To Brighton yesterday by train for a gathering of old friends for nothing more important than a thoroughly enjoyable lunch in the unexpectedly hot bright sunshine in an establishment overlooking the marina.
It is in the nature of human existence that stuff constantly happens, paths differ, fortunes and situations vary wildly, friendships wax and wane, individuals mature (or not) and that somehow, often against all logic, sometimes bonds endure.
Personally – as someone who, fifty years on, still approaches life as if I have remained aged twenty or less – I have an equivocal attitude to reunions.
As an impressionable schoolboy obsessed by sport I was the kind that had imagined that I would, and was probably expected by others to, remain forever a stereotypical product of my alma mater.
However, things don’t always work out like that.
It became a riotous and rewarding evening but I also emerged from the experience with a bitter/sweet aftertaste.
The assembled had ranged from those who had scarcely changed at all to those barely recognisable as whom they had once been and as I remembered them.
Quite apart from evident signs of ageing – e.g. encroaching baldness, grey hair and expanding waistlines or indeed a combo of two or all three of those – some had matured into ebullient middle-aged (well nearly) bastions of affluent corporate seniority with attitudes and family responsibilities to match.
Others had pursued less well-paid perhaps artistic or charitable careers with varying degrees of success.
One chap caught the mood of what some (including me) had been possibly thinking amidst the chaos of the moment when out of the blue he offered the statement that of our number Patrick had been the lucky one – an unlikely line since Patrick, who’d gone on to Oxford University, had been killed when a Land Rover overturned on an African safari.
Asked why, the speaker replied “Because he’ll only ever be twenty-three”.
It was less successful.
Its highlight was the fact that one of the original XV, who I had been informed by the school bursar (custodian of the Old Boy archives) had also passed away – and to whom, along with Patrick, we had dedicated our rousing toast to “Absent Friends!” the year before – actually tuned up!
He hadn’t died at all and had been running a hotel in Leicestershire all the time.
I stopped organising this reunion after that.
Another originally school-related reunion project I organised for fifteen years was an annual fancy dress dinner. It sprang from a unofficial madcap magazine specialising in doggerel verse and humour that I ran in self-identified competition with the official school magazine.
For sheer fun a couple of years later the editorial team set up a one-off reunion dinner out in the country at Kings Langley, dress specified as “black tie and Wellington boots”. An otherwise quiet mid-town restaurant was thus overtaken by eight overgrown schoolboys, a tanker-load of alcohol was involved, and for some reason the evening ended with us taking turns to read our own poetry from the collected editions of the literary organ concerned.
Or maybe not. One couple – who had given every sign of having gone out for an intense romantic date – came up to us as closing time approached, mentioned that they’d rarely enjoyed a night out so much and asked, if we ever organised the event again, if they could be invited.
And thus followed another fourteen memorable annual fancy dress dinners themed upon eras such as VE Night, The Wild West and The Twenties attended by an ever-expanding list of guests fuelled by word of mouth.
Until the fifteenth, at which with great ceremony one of the originals (today a partner in a leading City law firm) – who had in the meantime spent six years working in Hong Kong – plus his wife came along to re-join these epic nights of fun, dancing and performances by those who had volunteered to entertain.
Afterwards he wrote to thank me for organising such a cracking party (his words not mine) but added that he had a slight feeling of regret. Over time the event seemed to have disconnected from its original (reunion) purpose and was now, more or less, just another fancy dress party, however enjoyable it had been, or might again be in the future.
I thought about it, decided he was right – and ‘killed’ it overnight.
Recently a fellow Old Boy contacted me by email. At school he had been one of my closest friends – after leaving we spent seven months working and touring around Australia together – and he is now a retired private school headmaster. He announced that, in response to a longing to catch up with his school contemporaries, next year he is planning to organise one enormous reunion – or alternately a series of smaller ones – to bring us all together again: what did I think of the project?
I responded that I was about 50:50 regarding the prospect. I would accept and turn up if I received the invitation(s), but at the same time it wasn’t something that I would now ever consider organising myself.
One the one hand, I was loyal enough that I wouldn’t let him down.
On the other – to be blunt – I was perfectly happy to stay with my memories of all those I had known at school (or after that time of my life) as I had known them then: I wasn’t too bothered about seeing them again, i.e. as they are now, and then have to listen to them – or indeed myself – talking about everything we’ve done since we last met.
I’d rather be doing something new today, or tomorrow, than join a gathering whose main purpose would be to chat about things that happened anything up to fifty years ago.
Which brings me back to yesterday.
Our gathering of four had been involved in a group activity that we considered at the time – and even now actually – became very special indeed. It grew from a germ of an idea, over a five year period developed into something that made a permanent mark upon nearly forty of us at its height, and then died.
It was of its time but has left us with one of the strongest ‘team bonds’ I’ve ever had. And those are the type worth hanging onto.