Both before, during and after university, you are fed the expectation that this is where you will make your friends for life; the one’s who will be your bridesmaids, the godmothers/fathers of your children, your platonic soulmates.
These friends will be abundant and you’ll spend subsequent years managing tens of context-specific WhatsApp groups (‘Park Lane Gang’; ‘Hockey Team Gals’; ‘Beer and Banter’). Not only this, but you’ll make your life-long acquaintances within your first term; failure to do so will make you a social anomaly.
This is the truth for some. There are those who attract friends like magnets and cannot walk twenty yards down the street without stopping to give somebody a hug, shouting promises of bottomless brunch next week as they hurry on to meet the girls for bottomless brunch.
In reality, not everybody is so naturally socially adept. For the first few months of university I was cripplingly shy. Despite being surrounded by people who shared my love for Sylvia Plath and plays, I struggled to contribute anything meaningful to conversations and compete with the huge personalities on display.
This may have been due in part to the inherent confidence afforded to many who benefited from a private education. But more so it was a symptom of my own unacknowledged social anxiety, exasperated in turn by the pressure to find my friends for life there at the Freshers’ English Lunch.
This anxiety about making friends plagued much of my first term. To be fair, I didn’t have the best of starts: I realised early on that the laddish ‘banter’ of one of my male flatmates was a thin guise for an abhorrent racist and sexist attitude. After he proclaimed his wish to “bomb all the mosques” I moved halls and nearly abandoned my quest for friends entirely.
I also wasn’t very good at making friends with people on my course. I would watch from the sidelines as others fervently discussed who had been cast in the next drama production and swapped anecdotes from the previous night at Motion.
It’s true, I could have made more of an effort. I could have forced the neurological pathways in my brain and the muscles in my jaw to cooperate in the act of forming speech. But at the time, it was a lot easier just to pretend to look at my phone. It was only in my final year that I realised much of my difficulty in befriending these people came down to the fact that, in truth, I couldn’t fucking stand a lot of them.
Over the course of those three years, summarised by 23 essay submissions, 4 students digs, 6 Pantomime Society productions, 21 hours working overtime in a rugby pub, 105 bottles of Lambrini, 31 hangovers, 1 kidney infection, 2.5 boyfriends and an unrecorded number of brief romantic encounters, I managed to accumulate a handful of truly amazing friends.
When Cathy says of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights “he’s more myself than I am. Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same”, I could easily say the same of Ali, who was one of the first proper friends I made sitting in a Teach First talk. Whilst I abandoned Teach First after realising how much work it involved, I put a considerably more effort into our friendship.
Our equally obsessive compulsive nature when it comes to academic performance meant we ended up doing most of our presentations together, spending around ten hours a day in each others company. Naturally, we experienced a kind of personality osmosis. We traveled to Cardiff to interview a Welsh theatre director for a project, and later to Rome, where we sat at the top of Capitoline Hill at 3 AM talking about life and love. She has an unrivaled work ethic and a bloody big heart. I’m reminded of her profound effect on me every time I pronounce ‘cool’ as ‘coo-well’.
Irina and I met whilst waiting anxiously outside Wills Hall in January 2015, comrades in our mutual unpreparedness for the Approaches to Poetry exam. A year later, we would share a cab to our Literature 1 exam, marginally more prepared and considerably more close. We motivated each other in the Arts and Social Sciences library at 2 AM with scheduled cigarette breaks and saw each other through breakups. We have since made the Star of Bethnal Green our London local. I have no doubt she will continue to encourage me to write a Fleabag-style play about my romantic endeavors as we spend many more nights catching up over a pint.
Despite graduating the year I started university, Pooja and I have managed to maintain a long-distance friendship over the past three and a half years. Now that she has moved to east London my levels of wine consumption have dramatically increased. When I am down, she sends empowering Beyoncé GIFs. She is my go-to for book and Netfilx recommendations. We discuss everything from feminism and the legacy of colonialism to cute dogs of Instagram with equal verve and tenacity. She is my feminist icon, my wise woman guru, my top bae (said with 100% irony).
The first time I spoke to Sophie was in the Student Union toilet early on in second year. She was drunk. I was sober. We proceeded through the usual “you do English and Theatre, right?” exchange and she sloppily put her number in my phone. I thought she was annoying and she remained as ‘Drama Sophie’ in my phone for a year. She is now one of my very best friends.
We have written a play together, top-and-tailed a bed on several occasions and sat on her doorstep talking until dawn. Her ability to tag me in the most accurate and nuanced of memes proves her deep understanding of my soul. At my wedding she will show a PowerPoint presentation with photos of me drinking beer out of an empty crisp packet and getting off with a man with a topknot.
As you get older your understanding of friendship changes. They can be transient things, wonderful but temporary affairs. This doesn’t lessen their value; each person who passes through your life alters you in some small or significant way and you become a reflection of all the people who have meant something to you.
University operates a unique and surreal temporality. You will develop relationships and make important decisions in a far more intensified way compared to any other time in your life. You decide who you want to live with, make choices that will effect your future career and form friendships in matters of weeks, whereas in the real world such decisions would have demanded much more anxious deliberation.
The natural gestation of a friendship is therefore sped-up. Often this means that the friends you make in that first term won’t be the ones whose hand you’ll hold at graduation. The one who you told was your BFF during Freshers Week you probably won’t remember. And you learn, feeling slightly smug, that within the groups you once tried to infiltrate, nobody likes each other very much anyway.
The best things in life, like saving for a deposit, growing out your fringe and international postal deliveries, take time, but they’re always worth the wait. It’s the same with friendships. The whole quality over quantity thing is usually pretty spot on too. So, it may take two and a half years to find your people, and they may be small in numbers, but be patient, because they’ll be in it for the long haul.