Friendship is one of those great big portmanteau words that means very different things to different people. The Oxford Concise defines “friend” as “One joined to another in intimacy and mutual benevolence independently of sexual or family love”. This is certainly a hopeful aspiration; however, in real life presumed “friends” often turn out to be something very different.
The Victorians and Edwardians were great on friendship. Lifelong vows of mutual attachment were sworn, and the relationship celebrated with aphorisms both pithy and poetic in those sweet little leather-bound miniature books which were favourite gifts of the period. I still possess some which belonged to my spinster aunt who – at least when she was young – was of a somewhat sentimental turn of mind. She collected some of her friends’ penned and drawn declarations of devotion in such a book which, with retrospective knowledge of how some of those who inscribed it actually behaved, is in part pathetic.
For there’s the rub. Too many a slip twixt cup and lip in the friendship game, I fear. My parents had several lifelong friends, some dating from their childhood and school days, who were my genuinely affectionate honorary ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’, whom I count myself fortunate to have known. The assumption in those days was that friendship, if sincere, was for life and such friends could be counted upon – and were. It was an aspect of civilised life which has largely vanished.
At my advanced age I have naturally lost too many friends through death. But I have also lost some who are still living so far as I know, whose friendship I valued more than they evidently did mine – because despite all their protestations of solidarity there came a time when they vanished, often abruptly and with no explanation. I regret such people, because I cared about them, but I now realise they weren’t the ones to rely on in a tight corner. My old friend Charlotte Wolff wrote: "it is sad that the people who glitter and bewitch us with their magnetism are, more often than not, the least reliable”, and I have found this to be true. It is the very ones who earnestly assured me that whenever I needed them they would always be there without fail who have disappeared in the twinkling of an eye.
Friendship, it seems to me, is like a train journey to an unknown destination. One never knows when somebody destined to become significant to you will come aboard, nor at which stopping-place they will get off. They probably don’t know themselves. I do my best to give people the benefit of the doubt as to sincerity, but trust is a two-edged sword – if you never trust anyone you will be lonely and miserable, and if you trust someone mistakenly you will [if you allow yourself] be even more miserable, at least for a time.
John Donne famously said “No Man is an