Yep. I'm totally in a gang with some bikers I met online. Honest.
According to Twitter, today is "Internet Friend Day." And because I believe everything I read on Twitter, I thought I'd write about it.
Let's go back in time... *dreamy harp music and pretty lights*
Over a decade ago (if I've got my maths right and to be fair, I rarely have...), I was bored one evening and decided to sign up to the official Manic Street Preachers Internet forum, in search of like-minded
obsessives fans to talk to. After logging on, I discovered that there were a lot of trolls on that forum. But one user jumped out at me. Not literally - that would have been scary. Her username was "Snogmenicky" - a reference to a bit of a crush on the band's bassist, Nicky Wire. But it wasn't her snazzy online name that intrigued me. It was her location. Devon.
I'm based in Cornwall and frankly, I haven't met many Manics fans down here. "Devon is only next door," I reasoned, so I paid special interest to her posts on the forum. She seemed nice; funny, clever and not afraid to put the online trolls in their place. One night, a week or two later, I noticed that she was getting a bit of grief from one of the worst trolls and I decided to wade in. Afterwards, she and I got chatting and I casually asked her if she was from Devon (as though I had heard some sort of Internet rumour and wanted clarification... in hindsight, it was a stupid question). I can still remember her exact reply all these years later: "Yes, I come from the land where the accent is so thick." Whether she meant thick as in broad, or thick as in dim-sounding, I still don't know, because I never bothered to ask. I simply thought: "This poor, unsuspecting girl is definitely going to be my Manics fan friend."
From then on, we'd seek one another out on the forum and chat for hours. It seemed inevitable that we should eventually meet up. And as luck would have it, "Snogmenicky" (or "Kirstie," as most people tend to call her...), was bloody lovely in person. We were soon planning regular meet-ups and in 2005, we finally got to go to a Manics gig together:
My sister (pictured: middle) joined us. I don't know why I look so annoyed in this photo.
In the nine years since that first gig, we've been to several more together. And we make a point of dressing as weirdly as possible:
Kirstie and I have become incredibly close as the years have gone by. She's one of my dearest friends and I simply can't imagine life without her. We practically have our own language when it comes to the Manics and we have so many brilliant shared memories of gigs and road trips, it's hard to pick a favourite. Kirstie and I can laugh so hard, we border on hysterical. We can snap at one another through tiredness or "hangriness" and then be mortified enough to want to apologise almost immediately, because we don't want to hurt one another. We've stayed up late, putting the world to rights more times than I care to count. And we've sat up at the breakfast table, mugs of tea in our hands and put the world to rights all over again the next morning. She is still that sweet yet feisty girl I spotted online and just knew I wanted to be friends with and I am so, so glad that we are. And she's not the only Internet friend I have...
You see, those horrible trolls I mentioned earlier eventually made the official Manics forum an unpleasant place to be. And so, I decided to look for another place to "hang out" online. There was an unofficial forum that seemed to be pretty well known, so I signed up for that one instead. I met loads of people through that place. Some of whom I'm still in touch with. Some of whom I drifted apart from over the years. And some of whom... Well, the less said about that the better. But one of the people I would chat to now and then was a really nice girl - again, very genuine, clever and a bit feisty - called Lydia. She was known as MsManic on the forum and with my username being mrsmanics, we sometimes caused confusion. She was from Plymouth which was, in my eyes, just up the road (well, an hour's drive away, but ssshh, details schmetails). Just as my friendship with Kirstie seemed almost inevitable, so did a friendship with Lydia. Even so, we were still in the early phase of nattering to one another online when I had some unexpected mail; a wedding invite. Yes, despite having never met in the flesh, Lydia had invited me to her evening wedding reception. Might sound weird to some people now, but at the time, I didn't bat an eyelid. Of course I would go! Consequently, the first ever photo of Lydia and me is actually of Lydia, her husband and a load of wedding guests, with me at the front, because I happen to be tiny.
Lydia in black & white, me in turquoise with truly awful hair.
After the wedding, we stayed in touch and not only chatted online, but sent Christmas cards and that sort of thing. When she and her husband Luke moved back to Plymouth from Yorkshire, I remember thinking "ooh... We could meet up." And we did. But bizarrely, it wasn't until the worst experience of my life that Lydia and I became as close as we are today.
My abusive ex lived in Plymouth (or at least he was from Plymouth and moved back there after uni). Sometimes, I'd go to stay with him for a weekend and he'd go out for a few hours pursuing a hobby of his (not shagging other women, although... actually, for all I know, he could have been). Seeing as I was on my own in a city I wasn't that familiar with, it made perfect sense to catch up with Lydia.
It turned out that we were ideally matched. We were both keen on singing. We both had a tendency to become obsessed with bands or TV shows etc. We were both bullied at school and had a few confidence issues as a result. We were both, in the nicest way possible, weird. Wonderfully weird. And when you meet someone as weird as you know you are yourself, well frankly, you must never let them go. Lydia and I learnt that we could be utterly stupid together - laughing until tears streamed down our faces - but we also learnt that we could open up and be entirely ourselves together, without fear of judgement.
Over time, I started looking forward to seeing Lydia as much as I did my ex. More so, once things got really bad between him and me. And the worse things got between us, the more I found myself opening up to Lydia about it. You see, the thing about Lyds is that she is - and I tell her this a lot - ridiculously wise. She really has got a head full of wisdom beyond her years. I wish I could syphon some of it off for myself, because I'm a notorious div. I would tell Lydia what was going on - albeit a heavily manipulated version, seeing as I was myself being totally and utterly manipulated by my ex into thinking he couldn't help his behaviour and that everything was my fault - and she would listen and support me as best she could.
When things got really bad, Lydia became the only person in the world who I felt able to confide in. She was there when I was sobbing my heart out, wanting to die because I was so useless I just couldn't fix the problems I had clearly caused (again, manipulation). She was there when I collapsed onto the pavement late one night, distraught at having been screamed at by my ex (he was furious with me for loving him, apparently). She picked me up - quite literally - and walked me into her parents' house, where she and her husband were living at the time. She put me to bed and she slept on the floor in my room, because she didn't want to leave me alone. She was there for me when I finally walked away from that relationship. She was able to use the word "abuse" before I could. She wrote me a beautiful letter, in which she begged me not to blame myself for what happened - I still have it and I doubt I'll ever get rid of it.
It seems strange that something so awful could have given rise to something so wonderful, but I honestly think that that abusive relationship brought Lydia and I closer together. It brought us closer than I had ever been to any other friend in my life. As far as I'm concerned, in many ways, she saved my life.
And thank goodness she did, because if I wasn't around now, we'd never have had some of the stupid, funny, brilliant times we've had since. Like going to The Big Reunion tour and pissing ourselves laughing at the idea that Sean from 5ive was dressed as a security guy. Or holding hands on Rita at Alton Towers, screaming our heads off the whole way round. Or going to see McBusted "purely for the Backstreet Boys" and ending up becoming two of the world's most obsessional McBusted fans (and proud). Lydia is all kinds of awesome. There have been times when we've been together and I've laughed so hard I've ached the next day. There have been times when I've not known what to do about something and I instinctively know that Lyds will. I sometimes think she knows me better than I do. I can't even find words for how amazing she is, so instead, have some silly photos:
Yes, "Kirstie" DOES refer to my other "Internet Friend."
So that's two amazing friends made through the Internet. You know, just in case you're reading this and thinking "pah, no good can come from online friendships!" And I wouldn't blame you if you were, because I could write a whole other blog about the awful people I've met online. But eagle-eyed readers might remember that the first photo in this blog featured me and four other people, not just two.
Well, technically I didn't meet the other two girls online. But I did meet them thanks to the Internet.
When Kirstie got engaged, a few years into our friendship, she held a party. At that party, I met Kirstie's younger sister, Lizzie and Kirstie's best friend, Kate. Both lovely people, I thought straight away. But I didn't see either of them again for a while. In the meantime, I kept popping to Plymouth to see Lydia and meeting up with Kirstie on other occasions. Eventually, Kirstie had an idea. Why didn't we just meet up together? If I remember rightly, I think Kirstie and Lydia had already met by this point, but one of them will correct me if I'm wrong, I'm sure... Anyway, Kirstie then suggested she bring Lizzie and Kate along, too. Eventually, we hit upon the idea of meeting in Plymouth to go ice skating and for lunch afterwards. It was to be the first time all five of us went out together. We got on like a house on fire. That same feeling of inevitability washed over me from the word go: We were just meant to be friends.
Kate, Lizzie, Lydia and at the front, me. The short one.
Since that day, there have been many, many similar meet-ups between the five of us. And we don't just meet up as a gang, either. Since I got to know them (thanks to Kirstie and therefore thanks to the Internet), I've forged amazing friendships with Kate and Lizzie too.
I see Kate almost as the mother hen of the group. She's the one who has a sensible outlook. Most of the time... That said, she's also the one I ran laughing with down a Prague street, after accidentally watching a theatre show that we thought was about a well-known children's book, but involved rather more scenes of naked women touching each other than we had anticipated...
Kate and I can sit and natter away so much that an hour passes by in the blink of an eye. We can laugh one minute and be serious the next. She's more confident than she gives herself credit for and, like Lydia, often has a wise head on her shoulders.
Kate is also generous, friendly and has a wicked sense of humour. She comes out with things that make you gasp, seeing as she's so innocent looking and demure most of the time! She's a deep thinker like me, so we've had some pretty awesome heart to hearts over the last few years. I treasure moments like that; it's good to be able to bare your soul with a friend, as well as share a few giggles. Kate has a big heart and I love her for it.
And then there's Lizzie. What can I say about Lizzie?! My life would be SO much duller without her in it!
Lizzie is my Butlin's buddy. She's a dreamer like me. She's a feisty little so and so (it must run in the family!) and she's genuinely hilarious company. She's strong and yet sensitive at the same time. Lizzie is one of the few people in the world who can tell me off when I'm being stupid or oversensitive and not have me get mad at her for doing it (Lydia is one of the only others who can get away with that!). Lizzie is sometimes so on my wavelength it's actually scary. We're often thinking the same thing. At the same time. When we go away to Butlin's together, we're like a cross between a two-person army and a pair of over-excited kids, in as much as we're usually found in the Skyline, laughing hysterically at some in-joke that nobody else could possibly understand, but if anyone does anything to anger or upset the other, the laughter stops and Lizzie goes all black-belt. As we told each other the last time we went away together: We've got each other's backs if anything bad happens. Always. We also know that we'll do things for each other, regardless of whether we're that fussed about it. For example, Lizzie spent November 23rd last year having a "Doctor Who Day" with me, in spite of the fact that she's not remotely bothered about the show. I wanted to do it, so she joined in. And the very first time we went to Butlin's was purely because Lizzie wanted to see Stephen Mulhern's magic show. She wanted to see it, so I went with her. Best decision I ever made, to be honest!
And seriously... Those in-jokes I mentioned? I think we must have a hundred by now. If the whole gang of us got together and I randomly went: "Nathan... Naaathaaaan... NAAAATHAAAAAN!" Not one of the other girls would have the slightest clue what I was blabbering on about. Lizzie, on the other hand, would find it hilarious. And rightly so, because it is. To the two of us, at least. Sometimes, it's things like that that make you realise what a special friendship you have - you almost create your own little world when you're together. And Lizzie and I are definitely in a world of our own...
A lot of people are distrustful of those they meet online. And it's not hard to understand why; there are a lot of bad people out there, pretending to be something they're not. But if it wasn't for the Internet, I wouldn't have any of these amazing women in my life. And I honestly don't want to think - not even for a second - what that would be like.
So thank you Internet. You may be full of leaked pictures of naked celebrities and trolls who think they're hilarious, but somewhere in the big old pile of yuck, there are gems to be found. And I've found four.
Happy Internet Friend Day.