Monday, September 27, 2021

The Class of 79

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.

And of course, it was. 

Not because of any dry assessment, but because it was 'ours'. Just as our children are special not because of what they become, but because they are part of us; inseparable from the hopes and dreams that chart our passage through life. We don't measure love through any analytical filter—all that matters is that we carry it with us.  

And perhaps our memories—or at least some of them—should be no different. The best are like those keepsakes which we treasure not for their intrinsic worth, but because they remind us of the places, people and events that touched our lives and made us who we are. Before going to the reunion, I dug out my old school reports which shamefully confirm I was once awarded 3% for French—my teacher said it was for spelling my name correctly! And yet I know (though quite how escapes me) that in France the word souvenir means the act of remembering

As the evening came to a close, I was delighted to catch up with a classmate who'd also studied economics at A-level. We chuckled at the memory of our teacher's futile attempts to convert us to monetarism and voting for Margaret Thatcher.  She said I'd been the star of the class—and she was right; my one and only time! Then, as if out of nowhere, we both remembered that our mums had a connection too; that they'd worked together in a junior school... and I recalled that her's used to wear knee-high boots and play opera records... I was right, she smiled.  How on earth did I know that; where had it all come from...?  We laughed and laughed, suddenly back there again.

It was a long drive home. 

The day before I'd travelled to attend, my wife's mum had passed away. I'd considered cancelling the trip, but there was nothing yet to be done and Daniel was in need of my help. Jane urged me to go too, saying her mum would have wanted it; 'take care of your boys' were the last words between us. We live today on the far west coast, where, unlike the shores of my youth, the sun sets behind the sea's curved horizon. For all my years of being here, that still feels foreign. And yet I know that tomorrow it will rise again, following an arc that can't be changed, to shine its light on where we are now. 


  1. So interesting to hear about the school reunion, and how nice to hear that the atmosphere was one of good will and not mean spirited comparisons. Despite having enjoyed my seven years at my very academic all girls school, I've always shied away from reunions. Those of us who have not married and had children are, I suspect, reluctant participants in these events.
    On the matter of school reports, my brother recently unearthed some of mine when going through some family papers. The comment from the PE teacher one year was 'Gail works quietly and well', which struck me as a very odd thing to say about PE. I now suspect she couldn't remember who I was, despite me being a competent and enthusiastic all-rounder at school sports.

  2. That last line was so perfect it took my breath away.

    I went to one reunion, my 25th, and honestly, I expected things to be more like you described. Instead, there was a lot of drinking, the cliques remained. It was a strange feeling, and I left disappointed. I've never gone to another.

  3. Oh, dear...I forgot to send my condolences to you and your family.

  4. Hari OM
    One of those moments in time that mark the very passing of it?

    I giggled at the school reports; my siblings unearthed a whole bunch of mine which I had long ago thought destroyed; clearly my mother had seen fit to store them all and father simply hadn't done anything with them after her departure. Reading them is like viewing a novel... though one can see the seeds of who was to come... YAM xx

  5. Sad times for you both but then you have the gift of looking forward. It has been true for all of us the flitting from one place to another, we are no longer part of a traditional community but become like nomads.

  6. I wonder where all my classmates went.. difficult to trace as it was a girls grammar!
    It sounds a good get together, and it is surprising what will trigger memories to emerge from the archives of one's mind

  7. My sincere condolences to your family on the loss of your mother-in-law Mark. Good though that you were still able to go ahead with your plans to be with your son and school friends. I've enjoyed reading all you've shared here - and, as always, so beautifully written.
    Know what you mean about moving westward - I'm even farther away here on the east coast of the US. The light has changed over the many, many years since I lived in Devon. Sometimes I have regret at leaving, like now where it's still too hard to come home to see family and friends, but then I think that my life has been good on these distance shores and I am thankful for much.
    Welcome back to the blog - I really need to buy your books!
    Happy week - Mary

  8. Another lovely and well-crafted piece of writing Mark. Welcome back to the wonderful world of blogging which is just like Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. I am impressed that you knew how to spell your name when you were at school. Up in the north east you must have been in the top stream.

  9. Reunions bring back lots of memories and some very nice connections. Regardless of where we each live, the wonderful sea, sunrise and sunset unite us all. A constant for all.

  10. Dear Mark,

    Hello and good evening. I'm so delighted to hear that Daniel has a new job in Leeds soon after he completed his degree course in Architecture. I'm sure that you are very proud of him and his achievements. I wish him every success in his career.

    I'm glad that your reunion event went smoothly. I love your comparison of memories to keepsakes. It is even better that these keepsakes stand the test of time. The essayist Sir Thomas Browne once wrote: “Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments.” Browne was probably referring to a work of literature but I think that the phrase "minor monuments" could apply to investing oneself in a friendship that stands the test of time.

    Best wishes, ASD

  11. I'm sorry about your wife's mum, but I'm glad you went to this reunion and got to catch up with everyone. I went to my 20th high school reunion many years ago (!) and it was an unexpectedly joyous event. Maybe I'll go to the 40th in just a few years!