Recently I attended the funeral of an old college friend. ‘Old’ if mid-50s qualifies for that epithet, ‘college’ because that’s undoubtedly where we met but ‘friend’ – what exactly does that mean?
We were certainly friends at college. We shared a house, spent all our weekdays in the same classes – normally siting next to each other – and found ourselves drinking together every night and every weekend.
But then college finished and we all went our separate ways to work for newspapers all over the UK. There were a couple of reunions, and in recent years, an attempt to organise a Christmas lunch for those within travelling distance of London. The fact that this year it was not held until February speaks volumes about the event – and our organisational skills.
So all in all, I have probably seen my ‘friend’ twice, possibly three times, in almost 40 years. Not surprisingly I knew almost nothing about him, his wife, his family, his job, his interests, hobbies or the kind of man he’d become after he stopped being the twenty-year-old journalism student I knew. But yet his death hit me quite hard, and it seems to have had a similar effect on the rest of our group.
True, he was ’the first of the gang to die’ and we all got a nasty taste of our own mortality, and he was also a thoroughly nice bloke – at college and by all accounts throughout the rest of his life. But for me, it was something more. It was the realisation we’d all missed the opportunity to build on what we had at college. We’d been far too quick to throw it all away in pursuit of our careers, even though it was a shared career in journalism – apart from one guy who became an air traffic controller (don’t ask). We’d severed friendships and relationships in search of other friendships and relationships. We’d dismissed common experiences and shared memories without a second thought, and yet almost 40 years on, four of us spent a couple of hours at the wake remembering and re-living those experiences to the best of our failing memories. And perhaps the most surprising thing of all was just how easily we could all joke, tease, insult and talk to each other as if we’d been together every day since college. There was no strangeness, no awkward silences or periods where we weren’t sure how someone would react to a bad taste comment. We were all still friends and apparently always had been, despite the separation
I always used to tell myself that the lyrics of ‘My Way’ would be an appropriate epitaph for my life, and to an extent, I think they still are. But I’m becoming more troubled with the lines:
‘Regrets, I’ve had a few;But then again, too few to mention.’
The number of regrets may not be huge, but I’m beginning to wonder if the scale of them might be. Have I always prioritised the right things? Have I spent enough time trying to see the other side of the argument, to see things from other people’s perspective? Have I made enough time for others? Have I worked hard enough on friendships and relationships?
I’m not going to tear apart my life here and now – this is already an incredible amount of soul-searching and sharing for an ordinary guy who has been brought up on the northern version of the Nike motto – ‘Just Git On Wi It’. But I am going to reflect on one thing which has been troubling me since I sat in that packed church to say a final farewell to a guy I’d effectively said goodbye to almost 40 years earlier – and never looked back. We were all taken by how full the church was, with people who’ve shared his life in many different ways. And I appreciate the funerals of younger people tend to be better attended than those of older people, due to how much more shocking those deaths often are and also the diminishing number of friends and colleagues around to attend the funerals of octogenarians. But nevertheless, it made me speculate on how many people would attend my funeral, and I have to conclude I don’t think it would be anywhere near that many. Not that I’m too bothered by the attendance of an event I don’t even want to be at myself, but it made me evaluate my friendships.
I know a lot of people from all over the world, but like all journalists with a bulging contacts book, how many have I worked to convert from acquaintances to friends? Not enough! I never attended either of the two college reunions (if I’m honest I’m not even sure how many there have been) and I only attended a few of the Christmas lunches. I’m know I was working abroad for some of the lunches, but I can no longer remember why I couldn’t attend the others, or any of the reunions. What about all the other social events I didn’t attend? What about the quick coffee, the quiet drink, the short chat in the corridor? What about remembering to ask how someone was feeling? What about inquiring about a sick partner or child? I’m sure I had a good reason – it just doesn’t seem like too good a reason now.
The Barefoot Bohemian.
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