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In Praise of the Random Link Up


Making a friend is one of the last truly radical acts you can do.

I recently met up with my best friend from when I was 15, after almost two decades apart. He’s now married with two children and has a quite serious job for the government, and I’m, well, doing this – making a positive case for radical link ups. What struck me was how intact our unarticulated, dormant frequency still was, and the magical way people get older and don’t notice their friend’s age. Within the first two minutes I was talking to a 15-year-old again, dusting off case files of teenage gossip and now poorly aged, ‘equal opportunities offence’ 2000s comedy. Meeting up was the fruit of months of coaxing, navigating childcare and work schedules. After nearly a year, ladies and gentlemen, we got him; at Grind in Soho, for just under an hour.

There’s been a lot of discussion about how such effervescent friendship is on the decline. The wreckage of the pandemic and the loss of public or communal spaces makes way for grindset ‘connections’ that squeeze out more happenstance encounters; legends of plumbers dancing with supermodels in King’s Cross nightclubs seem lost to history now. This new malaise has been referred to as either the Loneliness Epidemic or the Friendship Recession, as if either a pathological or macroeconomic framing might shock us into recognising what has traditionally been an under-researched and nebulous subject matter. Loneliness is also bad for your health; the socially-geared brain reads isolation as an emergency and puts us in a state of hyper-vigilence, whilst lonely people are reportedly 50% more at risk of dementia and other serious medical conditions than those with active social bonds.

University and higher education years are the traditional Goldilocks Zone for friendship-making, enjoying both adult cognitive development and plenty of spare time, but is now increasingly the privilege of the financially capable, and balkanised from within by employment coaching and side hustle culture. In a shared LinkedIn feed where all your spare time is driven towards a perfect union of a personal brand and its monetisation, making a friend where you stand to make no transactional gain is one of the last radical acts of equality you can make. The gift of sharing your most valuable asset of time with someone irrespective of their monetary or social status, simply because of their vibe, now threatens to become transgressive in a gamified economy solely populated by Main Characters. The creeping modern notion is that free time is no longer ‘free’, better spent working towards #goals; I once cajoled a senior workplace sensei into an awkward Leon coffee in the hope that by finding out what football team he supported would somehow put me in the speedy boarders lane to the top.

Friendship in its purest form can add something missing to your life – or it can enhance passions you already have in your own ‘miniature culture’; think Mick and Keith on a train station platform, electrified by the scarcity of the other’s Blues records – recently honoured in bronze by Dartford Council. How about Graeme Souness’s link up with Supermarket Sweep’s Dale Winton, two unlikely fitting Tetris blocks of platonic meaning – with the ex-Liverpool and Sampdoria hardman turning Best Man at Dale’s Wedding, BBC Three’s 2003 stunt union between Winton and supermodel Nell McAndrew. Or, what monetary good could have come of Mick Hucknall’s decades’ long friendship with global footballing icon, and godfather to his child, Pele? Then, for the true link up connoisseur, there’s the legend of Samuel Beckett and wrestler Andre the Giant’s most unlikely of tag teams, with one of Ireland’s greatest modernists neighbouring Andre’s father outside Paris, and driving his big-for-his-age boy to school before Beckett bashed out his loneliness chef-d’oeuvre Krapp’s Last Tape in the late 1950s.

At university, freshers enter a friendship superabundance, and so the odds of finding people with shared interests narrow intensely. The idea of going for this ‘experience’, often goaded on by grant-tinted Baby Boomer parents, is an affront for anyone who came after the 2010 Browne Review, where priority is increasingly placed on value for money and high-yielding degree courses that feed directly into the economy. In the 2000s, particularly at a studentopolis like Manchester, Leeds or Bristol, you could maintain dozens of relationships at any one time, and into this directly came Facebook, multiplying your stats into three or even four figures. But Dunbar’s Number, named after the anthropologist who claimed humans can only manage up to about 150 real relationships, based it on the brain’s neocortex, Neolithic and Domesday villages and the size of effective combat units.

If technology has diluted the meaning of a Friend, surely it can essentialise the relationship too. My Whatsapp boils down communal exchanges to little more than a shared tone. My most resilient group, meaninglessly named Total Recall, displays the same everyman dadaism recognisable to anyone in a similar chat that has no practical purpose. Recall’s enduring success is probably that it only includes three members, the literal bare minimum possible to form a group – and coincidentally, one Londoner, one Brummie and one Mancunion. Its only purpose is to share links, images and videos that pass the irreverent sniff test of the triumvirate. One of the members I have only met a few times IRL but is now objectively one of my best friends. The group is often where all other life is filtered; it’s how I found out the Queen had died, and our vital coverage during the pandemic to us was world-beating.

It took 25 years before unlikely linksmen Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla met in person, corresponding across two continents and bonding over a shared interest in technology. Despite living an ocean apart, Tesla invited Twain to his laboratory several times for some craic, shooting his pal in the head with an X-ray gun and letting him have a go on his ‘earthquake machine’; the vibrations helping his constipated pal shift some poo and make an overdue trip to the conveniences. Living abroad can suit male friendships more anyway. It has been suggested they tend to be able to ‘stash’ them and find it easier to pick up where they left off. But along with home working, and a decline in office culture dramatically accelerated by lockdowns, those able to work remotely could be transporting a siloed existence wherever they go; a 2018 study indicated a close friendship can take around 200 hours to build.

A proactive approach seems to be the elixir for overcoming an ever increasing Main Character simulation that at the same time makes background artists of us all. You don’t have to empty your friend’s bowels to be radical, maybe just browsing through your contacts and igniting a long-extinguished connection does the trick. Meeting my friend from when I was 15 deprogrammed me to realise that this hyper-formative year in my life wasn’t nearly as bad as it had been in my memory. For now, I intend to make a new friend and do something that’s a little out of my depth, better still something that offends my personal brand – maybe some axe-throwing in Hammersmith, or some challenging pay-what-you-can organic wine tasting. It doesn’t matter, just try not to overthink it and embrace the radical power of the link up.