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Men and friendship in the 21st century: how to find it, how to keep it, and why it matters

Two years ago, at the age of 35, Max Liu noticed that he had no close male friends. He was in a happy relationship, with a fulfilling job, but when he started to plan his wedding he realised that he couldn’t find a best man. Not that he’d fallen out with his school and university mates; like many people, he’d just let friendships slide.
About the same time, the Movember Foundation published the results of a YouGov survey which asked men how many friends they had with whom they would discuss a serious topic such as money or health. One in eight said none, which equates to around 2.5 million men across the UK. As one of the 2.5 million, Max started to wonder: are we a nation of men who keep meaning to have a beer together? Is this a British thing? Is it a man thing? Is it to do with being in a long-term relationship, or to do with moving? Or with being self-employed and working alone? Is it unique to his generation? What can be done about it?
In The Best Man, Max spends one year trying to discover why so many people feel alone, and what we can do about it. He learns a language, experiments with group exercise, and talks to psychologists, doctors and authors – all experts in male psychology - who confirm that isolation is prevalent and suggest that it’s a factor in high suicide rates among British men. Along the way, he tries to rediscover old friends and make new ones. This is his year of living sociably. He wants you to come with him.

I grew up in St Ives, Cornwall and I constantly refer to the area in my journalism, probably because I believe that growing up in a remote and unique landscape shaped me in ways I’m still learning about. I come from a family of painters, steeped in the St Ives artists’ colony, so I was exposed to creativity from an early age. In my early-twenties, I completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester University. Afterwards, I worked as a news reporter then as a sports editor and, finally, as a freelance arts journalist.
My articles have appeared in The Independent, The Guardian, The New Statesman and elsewhere. In the past few years, I’ve interviewed some of the biggest names in contemporary fiction, including Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rose Tremain and Graham Swift, and worked as the ghost writer for columns by famous sportsmen.

“No man is a failure who has friends,” says James Stewart’s guardian angel at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. This has always appealed to me as a definition of success. It’s a reminder that what really matters in life is how we interact with other people and, no matter how many times I watched the film, I always used to cry. When George Bailey, played by Stewart, runs through town near the end, wishing everybody a merry Christmas, I remember the sense of belonging I’ve felt sometimes when returning to St Ives, my hometown, or shaking hands with my dad at midnight on New Year’s Eve. In December 2014, however, I went to see It’s a Wonderful Life at the ICA and, afterwards, instead of trying to wipe away my tears before the lights came on, I watched through dry-eyes as the credits rolled. The film jarred with me, as it never had before. I resented the schmaltziness I’d previously enjoyed, but I didn’t know why. I felt reluctant to go outside in to the city – again, I didn’t know why – and lingered until everybody else had left the cinema and the staff started to clean up. Eventually, I walked down the Mall into a vicious wind and realised what my problem was: I felt excluded from the film’s message.

I had no friends. For a few years this realisation had crept up on me; when my girlfriend, Lucy, was away, I wished there was somebody I could meet for a beer. On my birthday, I wished there was another couple we could invite over to our flat for dinner. But these were mere twinges of recognition which quickly went away as Lucy and I got on with whatever we were doing. I might as well admit now that one reason why I’ve let so many friendships slide is undoubtedly that for ten years I’ve lived with Lucy in something like bliss. We’ve had our share of noisy arguments in small flats but it’s been great fun and I’ve become so wrapped up in our relationship that, for the most part, I simply haven’t noticed my lack of friends. Lucy has kept in touch with many of her friends and made new ones, so I’ve come to rely on her for my social life. Even when it’s occurred to me that I should spend time with other people, I haven’t dwelled on it for long. According to some men, I’m that guy – the one who ditches his mates when he meets a woman – but it’s more complicated than that.

How did this happen? This question ran through my mind as I crossed Trafalgar Square after the film, on my way to catch the bus back to Crouch End. In spite of the weather, everything looked enchanting and I felt like I was momentarily glimpsing central London through the eyes of a visitor; the fountains were radiant, the buildings gleamed and the streets teemed with people who looked like they were on their way to Christmas parties. Being self-employed I have no colleagues but, even though during the four years I worked in an office I never attended the Christmas party, I felt envious tonight of the people around me. They looked stylish and jubilant, compared to me who felt shabby and alienated. I wouldn’t have minded, I thought, spilling out of a cab with colleagues I sort of knew and sort of liked, men wearing too much aftershave and women with tinsel in their hair, nipping into a pub for pre-party gin and tonics. But I was on the outside, in self-imposed solitude, with nowhere to go but home.


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