John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Unlike the cast of Friends, we do not need five or six confidantes. We're not like that. We're British'
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What are friends for? It's one of those questions, like Professor John Carey's curmudgeonly inquiry: "What good are the arts?" that seem to have an obvious answer, only for it to fall apart on close inspection. (The arts are to make you feel better. Although, OK, they won't make you actually a better person. Although they can make you feel like a better person. Although that may be just feeling superior to someone who doesn't, unlike you, love Debussy...) Are friends a utility, like a car or a waste-disposal system? Are they a therapy, like a dose of amoxicillin? Are they an organic emotional support, like a pet rabbit? Are they a long-term investment, like a case of Chateau Pétrus 1982, that will one day repay tender nurturing?

If you think friendship is nothing to do with these things - that it's just about a few people with whom you drink Young's Special and discuss Alicia Douvall on Celebrity Love Island - it's time you woke up. Friendship, and its strategic micro-management, is the hot topic of the summer. You'll probably have read about the report in the American Sociological Review that the average Joe Schmoe has only two friends in whom he can confide (the average used to be three; and 25 per cent of lonesome Yanks don't have any friends at all). Dilating on the plight of the friendless in these pages, David Usborne referred to a recent bestseller called Bowling Alone, which laid the blame for the demise of (male) friendship Stateside squarely at "the collapse of traditional community institutions, such as the bowling team".

Do these tearjerking findings awaken an echo in our hearts? Have we each got more than two "confidantes"? If we're short of friends, is it really because we gave up communal sporting activities some time ago? Oh please. We're not like that. We're British. Unlike the cast of Friends, we do not need five or six confidantes (and doesn't the very idea of having lots of "confidantes" mark you down as an over-sharer of grubby emotional secrets?). Rather than "confiding" away all evening, we talk to friends about ideas, music, politics, sex, religion, and make each other laugh with our quicksilver wit. We take the piss. We amuse each other with picturesque vituperation and linguistic dexterity. And if we're feeling lonely, we sure as hell don't yearn for the days when we bonded in sporting arenas. We yearn for the days when we got completely stoned together in the bedroom of someone called Dave in the last year at university.

Now there's a new book out called The Philosophy of Friendship in which Mark Vernon ruminates about how friendships are established and how much they exist to help people negotiate through crises. Which brings us back to the question of utility. Because friends didn't used to be just chums you meet for a chat in Starbucks. Hard-wired into the human brain is the idea of friends as allies in trouble, co-swordsmen, fellow musketeers, the guy riding shotgun beside you on the stagecoach journey of life. It's a throwback to primitive tribes or rural communities.

I remember my mother, born in a small Irish village in 1910, asking, "These great friends you're so keen on - what would they ever do for you?" It was useless to explain that you loved your friends because they made you laugh, not for the likeliness that they'd save you from a burning cowshed; but she came from a place where, broadly speaking, you counted on your friends or died.

Now, though, you can assess exactly what friends are for. The director of Gallup, Tom Rath, has come up with Vital Friends: The People You Can't Afford to Live Without, in which he suggests you conduct a "friendship audit" to work out the balance of qualities you need from your pals. He says you must recognise that different folks give you different strengths, and identifies eight "vital friendship roles" with which to surround yourself...

You can greet this news as typically American cold-blooded theoretical bollocks. Or you can look around and think, my God, he's right. My friends do indeed display eight friendship roles that I have skilfully orchestrated into a cunning harmony to make my life better.

There's the friend who Drinks as Much as You Do, thus making you feel you can't be a hopeless wino just yet. The one who Knows Girls You Wouldn't Otherwise Have a Hope of Meeting, he's a most invaluable asset. The one who Owns a Caterham 7 and Lets You Go For a Spin in It. The one who makes you laugh immoderately by Doing His Impression of Bob Geldof. The woman writer who tells you fantastic stories about My Continuing Brush with Hollywood. The woman traveller who tells you horror stories about My Brush with Armed Police in Mombasa. There's the Splenetic Misanthrope, who rubbishes the reputation of every famous UK writer - I don't know how I'd go on without him. And the Old Mate from School, with whom you can wonder, years later, why the Greek master always had that odd smell about him.

I suspect this octet of friendship roles aren't the ones Mr Rath has so smartly identified. But you could wait around for years for eight suitably focused and properly symbolic friends to appear. I think it's probably foolish to imagine you can legislate about which friends, at work or elsewhere, will be useful to you as time goes by. Friends are a gift for which you should give thanks rather than trying to work out their asset/liability quotient. Remember Oliver Goldsmith's words, that while love is a "an abject intercourse between tyrants and slaves" friendship is something else, "a disinterested commerce between equals" particularly ones who can impersonate a lorry changing gear on the South Circular and buy you a Scotch when your marriage is in tatters.