Getting by with a little help, Nelson Wattie

It Looks Better on You: New Zealand Women Writers on their Friendships
ed Jane Westaway and Tessa Copland
Longacre, $34.95,
ISBN 1877135828

We’re unlikely to find a better definition of “friend” than the one in Lennon and McCartney’s famous lines: “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends,/Mm, I get high with a little help from my friends.” If “getting by” is taken to mean the whole business of moving through life – overcoming obstacles, passing tests, both formal and informal, gaily gliding along through the good bits, facing vicissitudes boldly – getting by is a lot easier with the help of our friends. And if “getting high” isn’t limited to drugs, but means sloughing off the weights that bear us down and rising into moods of enjoyment, exhilaration and happiness – our friends make it easier to get high.

For the purposes of this book, more than 30 women have risen to the challenge of writing personally about a friendship with another woman. Why women only? When I put this question to a dozen of my own friends, the answers were surprisingly similar. There seems to be a consensus that women are better at talking about friendship than men are, though not necessarily better at having friends. But one man said that male friendships are impossible. Our minds evolved through thousands of years of hunting and gathering, he claimed. Men had to be silent and communicate with gestures or at most a grunt or two, if they were to catch their prey, while women and children chattered away around the fire. Funny thing though: none of my friends floods the world with words as fast as this man does, and he’s a loyal friend, in spite of his belief that that’s impossible. He once wrote a book about Neanderthals, and perhaps that has clouded his judgement on these matters.

When Linda Grant spoke in Wellington recently, she told an anecdote about a man who went to work every day from nine to five and had lunch in the same restaurant with the same friend every day. After 10 years, the man’s wife suggested that he bring the friend and his wife home for dinner. The poor bloke had to confess that he didn’t know whether his friend was married. This brought a knowing laugh from the female voices in the audience, but, as far as I could tell, no masculine voices joined them.

Another dozen or so women were asked to contribute to It Looks Better on You, but declined: perhaps evasive action is not confined to the male. The Wellington launch made the book seem a purely female affair, and I was even told explicitly that it was. A joke went around that some poor male had read the title emphasising on rather than You. Men, it seemed, were not likely to understand this stuff, and perhaps I wouldn’t have read it at all if not asked to write this review. That would have been a shame. How will we ever know what the differently gendered get up to if we don’t even read or listen? More important: gender aside, this book narrates some very moving and a few amusing human moments. It would be a pity to miss them.

For, after being discouraged in these and other ways, I found reading these short accounts of friendship enjoyable and enriching – almost without exception. The opening story by Linley Boniface is powerful, unforgettable and worth the price of the book in itself. It falls into the “getting by” category, rather than the “getting high” one, and, in fact, it’s hard to imagine the author coping with her stressful situation without the strong support of her friends. Their function here is like that of therapists, and you know they are friends when they don’t give up on you even though you are giving up on yourself.

This sets the tone at a serious level, and although there are moments of fun and laughter in what follows, the overall feeling is that friends matter. Life would be sadder without them, perhaps even unliveable. It would also be much more limited and boring, since our friends awaken parts of us that might otherwise lie dormant. “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born,” wrote Anäis Nin, and Pope expressed the converse less pompously: “In every friend we lose a part of ourselves.” This kind of emotional enrichment informs Sue McCauley’s comment that her friends are “like the family I’d never had”. Rhonda Prichard, too, finds that friends “fill gaps” in herself that came about because she grew up as an only child. A variant on this idea is in Marilyn Duckworth’s finding that her friend could be a guide to social practice outside her own experience. One way that friends help us “get by”, it would seem, is that they help us to find and expand our own identity. In some cases, such as that of Donna Tusiata Avia, it is enough simply to share the experience of growing up rather than go through its pains and doubts in isolation. There is nothing purely female about any of this. Reading Sue McCauley, I decided that every part of her story could easily be gender-switched.

There are also stories of “getting high” to be found. Often this is a group experience. Linda Burgess, Christine Johnson and others have chosen to write about groups rather than individual friends. It’s no new discovery that submergence in a group brings a loss of self and a growth of boldness at the same time, but it’s pleasant to have this insight illustrated with good stories.

On the whole, a friend is not the same as a sibling or, indeed, a lover. There are, however, overlapping features, and it doesn’t seem entirely out of keeping that Kate De Goldi writes of her sisters rather than of friends from outside the family, nor that the friendship examined by Jenny Robin Jones has a dominant sexual element to it. If all the contributions were of this kind, the book would fail, but added as variants within a wide range of friendship images they have their own fascination.

In fact, every friendship is different from all the others. The only rule, I think, is that in speaking of our friends we should see them – in that moment – as more important than ourselves. Only one contribution disappointed me: indeed it depressed me, not only because it seems to be written by a depressed person but, more, because it is centred on the author, with the friend playing only a marginal role. “The only way to have a friend is to be one,” said Emerson, and with this one exception all the contributions to this book speak to us warmly with voices of friendship. While friends are being observed, we are aware of friendship in the observer as well.

Not that there is anything sugary or sentimental about it. Friendship also brings pain, and that is not concealed here. The enjoyment narrated in Duckworth’s story is pervaded by the sadness of loss in the narrative voice; the ups and downs in the relationship of Paula Boock and Lynne Cardy, and the overburdening demands made by friends in Jane Westaway’s poem “The Other Ones” show that friendship is no bed of roses. Particularly complex is the friendship Fiona Kidman describes with Lauris Edmond, where the friends are distant, grow together, grow apart and are ultimately separated by death.

But we cannot end with sadness: there is fun in the book as well. I laughed aloud at Vivienne Plumb’s poem, startling the kakas in my rural hideaway, and giggled and smirked at Fleur Adcock’s ironies. Like friendship itself, this book cannot be summed up in a word, and its variety of insights and moods deserves close attention from sympathetic readers of both genders.


Nelson Wattie is a Wellington writer, translator and lexicographer.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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