BEST FRIENDS AND DO WE NEED THEM?

The next post will be on or before Sunday 2nd September

BEST FRIENDS AND DO WE NEED THEM?

Life without friends is a sad affair and the poker-faced gag where you look around for a non-existent dance partner and call yourself Billy No Mates is not so much tongue in cheek as none of us want to be him or her on even a temporary basis, do we? Facebook to which the whole world is addicted (me included since May of this year when my daughter Ione put me on it) partly sells itself on the strength of all the Friends and Followers that anyone on fb has, though of course no one, not even relentless fb addicts, believes that those 300 or 3000 or 30,000 Friends are friends in the sense of really knowing, caring about, and understanding you the fresh-faced hero with this awesome social media charisma. I’m not being sarcastic when I say that I have a lot of time for Facebook as it is the only place in the world where you can get 217 likes for telling people the yolk of your breakfast egg this morning was a bit runny, and if you can supply a photo of the runny egg you might even get 500 likes. In the old days if you lived a boring and tiresome existence and had nothing to brag about you might well end up a genuine Billy No Mates, whereas these days, tedious and frustrating as your life might be, you can regularly be a minor celebrity for being just like everyone else…namely tickled by the sight of an unsavoury fried egg or a kitten playing with a bit of string, and the latter might even go viral and make you a pile of money.

When you are a kid, friends come and go in a sequence where you love them to the point of no return and are inseparable, then a few months later you barely recognise them in the street, and they seem more like a remote figure from history that a one-time doppelganger. If adults behaved like that they would be accused of being cold blooded sociopaths, but kids on the whole aren’t moralists, they just do what suits them, which is why kids on the whole aren’t neurotic, and a great many adults are. I had a lot of come and go friends inside and outside of school between the ages of 4 and 17, and then all of a sudden, a Best Friend came into my life, and in retrospect I have never had a better one since, even though at this point in time I haven’t seen him for 30 years. I fictionalised him in these pages in my online novel, Passion for Beginners (see the May 2016 archive) where I called him Marty, and the true history of the Best Friendship there must be one of the oddest ever told.

In 1968, Marty arrived in my Grammar School 6th Form from a nearby Technical School where he had achieved good O level grades but where they didn’t do A levels, hence the transfer. He looked wholly original and quite extraordinary which was part of his attraction, as he had a rampant bunch of tight curls and a moderately outsize nose which made him seem like a good-looking version of Gene Wilder crossed with Harpo Marx. Marty’s prime purpose in life was to be funny, to be a comedian, but he wasn’t a one-liner man as most of that sedately conformist Grammar School were, should they consider themselves comics. Marty was a flawless mimic with a perfect sense of timing and also an expert at anti-climax, of saying the infinitely banal with a deadly solemn and pious face. Both he and I were the offspring of working class West Cumbrians and out of forgotten prehistory he would come out with irreverent imitations of our grandparents, great uncles and great aunts, who when running out of conversation would suddenly gravely draw in their breath and exhale as magisterial commentary:

“Fffffff. Aye! Aaaaygh!”.

When Marty did that first parody, I hadn’t heard it for about a decade and I broke into ecstatic merriment and wondered why the whole of the universe wasn’t engaged in the same sidesplitting mimicry, the funniest thing in the world. Marty like me was an instinctive socialist, but also being an instinctive anarchist he wasn’t concerned to praise our old relatives and their frequently hard lives, though neither for that matter was he mocking them, he was simply representing them exactly and mercilessly as they were, for all of posterity.

Within the school the two of us were urgent reference points for each other, disdainful as we were of most of our peers who had their heads down for their A levels, and that was as far as their minds and ambitions progressed. Marty wasn’t an intellectual but he was interested that I was reading Lawrence Durrell and when aged 18 I told him about the troubled femme fatale Justine and exotic Egyptian Alexandria and Pursewarden the aphoristic author and his blind sister and their incestuous relationship, he was all attention. He went on to read Sociology at a northern polytechnic and he duly lectured me on all he knew concerning Max Weber and Emile Durkheim about whom I knew nothing but who had thoroughly seized his imagination. Turned 20, I had broken up with my teenage sweetheart, who Marty had no time for (and indeed he was borderline rude in her presence) and for the next couple of years we both flailed around looking for someone to settle down with and recoup some notional forgotten emotional paradise. A year later, in 1971, he met and eventually married a remote relative of mine, meaning if he had never known me he would never have met his wife, and they were together for about a decade before she went off with someone else.  It was to be another few years, 1978, before I met my wife Annie, who Marty definitely did respect, and some 7 years after that he was settled permanently with a Polish woman Basha and living in London. From a previous marriage she had a daughter called Pavla aged 12, and the three of them visited us up in West Cumbria and Pavla was the epitome of pubertal innocence, the sweetest possible kid you could ever meet. But then of course nothing is ever assured in this alarming world, and only two years later aged 14, Pavla was hanging around with Islington junkies and was shooting up and stealing money and driving her mother to despair. Basha’s panicky all-purpose solution was to move house within London and to tell no one in the world her new address and to instruct Marty to do the same.

I didn’t know any of this until years later, and so it was that when I rang my best friend’s London home in 1989 the phone was cut off, and I had no way of contacting him as far as I could see, meaning that it was down to him to contact me if we were to stay in touch. I kept waiting for Marty to ring me but he never did, which is to be sure unheard of behaviour from your closest friend. Then about 15 years after I had last seen him in the flesh, I bumped into an elderly woman in Carlisle who I immediately recognised as Marty’s stepmum and at once she gave me her husband’s number and advised me he was regularly in touch with Marty. That evening after chatting to his always friendly Dad, I successfully rang my best friend who incredibly had the gall to announce:

“I did wonder when you’d get in touch…”

Only then did I learn about Pavla’s drug addiction and Basha’s all purpose and arguably crazy solution of going underground to become incognito. We talked rapidly and happily enough for I had plenty to tell him, including the fact I had a daughter Ione now aged 14, that Annie had thankfully survived primary breast cancer, that both my folks had died in the early 90s. Marty by now had retired from his civil service job and with his severance money had bought a second house and was a rentier living off his rents and doing nothing more exhausting than going to the gym every day. Just before we rang off, he promised he would contact me very soon, but no, although he had our number he never did, and when I rang him a few weeks later the phone was dead and they must have moved yet again. So it is that I haven’t seen my closest ever friend for a full 30 years, and no I am not writing this to try and prove that best friends are a petty bourgeois and spurious illusion, but simply to share with you the sheer bizarreness whereby a great friend can just evaporate into thin air while still alive and kicking (as far as I know that is, for he was always a heavy smoker). What outstandingly defined our closeness for the 20 years we were in touch (1968-1988) was an instinctive and wordless sympathy for each other’s emotional states, particularly relevant in my case pre-Annie, meaning the mid and early 1970s. Once when I was suffering over an elusive and tormenting woman called Maria, Marty said shrewdly to me, she really isn’t worth it, not for what you are going through, because, though he barely knew her, he knew the lineaments of Maria’s soul which were indeed openly on display for anyone to know. He elaborated that she was cold and selfish and indifferent at her worst, which was true, but besotted as I was I didn’t wish to pay heed to the obvious, as I wanted primitive magic to rule the waves for me and Maria. As final rider and as binding proof of the extraordinary friendship we had, Marty and I hitchhiked twice through Europe together with a tent and a tight budget in the boiling summers of 1970 and 1971, and not once did we have the slightest friction or disagreement about anything, not even when Marty had a stomach bug and was vomiting musically outside a motorway café near Naples with two little nosy Italian boys gawping mercilessly at his display. That can only be termed miraculous and is something that even the most doting of couples might find impossible to emulate.

I have three other close friends who overlap to some extent with Marty, all male, and all of those friendships were made in our first year at university, for in those days Oxford college were in any case single sex. I am still friends with all three, though decades can go by where we never meet up, and the same was true before I opted to move to Greece. One is a musician, one is a photographer, and the third is a retired teacher. I met up with the teacher in Yorkshire in January of this year and we hadn’t seen each other since 1994, almost 24 years. In 1994 we were both in our early forties and the next time we met we were supposedly elderly men, fucking old pensioners as we put it to each other, both in our late sixties. Within minutes we were back to where we were and always had been regardless of geographical separation, fluent and hilarious with mad anecdotes, laughing and guffawing as easily as we did in college back in 1970, as two 20-year-old idiots, almost half a century ago…which emphatically proves that the passage of time is even more of a baseless ontological illusion than any difference in longitude and latitude.

With that trio of Oxford friends and from 1969 onwards, I could always speak my mind and vice versa, though I doubt whether we ever gave prescriptive advice when any of us were in a mess or a hole, despite the fact that possibly we fervently hoped for it and were disappointed when it did not arrive. Sometimes when I talk to women friends my age these days, they mention e.g. the awful time when their husband vanished with another woman, and their kids turned to drugs and worse, and they tell me about how their best friend, always female never male, came and helped them in terms of morale and in basic practical ways, so that they did not flail and sink and go under. They had them round for meals, babysat their younger kids or tried to, took them out to the boozer, tried to get them fixed up with a new man and so on. Best women friends might do those sane, pragmatic services for each other, but best male friends do not as a rule, other perhaps than successfully getting you drunk and watching you laugh volcanically, then sob hysterically when you are in a genuine abyss as opposed to a bit of a hole.

From my late forties onwards, and while living in rural North East Cumbria, aside from my wife Annie, my best friends were all women. There were 3 such women, only one married but her husband worked away half of the time, and the other two were single and with a history of problematic partners. Two of them were my age, both visual artists of a kind, and the third was nearly a decade younger and a musician, but what they all had in common was they talked about their private lives and inner lives, not in any overwrought, overdramatised, and glibly confessional way, but simply, clearly, understatedly and honestly. Any men my age in that same rural area, whether professionals, highly educated, self-declared writers or artists or not, were like evasive children in comparison, inasmuch as you could have talked to any or all of them for a thousand years and you would have never have got anywhere near them, much less understood their inner worlds, assuming that they felt themselves to have any. By the time Annie died in late 2009 of secondary breast cancer, one of my artist women friends had also died of cancer, and the other two were caught up in severe dramas of their own and to put it simply they just weren’t available to counsel or support anyone else, they had more than enough on their own plates. So it was, that in many ways I had to cope with my bereavement on my own when it came to my closest friends, though my daughter Ione living variously in Leeds and Poland did all she could to support me in our awful loss for the next few years.

The net result is that when I emigrated to Kythnos, Greece in September 2013, I left behind any and all close friends, and instead opted to have a great many very friendly very likeable Greek island acquaintances. As the only full-time foreigner on the island and as one of the few foreigners on Kythnos to have visited Albania, I am well liked by both Greeks and the numerous Shiptars here. Like some sort of mascot, the Brit who has spent all 5 Christmases on Kythnos and shows no signs of cabin fever, I can walk down the street and be greeted a dozen times by a dozen friendly folk. None of them are close nor best friends, obviously enough, but in the first and last analysis it really doesn’t matter a damn. I am still looking for a loving partner, needless to add, but that aside, ordinary Kythnos folk and the nearly always warm weather, are enough to nourish me with what I need, and best friends are optionally and for the time being a thing of the past. The world is a lot more complicated than people like to think, and you can do all sorts if you have to, and sometimes what you have to do is better than what you would wish to be your heartfelt choice.

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