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Can't find a friend? There's always Ann Widdecombe.

Byline: By ELAINE MORGAN

Flicking through a newspaper I noticed a prophecy that friends will soon be a thing of the past. I thought that was rather sad. When I turned back to read more, I realised 'friends' had a capital F, and referred to the long-running US sitcom.

It was an easy mistake to make, though. If you live long enough, you get used to saying goodbye to more and more things that used to seem a permanent part of life. It's not only things you're quite relieved to be shot of, like candlesticks and buttonhooks and hair tidies and knife powder and pokers and darning mushrooms.

And it's not only things you used to eat and drink and will never see again, like Grape- nuts and sarsaparilla and bloaters and puff cracknels.

It's people too, and the relationships between them. Take cousins - they used to be everywhere, like aunts in a PG Wodehouse book. Now they're an endangered species. Where people used to say 'I'd like you to meet my cousin', they say something like 'This is my ex's new partner's son Philip'. Partner is a very dodgy word. It could be a business buddy, or a live-in lover, or something to do with a bridge club, and if you jump to the wrong conclusion you could easily put your foot in it. You just have to nod brightly and wait for more clues to emerge.

'Friend' used to be quite straightforward. A friend was someone you could talk to, do favours for, ask favours from. It was reciprocal. You could only have a friend by being one. But if TV is anything to go by, they are on the way out. People who can afford it prefer to hire professional friend-substitutes because it's neater. If you feel like a good moan, just pay a shrink to listen to you for an hour, and there's no danger he'll ever land on your doorstep gasping, 'Thank God you're in - my marriage has collapsed. Can you put me up for a week?'

In a recent documentary on BBC2, we saw young affluent people hiring 'life coaches' to tell them what they ought to want, and 'time-savers' to do things they might be doing if they weren't having life-coaching sessions. The time-savers then need assistants to do what they'd be doing if they weren't spending time being time-savers, and their assistants then need life-coaches to ...I lost the thread at that point. It sounded like a snake swallowing its tail, but lots of money changed hands and it was supposed to be good for the economy.

If you haven't got that kind of money, you'd better risk being old-fashioned by hanging on to your friends. Or you could write to an agony aunt. These have now spread into the broadsheets, so if you're a reader of the Guardian, for example, you have the privilege of unburdening your heart to Ann Widdecombe.

In which case, I can only wish you the best of British luck.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 14, 2004
Words:503
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