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Past Pal Bears New Year Present

Simon Warner

The UK never really had that rather endearing US tradition surrounding yearbooks, proms and 'Class of' reunions. UK state schools did not encourage the alumni culture that the American educational system so enthusiastically sustains. Friends Reunited may be changing that.

I re-connected with a long-lost friend in recent months. More than 20 years ago he headed off to San Francisco on what seemed an unlikely mission: to run his own limousine business. When he e-mailed me, a bolt from the blue, this past August, he said he'd seen a piece I'd written for PopMatters about a mutual hero, Joe Strummer, and the rest was easy. Within half a dozen, hastily typed, electronic exchanges we'd picked up on two decades of happenings, personal and professional, and we were planning to see each other at the next opportunity.

The fact that I'd been in San Francisco, for the first time since 1978, this past July, made it all the stranger that my friend should re-emerge from the mists of the past at that moment. Not that my tale is anything now but an almost everyday one. The web and its vast communication network means it's easier than ever to trace the myriad trails of the past, harder than ever for individuals to slip quietly away if that's what they want to do.

Yet for Britons, staying in touch hasn't tended to hold the same attraction as it appears to have for, say, Americans. In the UK we've never had that rather endearing tradition surrounding yearbooks, proms and "Class of" reunions. We've seen it played out, of course, in everything from Happy Days to The Simpsons, American Graffiti to Grosse Point Blank, but our state schools, as opposed to our private ones, have rarely encouraged the alumni culture that the American educational system so enthusiastically sustains.

It has only really been with the advent of the internet that the sort of enduring school connections, that so many US students maintain quite naturally, have touched British lives; and, in fact, hundreds of thousands of them. With the rise and rise of Friends Reunited, the web portal that permits you to delve either deeply or at a slight distance into the attainments and pratfalls of your erstwhile classroom colleagues, never has the past been so retrievable.

In fact, British newspapers were reporting very recently that Friends Reunited has been a key catalyst in an accelerating social trend — a burgeoning divorce rate — with around two out of five British marriages destined to dissolve sooner or later. The website for old schoolfriends has provided more than a mere opportunity to check mutual progress in commerce, headway in the wider community or the size of your family.

Correspondents, dewy-eyed with nostalgia and now wallowing in the quicksand of middle-aged ennui, have been dipping into their rose-tinted memory bank for a taste of sweetly remembered adolescence. And hordes of them have been discovering that just as they think a shot of teenage reminiscence will perk up their tired thirties, faltering forties, even the fading fifties, their old counterparts have often been similarly enthusiastic.

The "puppy loves" of the 1960s, 1970s, even 1980s, have been reviving recollections of first kisses, first dates, first . . . well first everythings . . . and re-connecting in their droves, all too frequently leaving their current, unrewarding couplings for the girl or boy they now realise should have hitched their romantic hopes to. It will be a year or five, perhaps, before the longevity of these impulsive returns to an idealised partner is truly tested but a mini-revolution certainly seems to have occurred.

It begs the question whether going back is ever all it's cracked up to be. As a serial non-returner I find the trends surrounding Friends Reunited intriguing but not appealing to me. I have tended to attend schools, universities and places of work and then moved on without a desperate desire to hold on to what I've had. Psychologists may regard my behaviour as the mark of an assured, confident individual or the sign of an anxious personality who is unable to face the pleasures (and the pains), the satisfactions (and the strains) of a former life.

I did pay a few weekend visits to my university city of Sheffield in the handful of years after I graduated in 1977 but once they'd converted the tiny, two-roomed bar we'd come to love into a much larger hostelry, knocking down various walls and extending along the terrace block, the original attraction of the place faded. And, by then, friends and acquaintances had, quite understandably, graduated and moved on.

But backtracking, as the followers of Friends Reunited have discovered, can bring its bonuses. I lost contact with my San Francisco-bound associate for all the reasons we used to lose contact with people: I moved house, I mislaid his address; he moved house, he misplaced my phone number; a postcard or a festive greeting went astray. Whichever one it was, this was an accidental parting of the waves rather than a deliberate one, and one much less likely to arise today in the age of the internet and the mobile phone.

When I eventually arrived in the Bay during the summer of 2004 I did think about that friend I'd once known, assumed that his business plans had never come to fruition and, short of the technology - internet cafes or hotel lobby computers are never quite the right locations to launch a missing person hunt - or maybe the inclination - finding someone after so long might taint pleasant recollections - or maybe the time - this was a working trip with a number of interviews with Beat Generation survivors for a forthcoming book - I let sleeping dogs lie.

I had too little faith. When his e-mail arrived, quite coincidentally, a week or two later, I quickly discovered that the limousine hire company he'd planned to establish continues to this day and he would happily have given us a free luxury ride from the airport to the city if only he'd known we were around. And he also revealed that he still comes back quite regularly to the UK so our chance to link up, face to face, is probably just round the corner.

In fact, we agreed over Christmas that a Gang of Four gig — that hugely influential new wave band, currently inspiring a new generation of rock acts, are back on tour in early 2005 — would be an ideal opportunity to catch up, especially as he actually knew individuals in the group personally during their first rush of glory at the end of the Seventies.

Extraordinarily, one of the last times we saw a concert together was an appearance by legendary Quicksilver guitarist John Cippolina on tour with Welsh pub-rockers Man in 1975. We saw that long-ago gig at Leeds University where my friend then studied, alongside members of Gang of Four, and where I now teach popular music. To compound the connections, our belated reunion will be at the very same venue!

Our get-together will, I'm sure, be a pleasure and I will bury my slightly world-weary scepticism with that somewhat dubious notion that the past is, somehow, a better place to be. I still don't think a wholesale re-visiting of previous experiences — as witnessed in the behaviour of some of those Friends Reunited participants — can provide any kind of sentimental shangri-la. But catching up with one fondly-recalled relationship that appeared to have withered on the transatlantic vine can surely be no bad thing.

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