The straight line of friendship is beyond me

As I've moved on to a new stage of my life, the inhabitant of the last stage becomes a stranger to me
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The Independent Online

You may have noticed that changes in weather patterns have already begun to affect the more intimate human calendar. Some people have been startled to experience in November the urgent, sappy feelings of romance normally associated with spring. Others are laid low by Seasonal Affective Disorder in the middle of May.

You may have noticed that changes in weather patterns have already begun to affect the more intimate human calendar. Some people have been startled to experience in November the urgent, sappy feelings of romance normally associated with spring. Others are laid low by Seasonal Affective Disorder in the middle of May.

So there was nothing particularly unusual in my sudden urge to spring-clean my office at the end of August. For too many years, I have kept around me the piles of useless paper - letters, filed and unfiled, tattered folders containing ancient book contracts, bank statements or remittance notes, countless sheaves of receipts, magazine articles which had once seemed of immense significance. They must provide some kind of security, the past acting as a sort of insulation to the present, because, even after I moved into a new house, I have kept these yellowing, ancient papers around me.

The August spring-clean was an all-day business which was both liberating and discomfiting. Little was actually thrown away - like most freelances, I have a paranoiac fear that any day an ambitious tax official from Witham or Colchester might notice that there is something not quite right about my accounts and will ask me to provide documentation for a rogue payment made to me in 1993. So the papers were stored in 13 large cardboard boxes and shipped up to the attic.

It was a dull task and, as the day wore on, I found myself looking at some of the letters and cards that I was filing into oblivion, and experiencing morbid thoughts not normally associated with spring-cleaning.

For it seemed to me that the mess lay not in my inadequate office system, nor in my unwillingness to throw anything away, so much as in my past. The letters and cards from different stages in my life indicated a certain lack of shape, an infrastructure that was faulty. Intense friendships had fizzled out. People, important in my life at one point, later became virtual strangers to me. Enthusiasms - for a writer, a singer, a new acquaintance - flared up for a year or two, then died down.

"You can have as many lives as you want," Paul Theroux once said. "But you have to take them. The reason why people are unhappy is that they exhaust one life but never want to start again."

It is a very contemporary line, this idea that the way you live is disposable, something you can trade in, but I found myself wondering where that left friendship. After all, it is friends who provide the support system of affection, concern or whatever that most people would regard as essential for happiness.

When reading the many letters sent to my mother following my father's death last year, I was struck not only by how heartfelt they were but by the sheer number of years of contact that they revealed. These were serious, grown-up friendships. Whether they had been formed in the army, or in show-jumping or horse-racing, or were simply local, they had been sustained on both sides down the years. The loyalty and love of those who had known him, sometimes for many decades, formed a line, straight and unbending, though his life.

How enviable, and unreachable that consistency seems to those of us whose life has been a zig-zag progress through a series of rooms which often seem to have no connection to one another. Some people have the knack of friendship. With every stage in their lives, they have gathered new pals so that, by the time they reach middle age, a great, comforting gang accompanies them, uniting the past with the present, propelling them to the future.

The alternative, a promiscuous losing and gaining of friends, suggests not only a certain indolence but also perhaps a lack of seriousness and moral purpose.

As I filed away letters and cards from ex-colleagues, ex-friends and ex-acquaintances, it occurred to me that there could be a simple psychological reason for this lack of a long-term gang. As I have moved on to a new stage in my life, the inhabitant of the last stage - at university, in employment, out of employment - immediately becomes less recognisable, almost a stranger, to me.

It would be convenient to assume that this personality defect was part of modern life but the success of enterprises like Friends Reunited suggests that most people are not only healthily in touch with their old selves but are searching for old chums who feel the same way.

This is not a cry of anguish from a Molly Mateless - I am perfectly content with the friends that I have - but that straight line of long-term friendship seems beyond me. I would write to Paul Theroux about this aspect of what he calls starting new lives but he, with the confidence of the non-hoarder, throws all such letters away.

Terblacker@aol.com

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