I’ve tried to be truthful about my poorer decisions and mistakes. This story might fall into that category.
Well over three decades ago, I told an old mate that our friendship was over. I cannot remember the exact date when I told Nick that we would no longer be buddies. It was at some stage in the mid-1980s. We had known each other since 1969, but had drifted slowly apart in the late 70s.
He had moved to Hong Kong, to practice law with a major firm. We barely kept in touch. I was either at the end of my spell as a betting shop manager in London, or in my early days as a milkman at the dairy down the road in Chelmsford. Anyway, Nick called out of the blue. He was back home in Southend, and his parents were throwing a drinks party. Nick invited Maureen and myself. Even now, I recall his request as more of a summons. “This is where to be. Time and place.” The minute he asked, every instinct said: ‘don’t go’. And that the time had come for our roads to diverge for good.
We exchanged a few pleasantries, then I put the phone down, and returned to studying the next day’s horse racing cards. I penned him a letter, turning down the invite and said: ‘that’s us done’. Not wishing him well; and slinging together what was almost certainly a hurried, garbled, antagonistic, clumsy and (maybe) fleetingly logical explanation. I never spoke to him again for 27 years.
Those are the bare bones. I wondered last week if I could do better than that, by trying to fathom more clearly why I acted in such a cavalier fashion. Was I a complete and utter caaaaaaaaaaaaaaant, to quote a recent blog?
Nick was and is an exceptional individual. Imagine a cross between ‘David Watts’ (character of the song by the Kinks and then the Jam) and George Best. A fine athlete and sportsman; academically and intellectually sharp enough to get to Cambridge and then rise to the uppermost heights of the legal world; loyal to his friends (gulp!); brave if it came to a physical fight; and with a mix of looks and/or confidence that led many, many females to take in his sperm with swift abandon.
He had also been fairly cruel to me as a young teenager, opening frailties and enjoying my discomfort. Not just me, but a few others. That’s life. Now I see it. Shit happens. No doubt I handed out some similar stuff along the line. Sometimes it flies back. It all eventually balances. More than one of my girlfriends clocked Nick as arrogant as soon as they met, as had some of my university friends in Birmingham. Nick had also played a role of sorts in my incarceration in cell number 5, at Cambridge nick (Blog 77). And the subsequent criminal conviction, for Actual Bodily Harm. Not his fault, in any way, but part of me wanted to wriggle out of full responsibility for awful behaviour. Like politicians blaming Russia for their own shortcomings and fuck ups.
By the time of the phone call, our ways were hugely divergent. Nick epitomised the post-graduation charge into the City’s world of suits, ties and business. I now give him huge credit: he was an unremitting achiever, surfing life on a self-made fusion of willpower harnessed to talent. I wasn’t. His determination stretched to changing his accent in his third decade. My mum had often remarked on his ‘cockney’ way of speaking. By his mid-20s, Nick had eliminated his ‘estuary sounds’ to better fit his work advancement. And it worked for him. At the time, I judged that harshly. I couldn’t help myself. These days I know how hard it can be to live any life, let alone to start scoring others.
Bottom line: we had come to have precious little in common. A mutual mate would occasionally tell me that “he’s not your friend”.
Over the years, thinking back, it became clear that “chucking” Nick was an efficient way to steer and firm up a bigger change in direction that had been ongoing since school. It involved a fair chunk of drifting on my part, allied to a good slab of intention. A trio of aims were carved out, my very own triptych mentioned in past blogs: to be comfortable in a loving relationship; to write a book/books; and to work out a betting system that produced revenue. My plans and dreams, not somebody else’s.
Whether this was true philosophy, ambitious amalgamation or optimistic insanity, it had uprooted me from my past. Old friendships often felt like such hard work. The Southend crew seemed, to my unusual and possibly misguided mind, to be headed down fixed tracks, on trains with ‘career’ and ‘money’ labels plastering the sides and obliterating other views.
Good luck to them, for sure, but I increasingly struggled to find things to talk about, even in letter writing, one of my great loves. And it made me miserable.
By contrast, I had a mate who had recently written a letter printed in the Guardian, entitled ‘Why Work?’ That was the stuff that inspired. I loathed hierarchy; sensed that 9 to 5 was mainly a humdrum, conforming affair. I had deepened my love of the maverick author, Henry Miller, who advised coasting on the fringes of ‘the system’. And found another, Colin Wilson, who was steeping me in notions of the occult. Starting work as a milkman helped that mindset. Up early, job and finish. Away from the numbers. Some afternoons I topped up my money as a parcel courier. Later I built up a parallel window-cleaning round.
By cutting away Nick, I pretty much knew that the other old ties would also fall away. Including some that I was still fond of. That had to be the price. You were either in or out. After the odd meet-up, there was a tacit withdrawal on both sides. A space was cleared, where I could stop trying to fit.
That bigger change, as life extended past my early 20s, involved a quest for at least some softness and yield in my friends. I gravitated (slowly) towards guys with listening skills; the openness to think outside the box; and the wisdom to know that they didn’t know, and to just shut up sometimes.
But I did push that letter into the postbox with genuine melancholy, because a couple of the Southend guys had those qualities.
The years went by. Details of old faces started to fade. There were new mates aplenty, and three kids. A job as a journalist, eventually. Then, in 2012, aged 55, I was turned around and flipped over by a Buddhist practice I stumbled into. As one mental epiphany led to another, the opportunity arose to resurrect some of the Southend friendships. With a few leg-ups, I succeeded. I was overjoyed to see them all again.
In 2013, I finally met Nick for a beer and curry in London. 27 years on. I was nervous. He was warmly welcoming; and expressed a modicum of dismay at elements of his past behaviour. I apologised for one especially nasty remark. We quietly took the draw.
And he may have saved my life that night. After a couple of beers, we headed to an Indian restaurant somewhere near Moorgate tube station. We crossed a road. I was so busy chatting that I stepped out in front of an oncoming vehicle. Nick’s right fist grabbed my jacket and yanked me back. Who knows?
It was such a pleasure to bury any lingering hatchet.
But Nick gave a broad hint that I had made the right choice all those years back when he talked about the annual Lads Night Out. They were still re-enacting the early New Year tradition of a boozy night that included a session watching strippers.
“Tradition aside, why the fuck would you do that?” I asked.
“Don’t you like the female body Kev?”
Well yes, thrice yes, but the touch and taste of the real thing. In my arms and between my sheets. Not as a voyeur, with a group of fellow old gits. For me, personally, that could only be cringeworthy. Ersatz.
I’ve seen Nick a few times since. I enjoyed his company. Talk was mainly of sport and politics. We sometimes text when West Ham play Spurs. We’re not bosom buddies, but if he ever asked me to drop everything and rush over to London to help him, I wouldn’t hesitate.
Not sure if there’s any moral to this tale. Except that things change, people come and go. You do what you have to, maybe you act like a dick, sometimes it can still end up OK – and there really is no right and wrong. Only viewpoints and opinions.