“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.
I started to cut myself off from people in my mid-twenties. When I graduated from university, I had friends, in Manchester where I was living, in Yorkshire where I studied and back in Cornwall, but after I turned twenty-five I decided I’d been wasting time. For a couple of years, I’d been getting drunk and embarrassing myself fairly often. I was a struggling writer who had lots of convictions about life and literature but didn’t do much writing. I look back on the first half of my twenties and feel ashamed of my arrogance and naivety. A character addresses this malaise in Kingsley Amis’s novel Lucky Jim: “The years of illusion aren't those of adolescence, as the grown-ups try to tell us; they're the ones immediately after it, say the middle twenties, the false maturity if you like, when you first get thoroughly embroiled in things and lose your head.” My mid-twenties were the most confusing years of my life so far and yet, with plenty of friends, I was by the criteria of It’s a Wonderful Life a success. I was inclined, however, to agree with Bazarov, the young nihilist in Ivan Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons: “A success is somebody who uses every day of their life.” I was not using my days and Lucy was ready for a change too, so we left Manchester and both found jobs in London. Gradually, I lost touch with my friends. At the time, I didn’t think this was deliberate but perhaps subconsciously I wanted to sever my links to my “years of illusion” about which I felt so much shame.
Between my mid-twenties and mid-thirties, I prioritised my career. Friends? I’d make some eventually, it had happened everywhere else so it would happen in London, surely. Every morning and evening, I squeezed into packed tube carriages, powered my way across crowded stations, down busy streets, determined to make up for lost time and convinced that I hadn’t come to London to socialise. Walled off from my fellow commuters by my headphones, I listened to Bruce Springsteen, whose music I’ve always used as a boost to get me through difficulties. At night, I often played Frank Sinatra on the stereo in our flat. I’d never understood Sinatra’s appeal before but, in a big city where I knew hardly anybody, I found his voice comforting. Only with hindsight does it occur to me that many of Sinatra’s best songs are about loneliness. A contemporary track which came to mean a lot to me in this period was “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem. Initially, I was mesmerised by the song’s synthesiser loop but with time James Murphy’s lyrics resonated, especially the refrain: “Where are your friends tonight?” It prodded me to wonder: What were my friends up to? Had Jay become a father? Was David back from India? After watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon A Time in Anatolia at the cinema in 2011, I was so overwhelmed I wanted to text Dan, who introduced me to Ceylan’s films a decade ago. I scrolled to his phone number then worried: Was it silly to make contact out of the blue? At other moments, observations popped into my head which seemed tailor-made for sharing with certain people. “Tom would appreciate that,” I’d think before remembering I hadn’t seen Tom for four years. It was like turning to talk to somebody and finding only empty space beside me.
Some old friends I saw tweeting about what they were eating, what they were reading, recounting inane comments they’d overheard. One guy was in a band and posted nauseating updates from tours all over the world. I didn’t blame him, I was just bitter about working a dull job all day, doing my penance in corporate west London, and really I had no idea what lay on the other side of my social media timeline, my old friends’ posts, pics and tweets revealed nothing about what their lives were truly like and neither did mine. Lucy urged me: “Call your mates.” I promised I would when I had time. But I never called. I made no new friends and, consequently, I became, for the first time, a man without friends. Now, according to the moral of Frank Capra’s film, I was a failure too.
And yet, by December 2014, I’d stopped feeling like a failure. By now, I was doing work which made me feel alive and I’d recently got engaged to Lucy. Neither of us proposed, we just sort of agreed to get married, the way you can after ten years together. It was the anniversary of John Lennon’s death, we were sitting on the sofa reading the Sunday papers, when Lucy jokingly said that perhaps we should get married. To her amazement, I burst into tears and spluttered: “I’d love that.” The next day, I couldn’t stop smiling, the knowledge that Lucy wanted to share her life with me made me glow. Amid the surprise (we’d always said marriage wasn’t for us) and celebrations when we told our families at Christmas, however, I was already fretting: Who would I invite to the wedding? And who would be my best man?
Am I exaggerating? Did I really have no friends at all? As we’d been together so long, I thought of some of Lucy’s friends as my friends too, although none of them are in my phone and if we broke up I doubt I’d see them again. I have one friend, Leila, who I met when I was seventeen and tend to see a couple of times a year. She’d be there, plus her partner, which made two. We planned a fairly small and untraditional wedding, so I didn’t necessarily need a best man, but I didn’t want to fill up my side of the church with aunts and cousins whom I hardly know. “The important thing is to do what you want,” said members of both our families before telling us what to do. “All those people you’ve lost touch with,” said my mum, when I confided to her my fears, “just invite them if you want to.” Did I want to invite them? I considered surprising them with invitations. But would they come? Would I seem desperate? One or two had married and I hadn’t been invited to their weddings. “You’ll look like Billy-No-Mates if you don’t have a best man,” said my dad and suggested I ask one of my brothers. But my youngest brother, Ollie, is 20 and I doubted he’d want the responsibility. I’m not close to my other brother, Casper, who’s a couple of years younger than me and lives in Barcelona. Anyway, he wasn’t coming to the wedding because his girlfriend was due to have their baby the same week.
I had an idea. I’ve never been on a stag do, never fancied it (the one time I was invited was by Lucy’s brother but I pleaded poverty to get out of it), but what about a solo stag do? If I went to, say, Bratislava or Norwich and did the things men traditionally do on stag dos, except alone, I could write an article about it. Perhaps, in between downing shots, I could contemplate where and how it all went wrong for me. It seemed unlikely that anybody would want to read about my friendlessness but, as the months passed and the wedding approached, I never quite stopped toying with the idea. I pitched it to the Guardian Weekend magazine. The editor told me to forget the stag do, cut straight to describing my isolation and see if other men find themselves in similar situations as they enter middle-age.
As it happened, I had recently mustered the courage to contact one of my old friends, or at least tried. I was close to Owen for many years but, even though we were friends in Cornwall and now lived near to each other in north London, I hadn’t seen him for half-a-decade. One Friday evening in August 2015, I was walking on Hampstead Heath, when I passed two teenagers who were sharing a spliff beneath a tree. The smell of cannabis transported me back to summer nights of my own youth when Owen and I and a few others would go to Porthmeor Beach to smoke weed and drink tequila. Recalling this, I felt old and boring. I wanted to do something risky, shake myself out of my stupor. I was only ten minutes from Owen’s house in Tufnell Park so, on the spur of the moment, I walked there. If anyone should be my best man it was Owen. I felt nervous and embarrassed. Would Owen be pleased to see me or would he say I had a bloody nerve turning up after so long? I began my article by describing what happened when I arrived:
‘I don’t know how I’ve ended up standing on the doorstep of a long-lost friend, too scared to ring the bell. Well, I do. Last year my girlfriend Lucy and I decided to get married, and ever since one question has run over and over in my mind. Who can I ask to be my best man?
I’m not even certain I’m at the right house. Can it really be five years since I’ve been here? Prior to that, Owen and I met every week for tennis and coffee, over which we discussed work, films, books, relationships, just as we did in the sixth form, half our lifetimes ago. Last time I saw him, he was helping me move. We argued about politics that day and, after that, we both let the friendship slide. Now here I am, hoping to patch things up and ask Owen to be my best man. I’ve been trying to pluck up the courage to do this for months, but once again I lose my nerve and run…’
Yes, I’m afraid I got to Owen’s front door then legged it in fear. Did he see me? I imagined him peering down from an upstairs window, my ridiculous dithering on his doorstep confirmation that I was a loser whom he was better off without.
I’d been busy with work, with Lucy, with her friends, with family. Old friends are only a call or email away, but it never feels like the right moment to get in touch. The more time passes, the less likely it seems they’ll want to hear from me. It’s only now, when I’m forced to confront the situation, that I realise how cut off I’ve become. But am I the only one? Or are my friends, and other men my age, feeling the same way?