Mr Harold, on the other hand, had led a far more eventful life. Originally a financier's son, he had become a journalist, an author, had brokered film deals with Sylvester Stallone, eaten lotus leaves in Elysium, and - following his divorce - hit the bottle. "One morning," he said, "I woke up in a shop doorway in the Strand. I had lost everything." It was in his capacity as a seller of the Big Issue that Mr Harold encountered the Prince once more, in the magazine's London offices.
Remarkably, he recognised the Prince at once, but realised that he himself might not be so memorable. "Don't suppose you remember me," he said, "but we were at school together." To Charles's great credit he did not do what I would have done, and look at the man beneath the grubby Santa's hat closely, before saying, "The face is certainly familiar, is it Colin? No, er, Alan? Help me out here. Perhaps if you removed the hat?" Instead he confessed immediately that he had no idea who Mr Harold was.
It was a tricky moment for both of them, and one the possibility of which haunts most of us in some way. This was, statistically, practically a class reunion, happening after 40 years. Left to themselves they both might have preferred to avoid it.
But, in fact, possibly fuelled by American yuppy nostalgia movies, reunion is catching on in this country. Local and regional papers carry ads and letters seeking to contact all those from Dotheboys High School, circa 1971, with the objective of bringing together those who once showered, shouted and shat in the same place at the same time.
When I mention this trend to friends, and ask them whether they would attend such a function, I get two reactions. The more positive one goes something like this: "Yeah, I'd go. I've got a good job, nice kids, me boobs haven't sagged. I'll stand comparison. And it'd be intriguing to see who they've married, how many are divorced, and how are the mighty fallen." This is the reunion as Schadenfreude.
The more negative reaction is also my own. It consists of a mixture of fear and an almost journalistic curiosity. When meeting someone for the first time in many years, I am always fascinated to see the youngster still peeping out from behind the mask of age, like a famous actor made up to look old. The eyes somehow stay young, so that - mentally - you add hair to the boy and smooth the wrinkles away from the girl. Remove the wattles and warts, and there they still are. Nor does it bother me that I am not as svelte as I was. Frankly I wasn't that good looking a teenager either.
I am scared by the possibility of inescapable boredom. After all, who wouldn't be there? The larky ones, who smoked dope, played guitars and went into films; the adventurous ones who ended up as headmasters of schools in Fiji and Tristan da Cunha; the mobile, restless ones, whose tales one would love to hear. They wouldn't be there.
And who would? The pushy merchant banker who, as a boy, wished the Americans would bomb North Vietnam a little more; the repressed nerd to whom you showed your knob at 12, who still gave you funny looks at 18, and who would give you funny looks again at 40; the corporate lawyer, who hoarded the Economics A-level texts from the library in his own desk, so that no one else could use them, and really couldn't understand why you hated him; the prop forward from the second XV with the BO and inexhaustible supply of bad jokes, who has never moved away from the old school.
But the biggest deterrent of all - the one that has caused me to refuse all invitations to reune, is when I imagine standing alone before that school door, stripped of everything that I have done and decided in adulthood to be, all my clever reinventions suddenly deinvented by people for whom I will always remain the same, and in whose interests it is that I never change.
And there is one last thing. The painful and shameful truth is that I don't even see the people I most want to see; those who I am too embarrassed to call because I have left it too long, those to whom - year after year - I forget to send a Christmas card; those whose company I ache for. Given that, why would I spend time with a whole bunch of ancient schvuntzes I never liked in the first place? I might buy the Big Issue from them - or even, if things go badly - sell it to them. But I really don't need to meet them.Reuse content