…you’ll all find, if you haven’t found it out already, that a time comes in every human friendship, when you must go down into the depths of yourself, and lay bare what is there to your friend, and wait in fear of his answer. A few moments may do it; and it may be (most likely will be, as you are English boys) that you never do it but once. But it must be, if the friendship is to be worth the name. (Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, 1857).Do boys know any longer how to be friends? What about men? It is odd that in an age that might be described as ‘the emotional turn’, men succumb to the worst inhibitions of macho culture and have lost what was formerly a delight in the company of another man. Nineteenth-century novels abound with examples of schoolboy friendships that were defined by devotion, love and respect – the complete confidence of boys who saw each other and the world as if through one set of eyes – that matured into lifelong relationships of trust and affection, regardless of political, geographical or occupational obstacles. The romance of these narratives no doubt exaggerated the commonplaceness of such amiable entanglements, but they were nevertheless expressions of an ideal. Such friendships – such implicit contracts of trust – were positively desired and encouraged.
Even if one removes the fulsome rhetorical honesty of the English public-school boy, replacing it with a more stoic or taciturn working-class nature, history still supplies plenty of real and fictional examples of genuine loving amity. Old friends, ‘sat on a park bench like bookends… waiting for the sunset’; young friends confiding their hearts’ desires, lost in play that forecasts future realities, like the ‘two little boys’ of the Napoleonic era.
I think I had friendships like this. Wonderful hours that became days that became whole summers of infatuated indulgence – of football and card games, of cricket bats that were machine guns when they weren’t cricket bats, and of talk about important things (marble collections, Star Wars, and puerile fantasies of this girl or that) – in complete and blissful ignorance of a judgemental world. One boy’s company was always sufficient, and where larger numbers met, two boys remained when the other boys went home. I think it was the same for most boys: like juvenile lions looking for their own pride. Alas, these friendships have not quite stood the modern tests of geography and occupation. The modern ‘social network’ is too easy to be meaningfully pursued. And somehow I feel the beauty and strength of childhood alliances is no longer encouraged. I cannot think why. Perhaps we feel it fosters weakness, but really we should identify the strength it engenders.
‘What a time it was… a time of innocence; a time of confidences’.