Tuesday 16 July 2019

Too inconsistent to be called a true friend

Members of both teams tussle during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Munster and Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Members of both teams tussle during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between Munster and Leicester Tigers at Thomond Park in Limerick. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Fergal Keane

I am home from Africa, from the southern summer of hot days and big skies and afternoon thunder storms when hailstones the size of golf balls can dent the car or the head. Home to Heathrow full of festive travellers and the year stumbling blindly to its end.

There is a knock on the door. A delivery man in a Santa hat is standing there with a Fortnum and Mason hamper in his arms. His name is Munir and he comes from a land of high deserts. We meet on a morning when London is buried under low cloud and Brexit anxiety. But Munir is smiling and I am astonished. I did not order a hamper from one of London's most elite stores and cannot think of anybody who would have sent me one.

"I can assure you it is for you, sir," says Munir, pointing to the name and address, which are undeniably mine.

Upstairs I unwrap the mysterious box and its treasures. They are hidden amid straw, a mangerly touch amid the opulence. There is chutney made of damson, blackberry and apple, Piccadilly wholegrain mustard, blackberry jam, orange curd and orange marmalade, chocolate dusted almonds and chocolate pearl biscuits, and Royal Blend Tea and medium-dark roast coffee to wash it all down. Then I notice the note.

It is from a dear friend, a man I normally associate with the dust of an Afghan trench or a sniper-infested Balkan town. But for me he has gone all luxury.

"Thank you for your help in a time of real need. You are a true friend." That was all. But it was enough to bring a lump to my throat. Indeed my friend had a hard year and his path set me to thinking of the value of male friendship. His life fell apart and for a while he was my guest. He is on an even path now. The darkness that seemed immovable a few months back has lifted like summer fog.

My friend berates himself for the choices he has made in life. I know that territory. But he has not stayed stuck in recrimination or in the easy wallow of endless guilt. Step by step he is walking towards something better.

I think he was very generous in his note. If I am honest I have always felt an inconsistent friend. Moments of plenty, then long periods of sparse grass. I am the irregular rains of the African savannah. If there is real trouble I can be depended on to show up. But it's the in-between stuff I am useless at: the phone calls, texts, the lunch appointments, the emails. Don't mention Christmas cards.

This is probably because I am so consumed with myself and the million and one things I take on in my working life. Before I reach for the scourging rods, let me say that I am learning to see a bigger picture, not least from the example of my friend. It is a week early to be offering resolutions for the year to come but the spirit is in me.

I will make the effort to be a better friend. Specifically there will be more time made for the following:

1. Fishing with cronies like John King of Ardmore who is as cantankerous as myself and disagrees with me regularly. Now that his hair and beard are entirely silver, he has become a noted sage in west Waterford, with whisperings of his wise sayings to be heard also on the borders of Cork, Tipperary and even into the southern reaches of Kilkenny. Nicholas Keating - the patron Saint of west Waterford parenthood, who has driven more young lads to matches than I have had hot dinners, will be a regular attendee. There will also be time for expeditions to my beloved cousins in Listowel, Kilkenny and Cahersiveen as I embrace the crackedness that made me.

2. Regular trips to Thomond Park and grounds further afield with an assorted contingent of Daniel Keane (son and heir), Conor Keane (cousin and resident wise man), Paul Hassett (uncle and impresario) and Bill 'Sham' Whelan (pal extraordinaire and composer of note). In victory or defeat I always come away from Munster matches feeling as if I have forgotten all the baggage of my life. For 80 minutes I am part of an utterly biased and uncomplicated enterprise.

3. Lunches in Cork with the history stars of UCC, notably John Borgonovo and Hiram Morgan - these are the bucks to test your mettle and argue the toss. Clever minds with the best kind of contrarian natures. Borgonovo was one of the masterminds behind the magnificent Atlas of the Irish Revolution and has a gift, uncommon in the previous generation of Irish historians, of not taking himself anything like as seriously as he takes his work.

4. More music. Lots more. I will always say yes when Kevin Nolan asks me to go and see a great new piper or fiddler who is visiting London. I will take down that mandolin he gave me as a present and learn to play. In his sixth year at secondary school Nolan hit a priest. A man who at 17 years of age thumps a bully in a Newry classroom must be listened to. It came about when Nolan fell into a dreamlike state in the class. He had been up until the early hours playing in a showband in a small town in south Armagh.

Noticing the Zen-like disposition of the scholar priest brought the spine of a book crashing down on Nolan's head. He quickly regretted it.

A swift uppercut laid the cleric low. (For the record, despite the panic-stricken screeches of the assembled farmer's sons that "Nolan has killed the preesht" the clergyman survived. Nolan was expelled but managed to triumph in his exams nonetheless.)

When I read the list above, all worries fade away and low clouds evaporate. Here's wishing you a year full of the joys of friendship.

Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent and Editor

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