One lunchtime in October 1984, 60 or so students were gathering in a lecture hall ready to start their theology degrees. Dr Francis Watson was going to open proceedings promising a “whistle-stop tour of the man, Jesus”. The course notes indicated Dr Watson was going to grab the form criticism of Rudolph Bultman and give it a modern twist…
…at this exact time, a Lancastrian and a Taff were sat over the road in the Lyceum Tavern drinking beer from Yorkshire! The fourth pint of Sam Smiths and the start of a life-time friendship was going down a treat….I’ll hand you over to Chris
Bob, your dutiful blogger, asked me to write ‘something’ for these pages and I, after a few reminders and random reflections, assented. I’m a journalist by trade (books, travel, arts are my pseudo-specialisms) and don’t ordinarily deal in candour, but there is a subject on my mind that, as well as hopefully being of relevance and interest, will serve as a kind of introduction to me – and my relationship with Bob – and with the Billy of the title.
Bob and I live as far apart as however many miles separate London from South Devon. We talk on the phone several times a week most weeks – interrupted by my travels and both our travails – and only get to meet once or twice a year. No excuses there. We could both try harder. But we don’t – life gets in the way, as it does for so many friendships – and time passes. In any case, when we meet we, as Bob says, ‘slot into’ one another’s lives and can pick up where we left off. Ironically, the ease with which this happens means, perhaps, we don’t go far enough at arranging proper face-to-face get-togethers.
In spite of this, we enjoy that special friendship most people – I hope – have in their lives. That is, come rain, hail, divorce, hardship, love, death, and all the usual domestic and personal calamities, we keep in touch and push each other through to the next… disaster. Well, we can’t blame each other for that, but life does have this habit of making us skip through hoops to land in cesspits.
These special friendships are unique, as in: you get one of them. It’s terrible to rank friendship, and I won’t do it, but suffice to say there’s longevity, sincerity, variety of dialogue and, crucially, a special kind of predictability – this is tonal and expressive of a morality we share. We tend to know what the other is thinking; we tend to agree about the good and the bad in life; we can, but don’t, finish each others sentences. We also laugh, properly, and we have wept occasionally. We don’t need football or the weather or angling or some other metaphor to hide our feeling behind, and we really can’t be bothered telling lies. We use lies in our working lives, with our families and we’ve used them with lesser friends and also with ‘loved ones’ – women – because it’s been requisite. We have even told each other about the lies we tell these loved ones. Friendship is a conspiracy, an act of collusion, a truthfulness based on revealing the horrors we have to disguise to be with others.
We also do not judge one another. This, I think, is because we met when we were 18 (me) and 19 (Bob), and we were innocent. We weren’t so young that we might change beyond recognition in just a few years, as so often happens with old schoolmates. We weren’t so old that we were trawling huge amounts of baggage and damage. We had a naïve freshness, a sense that life was worth being excited about and we were both provincial sons of upper-working-class families. Me Lancashire, Bob Cardiff. College was the milieu where we bumped into one another – and that was ideal because it allowed the empty time and the idleness you need to get to know people inside out.
I have one friend who is ‘older’ than Bob. I met him when I was five and we’ve enjoyed four decades of frank, open, deep friendship. He’s also top ranking, but is less inclined to make the effort to keep a conversation going. We spend months not exchanging calls, and neither of us does the email/text/social media thing (why would we when we know how good a pint in the pub is? The current generation starts from a very low base). I forgive this other friend his long silences and hope he forgives me, because, however long the hiatus, we also do the ‘slotting’ think. But I’m glad Bob does keep in touch because, if not, I face the startling but probably quite common reality of being a Billy No Mates.
I am always surprised when I read novels or see films in which it is completely ordinary to have frequent dinner parties, gangs of close mates of every sex and gender all with a common bond, cheekily charming workmates and groups of old friends who meet every few months for beer and reminiscence. I’m thinking of those films in which Hugh Grant and assorted beautiful women star, and where the whole universe is middle-class, smug and sorted, and where people in wheelchairs are gorgeous and cheery and fit in absolutely. A wonderful utopia, but not a reality I recognise.
If Bob were to round off his series of life fuckups – wrong degree, mismarrying, crap career choices – and almost overwhelming challenges – single parenting for two young girls, launching a website for single dads, making ends meet in a recession – with that most splendid of life acts – dying – I’d be left staring at a mute mobile phone for nights on end. I have, with some skill, made my own life as unpromising as Bob’s by not having any kids, but getting divorced twice after hasty marriages, and losing both parents in the course of two years. I did the second divorce and the second death in the same year, almost three years ago, to ensure I would be at my wit’s end – a Victorian term for ‘on the verge of a nervous breakdown’ – for years to come. Thus, in recent years, Bob and I have been confidants of the darkest kind: sharing mortal fears, extreme loneliness, our sense of immense failure, and occasionally despair of a grievous kind. We have not, I should add, indulged in self-help-style psychobabble nor bored each other senseless with three-hour sessions of morose self-pity. We have, simply, listened, understood, sometimes commented, sometimes not. Been there. Above all. Been there.
So Billy is always around the corner – short of an improbable suicide pact – and I realise that nurturing one friendship rather than networking a cluster of acquaintances is a bit like writing a book of poems instead of becoming a chartered accountant. It’s high risk, doomed to lead to penury of one kind or another, and anti-social. But it’s the fibre from which I’m made and I can’t like – or even put up with – a many when I have a chance of loving a one. We do this, of course, with our sexual loves – we try to select a companion, mate, opposite sex super-friend. We can’t, unless we’re Mormons and Muslims, hedge our bets and have a string of wives to test as we go along. But, anyway, I don’t really go for male banter, and when I see groups of men in a pub – especially in a pub – their dislikeableness is always in direct proportion to the number in the group. A group of ten is a simian boxing match. Five is like a small football match between the untalented. Three can just about work. But Two is a relationship. In fact, between ten and one, I go for one. These days I’d prefer to be Billy than to be a tenth of a bad night out.
I’ll stop. Blogs, I’ve been advised, are a genre unto themselves, and I’ve already strayed wider thematically and loitered longer than I normally do in my day job. But the bullet points are obvious: make your friends early on, as later associates will never know you; phone, as often as you can, if you can’t see someone, because even a ‘missed call’ message is a love poem on the very worst days, which do come; don’t be shy of demanding – or of being – a ‘best friend’, even if one day you are certain to be down the pub all alone. Then you’ll have to have a pint with Billy whether he likes it or not. But at least you’ll have something worth talking about as you laugh – and cry – into your beer.
October 9, 2011