Recently I spent an agreeable evening in a London pub with ten of my old school friends; it is just over 50 years since we first met.
Well, to be honest, they were not actually old school friends; perhaps half had been acquaintances at school – people I would chat with between lessons or over lunch but did not socialise with; the rest could really only be described as contemporaries. My two best friends at school died well before their time; but apart from this I blame my relatively old-schoolfriend-free existence on my being such a wimp (when we were at school, I was actually quite scared of some of the people I met that evening; and besides, I have never been terribly gregarious) and also on the school, which was not exactly a friendly, welcoming place. The day I left – I can still remember it, the 29th of November 1968 – was the best day of my life. When I went to say goodbye to our somewhat socially-challenged headmaster, he had to look me up in his file to remind himself who I was. (And OK, you might not think that so surprising in a school of perhaps 600 pupils; but then I was, by his definition, one of the most important at that time because I was one of a small group who had applied to Oxbridge, and Oxbridge entry, together with sport and playing soldiers, seemed to be just about the only thing the school cared about. I was also one of perhaps only 7 or 8 actually leaving on that day).
A few months after leaving, I had a conversation with someone who said that she thought the quality of a school could be assessed by how many pupils stayed on after the end of lessons – for clubs and other activities. At our place, come 4pm you could hear a pin drop, and I think that says a lot, though I know some of my contemporaries will disagree.
But if I don’t have any old schoolfriends in the usual sense of the term, thanks to these “reunions” I have at least made some new friends among people with whom I was at school. And the get-togethers are fascinating as a sort of sociological experiment: take a cross-section of a particular generation and fast-forward 50 years – what have they done? Who have they become? One salient point is that we were all in the same year – so we are all exactly the same age, give or take a few months. Now, as the school was always busy telling us what a fantastic place it was, you might expect us to be by now a group of senior judges, bankers, politicians, businessmen, doctors, scientists, engineers, writers, and other Top People. OK, it was not a public school, it was a grammar school (although it is now private); but then we grew up in the age of meritocracy, when anyone could be a Top Person if one was good enough.
So what have we got? A retired biochemist; a freelance medical writer; a vicar; someone who was in local authority housing; an ambulance driver; a retired computer whizzkid. Among those who couldn’t make it, the editor of a well-known dictionary; a planning inspector; a retired academic. A few people whose occupations are a mystery to me, who do, or did, some sort of stuff with computers and finance. (I told you I was not the gregarious type; or perhaps I just always end up sitting next to the same people?) Maybe even the odd banker. In adjacent years, we had the England cricket captain and a member of a well-known punk band; and there were rumours that one of the Pythons was an old boy, but I certainly never knew him. Of my friends who died, one had a very high-profile job as the governor of a well-known prison; the other had a go at teaching, didn’t like it, and did very little else for the rest of his short life. Another boy, a year above us, whom I had known at primary school, went to Oxford and committed suicide a few years later.
Then there’s me, still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up …
When the Class of 2012 has its 50th reunion in 2062 (what a thought!) I prophesy that it will be a much less interesting bunch. Taken from a much narrower stratum of society, they will be people (still all-male – the school never admitted girls) whose parents paid a fortune for their education and who as a result went into a few predictable occupations, probably the ones listed above in fact. Granted, a few will have rebelled against all that; but they will be in the minority. I don’t regret that I will not be there to meet them.
Apart from the fact that I would find an evening with a load of bankers indescribably boring, I take quite a lot of comfort from the disparate crowd we’ve turned into. Generally (although maybe this is a self-selected group?) we are all pretty content with our lot, I think. Inevitably nowadays the conversation turns to darker topics such as the death of parents, divorce, the onset of age-related illness. But then there is all this leisure time, travel, and grandchildren. It’s not such a bad world at the butt end of middle age.