We grow kinder as we get older
01 December 2010
To an outsider, it would have seemed a normal enough gathering: 25 chaps of a certain background, of a certain age, at a gentlemen’s club in London. Around the long table, there was the usual mix of banterers and jokers, nodders and listeners. It was a reunion of prep school friends, probably much like any other.
Yet how strange it felt to be there. I had not seen these people since we were all 12; now we are in our sixties. Some of them looked startlingly unchanged: they had become wider, more ponderous versions of their boyhood selves. Others were unrecognisable. A few looked as if they had gone 14 rounds with life, and were losing badly on points.
Ours had been a miserable prep school, or at least so I thought. The headmaster had a pathological (and presumably sexual) enthusiasm for caning the young boys in his charge until they were black and blue. Other members of staff were odd but less toxic, merely bullying and fondling us on a regular basis. This educational nuthouse was in an impressive setting – a grand and stately building, a wood called the Pleasury, a deer park.
Here was the first surprise. Some of those at the reunion said they had liked the place. One put his love of nature down to walks in the deer park. Another had even sent his son there. In fact, as the memories flowed with the wine, I began to feel quite warm about it, too. Perhaps, as adults, we rewrite the narrative of our childhoods, making them rosier or more tragic than they really were, as a way of explaining or excusing what happened next.
Another shock: I had never realised quite how rich and landed the families of my old school pals had been. Most of those around the table seemed to be large scale-landowners of one kind or another. Some earnestly discussed with one another the vexed problems of running a vast house. Another had cancelled a day’s mid-week shooting to be here.
“What does Nigel do these days?” I asked at one point. “Not much,” came the answer. “He owns half of Northamptonshire” (names and counties have been changed to protect the privileged).
Oddly, the handful of us who had led more conventionally professional lives gravitated towards one another, as if some kind of instinctive class herd instinct was at work.
By far the biggest surprise, though, was the unforced generosity, even kindness, of those present. This is not my crowd – it was once, but I escaped – and yet there was no denying the sense of warmth among all those present, however different our lives have been.
There had been little bullying among boys at our school – the headmaster looked after that side of things, helped by his creepy wife, who used to arrange the flowers outside her husband’s study as he thrashed boys. Perhaps, without knowing it, we were united against him. Now, all those years later, we have reached the stage in life when competitiveness in its various forms has begun to seem a waste of energy. The sharp-elbowed aggression of adult life has been lost along the way.
Looking around the table, where others would see solid, confident members of the British establishment, I see – ridiculous as it may seem – little boys grown up, with the wariness and vulnerability of their young selves still just evident in their eyes.
Maybe this is what happens. The penny drops one day. We see that we are only around for a while. Life can be a rough old do. Survivors should stick together.
When we were young, we behaved quite well towards one another. Decades on, a sort of kindness – brisk, British, but real enough – seems to have settled on us once more. It is the years in between which are the problem.