Years ago, when I was 21 and starting out in my first job after university, I made a new friend. It was easy really, we were around the same age and we had a lot of the same interests and we were spending more than 40 hours a week together so, soon enough, our chat had progressed from silly games of would-you-rather to nights where we would stay up until after the sun rose talking about our hopes and ambitions and fears and families, all that stuff.
At one point, a couple of months into our friendship, my new friend said: “You’re my friend for 2004, I always try and make one new friend a year and you’re this year’s.” And for years afterwards, his words lingered at the back of my mind, especially during the rough months and years when I felt like I hadn’t made a new friend, or even had a good time with an old friend, in a while.
This week, I was reminded of his new-friend-a-year policy when I read a statistic in a news report: 54 per cent of British adults feel it has been a long time since they made a new friend or valued connection. The stat came from a survey commissioned by the Campaign To End Loneliness, in partnership with YouGov, and there were also forlorn figures about the reasons why people felt it had been so long – 63 per cent of people blamed work and 65 per cent put it down to chores.
We were just strangers sitting across from each other, but soon we would be talking about architecture and orgasms and sibling rivalry and Instagram. Soon we would be friends
I have just returned from eight weeks in Berlin – a little time-out I was lucky enough to be able to take, after three years of long hours and an intense workload. I did only a smattering of work while there and the absolute bare minimum of chores. I looked at the dust gathering in tumbleweed-style clumps on the floor of the studio apartment I was staying in – and I ignored it. I noticed the smears on the windows – and I chose not to wipe them off.
And freed from work and chores, I did make friends. Away from the responsibility of my everyday life, I became a sort of serial friend-maker, going on numerous friend dates, lining them up night after night. I turned up to restaurants and bars and bookshops – I’m the one with brown hair by the window, I texted my friend dates. Most of these people were friends of friends, but some were friends of friends of friends of friends – “So, how do you know Nell?” I’d ask my friend date, indicating the person who’d done the friend setting-up. “I don’t,” she’d answer.
We were just strangers sitting across from each other, but soon we would be talking about architecture and orgasms and sibling rivalry and Instagram. Soon we would be friends. We would arrange a second date and then a third. We would go for dinner and take a walk by the lake. We would swap ideas and anecdotes and our lives would be a little richer for it.
Being in Berlin was a little moment in my life during which I was able to make new friends – and I think you get a few of those periods, dotted about the decades. Perhaps it’s not possible to make a good friend every year – I’m not sure that I’ve always managed it – but every now and then, there will be a fecund spell when friendships will come easily, when you’ll click and click and click. When I did an MA, I made numerous friends I’ll have for ever. When my mum retired, I saw her friendships – new and old – flourish.
Other times will feel lonelier – and that’s almost unavoidable. That’s what the statistics tell us. There will be good reasons for those lonely times – parenthood and promotions and illnesses and anxieties. But it’s sad to think of the 65 per cent of people who blame chores. A new friendship is a gift shinier and brighter than even the most scrubbed floor. A new friendship is worth a thousand ironed shirts.