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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