I am not a great believer in looking backwards, or indeed forwards, preferring for the most part to live in the present and worry about tomorrow later – usually when it becomes today. Reminiscing about days gone by, telling tales of how much better everything was in the past and hanging on to cherished memories of youthful vigour have never appealed to me. I am not a fan of going back to where I used to live or work, not least because looking at how things are now and making the point that they are not the same as they used to be seems rather obvious and without any great benefit.
Those of you of a certain age may remember a film called ‘Sliding Doors’ with Gwyneth Paltrow and John Hannah, in which lives are changed by the simple act of catching a train or missing it. It has always seemed to me that life is a series of sliding doors, where endless random acts combine to create a narrative that could have changed so many times that it is not worth trying to pretend that we have very much control at all over what happens to us. We may be able to choose which door we take each time, but we cannot control the doors that other people take, or when and how their lives come to collide with our own.
Such thoughts had been running through my mind in recent weeks as Sunday 1st October loomed ever closer – the day on which I had committed myself to go back to my old school to recognise the fortieth anniversary of when I left in 1983. It was not really a big deal, I kept telling myself, just a chance to catch up with a few people and to have a look round. But as I turned off Junction 6 on the M25, which I usually just bypass on my way to the Channel Tunnel, I was struggling to convince myself that it was not somehow more significant than this.
There were about ninety of us in my year group at school and about twenty-five at the reunion lunch – not a bad turnout, I suppose, but somehow slightly disappointing in the grand scheme of things. The last time I had been back was in 2003, the twentieth anniversary, which I seem to remember was all right, but without being of any great significance. My abiding memory was that the aforementioned M25 was closed when we were trying to get back to our home at the time in Leicestershire, which entailed coming up through London and over Chiswick Bridge during a journey that was at least twice as long as it should have been.
So, here we were twenty years later, wandering around a place that was familiar and yet at the same time different, of course, with people who were similarly familiar and different – but mostly just older. We looked like what we are – a group of people in their late fifties with various degrees of hair loss and looking rather broader in the girth than we were in our youth. Otherwise, what conclusions can I draw from what happened? Perhaps the most obvious is that I am still in touch with the people from my school days that I want to be in touch with and I am not in touch with those I do not.
By the randomness of another of those sliding doors, I have ended up living around the corner from one of my best friends from school. Indeed, we went together on Sunday, acknowledging that if we had travelled separately it might have been tempting just to keep driving and never to have arrived. He and I can go to the pub at the weekend whenever it suits us, though all we really do now is talk about our aches and pains and how much it costs to keep supporting our children.
In the end, it was good to see a few people I have not seen for a while, vaguely diverting to share a few life stories and interesting to hear how some of us have a seemingly accurate collective memory of key moments while others recall things very differently. Many of the people who taught us have died, which is hardly surprising when you think about it. They always seemed like a decent bunch for the most part, though the world was a very different place forty years ago, not least in boarding schools across the country.
But no one had a tale to tell that was too harrowing and no one suffered unduly as far as any of us could work out. Most of us remain slightly traumatised that we were made to swim in the nude until we were about thirteen. None of us can work out why they made us do this, beyond the obvious conclusion that it suited the adults more than the children. Stories were told about smelting lead from the roof, which was news to many of us and may well have been exaggerated, but otherwise I was left, I think, feeling rather underwhelmed by it all. There may not be many of us left in twenty more years for the sixtieth anniversary, so maybe I will go back for the fiftieth in 2033 – but perhaps I won’t.
Driving home, I had a Bruce Springsteen song stuck in my head. A highlight of the summer was the chance to see him in concert in Hyde Park – well, to watch him on a giant screen because he was nothing more than a distant stick man from where we were standing. When my daughter suggested trying to get tickets, my wife and I were predictably hesitant. All we could think about was that it would be too hot or too wet. We worried that we would have to stand up for hours on end, that we would never get home afterwards and, an increasing worry as I get older, whether there would be huge queues for the toilets.
Reluctantly persuaded that our fears would prove groundless, we agreed that we would give the ticket application process a go, probably hoping that the website would crash and our plans would be thwarted by circumstances beyond our control. As it was, on the day the tickets went on sale we were in France, where we always tend to sleep later and lose track of time. When my daughter finally stirred at some point in the middle of the morning, she resigned herself that the moment had passed and I breathed a quiet sigh of relief.
My phone then pinged with a message from the only hotel company with whom I am signed up for membership. They were offering access to tickets for their members and all I had to do was click a few buttons. The first attempt failed but, almost miraculously, I then found myself making progress on the website to the point that I was the proud, if considerably poorer, possessor of three tickets for the concert.
Of course, all our fears proved completely unfounded. The weather was perfect, the travel straightforward and the toilets plentiful. We all enjoyed a great evening as ‘The Boss’ played twenty-eight songs across a three-hour performance that was truly extraordinary for a man of seventy-three. We all bought extortionately priced t-shirts, sang along to our favourite songs and ended up wondering why on earth we did not do this more often.
While ‘The River’ is probably my favourite Springsteen song, I have always had a soft spot, as you may have already worked out from the title and tone of this blog, for ‘Glory Days’ – the story of a man who seems unable to escape his past. Perhaps they should have played it quietly in the background while we ate our lunch and told our stories at the reunion on Sunday. The final verse of the song seems to sum things up nicely:
I think I'm going down to the well tonight,
And I'm gonna drink till I get my fill.
And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it,
But I probably will.
Just sitting back, trying to recapture
A little of the glory, yeah.
Well, time slips away, leaves you with nothing, mister,
But boring stories of glory days.