It’s Oddfellows Friendship Month and at Autumn Voices we wanted to celebrate the role of friendship as a nourishing and sustaining presence in our lives for those of us lucky to have good friends – whether new, or life-long. This week, 65-year-old Sheila Wakefield, Autumn Voices Steering Group member and publisher at Red Squirrel Press, talks about her experience of friendship and the role it plays in her life.

Sheila Wakefield is a poet, occasional short story writer and Founder– Editor of Scotland-based Red Squirrel Press publishing poetry pamphlets and full collections. She has published almost three hundred titles since 2006 and founded Postbox Press, the literary fiction imprint of Red Squirrel Press, in 2015, publishing short story pamphlets and full collections, novellas and novels.

In 2019, she launched Postbox – Scotland’s International Short Story Magazine. Sheila has an MA in Creative Writing and her pamphlet, Limerance (Talking Pen) was published in 2012. Following the death of Red Squirrel Press poet / St Mungo’s Mirrorball founder member William Bonar, she runs an annual award in his memory in partnership with St Mungo’s Mirrorball and the prize is mentoring and publication of a pamphlet. 

She is co-chair of the Scottish Writers’ Centre.

Sheila lives in Biggar and has several obsessions, including traditional chapbooks, Crawhall woodcuts and road race cycling. She has been to all three Grand Cycling Tours many times and her favourite is the Giro d’Italia.   

Friendship is important to lots of people. As well as the obvious needs of a home, food and warmth that are sadly lacking in too many lives, there is also the issue of loneliness. Some of us are happy to live in isolation – but even those of us who swing between craving time/ space on our own and having company, between being introverts and extroverts, find it comforting to know that we have friends if and when we want to contact them. 

As I grow older, I often suspect that we might need different types of friends at varying stages in our lives.

When we’re children and teenagers, friendships can be short and lacking compromise as we struggle to negotiate our way to maturity. Two of my friends, one of over forty years and one of almost twenty years, share my experience of losing friendships when we were eleven years old. 

Elizabeth Rimmer pinning on Sheila’s ‘Demented Poetess’ badge before introducing the Red Squirrel Press Showcase at StAnza, 2018. Photo credit: Judith Butler

Towards the end of my last year at junior school, there was a girl who was suddenly on my radar who I hadn’t really known much previously. The word ‘cool’ wasn’t used for anything other than boxes for trying to preserve food whilst camping back then, but if it has been, ‘D’ would definitely have been described as the epitome of cool. D had an older sister who clearly influenced her style and confidence. She was the subject of my one and only girl crush and, much to my regret, I allowed her to lead me, as did some of my friends. 

Despite there being a perfectly good (and free) school bus, which of course took us all the way to the school, she suggested that we started using the service bus, spending some of our money and walking the last half mile. Thinking back, I can remember no good reason to do so. We did this for some time, until we received our results informing us which school we were going to be moving to in the autumn. D was going to the secondary modern school and the rest of us were not. Sadly, the rest of us failed to think much about it and the blow that she had been dealt, but she stopped speaking to us. D never spoke to me again and I haven’t seen her since the last day of junior school despite continuing to live only a couple of hundred yards away from her for another seven years. The fact that I even remember this after all these years clearly demonstrates how I still feel inadequate in how I failed to see the impact on her initially. I also felt hurt by her abandonment, and, at a vulnerable age, I experienced a huge learning curve.

Launch od Tour de Vers at the Ventoux Bar, Edinburgh, 2014.

Platforms like Friends Reunited (remember that?) and Facebook have made it easier to reconnect or remain in contact with friends from senior school. There’s something very special about the people you shared those years with, developing from childish eleven-year-olds into young adults of eighteen. The years in between your twenties and reaching age sixty can then bring very different friendships. If we have children, their friends bring with them their parents, who sometimes become lifelong friends.

Breakdowns in relationships with partners, divorce and widowhood can dramatically alter friendships. How often do friends of partners or spouses take sides with the other party during relationship breakdowns and divorces, and friends that they might have had for many years are gone from their lives almost overnight, leaving them feeling bereft? We acknowledge that these are difficult situations but no matter what the reasons are for these relationships or marriages fracturing, surely it’s better to remain friends with both parties? Couples sometimes reunite and it’s much easier all round if you’ve supported them both. Widowhood can have a traumatic impact on friendships, and we should try to remember to support and remain friends with the person who is left behind.

People also sometimes relocate on retirement age. I did but continue to work. I moved from Northeast England to Scotland in early 2018 when I was sixty-one. I’d always visited Scotland and had been doing work here for some years. My mother’s family were from Scotland, and I have several family members here. I already had many friends and have since made lots more. As always in Scotland, I’ve been made to feel extremely welcome, and thanks to technology and social media, remaining in contact with family and friends in Northeast England is easy. I also continue to do some work in Northeast England. 

Friendships are sometimes long and may not appear to be close but can be deceiving. I see one of my closest friends only once a year, but we’ve been friends for over forty-five years and have never had a wrong word. We communicate via social media and it’s as though we saw each other only yesterday. When we meet up once a year, to go to see our favourite musician and we immediately fall into the easy friendship that we continue to share. Since I moved to Scotland, she suggested that we go to the gig up here instead, which is great. 

Colin Will and Sheila waltzing behind the Red Squirrel Press stall at StAnza, 2017. Photo credit: Carloyn Patricia Richardson

Another of my oldest friends, again, of over forty-five years, is someone I see several times a year, but we speak most Friday nights thanks to WhatsApp. 

My oldest friend moved to southern England when we were in our twenties, so technology has certainly made contact with her easier over all those years.

I’m lucky to have friends of all ages; I love supporting younger people and seeing them flourish. I’m also very lucky to have some good male friends, most of whom I’ve also had in my life for a long time.

Unfortunately, by the time we’re old enough to be members of Autumn Voices, most of us will have tragically lost friends as well as family. I’ve lost five friends in the last year. I therefore believe that we should nurture, respect and love our friends in the same way as we do our families. 

Friends are precious, enjoy them while you can. 

Sheila Wakefield

Our flash theme for September is Memory, Money, or Mates!

Is it technically autumn yet, or still summer? It’s very warm, but we’ve started noticing spiders so it must be September, but only just. This month, it’s #WorldAlzheimersMonth and Oddfellows Friendship Month and September also offers us Pension Awarness Week. This means our minds are on all things memory, connection and security for older people.

We’ll be featuring some content on the website about Alzheimers and dementia, financial matters and the art of friendship and connection. These are also the themes of our monthly flash competition, which is back to being a poem/prose/memoir this month, although accompanying photos are always welcome.

Are you aged 60 or over? Send us your flash entries! Tell us something about memory, money or mates.

Entries will be accepted until midnight on September 30th and we’ll pick our favourite in early October, which is, by cunning coincidence, when our poetry competition starts, so sharpen your pens for that. The winner will receive a copy of “The Book About Getting Older” by Dr Lucy Pollock which has been kindly donated by Penguin and their entry will be published on the Autumn Voices website.

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