Emily Barr: an ode to friendship

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Stylist Team
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Whilst there's of course a lot to be said for romantic relationships, there's something about the relationships we have with our closet female friends that's quite unique. In an age where more women are delaying marriage (or opting not to wed at all), female friendships have become more important than ever.

Best-selling author Emily Barr agrees. To mark the release of her latest novel, The First Wife (a tale with friendship and trust at its heart), she explains to Stylist why best friends and so precious...

"When I was sixteen my mother and stepfather decided to move from Norfolk to South Wales. I went reluctantly along, emanating toxic grumpiness, solely because I had no other option. I was not going to enjoy it, and I wasn’t going to let anyone else have any fun either if I could help it. I drew a calendar on my new bedroom wall, as if it were a prison cell in a film, and started scratching the days out, one by one. I scowled and frowned and mainly stayed in my bedroom reading poetry and snarling.

All the same, I did have to go to school, and on the first day of term I met Lisa, who had long blonde hair and a soft Scottish accent. I recognised her as a fellow sufferer at once. We were at a girls’ school where most of our fellow students had known each other since they were seven, and in-jokes floated above our heads at all times in a thick and impenetrable layer. She was lost, like me, and, also like me, seemed a little intimidated by the savvy girls who were, shall we say, a lot more worldly-wise and experienced than my Norfolk friends had been. As soon as I started talking to Lisa, comparing bewilderment and unhappiness, things looked a bit better. After a while I found myself accidentally smiling and forgetting to be miserable. Soon we were drinking underage at the local pub and watching Dirty Dancing on video together at weekends.

Soon we were drinking underage at the local pub and watching '''Dirty Dancing''' on video together at weekends.

I have always had a ‘best friend’, and from the first day of the sixth form my best friend was Lisa. Now we are approaching forty, our lives are radically different and better than they were when we were moody transplanted teenagers, and she is still my ‘best friend’, though I now feel I have to put quotes around the phrase because it sounds so twee at my age.

Since we met, 23 years ago, our friendship has gone through many incarnations. I would go to visit Lisa at university in Birmingham, sleep on her floor and go out for curries. Later, we shared flats in London and vetted one another’s boyfriends (the Bridget Jones phase, if you like). We worked for a summer in France, drinking rosé, wearing bright red lipstick and wide sunhats and thinking ourselves most sophisticated: that summer Lisa picked me up after a holiday dalliance that went wrong. When I was backpacking, she came out to Goa for a fortnight, and I rushed to meet her bearing newly-developed photographs of the man I had recently met in China. Her first reaction to him - ‘who’s that handsome man?’ sealed my future-husband’s fate. Several years later we were ‘best woman’ at each other’s weddings.

Although we know one another’s friends, we barely have any friends in common. Our lives are quite separate: now Lisa is a London-based lawyer and I am a writer living in Cornwall, and we only manage to meet once or twice a year, and then only by making a strenuous effort to cut through the more immediate daily demands on our time. Yet as soon as we see each other, it is exactly as it has always been; but better because of our lengthy shared history. I can say something like ‘you know what my family are like’, knowing that she really does.

There is, surely, nothing like female friendship. It is what makes my life function. I have a husband I love and three children who are alternately gorgeous and infuriating, working to a random rota system the details of which they refuse to divulge. But wherever I have been in life, whatever I have done, I have always relied on female friends for camaraderie and understanding, and if there is one thing that baffles me, it is a woman who announces: ‘I don’t really get on with other women’. That’s fine, of course, because it clearly works for them, but I want to tell them how much they are missing out on. They wouldn’t listen, of course, because by definition they don’t like me.

There is, surely, nothing like female friendship. It is what makes my life function.

Three years ago we moved from France to Cornwall. For the first year, my husband, James, worked in London, coming back home for weekends. I found myself effectively a lone parent during the week, in a town I did not know, and devoid of friends. I remember standing bravely in the playground of my children’s new school, looking around as I had at school in Cardiff all those years ago, for anyone who looked as if they might be in the same boat.

By day three I had started to chat to Debbie, who was also new to the area with children about the same age. Sometime during week two she asked us over after school. We compared notes about our respective moves, and the whole endeavour suddenly felt manageable. I started inviting Debbie and other mothers over for coffee, or planning a drink in the evening. Soon, I had a handful of new friends, and I was happy. Perhaps mothers, as much as anyone else, need to talk to others in their position, for perspective, for understanding, to laugh at things that no one else would think was particularly funny (last week I sent Lisa a text from the side of the swimming pool, sharing the news that the children had just been evacuated so staff could fish some poo out with a net, after which the children were sent straight back in to continue with their lessons. I knew she would think it was funny). This, I think, is why sites like Mumsnet are so popular.

The school playground (and the side of the swimming pool) is, more often than not, the site of my sole social interaction for the day, and so I make sure I always talk to someone. For me, chatting to friends, whether they’re my best friend, my next-door neighbour, or people I never see socially outside the playground, makes all the difference between a good day and a bad day.

It is not, I have discovered, just me. Research shows that having friendships, even of the most passing kind, is far more important for well being than you might think. An academic study conducted by Brigham Young University found that feeling disconnected from the people around you is as bad for your health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or being an alcoholic, as harmful as not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity. That sounds dramatic, but I know that a coffee or a glass of wine with a friend and a chat about anything from our children to Libya to how on earth we are meant to fit everything that needs doing into one day, makes all the difference in the world to me. My friends, diverse and geographically scattered as they are, are the furniture of my life.

Lisa and I are both now mothers of five year old girls, among our other children. Whenever our daughters see one another they, just like us, fall straight into an easy friendship, picking up exactly where they left off. We can have no idea of where their lives might end up taking them; but I hope that they, too, will find that their friendship lasts through the different phases of their lives. I like to think that one day be able to look at one another and say ‘you know what my Mum’s like’, and receive a smile of recognition in return.

The First Wife by Emily Barr (£7.99) is published in paperback by Headline Review on Thursday 15 September