The global engineer
Isn't it time to stop punishing lone business travellers and to start rewarding them instead?
Is one really a lonely number? Here I am, sitting in the lovely leafy courtyard of the Four Seasons hotel on the edge of Chapultepec Park in Mexico City, all on my own, and very happy. I'm happy, of course, because I'm sipping fresh guava juice and eating chicken tamales in a hotel where the service is slick but the feeling is homely. I'm also about to stroll out to the nearby National Museum of Anthropology to see the most extraordinary collection of Aztec art in the world, which I will wander around without having anyone else directing me to ponder this or look at that. But the main reason I'm happy is because I'm alone. I'm enjoying the solitude. I welcome the quiet, reflective time being free of friends, family and colleagues provides.
I'm not alone in wanting to be alone. More and more travellers are striking out on a path without a companion. Now one in ten choose to book just one seat, and the number's steadily growing. Business travellers, in particular, often undertake a journey with no one to talk to, apart from their steadfast BlackBerry. But this doesn't necessarily mean that they're lonely. There's a difference between solitude and loneliness. As Psychology Today recently pointed out, "Loneliness is a negative state, marked by a sense of isolation. One feels that something is missing … Solitude is a positive and constructive state of engagement with oneself. Solitude is desirable, a state of being alone where you provide yourself with wonderful and sufficient company."
We can't be creative in a crowd. Thinking and imagining - whether to produce works of art or to drive forward new business ideas - often require a room of our own. After Sara Maitland's marriage disintegrated, the established novelist found she "was suddenly living on my own for the first time in my life, in a small village in Northamptonshire. The entirely unexpected thing was that I loved it." Her 'A Book of Silence', recently published by Granta, charts her descent into almost total isolation, ending in a small homestead in Galloway, from where she limits contact with the wider world to six days a month. But, most interesting of all, her account of this one-woman obscure experiment has been widely reviewed and almost every review is tinged with envy.
As populations soar, more and more of us long to travel, work and live apart. When Manchester Museum advertised for the position of 'hermit' earlier this year, it received over 300 applicants. The successful candidate, artist Ansuman Biswas, lived in total isolation for 40 days and nights in the museum's Gothic tower, cut off from all physical contact, with a remit to reflect on issues such as biodiversity, climate change, extinction and the future of the planet. It's difficult to add business and manufacturing entrepreneurship to the list of planning tasks he could have been given.
Sadly, however, business travellers are still financially punished for requesting a single bed, leaving more room for thought. The 'single room supplement' is the curse of the unattached traveller. Only a few hotels are becoming more enlightened about our need to escape from the crowd. The swish and relatively silent Capital Hotel in Knightsbridge offers the incentive of a 'Wet Shave and Whisky' experience for businessmen travelling on their own - the shave taking place in a single chair at an established barbers around the corner. Sister hotel, the Levin, offers lone ladies a manicure at Space NK. But I still feel that there's an element of pity in this approach, as if we somehow have to be compensated for having no one to discuss tomorrow's meeting schedule with a bit of beauty treatment.
In the past, travellers knew full well the benefits of being by themselves. In an earlier column, I mentioned that CocoRose had designed the foldable, flat shoe with its own tiny carrying case, so a female business traveller could kick off her high heels for that long walk to the business lounge. Reader Jim Shaw got in touch to tell me his intrepid aunt had a similar set of footwear for travelling by herself in the 1950s. "She flew to the Brussels World Fair in 1959, as well as flying and sailing between the UK and Canada. She always lived out of her suitcase; it was full of fascinating things like folding brushes, folding hangars and folding shoes. The shoes were pale pink and looked a bit like ballet shoes but had a low heel. We couldn't understand how anyone could walk in shoes that wanted to fold up," remembers Shaw.
We look back at these tales of earlier lone adventurers with wonder and admiration. So why aren't modern-day lone travellers treated with equal respect? Surely it's those who have to travel in a throng and are driven by group schedules who we should pity. Where do they find the time and space to invent, to plan, to think? So let's dump the single room supplement, and instead reward those who choose to travel alone.