Loyalty, through thick and thin

I hope Tony understands that, in America, friends insist their greatest obligation is to themselves
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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE friends for? Different things, depending on whether you are British or American.

This week Tony Blair told critics that he would stay loyal to his friend Bill Clinton. He didn't say "no matter what happens", but it sounded like that. "The Prime Minister doesn't dump people because some report appears on the Internet," snapped his press spokesman.

I was worried when, in February, just after the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke, Tony Blair stood in the White House and lauded Clinton's "honesty". Beside him, the statesman from Arkansas nodded and grinned like he'd just wolfed down a double Whopper with fries.

In August, I was dismayed by the Prime Minister's take-it-on-faith endorsement of Clinton's attack on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan.

And I was appalled a few days later when, after confessing to eight months of dishonesty, Clinton came to Omagh, where his presence seemed an insult to the memory of 29 innocent martyrs to peace.

But I have to admire Tony Blair for standing by his friend after the publication of the scurrilous Starr report. It was the right thing to do. You don't desert your friends when they're under fire. You take friends for who they are, not who you want them to be.

So what are friends for? Tony Blair's friendship has been good for Bill Clinton: good for bolstering his reputation, for giving credence to his pack of lies, for endorsing his flawed character, for seeming to legitimise his recent act of military aggression - one that appears more cynical as time goes by.

Bill Clinton's friendship hasn't been all that good for Tony Blair. The efforts Clinton made to bring peace to Northern Ireland would, I suspect, have been made anyway. They did not cost Clinton very much, and they satisfied the new generation of Irish-Americans who loathe terrorism and wanted to see the troubles end on their grandparents' island. Clinton's friendship has brought Blair a raft of criticism. But, as one of my English friends said to me recently, "Friendship in this country implies an obligation". Which is why becoming someone's friend in Britain is far more difficult that it is in America.

In "friendly" America, perfect strangers beam smiles and coo "nice day" at each other in a pantomime of synthetic intimacy. It's not that Americans necessarily make bad friends; but American friendship often does not carry any obligation. Friendship is seen more as an opportunity, a way to get something, another stop on the social network. Americans can shed their friends as easily as they replace their trainers, and sometimes when you go to parties in New York or Washington, it feels as if you are with a group of people who are all out shopping for new friends.

I learned a lot about friendship when I left New York and settled in London. It was not as if I arrived as a complete stranger. I knew several people whom I thought were good friends. These were Londoners who I had first met in places like Spain or Turkey, places where we met on an equal footing as foreigners. Later, whenever I came through London, they welcomed me into their homes, offered me gracious hospitality for days or even weeks.

Everything changed the day I said I was going to settle permanently in this country. A subtle distance suddenly entered the relationship. It wasn't frosty, but it wasn't nearly as warm a reaction as I had expected, had hoped for.

From being a visiting houseguest, a member of the family, suddenly I was someone they rang to invite to a dinner party six weeks hence. It took me a long time to adapt to this, to put aside my feelings of rejection, to understand that I was being vetted. The vetting lasted about a year. I knew it was over on that first Christmas morning when, unannounced, my London friends suddenly arrived on my doorstep bearing an armload of gifts, champagne, delicious caviar.

On the other hand, whenever I returned to New York and phoned old friends, I noticed that the first thing they asked was, "Where are you right now?" If I said I was calling from a hotel room, they'd invariably say, "Hey, let's get together tonight". If I was calling from the airport, the chance that I might need a couch to flop on for a night or two would provoke a very different response. "Hey, this is kind of a difficult week for me. How long are you staying? Maybe we can do lunch."

There is no point in resenting this difference between British and American friendships; that's just the way it is. I applaud Tony Blair for remaining true to his friend Bill. I just hope he understands that, in America, even best friends will insist that their greatest obligation is to be true to themselves. Such an unequal friendship makes for a rather special relationship.