I am not a bad friend. I enjoy my mates, and I am generous, showering them with fun, money and sympathy. But I do not crave their company when I am without it, for whatever length of time, and should we lose touch, I do not miss them. In fact, I find there’s a profound pleasure in parting with a chum, whether by their hand or by yours. We should all have the courage to admit it when a friendship has become more work than play, more duty than beauty.
Maybe my origins led me to feel this way. I was an only child who, at an early age, became extremely fond of my own company. Some of my earliest memories are of lurking in my bedroom and begging my mother to get rid of young schoolmates who had come calling for me to play. I was first married as a teenager, remarried in my mid-twenties straight after my divorce and then took up with the man whom I’ve now been with for 22 years. I always had my husbands to talk to, so I never grew up sharing confidences with friends the way other women do.
As I have got older, I have learned how to do so, and I must say I enjoy it — it’s a one-on-one way of showing off. And, not being needy, I have found myself making friends with the ease and swiftness that other people pick up fuzzballs on their jumpers. But because of my early solitude, friends seem luxuries rather than necessities. My second husband believed I had such a fickle attitude to friendship that each Friday he would update the list of my Top Ten friends in the manner of a Top of the Pops chart countdown: ‘And straight in at No. 5 — for writing a flattering article — it’s Daisy Waugh. But down three places — for not being sufficiently fawning at the Groucho last night — it’s Emma Forrest!’ Some people might find this attitude deeply shallow, but I like Peter Ustinov’s take on it: ‘Friends are not necessarily the people you like best, they are merely the people who get there first.’
Those extreme hoarders I sometimes see on TV horrify me because we know that if you never throw anything out, you often won’t be able to find what you want. And perhaps the thing you want may be a new thing — and too many old things will take up room the new thing needs. It was Sacha Guitry (not James Goldsmith) who originally said, ‘When a man marries his mistress, he creates a vacancy’, and the same goes for friends. You need to keep the line moving in order for the dance not to grind to a halt.
We seem to have become more sentimental about friendship as we have become more sceptical about love. You could forgive old Thoreau, wandering about Walden Pond in solitary bucolic bliss back in 1845, for musing that: ‘Friends… they cherish one another’s hopes. They are kind to one another’s dreams.’ But you’d think that the Spice Girls, in 1996, fresh from the cut and thrust of stage school and the chorus line, would have known better than to sing, ‘If you wanna be my lover/ You gotta get with my friends’ — not a pervy call to voyeuristic pleasure, but (according to Wikipedia) one which ‘addresses the value of female friendship over the heterosexual bond’. I adore my mates, but I’d chuck them under a metaphorical bus for someone I was in love with — because while there are only a certain number of people we can desire, potential friends (like buses) come along all the time.
Some come to mind who I’ve been particularly happy to see the back of. The fantasist who couldn’t keep her clammy hands off me when drunk and would then go around accusing me of being the wretched lesbo lech. The one whose favourite put-down was ‘narcissist’, but who only ever talked about herself. The one who behaved like the Queen of Sheba when she was just a royal freeloader. The one who aspired to my career and who now writes about every issue I wrote on 20 years ago, but has such a lack of wit and rhythm that her tributes read like my originals translated into Serbo–Croat and then, badly, back into English.
John Galsworthy’s heroine Irene, of The Forsyte Saga, says something I first heard as a child and which has stuck with me all my life. When she is caught out by her young protégée June having an affair with June’s fiancé, the younger girl has a right hissy fit and yells something like: ‘But I thought you were my friend!’ Irene replies along the lines of: ‘A woman of the world doesn’t have friends — she has lovers, and acquaintances.’ I wouldn’t go this far, but neither do I consider the craze for prizing female friendship above all other forms of affection to be any way for an adult to live their life. When it stops being fun, get the hell out of Dodge and don’t look back.
As the party season approaches and the New Year seductively beckons, let us remember the words of the old song — and if they’re boring the pants off you, let old acquaintances be forgot.
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