Same place same time, gents…

What turns an acquaintance, I wonder, into a good friend. Is it the gradual discovery that you have something in common or that you share an interest? Perhaps it’s having a similar sense of humour or hearing political views that don’t leave you shaking your head in despair and amazement. Maybe it’s finding that you don’t disagree enough to get dyspeptic or bang your head against a wall. Whatever it is or wherever it comes from, it’s a jewel to be treasured in a world that is too-often superficial and where life-enriching values are increasingly transient.

Yesterday I spent the day in London with two guys that I’ve known since the late 1960s. And I’ve been doing that with them, more or less, every year since we met. Sometimes our group was larger – fondly-remembered interlopers have fallen by the wayside over the years – but the three of us, the core, stay in touch and spend time together year after year. It’s survived bombings, economic downturns, overseas postings, changes at home, changes at work and, of course, the passage of years. For each of us our meeting has become something of a marker for the years that have passed and, for me in particular, punctuation in a life that started as a junior in a design office through being a partner in my own practice to the wizened consultant [and blogger] of today.

Back at the time we met our coming together was precipitated by frequent lunchtime outings to a country pub called The White Lion, in Walkern, Hertfordshire.  Conversation between games of darts, lubricated by several pints of Greene King’s Abbot Ale and a certain amount of often less than charitable leg-pulling, was always fast, witty and wide-ranging. They were blokey lunches and very non-PC by today’s standards; quite different from the work ethic that I encouraged in my own offices in later years. But they were enjoyable, intellectual and, I guess with the benefit of hindsight, a little exclusive. It was clear that fate had brought together a group of people with not dissimilar backgrounds; all three of us are from London, possess a resonating sense of humour and are singularly opinionated. Moreover, whilst each was strongly individual and had his own specific interests, there was a commonality that we enjoyed and wanted to share; culture, art and a love of music. We all read and indulged ourselves in the richness and idiosyncrasies of life. Trouble was, work got in the way and there never seemed to be enough time to work through the points that increasing intoxication and decreasing articulation demanded.

A heaven-sent opportunity to address this presented itself when British Rail announced in 1972 that it would withdraw the Brighton Belle. This famous train had journeyed from Brighton to London Victoria and back as a first-class service since 1875, although it was only named Brighton Belle in 1934. Its breakfast kippers were famous and Sir Lawrence Olivier was foremost in protesting its demise. It was a perfect and very public-spirited excuse for us to travel to Brighton in solidarity with the protest at the train’s withdrawal and spend a day at the seaside. Our hitherto lunchtime session extended to a full day so that we had the time that lunch at The White Lion denied us. It was a magnificent day and we agreed on the return to London that a tradition should be born of it and so it was; we undertook the pilgrimage annually for more than two decades. The group sometimes took on a different complexion as some of us worked abroad, new colleagues were seduced by our enthusiasm or friends joined the periphery. Tales of what went on in the streets of Brighton, on the seafront, the pier, in restaurants and all those pubs [as well as other public facilities so generously provided by the burghers of Brighton] have passed into legend, to be raked over, reminisced about and enjoyed over and over.

We tend to meet now in London – yesterday it was Soho, last time Marylebone – or somewhere less central but on each occasion it’s the same; a few beers, maybe an exhibition, a good lunch and important, erudite discussion of art, music, literature, motor cars, people, politics [well, sometimes] and the rich tapestry of life. Just like it’s always been, there’s never enough time. As I sit writing this thoughts occur about something we didn’t finish, a subject that wasn’t exhausted or a point that I meant to bring up. And, despite what I said at the top, we don’t always agree with each other, we don’t always accept each other’s point of view and we exercise friendly sarcasm in a way that you only can with someone who has laughed with you and at you for all those years.

Now, with a lot more experience and a lot less hair between us, we look forward to meeting later in the year with the same enthusiasm as we did the next game of darts at Walkern all those years ago.


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