Things I wish I’d known at the age of 21: that one’s best friends at University are not necessarily going to be one’s best friends forever. There’s something subtly homogenising about the shared experiences and the particular circumstances of student life, with all of its self-referential heirarchies and self-contained parochialism. Fresh out of school – your personality still a work in progress, your life choices happily deferred for a few more years – and you’re liable to fall in with whoever you happen to be sitting next to.
Nothing wrong with that, either. Potentially, you’re open to everything and everybody, bound by few limiting pre-conceptions beyond the obvious ones (eg. it’s generally best to give a wide berth to the rugger bugger embezzlers in the residence hall bar). With the campus as a testbed for controlled experiments with your sense of self, it’s an altogether healthy stage of development. However, you should not be too surprised when, two or three years later, the shackles fall from your eyes, and you suddenly find yourself looking at these people as if for the first time, and you suddenly find yourself thinking: why am I even spending time with you?
Never mind all those earnest late night discussions, perched on each other’s beds with instant coffees and soggy spliffs, tying each other up in knots over politics, philosophy, religion, the “superficiality” of modern life, the Death of Culture, or that shit new band that all the “boring” people have suddenly got into. Never mind all those shared secrets, hopes and fears: quietly confided, loyally protected. Never mind all those nights out with the gang, fifteen people round a table, one shared mindset, batting round the in-jokes, trading the who-shagged-whos, the who-dumped-whos, the God-what-is-she-LIKEs. Because one day, you’ll be down for one of your “reunion” weekends, sitting in some crap pub round the corner from whoever you’re staying with, reminiscing about the time when so-and-so did such-and-such and wasn’t it CLASSIC… and you’ll realise, with a start and a shudder, that your shared past is all you’ll ever have, and that, actually, you’re a bit bored with all of this now.
Or the divisions might be more particular, and more profound. For instance, your old Uni crowd might all be living in Wandsworth, in 1987, working in advertising, buying everything (f**king EVERYTHING!) from Habitat and Next Interiors, braying about the dosh they’re bringing in, assessing everything in life in terms of its cash value (“This jacket cost me A HUNDRED POUNDS!”), all fully mortgaged and paid-up members of the Big Bang Canary Wharf Stripey Shirt And Shoulder Pads If You See Sid, Tell Him Never Had It So Good Speculate To Accumulate Property Boomer generation… while you’ve gone down the Public Sector Hair Shirt There Is Power In A Union Meat Is Murder Say No To The Cuts Benefit Night (£2 or £1 NUS/Unwaged) Barclays Bank Is A Fascist Bank 2-4-6-8 Is That Policeman Really Straight Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out Sanctimonious Self-Righteousness route.
(Or, if you haven’t actually gone down that route per se, then you’re at least gazing longingly down it (aspirationally, even – oh, the irony), and wondering how you’re going to square this aspiration with all the brand new lacquered black ash furniture in your Matt Black Dreamhome.)
Or you might be in a new relationship, and meeting your new partner’s old friends, and trying to find common ground with them, but all the while thinking: what is someone like him doing with people like that? While all the while, your new partner is meeting your old friends, and quietly nursing the same thoughts, in mirror image. Sometimes, it takes the sharp focus of a new relationship to place the accumulated baggage of your life in a bracing new perspective.
Thus it was with K’s old Uni pal, and his new fiancée. Horace #2: the hippy slacker turned stockbroker, his residual stoner chuckle strikingly at odds with the rest of him. Doris #2: the tense, controlling, tight-smiled solicitor, with her John Lewis leisure wear and her series of airy, slightly gauche asides, all too obviously designed to signal her elevated financial status.
The second time they came to stay with us, I made a great play of insisting on dragging everybody off to the Midland Group arts cinema, to see the main attraction of our inaugural Lesbian & Gay Film Festival: a documentary on the life and death of the San Francisco activist and local politician, Harvey Milk. Never mind that the three of them would rather have dressed up and gone out for a few octagonal platefuls of nouvelle cuisine at the smart new eaterie of the day – I had taken it upon myself to Raise Their Consciousness. (K included; he had not long been out of the closet, and I saw it as my duty to improve him.)
It was an arresting, hard-hitting, altogether superb documentary, which could not help but fill you with righteous indignation at Milk’s tragic fate. All four of us left the cinema in a subdued, thoughtful mood. There were flyers being handed out on the door by local activists. Horace #2 and Doris #2 politely took them, and then – to my abject horror – took them out in the straight bar round the corner, in full view of the other patrons, and read them, even as the word GAY seemingly screamed off every corner of every page. Had they no thought for our comfort and safety?
Maybe my consciousness wasn’t quite as advanced as I had thought.
Anyway, it didn’t stop them excluding me from their f**king wedding.
“Maybe they’re having to be tight on numbers”, K suggested. Yeah, you know this bit.
At the reception, K checked the names on the other place settings around his table. Nobody there he knew, worse luck. The place setting opposite him bore an army officer’s rank. The place setting adjacent to the army officer said “Guest of [army officer]”.
They didn’t even know her name. But she wasn’t another bloke, so that was all right then. Nothing to make the great aunts choke on their aperitifs.
The army officer and his “guest” clearly hadn’t known each other for long. Two or three weeks, tops. Done up to the nines, but in a distinctly brassier style than the other guests, she was all simpers and giggles, clearly delighted with the social advancement which the occasion conferred.To think of it! The likes of me, hob-nobbing with stockbrokers, solicitors… and a dashing young army officer by my side! Girl, you’ve arrived!
Her face, when the army officer discreetly came out as gay to her halfway through the meal, was apparently quite a picture.
Back in Nottingham, once again with my spinning wheel and my incantations, I cackled long and hard.
That Christmas, in response to Horace and Doris #2’s jumbo-sized Super Executive Deluxe Pride Of The Mantle Shelf affair (traditional Victorian carriage in the snow: check – extra fly-leaf, in hand-tooled vellum: check – pre-printed address on the inside, with a house name instead of a common little number: check), we chose a card from our local workers-collective alternative bookshop. Sponsored by the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign, the drawing on its cover depicted, in some detail, innocent people being gunned down in the street by the evil CIA-backed anti-Communist insurgents.
Prop that up against your f**king carriage clock, we tittered, daring each other to seal the envelope.
We never heard from them again.