Who do you like if you're allowed to like anybody?

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The Independent Culture
OVER THE last year or so - since I began to spend evenings in various branches of Waterstone's trying to sell copies of my book - I have met an enormous number of extremely nice people, many of them of my age, with my interests, background and outlook. In one way this is comforting: it is nice to know that the world is not quite as awful as I had previously feared; that it contains, contrary to my every expectation, very few snobs and sharks and posers and Nazis and dimwits and smart alecs and general all-round plonkers; that most people are, in fact, OK.

Yet in another way this astounding news is almost bound to induce insecurity and doubt in even the warmest and most optimistic of us. 'Why aren't you my friend?' I found myself wondering on more than one occasion while talking to a perfect stranger. 'You might as well be. You seem quite similar to a large number of the friends I have.' Now, obviously, I am very fond of my friends - it would be pretty tragic if I weren't. But I have gone through life thinking that they were special, and though they are special - of course they are, all of them, more than special (will that do, you whingers?) - there is still a sense in which I wish they could achieve an even higher degree of specialness, if that is humanly possible, than they have already.

For some reason it makes me uncomfortable to think that the complex network of relationships I have built up over the years is, in fact, entirely arbitrary, and that everyone in it could be replaced by someone just as good. When I was at school, this was not the case: there were 120-odd people in my year - and therefore in the entire universe - and I picked the nice ones, or, failing that, the ones who would speak to me. In fact, the 'nice' ones were the ones who liked football and pop music, and, later on, smoking. (A close relationship with a non-smoker was not possible, regrettably. Force of circumstance, ie, the school rules, would have prevented me from ever seeing him. I had to spend all my time in toilets and down alleys with my fellow-smokers.) Friendships were formed, not through luck, but through empathy, pragmatism and common interests.

But eventually the world got bigger, and though I tried to keep to the same rules - candidates for any vacant friendship positions had to have an A-level or equivalent in football, or pop music, or tobacco, and anyone with all three qualifications was hired on the spot, no references necessary - things were getting really complicated. There were books and films to think about, and I came across a few non-smokers who were really quite reasonable human beings (and in any case the old smoker/non-smoker rule of thumb doesn't work at all these days), and a number of football fans who were pillocks, and people with a sense of humour who listened to chamber music, and . . . in short, chaos ensued. How are you supposed to know who to like if you are allowed to like anybody?

Even so, I can still look through my telephone book and sort friends into different categories: he's a football friend, he's a music friend, he's a football and music friend, he's a writer friend, they are baby friends (by which I mean that they are parents, rather than infants) and so on. I wish that the Independent on Sunday could run to diagrams, little overlapping circles with dots in them, so that I could show you how it worked. I cannot think of anybody with whom I have attained a state of 'pure' friendship; in other words, there is nobody I see regularly simply because he or she is a nice person, no Bob Dylan bootlegs or NFT membership necessary. (Although all my friends are nice, of course they are, terribly nice, all of them, blah blah blah.)

And this, I think, this where I differ from my wife, and perhaps where men differ from women. My wife has loads of friends whom she sees simply because they are nice people, and though this rather peculiar modus operandi is alien to me, I can kind of see how it works. They meet, and they talk about their lives, and mutual friends, and all the rest of it; and though sometimes the odd book or film may crop up in the conversation, it is not these things that have brought them together.

After I have spoken to my friend Paul on the telephone, my wife always asks me the same daft question: 'How's Paul?' How am I supposed to know? I know that Paul is worried about how Nottingham Forest are going to score now Stan Collymore is injured; I know too that he is excited by the prospect of a new Dan Penn album (aren't we all?). But how is he? That's a tough one. (I only found out that he was planning to emigrate to Australia right at the end of one of these conversations, and only then because it cropped up tangentially. It certainly hadn't been the point of his call.)

It's not that I never talk about matters of the heart to the friends I have made through my interests; there have been occasions, in fact, when Stan Collymore or his equivalent has not cropped up once. But he's always warming up on the touchline, Stan, ready to take off his tracksuit top and come on at a moment's notice if things are not going well. My wife doesn't have that. She and her friends have to press on with life, relentlessly, no substitutes available.

But Stan and Dan are not so important, not any more. Paul and the rest are my friends because they are my friends, pure and simple - I stopped bothering to think about whether I actually liked them or not years ago (although I do like them, of course I like them, all of them, etc) - and there is nothing much I can do about it now, however many nice people I meet in Waterstone's. These are the people I share a past with, and in the end shared pasts count for more than niceness and more, even, than the fact that I know just how important Stan Collymore is to the wellbeing of Nottingham Forest.

And, by the same token, I know why the nice people I meet in Waterstone's are not my friends. They are not my friends because they are somebody else's friends, and that is the way the world is.-