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“It was as if I had never existed”: when friends break up

Overnight, we went from the closest of pals to less than casual acquaintances. 

We were five, and then we were four.

I was late for school that morning, and tried to slide into registration without attracting attention, but M hadn’t saved me a seat so I got into even more trouble than usual. She was my friend, one of my four best friends, one fifth of the group that was the whole of my 14-year-old world, and now she was paying no attention while the teacher told me off. She didn’t even bother to avoid looking at me. It was as if she couldn’t see me at all, as if – for her – I had never existed at all.

Overnight, we went from the closest of pals to less than casual acquaintances. There had been no falling-out or other inciting incident. She said goodbye to me at the station on Monday afternoon like always, and then on Tuesday morning it was as if we had never held hands in the corridor or hidden from the PE teacher together in the bushes. We had been the axis of our five-strong friendship group, the two who had brought the gang together. Now it was all falling apart. That first afternoon, we didn’t even move the benches in the science lab like normal so the five of us could squeeze into a space meant for four. If our teacher noticed, he didn’t comment.

Over the course of that first day, I asked everybody – including M herself, repeatedly – why she wasn’t talking to me. I got a look of polite blankness from her, the kind of bland incomprehension that said “but we were never friends”, before she turned away. Everyone else could rouse only vague incomprehension or pity. Nobody could say what I had done to warrant this sudden denial of my very existence. After a couple of days, I stopped asking. My entire social history had been rewritten without my participation. For a teenage girl, there are few things that cut so deep.

Four years went by. M and I still shared almost all of our classes. I still spent hours in the same room as her every day, and not once did she crack and give any sign that she was aware of my existence. The same intensity that can make teenage friendships between girls so vital and long-lasting worked in the opposite direction for us. After a while, I forgot what it was like to feel close to her.

It became an established fact of our world, one that even had to be explained to newcomers to the school like keycodes and toilet locations. “The locker room is where we hang out even though it smells, we don’t use the loo at the end because it blocks really easily, and M doesn’t talk to Caroline – nobody knows why.”

We did our A levels. Years ago, we had chattered and whispered about this moment, when we would sit at the ancient plywood desks in the school’s vast hall and smile our good luck wishes at each other from across the serried rows of pupils. Halfway through a paper about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I looked up and tried to catch M’s eye. Her gaze never shifted from the page in front of her.

In that strange no man’s land between finishing exams and the end of your final term, when you are neither a schoolgirl nor an adult but something else altogether, I finally found myself alone in a room with M for the first time in five years. She was sat on the floor of the common room, carefully cutting around people’s heads in photographs and sticking them onto the giant collage we were making for our leavers’ ball. I knelt down next to her and picked up some scissors.

We didn’t speak for at least half an hour, both of us concentrating furiously on our cutting. We passed the glue and the stack of photos without comment – our old synchronicity and co-operation still there, even after all this time. Eventually, I asked her, promising it really would be the last time. “Why did you stop talking to me?”

She didn’t reply for what felt like a long time. The process of leaving school felt fatalistic enough, with all its attendant promises to “stay in touch!” that everyone knew would remain unfulfilled, yet to me this was the moment that really mattered. I would finally understand what it was I had done, all the way back in year nine. Perhaps there was still time to fix it.

M looked at me. Properly, for the first time in half a decade. I saw how her face had changed and sharpened, how she had cheekbones where before there had been teenage chubbiness. She was wearing the kind of dramatic eye make-up we had always made fun of, and her hair was a mid-length we had once vowed we would never try. I had been so obsessed with the idea of her as she had been the last time we had spoken that I had barely noticed she was someone else now.

“I can’t remember why,” she said quietly. “I really can’t.”

***

The last glimpse I had of M was right before I shut down my Facebook account several years ago. As it would happen, she posted a photo that showed up at the top of my news feed just before I hit the “yes, I really do want to delete everything” button. It showed her hand being held in the hand of somebody I will never meet, a ring on her finger. I clicked, and it was like she was never there.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.