Richard Ford: ‘Who needs friends?’

Is friendship really all it’s cracked up to be, asks the US novelist

And if they ever put a bullet through your brain, I’ll complain. It’s friendship, friendship, just a perfect blendship … Cole Porter

The jury’s out on friendship. It’s not the cynical and acrimonious age of Trump that brings friendship to my mind (though can you imagine our president ever, really having a friend?). It’s me. I’ve been brooding about friendship. Now and then, don’t we need to think hard about our presumed institutions? “A friend is the hope of the heart,” Emerson wrote. “A masterpiece of nature.” I’m not sure. “I sometimes wonder,” Philip Larkin wrote to his girlfriend, “if anyone can do anything for anyone.” You know something sceptical’s afoot when you find Larkin on your bedside table instead of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld.

Plenty of important people think friends are important. There’s an entire Oxford Book of Friendship meant to assure us. “A friend is a second self,” Aristotle famously proclaimed, “… consciousness of a friend’s existence makes us more fully conscious of our own … ” OK, but that seems a bit self-regarding to be completely inspiring. “You can tell the nature of a man from his companion,” the symbolist painter Odilon Redon reportedly said. I’m not sure that’s any more diagnostic than knowing a person by the breed of dog he owns or the make of his favourite sports car. Mark Twain said: “The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last a whole lifetime,” but then he added, “if not asked to lend money.” And, “it is true,” Nietzsche wrote, “we have good reason to think little of our acquaintances, even the greatest of them; but equally good reason to direct this feeling back on to ourselves … learning to despise ourself a little, we restore our proper equilibrium with others.”

CS Lewis: ‘To say, “These are my friends” implies “Those are not.”
CS Lewis: ‘To say, “These are my friends” implies “Those are not.” Photograph: taken from picture library

Among other greats, there’s little consensus about friendship’s primacy. Pascal noted that if we could reach each other’s thoughts, friendship would quickly disappear. Thoreau points out, transcendentally, that to say that a man is your friend, means no more than he is not your enemy. “The nearest friends can go // with anyone to death, comes so far short // they might as well not try to go at all,” Robert Frost wrote. And Ecclesiasticus, willing to go all the way, puts it simply: “Instead of a friend, become not an enemy.”

“A strangely sensitive subject,” indeed, the English critic John Bayley said about friendship, when reviewing the same Oxford book 25 years ago. He might also have said just plain strange.

For one thing, so much of what we think about friendship, how we define it, experience and enact it, seems preoccupied with testing and inspecting it, misunderstanding it, assessing its defects, its psychic tautness, its P&Ls, its failure to come through, and with contrasting it with its opposite (enemy-ship?). “To say, ‘These are my friends’ implies ‘Those are not,’” CS Lewis wrote. “Both the individual and the community can survive without it.” That there would even be an Oxford Book of Friendship seems to cast doubt on the whole shebang.

All this fussing to define it seems, on the one hand, to suggest that friendship makes us more nervous than it makes us happy. On the other hand, the instability of virtually all definition seems to make of friendship a mystery that resolves itself, finally, into an uneasy silence. A kind of “if you have to ask you don’t know” hocus-pocus. (Only we don’t know.) Which then gives rise to friendship’s least appealing aspect – its reliance on death as the ultimate assay. “On the 3rd of January … Fitzherbert hanged himself,” Hester Thrale, Dr Johnson’s lady love writes, “And now, says Johnson, see what it is to have a diffus’d Acquaintance and not one Friend.” We have to die, apparently, to make clear who our friends rilly, rilly are – or aren’t. Among its other problematic requirements, it’s this death test that makes friendship such a yeasty subject for hardcore doubters such as Larkin, Frost, Thoreau and Twain. Something, for them – and me – just doesn’t smell right about friendship. Maybe it does have to do with Trump. Maybe everything does.

Not long ago, someone asked me who my closest friend was. I had to think about it. “I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I don’t have one. Or maybe I have one but don’t know it. Or, maybe I don’t know what a ‘closest friend’ even is.” This seemed to alarm the person asking me, as if everyone should know such a thing, and my not being sure meant something was wrong with me – at least in the friends department, and maybe in other departments, too. “I have friends,” I said, a bit defensively, but then trailed off with “although, not many, it’s true”. This didn’t help my case, even though it was accurate – and perfectly fine with me. I tried for a late-game comeback by adding, “I’m actually suspicious of people who have a lot of friends.” This is also true, but I can’t tell you why I feel that way.

Richard Ford in Oviedo, Spain, after speaking ahead of the Princess of Asturias awards ceremony in 2016.
Richard Ford in Oviedo, Spain, after speaking ahead of the Princess of Asturias awards ceremony in 2016. Photograph: Ander Gillenea/AFP/Getty Images

Understanding these apparent truths about myself has made me consider the possibility – based on the raw numbers – that I may not be a very good friend; or that I may lack a knack for friendship. Or putting it more favourably, that I don’t share with others much that’s commonly thought to be true about friendship. I hope my few friends will find reasons to disagree. And yet, to say that I may not be very good at friendship is an admission I find surprisingly bracing almost to the point of exhilaration, and akin to an astronomer’s thrill on discovering a new black hole – albeit one residing in my heart. Would anyone say this if he didn’t think it was true?

I know for a fact I’ve never been much on trust – which seems from most sources to be a major friendship component. I don’t like trusting people, and almost never do it. And I’m uncomfortable when people want to place trust in me, and almost always discourage it. Trust seems an entirely optional and unnecessary article of pseudo faith, one that’s too much about my being predictable (which I’m not); or about my being able to be depended on to act in someone’s best interest, which I always want to do but routinely fail at, particularly when my own interests are involved. Nowadays, the worst people can say about you is that they can’t trust you. To which I say, then don’t. Trust in modern parlance seems to have much in common with its sound-alike – truss; a sort of willed and rarely mutual inhibition, rather than what a good friendship (if such an animal could exist) ought to be: freeing me and my friend from something unlikable, while admitting us to something better.

What I notice about my relations with people – friends and acquaintances alike – seems a distinctly mixed bag of human feasances and misfeasances – and also non-feasances. I’m fairly certain I hold others to a level of conduct I rarely hold myself to. I think of myself as both empathetic and sympathetic (Who doesn’t, except Satan?). Yet, while I almost always gaze on others with human fondness, it’s unarguable that I view others as entirely distinct from myself – whereas friendship often seems to blur the lines between me and thou. Remember Aristotle? “The second self.”

William Blake, after the portrait by T. Phillips
William Blake, after the portrait by T. Phillips Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

Friendship also – again, in my insecure appreciation – seems extremely “person-specific” and dedicated to “the special” in all things. Again, the all-too adaptable Lewis writes, “Friendship … is a relation between men at the highest level of individuality. It withdraws men from collective ‘togetherness’.” William Blake is, of course, the greater authority here. “He who would do good to another must do it in minute particulars,” he writes, “whereas the general good is the plea of the scoundrel.” That’s me, I guess. The scoundrel. I’ve always admired about myself that I suffer fools especially well (how else are we to survive?), and relatedly that my friendships have much more in common with the way I feel about everybody than they reflect an exalted status accorded to a special someone. Indeed, I sense myself at war with “the special” in most everything. I’m all for human intimacy, but can’t I just like the world in general?

Turning the tables, I notice that in my relations with others people tend to like me at first (if they don’t just dislike me instantly). I’m polite, candid, I listen, I take an interest, don’t obviously mean ill to the world. I try to credit that there really is another person standing there. But after a while, people almost always come to like me less, as if in coming to know me a grainy light had been focused on me, revealing qualities that are less appealing rather than more: I’m too candid; or else my candour is false; or my good manners are faked; or all of me is a fake. Of course, who among us hasn’t cringed at his own occasional bogus-ness? You don’t have to be a novelist for that to be true. Just alive. At some later point – I’d like to say eventually – a few hardy souls manage to get past the gauntlet of my personal failures and find me more or less acceptable. Though never without becoming aware of precisely whom they have befriended.

Beyond all this, I tend to be hard on the few friends I do have. I have not a quick but a bad temper, and am given to taking offence, which always tends to showcase the self at the expense of others. I can, when angry, be very frank – which many people don’t appreciate (who’d blame them?). I occasionally jettison friends without comment or warning, but never (in my view) without cause – though the causes vary from others’ outright perfidiousness to mere lassitude with what seem to be friendship’s already lax requirements. The list of my ex-friends is not long, but I find it fortifying that I’m at least paying enough attention to my friendships to leave some behind.

Looking around for causes to this infirmity of friendship, I’m confident that who’s to blame is me. Nature always trumps nurture in my book. And yet, it’s possible that I didn’t grow up with what you’d call sound models for enduring friendships. I have friends from the old days. But again not many. My parents knew people they called their “friends”. But I never knew them to do more with these people than eat dinner and get tipsy. Often they didn’t have kind things to say about “their friends” – as if these people were not their friends at all. For that matter, my mother and father (there were only us three) weren’t that good friends with their own extended family. My mother didn’t like either my father’s mother or her own mother or her stepfather. My father – whose own father killed himself – didn’t like his sister’s husband. Few did. On and on like that.

Where I was concerned, my mother at best only tolerated (reluctantly) my high school friends, and seemed to prefer I not have any. It was just simpler for her. She consistently disparaged them as if they were criminals (indeed, some were), and would often drive them out of the house because of something they’d said (or she thought they’d said) – usually without ever telling me why. Once, when a group of my friends shamefully abandoned me in a fist fight in which I subsequently got the shit kicked out of me, my mother later just shook her head, looked disgusted, and advised me to find some “new friends”. Though when I did, two of my new amigos boinked my high school girlfriend when I was out of town, lied to me about it, then forgot they’d lied to me and told me the whole story as if it had happened to someone else and I’d think it was funny. I didn’t.

John Bayley with his wife, Iris Murdoch, in 1997.
John Bayley with his wife, Iris Murdoch, in 1997. Photograph: Rob Judges/Rex

Who’s to know? Maybe my experience of vitiated friendships has had to do with being an only child, or with never being good enough in team sports, or with not staying in the military long enough, or with having learning differences about which I was ashamed and that caused me to do poorly in school. Nowhere, though, and at no time did anybody sit me down and explain to me that a friend was the hope of the heart and a masterpiece of nature. Probably it’s the same with lots of kids. But once again it’s on me.

If I could have a better, more realistic and functioning model for friendship, what would it be? I wouldn’t like it if it was that I had to be similar to my friend – in temperament, in wit and wits, in interests, experience, age and gender. It could not be that I’d be willing freely to unpack in front of my friend all my life’s many shames and miscalculations (matters that can be outsourced with therapy or just stuffed). It would not be that I’d have to always get along with my friend, or even always wish him well (just not wish him ill). He need not think my shames weren’t shameful. It would not be that my friend and I have to agree about what constitutes good and bad in the world. He need not feel required to do for me what I can’t do for myself. I would not have to be willing to take a bullet for him, to have his back, to be there for him, or even renounce something I deeply desire so that he can have it. I would not have to be always candid or capable of delivering hard truths. (Although I might do it anyway.) And it could not be that I never complain to my friend, or about my friend – to his face or behind his back. Friendship ought to be understood as always supplementary in nature. Thus our friends should be as easy to forgive as our enemies. And as with all things, friendship need not promise to last forever, but only so long as it allows us the freedoms we would want to have without it. Maybe it is that friendship should do for us what a great novel can (and a novel might of course do it better): reconcile us to life as it is, and make us more real to ourselves. In other words, friendship ought not short-circuit one’s faculties for critical thinking and personal preference. Though to ask this of friendship might be to ask the impossible.

I also at least half realise that I may just be a broken thing, and this proves it. Maybe I’m not even my own closest friend. I know I don’t much feel I’m on the hunt for new friends now. Years ago, when a close pal attempted to connect me with a friend of his, I said, “No, thanks. I have enough friends.” Both of them were startled. But I never understood why a perfectly personal and private inclination of mine could matter all that much to someone else. Maybe that proves something right there. It certainly ratifies what Bayley said – that friendship’s a strangely sensitive subject. It’s as if we’re fearful it might not really even exist, leaving us with only ourselves to despise and love unaided. For me, unable to define friendship very well, it’s best to return it to its safe place as a cherished abstraction kept only in our hearts. Which may have been Emerson’s point in the first place.

Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford is published by Bloombsury in May. To order a copy for £11.04 (RRP £12.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Richard Ford

The GuardianTramp

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