Boys breakfast club: How a chance meeting at a cafe led to a friendship between three men that has lasted for a quarter of a century, writes DAVID AARONOVITCH
- David Aaronovitch reflects on the friendship that has transformed his life
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By the time I was in my mid-40s I had lost every one of my close male friends. And I had done it without noticing.
I was coupled up, kidded in and careered out. I had no time for the other boys and they had no time for me.
My best friend from school had married a German woman, gone to live in Italy and had three daughters.
Of my three great mates from student days, two had (separately) decided to wake up every morning with a view of Dartmoor and the third was managing two families and a role in local politics.
New associations were difficult to make. At work, where most new friendships are created, an hour for lunch became lunch in the canteen taking 45 minutes, became lunch at your desk taking as long as it takes to consume an M&S hoisin duck wrap and a mango smoothie.
David Aaronovitch has learnt that that good friendship requires two things: a bit of effort and some regularity
I could bore you with lots of stats, but a rich, sad literature concerning men and their lost buddies and how it’s all got worse in recent times attests to a male ‘friendship recession’.
One British stat stood out for me: 27 per cent of men in 2018 in the UK telling a survey that they had no close friends at all.
But women somehow keep their friends, which has prompted the many people writing about this into a kind of ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ take.
The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar puts it down to men being ‘inherently socially lazy’. And whereas, he says, women strike up deep friendships in which emotions and problems are eminently discussable, men only seem to be able to get together when their proximity to each other is mediated by an object such as a golf club or a racing bike.
Others posit that the effort to create social contact (which, as we will discover, is essential to friendship) is seen as somehow unmanly.
When my eldest daughter was about to start primary school, one of the parents of the new class invited the others to meet up over drinks at their flat.
I will never forget one of the other parents – a dad – taking me aside and telling me how suspicious he was of the host’s motives. ‘What do they want?’ he demanded.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
It sounds like the beginning of a joke:
‘A psychoanalyst, a theatre critic and a newspaper columnist walk into a bar.’
But the story starts 25 years ago this autumn. My youngest was 16 months. I had almost never worked harder. One thing I made time for was the school run.
Since this involved paying for two hours’ parking, after the drop-off I took a book and went for a coffee at a new café on the high street – and bumped into someone I barely knew.
John is a writer and was then the theatre critic and profile writer at The New Yorker magazine. I had briefly met him and his wife Connie a few weeks earlier at the Cheltenham Literature Festival when my paper, The Independent, took on The New Yorker in a debate.
To my surprise, instead of just waving at me from his perch, John came over and suggested that we sit together. A few minutes later someone else he knew, a tall man called Steve, came in.
He too sat with us, and we were introduced.
He turned out to be a psychoanalyst, an American like John, who lived a few yards down the road. I liked them both and they decided to like me. And so began a three-way friendship that has lasted a quarter of a century.
Most weeks, twice a week, the three of us have breakfasted together and the friendship has transformed my life.
Had it been left to me, it never would have happened. I’m too diffident. Maybe it’s because Steve and John are American that they are able to bust through the reserve that British men have, and to overcome that awful self-consciousness and fear of incurring obligation.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
What binds the three of us still? In the first place a great curiosity about people and why they behave and think the way they do. That curiosity pushed each of us into our careers.
Steve sees patients for 40 hours a week and never gets bored by them, and it has given him insights that he has always shared.
John, son of Bert Lahr, who played the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz, opened a door on aspects of the world I knew nothing about: the land of musicals, celebrated actors and doomed playwrights (he wrote the biography of Joe Orton, Prick Up Your Ears). He knows how magic is created.
And me, I’m just interested in the world. The insights John and Steve gave me have enriched my writing ever since our first conversation.
As well as sidetracking me – the Friday before I sat down to write this piece, we had a conversation about whether we would have been flat-earthers in the time of Galileo.
That’s just our chemistry, and it was partly serendipity that it all came together. I’ve journeyed with John to Hollywood to interview Al Pacino and sat with Steve as he interpreted the actions of a young woman who had just sabotaged her week-old marriage.
We took to advising each other. Quite often one of us will bring a problem to the table and ask the others what he should do. I’ve lost count of the number of emails I’ve successfully advised John (who can get a little irate) not to send.
He in turn gave me some advice about the contract for a new job which I took and saved me from having to sell my house.
When over a decade ago I was the victim of a stalker, Steve’s advice on how to handle her – involving stripping me of the delusion that I could somehow change her behaviour – was critical.
The advice sessions are sometimes hilarious. John is an angler who likes taking his rod to remote places and Steve is a bit of an expert on everything.
Their incongruous latte-fuelled conversation on how to tackle an encounter with a grizzly bear (Steve was a passionate advocate of using an anti-bear spray) will stay with me for ever.
In the end John did buy some bear spray, but it was confiscated during a flight to Labrador – he survived.
Then John’s neighbours set up an illegal puppy farm in which they bred (he insists) ‘five-foot-two leonbergers’, and we gave him the benefit of our expertise on that.
Meanwhile, Steve suffered a succession of problems with whoever was a tenant in the flat below his consulting room, including the middle-aged, divorced guy who took solace in smoking copious amounts of smelly marijuana, which would then waft over the patients and derail their sessions.
More recently there was the respectable middle-aged man who, every Saturday morning, would stop by the door of the doctor’s surgery opposite Steve’s window and urinate against it.
For once, we advised confrontation and it worked. The man swore, told Steve to go back to America and has never been seen since.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
We were middle-aged when we met and we probably aren’t any more. We’ve birthdayed at the dogs in Walthamstow and at the bowling alley in Queensway.
We’ve shared the inevitable tragedies of dying parents and friends and the blessings of new children and grandchildren.
In 2011, when a routine operation went wrong and I nearly died in hospital, John or Steve visited every single day for three weeks.
In the past few years, I’ve also remade friendships with other old male friends, based on what I’ve learnt emotionally.
Of course, what John, Steve and I do is very particular to us, and we may even sound exotic, but there are some universal lessons to be taken from it.
The most obvious is that good friendship requires two things: a bit of effort and some regularity. In other words you have to make time for your friends. It can’t just be a bolt-on.
But the other side of love is loss. Yesterday after breakfast I walked down the hill from the café with Steve. ‘Do you ever think about what it will be like when one of us dies?’ I asked him.
‘All the time’, he answered.
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