The friends who made me who I am: Amanda Platell celebrates the people she's been close to
Loss: Fleet Street legend Harry Coen
Nothing makes you question the notion of friendship more than the sudden death of a dear companion.
My epiphany came recently when I learned that Harry Coen, my friend of 26 years, had died. I found out three days after Harry’s death and a day before his funeral, which was held at his home in France, so I couldn’t even get there in time to say goodbye.
Hearing the news, I felt my heart constrict — the opposite effect this loving, generous man’s presence always had on me when we were together.
And it was ironic that on the day I was reading his obituary in a national newspaper (Harry was a Fleet Street legend), I had seen an article that claimed there is a link between the number of friends you have — and the kind of friend you are — and the size of the region of the brain known as the orbital prefrontal cortex.
The theory is the larger the cortex, the better friend you are.
If that’s true, mine must be the size of a pea, as in the last few years of our enduring friendship, I had not been a good friend to Harry.
Despite all my good intentions to visit him in his beloved restored blacksmith’s shop in Burgundy, and endless Post-it notes reminding me to call or email, I did virtually nothing for almost three years, expecting that he’d always be there for me.
Harry’s death was heartbreaking not just because he was my mentor in the early days when I came to Fleet Street as a sub-editor. Technically, I was his boss in the many newspapers we worked on together, but he was the wise one.
And unlike many men who would have loved to see a woman fall flat on her face, he was always there to catch me when I stumbled.
We went from being colleagues to confidantes. I’ve lost count of the number of meals we’ve had together, the wine we’ve drunk, the languid afternoons and evenings of simple friendship both here in London and in Burgundy where he moved eight years ago.
After one particularly dramatic collapse in my life, I drove the seven hours to his home and told him I was coming just half an hour before I arrived.
As always, he was waiting at the caf opposite his home, sitting outside with a glass of wine in his hand, Panama hat on, arms opened wide. He had the biggest bear hug in the whole world.
His death made me wonder about the nature of true friendship: what kind of friend I am, and, more importantly, what my friends mean to me.
I’ve always believed friendships are like much-loved books: sometimes you have to put them back on the shelf, knowing you’ll take them down again later and love them nonetheless in the meantime.
And friendships come in so many different guises: the friends you seek out for warmth and fun, those for comfort, the unlikely pairings brought together through circumstance, or those friendships where it’s simply the passage of time that binds you.
We have best friends, old friends, and friends who’d take our secrets to the grave.
I took it for granted that my friendship with Harry would last for ever. And so, ultimately, I let him down.
But I have a sneaky feeling that as I gaze at the picture of him, me and his partner David taken more than a decade ago, that he’s somewhere with a glass of red wine, saying: ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself, Mandy, I know you love me — always did.
‘Now, what have you done about getting yourself a husband’
MY FOREVER FRIENDS
Mandy Hearn, Joy Green and China Forbes … we four met at Penrhos Methodist Ladies College 42 years ago, in assembly, aged 12, and have remained friends ever since.
Each year when I go back to Perth we get together, usually at Mandy’s place, and the years peel back like the leaves on an artichoke, leaving only the tenderness of our youth. We don’t see each other’s wrinkles.
Forever friends: Amanda (far left) with schoolfriends Joy Green and Mandy Hearn at school in Australia 1976
As young girls we would trade our dreams. China (so nicknamed as she was as fragile as porcelain and as ethereal as a Chinese mystic) planned to travel around Australia in a wagon drawn by two carthorses. Joy, the cleverest of our gang, would marry and have lots of children. Mandy would be an acclaimed theatre set designer.
And I would marry Alan Drake-Brockman — the only boy in Perth with a double-barrelled name — become a lawyer’s wife, never work, have loads of children and give wonderful dinner parties in our big house. (It never happened, of course.)
As young teenagers, we also vowed we’d be virgins when we married. Such is the folly of youth.
We were not cute and slim like the rich girls in the school, but boy were we cool (although photographic evidence suggests otherwise).
Nothing, and no one, ever came between our gang of four.
Joy now has two lovely children (by her ex-husband) and is a successful web designer. Mandy never married, never wanted kids, yet is wonderful with children and a gifted teacher.
China has two children, two former marriages and runs a business giving IVF to sheep. She arrives for our annual meetings in a truck.
It’s hard to describe what their friendships mean to me. They’re a golden thread running through my life.
As Joy wrote on a recent compilation CD of photos of our life together: ‘The hairstyles change with each meeting, the weight fluctuates, the men come and go — but the love, respect and loyalties remain the same.’
MY GUARDIAN ANGEL
Amanda with her Guardian Angel, Lola Martinez Rodriguez
Lola Martinez Rodriguez has kept house for me for eight years, but as far as I’m concerned, she is part mother, part sister and constant guardian angel.
Eight years my senior, she cares for both my cat Jim and me, and is a wise judge of both boyfriends and outfits. She often tells me, as I head out for work, that my lipstick is too bright or I’ve got too much jewellery on.
My personal Coco Chanel. I couldn’t manage without her.
Each year, my mother writes to Lola to thank her for looking after me.
The only blip in our relationship is that she speaks Spanish and only a little English, so we have a few language difficulties.
Soon after we met, I discovered a website that translated English to Spanish, so I started sending her emails. Her son called me a few weeks later and said: ‘Do you mean to end each email to Mum: “I want to make mad passionate love to you”’
No, I just wanted to send my love and thank her for all that she did for me. I still do.
Everyone needs a friend who will take your secrets to the grave. Most friends, however close, can’t keep a secret to save themselves. They fall into the category of those who say: ‘I was asked not to repeat this, so I’ll only say it once.’
Jane Moore, now an author and columnist, is not like that. She is my secret-keeper. She never judges, though she sometimes nudges, and is a quiet and wise confidante.
Although we quickly became friends, I was wary of her when we first met at work more than two decades ago as I suspected she’d had an affair with my then-husband.
Secret keeper: Amanda Platell With Jane Moore (left) and Carole Malone
All I knew was his mistress was a brunette working on the same paper as him. Months later I learned that at the critical time of the affair, Jane was working there — but she was in one of her blonde periods.
And as I’ve learnt through the years, Jane would never betray a friend.
We’ve both found and lost love, nursed each other’s bruised hearts and rejoiced in our happinesses.
My proudest moment was when Jane asked me to speak at her wedding, although it was impossible to contain in a few hundred words the kindness and courage of this woman.
I’ve let Jane down more than once, but she’s always forgiven me. The worst time was when she had her longed-for second child, Grace, with her husband Gary.
I was just out of hospital having had an operation that put an end to my dreams of having a child, and I let my own grief overwhelm what should have been my joy for a dear, kind and loyal friend. I couldn’t even call or write to congratulate her. I’m sorry, Jane.
She often says love is a decision, not just an emotion, and I’m very grateful she decided all those years ago to love me.
'Not a cigarette paper separates us': Amanda's rock Nick Wood
Nick Wood was William Hague’s deputy media boss when I was appointed chief spin doctor over his head in 1998 after William became Conservative Party leader.
Most men would have reacted badly, especially as a blind man could see he was far more capable of doing the job than I was.
He could have buried me in a month. But never once in those two years we worked together did he undermine me or begrudge that I’d got the job he should have had.
In fact, we were having a furious argument one day about how to handle a particular problem when William walked into my office. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘what’s the solution’
Nick jumped in and offered mine.
After he left, I asked Nick why he’d done that, and he replied: ‘Nothing, not a cigarette paper, ever separates us.’ And it never has. I was best man at his wedding. Trust, mutual support, encouragement and looking after each other . . . that’s the secret to this friendship.
MY BEST FRIEND
Most of us have a best friend and mine is Andrew Pierce. On paper we are the unlikeliest of companions: the boy from Swindon and the lass from Applecreek, Australia.
We met when I interviewed him for a job as assistant editor when I was an editor 14 years ago — and yet at our first meeting at The Savoy’s American Bar we were already lifelong friends.
Our friendship was forged as fast as any romance. Though he’s gay, friends still joke that we should get married anyway as they’ve never seen two people as happy in each other’s company.
Best friend: Amanda first met Andrew Pierce 14 years ago when she interviewed him for a job
We’re like a devoted brother and sister. In fact, I always think God sent me Andrew to watch over me after my big brother died.
Yes, he’s great fun and we’ve travelled the world together in this past decade, with and without our respective partners, and never had a cross word.
But he is also a wise counsel, whether it be about men or work; a shoulder to cry on — but mostly to laugh on. He would take a bullet for me, as I would for him, but he’d probably manage to sweet talk the gunman before he pulled the trigger, such is his charm.
I guess only death will separate us now — for a bit.
THE TOUGH TALKER
Bimbi Bellhouse and I became friends around the time when the cracks first started appearing in my last long relationship, about five years ago. She is colourful and clever, but most importantly she’s like a source of heat: you want to warm your hands on her.
Whenever I was losing the plot — what she named my ‘screaming abdab’ days — she would calm me, take my hand and lead (or occasionally drag) me through the mess of my life.
But the thing I love most about her is her non-pitying, no-nonsense approach to life. However rotten things get, you just have to get on with it.
She doesn’t sugar-coat reality, and she’s not afraid to tell you the hard truth — whether it be the ridiculous stilettos you’re wearing to go shopping or your inability to face the facts about a crisis in your life.
Family and friends are everything to Bimbi. Married with three kids and a cherished first grandchild, she manages to corral them together on a regular basis either in her London home or her house in Abruzzo, sometimes three generations of them at once.
There are always lashings of love, laughter, fine food (cooked by Bimbi, however many people turn up at her table) wine and dancing.
She’s the only person who has ever got me to dance, willingly, such is her ability to create warmth and fun. Like a moth, I am drawn to the light of her laughter. And what more can you ask of a friend than that