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10 March 2003

War breaks out at the opera

War breaks out at the opera. Starring Falstaff, Stephen Pollard and the Thunderer

By Hilary Burden

The world is divided on the Iraq war. And so, sadly, are friends. I don’t ever recall risking losing friends over world affairs. Good friends know when they’re on dangerous territory, understand what’s at stake, and have learnt to apply the value of a longer view. They know how to make up when a challenge or ridicule has gone too far. When daggers are about to be drawn, and honesty starts to hurt as it often will, they opt for the shrug of fraternity, the necessary compromise: all right then, so be it, let’s agree to disagree, now whose round is it? . . .

But this war against terror seems different. Seventy-year-olds are falling out with their oldest pals. (Surely life for them really is too short for that?) Dinner parties with familiar friends from the chattering classes are wrecked by dissenting views way before the cheeseboard arrives. And TV evenings with girlfriends have fallen suddenly silent when we realise, while reaching for the Kettles, that there are Opposing Views Between Us. I’ve yet to hear of a couple divorcing (“irreconcilable differences due to the war”) but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Why is it that important friendships between people are being sacrificed to the war against terror? Is the loss a necessary sacrifice or, like the blue-beaked ruddy ducks, one cull too far?

I went on the Stop the War march. I’m not being smug about it or basking in a warm glow. We mustered at Patisserie Valerie in Marylebone High Street to avoid the crowds. I turned up with a friend to hear the speakers and left early to warm up before setting off for the opera – to which another friend had invited me. I’d replied that I’d have to meet him there straight from the march. “Oh,” he replied, “I’m not sure I should be consorting with friends of Saddam . . . (Joke.)”

I was taken aback by the sarcasm, but filed it as friendly banter, and replied that if women were in charge, we would have caught Saddam in a honey-trap years ago.

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Falstaff was big and fantastically blustery, and in that context, we somehow managed to avoid discussing the politics of the day, enjoying a jolly frivolous evening in all.

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Two days later I noticed a column in the Times with the headline, “My address book is the first casualty of war”. It was a virulent piece by my fellow opera buff (and NS contributor) Stephen Pollard, who put the case for why he believed the marchers were not only “wrong, but dangerously, wilfully, shamefully wrong”.

“In all my 38 years,” he wrote, in that admirably pompous way he has, “I have never before felt such a sense of personal shock . . . to realise that your friends are either mindless, deluded or malevolent.”

Well, my dilemma is this: to resolve his bilious accusations, we must decide that I am either not a friend (in which case, why invite me to your favourite opera?) or I am – in which case, if the friendship is real, how can it survive? Having my “moral framework” questioned on the comment page of the Times instead of when I could defend my position (say, after the opera, on the day of the march) is somewhat perplexing.

I am also provoked to wonder about the moral framework of someone who belittles his friends in public: “Most of my friends on the march could not place Iraq on a map, let alone describe the contents of Resolution 1441,” he wrote. Who’d want to be known as a friend of his after that?

In the grand scheme of things this may be no great matter, but on reflection, I can’t help but wonder if the gene that enables mature resolution of fundamental differences between two friends might not be closely related to the gene that stops wars.

So, my friend, what kind of friend are you? On behalf of them all I’d like to ask you, are we all pre-emptive war statistics? Or can we reconcile our differences? And if so, how?