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Being entertaining is best reserved for strangers – real friends need not dazzle

She’s always late, I forget she takes sugar. And in those humdrum rituals, true friendship is made.

I’ve been thinking a lot about friendships recently, and how they don’t work if you don’t nurture them, how they don’t grow without watering. But by nurturing, I just mean spending time together on a regular basis, which is so much more important than anything that actually happens.

Friends don’t have to dazzle, or inform, or confess, they just have to be close at hand. It’s fine to be humdrum, telling the same stories, going over the same ground. The hard work of being entertaining is best reserved for strangers.

It reminds me of how I never quite understood what the phrase “quality time” was supposed to mean when talking about being with your kids. I’m all in favour of giving children your attention, but giving them your full attention, all the time, sounds exhausting and unnecessary. No one wants a searchlight trained on them, or to always be sharing some enriching activity. Often kids just want you there in the background while they do stuff. Or vaguely listening to them, even when they’re not saying anything.

It often struck me that the boring bits of parenting were where things happened. The hours after school when everyone was tired and uncommunicative. Same old bath-time, same old bedtime. Round and round it would go, nothing of any importance being said, and then finally, at the end of the day, a few words whispered in the half-dark: this girl was mean to me at school today, homework was too hard, I cried on the football pitch. At those moments, the “quality” emerged from the sheer quantity of time spent together; familiarity building up until quietly, below the surface, a bond of trust was forged, memories were made.

Friendships are like that, all about putting in the hours and recognising that no one friend can be everything to you. They fill varying needs, perform separate functions. We’re different with different friends. I have one whom I meet every Wednesday in the same place for a coffee. We talk for a couple of hours, waltzing gracefully around our few subjects, knowing all the steps, understanding our roles. She’s always late, and I always forget that she takes sugar, which makes us sound a bit rubbish. But then on the other hand, I always have a hot flush and she always politely doesn’t notice, which is true friendship.

There are the three friends I go for a Friday walk with – swapping health worries and book recommendations, grumbling about politics – and two others I call if I want to go to a gig. I have friends who like a dance and a drink, others who prefer a gallery, and one who’s become a psychoanalyst, so occasionally I tell her things hoping to get help for free. But she just nods and says nothing, like a true professional.

Younger people understand the concept of friendship much better than I used to. My kids seem to know that you’re going to need both lovers and pals, perhaps recognising that they’re going to have more than one relationship, just as they’re likely to have more than one career. They must look at their life expectancy and think, how on earth is this monogamy lark going to work?

Dolly Alderton’s new book, Everything I Know About Love, is brilliant on this subject. On the cover are the words “parties, dates, friends, jobs, life” – all crossed out. She covers all these topics, often hilariously, but pays emotional tribute to friendship: “Nearly everything I know about love, I’ve learnt in my long-term friendships with women… I know what it is to know every tiny detail about a person and revel in the knowledge as if it were an academic subject. When it comes to the girls I’ve built homes with, I’m like the woman who can predict what her husband will order at every restaurant.” I can usually predict what my husband will order, but I’ve got better at placing equal value on other relationships. In my younger days, I dumped girlfriends for boyfriends, which was idiotic and unfeminist of me.

I learned this lesson late, but not too late. Now I cherish those friends, and the time we spend together, remembering and forgetting things about each other, sometimes only half-listening, but always understanding. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 04 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Delusions of empire

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The overlooked aspect of patient care: why NHS catering needs a revolution

The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

A friend recently sent me a photo from her hospital bed – not of her newborn baby, sadly, but her dinner. “Pls come and revolutionise the NHS” the accompanying text read, along with a plaintive image of some praying hands. A second arrived the next morning: “Breakfast: cereal, toast or porridge. I asked for porridge. She said porridge would be ‘later’. Never arrived. (sad face).”

Contrast this with the glee with which another friend showed me his menu at a Marie Curie hospice a few weeks later. He seemed to have ticked every box on it, and had written underneath his order for syrup sponge and custard: “extra custard please”. It wasn’t fancy, but freshly cooked, comforting food that residents looked forward to – “like school dinners”, he sighed, “but nice”.

To be fair, though budgets vary significantly between hospital trusts, a reliable estimate suggests £3.45 per patient per day as an average – only slightly more than in Her Majesty’s prisons, though unlike in prisons or schools, there is no legally enforceable set of minimum standards for hospital catering. As Prue Leith writes in the foreword to a 2017 report by the Campaign for Better Hospital Food, “this means hospital food is uniquely vulnerable to a race to the bottom in terms of food quality, and patient care”.

Plate after plate of disappointment is not only demoralising for people who may already be at a low ebb, but overlooks the part food has to play in the recovery process. Balanced, appetising meals are vital to help weaker patients build up strength during their stay, especially as figures released in February suggest the number of hospital deaths from malnutrition is on the rise. According to Department of Health findings last year, 48 per cent of English hospitals failed to comply with food standards intended to be legally binding, with only half screening every admission for malnutrition.

The Campaign for Better Hospital Food’s report, meanwhile, revealed that only 42 per cent of the London hospitals that responded to its survey cooked fresh food for children – even though the largest single cause of admissions in five-to-nine-year-olds is tooth extraction. Less than a third of respondents cooked fresh food for adults.

Once the means to produce fresh meals are in place, they can save trusts money by allowing kitchens to buy ingredients seasonally, when they are cheaper. Michelin-starred chef Phil Howard, recently tasked by the Love British Food organisation to cook their annual lunch on an NHS budget, explained that this, along with using cheaper cuts and pushing vegetables centre stage, allowed him to produce three courses rather than the two he’d been asked for. Delicious they were, too.

Andy Jones, a chef and former chair of the Hospital Caterers Association, who was there championing British food in the NHS, told me the same principles applied in real healthcare environments: Nottingham City Hospital, which prepares meals from scratch, saves £6m annually by buying fresh local ingredients – “I know with more doing, and voices like my small one shouting out, we will see real sea change.”

Unusually, it’s less a question of money than approach. Serving great hospital food takes a kitchen, skilled cooks and quality ingredients. But getting every hospital to this point requires universal legal quality standards, like those already in place in schools, that are independently monitored.

Nutrition should be taken as seriously as any other aspect of care. The NHS performs so many miracles every day – in comparison, feeding the sick should be a doddle. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge