|A picture of me in 1979|
Has it really been eight years since I took my son Daniel to start his first term at university? He'd chosen to study in Newcastle, about as far as it was possible to get from our house without crossing the border to Scotland. The thought of leaving him, and his being so distant, was not dissimilar to grief. And yet, in our driving north, I was also going home: to the place where I'd grown up, come of age, and in many ways, never truly left.
The story of that day, and the conflicting emotions of loss and return, became the subject of an essay that was published in Meet Me There, an anthology of writings on 'place'. More broadly, it also led to my reconnecting with the region. During his time as a student (he's an architect so that that's longer than most) our trips to see him were highlights of the calendar we looked forward to every season.
And so, it was with mixed feelings that I returned early this September to help him move flat. He has a new job in Leeds, and a fresh phase of his career to begin. I'm sad he's leaving Tyneside and yet know he needs to move on, not limit life's prospects to the nostalgic inclinations of his old man.
Arriving mid morning, I realised there was sort of inversion—a mirrored equivalence if you like— to that first trip we made together. I'd come to help him depart, and yet that evening was planning on attending a school reunion, meeting former friends I'd not seen for more than forty years—many of them, for all I knew, could have driven that morning to the northeast too. And as for who would be there or what to expect, I had little idea.
For reunions, it seems, are not everyone's cup of tea.
When I wrote of my learning of the event some months ago, perhaps half of the commenters suggested they'd find the prospect unbearable. My good friend, and only close contact from those days, refused to come, saying life had moved on and he wasn't one for looking back. And yet my former wife, who might have taken a view that my presence would be somewhat awkward, was actually the person who alerted me to the get-together.
As it turned out, her being there made it even more special. It's over thirty years since we separated; time enough for wounds to heal and memories to mellow. We swapped stories, swiped our phones for photos; asked how our parents were doing... Life has treated us well, and though we might wish to alter parts of our past, we're old enough to know it's not possible—that the paths we've taken, and joys they've brought us, can't be unpicked from our parting of ways.
There must have been forty of us in all, names and faces sparking long-dormant memories: Susan teasing me about the scraps I'd had at school; Debbie recalling times from the university we attended together; my old friend Peter, who like the boy who never grew up, is just as comical and good looking as ever. On the wall was a blow-up of our year-group photo to which we added our names and had a little gossip about those who'd done this or that, or fallen off the wagon of life.
But this wasn't a mean spirited or comparative affair.
Indeed, I was struck by the sense of goodwill, of the mutual interest in the choices we'd taken—of the collective sense of lives well lived, and still more to come. I couldn't help but think what our teachers would have made of it all. Would they be pleased with how we've turned out, and if so, how might they arrive at that conclusion?
I hope not in the way of today's obsession with scorecards and 'value add' tables. Because for all we could list the educational attainments, financial rewards and outstanding successes—and I've no doubt we'd rank well in the league table of life—it wouldn't get close to answering the question of whether ours was a special year.