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25 November 2011

Friends, aren’t they important?

They help support our lives and enrich them in so many ways.

I have been blessed to have a small coterie of true friends that I have known over many decades. The lovely thing about real friendship is that these individuals know the real me before I took on any of the trappings and vanities that attach to oneself over the years – the unwanted limpets of life! They knew you were when you were penniless and striving……. and even if you still are, then so what!

These friendships with a handful of individuals, many of whom I see only once or twice a year, represent an irrevocable bond from the past; they bind us close so that when we do meet we just pick up where we left off. I am certain that many of you will identify with this characteristic of old friendships. We just get a bit older and whilst either success or adversity may have burnished or buffeted us, the relationship remains solid and constant.

True friendship transcends the petty jealousies, disappointments and annoyances that often permeate our day-to-day lives. Friendships are tolerant, generous, giving and hopeful. Sometimes, they can be tested but real friendships should always win the day rising above the banality of argument and differences of opinion. Shared values and experiences counter balance disagreement. Friendships have incalculable value, are precious and should be cherished at all costs.

My wife and I were recently holidaying with a very old friend and his wife; we generally venture to some sunny clime at least once a year. My friend had recently sold a pub chain that he had created a few years ago. This was the second time that he had successfully built up an ale and brewing business and sold out, collecting some handsome rewards for his years of risk and toil. I know that he had been thinking about writing a memoir, not so much a ‘how to’ book more a recollection of experiences. He has plenty to tell as he had pioneered the concept of micro-brewing and as a consequence become a legendary figure in the brewery and pub sphere, travelling the world to give talks and be feted for his achievements. His story would make good reading.

I was encouraging the idea of this opus as my friend is not only a successful entrepreneur but also an amusing and anarchic raconteur. His love of life and infectious bonhomie affects all that he meets and his book, when written, will not only be an instructive piece on how to succeed in business but also be packed with true-life stories of hilarious incidents that have punctuated his forty or so years of life in the booze trade. I must share with you one of his stories that occurred very early on in his career.

He opened his first pub in central London in the late 1970’s. In it he installed a micro-brewery in the cellar to supply the pub’s needs. Now, the pub manager kept a large grey parrot in a cage which added an amusing attraction to the pub ambiance by greeting customers with the cry: ‘pint please’, ‘pint please’. At closing time the landlord took the parrot downstairs to the cellar office and let it have a fly around for a half an hour while he counted up the night’s takings and prepared the paying-in book for banking the following day.

One morning my friend arrived at the pub to check the takings prior to depositing the cash at the bank. On entering the office and brewing area he noticed bird droppings all over the floor, desk and filing cabinets. The manager had forgotten to return the bird to its cage. The takings, which as usual were placed on the desk, were in complete disarray. The piles of coins were strewn across the desk and at first glance there appeared to be no notes at all. On closer examination all that could be seen were little strips of metal that were curled up and lying scattered about the office accompanied by occasional tattered pieces of bank notes. The parrot had eaten its way through approximately £2000 worth of ten shilling, one pound, five and ten pound notes!    

My friend painstakingly collected each fragment and marched off to the bank dreading the worst. The bank manager was uncharacteristically sympathetic (well it was the 1970s!) and with the help of a clerk they identified each strip and its value – they are evidently thicker and longer depending on the note’s denomination. This was a welcome relief as the pub was in its infancy and the loss of £2000 worth of takings could have sunk the fledgling business. The good friendship that had been established with the manger, who had leant the businesses much of its start up capital, proved its worth. I wonder how the same manager would react today where personal relationships and integrity have been thrown out the window in favour of automated credit scoring? I had this same argument with a bank manager just the other day and was told in no uncertain terms that it was ‘more efficient and accurate’ rather then the ‘old way’ of eye- balling the customer, looking at his past track record and taking a hunch whether he would stick to his promises. I am certain that many good business ideas have been strangled at birth because the risk element was calculated out of the equation by a computer. As the ‘Little Britain’ TV comedy sketch goes, ‘Computer says No’.

So where do friendships lead us? Not only do we enjoy the constancy of enduring friendship but often they offer support in unexpected ways. My first two children had godparents picked because of family loyalties – I have many brothers and sisters on both sides of the marriage divide. When our third child, a daughter was born, my wife and I decided to choose two rather anarchic and superficially not typical godparents – neither from the immediate family but never-the-less, longstanding friends. These two have proved to be much more attentive and really helpful as life-time advisers; they have been non-partisan voices on careers, matters of the heart and provided objective comment sometimes on issues that were difficult to discuss with Mum and Dad. In short they have been what godparents should be: guardians, wise spiritual advisers and above all fun, always approachable and at times helpfully generous when University money was running low! This does not mean that our other children’s family godparents have been useless because they haven’t, but the relationships our youngest daughter enjoys have been forged out of friendship rather than family obligation.

My daughter is now grown-up and well into her career. She has gained two great friends that she can call on at any time in her life when she needs counsel, a free lunch or a just good laugh and a chat. This is a real friendship at its best and I hope that she will learn the importance of building and maintaining similar relationships in her own lifetime. In a transitory world where family life is under threat, communities are fragmented and a something for nothing culture is pervasive; the values of meaningful, long term friendships are sacrosanct. The example that she has been set I hope will stand her in good stead for when she too becomes a godparent one day.

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