The cover of the Observer Magazine of 9 December 1973 now looks insanely provocative with its close-up of a naked handshake (‘Anatomy of Friendship’), as if it needs a warning label: ‘Wash your hands.’ But even though our near futures currently look like being as contactless socially as they are financially, the importance of friends endures.
The social psychologist Dr Stephen Duck began by stressing that friends serve a more important function than most people realise. ‘Being sent to Coventry is a powerful social sanction,’ he said, ‘but it is all the more distressing when one’s friends join the hounds and may be substantially alleviated if they do not.’
‘Once it is seen that we need friends as psychological props, it is easy to appreciate why friendlessness is so disruptive and may lead to psychological change or even distortion.’ Duck argued that we each have our own ‘magic number’ of five or six friends that we can comfortably maintain at one time. Which perhaps explains why Facebook is so incredibly uncomfortable.
The famous scriptwriting partners Alan Simpson and Ray Galton who wrote Steptoe and Son formed a lifelong friendship when they met on the same ward of a sanatorium for tubercular patients when they were 17. ‘We were sounding boards for each other. And, of course, having the shared illness made us closer, especially when we left hospital.’ They claimed that in 25 years they had never had a cross word. This may well have been because, as Simpson said, ‘Neither of us burdens the other with personal problems.’
The writer Frances Partridge, then 73, was on the money: ‘Quarrels are irrelevant – true friendship thrives on argument and discussion… It must be gay, it must be fun. Those who constantly grouse and complain do not make friends, because one’s heart sinks to meet them.’