There's nothing more precious than a woman's female friends: How childhood friendship continues through life's ups and downs
00:56 GMT, 1 October 2012
Mine was a testosterone-fuelled family: I grew up as the only girl in a house where boys ruled the roost. There were two big brothers — then me, the runt of the litter.
Summers were dominated by cricket and trainspotting. Winters brought football and the thunderous sound of heavy rock music crashing through the walls of our suburban semi.
I would sit in my shoebox-sized bedroom and pretend to be elsewhere, burying my unworldly head in my books. A bit of a swot, truth be told.
Precious: Barney Bardesley, top right, and her friends from a local singing group
But the bonus in all this mayhem was the frequent arrival of my brothers’ friends — boys, boys, boys — queuing up for snacks before or after late-night drinking sessions. (None of them took a blind bit of notice of me but, still, a girl can dream.)
Gregarious and fun-loving, my brothers kept the house supplied with male activity, all through the turbulent years of school and sixth form and well beyond.
But something else was going on, too. It never grabbed the family headlines, but it influenced me more than anything my father and brothers were up to during my formative years.
This was the fine, pulsing thread of female connection that filled in the spaces when the lads had left for the pub, or were bashing hell out of a leather ball a mile or so up the road at the cricket ground.
It was the sound of the company of women — sometimes calm, sometimes querulous, often bubbling over with warmth and hilarity — which was established early in my childhood and has been a nourishing influence on my life ever since.
My mother Kathleen — bombastic and extrovert, quarrelsome but loyal to a fault — was very, very good at making female friends. It was one of her most striking attributes.
Although she was a flirtatious and attractive woman, well aware of her power to fascinate men — indeed, she held my father utterly in her thrall until her death at 82 — she treasured and nurtured her friendships with the same zeal she brought to her family life, her garden and her various jobs.
A nourishing influence: The sound of the company of women – often bubbling over with warmth and hilarity (file photo)
And, unconsciously, I learned to do the same.
It is a skill which has seen me through many crises and bereavements. It has endured long-distance separations and differing life paths, and brought a subtle but continuous hum of joy to my everyday life.
It should be on the school curriculum: ‘How to make female friends and keep them. The key to success in every woman’s life.’
Perhaps because she was an only child and lost her mother when she was very young, my mum was drawn to stability and routine.
Family, including her ‘family’ of friends, mattered much. Regular faces popped up in regular places throughout my childhood: the glamorous Margaret on a Friday evening, sharing snacks and chat and stiff gin and tonics during Gardeners’ World; soft-spoken, green-fingered Joyce at weekends, bringing my mother cuttings from her garden and offering constant, soothing companionship.
There were several Jeans, too — the names, like the routines they followed, reminiscent of a different era, a quieter, smaller world.
For a time, my mother was involved with a group called the Ladies’ Fellowship. Despite its genteel name, the Fellowship was a rumbustious gathering of local women who met on a weekly basis to hear speakers, drink tea and, most importantly, talk to each other.
'How to make female friends and keep them' should be on the school curriculum (file photo)
They were often locked into family life the rest of the time, so forums such as this were a vital release for a post-war generation of wives and mothers.
Occasionally, I went to these meetings as a teenager with Mum, to help unload things or set up the room. The energy of those ordinary women was palpable and their conversations sparkled.
As a self-conscious adolescent, I found this ebullience rather overwhelming at the time, and usually made a bee-line for the exit as quickly as I could. But the support and affection these women offered each other had a deep and powerful effect on me. Now, 40 years on, I go to a local singing group and have formed a book club from a nucleus of women in the same choir. For ten years, we have sung together; now we also read and have discussions.
Our talk is endlessly alive, and the wine flows freely. The pleasure and enjoyment in the room seem to lift the ceiling 6in higher.
I have found, without realising I was looking for it, my own version of the Ladies’ Fellowship — my Margarets, my Joyces and my Jeans. And it has been my teenage daughter’s turn to rush up to her room, cover her ears and her blushes, and hide!
My life has had many more twists and turns than did my mother’s.
She married early and had a big family; moved from Lancashire to Essex as a young mother because of my father’s work, and lived most of her long life in one town with a close group of neighbours and friends, many of whom she entertained in her beloved and rambling back garden, or small, cosy front room. She was a big fish — rainbow-coloured — in a tiny pond.
Barney has formed a book club with the women she has sung with in a local choir for ten years (file photo)
I have boomeranged back and forth between North and South, between London and Leeds, with frequent spells abroad as a language graduate.
I married late but lost my husband to cancer when he was 47 years old. We have one daughter, so there are no noisy boys in this household. Even our dog, Muffin, was a girl.
Unlike my mum, who, as a creature of her class and time, was compelled to relinquish her career for her family, I have pursued two different pathways as a writer and a movement teacher, as well as being a hands-on single parent.
Although at times it’s been tough, I have had so much more freedom than my mother. As regards men, I am definitely now ‘home alone’.
But loneliness is never an issue. In good times and bad, I feel the palpable presence of women friends, robust and encouraging, urging me onwards, giving me courage. And in this way, if in no other, I tread firmly in my indomitable mother’s footsteps.
For this alone, I am always in her debt. I am 55 and my school days are a distant blur. (Though in the past two years I caught up with a French A-level classmate and went to Paris with her. Not bad going after a 30-year gap.)
But every subsequent phase of my life has yielded at least one significant, long-standing woman friend. Each one has been quite different, offering some unique quality that may have been lacking or dormant in me, helping me to transcend my own limitations.
At university, it was Beverley. As a native East Ender she was infinitely more streetwise than me and impressive in her skill at gatecrashing gigs, sweet-talking her way into late-night parties and being instantly at home in the company of just about everyone she met.
Lasting: Barney's mother treasured and nurtured her friendships (file photo)
She is someone who is consummately adept at conversation, even with strangers, whereas I am instantly struck dumb by unfamiliar faces or places. Bev is built for communication. She is also better at keeping in touch — simply by picking up the phone — than anyone I know.
In my early career in London, two very different women came into my life. I met one of them, Ann, in the foyer of a newspaper office. At the time we were both starting out. Now Ann is a high-profile, experienced writer.
I left journalism for nearly 20 years, first to train in dance, then to look after my husband during his ten-year illness.
After he died, I was on my knees, professionally and personally. It was Ann who encouraged me to pick up my pen and get back into print.
She was endlessly generous with her contacts and her time, and she was tough, too. She made me do it.
We hear a lot about rivalry among women, but this is the story you don’t hear so often — women offering each other a helping hand.
The second woman, Liz, was my flatmate in London in those same formative years, when we were 20-something and clueless, and tearing around making a hash of things.
The flat we shared was falling apart, but no matter: we sunbathed on the scaffolding. There was no money for eating out, but you can be imaginative with lentils when you have to be.
Liz was thin and wiry and full of nervous energy — still is. Her life experiences mean she knows about fun and also sorrow. If there was something so bad I wouldn’t know who else to turn to, she’s the one who would drop everything and come.
Friendship can see one through crises and bereavements, enduring long-distance separations and differing life paths (file photo)
There’s the woman I met at the nursery gates when I moved to Leeds in 1996 with my ill husband and my four-year-old daughter, who steered us through the next eight years of cancer wards, remissions and recurrences, hospice and funeral home; then dug an allotment with me in the years that followed as the perfect therapy for grief — a symbol of recovery and re-growth.
I met my friend Laurie at dance college. Through the miracle of online communication, she has woven a web of warmth around me over the course of 25 years even though she lives in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in the U.S., and I am in Leeds.
It feels as if she is in the next room, rather than an ocean and a continent away.
Hollywood screenwriter Nora Ephron wrote in her memoir, I Feel Bad About My Neck, about a particular confidante she had just lost: ‘My friend Judy died last year. She was the person I told everything to. She was my best friend, my extra sister, my true mother, sometimes even my daughter.’
This is the way it is with real friends. They pour themselves, like liquid honey, into the cracks of your life and seal them up tight.
It will be interesting to see what happens for my daughter, now she is leaving home to study at university. Who will she find to help her through the dark times, and to celebrate the good
Already she has chosen to share a student house with five other girls, despite having a pool of young men to choose from.
Her grandmother would be pleased about that. Something tells me it won’t be long before the conversation, the music and the wine are flowing, and the next generation of female friends will form, full of energy, determination and life.