Wanted: some good old friends for a matey reunion

This is not the whinge of a Norman No-mates - friends have even been to QPR matches with me
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The Independent Culture
THE DAY of the reunion approaches and already I'm nervous. For years, decades, I have managed to avoid those awkward gatherings of old school or university chums, so beloved of film-makers and novelists. Occasionally, an invitation to something called a "gaudy" would arrive in the post and, at vulnerable moments, I have even considered accepting, before realising that my motives had less to do with a comradely spirit of "Auld Lang Syne" than the opportunity for a retrospective sneer.

The house bully would have taken early retirement from the Army and would now be selling water filters. The star of the first XV would be a prep school teacher, the light of yesterday's triumphs now but a dim, angry gleam in his eye. The dorm beauty would be a paunchy miserable-married, talking lugubriously about his golf handicap. Or, worse, perhaps my prejudices would all be confounded and they would all be bouncy, radiant and successful. No, a school reunion could only be a disaster.

Then, this year, my university college tracked me down. "The Master and Fellows invite... a black-tie dinner... in order that old friends may sit together it is hoped that the majority of those present will select their own places..."

No chance to sneer here. University had represented freedom - in theory. Somewhere out there, the Sixties had been happening - we read about them in Oz magazine. As graduates, we had gone on to become MPs, own restaurants, write novels, run the Royal Opera House. This could be fun.

It was only after I had accepted that I identified the source of niggling worry about the occasion. It was not that I would fail to recognise my contemporaries; I would hardly be able to recognise myself, a drifting, discontented Hooray Henry in a red-spotted cravat who sat in his room drinking whisky and playing sad Tim Hardin songs on the guitar.

No, it was the reference to "old friends" that was the problem. What old friends were those? You may not achieve much at university but at least, it is commonly accepted, you emerge with a gang of friends for life. Then, as you grow older, the group acquires new members - lovers, spouses, children - who set up their own mini-group. A few of the old hands may fade from the scene, edited out by grumpiness, nervous collapse or death, but the gang, with its gang memories of yesterday's larks and rivalries, endures. Or so I've heard - I've never managed it myself.

Suddenly, friendship has become one of the issues of the late Nineties. It is the theme of Tim Lott's dispiriting new novel White City Blues, the story of a man in his early thirties who, having sold out to the enemy and become engaged, loses the companionship of a blokey circle of old friends with whom, until a woman took over his life, he used to watch QPR, get drunk, and behave badly in Indian restaurants. Bantering male companionship rooted in old school alliances against regular sex and domestic commitment: there's no doubt where Lott finds the truer, purer love.

And, according to a recent report, everyone has started losing their mates; the average city-dweller discards an average of 1,000 friends in lifetime, it is claimed. The demand for greetings cards expressing apologies for cancelled appointments and lengthy silences has never been greater. 1,000 friends - and those are just the ones who got dumped!

This is not the whinge of a Norman No-Mates - I'm very proud of my friends. Some of them have even been to QPR matches with me (and these days, that involves real friendship). Yet somehow they have never cohered - coalesced into a group, a team. If they gathered together, I am convinced that a ghastly social curdling would take place, for which I would feel responsible. Or perhaps - an even greater fear - they would all get on so terrifically well that suddenly I would become redundant to their comradely needs, and would become one of the discarded 1,000.

It would be convenient to put this lack of group friendship down to the life of a freelance writer. Did Nabokov have a gang? Is there a Philip Roth set? But even that won't wash. Think of the Goncourts, of Bloomsbury, and the Algonquin. Remember the crowd embarrassingly celebrated in Clive James's novel Brilliant Creatures - Fenton, Hitchens, Amis, O'Hanlon - drinkers, partygoers, good-time friends. Then, over in New York, Bret and Tama and Donna were hanging out with Jay, who likes to send a chummy fax every day to his mate, Julian Barnes.

So what's the secret to this group-friendship lark? Anyone want to be in my gang? Before the reunion, preferably.

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