John Bird: What are friends for if not disdain?

Does it matter if you friends don't like you? After all, what are friends for if not agreeing to disagree?

By arrangement I met a very old friend at Victoria Station. I had not seen him for a few years. When I got engaged 13 years ago my wife-to-be asked to meet my friends. She said something very thoughtful after the handful of survivors had been paraded before her. She said, “Interestingly, none of your friends seem to like you.”

There is a kind of truth in this. As if disdain was the thing that unified all of those who still clung to the idea that I meant something in their lives. They reluctantly accepted me, seemingly unhappy with my values and my progress through life.

Yet I was pleased at her verdict. I was pleased that I had got as far as I had in life without taking on the burden of having to maintain too many friendships, and the energies that go into such. That the handful who I had cultivated and kept in with were worth the effort. And that more than anything they were relics of distant and at times long-gone histories.

Our times together were often acerbic, at times plain nasty. And in sharp contrast especially to what seemed to me to be American TV friendship, I suppose best shown in the series Friends itself.

God did they work on their friendships!  Their genuine nicenesses though were mostly inspiring, pattern-forming, and comic. I watched Friends way after the bonds of the TV programme had fallen apart, but they still seemed freshly entertaining.


But the chap I was meeting last week at Victoria was the oldest friend of all. I was 15 when I met him, in an interlude between him leaving a correctional institution and me going into one. The World’s End, Chelsea, what was then known as the poor end of The King’s Road, was the scene of our meeting.

Considering what was on offer to us post-war members of the British Working Class we had both done well. Him living financially secure in a large flat he owns. And me heading up a brilliant social enterprise that seems to give me more pride by the hour.

Neither of us have to scurry for our bread. Neither of us have to work in the long and painful labouring jobs that eventually shortened the lives of our dads. Neither of us having to doff our caps to supposed social superiors who swan about and cast us into the shadows. Coppers no longer seeing us as sources of future wrongdoing, if not already up to our eyes in it.

After a coffee and croissant at a chain where every one of the staff came from various other countries or continents, unheard of in our youth, we walked about; not reminiscing but sharpening our individual take on the current crises that hit the poorest among us.

Anyone listening would have believed that a lifetime of thinking each other a complete and utter arse, carrying the most stupid ideas, had not changed. We each held to the view that the other was as much a myopic dunderhead as he was the day we met.


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And as we walked about where decades before we had slept in doorways and on benches, we attacked the imbecility of what the other held to and argued dearly.

Two old gits tearing apart their take on a reality that seems still set on disadvantaging the many. That poverty is not going anywhere fast we were in complete agreement on. But there uniformity disappeared, leaving only discord and disdain between us.

It’s a bit like a bad bit of Shakespeare with Ibsen thrown in. A hefty sort of stuff but with daggers drawn as the other made a pig’s ear of reality. Were we going to strike each other? Grab each other by the throat as once we did for speaking such stupidity?

How wrong he was. He couldn’t be wronger. And of course I couldn’t be righter; in sharp contrast to his wrongness.

And of course it was not really necessary to listen completely to what the other said.

My old friend, who brings out the ranter in me to block the ranting I have to put up with from him, eventually gets the train back to his seaside home.  I look at him departing, in wonder at our current energy for arguing the need for the righting of the world. I felt refreshed by the acerbic nature of the day. And loved the fact we had revived for the day decades of disdain for the rubbish each other thought of each other’s thinking.

There ought to be an Academy for this; but only if discord gave eventually to some sort of agreement. But me and him? We’ll never agree. Dross, that’s all he has between his ears.

I could not help but think of a poem by William Blake, lost to me now, in which he talks about being angry with his friend, and that the damage it does him is greater than the damage he does his friend.