There's a web site in Britain that's taken the country by storm without any advertising whatsoever -- Friendsreunited puts you back in touch with all those people you lost touch with at school. For the uninitiated, it works like this: you put up all the details of what you've been doing since you left school, using the name you had at school, and leave a way to contact you via email. It's undeniably addictive, given that you can search peoples' names and come up with pretty much anybody you used to know in the UK who's bothered to enroll. Apparently, there've been marriages from reunited childhood sweethearts and all sorts resulting from it. And there's one called Classmates in the States now too.
I wouldn't go on it if you beat me black and blue. I hated school, and it hated me -- both the pupils and the teachers. Consequently, I've tried to block those years -- the worst of my life -- out of my memory. I only ever stayed in touch with one bloke -- the only other punk in the year, but he thought it a great idea and joined. Then he started getting together for drinks with a few of the 'old boys'. Then he tried to get me to go along. So I refused. Then he tricked me into it -- figuring, no doubt, that I'd enjoy it when I got there. He's married with children.
Tonight it happened -- I was reluctantly re-united with people I thought I never want to see again. Surely, if we'd been friends, we wouldn't need to be reunited? We would have stayed friends. Whilst I realise there's a point to this… reuniting people who accidentally lost touch when maybe hindsight should have told them different -- it all feels a bit forced to me -- especially as I hated school in the first place.
Friends reunited? Friends? Perhaps I'm unusual in this, but I only really discovered myself once I'd left the jungle that was my school, once I'd been freed from the constant idea that failing your exams sentenced you to a life in the gutter. Once I'd been freed from the fascism that was forcing children into competition and telling them their life depended on it. Perhaps this is why almost no one I've met since school (from any school in the UK) has bothered to join up.
Re-united maybe, but not friends -- were we ever friends? Not in my memory we weren't. This is more forced than an arranged marriage. But should we give it a go now? All my instincts say 'no' and say it loud -- I'm not that sad and so lacking in friends in the present that I need new ones from the past… i.e. I'm not married.
It seems to be a symptom on the "friends" reunited site that all the people there are 1) friendless and 2) married. There always was that lot, wasn't there? Saddos who couldn't handle life on their own and therefore paired off with the first person that was financially solvent enough to give them the security their parents had so far cosseted them with. Bitter? Moi?
This is where this column ties in with the previous one… the one about being an old anarchist punk rocker (with a heavy dose of family communist dockers roots to be proud of). If all I can do is share my confusion with those of you that know what I mean, then at least it'll be a start.
Re-untied with my "friends" only served to emphasise in my head that they were the scum I'd left behind. With 'Terry' partially excepted, they seemed tied into a scumbag attitude to life -- sitting there in the corner, I felt like the snob I so surely aspire to be given the alternatives.
The 'scum I'd left behind' I hear you gasp at. Yes, the scum I'd left behind. Because I was that scum baby, and worse. Unlike usual columnists, I was scum, and a part of me will probably always remain so, particularly if anyone is stupid enough to invite me to a posh dinner party.
But that doesn't stop me discriminating against my past and striving to be a better human being than I am right now. Not more arrogant, not more poncey, just nicer.
Anyway, I'm not married or part of the Friends Reunited club. All present have their wives, children and mortgages. Which is fine -- it's a legitimate lifestyle choice, but it's not the only one, and tonight I'm the only one thinking these thoughts. They're all just the right side of cruel enough not to bring it up, but I know I'm the odd one out -- the token weirdo. Indeed, everyone present knows.
I suppose at this point I should belligerently make out I'm pleased about this, but I'm not. I know none of them appear happy, but then I suppose I don't seem like a barrel of laughs tonight either. I know they keep talking about counterfeit money and giggling about how they've spent it. But none of them seem happy. None of them question me about the years I've spent living an alternative lifestlye. And I don't ask them about their families. The only time we ever get animated is a discussion about whether our school was good or bad…
They think it was good… What do you say? Especially to a group of people who've kept in touch, but haven't seen you for twenty years. I never was the diplomatic type -- we have an argument about it… perhaps tellingly, the only bloke I'm still in touch with is the only one to take my side.
What does a man who's stepped on the moon say to a bloke who's got no interest and still believes the moon is half a sixpence? This, essentially, is the existential battle that faces us all. I'm getting into this snob thing now, heh heh.
And a sting in the tail: "Are you still violent? You were always violent" isn't something a pacifist expects to hear -- I guess I just blotted so much out of the jungle that was my so-called education that I chose to blot this bit. But it hurt all the same.
I don't remember ever being violent. There again, I don't remember much about school -- only that it was full of wankers who made it a jungle that I didn't want to be a part of.
I was never violent -- at least, that's how I remember it. But if I was, at least I had the wherewithal to go out and seek better ways of spending my later days. Sitting there with my friends reunited showed me that, whatever my faults, at least I'm not the most boring fucker in the universe, which is something to cling on to when you're faced with them. (And if you're reading this, 'friends', then yes, unfortunately you were and still are).
Come the end of the evening, we shake hands half-heartedly and go our separate ways. The space between us is almost solid.
What did I learn from this? Unfortunately, fucking nothing, only that I quite understand why the only people who contribute to friendsreunited.co.uk are the straights boasting about their straight lifestyles and how good their job is and how great their kids are and how they're married. And pretty much everyone else in the population is intimidated into not posting, feeling they don't come up to scratch. I don't disrespect them for their lifestyle choices, but in many unsubtle ways, they unwittingly deny any respect for mine. So I hit back here -- nonviolently, of course.
"You were really into punk, weren't you"
No possibility in the mind that I could still be. Says it all. For the record, I can't stand punk music as in hardcore and all the other mutations these days. But I still consider myself a punk in attitude, yes. And there's a certain proof of the nature / nurture agument going one definite way on nights like this.
Funny thing is, friendsreunited.co.uk isn't such a bad idea. Why they base it round school rather than the bands you used to follow initially escaped me, until I realised that straightsreunited.co.uk wasn't really the right place for me to find lost kindred spirits. I've already got a website that has fulfilled that function 15-20 times. No one from school though, funnily enough.
George Berger is a freelance writer, with punk rock dna. He has written for Sounds, Melody Maker and Amnesty International among others. He has also written 3 books, with one published thus far: Dance Before the Storm: the Official Story of The Levellers (Virgin Books 1999). George edits abisti. He lives where the mood takes him and funds allow.