If friendship is a marriage then we have been married many times, but we have alas, also been divorced. In Biblical times a chap could go out of his tent and say 'I divorce, I divorce you' three times, and then go back into his tent and chuck the old lady out, if the mood so took him, or dinner had been dicey, or he didn't like the kaftan she was sporting. Apparently this mood did take the ancients many times and there were many divorces, not to mention rending, of garments. The exception, I think was Sarah, whom Abraham, despite a few hundred marital hiccups, stayed on as Number One Wife, probably because as they used to say in olden days 'cooking lasts, kissing don't.'
Sometimes I think about this. Not the kissing or the cooking, but the divorcing. Sometimes it has been incumbent on myself and my beloved to contemplate, not divorcing each other, but divorcing a friend, or even friends. Not because they were tedious or stingy, but because they can't help making Unsoliticited Comments.
Take a person's garden. Now snobbery runs rife in English gardens, and because of this, the garden can become a positive repository of Unsolicited Comments.'
'You don't have a pergola, do you? Oh dear, so common...'
What? I mean - really what? How can a pergola, an artless piece of wood, usually prettily festooned with roses and clematis, how can it be common? Common as in because a great many people enjoy a pergola, or even two, in their gardens? Or because it is vulgar, as in serving Sunday lunch topless to your great aunt?
People walk round other people's gardens, very often ours, making remarks such as - 'I can't stand weeping pears' or 'I can't abide roses climbing through trees.' and all I can think to say in return is 'oh, I like them.'
But you do see, 'I like them' is not even vaguely good enough. It is lame, it is a nothing of a response, so you find yourself going to bed asking yourself 'well, why didn't I say 'I can't stand people who can't stand weeping pears?' Or 'so you think laurels are hideous - well I think they are fine, and they have their uses'. And that's neither witty nor clever, in fact it is irretrievably lame.
'Trellis on top of your walls? Please! What are you thinking?' someone said a few years ago. Well, I mean to say, what is wrong with trellis on the top of the walls? In our case we had to put it there to keep out school children waiting for the bus of a morning, while we, on the other side of the wall, are busily training a climbing rose through yet another apple tree, or hiding behind a laurel avoiding some visitor armed with an unsolicited comment.
Yet, there is worse. There is something much, much worse, and when it comes to friends, it can apply to anything from house to garden, or even clothes and children. The something that is much worse than the Unsolicited Comment, is the No Comment friend.
Oh, the hurt that stabs the anxious hearts of hosts when the house, having been primped into its all time best, flowers arranged, forks and knives polished, floors swept, food carefully prepared, frocks ironed - and nothing is said! No attempt at 'gosh the flowers are lovely' no 'how delicious is this' or 'goodness your table looks pretty' only grim silence, sealed lips, and the occasional raised eyebrow, the cool glance around, the silent unspoken 'oh dear'.
. A glance around our four and a half acres of lawns and ponds, so often evokes no comment at all from friends or acquaintances, no matter how obviously they, the lawns and ponds, are begging to be admired and loved, after the hours and hours of labour put in by my beloved. Sometimes, if the silence has become all too elongated, a squeak of Unsolicited Comment can at last escape to fill the ghasthly silence, as in, a never to be forgotten snobbish lady who, having glanced about our little park with narrowed gaze, finally said 'I quite like some of the tiles on the cottage roof.'. Some of them, please note, not all of them.
The thought occurs that some of the friends, all obviously founder members of the Silent Despots Society, having been told, when they were young, 'if you can't think of anything nice to say don't say anything at all' have absorbed this lesson so heartily that they have remained silent ever since, just quite simply stuck for something to say. Certainly in olden days when a glimpse of stocking certainly was shocking, the aristocracy had very firm ideas on how to go on.
Which leads me to a story about a certain duke who having invited a gentleman from a famous auction house to value the duke's furniture and paintings was told that the duke had some 'very good Turners'' only to be told, in his turn, that the duke would like him to leave. The flustered gentleman, on being given his luggage and shown the door, asked what he could have done wrong? It seemed he had broken the golden rule - 'a chap never talks about another chap's things.'
But, as they say, that was then, things have moved on, and good manners, and surely friendship, now require something nice to be said. 'Goodness you look pretty' or 'Aren't the flowers lovely?' or 'Your lawns are really outstanding'. Delivery men and ladies seem to be much better at this, particularly being nice about lawns, which means I often watch them returning to their vans with a strange lingering regret - why didn't I ask them to lunch? They wouldn't have left me with a feeling of 'why didn't I say?' or 'what I should have replied was'.We could have had a jolly good chat about pergolas and laurals, about trellising and weeping pears, about climbing roses through trees, not to mention sticking trellis on walls as an effective deterrent to nosey school children.
So, really, as far as friendship goes, the rule in our house has now been made. Any more Unsolicited Comments and divorce papers will be served on the guilty party. And any tender enquiries as to why the relationship has been ended will elicit only 'No Comment.' .
Which leads me to another story. The actor Peter Bull was in the original, Peter Hall directed, 'Waiting For Godot' which was the hit of the moment at the Arts Theatre in London, much to everyone's surprise. If you don't know the play then let me tell you it involves no French windows, no people about to play tennis, but a couple of vagrant looking gentleman discussing Life and God in some form or another until another gent comes in with a dog. So no young woman wearing a straw hat with a velvet ribbon streaming from it, and no young men in blazers bearing tennis racquets then, which given the era, Lady Bull might well have been expecting. After the play was over she duly went backstage to congratulate her son. Following the usual greetings, a long silence ensued, and then, her maid having accompanied her, Lady Bull finally offered 'Maude thought the orchestra rails awfully well polished.'
Just at first you might take such a remark this way or that, but the way I see it, Lady Bull did not make an Unsolicited Comment, no, she found something nice to say. God Bless her, and the delivery people, or indeed anyone, who finds it in themselves to say something nice. Perhaps that is why the goodly Sarah lasted so long with Abraham, she was never heard to make an Unsolicited Comment - or maybe it was just her cooking.....