Why friendships matter

THE shocking murder of the MP Sir David Amess brought the predictable torrent of eulogies and tributes to a Member of Parliament who was not well known outside his Southend constituency. But there was something different about these warm words. They felt genuine, and that is, perhaps, because he was a man who was famed – loved – for his kindness and concern for all his constituents.

There were particularly poignant memories from women who worked with him on a campaign to get more awareness and improved services for endometriosis sufferers. This wasn’t a high profile campaign attracting A-list celebrity supporters or supported by the might of the tabloid press, but it was a cause that this dedicated parliamentarian really cared about.

What was also striking was the way MPs and campaigners from across the political divide all joined in remembering Sir David with affection and respect. One former Labour MP talked on Womens Hour about the friendship they shared. They disagreed on many big political issues but it was a real friendship in which differing views were respected.

As long-time MP Yvette Cooper said, quoting that other savagely murdered MP,  Jo Cox: “We have more in common than that which divides us.” Sir David, said the former Labour front bencher, “showed us how to do this.”

The warmth of the tributes, particularly from those on the other side of the House of Commons, prompted Woman’s Hour presenter Emma Barnett to invite listeners to tell their own stories of friendships that succeed despite apparently massive differences of opinion.

It reminded me of  our wonderful friend Margaret, who sadly died in 2019. We first met, more than 30 years ago, brought together by the fact that we lived in the same town and began to see each other at concerts in London. Eventually, we introduced ourselves and suggested we might travel together and share transport costs. She agreed, and on our first joint trip she met our then wire-haired fox terrier. They bonded immediately, and from that day we never again had to worry about going away and leaving our pets.

Margaret was the first to know when one of the animals was sick, the first to meet the new ones, always the person to offer to have the dog if we had a long day or late night’s work ahead, and the person who moved in whenever we were away, assuring us peace of mind for our dog and our cat and our house.

A mutual love of classical music and folk music, the theatre, animals, good food and real ale, a passionate commitment to the countryside and rural traditions, and a taste for crime thrillers were just some of the many things that we shared.

Margaret was an incredibly kind and non-judgemental person. She grew up in the war, had spent a lot of her early life around the theatre, had worked as a teacher, antique dealer and carer helping old people to stay in their own homes. She had an irresistible laugh and a great sense of humour, and very definite ideas about lots of things, but she was a good listener.

The diversity of her circle of friends was remarkable, from eccentric and theatrical writers and artists to rather proper characters who doubtless saw themselves as pillars of the Church.

When she was in the final stages of the cancer that killed her, she was cared for in our local hospital – they said they had never had a patient who received so many visitors. On her birthday, her room was filled with cards, flowers and cake.

When we look back, now almost two years on, the two of us and a blind friend for whom Margaret was a constant and reliable companion, driver and support, know that there is a never a day when we don’t remember Margaret, hear her distinctive voice on the phone, or recall a conversation, a trenchant opinion or another little act of kindness.

Yet there were things that we profoundly disagreed about. Brexit is a good example – we knew instinctively that her love of English traditions and her own life experiences would dictate which way she would vote in the referendum. She knew that we would be just as committed to staying in Europe. We didn’t ignore the subject, but we respected each other’s strongly held views. It never affected our friendship.

Margaret was nearly 90 years old. She was a red wine drinking, church-going, country sports loving,  no nonsense heterosexual. She had friends who were gay, who disapproved of field sports, who didn’t go to church or believe in any religion, who never set foot in a theatre, and some who made clear their dislike of her other friends. They all loved her.

It seems desperately sad that political and social issues can divide people who are close friends or relatives to the point that their relationship is irretrievably damaged. The vicious binary nature of politics in the US seems to have moved across the Atlantic during the Trump years.

The awful murder of Sir David Amess was a rare but welcome unifying moment. This week’s news that Angela Rayner had regretted and apologised for her use of the word “scum” in connection with Conservatives was similarly welcome. Strongly held and voiced opinions are fine and necessary and part of the currency of life, particularly politics. But at a time when the phrase “hate speak” is constantly bandied aboute, what we actually need is more respect for people, whatever their politics, religion, colour, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Fanny Charles