Lucy Mangan

Is five the magic number of friends?

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There is a survey out this week which claims you need just five friends to steer you safely through the vale of tears we call life.

They are: an agony aunt type to whom you can tell all your problems and will deliver sound, sensible advice in return; a figure with a head for figures who will explain to you what an ISA is, which you should choose and why even the most generous provider won’t accept regretted shoe-purchases in lieu of cash deposits; one who will provide a shoulder – and in times of crisis, two – to cry on; a practical person who owns a toolbox and even knows how to deploy its contents and a fifth and final one in the workplace, to help you negotiate office politics and the even more bafflingly intricate workings of the new coffee machine.

To which I can only reply – what do you mean five? Long gone are the days when I had the luxury of five friends. By which I mean, people with whom I shared a strong historical bond (from childhood, school or university) and with whom I could meet up with casually at the drop of a hat, en masse or individually and spend joyful hours chatting about everything and nothing, or forensically dissecting, examining and advising on my latest emotional, personal or professional trauma. Five friends of that calibre to me these days would be riches beyond measure, beyond the dreams of avarice.

In your early twenties, maintaining friendships is easy. The atmosphere of amity hangs around post-university as you all move to the nearest big city (in my case, London) to look for jobs, flats and fun. You have no responsibilities (except to yourself, and I don’t know about you but I found me very forgiving of myself at that age) and plenty of time and money to meet up and plenty of tales to tell about your new lives when you do. It’s wonderful.

I am stIll – I don’t know – a bit lonely. I miss casual companionship

In your mid to late twenties the squeeze on your time, money and life starts. People start finding proper careers and proper partners. Both these eat into your friendship budget. Ambition kicks in for some and they start working later and later in order to make their mark. Others start popping out kids and some – through an unholy degree of discipline and energy that looks a lot like witchcraft – do both. These are the ones you won’t see again till they retire with their millions or with an incapacitating nervous breakdown at 40.

And now that I am in my thirties – well, the ambitious ones are now jetting about all over the place or working even longer hours setting up their own businesses. And the early sprog-droppers have all now scattered in search of gardens and good schools for their growing offspring. So I am still a few years off meeting up with the 40-year-old millionaires/burn-outs again.

Which leaves me – and I suspect most of the scattered others – in a slightly odd position. One way or another we’ve never been busier. I have plenty of work to keep me occupied. I have a husband, a toddler, my mum and dad living nearby… but in a weird way I’m lonely. My sister, whom I have always (or at least since we got past adolescence) counted among my friends, stayed in Bristol after she graduated and only makes it home three or four times a year and I only have one friend who has remained local enough and whose working hours (only because she is in the public sector and they have been cut to the bone) allow us to meet up often enough to keep up to date with each other, to feel the rhythm of each others’ lives in the way you need in order to be able to proffer advice, comment, drinks and jokes – the vital ingredients which, blended in the right proportions, make up the friendship cocktail. but I am still – I don’t know – a bit lonely. I miss casual, convivial, collective companionship. the telephone and email aren’t enough. They keep the channels of friendship open but not much more than that. You need someone’s physical and frequent presence. I don’t know whether five friends is the magic number, but I certainly worry about overburdening my one – and what I’ll do if she has to move elsewhere in search of work.

I understand now why men of a certain stripe join clubs. It’s the only way to secure company. We need that, or we need to bring back gossip chambers – no, friendship forums – as I shall rename them when I set up the franchise. That will take a lot of work… won’t have time to see anyone. Still, it’ll be worth it. Won’t it?”

Picture credit: Getty Images

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Stylist Team