can’t we just all be friends?

How many boyfriends and girlfriends have you got? It’s starting to look increasingly common to have at least two or three.

Only some of them aren’t really ‘girlfriends’ or ‘boyfriends’. They’re ‘partners’, or ‘husbands’ or ‘wives’. Or they’re ‘lovers’, ‘flings’, or ‘mistresses’.

Or they’re ‘friends with benefits‘, or ‘casual aquaintances’ or ‘affectionate friends’. Or exes we’re still friends with, and/or share a bed with. Or people we’ve ‘friendzoned’. Or people we slept with once, or twice, or three times and might sleep with again – “but it isn’t a thing”. Or, it is a “thing” but it isn’t a “thing, thing.”

Or people who we can’t actually sleep with because they’re a friend’s partner, or an ex’s friend, or we work with them, or because we’re best friends and the stakes are too high, or they’re out of bounds in some other way. Who we then spend most of our waking hours thinking about, and most of our sleeping hours dreaming about, and tell ourselves and everyone who asks that it absolutely isn’t a “thing” either.

It’s all very confusing.

The one certainty is that the old nuclear-family-track structures aren’t as certain as they once were, and it’s rare that anyone keeps all of their intimate feelings exclusively for just one person. Some of us might once have hoped for that; but then all those other people just insist on getting inside our heads (and our hearts. And sometimes, our pants).

There’s been a little whirlwind of internet activity recently, proposing polyamory as a solution to all this. The idea seems to be that you can cut through the Gordian knot of relationship confusion by simply accepting that one partner isn’t enough. In the writing of the most evangelistic polyamorists, there’s an implication that we can all have happy lives if we all get ten partners and all hold hands and skip through butterfly meadows, occasionally stopping for some free love.

The only comments I’ve made on non-monogamy before have been satire. But just for a moment, let’s take polyamory as a serious proposal.

Firstly, I don’t like the word ‘polyamory’. I think it’s silly. It’s particularly silly when people use it to describe themselves, as if it were some rebellious identity-defining queer sexual orientation, rather than a social relationship structure. It makes them go around saying things like, “Yes, I’m poly. Are you poly? Have you met Polly? Polly’s poly,” etc.

Not to mention how fucking smug it all is.

But I do think it follows from my comments on love before – both on this blog and at Stand-Up Philosophy (video here) – that there are many kinds of love, which can overlap in ways that needn’t be exclusive or finite, either of kinds or of subjects. We can feel eros and agapē and philia and storge, and so on, in any combination, for anybody. And we should be pragmatic about that.

So as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing wrong in principle with having as many of whatever kind of relationships work for you.

But I think this only works on condition of a very important caveat, and it’s the point I’ve been trying to make all along. It’s this: the necessary condition of all good relationships, with anyone, is that we love others first as friends: that what we feel for them is primarily a combination of philia (we actually like them) and agapē (we care, and we want what is good for them).

So there is no such thing as ‘just’ friendship – friendship is the crucial factor. It is what motivates us to treat others with kindness. It’s the condition of everything which is good with others, and it can be the answer to anything bad. It can be deep and enduring and profound, and it matters. Friendship is the most important thing.

I don’t trust people who say that in principle they ‘can’t’ be friends with their lovers, whether it’s before or during a relationship or after a separation. Needing some space after a change in the relationship is understandable, but if you never cared for that person the way a friend does, then you probably never cared enough to have them in your life anyway.

And I say ‘change in the relationship’ rather than ‘break-up’ because, if people are primarily friends then the word ‘break-up’ doesn’t make sense. Nothing is ‘broken’; there is just a distancing between two friends who had previously been very close (and in practical terms, you might stop sleeping together). But however sudden or painful that distancing might be, people who are worth caring for will still care for each other.

So, friendship is the most important thing. But that’s not what you’re reading this for. You’re reading this because you hope I’ll say something that fits in with your opinions about sex and monogamy. It’s eros that you’re interested in, not philia.

So I’ll add another point: that there are (at least) two sub-categories of erotic love. There is one kind of eros (or desire) that simply wants to physically connect with someone, to gain access to their body for a moment in time. And there is another kind of eros, that wants to possess another person psychologically and emotionally.

In other words, there’s the desire to get sexy with someone, and the desire for someone to be YOURS FOREVER. They’re both common feelings.

But there’s a lot of bullshit in romantic culture, intended to make us believe that the second kind is more virtuous than the first, or that it must be a condition of it. This is wrong, and in my opinion somewhat perverse. Wanting someone to be emotionally in thrall to you indefinitely is not ‘purer’ or more virtuous than just wanting to get their clothes off.

Lust in itself isn’t jealous, doesn’t threaten to trap anyone, it doesn’t stalk them or bully them or murder them. It just wants to rub up against you. Lust is pure; Disney-style posessive love is often kind of creepy.

And it’s not just creepy; it’s a serious danger to personal liberty. The only time it’s necessary to put a limit on the number and variety of relationships we have, is when we confuse those two types of desire, or believe that they must exist and can only exist together. That is what the ideological commitment to monogamy is: it’s when we come to believe that sex must give us not just temporary access to the desired person’s body, but ongoing possession of their soul. And I don’t think this can be right.

Over the last few years, I’ve found it more and more difficult to understand the idea of being “with” just one other person forever; to ‘give’ your body and soul over to being just one other person’s possession and property, and to think of that as some kind of real, fixed and binding structure that is morally inviolable. It’s almost asking for trouble.

A lot of monogamists claim that they don’t think or act like this all the time. When they are ‘single’, they say, they have ‘casual things’. What they are saying is that when they can’t find anyone who they might eventually want to possess completely, they’ll fuck people they don’t actually care for or like that much. They use people; and then they are surprised and hurt when they are used themselves.

Plus, we are never “with” just one other person. Apart from the common confusion at the start of this post, we’re always also part of a community, part of a family, part of a society.

Of course we will often have a best friend, a closest friend, and we might also have very good reasons to want to keep sex as as something we share only with that friend who we trust and desire most. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, and I have to admit that I’ve personally often preferred it. For most of my adult life, when I’ve found someone I want to be that close to, I kind of only really want that person. Only those of us who are lucky enough to have had a best friend, with whom it is possible to share all the kinds of love there are, can know the value of that.

But no realistic commitment to just one other person can permanently exclude all the other people in the world. And we don’t need to; if we stop belittling friendship with words like ‘just friends’; recognise it as the highest kind of relationship that is possible, and recognise sex as something that friends can do if they want and if they really do care about each other; then we don’t need to construct imaginary walls around our relationships.

Why can’t we think beyond securing the possession of someone else’s heart and sex for ourselves? Why can’t we all be friends, in that necessary, profound way I’m trying to describe? Maybe we’d want to sleep with one or some or none of our friends – if you truly care about them, it doesn’t matter as much as you think it does. What’s important is that we like and care for our network of friends.

In fact, why can’t we think of ourselves like constellations of stars? We float in space, always ourselves, but always a part of a constellation; gravitating towards each other in twos and threes, sometimes more, shining our light and warmth on each other, but never in a vacuum and always with the constellation present.

Maybe I’ll be drawn towards you by a kind of gravity I can’t explain. Maybe we’ll drift apart, pulled by the gravity of other stars; maybe we’ll keep coming back again. Maybe for a time, I’ll be the brightest thing in your universe and you’ll be the brightest in mine. Maybe just for a few hours – maybe until our light goes out.

And if that fades, it doesn’t mean we failed; we succeeded in lighting each other for as long as we did. And if you turn your light on others and away from me, I’ll feel cold; but I never owned the fire in you, and I’d have been a fool to expect to orbit forever around just one sun. And you were never my only source of light, either. I’m never floating through space alone, and there’s always light to be found.

I am one amongst a constellation of stars. The light I give is unlimited and I won’t stop shining it on you, and all my friends, for as long as you’ll receive it. And when a star dies, its light and warmth remain.

Of course, many people cannot think like this. They feel alone if they can’t lock someone else up for life.

Perhaps they need friendship most of all.

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the new problem of what i will read at 2am

There are three reasons why I started writing a blog. The first was because (as anyone who has read this thing since the start will know) I am a pretty average comedian; but, it turns out, not too bad at writing about it.

The second reason was because I wanted to chart my comedic progress (particularly during Edinburgh). You probably already know how that went.

And the third was because of reading Andrew Watts’ blog. Which he has apparently now decided to pack in.

So I could be writing about anything this evening. I could write about the first ever Sussex University comedy night, which I basically had to organise from scratch and which finally went ahead on Monday to an audience of over a hundred; or about the Beckett project I’m working on; or about the ridiculous fact that some MPs are, without a hint of irony, claiming that it’s a bad thing for museums to exploit interns.

But I’d rather write about how sad I will be if Andrew never blogs again.

For a start, it’s the only way anyone ever seems to get any new material out of him. As a performer he’s quite unashamedly been doing the same first five minutes of stand-up for five years now, which is as long as both as us have been performing. I can’t even remember my first five.

In fairness, it’s a brilliant opening five and it’s got him into the kinds of paid work and competition finals that I’ve never got. (I mean, that might be because I have never really tried competitive stand-up – I loathe competitions on principle and never even bothered to enter So You Think You’re Funny or the Hackney Empire New Act Competition or most of the others, and even when I have entered competitions, I’ve always sabotaged my chances by using them to do totally new material about stupid things like Picasso and the BNP. Not good, solid stuff about women and cricket. But that’s not the point – the point is that one great joy of reading Andrew’s blog has been watching an act that I regard as relatively successful, harping on endlessly about Jack W****hall’s instant fame. I think I just liked knowing that even if I’d entered and been a multiple competition finalist and rising star like Andrew, it still wouldn’t actually make me happy…)

Also, I should say that I have disagreed with Andrew on almost every point of religious, cultural and party political principle that he’s written about. He doesn’t like Beckett and adores Julian Fellowes; he somehow thinks the Liberal Democrats are inherently racist and that if the slave trade were still happening now it would be the Tories leading the campaign against it; and he holds pretty much exactly the same High Anglican church values that I was brought up with, and found impossible to justify under even the tiny weight of my own teenage philosophical questioning, let alone the kind of properly empirical demands I’d try to make now.

And yet…he’s really funny. And smart. And I like the way he writes an awful lot. And his blog has conclusively proved the George Orwell thing about how you shouldn’t spend too much time around conservatives because you’ll only end up getting to like them.

Often, agreeing with the conclusions is kind of irrelevant. As always, the real content is in the style. And if nothing else, Andrew’s blog has taught me (of all people) that public-school-educated Christian Tories can be okay really – perhaps even decent, honest, intelligent people. And because of this, that blog has shifted my distain away from them, and onto the kind of small-minded party tribalists who still think that all Tories/Labour/LibDems/whatevers are stupid and evil.

So if it is true that Andrew is not going to blog any more, then I will miss Andrew’s blog. I will miss regularly learning new things about abolitionism. I will miss being woken up at 2am by email alerts from MySpace – MySpace, of all fucking things! – saying “Andrew Watts has posted a new blog!” And then reading it anyway. I will miss hearing about his successive glorious failures at pulling girls at gigs. I will miss getting day-by-day updates on the long-running narrative arc of how his mother is gradually becoming convinced that stand-up really is the right thing for him to be doing (and if this is true and not merely a literary device, she would be the only person still unconvinced in the country). I will even miss his little rants about how everyone shouldn’t hate Tories, especially now that, however much I hated their last budget or what they’ve done to the Lib Dems, I don’t hate them either…

So. Andrew. If you should read this (which I’m sure you will, because like all good stand-ups you are a terrible narcissist), then I want you to know that if you stop keeping a blog then it will be like The Archers just stopped. Certainly for me, and I have no doubt for a few others besides. And even when it’s boring, nobody wants that.

But if you’re definitely going to stop altogether, then, well…thank you.

And, um…can you like to come and do my Sussex University gig if it runs after Easter?

one of the dark places of the earth

Last night we left the canal and joined the Thames.

I had an argument with a girlfriend once, about whether the Thames could be counted as ‘great rivers of the world.’ It was a foolish argument, the kind of thing that lovers argue about when they can’t face whatever it is they really need to be arguing about; but I remember it vividly.

We were in Paris, and I’d claimed, without really thinking, that the Seine, like the Thames, was ‘one of the great rivers of the world’, and she said it couldn’t be because even though the Seine – and the Thames too – have got some interesting human settlements on them, they are nowhere near as long as the Amazon or the Mississippi. And I pointed out that length isn’t everything, and to her credit she resisted the obvious barb and said it is when you’re talking about what makes a river ‘great’.

But somehow it became quite an unpleasant argument. Like I say, there were probably other things we really should have been arguing about.

The point is, I still think I was right. Obviously we were just using different standards of ‘greatness’ (she was using a fairly narrow geological measure of value, wheras I was linking it to human culture and history). And however dumb it might seem, we weren’t the first people to have that same argument – when John Burns famously called the Thames “liquid history”, it was in response to American who had compared it unfavourably with the Mississippi (which is good, because on its own it would be a bit of a fatuous thing to say from an otherwise remarkably smart fellow).

But the Thames is a strange and wonderful river; when you’re travelling down it you do feel like you’re re-travelling a very very ancient and beautiful path that hasn’t really changed in three thousand years.

I think one of the reasons that my lover in Paris might have held the Thames to be of less value – in addition to its size, although it is the longest river in England – is that it’s so familiar. We know the Thames, we know where it goes and what its banks look like (idyllically rural – from Oxford on, it’s almost all trees and cottages and cows and pretty towns until you hit London). Unlike the Amazon, there is little that is exotic or strange about it for us.

But that’s just because of the perspective we’re looking at it from. As Marlow says of the Thames in the opening pages of Heart of Darkness, “this also was once one of the dark places of the earth.” For anyone trying to get into England – the Romans in particular – the Tamesis was, for centuries, a strange and terrifying river, wide and deep and with a danger of tribal attacks around every turn. For one of Claudius’ men trying to get inland in the first century, It must have been terrifying.

Perhaps we’ve become numbed to that now.

And yet, there are still strange and terrifying experiences to be had on the Thames for those who look. Between Oxford and Reading, we passed bunches of the kinds of houses and gardens that people are only supposed to live in when they have won the lottery. But the people who live in them, with their twenty-room mansions and huge riverside summer-houses and boat-houses, live in an entirely different world to me. The fact that these folk are wealthy enough to live next to the river meant that we were able to see, from the river, into a world that I would normally very rarely see.

What did they do to come to posess such houses and gardens? Where did all that wealth come from, and where is it going? Who has been, and who is yet to be, harmed in the process? What darknesses are hidden in that money and that power?

(I’m not saying wealth is necessarily bad; I’m just saying that for those who don’t have it but who do ask questions about the causes and effects of it, it is very strange and a little terrifying.)

I love the Thames; my family have lived on and around it forever, and I will always think that it is one of the great rivers on earth. But for most of us, it still contains strange, dark worlds that are impossible for proletarian explorers to penetrate.