Christina Patterson: You can tell a lot about people by their friends

Wouldn’t it be nice to return to a time when friends were not just names to be dropped?

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"There is," said an unassuming man in a sports jacket on the stage of a West End theatre on Monday night, "this great confusion about celebrity and greatness." The man in the sports jacket was the poet, critic and civil servant Dennis O'Driscoll, and the man he was introducing was Seamus Heaney. "Famous Seamus" is what he's often called, the man who, as any organiser of any event in which he's taking part discovers, has more best friends and cousins and long-lost relatives than anyone in Ireland, than anyone, in fact, in that land of no borders, the literary world.

Seamus is so famous that postmen groan at the weight of the sacks of letters, books and demands that they daily drag to his door. But Seamus isn't famous for being famous. Seamus is famous because he is one of the best poets alive on the planet today. "There are few great people in our time," said O'Driscoll, and he didn't need to spell it out. Everyone in that packed theatre knew they were in the presence of greatness. They also knew they were in the presence of grace. "The poetry and the writing in my life came by grace," said Heaney, and proceeded, with O'Driscoll, to lead a masterclass in it, this still solid son of a Derry farmer, whose "squat pen", in his most famous poem, "Digging," replaces the spade of his forefathers' toil. "Digging", he revealed, came to him during a gear-change on a right-hand bend on the way home from a dance. "You can," he said, "daydream and drive very effectively".

You can also, it was clear, win a Nobel prize, and be sought and hounded all the time, and be as calmly polite and generous as you ever were. At a recent literary festival in Ireland, according to the poet sitting next to me who had organised it, Heaney, still a little shaky after the stroke he suffered two years ago, insisted on going to everyone else's events. "It's just good manners," he told her. And in the short reading of his work that kicked the evening off, he insisted on slipping in a poem by Dennis O'Driscoll. O'Driscoll is a fine poet, who has achieved a rare feat. He has persuaded Heaney to take part in a 500-odd-page conversation which is probably the nearest we'll get to an authorised biography-cum-autobiography, chatty and authoritative and, for anyone who loves Heaney's work, gripping. He was wincing with embarrassment when Heaney read his poem. He shouldn't have, because it was a very good poem. He was wincing because he is modest, as Heaney is modest.

As the poets talked to each other, and to us, it became clear that their conversation (just published by Faber as Stepping Stones) was a labour of love, or at least of the friendship that is love. These two poets, both mild-mannered, both brilliant, one famous, the other less so, have known and respected each other for 40 years. At the end of the evening, Heaney paid quiet homage to the friends who had supported him, "none more so", he said, than O'Driscoll – who winced with embarrassment again. Not for him the "Seamus is my best mate" boasts of the fictional cousins. You can tell a lot about people by their willingness to name-drop. You can tell a lot about people by their friends.

You can tell, for example, that Peter Mandelson, and George Osborne's Bullingdon mate, Nat Rothschild, don't choose their friends for their sweetness. Oleg Deripaska may be a delightful, witty, charming man. His company, for all I know, may be like champagne. Or maybe you just get to drink a lot of the stuff in his presence. He may be sweet, but someone who made his multibillion fortune by pouncing on, and milking for maximum, gargantuan profit, a hefty chunk of Russia's raw materials the moment they became available on the free market is not necessarily sweet. Nor, for that matter, is someone (his pal Nat) whose inherited wealth was enhanced by the kind of speculative activities which have helped to bring about the current global crash. A man, indeed, who rats on his Bullingdon mate.

What is it about these people that has even those elected to power flocking to claim them as their friends? What was it that had a Labour prime minister and his wife not just relaxed about what the new Business Secretary (and Deripaska's mate) called the "filthy rich", but desperate to join them?

That, as we all know, is the 64 million dollar, Mrs Merton question. But, really, it's unseemly. Wouldn't it be nice to return to a time when friends were real friends, people who shared your hopes and troubles and dreams, and not names to be dropped in casual conversation, or scores to be notched up on Facebook?

Seamus Heaney once wrote a poem called "Friendship's Garland". That, of course, is something you can't buy.

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