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Sunday 6 January 2008

Simple friendship beats fame's glitter

Ruth Dudley Edwards says archbishop John O'Neill was right about shallow celebrity culture, and offers an alternative

What do the following have in common? Leslie Ash, Gary Barlow, Russell Brand, Kelly Brook, Charlotte Church, Jason Donovan, Sharon Osbourne, Gail Porter, Katie Price and Ronnie Wood? Answer: they are some of the celebrities whose autobiographies were piled high for the Christmas market.

Known as the "decline-and-fall-and-plucky-fight-back" genre, these outpourings tell of "roller-coaster rides" along the highs (money, fame, sex) and lows (usually broken hearts, ruptured professional relationships and abusing a wide variety of substances).

If you've never heard of them, don't worry. A few have real talent, but most have no more than the millions of wannabes around the world who read about them and about thousands of celebs like them, who ape their style and dream about emulating their often wretched goldfish-bowl existence without having to put any work into getting there.

Church of Ireland Archbishop John Neill of Dublin put it rather neatly in his New Year message, when he talked about the Irish value system becoming "increasingly linked to wealth, instant gratification and a shallow celebrity culture ... We watch the highs and lows of the lives of others with intensity, though often without asking deeper questions".

This is the cult of vicarious living whose patron saint is the late Princess Diana, someone very few people knew, who acquired and discarded best friends like handbags, but whom millions decided to mourn as if she had been their most intimate confidante.

These bleak thoughts against the backdrop of a joyful Christmas and New Year spent with people I'd known all my adult life inspired me to offer a short paean to real friendship, which is unconnected with wealth, is acquired only through such virtues as patience, tolerance, selflessness and often hard work over a long period, and can involve uncomfortably deep scrutiny for all concerned.

I buy Socrates' belief about the unexamined life not being worth living, as I think the Pope was spot-on when he said the proper study of mankind was man.

There's little point to being human if your life doesn't teach you about the human race and you won't learn much if you don't get to understand yourself a bit. Self-knowledge doesn't come through obsessive self-interest any more than understanding others can be acquired from reading the prose of their publicists.

"Why am I good at friendship?" an old friend of mine used to enquire when he was looking for praise for his undoubted genius in that area. "Is it because I show my vulnerability?" And, yes, Gordon, it was that, along with your intense but deep interest in the lives of those you loved and your capacity to take criticism in the affectionate spirit in which it was offered.

A close friendship involves two people accepting the worst of each other as well as rejoicing in the best. It involves being a support in both foul and fair weather, something not many can do easily. For every person who tires of the friend who is sobbing into his beer, there is one who deeply resents another friend's success.

Be sorry for the celebs: even if they've had time to make good friends, either the highs or lows will see most of them off.

There are friendships determined by their sheer longevity. "Do you really like X?" I asked an acquaintance incredulously. "Liking's got nothing to do with it," he said. "He's been a friend of mine so long it's immaterial whether I like him or not." Mind you, it's rather better when you really like and love the people you've known forever.

Much as though I love observing old friends and marvelling at how they've developed since I knew them as teenagers, it's possible too to make close friendships later in life, even though there are schools of thought that dismiss this as a possibility.

I was told last week of a National Geographic TV programme that said that when you are born you share your birthday with 17 million people, during the first ten years at school you will have 17 friends and by the time you're 40 that will have dropped to two.

My informant offered the analysis that this was because with family and professional pressures, your social activity drops and you replace friends with allies, people you can count on in a crisis, but who don't need the constant attention you could manage in earlier days. Presumably the corollary is that you might have time to acquire more intimates by the time you're 60.

The end of Ricky Gervais's brilliant Extras Christmas Special showed the anti-hero sitting in a Celebrity Big Brother house contemplating the horror that is a life of pointless and friendless fame. It's one of the oldest themes in literature and one that urgently needs retelling in whatever form the victims of the celebrity cult can get their addled heads around -- probably a two-sentence paragraph in Heat magazine.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

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