One of the great things about my wedding day, so many years ago (when waitresses scooped up ashtrays from the tables and mineral water was available either in Perrier bottles or by driving to the Peak District and finding a spring) was having all my friends in one room, together, at the same time.
Here they were, from Wales and Bristol, Manchester and Scotland and the regulars from London. Everyone I wanted to be with was together in one room emanating goodwill, good humour and, for one day only, making me the centre of attention without a hint of sarcasm. And then I dropped them.
In those days before seated stadiums it was normal practice to decide to go to the football on the spur of the moment at one o’clock. Friendship required the minimum of effort
Well, not dropped them exactly, but for me my life roughly splits into two: BM and AM (Before Marriage and Anno Marriage). BM was an eternity of development: childhood, becoming a teenager, twatting around, becoming a student, falling into a job, some more twatting around, failing to get off with girls, occasionally succeeding in getting off with girls.
Throughout the BM period my friends were my entire world, from building go-karts out of pram wheels when I was a junior to dancing till dawn in my 20s.
Right up until the stag night – held as is proper, the day before the wedding, with just men, taking in a multitude of drinking holes – friends were integral to my life. There were endless evenings carrying on into the wee hours at people’s houses; boozy dinners in cheap restaurants; pleasant little soirees to the cinema; raucous parties; clubbing till dawn.
AM, on the other hand, kicked in with babies, up-at-five-in-the morning-bed-at-10-no-time-to-think-about-popping-up-to-town-and-getting-a-new-shirt-and-what’s-the-point-anyway-when-am-I-going-to-wear-it-nowadays? There really wasn’t a hell of a lot of time for friends, what with the effort of staying awake and staying employed. So friends drifted out of my life.
My wife’s AM, on the other hand, has had friends in abundance with NCT groups evolving into book groups and Facebook diary catch-ups, university reunions and school-parent networks.
Spur of the moment
Men are fundamentally lazy. We don’t make the effort with friends the way that women do. During BM, it was common to get a phone call at five to six on a Wednesday, suggesting a pint at the Crown and Two tonight. A loose congregation of a selection of mates might or might not also roll up. It could lead anywhere, but usually the grand finale was a nightbus and occasionally a kebab.
In those days before seated stadiums it was normal practice to decide to go to the football on the spur of the moment at one o’clock. Friendship required the minimum of effort.
These antediluvian practices do not, they so do not, fit in with being a husband and father. The chance of me leaving my wife on a Saturday afternoon with two toddlers to entertain so I could go to the Old Rose for a couple of looseners before spending the next couple of hours hollering at a bunch of not very bright men in blue jerseys – OK, it’s Millwall since you ask – would be about the same as Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone eloping after admitting year of clandestine homosexual desire. To do it on the spur of the moment would require them to hold a civil partnership.
Mrs Hills’ modus operandi, however – filling the diary with dinners, little outings to the cinema, book groups and shopping trips – transmuted perfectly into family life. “You will be in tomorrow to look after them, won’t you? I did tell you I was putting it in the diary three months ago.”
Look at the friendships in literature: for women, the likes of Emma, The Women’s Room and Beaches spring to mind. Men have Robin Hood, The Three Musketeers and Biggles.
You’ll note a theme there. When the men are done with killing baddies and behaving heroically, their principal occupation is having a laugh. Robin Hood doesn’t sit around with Little John moping about how misunderstood he is, and worrying that class issues might be a barrier to his getting together with Maid Marion. You don’t see d’Artagnan going on for hours on end about the difficulties in having a married paramour. And I certainly don’t remember there being discussions with Ginger and Algie about the problems of trying to gain a Mrs Biggles.
The flipside of this is that we lose touch with our male friends, basically because we can’t be arsed to keep them. They have never been a support network in the way women have for women. And the same goes for my male 50-something friends, because they too have spent their time lazing around at home rather going to the trouble of actually organising something.
Your work and your wife
And so it has been that the vine of friendships has withered. Suddenly, you’re in your fifties, the babies aren’t babies any more, and you need more than your work and your wife for emotional sustenance. The mistress is the extreme option; getting your friends back is the obvious one.
Which is what I’ve done. I’ve had to learn to do what my wife does, and arrange to meet them two or three weeks hence at a specific venue. I have entered the modern world. I can go to a sporting event; I just have to book it three months in advance, which is kind of what you have to do anyway.
All other elements, however, have remained the same. My friends aren’t a support network. They don’t care how I’m getting on at work, where I work, whether I’m broke or whether I’m flush. They only care about what I wear if it’s an opportunity to poke fun: “What was going through your mind when you put that shirt on?”
They certainly don’t care about my children or how my wife is. The principal purpose of male friends is, well, talking bollocks and having a laugh.
Women are genuinely mystified by what we talk about. When my wife goes out and meets her friends, she can come back and relay to me a panoply of relationship problems, friendship problems, parenting problems and work dilemmas that have been mulled over, considered and, possibly, joked about. Sympathy has been meted out in abundance. All this in two hours, and often with a clear head.
I, on the other hand, am dashing for the last train in an agreeable fuzz of alcohol, having wasted a whole evening on whether Brass Construction were the most underrated group in modern music history, whether Roy Hodgson is the right man to be England manager and where one might get hold of George Faith’s To Be A Lover album. After 30 years in the friendship wilderness, it is more reassuring than ever.