There is a Japanese proverb that states:
When the character of a person is not clear, look at their friends.
Meanwhile, in Greece, Aesop when not writing their much fabled fables similarly suggested:
A man is known by the company he keeps
As an Ancient Greek, Aesop had little time for women but I think it safe to assume that what’s good for the gander here is also good for the golden-egg-laying goose.
If you have ever had a friend then this means you. Your friends, by virtue of your relationship, vouch for your sound character and good judgement in the same way as you do for them. There have been at least two occasions from my past where I have been made aware of this. The first was in school and must sound familiar to many of you.
Towards the end of my time at high school I became ‘best friends’ with a lad called Steve. The fact that we shared a forename is incidental, I did not use this as a means of choosing my friends, and besides he was a Steven with a ‘v’ and I am a ‘ph’ kind of a guy. At that time we both chose to shorten them to a rather cool sounding Steve that made the middle letter distinction of our formal names redundant. We were even known to have paired it right down to a somewhat brutalist sounding ‘Ste’ – it was the late 70’s and we were self-styled punks adorned, as we were, in our very own middle-class schoolboy interpretation of rebellion – old scout shirt, jeans and Adidas trainers. Anarchy in the UK it was not but we liked it.
The thing with Steve was that at that time he divided opinion. I say divided in the same way that Captain Redbeard Rum in Blackadder season 2 describes his somewhat questionable attitude to the common maritime practice of having a crew on board a ship – “all the other captains say it is, I say it isn’t”. I liked Steve but I was in something of a minority in doing so. It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with Steve, he was just a but guarded and cared very little for what other people thought. But, honestly, he was a really good mate once you got beyond this,… no really he was…
My dad had very little time for him but then he was the type of man that would could take against people for little or no apparent reason (Bob Monkhouse – how can anyone possibly dislike Bob Monkhouse!!). Consequently, I largely discounted his opinion of not just my friends but pretty much everything. Let’s be honest, if your parents don’t like your friends when you are 15 then you have chosen well in my book.
What should have been more alarming was that when I arranged to see Steve no one else wanted to come along and, moreover, he never wanted them to either. I’m not even sure he was that keen for me to. As a result we spent a lot of time in his bedroom smoking fags he nicked off his gran and listening to Nicky & the Dots sing Linoleum Walk (check it out, still sounds amazing) and, for a time, that was all I really wanted to do. We did go out early on, we went to see the Buzzcocks at a Rock Against Racism gig in Alexander Park in Moss Side and we saw the Clash at the Apollo (yes, before you ask, in our scout shirts, keeping it real) but then we left school and I got a job and he didn’t.
That was really the start of the end, I had some money so I would buy the fags and take them round on my new (to me) Yamaha FS1E motorbike at lunchtime. Eventually we just grew apart and I stopped going round and started going out with other friends. If I bumped into any of my old school mates, they would chide me for being mates with someone they deemed to be a loser, a waster and a bit of a twat, but I didn’t think he was. He was my mate. So what did that make me?
Roll on 15 years and I am married, still working for the same company I joined when leaving school but in a different bit of the organisation. In stark contrast to the place I had previously worked there were a lot of people around my own age at the new site and, consequently, there was a lot going on socially. This meant that I made a lot of new friends, many of whom remain close to this day. One friend in particular though is pertinent to this essay.
Charles was a bit older than I was but we had many shared musical tastes and we had a good laugh together. We had a similar outlook on many things but were very different in many others. Charles was a confirmed bachelor, as were many of his other friends, so we went to the pub quite a lot and we were occasionally on the same team in a pop quiz league. Charles was smart and he didn’t suffer fools gladly, to say the least, which meant that he often came across as a bit arrogant. To be perfectly honest he could be a bit of an arse and when I was with him, if I am equally candid, so could I. This led to some colleagues shunning our company but who cared? We were invariably right about most things so we didn’t need them.
We still went out with them though and it was on one such night out, following a scuffle involving Charles, that someone basically quoted the words of Aesop to me. The implication was clear, I was getting ‘tarred with the same brush’ as Charles. At first I resented this, who did he think he was to judge me in this way? But the more I thought about it the more I came to question the basis of my friendship with Charles and in doing so it forced me to confront something of who I was.
When relationships falter we tend to think that we just got a little fed up with each other and grew apart. Sometimes, as in Charles’ case, there is a specific event that triggers a reconsideration of the long term viability of the relationship. I knew what both Steve and Charles were like, I wasn’t blinkered and I could see their faults in the same way as everyone else could. They both annoyed me at times but that did not outweigh the enjoyment I found in their friendship. Until it did. It is only when I compare them to some new friendships I have recently experienced that I have concluded my relationship with Steve and with Charles could never have stood the test of time and both had to end when they did but not necessarily for the reasons I had previously thought.
Social media, in general and Facebook specifically, offer up the chance for new friends on a daily basis. Each one is accompanied by the number of mutual acquaintances you and the suggested person have in common. What Facebook are doing here is highlighting an important aspect of friendship that it has taken me most of my life to understand despite being well aware of it from a very early age.
Being the friend of a friend takes us right back to our first relationships in our very early years at school. The threat posed by your friends other friends was tangible and, generally, tinged with the pain of perceived betrayal and jealousy. The way we protect and guard our friendships stays with us long after we have left primary school and right through secondary education. There are challenges to this at the points of transition. When we move to high school there is a natural change of peer group triggered by you and your friends attending different schools but even if you have a buddy with you there is still a tendency to try on new mates and explore new relationships.
This is tested still further if you go on to further and higher education. The result of this can go one of two ways. You can silo your friendships, you might have your ‘home’ friends and your ‘uni’ friends. This is useful as it allows you to reinvent yourself a little and as long they never come into contact with one another no one is any the wiser (except you of course). The other way is to try to integrate your friends with one another, to do what Facebook constantly suggests. You’re friends with X, Y is also friends with X so you should consider being friends with Y as you have X in common.
Two of my most recently made friends do this incredibly effectively. They invite me to attend social gatherings with their other friends and, invariably, it works and I become friends with their friends on our own terms. This is a quite generous thing to do and certainly not without its risks. There is so much that could go wrong, people embarrassing themselves and you with a particular trait that you have long since accommodated as being part of this person but seems crazy when viewed through this new prism of a third party. If you do have friends that you are so concerned about you could never share them, well you must ask yourself if that relationship is really right for you?
This is what was fundamentally wrong with my friendships with both Steve and Charles. Yes we got on fine, a bit too well perhaps, but I would never have introduced them to my broader group of friends and over time, if I had not severed my ties with them, then that group would have got smaller and smaller until there would be just the two of us. This happens in marriages. Couples rely more and more on each other and, with no outside stimuli to feed off, the relationship withers and dies leaving them both feeling resentful and bitter.
There are few absolutes in life. There is no innate me and there is no inner you. Our relationships ultimately define who we are. You become you through the influence of, and interaction with, those around you. Friends are the ultimate representation of this and should be treated as such. This is at the heart of both the Japanese proverb and Aesop’s philosophy. Clearly I came to know this about Steve and Charles but perhaps, on some level, I always did and refused to acknowledge it as it meant Dad was right or, moreover, that I had made a misjudgement and I did not want to admit I was wrong.
Think about each one of your friends now. Is your relationship a guilty pleasure or is it the healthy basis on which you can build a network of nurture and support? Facebook is a good place to start, you can weed out weak, foundation-less friends and they would hardly feel a thing. Some judicious pruning will create space for stronger and more healthy new shoots of social and personal growth to flourish and develop.