Lonely In London: Sit down and let’s have a chat together

Friday, 5th August — By Anna Lamche

Ann Ivor Ursula (trustee) Rachel Sandra Octavia credit Kimi Gill

The ‘chat tables’ run by Islington Faces to help get people talking – and questions to help the conversation flow

SOMETHING as simple as a conversation around a table can plug people into their local communities and begin to turn the tide on loneliness, a small charity has said.

Islington Faces is a local organisation whose remit is to develop community ties by sharing stories, most often by interviewing local people.

“Pre-pandemic, we noticed there were lots of lonely people around,” said Nicola Baird, founder of the charity.

Together the trustees devised ‘Let’s Chat’, a project geared towards encouraging community conversations. “It’s a very small idea but that’s often where great things flourish,” Ms Baird said.

Funded by the council’s Community Chest, the project set up ‘chat tables’ in cafés, community centres and street parties around Blackstock Road where local people could sit and talk.

After being delayed by Covid, the sessions finally ran this spring and summer.

Each conversation was led by a host who asked the group questions and ensured “two-way” exchanges between participants.

“There’s a big difference between someone talking about their distresses and an absorbing conversation,” Ms Baird said.

Let’s Chat focused on conversations about place. “What we have in common is Islington,” Ms Baird said, adding each part of Islington has its own distinct identity, reminiscent of a series of villages.

Fadz Ali has a few ideas for topics

Conversations often focused on people’s favourite locations and memories around the borough. “We also found people really wanted to talk about art,” she said.

For many people, joining these conversations took courage. “It’s not easy to put yourself out there. You have to be brave and go inside,” she said.

Ms Baird worries about the way loneliness can impact self-esteem. “It’s one of those silent problems where you blame yourself for being lonely – you think everyone else is having a better time,” she said.

“Loneliness is debilitating because you think you’re the failure. Sometimes people are lonely because they can’t afford to sit in a café: London is so expensive,” she said.

Ms Baird said people around the country have been inspired to run their own ‘chat tables’ seeing the success of the Islington project.

“It was copied at a street party in West Noorwod and north Yorkshire,” she said.

She hopes to see the idea will take off around the country. “I would love it to be copied – organisations and businesses could run them,” she said.

Habit means we often avoid interactions with those we don’t know, Ms Baird said. “There used to be the idea of ‘stranger danger’ – but I find strangers tend to actually be the people who live near you, who might be keeping an eye out on you,” she said.

As well as making new friends, Ms Baird said chat tables allow people to appreciate their neighbourhoods afresh. “You start regaining the places you took for granted,” she said.

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