Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Untitled - chapter 7

We're getting to some good stuff now, so in the continuing absence of anything new.... here's the next installment of nano...


Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 , Chapter 5, Chapter 6



“So why don’t you get in contact with one of your old friends from school? Why don’t you just see if you can pick up where you left off?” I think Catherine was getting frustrated with me moping about the house worrying about friendships from my past. Since I had received that email from Carl, I had noticeably stopped worrying about the ephemera of my life: the scratches on my glasses, whether or not I had remembered to put my hand brake on or to lock the front door. That was the good news. The bad news, at least as far as Catherine was concerned, was that the brain space that this freed up was being used almost exclusively to worry about whether or not I could still be considered friends with people I hadn’t seen in the last ten years.

“I’m not sure I want to. Perhaps I should just let things lie.” I’ve always maintained that I am still in touch with the vast majority of the people that I want to remain in touch with, and I was furiously resisting the notion that I should chase after a few people from my past. It wasn’t true, of course. I had lost contact with my friend Joe almost as soon as we had left university. But he had come back into my life suddenly when I received an email via Friends Reunited. In it, he told me that he was coming to his firm’s Nottingham offices, and would I care to meet up for a drink? I did, and shortly afterwards, he moved to the Nottingham office permanently and, bang, he was back in my life.

Of course, not everything that Friends Reunited sent my way had been as welcome as Joe. As well as being sent the occasional invite to reunions that I steadfastly ignored, I had also received a couple of emails from Ben Brundle. Ben appeared to have a slightly different memory of our friendship than I did. The first email had been brief:

Long time no see, eh? I hear that you are in Nottingham these days. Drop me a line if you fancy meeting up for a drink one day. It would be great to see you mate. Loads to catch up on.


When I read that, I had laughed. What on earth gave this guy the idea that I would be really keen to catch up with him? What clues had I given him during our time together at school that would make him think that we were such great friends? What had happened to him in the last ten years that might lead him to suddenly decide that he wanted to see me again?

I didn’t bother to reply.

A few months later I received another email:

I’m moving to Nottingham in a couple of months, and if you’re still around then give me a call on 07345-948538. It would be great to catch up with you again.

What was his problem?

I met Ben on my first day at Rugby School. The whole purpose of the Prep School system is to feed pupils into the great English tradition of the Public School, and so Charnborough packaged me up and sent me on to Rugby School. Rugby is one of the oldest Public Schools in the country. Far from being some kind of indicator of the quality of the education that pupils receive, it simply means that the fees are exorbitant and the buildings dilapidated. When I was there, the school had about eight hundred pupils divided into a number of Houses. For reasons unknown to me, I was to attend Cotton House. As had happened to me in 1981, one afternoon in the late summer, I was loaded into the car with a trunk full of clothes and packed off to attend a new school. This time I had something of a better idea of what to expect. This was partly because I was now thirteen years old and something of an old hand at this whole boarding school business, and partly because I had already spent a few days at Rugby when I was sitting the Scholarship exam in the late spring of that same year. Just as had happened on my first day at Charnborough some six years before, after a quick tour of the premises and assurances that I was going to be okay, my parents left me on my own and returned home.

I was quickly introduced to the rest of the year’s intake in my House. There were fourteen of us in all, and we were taken to tea and given a little talk by the Head of House, a weary looking eighteen year old called Robbo. Robbo was a member of the School First XV rugby team. At Rugby, the place where the sport was invented, this meant that you were practically royalty, and certainly meant that you were likely to have the necessary authority, if not the brains, to be put in charge of a house full of boys. I can’t remember what he actually said, but the gist of it was that he was in charge, and as long as we did what we were told, we would be fine. If I close my eyes, I can still see the faces of the thirteen fresh-faced thirteen year olds that I was about to spend most of my waking hours with for the next five years. Some of them, including Carl, I already knew from Charnborough, the others were strangers to me. Some of them always were. With my mind’s eye I can see how they changed over that time and how my friendships with all of them have changed with the passing of time. Ben actually changed very little physically during that time. He was already tall at thirteen - nearly as tall as I was. He had short but floppy hair, a sharp nose and ears that stuck out. I remember him being very quiet on that first day.

Like me, Ben had an elder brother already at the school. My brother was sixteen years old and starting out on his third year at Rugby. Ben’s brother was one year further on and was just starting in the sixth form. Having a brother who was already well known to everyone else in the house was both a blessing and a curse: on the one hand it meant that you were afforded some level of protection from some of the abuses that would be heaped on the others, but it also meant that everyone felt that they already knew you, and tried to impose your brother’s personality onto you. For my first two years at Rugby, a significant number of people called me “Dave” – my brother’s name. If we were both present, I was called “Little Dave”. I had little or no identity of my own.

I didn’t have any classes with Ben, but the fact that we were in the same house meant that we spent huge portions of time with each other every single day. Monday to Saturday each week the routine was always the same: Breakfast was at 07:30, Chapel was at 08:45 and lessons began at 9 and continued through to break at 11:15. Lunch (eaten back at the House) was at 12:45. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays lessons began again at 16:15, but on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays there were no lessons in the afternoons and the time was taken up with sport. Tea was at 18:00. Prep began at 19:30 and finished at 21:00. Bed for the first years was at 21:30. It is a constant and unchanging routine, but that was okay. You more or less always knew where you stood with that routine. You knew the rules, and if you broke them, you usually did so knowingly and if you were caught, you knew that you would be punished.

Our first three years were probably the hardest as we fought to establish our places in the pecking order of the House and of the school, but it got easier as we became more senior. The fourteen of us formed a pretty tight knit bunch. Although we all had friends in the other houses, we tended to stick together and to spend most of our free time inside our own House. I got on with more or less everybody. I wouldn’t say that Ben and I were best friends, but I could quite happily spend time in his study listening to “Butterfly on a Wheel” by the Mission or the Doors. Things only really began to change between us when we reached the sixth form and the girls arrived. I think Rugby is now fully co-educational, but when I was there, girls were only allowed to attend the school in the sixth form. It was a peculiar system: just like the boys, the girls were divided up into Houses. There were four Houses for about two hundred girls. Unlike the boys though, the only meal that the girls ate in their houses was breakfast. For their other meals, they were assigned a boys house. This meant that the fourteen boys in my year were suddenly supplemented at mealtimes by the arrival of four girls. Having spent the last three years living inside each other’s pockets, it was amazing how much difference this made to our relationships with each other.

The year instantly fragmented into two halves: those who treated the girls like shit, and those who treated them as though they were an alien species. The first group was very much led by Ben, and consisted of those members of my year who considered themselves to be ‘cool’, the ones who used Polo aftershave in spite of the fact that they barely needed to shave, who lathered their hair in gel and who could hardly wait for the opportunity to take part in the old Public School tradition of treating women as objects, of only talking to the girls that they considered to be good-looking, and of either ignoring or scorning the rest. I was in the latter group of course. I was quite studious and my chance of every being considered ‘cool’ had disappeared on the day that I was awarded a scholarship. Academic achievement was something that was viewed with great suspicion at Rugby, and not just by the pupils. I had welcomed the arrival of the girls into our midst, and probably had some vague notion that this was where I was going to discover my up-until-now latent talent as a charmer. The sad truth of the matter was though that I was seventeen years old and I had no idea how to talk to a member of the opposite sex. I knew that treating them as potential sex-objects was wrong, but the only way I knew how to treat them differently was to put them onto some sort of a pedestal, which made normal, everyday conversation rather difficult.

I can only imagine how confusing this must have been for many of the girls. There were often long walks from the Houses to lessons, and it was a common sight to see girls being followed down the street by groups of fourteen year olds making retching noises. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was also common enough to see them being followed by groups of boys from their own year making the same noises. How do you learn to cope with that? Why the hell should you have to learn to cope with that? This kind of misogyny was both commonplace and tolerated. I hated it. I’m sure it’s different now that Rugby is fully coeducational, but the way things were it was horrible. I may not have known how to talk to girls, but I certainly knew that they didn’t deserve to be treated like that. Ben Brundle thought differently. Ben changed dramatically from the age of about sixteen. From being a relatively quiet and bright lad who I liked spending time with, he began to turn into something else altogether. He started to cultivate an image of himself as the strong, mysterious type. He clearly wanted to be seen as ‘cool’ amongst his peers, and this meant that he began to shun or bully people that he considered to be ‘uncool’ and had to be seen to be as casually dismissive of women as he possibly could be. This tactic paid off spectacularly: Ben was welcomed into the highest caste of schoolboy society and held up as one of the leading lights in the school by his peers. As if that wasn’t enough, the fear with which he began to be held by the younger members of the House was misinterpreted as respect by our Housemaster, and Ben was soon appointed Head of House. Worst of all, it seemed that his hard man image was irresistible to many of the girls. Even girls who I thought were otherwise pretty sensible would be sucked in and could almost be seen forming an orderly queue outside his study to be used and then dropped. This in turn simply increased Ben’s standing in the eyes of many of the boys.

I stopped talking to him. For reasons that I never discovered, Carl hated him, and there was an almost open warfare in the House between them – a war that Carl was never going to win. I didn’t feel that strongly about him, I was just mystified about why he had decided to behave like this, and was baffled at how the girls seemed to fall for his particular brand of cruelty. For me his lowest point was when he strung some poor girl out for a couple of months until she was absolutely convinced that she loved him. Ben, of course, only had one thing in mind. As soon as he was successful, he totally lost interest and dropped her. Of course, he didn’t bother telling the girl about this, and she used to come round every day asking where he was, only to find that he wasn’t available. We were all fully up to speed with that was going on, and it was actually quite hard to watch the penny slowly beginning to drop over the course of a couple of weeks. What a way to lose your virginity. So much for it being a special moment.

In the years since leaving school, Ben had become in my head the epitome of everything that I disliked about Public School. When I received those emails asking me if I wanted to meet up, I wondered how he remembered me from school. We had barely spoken for the best part of two years, and I thought it was as plain as day what I thought of him. Apparently not. Perhaps he had been totally oblivious of my feelings, seen my name on Friends Reunited and decided that it would be nice to have a drink. Perhaps he’d just forgotten. Either way, it hardly seemed likely that I would be taking him up on his kind offer any time soon. Not whilst I still had breath in my body, anyway.


Don't miss the next installment....

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Untitled - chapter 6


I just wanted to pop up a note to say that this blog isn't dead..... it's just resting.

It might look as though it's nailed to its perch, but it will be back.

In lieu of anything newer, here's the next exciting installment of my nano novel. Well, it's better than silence (just about).


Previously in our exciting serialisation: Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 , Chapter 5


Perhaps it’s all about context. Anyone could tell you that there are a myriad of reasons why people become friends, but perhaps the most important reason of all is the context in which your friendship is anchored. Maybe if that context changes, or even if it shifts a little bit, then you will find that the nature of your friendship has changed and may wither and die. Often this could be something as simple as geography. When I was growing up, I had a friend who lived just a couple of minutes up the road from my mum and dad’s house. Will was the same age as me and was in the same class as me at Primary school, and his mum worked in my dad’s surgery. Five year old Will must have been a little shy, as when he was introduced to the rest of One Red by Mrs. Thompson, he was trying to hide behind his mum. From the moment I was assigned the task of looking after him, we were firm friends. Our friendship lasted through much of the next fifteen years. For much of that time I was attending a boarding school, but the friendship survived over the course of those long summers we spent together playing “Bard’s Tale” on the Commodore 64 and playing cricket or tennis out in the garden. Our friendship only began to fragment when I went on to university and began to spend a lot more time away from home. Will remained based at his mum and dad’s house, and even when we were both in the same place at the same time, the things that we used to do to kill the time just wouldn’t cut the mustard anymore. As nineteen year olds, we were very unlikely to spend our time cycling around the streets or playing football until it got dark. We went to the pub a few times around New Year, but we were really only hanging onto the last traces of our relationship.

I sometimes still hear how he’s getting on, as my mum will bump into his mum whilst she is out shopping, but I basically haven’t seen him or exchanged a word with him in five years. I still remember his phone number off the top of my head too, so I could pick up the phone right now, ring up his mum, ask if he’s at home and if he can come round and play. I could, but I suspect that would be a little weird for everyone. It’s all about context then, and the context of my relationship with Will was one in which we both lived with our parents and had a desperate need to get though the long hours of the summer holidays. As we both began to spend less time at home, the relationship died.

I think that much the same is true of work. The fifty odd years of our working lives are dedicated almost exclusively to trying to make it from one end of the day to the other and from one end of the week to the other with the minimum amount of fuss. As far as I am concerned, work is something that I do so that I can earn some money to do the things I really want to do. That does not mean that I never have a good time at work, because sometimes I do. It’s just that I always try to remember where I am. Whenever I say that I find something interesting at work, I always try to remember that this is an extremely relative term: something that is ‘work day’ interesting is not necessarily something that I find interesting per se.

Can the same thing be said of the friends that we make when we are at work? Being friendly with some of your colleagues is an excellent strategy for getting through the working day sane. These are the people you can chew the cud with, people you can tell jokes to, chat about last night’s telly or tonight’s footie match. Is the relationship one that is based on mutual necessity though? You chat to the guy who sits next to you in the office because it helps the day to go quicker. Does that mean that you really like him? Would you spend much time with him outside the office? How do you find work dos? A little bit awkward? Do you often only go to them under duress and leave as soon as you can? Me too.

I started my first proper office job at the Head Office of some giant, faceless corporation in the autumn of 1997. On my first day, I was shown into the labyrinthine HQ building and informed that my boss would be on holiday for the next two weeks and that he had not managed to arrange for me to have a computer of my own. I was sat down in a cubicle and given a big file of documents to read. By the time my new boss returned, I must have read all of the documents in that bloody folder a thousand times. I had no idea who any of the people were, or any real concept of what they were talking about, but I could practically repeat every word of every document. I’m sure I would have gone completely mad if a colleague hadn’t decided to take me under her wing. Amy was a couple of years older than me and she clearly realised that I was finding the transition from student to tiny, insignificant cog in a vast, grey corporate machine a little bit overwhelming. Amy showed me the ropes and dedicated a fair chunk of her time to gamely attempting to explain the nonsensical organisational structure to me. More importantly, she took me to lunch every day and introduced me to some of her friends. It’s amazing how much difference a friendly face can make when you are trying to find your feet in a new job, and over the next few weeks, I began to look forward to these lunchtime sessions.

This carried on for a few months. One day we were at lunch as usual, when Amy’s friend Bee asked me if I was coming out on Friday night for a drink.
“We’re meeting up at the Coach & Horses on Upper Parliament Street at 8pm”. I didn’t know where that was, but I was quickly given very detailed instructions. The plan was that we would have a drink in the Coach & Horses and then move on to some of the newer bars, and perhaps finish up at the Lizard Lounge.
“So are you coming out then?” I must have looked doubtful. “It’ll be fun. Everyone will be there.”
“I can’t.”
“Why not?”
I’ve often thought about what I said next, and I many is the time that I have wished that I could take it back. Every time I walk past that pub, I think about it.
“I’m going out with my real friends.”

There was something of a staggered silence for a couple of seconds as everyone around the table played back what I had just said in their minds to check that it was what I had actually said. They took it pretty well, all things considered, and made it into something of a joke. We agreed that if I were passing that end of town with my friends, we would pop in for a drink with them. I nodded, knowing as they did that this was never going to happen.

What I had said was completely true: some of my oldest friends were travelling up to Nottingham to spend the weekend with me. We didn’t really have a specific plan, meaning that we would wait until everyone had turned up, would go out to the pub and would get leathered, go home, talk nonsense and then fall asleep on the sofa. It’s what we always had done, and it’s what we still do today. The lack of a concrete plan meant that we could easily have made our merry way to the Coach & Horses in time for a quick drink at 8pm, but the thought never crossed my mind. I seemed to have committed some sort of terrible faux-pas for saying so, but Amy was not my friend, Bee wasn’t my friend. None of them were my friends. They were good company over lunch and they had been brilliant in helping me settle into my new job… but they weren’t my friends.

Is it possible to form proper friendships at work? I suppose it must be. I met Catherine at work, and we’ve been happily together now for nearly seven years, but that’s not quite the same thing at all, is it? I’m not sure that anyone I have ever worked with has become anything more than someone I’m friendly with at work, although perhaps some have come close.

There was one job I had for a couple of years where many of my colleagues were of a similar age to me. We all worked ridiculous hours, loved music and had bonded over whole weeks spent working away from home in the London Offices of our partners. Three of us in particular became close, almost inseparable. We had our own language and any one of us could have the other two in stitches with a well-timed look or oblique reference to a conversation we may have had the week before. It was a hoot. Charlie was a hotshot technical expert with a taste for deli sandwiches and surrealist humour and Siobhan was a forthright northerner with an opinion for every occasion. Both were only a couple of years younger than me, and both worked like demons, but it was a happy time. We would often head down to London together on a Monday afternoon; spend four days living out of a hotel and then head back up to Nottingham on the Friday. During the time we were down there, we would get into the offices in Victoria for about 9am and would often still be there well after 9pm, eating pizza over our laptops. Absurd hours, but we had so much in common that the time almost felt like fun… In fact, it was so much like fun that I almost lost sight of the golden rule of relativity, that no matter how much fun work is, it’s not what you would choose to do with your time.

The three of us socialised a little bit outside of the office, of course: we often went out drinking when we were together in London, even if it was only in the hotel bar or over dinner, but we were usually with some other colleagues, and the conversation was often about work or about other people we all worked with. I almost managed to convince myself that they were really, genuinely my friends. Almost.

Siobhan was the first to go, leaving Charlie and me behind. She was still working for the same company and was in regular contact with us, but she began to lose touch with our in-jokes and felt increasingly excluded. Charlie and I naturally found this hilarious, and whenever Siobhan popped round to visit, we would invent in-jokes on the spot to confuse her. Naturally, she began to pop round less and less. Then I changed jobs, and although we all kept threatening to meet up for lunch or for coffee, it just seemed to be too hard to get our diaries to match.

Even when we were at our closest, there seemed to be an unbridgeable divide between my real life and my working life. Siobhan and her boyfriend once joined Catherine and me at a pub quiz. Siobhan and I spent much of the night obliviously carrying on with our working relationship – exchanging in-jokes and laughing uproariously at things that our partners did not understand. At one point, Siobhan and I got a question right, and in celebration, I chopped my hands up and down on Siobhan’s thigh. It was a boisterous gesture, and one that somehow wasn’t really out of place in our relationship at work, where we sat back to back, and were often to be found draped over each other’s chairs pondering something on the screen. Out of work though, it looked desperately over-familiar, and I suddenly became aware that both of our partners were staring at us, so I backed away. There was nothing in the gesture: my relationship with Siobhan was entirely rooted in work, and yet I suddenly felt uncomfortable and a little bit awkward about the whole thing, so I began to back away. Perhaps I had been spending too much time at work and was losing sight of where I should really have been spending my time.

As soon as our jobs changed though, we stopped spending so much time together and our relationship changed. The casual familiarity quickly disappeared and within a couple of months we were more or less on nodding terms only. Our familiarity had been based mainly upon our work and the amount of time we were spending together in the office. I thought we had a lot in common – We do have a lot in common – but that on its own clearly wasn’t enough. Once the physical proximity changed, so did the friendship.

I mourn that job. I have a terrible suspicion that I will never have as much fun at work again, and I find that thought deeply depressing. I am apparently not due to retire until 2049. For that job to be as good as it gets is something that really does not bear thinking about.