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True friendship



Earlier this year I did a very post-COVIDY thing; I caught up with some old mates to have a drink and a bite and shoot some pool. We started at our shallow end conversationally, as we always do, one-upping the next bloke and BS-ing away. But we ended up with some deep dives into verities.

Two friends looking out onto a lake (Eric Ward/Unsplash)

It was hardly an earth-shattering event, true. But at a time when we are still seeing lockdowns and hotspots, it gave me a chance to celebrate being alive with two people I hadn’t physically seen in some time and to call on their friendship in a heartfelt chat.

Just getting out of the house still feels like a privilege after Melbourne’s lockdowns. The COVID-19 pall has been lifting, albeit more quickly in some locales than others, and possibly at different levels among some demographics.

The fellas I caught up with are in their early 50s like me. All three of us are parents, we’ve all been adversely impacted by COVID-19, and prior to that we’ve shared the usual rough and tumble dynamics of male friendships and bridal party affiliations. We have been in and out of each other’s good books, hard conversations, interpersonal dynamics and orbits. We’ve been through a lot as mates. COVID-wise, though, that affinity has been at a remove.

Still, all things considered, I believe my peer group has it easier than others. Kids Helpline and the Australian Human Rights Commission co-authored a report about COVID-19’s impact on children and young people, based on 2,567 contacts to the Kids Helpline between January and April 2020.

The concerns raised by the callers, aged from ‘5 to 25 years’, centred around mental health concerns resulting from COVID-19, social isolation, impacts on family life and education, and ‘changes to plans and usual activities’ (I read that as birthdays, parties, sports club bouts, dates, holidays, weddings, funerals — the stuff of life).


'The hardest conversations I have had with friends have been when conventional tropes, platitudes and easy answers have been dismissed and vulnerable truths have been painfully shared.'


Perhaps COVID-19 is impacting my age group more moderately also than it has older generations. Research last month on The Conversation noted the social malaise that energy poverty had brought to bear on older Aussies, trapped like most of us in their homes because of the pandemic.

The researchers state that ‘lockdowns caused their energy consumption and bills to swell 15-50 per cent higher than in 2019, making a bad situation even tougher for already vulnerable community members,’ which has ‘serious consequences for quality of life… People changed their behaviour and cut consumption of other essential, and non-essential items [such as curtailing] their social activities through the closure of community centres, which intensified their feelings of loneliness and social isolation…’

Being able to stand in the same room, at the same pool table, as your mates… it  just never seemed such a big thing to me, until now. But especially in times of hardship, Australians are socialised to rely on their closest friends. That is certainly true of me and my fellow future Grumpy Old Men.

That silver-tongued orator Cicero saw friendship as the solution to ‘the fragility and perishability of human things’. ‘We should always be on the search for someone to love and by whom to be loved,’ he wrote. ‘Indeed, if affection and kindliness are lost from our life, we lose all that gives it charm’.

I don’t think I’d describe my mates as brimming with affection and kindliness; that’s not how mates present in the Antipodes. For Aussies, mateship has historically been a bit more brutally honest. Henry Lawson put it well: ‘…a mate is someone who abuses you to your face and defends you behind your back.: No matter what a mate may do, /A mate can do no wrong!’

There is a hectoring reality to friendship among Australian men, which carries with it an authenticity and loyalty that goes beyond boundaries and expectations. A kind of crash or crash through personal debriefing.

I’ve happily raised my boy on stories of Ockers presenting a unified front of camaraderie to oppressors, supposedly typified by 1930s cricket skipper Bill Woodfull. Accosted by bodyline foe Douglas Jardine at the dressing room door, hunting for an apology to on-field verbal abuse, Woodfull is said to have turned to his teammates and asked, ‘Which one of you bastards called this bastard a bastard?’

For all its potential belligerence, I wouldn’t be without such friendship.

Buddha reckoned there were four kinds of friends we needed to get through life: the helper/solver, the endurer/stayer, the mentor/teacher, and the encourager/praiser. I have learnt that no one person can be all those things to another. But together, a group of people can provide all these needs.

It was Helen Keller who said she ‘would rather walk with a friend in the dark than alone in the light’. I agree. That’s because a true friend is someone who is there for you, as Len Wein coined it, ‘when he’d rather be anywhere else'. COVID-19, take a back seat.

The hardest conversations I have had with friends have been when conventional tropes, platitudes and easy answers have been dismissed and vulnerable truths have been painfully shared.

As that prototypical boy band member John Lennon put it, ‘Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.’



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Main image: Two friends looking out onto a lake (Eric Ward/Unsplash)

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, friendship, mateship, Australia, COVID-19, mental health



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Existing comments

Spot on ! It's true friends and friendship that matters most, that get one through the darkest hours.

Ginger Meggs | 14 February 2021  

After this supposed paean to Ockerism, should I call you Bazza, Barry? ROFL. Please feel free to do what you will with what is now politically correctly called my forename. Friendship is good. The late Bill Woodfull, a former Principal of Melbourne High School, was much more a real gentleman than Douglas Jardine. I think the incident you relate was to encourage the Australian team not to disgrace themselves, as England sadly did except for Gubby Allen, who was Sydney born.

Edward Fido | 22 February 2021  

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