A big thank you to all who sent me birthday greetings on facebook. It reminded me how bad I am at keeping in touch with friends – I didn’t get round to sending Christmas cards last year, have only the vaguest of recollections of when most people’s birthdays are (and usually see facebook on my phone so don’t get the reminders), and can go for months or years without much interaction other than by electronic means. Completely rubbish, I’m sorry.
At peril of turning into Thought for the Day (perhaps an unconscious link to the use of a Cliff Richard song title for this blog post) it has also led me to wonder why this might be. Like it or not, even I am a social animal. Although I am enjoying working remotely, I couldn’t bear to secret myself away at home when doing it and have rented shared office space so as to get out of the house and have some routine social interaction (if anyone is interested – here http://www.heartcentre.org.uk/ – I can heartily recommend it). I’ve grown to love having twitter burbling away in the background, seeing facebook updates of old school friends I haven’t seen in nearly 25 years, and miss the regular liquid lunches and evenings out of my 20s working in the City.
It was brilliant getting to go on a Stag do for the first time in years a couple of weekends back – even if it did mean nearly killing myself cycling up a rather nasty hill between Goring and Pangbourne and wheezing along trying to keep up with the lusty fraulein in the photo here. Doing the infamous Otley Run for the first time for another friend’s 40th birthday has also been a recent highlight.
Part of the problem, for me at least, is that it is just too easy to feel part of things remotely by using social media. Business networking is something I’ve always found rather painful, but I actually got my current job through using linkedin and had another interview that materialised mainly from having thought about things to write for this blog. Having moved 200 miles away from most of the friends I’d built up in London and then finding that most people had got married, had children and were commuting long distances into London the opportunities for face to face interaction dropped off a bit, or at least involved long term planning to arrange weekends around the myriad other commitments we all have rather than casual phone calls to do a couple of spur of the moment pints after work.
Social media can fill that gap. It is a gap that has also developed through the erosion of traditional elements of social glue – not just the pub, but also supporting your local football team, going to church, even popping down the shops. Rather than being everyday occasions for keeping in touch with people, each is becoming more of a niche activity. It might in part explain why some people find multiculturalism threatening – because encouraging strong but exclusive communities to develop, whether it is around a mosque or a language group, provides an opportunity for “them” to have a social glue which is lacking in broader society.
So, where’s the sermon? Well, one of the things which has been striking about a number of the recent causes célébres is that a lot of them involve friendships. Gordon and Sarah Brown being such good friends of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng that the Murdochs were sad that their kids no longer got to play together. Sarah Brown being pally enough with Rebekah Brooks to have organised her 40th birthday bash. David Cameron continuing bravely to call Andy Coulson a friend even after being criticised for having hired him and trusted him. The many media friends of Johann Hari still believing in him despite all the evidence of his journalistic misdeeds. The Coalition government looks like it only could have come about because Cameron and Clegg felt comfortable enough with each other to be friendly. The drama over the leadership of the Labour Party can also be seen as a drama of friendships, from the obvious between the Miliband brothers to the criticisms of the disloyalty and unfriendliness of the machinations over the defenestration of Tony Blair.
This throws up a strange paradox. Networking is apparently a great skill to develop. It is one of the things that is seen to be developed by Oxbridge and Public School educations but which it is desirable for everyone to get. The best way to network is to be by being able to develop and nurture friendships. But, at the same time, we turn against those who do exactly that. All those friends, the Camerons and Osbornes who have hung out since university, the journalists and politicians who meet each other dozens of times a year. They’re doing what we’re told we should be doing to get on. Yet, at the same time, they shouldn’t be doing it. They should be independent and unswayed by friendship. How could they do this while being the sorts of personable people who can do those jobs? Also, what we don’t see, is the rejection that such people have to become inured to. Putting yourself up for public positions also means finding lots and lots of people who will not only disagree with you when you’re trying to be agreeable, but who will hate you for what you think or say, or even what they think you are really thinking or meaning. Liking the people who actually seem to like you back isn’t too unnatural. Being big enough to do right even by those who hate you is difficult to do if you don’t have enough people who love you.
It is easy to criticise the elites for getting too close to one another, to be suspicious of their closeness and to feel excluded by it. Particularly when our own relationships can close in through the pressures of life to mean we only really regularly see the people who are physically closest to us. Getting a nice large group of followers on twitter and recommenders on linkedin just seems cleaner than having to put ourselves about to make friends with strangers in a way we haven’t had to do since Freshers’ Week. Perhaps part of the criticism of the cosy cliques is down to the fact that they seem to be able to get on with each other and be friends with a lot of people in a way that is less easy to manage for many people now.
Nepotism and other forms of corruption are terrible things and should be strongly criticised. However, it would be a shame not to recognise that, at least in part, we are also seeing people, albeit important and powerful people, being friends and doing friendship, not just liking each others’ facebook Wall posts. We could learn that from them while stopping them from abusing their positions for their friends. Or maybe it is just me.