The Cenotaph of the Bike Shed
Friends Reunited must rank as one of the very best and very worst applications of the internet, and it's far too easy to get suckered inside. You simply log on, enter details of the schools you attended, and the year you flunked your last set of exams, then sit back and watch the happiest, spottiest, most nylon trousered years of your adolescent life pass before your eyes. I was going to write that FR like a virtual high school reunion, but then that would be far too prosaic because that's exactly what it is. Actually it's more like a visit to the Cenotaph, or a ride on the ghost train at a fairground, full of skeletons and the looming, leering faces of the undead.
I'm male, single, and 36 years old. That's almost all anyone needs to know, for almost everything else is embarrassing. I went to a fairly bog-standard comprehensive in Colchester, Stanway School, whose only famous alumni are most of Blur. They must have been a few years below me, because I don't recall their names being shouted in the dinner queue, or from registers, but I do recall that in a Q magazine feature Graham Coxon offered up a homily to Michael Knight, our art teacher. Mick Knight had served in the Special Air Service and had thin, tiny fingers - the result, he said, of a sharp dose of frostbite on some Arctic waste. To the outside world, this is probably all that was ever exciting about Stanway School. My brief time working at Crepuscule in Brussels in the late Eighties, or the lonely furrow I plough in seeking to rehabilitate names such as Section 25, Stockholm Monsters and Ludus through my small record label, carry less weight than Parklife and Bravo Two Zero. At least in north- east Essex, at any rate.
David Baddiel recently quipped that FR should really be called Enemies Reunited, since you should already know who and where your true friends are, and what they do to put bread on the table, and how many children sit around it. He's got a point. I'm no longer in touch with anyone from that time and place, never have been since I left, and Nicey logging on was very much a case of schadenfreude writ large. Indeed my immediate reaction on being confronted with almost 100 names from the class of '82 was to silently, gleefully mouth a list of teenaged pejoratives like 'spaz' and 'joey' and 'mod', etc. That was just the lads. As for the girls, my interest in the names on the screen was directly proportionate to just how fit I recall them being twenty years earlier.
Then I checked my baser instincts, remembered that I had Grown Up, and decided first to catch up on the lives and loves of those I had numbered among my friends. The first I came to on the FR register was David Cowdray. Dave Cowdray and I were seriously into music between 1979 and 1982. Initially the common ground was Killing Joke, Public Image and the Stranglers, but then Dave came over all Romo and invested in a burgundy cavalry shirt, pegged baggies and some pointy shoes. Early Depeche Mode, Talk Talk and Modern English I could just about run with, and the latter's homecoming show at the Tech plugging After the Snow seemed like a blinder at the time, but my barricades went up when it came to Tubeway Army and Japan. Instead I bleached my hair and got grounded after taking my younger cousin to see UK Subs at Chelmsford YMCA, and getting back far too late. Anyway, 20 years later Dave is some sort of senior travel agent, has married a girl from a rival school, and for the benefit of fellow FR shares that he 'still listens to David Sylvian and Gary Numan at least once a week.'
Some people dib themselves up on the FR site as in gaol or human resources or gay or whatever, but for Dave the defining bag remains his penchant for the music of Batt and Webb. Which is not to suggest that I feel in any way superior. I still own records by Crass and the Joke, and I even have Discharge on CD. And I play Metal Box (except The Suit) every week. Or if I'm honest, every other. It's just that Japan and Gary Numan were, are and always will be utter pants. Like Toyah and Visage, although it seems that Dave doesn't play them quite so often anymore.
Christ, how the hell could Dave Cowdray afford to buy so many bloody records? From Parrot Records, by the way - check out pages 90-92 of Lost in Music by Giles Smith.
Dave and I were in a band for about a week, and called ourselves Live Ammo. I played bass and Dave played snare drum, and a Syd Barrett kind of guy named Michael Sippings turned up with his brother's guitar and two fuzzboxes. We thought we were like Public Image, but actually sounded even worse than Mass. Sippy hasn't logged on to FR yet, and somehow I doubt he ever will, but Colin Austin has, and the band had a song about Colin called, well, Colin. Colin Austin was always getting duffed at school, and once, in the showers after cross-country running, developed the beginnings of an erection. Had the story ended there it might have been lost to history. However, after several class hards started whipping Colin with knotted towels, the stiff just got bigger. None of the hards, by the way, who were mostly into Two Tone, have registered with FR, and Colin makes no mention of it now in his short resume. I can't even say that this cruel locker room incident inspired our terrible song, because even then we intended to address bigger issues in our lyrics. Instead we just shouted 'Colin' at random moments, usually coincidental to missed notes. Anyway, Colin does reveal that he's been working in insurance for 15 years, and is now expecting a third child. Somehow I wish I didn't know any of this. The time-frozen stiffler memory was so much more precious.
Live Ammo's last school holiday rehearsal was disrupted when my next-door-neighbour, Mrs Weller, came round to complain about the noise. Yup, everyone's a critic. I went out with her middle daughter, Cathy, for a fortnight in August 1980. She smelled of soap and liked snogging, but she hasn't registered with FR either. I dumped her after developing an intensely hopeless crush on an older woman at Danbury Music and Drama Camp, Jayne Quinn, who I planned to impress at the climactic camp concert and disco with a scratch band and some well-chosen Pistols and Crass covers. This masterstroke didn't quite come off, sad to say, and at the end of the week Jayne went back home to Basildon, which was beyond my operational range on a pushbike. Like Sippy and Cathy, Jayne hasn't registered with FR either - and for that I'm thankful, because I don't want to know that she's an account manager now, or something in IT, or just started an OU degree course.
Then I checked out Mark Wheatley's entry. Together with Gary Farmer, who method-acted being Sid Vicious for three years, Mark Wheatley had been in a punk band called Acid. Though it pains me to say so, Acid were a damn sight better than Live Ammo, who barely fired blanks. Acid played proper gigs, and it was Mark Wheatley who had strolled into the lecture theatre one lunchtime to announce that Penetration had split up, when we all feigned shock, rather than admit to not knowing Penetration from Adam. So had Mark gone on to become a big noise in A&R, or played bass for Iggy Pop on a late Eighties European tour? Well, no. Mark admits to having 'never made it big, like our good friend Damon.' Damn. But then maybe this means he taught Blur all they know.
I say that Stanway was a bog-standard school, but none of the girls were ever so stupid as to reply in the affirmative when I asked them out. Nevertheless I got quite excited on learning that fragrant Rebecca 'Becky' Barker is still living in Stanway and has been divorced for four years, and then, fifteen lines later, that Tracey Jones has avoided marriage twice, but welcomes contact from unreunited friends. Then I realised that FR was turning me into a creepy character from a Nick Hornby novel, and so I quickly fled north of the border. Becky and Tracey are not sixteen anymore. And neither am I.
In 1982 I moved to Edinburgh and it transformed my life. I was enrolled by my father in a vastly superior school, James Gillespie's High, which Muriel Spark made infamous through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. By the time I arrived pupils were no longer required to pose naked for the art master, or run away to fight Franco in Spain. But it was still very different to Colchester, and so it remains. Judging from the numbers, nowhere near the same number of friends needed (or wished) to be reunited, and none of them wished to be reminded of the nicknames plainly still cherished in Essex, and many had simply logged on to peek without telling, leaving no message or update. Cowards. Actually no-one I was curious about had even signed up, none of the serious young men who gathered at Mac's house to talk about Camus and Sartre and laugh about Marillion, and none of the girls I'd fumbled with in a bedroom kind of way. Then again, that's a very short list.
Awful, really. Because it should have been the other way round. Because it was Edinburgh that made me, yet now there was nothing left. Still, I resisted the temptation to go back to Stanway, and pay a fee to start e-mailing names from the past. I want to remember those faces in the morning of life, and not at two in the afternoon, which is where we're all of us at now, already with one eye on the clock. I want to remember each of them this way, not as someone who I exchanged a couple of desultory e-mails with two decades later. Which I guess means that I wouldn't be seen dead at an actual reunion. Except that probably I would, just so long as Dave Cowdray isn't deejaying.
© James Nice 2002