow wrong?

Actually, I know exactly why. It goes back to the sense of guilt I feel about the way the old lady who lived next door to us in our old house lay dead for three days without anyone knowing. That made me realise how much of a bubble we lived in, with our inward-looking preoccupations about the children, schools, electricity bills, the weekly shop. As a family unit, we were not so much self-contained as self-centred.

Then again, what can you do? Once upon a time, residential streets were full of people with pretty much identical socio-economic backgrounds. These days, we're all a jumbled-up Scrabble board of letters, not to mention ages, interests and nationalities - and so even more inclined to keep ourselves to ourselves.

So why does that not feel quite right? Given that we can now shop, work, drink, study, socialise and be entertained without leaving the house, why do we have this uncomfortable feeling that it's a bit unnatural?

"I think deep down we realise that no man is an island," says the social psychologist Dr Ceri Parsons of the University of Derby. "Getting by on your own can be empowering, but it can also make you selfish and isolated. It leads to you becoming out of touch, burying your head in the sand, and taking the attitude that nothing outside your little world is in any way your fault or responsibility.

"I believe it's important for us not just to belong to our own immediate family, but to a wider community. Apart from anything else, we get our identity from the way we interact with other people. Without them, we don't amount to much."

Blimey, she's right. Where's my jacket? I'm off down the pub.

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