In Praise Of Unorthodox Friends

Christopher Fowler
It never occurred to me that friends could be graded like grapes. My friends are simply people I've come to grow perversely fond of. In England, making friends is tricky because for many class is a factor. I have several rough-edged friends whom my other friends avoid. They can be embarrassing on occasion (the English are permanently on the lookout for new ways in which to be embarrassed) and I suppose on some level my writing is drawn to this kind of character. It's one of the reasons why I've never read Alan Hollinghurst's 'The Swimming Pool Library' - it looks as if it might be written by one of those bakelite-sniffing nostalgists who creep around upper class houses covertly fondling the napery. (I've just bought it to find out). I'm never understood how people become so fascinated with the rich or the royals, unless it's because they're all social misfits. It's much more agreeable to live in a classless society. There's a joy in mixing all social types together. In Mike Leigh's 'Abigail's Party', Sue's background is never discussed, but it's very obvious she's from a class above her hostess. The play feels a little blunted now; today the class signifiers would be buried a little deeper, but they're certainly still in place. Conservative party members were busily re-cementing the class walls in place this week when the wall fell on them. When approaching a new book, you have to decide in which part of the social sub-strata to place your characters. In the Palme D'Or winner 'Triangle of Sadness' by Ruben Østlund there are the idle rich and the Filipino waiting staff (shades of 'Parasite'). What unfolds is a kind of 'The Admirable Crichton' for the present day as the power shifts between them. The staff of the PCU are mostly lower-middle class at best, while Giles Kershaw is upper class. Raymond Land is shopkeeper material, but the contacts used by the PCU are mostly middle to upper-middle. Some of my friends are on the spectrum. They get locked into obsessions and talk of nothing else. I have a friend obsessed with quantum mechanics and My Little Pony. I have a friend of some thirty years' standing who has never spoken of anything other than old films. They provide me with so much material for books that I should be cutting them in on royalties. Some friends have so many quirks that to use them successfully I have to create two or three characters out of them. As a writer you do get introduced to quite a few unusual people. I've been to dinner parties with lawbreaking academics, dissident poets, a nuclear submarine commander, the man who looks after the Houses of Parliament, a female audio engineer, linguist and acrobat. But sometimes it's the most reticent who prove most surprising characters.  This is why it's essential to be proactive and keep talking to people. If you don't, you soon lose the ability to communicate. Happily I still have plenty of very strange friends helping to keep my writing fresh. It doesn't matter if they annoy other people; they don't annoy me.


Jo W (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 13:36

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I have met a few of your strange/ not so strange friends and found them to be mostly “normal but different” and always charming. I hope I don’t fall into that category, but I don’t mind sitting in the file marked “ slightly peculiar acquaintances”.
Love to you both xx

Gary Locke (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 14:46

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Work in the arts. You will never be surrounded by conventional, stodgy, uninspired thinkers.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 15:15

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Neurodiversity has survived for a reason.
Unusual people think of the answers to questions that most haven’t realised are questions yet.
They don’t annoy me either. Perhaps I am one of them.

MaryR (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 15:57

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Cornelia Appleyard, I salute you! There's a test online for Aspergers, and even if you come out only bobbing around at the lower edge of it , it asks you if you want counselling. They should be congratulating you too!
As for dealing with class differences in the UK, I think Ive given up , it's energy-consuming.
Hope you're having a reasonable day Mr F.

Helen+Martin (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 17:26

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We in Canada supposedly live in a classless society. That's false of course. Class is just another of the ways we categorize people: fan of country music, inveterate tinkerer, fascinated by small creatures, seeker of wealth, mountain climber, craver of power are all others. Class tends to group some of them into something called background which includes education, job and income, artistic interests, political affiliation, speech patterns. The more of the boundaries you cross, the larger your comfort group. It's a good thing to be able to talk to anyone you meet with a high level of ease. It isn't always easy but when you find it difficult you know you are reacting to a wall, probably of your own making.

Brooke (not verified) Tue, 04/10/2022 - 19:11

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Thank you, Mr. Fowler and Cornelia. Well said.

Roger (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 05:03

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If your friend is obsessed with the quantum mechanics of My Little Pony you ought to be worried. Presumably "obsessed" has a different meaning in the two cases.
My problem isn't talking to - or at - people, but listening to them. Like many deaf people if I don't restrict my conversation to "What?" and "Eh?" or take over the talk I tend to engage in a separate conversation to everyone else. I have a feeling I may have always done that anyway.
Autistic is an interesting example of changes in word usage. Many years ago I worked with disturbed and disabled children; then "autistic" was used as a description of behaviour, rather than as a continuum or a syndrome. I think the change may be partly a result of perception. People were only described as "autistic" then if they had - or created - particular kinds of problems (a child rocking backwards and forwards in a corner might be thought autistic; Bobby Fischer wasn't) and partly changes in assessment, but I wonder whether eccentricity is becoming more acceptable and justifiable if it's described as "on the continuum".
I also wonder whether the enormous number of chemicals we churn out doesn't have effects on people's bodies and brains and broaden "normal" behaviour. Years ago, when it was shown that lead in petrol was causing brain damage in children, Parliament decided to ban lead in petrol. Eventually, after a period to suit motorists. I thought that was evidence that it wasn't only children who suffered from brain damage.

Cornelia Appleyard (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 09:20

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MaryR and Brooke - I suspect there are several of us here.
It might be why we are so fond of Arthur.

Paul C (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 10:30

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As well as talking to the strange and quirky it's usually interesting to talk to the very old. They all have at least a few good stories about their experiences - a friend in his 90s vividly remembers a German warplane dropping bombs two streets away in 1942 and the impact knocking him clean off his feet. Friends in their 80s have seen a ghost, met three popes and worked on the legal team for the Yorkshire Ripper.

Once you start asking the elderly to talk about the past they seem to come to life and come out with amazing tales.

Peter T (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 10:51

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I did an online autism/Aspie test a few years ago. I cannot explain the joy of at long last, well into seventh decade, understanding why I don't feel how I think other people feel. Not just the joy of understanding, I realise that I'm very happy not to be a neuro typical.

I had a wonderful chat about quantum mechanics with an experimental physicist and a lawyer at an Oxford college feast. It's the dinner conversation I remember best.

Brooke (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 12:29

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Unfortunately, I'm linear, neuro-typical to a fault. So when I was treated to meal at a posh place, my host kept apologizing for including his two young friends, diagnosed as bipolar, on the spectrum and all the other mental health codes the US medical industry can devise. He was concerned that the young men wouldn't have enough money to eat that day--did I say this is the US? I had the best time; great conversation, full of laughter. They both had interesting perspectives on events of the day and what they saw and heard walking around the city. I told my host (high net worth crowd) to stop apologizing or I'd slap him.

No sure it's the chemicals, Roger. We dose (heavily) neuro diverse people starting at an early age; mostly because we want them to shut up and not bother us parents/teachers, etc. I suspect, well actually I know, other cultures are much more tolerant. And I think we were too. How else to explain A Midsummer Night's Dream and other works of art that survive?

What does it feel like to be neuro diverse? Check out Camilla Pang's books (Explaining Humans; Perfectly Weird, Perfectly You). Dr. Pang is a computational biologist; she is by the by autistic, diagnosed ADHD, etc.

John Griffin (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 13:33

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I have a different neurodiversity: defective autobiographical memory (DAM). I can't remember most of the detail of my life, except as 'postcards/snapshots from the past'. I have little sense of where these postcards come in time, but usually work out where they are from, and some are very vivid. I took a small part (survey of DAM) in the Toronto SDAM study, although they were mostly interested in the severe but subclinical cases. I can't remember almost all of my children's childhoods. As for its genesis? Brought up by a woman who was not my mother, and who now would be classified as Borderline Personality Disorder, I moved with her nearly ever three months until I was 9, and never settled to relationships, pals, any other adults except her (normal) mother. My explanation of my DAM is I never learnt the knack of timeline memory.

Joan (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 13:44

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Helen your last sentence about finding difficulty conversing sometimes, usually through a wall of your own making is very true. Sometimes down deep we have uncomfortable prejudices that surface this way. Thank you for pointing this out, it has given me some insight into my own thoughts.

Granny (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 14:40

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@ Brooke.
I was a trifle concerned that drug companies AND psychiatrists work together to create the Manual for mental illnesses, nicely feeding into each other's pockets and swelling the DSM to over 40,000 illnesses and allowing the medication of children who "might" develop an illness. Over here we had the ICD and I think this has now become the global one.
Research with psychiatrists (USA v UK) showed how UK classify as manic depressive whilst USA classify as schizophrenia when presented with the same "patients"
I suspect everyone is borderline something, how could it be any other way? Sane in an insane society?
I think it is easier to blame individuals for their beliefs and behaviour than it is to look at our appalling social support structures, our broken economies and our own cultures.

Arthur is definitely self educated working class!
Poor May is not, but is definitely aspiring middle.

@ Paul C, yes all of us oldies have lived for a dreadfully long time and are full of tales, we have massive memories and, personally, giggle a good deal. If we lived in a different culture this experience would have been passed around and the younger ones would have been supported ... Ah well ...

Joel (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 20:40

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one of my biggest regrets, is that i really didn't get to know my grandparents, or great uncle before they died. i was 18 by the time they were all gone. what a missed opportunity. going on to be a nursing assistant or aide (not sure what we are called in the UK), i made sure to ask for stories as often as possible, and was much the better for it.

snowy (not verified) Wed, 05/10/2022 - 22:43

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You will certainly bump into a lot of interesting people in a life, I've been lucky enough to encounter:

A gent with the bandiest legs I've ever seen, who was sent to repulse an armoured division on horseback.

The grown-up who as a schoolchild caught a killer with nothing more deadly than a HB pencil.

The man that had repaired battle damaged tanks, [the field recovery crews would take the bodies out, but they did occasionally forget that each one removed was meant to have ten fingers and ten toes].

A pioneer of all-inclusive continental travel - food and drink provided free of charge, he was even provided with a brown suit and a matching hat, [the flight out was decidedly low-budget, most of the planes didn't have their own engines and were towed over the Channel behind bombers.]

A man that decided to defy orders [and sense] to see exactly what an atomic explosion looked like and survived.

Another who spent most of his National Service guarding a ditch in Egypt in case somebody tried to steal it, he rather enjoyed the sunshine, the being shot at intermittently - not so much.

A Jolly Tar, whose job was to go and fetch unexploded torpedoes, when not otherwise occupied strolling around the seabed in lead boots.

A chap that used to read the map in a Vulcan bomber, which nearly went for an 'early bath' when on a routine op to dump some bombs that were well past their use-by-date, [they turned out to be much more unstable* than anybody expected].


My direct relatives were a very quiet lot by comparison, one dug through the rubble of a house to rescue an English spy and his German wife, another used to occasionally take tea with Mrs Margaret Davis, [better known under her maiden name of Rutherford]... and there is a later incident involving a man-eating tiger, [I really should look into that at some point].


*[They were very lucky you can't actually slam cockpit doors, or they might have experienced supersonic flight sans aircraft.]

Ed DesCamp (not verified) Thu, 06/10/2022 - 06:08

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Helen - as ever, I learn something from every page of this blog. Today, it’s your turn: I didn’t realize it before, but the walls have frequently been of my own making. Now I’m more observant. Cheers.

Paul C (not verified) Thu, 06/10/2022 - 09:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy - thanks, could you elaborate on the schoolchild who caught a killer with a pencil please ? Very intriguing and sounds like it would make a good book.

Anna-Maria Covich (not verified) Thu, 06/10/2022 - 16:17

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Like Helen, I theoretical live in a classless society too (NZ) yet I was still reprimanded at one workplace for treating the CEO like he was someone who did a job he was hired to do (as was the case. He didn't start the company, he was hired to run it, just like Alan was hired to clean it). The entitlement is still there, it just looks different.
I find it strange that some people here are still so obsessed with the idea of glory and status through homeopathic DNA. Ok, you're Shakespeare's great g-g-g-g-nephew or whatever, but you're also an unemployed druggie who hasn't cleaned the loo in your flat in 2 years. You're decended from x royal line? Unless you're actually doing something useful in the world to carry on your ancestral legacy, you're just telling stories about an imaginary friend. I dont G A.S who your 8x great grandmother shagged, what did *you* do with *your* life that makes you worth knowing?

snowy (not verified) Thu, 06/10/2022 - 23:52

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Paul, I'd known the owner of this tale for about 6 years, before it came out. And even then he didn't reveal it directly, he had to be prompted to tell the story by one of his contemporaries asking "Weren't you the boy who.... ".

Like he, I'll skip over the details of the crime, [child murders are always a bit grim]. It will suffice to say bodies were found in woodland, and the only clue the police had was a set of tyre tracks.

It is a well worn trope of GA Detective fiction that behind every bush lurks a small boy with a notebook collecting car registrations, for the instant consultation by any passing sleuth. Not the case here, it was wartime and there were plenty of other much more interesting things for 12 year olds to do, looking for spent bullet casings, throwing rocks at unexploded bombs and pinching bits off of downed aircraft etc.

While petrol rationing made private vehicles scarce, there were plenty of military vehicles and what they may have lacked in glamour they made up with abundance, there were thousands of them criss-crossing the country every day, an impossibly large number even for a pre-war police force.

But... the subject of this story had seen the victims talking to the driver of one particular truck and was able to draw from memory all the unit markings present on the vehicle.

This was the vital piece of info the police needed, they then knew exactly which unit the vehicle came from. On quickly examining all the vehicles at the camp they found the right one, and from it came the rest of the evidence, the driver was tried and convicted of murder, before being sent on a very long journey attached to a very short rope.

[It was dramatized for wireless, over a decade+ later with many of the details changed to save the feelings of the family].


This answer should have come much sooner, but I've become morbidly fascinated by the antics of the 'Poundland Margaret Thatcher'. Which will she run out of first: feet or bullets?




[My money is on bullets; reptiles are renown for their ability to grow new limbs.]

Paul C (not verified) Fri, 07/10/2022 - 08:13

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Thanks a lot, Snowy - that's a brilliant story and someone should definitely write a book about it

Helen+Martin (not verified) Fri, 07/10/2022 - 17:55

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

Snowy - observational skills in fine form with that boy. I wonder if twelve year olds still exhibit those skills or have they been blunted by omni present cell phones.

Granny (not verified) Fri, 07/10/2022 - 18:24

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Thinking of friends no one could top Snowy, what a fascinating bunch!

Wayne Mook (not verified) Mon, 10/10/2022 - 10:13

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I've noticed Woody Harrelson has become a rather splendid character actor; he's come quite a long way from his days in Cheers.

Snowy thanks for the link I enjoyed it, shame they didn't say where the salt was from. It does show many of the links through history nicely.

What can I say, I am one of those awkward people. Working class who went to an all-boys grammar school, I could see friends from a similar background changing the way the spoke and behaved to fit in, to be socially mobile from grammar school you have to change your spots. Being from a politically aware family I steadfastly refused to change and suffered as a consequence, I think being lied to by teachers was the worst especially as it effected my academic path, the bullying I was used to. Still without it I wouldn’t have been a mature student and met my wife, so it worked out fine, even if I am poor and worse off than my father.

I was once forced out of the BFS (British fantasy Society) as I had upset eight authors who were important to the society, I was upset it was only eight.


Helen+Martin (not verified) Mon, 10/10/2022 - 21:29

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I never know how to define people's class and that is one way that Canada isn't doing too badly since you usually can't judge a person's origin by their speech. Television makes a difference and we speak a moderately even sounding English at school. We don't know what the parental types do for a living unless there is something to draw attention to it. If the community hall desperately needs a plumber or a lawyer (the two needs could be connected) it's reassuring to find you have both in the area. There is an archaeologist from the north of England, at York University, I think, with a local accent that could easily have lost her chances, but there she is tramping the sands of Egypt with her accent still fully in place and her commentary the more interesting because of it.

Wayne Mook (not verified) Wed, 12/10/2022 - 18:05

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

As you note Helen, in the UK we have the added bigotry of regionalism, I remember how 007 was looked down on because he went to a Northern grammar school.


keith page (not verified) Sat, 15/10/2022 - 12:32

In reply to by anonymous_stub (not verified)

I like unconventional friends ; ours include a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, a fearsome Irish pub landlady
and a French crime novelist.I can't really stand on ceremony as one of my ancestors was a horse-dealing bare- knuckle
fighter, so it takes all sorts.