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The Friendseeker’s Allowance

June 7, 2013

I think it all started when a marketing guru – the sort of self made billionaire that the government loves to hold up as a model of what hard work and entrepreneurial spirit can achieve for even the most disadvantaged – declared that “You are the sum of the five people you know best”.

I think what he meant was that if you get out there and make a network with “like minded people” who think of nothing but how to improve themselves, achieve great “success” and the massive material benefits that come with that this will, inevitably, greatly improve things for yourself and thereby for society as a whole. He also recommended drinking more water, to “Flush out the brain” and coffee, to “Start your day”.

This led to a “national debate” which was mainly about the benefits of “widening your friendship circle” (perhaps with a hint that you might want to get shot of the sort of losers who would “hold you back”), of “Developing the social skills that employers love”, and of “Integrating yourself into society so you will feel more of a part of it”.

Well, I can see the sense in all this and it would be nice to have more friends. But, assuming you’re not blessed with an attractive personality and natural charisma or even the funds to get in a round or two, then going about trying to make new friends just becomes another chore; and I’ve got none of those things.

I’ve never really been comfortable in noisy pubs or parties where I don’t know everyone already, and I’ve lost count of the times when I thought I was having a go at making a friend but got a decidedly sharp response from somebody who thought or assumed that I was “having a go” in some other, less amiable sense.

Doctors solemnly warned of the dire consequences of letting your supply of mates waste away.

Historians pointed to examples of famous figures who overcame humble beginnings with advanced social skills and talked about the contribution of various friendship circles to the advance of civilization.

TV documentary makers produced films about the miserable lives of those without mates.

Politicians jumped on the bandwagon and declared that the “friendless society” was the latest problem that they would solve with dynamic new policies, partly inspired by the fact that they, the members of our present government, had only recently decided to “make friends” with each other.

There were more and more stories in the papers about this, but it was still quite a surprise when new legislation was actually voted in by a sizeable majority, introducing a raft of measures that were supposed to ensure that “Nobody in this country has less than five good friends”.

Still, imagine my feelings when I got a letter, with the usual warnings, telling me to come to the Job Centre for a meeting with my new “Friend Provider”.

“It’s just another stick to beat us with!” declared my old mate Joe (yes, I did have some) and that seemed likely, but I had to admit that my life, at least, could be a lot better and I tried to put a positive spin on this new development.

“It could be fun,” I said, “Perhaps we really will meet some nice new friends.”

“Don’t be stupid!” said Joe, “They don’t want that! They’re not going to let you near anyone nice. And what’s this ‘we’ about? They don’t want us being friends! It’s just the usual bullying mate. And if you sign up to this thing then that’s it: our friendship at least, is all over!”

As always, I had to admire Joe’s passion. But I couldn’t help thinking a number of things.

For a start it seemed a bit rough that he expected me to agree with his opinion, to the point of threatening our friendship if I didn’t go along with his way. It made me quite angry; I almost said something.

So that made me feel a bit guilty, and I had to admit to myself, if nobody else, that true friendship probably does take more commitment than I’d ever given anyone. No wonder I didn’t have a girlfriend, or any other kind.

Joe was still raving on, pressing me not to sign any agreement.

“It’s all right for you,” I told him petulantly, “You’ve got lots of friends.”

He smiled, rather smugly I thought.

“Not friends, mate; Comrades. Brothers and sisters. Especially sisters.”

“All right Joe. It’s not like your crowd have done anything to change the world.”

I shouldn’t have said that. They were my crowd too, really, apart from the odd value or cultural preference. You can imagine the ear bashing I got.

So I brooded all the way home, and when I got back to the peace of my bedsit, I thought,

“Yeah, I’m going to give this a proper go. It could change my life!”

I missed it when Joe took a dozen of his friends along to what was now called “The Social Centre”, run from afar by the Department of Work, Pensions and Friendship.

“We are friends! We are friends!” They chanted, in an aggressive manner that the media certainly took to be highly sinister.

They carted him off! And I was sorry and worried about him, but I couldn’t help feeling that perhaps he was being a bit naive. Imagine what Joe would’ve said if I’d told him that!

Then it was my turn. As soon as I’d finished giving in my updated Actively Seeking Work sheets the Receptionist directed me to the office on the third floor, now marked Department of Positive Friendship.

I must admit that my Friendship Provider was the best looking bureaucrat I’d met since I’d first registered as jobless, many many moons ago. She did look a bit young for someone in such a responsible position, but I wouldn’t have minded being friends with her!

“So, do you have any friends at all?” she asked in a weary and unexpectant manner that alienated me immediately.

“Yeah! I got plenty of friends!”

“Roughly how many?”

I tried to remember the numbers on my social networking sites; not that many, to be honest, and cursed myself for not sharing more interesting stuff.

“Can you name at least five of them? The five that are most important to you right now, for example?”

“Well,” I hedged guardedly, “There are some privacy issues around that.”

“Fair enough. Let’s just say that you haven’t made any new friends for, how long?”

The awful reality of it was hitting me, now I had to come up with the numbers.

“Apart from on line…”

“No, they really don’t count.”

“Then I’d say about, roughly about, something over two years or so.”

“More than ten?”

“No! I guess…about five?”

She smiled and ticked a box on her copy of my form.

“We’ll say five. A shame, in a way. If you’d said more than ten you would have got special measures.”

That might have been good, or it might be a lot worse, so I ignored that comment but played along.

We did the form and the terms of my Friendseeker’s Agreement were set:

The Type of Friend I am Looking For.

We left that blank, “for now”, though I could have specified some things; that just didn’t seem like a good idea.

I am Available to Make Friends on these Days and at these Hours.

I’d made some good friends after midnight in the past, but this approach wasn’t encouraged. It was Monday to Saturday before ten pm.

My Responsibilities.

I know I must do everything I can to find friends

Improve my chances of finding friends

Overcome things that might make it harder for me to look for and get new friends

This was getting to be a bit much, but the ball was really rolling now and I couldn’t stop it.

So, after being warned for the second time not to raise my voice, I got handed the FSA Agreement: Three months to find “Five Genuinely New Friends that live within Travelling Distance of Your Area and offer a Real Chance of improving your Life Circumstances”

It was too late to refuse but I tried.

“This isn’t what friendship is about!” I muttered.

“Excuse me? Cheer up! We’re making a real effort to Improve your Life Chances here, and how many jobs, even, can you say that about these days?”

“I don’t know. None of them? All of them?”

“There’s really only one way to find out, isn’t there? See you in two weeks.”

Gosh but she was well trained.

I stomped out, sick of the very concept of friendship, with or without a capital F.

You can rest assured that the first people I tried to make Friends with were the ones with the drinks, but I’m getting too old for that kind of caper. Epic fails all round, sadly.

I scanned the papers for Social Events that I could possibly afford to attend and or see myself shining in.

There were only one or two of those and they were disappointing. I got kicked out of the best one because, apparently, I was being too negative and they took a vote.

The pressure was really getting to me after a week of this and I turned to my digital networks, though I hate to bother them.

“Is there anyone in my town who’d like to make Friends with me?” I posted.

You can’t blame people for thinking I was trying to sell something but the lack of response did get me down a bit. So I was glad and grateful when someone finally sent me a “hug”. But then they wanted to build up some kind of pyramid or something and I got suspicious and, honestly, I wasn’t in the mood. I just needed a couple of new friends before Thursday.

I wised up a bit. I lowered my expectations though, I suppose like everybody, I did still favour people who seemed attractive or intelligent. They didn’t favour me, though, and I couldn’t blame them.

Joe got released from a brief spell inside, full of bravado and still defiant.

“Yeah, I made lots of friends in there,” He claimed, “We had a great time!”

I could imagine, and did feel a little envious, but I wasn’t going to listen to any of his suggestions.

I soldiered on. Finally, the day before my next attendance, I found somebody who agreed to sign a note. I knew it wasn’t enough but at least it was enough to get me off a Sanction; just a warning to redouble my efforts and produce real evidence next time.

I was so relieved that afternoon I nearly did make a friend, but her friends weren’t so keen. Joe was off somewhere with his new mates, planning their next Day of Action. It sounded pretty risky but I really was getting to the point where I might be tempted to go along with them and risk breaking the law.

I slept late the next morning, probably relieved that I had a whole two weeks before I had to prove I was fulfilling my obligations again. Then, before I was fully wakened by my morning coffee and the first news bulletins of the day, there was a knock on my front door.

“Hang on!” I called, pulling the last of my clothes on and rushing to the door. I was nervous but, ever the optimist, hoped for a bonus of some kind. And there was one.

It was a man – not very preposessing, about my age, rather better dressed.

“Good morning!” He said with a winning smile, “I’m your Friendseeker’s Allowance.”


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