Five years ago, I heard the expression ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with’ and it was one of those phrases that immediately got my creative juices flowing.
Within an hour, I had my lead character and the plot of my new novel, Freckles.
Credited to the famous American author and business motivational speaker Jim Rohn, it’s an enigmatic phrase. The question it begs — who are those five people? — could, I suppose, have a different answer in each different phase of our lives. While the precious people remain, others change as our situations change: new neighbourhood, new job, new you.
But if you were to choose a phase of your life, and look at who you were and what you were going through, and then closely examine the five people you allowed into your inner circle, how much of an impact did those people have on your decisions and on your character?
Four UK-based writers reflected on the five people who’ve shaped their lives the most, as Cecelia Ahern (pictured) explores the phrase in her new novel Freckles
In Freckles, the main character, Allegra Bird, realises that if she has the capacity to choose the people she wants to be shaped by, then she also has the power to become a better version of herself. By selecting those whose personalities can’t help but rub off on her, she can curate her own character and choose a different path in life.
And so she reaches out to five people she admires — someone in the sports world, someone in business, one in politics and an old friend from the past (the fifth shall remain a surprise). She sees it as an opportunity to become an upgraded version of herself.
I’m a solitary kind of person who adores my small tribe — those I know I can trust with my whole heart. I love being around creative people who open doors in my mind, and around grounded, salt of the earth people. Encouragement and positivity are helpful.
I don’t suggest you should read my new novel and immediately start culling some people in favour of others. But I do think that if you are surrounded by toxic relationships that are preventing you from being a happy balanced person, then perhaps those kinds of people shouldn’t be among your five. Your inner circle is yours to control, and you must closely guard who you let in.
THE FRIEND WHO RESCUES ME FROM MYSELF
Janet Ellis, 65, is a TV presenter and writer. She lives in London and has three children, Sophie, Jackson and Martha, and five grandchildren.
My fab five haven’t always influenced the path I’ve taken but they’ve been there when I’ve asked for directions. In some cases, their wisdom and sass survives them.
My mother died more than 30 years ago but I still rely on her loving encouragement. I liked her, too, and it was mutual. My Ma was a woman who, despite having had an uneven start in life herself, never gave me anything but confidence. And, more importantly, the confidence to fail.
She was a big cheerleader when I succeeded, mind you. And that’s my approach to parenting, right there, passed down from her to me.
Janet Ellis, 65, (pictured), who lives in London, said her friend Claire Jones radiates goodness and quietly rescues her from herself
No one in my family was remotely connected to a career in acting, so my mother looked for someone else to shape my unfocused desire to be an actress.
She found Fern Flynn. Her lessons were an add-on extra at my school, and I loved them and her.
Fern was beautiful, she was gentle, and she knew more about finding your way to a character than anyone else. She made it all seem possible and exciting, and I’ve tried to keep that feeling going in whatever I do.
I’ve always thanked my lucky stars if good people came along as well. If that sounds worthy, my friend Claire Jones, a radio producer, is anything but, yet she radiates goodness.
I have a tendency to criticise and I’m inclined to fear the worst, but Claire, quietly and effectively, rescues me from myself. All with a huge sense of fun.
Lovely as she is, there are some things even Claire can’t manage, in which case I always ask a simple question: What would Julie Andrews do? From the moment I saw her spinning and singing in The Sound Of Music, I was transfixed.
That voice! Those songs!
What does she teach me?
Janet (pictured) said her husband John, who is funny, honest, kind and smart, makes her want to be her best self
That music is the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.
That life with Julie is always a musical. And she’s leading the singing, every time.
I deliberately chose Julie as my guide, but sometimes my most influential people have chosen me.
Bruised by divorce, a single mum of one, I met my husband John at just the right moment.
Funny, honest, kind and smart, he was obviously a much better person than I am, and he made me want to be the best me I can be.
It was the secret of our happy relationship and, since his death last year (I cry as I write that), my inspiration now.
To him and all my other very brilliant — and, in Julie’s case, completely unaware — guiding lights: thank you. I’m still a work in progress, but you did good.
NUN WHO TAUGHT ME FRIVOLITY IS NO SIN
Libby Purves, 71, is a radio presenter, journalist and author. She lives in Suffolk with her husband Paul, with whom she had two children.
Libby Purves, 71, (pictured), who lives in Suffolk, revealed her influences include her dad, brothers and the headmistress of the convent school she attended
There are many ways to mark and make someone’s life, morally and intellectually: by kindness, cruelty, influence, or simply by introducing them to new worlds. All matter.
Asked to pick just a few, I have to start with my dad: a restrained and undemonstrative lowland Scot, student of German philosophy between the wars, then BBC overseas service in anti-Nazi propaganda, later diplomat.
He was, when appropriate, funny; fond of his very different wife and four children and proud of Britain (except when its governments made him less so).
He also believed in me always: no nonsense about girls being mere housekeepers and decorations. I owe him that!
Impossible to choose one brother, so all three must count as one: all witty in different ways, good company, good pickers of wives and partners. And teasing. I think everyone needs to undergo a bit of that.
Moving on, a middle-aged nun with a long, intelligent, horse-face surrounded by the frills of a still-medieval wimple.
Prudence Wilson was headmistress of the convent school I landed in at 14, with parents abroad and brothers scattered to boys’ schools.
Libby (pictured) said Alan Coren of the old Punch Magazine, taught her that sometimes less is more
She was a scholar, in love with philosophy as well as her faith.
But she had a rich edge of lunatic fun, pretending to send the school to bed early in disgrace on Hallowe’en, then getting everyone up in dressing gowns and telling ghost stories with cocoa and biscuits. Once, on a treasure hunt day, she was found in a hedge as a clue, disguised as a tramp: ancient greasy coat over her nun’s habit.
She taught me about Plato’s Cave, and how frivolity is no sin.
My next influence was the gay, exquisite, long-lashed bartender brought into the posher cocktail half of the Irish bar where I doled out pints all my teenage summers.
At first we squabbled horribly over the limited stock of ice.
Then, one night, as we mopped up after closing time, Charles trilled: ‘OK Liberty-belle, let’s have a whisky.’
No more squabbling. We kept affectionately in touch for years.
He took me to a few parties more late and louche than I had known. There I learnt that friendly hearts of gold often reside beneath outrageously dragged-up fake breasts, and that gender is indeed a fluid thing. Decades later, he turned up as a waiter at a very smart do. We shrieked in mutual joy.
My fifth is an editor: Alan Coren of the old Punch Magazine.
He became a friend for life, but equally importantly he taught me that sometimes less is more, and that it’s always worth cutting and rewriting!
THE UNCLE WHO FUNDED OUR IVF
Sarfraz Manzoor, 50, is a screenwriter, journalist and author. He lives in London with his wife Bridget and their two children.
Sarfraz Manzoor, 50, (pictured), who lives in London, recounts his close friend Amolak introducing him to Bruce Springsteen
We like to believe we shape our own destinies, but when I look back on the journey of my life, it is extraordinary how much has been defined by the people luck has thrown me into the path of.
The first was a lad called Amolak. I bumped into him in the common room of Luton Sixth Form College in the autumn of 1987, when I was 16. Amolak introduced me to the music of Bruce Springsteen.
That music genuinely changed me by giving me the courage to want more from my life than I’d get by staying in a down-at-heel neighbourhood of Luton. It would later inspire my memoir, Greetings From Bury Park, about those years growing up, trying to reconcile being both British and Muslim in the 1980s.
Amolak and I both turned 50 this summer and we are still the closest of friends. The second piece of luck was in 1993, when I was 23, unemployed, directionless and living in Manchester.
I happened to catch a documentary about a new band called Oasis, directed by a woman called Janey Valentine.
The idea that someone could make a living talking to rock stars seemed unimaginably cool. The next day I called her up — out of the blue — and she agreed to meet me. I told her I had no contacts in the media, but I wanted to get into the industry, and ultimately do a job as fun as hers. She offered me two weeks’ work experience that became six months and ended up helping me get a job with ITN.
In 2012, I was suddenly made jobless from the newspaper I was then working for. I was 40, married with a mortgage, had a new baby and was terrified.
Sarfraz revealed meeting his wife Bridget (pictured) on a train in 2008 has also shaped his life
That was when film-maker Gurinder Chadha, who’d become a friend after I accidentally bumped into her in a London cafe, began to shape my life.
I told her I wanted to make a film adaptation of my memoir, and for some reason she had faith in me and my story. Blinded By The Light was finally released in 2019 — Bruce Springsteen even attended the premiere! The film changed my life, financially and career wise, and it’s impossible to believe it would have been made without Gurinder.
It isn’t just my work life that’s been shaped by accidental encounters. In 2008, I was returning home by train and found myself sitting opposite a beautiful blonde. We chatted and I gave her my number. Two years later, Bridget became my wife.
In 2011, Bridget and I became parents to a daughter, Laila. We started trying for a second child around 2013, with no luck. We spent a large portion of our savings on a course of IVF, which led Bridget to get pregnant only to sadly miscarry. We had no money left, and it was then we had a slice of great luck.
Bridget’s uncle, Ian Plewis, offered to dip into his pension to fund one more round of treatment. Bridget became pregnant, and in November 2016 Ezra was born. Our son’s existence is a tribute to the accidents and people that continue to shape my life.
They: What Muslims And Non-Muslims Get Wrong About Each Other by Sarfraz Manzoor (£20, Wildfire Books) is out now.
THE WONDERFUL POWER OF FAMILY
Jane Gordon, 65, is a journalist and writer living in Henley, Oxfordshire. She has three children and a granddaughter.
Jane Gordon, 65, (pictured), who lives in Henley, said her late mother Naomi provided guidance into her early 50s
These days, it is generally frowned on for a parent to be a friend to their child, but it seems to me that, more than anyone else, it is my family who’ve shaped the person I am today, starting with my late mother Naomi — my ultimate BFF!
I was lucky to have her counsel and guidance into my early 50s. And while there were, of course, occasional fallouts, my ambition as a child was to be exactly the person she was — funny, kind, clever and, above all, positive.
My mother was the first person (apart from my ex-husband) to meet the second of the five most influential people in my life, my first child, Bryony. Beautiful, quiet and essentially good as a little girl, she was a worrier who went a bit wild in her 20s, but has, since then as a writer and mental health activist, probably taught me more than I taught her.
My third is my second daughter, Naomi, named after my mother, who came into the world upside down but has viewed it, ever since, with extraordinary emotional intelligence and creativity. A feminist in a floral dress, Naomi has helped me to stay relevant and become my favourite shopping companion/stylist.
The arrival of the fourth of my five influencers, Rufus, the third of my children with my ex-husband, had a dramatic effect on my life and on my attitude to boys (I had expected a girl).
He conformed to the stereotype of what boys are made of (‘slugs and snails and puppy dog tails’), unlike the ‘sugar and spice’ of his sisters. As he has grown, so has my pride in my handsome, 6 ft 4 in, charming, talented and hilarious son, and, on the way, he’s given me a new understanding of the male of the species.
And number five? Just yesterday, walking the dog with Bryony’s daughter Edie, we got talking about friendship. I asked her who, in the whole world, was her true best friend. ‘My Mummy, of course,’ she instantly replied.
Confirmation, I think, that imperfect as most families are, they have an indelible effect on your life nothing else can quite equal.