Happy at home alone: If Miss Havisham had lived with jolly flatmates, she might have changed out of her wedding dress, says Helen Fielding

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The Independent Online
THE PROBLEM with being part of a pitied minority is that it makes you daftly defensive. Nobody would casually ask a woman 'How do you find living with your husband?' unless they were either rude or dangerously oversexed. Near strangers, however, happily ask 'How do you find living by yourself?' in tones of concern. What are you supposed to reply? 'It's a nightmare. I never do the washing up and I simply don't understand me.'? Instead you gush: 'It's marvellous, freeing, uplifting, luxurious . . . so bog off, smug-features.' That explains the Mintel survey of people living alone, published last week. Of the 2,000 questioned, a majority enthused about freedom and sense of achievement, declaring themselves strangers to loneliness and Pot Noodle suppers.

The astonishing new concept of happy one-person homes excited the press and unearthed all sorts of prejudices. Writing 'the image of the single person living alone in a garret, lonely and depressed, eating fish fingers by candlelight, is a myth that can now be exploded' is rather like announcing 'people who think black people live up trees eating bananas are making a big mistake'. Advertising has not helped the poor image of the single. The success of the Gold Blend ad is based on getting everyone to want two single-dwellers to stop being single-dwellers.

The prejudice is based on an idea at least a century out of date that people, particularly women, live alone because no one else will put up with them. It connects with Susan Faludi's theory in Backlash that women who have struggled to be independent find themselves branded as embittered spinsters. The fact that a quarter of British households - six million of them - are solitary ones, makes a nonsense of the social misfit notion. But do we now have to embrace single living as a supreme state of gloriousness?

The truth is, living alone is like most ways of living; just sort of fine, sometimes great, sometimes rotten. For every morning you lie in a scented bath smiling at the thought of other women spooning egg off the floor into someone else's mouth while being told off by a pompous bore, there will be a miserable evening spent imagining dying alone and being found three weeks later.

Pathetic, deranged or disgusting behaviour is much easier when you have no housemates. The survey discovered that single people eat more bread, cereal, jam and fresh green vegetables than families. But in what combination? Muesli sandwiches, fresh green vegetables with jam?

People who live alone can, if they wish, eat crisps in bed with the salt in their navel, cry hysterically for no reason whatsoever, chain-smoke Capstan Full Strengths, dance to Kylie Minogue records in the mirror while dressed as Kylie, stare at one pimple for 45 minutes, change outfits nine times before leaving the house then present their friends and lovers with apparently normal, edited selves - unrealistic maybe, pleasant for the friends none the less. The downside is that you're the one who gets stuck with your disgusting side with no one to take the piss out of you, tell you off or keep things in proportion. (If Miss Havisham had had some jolly flatmates, would she have stayed in her wedding dress so long?)

Obviously, people can be disgusting and deluded when living in families but it causes so much more trouble. Interestingly the only delusion picked up by the Mintel survey was not among singles. Apparently those living with others imagine that they get better service in shops. Harmless as fantasies go, but still.

The big bugbear is loneliness. I don't believe any single-dweller doesn't get lonely sometimes, even though two-thirds of those questioned claimed it was not a problem. But then being lonely is not the same as minding about being lonely. It might seem an absolutely fair swap for being bossed or slapped around, forced to make vol-au-vents, or listen to someone else's drum practice.

It is sometimes said the real reason it is hard to be alone is that you are confronted by the huge, terrifying questions of life. But surely when one child has just walked through a puddle of Ribena with your favourite silk shirt attached to his foot, another is out and possibly sleeping with another 12-year-old, the grill pan is on fire, and your husband has just told you you look fat, it is at least as likely to occur to you, as to a single friend, that there might not be a God.

Wallace Arnold is away.