I’ve been thinking about the idea of friendship for quite a while, spurred on by your comments about all your friends deserting you in a time of greatest need, and not just what it means for me, but also what it means for society. We all know and accept that society is changing, and so is the concept of friendship. We are now more attuned to having virtual friends than real life ones, simply because of the advance in technology and the manner in which we communicate. For past generations, the idea of friendship was a very personal one, and the idea of letter writing – or any other method of communication – merely a method of remaining in touch, holding a friendship in place, keeping up to date on all the experiences, trials and tribulations lived. This feeling, though, that friends can be found and friendship maintained purely through a virtual world is misleading: as soon as we notice that one has left us, by unfollowing or whatever it may be called today, we feel all the anguish and rage as if someone had departed in real life, without a word of explanation, without any reason that we can understand.

What we don’t appreciate in this virtual world we are making our own, is that real friendship is considerably more than one person clicking a link and telling another that they enjoyed what they’ve written, or what they claim to have done, on a social media platform. Real friendship is knowing that whatever it is has been read through or, even better, knowing that it has been lived with. Real friends are there when you need them, no matter what.

There is nothing to which nature seems to have inclined us more than to society

as Michael de Montaigne wrote, and society is a meeting together of people who find some means of living together, of forming relationships, of being friends and, of course, all the other levels necessarily to make a society function. He goes on to say:

Friendship feeds on communication

and that is never more true than when one or more of this group of friends, this society of people which has found its way together, is not there. In theory, the level of friendship attained should mean that these people remain in touch, remain there to help wherever possible, remain capable of understanding something that has happened, and seeing the person who became their friend through all the mud and mire in the first place. We both know that this is not the case. We both know that many people are interested in appearances, how the neighbours will look at them, how their family will react, what their employers demand from them. They forget the friend who was, and could still be, out of very personal and egoistical desire. Unlike the manner in which we have been raised, been told to believe and to act, they put themselves first. Which, again, as you know, can have drastic effects on those few who have seen the backs turn on them, who come to realise that their circle of friends was far more limited than they had imagined. We look back and see all those we have helped no matter what, no matter how hard it was for us, and we see no sign of gratitude, no sign that they will help us at the darkest time of our lives.

True, some cannot come to terms with what has happened, that will always be the case, that is something we have to accept and deal with. Each new start in life brings with it hardships and changes but, up until now, we’ve had out strong and steadfast circle of friends to help us through. It comes as a shock to realise that what we had believed in, those people we had put our faith and trust in, are not there anymore.

Rather than anger we should take a look at the reasons why. In some cases, had those people stayed with us we might have come to the conclusion that we were in with the wrong crowd, and that this is what lead us astray. Not always, but some times. And then, when we look at the reasoning behind their situation, and try to make some sense of it, we look at the people themselves and we can quite rightly ask: were they ever my friend?

Every change in life brings new chances, and I can speak from experience here. I’ve moved many times in my life, sometimes because I’ve had to, often because I just felt the need to get out and begin again. Each time there has been a leaving behind, a clearing out. Now and then I’ve discovered that a few people really have been friends in my time with them: they have asked after me; they have wished me well. But now it is time to settle back in my old age and, rather than just looking back and contemplating what has happened, look forward and decide on new friendships, on chances with new people, on doing that which I love most next to reading: writing. The two are, of course, combined and almost impossible to separate. I enjoy writing letters to people, and am constantly trying to find people who are able to write, who can look into themselves as well as at everything around them, before and behind them, and put pen to paper honestly and openly. It is not as easy a task as you might imagine. There is little trust left in the world, little willingness to take a chance, even over a long distance where there is absolutely no danger to the person, almost no interest in discovering something new. All these people with their smart phones who can communicate across the globe and make ‘friends’ with unknowns in distant lands, but are too timid to put pen to paper in case they give themselves away.

One of my hobbies, if you can call it that, is sitting in street cafés watching people go by. It was once a wonderful experience: I would see people deep in conversation; those hurrying to an appointment; those lazily shopping or passing the time; the young and the old on their way about in the world. Today I see people harassed by the passage of time; worrying in case they don’t make an appointment which could mean a life change for them; losing their way along a straight road because they are not looking up from their smart phone. Last night, sitting in a bar, I watched a group of five early-Twenties not talking to one another, because they were all scrolling. I see groups of people, young and old, in cafés and museums with their attention caught by that small screen, and the people around them, the masterpieces on the walls, are a mere distraction easily ignored. Where once I would wonder what a person did, where they were employed, how their life was going, I now wonder how long it will be before this person or that, lost to the real world, walks into a nearby lamp post.

Only those are to be judged friendships in which the characters have been strengthened and matured by age.

I’m not sure whether I can agree with Marcus Cicero in this point, I know of many strong and steadfast friendships which are relatively new and have not stood the test of time., There are some relationships which seem to hit it off from the first moment, a bit like that Love At First Sight thing but more realistic. Of course, writing over two thousand years ago and in a society we find hard to understand today, the demands on life and friendship, any form of relationship, were completely different. Cicero was also a man pursued and persecuted, someone who could never be sure that another, claiming to be his friend, wasn’t really just out to gain his confidence and then, at an opportune moment, slit his throat for some advantage in Rome. He experienced those who had lived in his own house, eaten at his own table, been trained by him, running to the enemy at a moment of strife and turning tail on him. Such were – and to a certain extent are still today – the problems of law, of politics in ancient Rome. It all makes for fascinating reading today, but I am sure having to live through those times, knowing that there was a strong chance of a knife being thrust in the back – the murder of Julius Caesar came several decades later – must have been a strain.

It is also interesting watching other friendships down the years – the centuries in my case – and seeing how they worked out. One of the advantages of our age is being able to pick up books detailing the disadvantages of past ages, the lives of famous and not so famous, the scandals and intrigues seem from inside and out. I have recently read the letters of Jane Welsh Carlyle, a good Victorian wife living in London, married to a very successful and well-known historian – Thomas Carlyle – and her worries and fears over his apparently amorous liaison with another woman of high rank in society. He, of course, claimed it as mere friendship but, when this friendship allows living in the same house for several weeks without your wife being present, perhaps it takes on a different light for her. For us, looking in from the outside, when we realise that this woman’s husband was also at home, along with many servants and other guests, some of whom would also have stayed longer periods, we realise that things are not as a poor wife, left at home to fend for herself with worries and fears, might have imagined it.

Our society has changed somewhat since then – the Carlyles were alive and lighting up literary society through the nineteenth century – with a few of the roles being changed. One of my favourite quotes from a movie is taken from Black Orchid, from 1952, where a maid says to her mistress:

With so many admirers you don’t need to worry too much about one husband.

The fact that this mistress was then murdered by her admirer, and the husband blamed which is the whole idea of the story – is neither here nor there, the quote amuses me.

Our friendship has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself.

Michael de Montaigne once more, a very considered and intelligent man – born in 1533 in France, and a wonderful essayist – very well read and open to many things we might not have thought possible in his day, but which we almost take for granted today. Meaning, of course, that each friendship is unique and should never be compared to friendship with another person. We all go our own way, are all individual and bring something unique to any form of relationship no one else can possibly supply. This, I believe, goes from the slightest acquaintance right up to the most ardent of lovers, but there are sadly few who recognise it. And even fewer who understand the importance of friendship until, that is, they suddenly find themselves in need, or abandoned. I do not doubt for one moment that your ideas on friendship now, after all your experiences, are different to those from twenty years ago.

What good, though, is the offer of friendship from a person you will probably never get to meet? What good a friendship from someone who is so obviously completely different in many respects, from across the world in a society with different standards, customs and traditions? I have, in various ways, been asked this question many times over the years.

We are not alone on this planet – possibly not alone in the heavens, but that is another matter entirely – and all of us are looking for something to keep our interests alive from the moment of birth through to the final whisper of death. We become used to that which is around us, it bores after a while, and we thirst after what is new, different, exciting. Not all of us, however, have the opportunity to get out and see, to experience, to live these other places, customs, traditions. Except through the good offices, the friendship and communication, of someone else. Everyone who is a friend was a stranger first.