Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Let's all meet up in the year ...

Manchester people by birth and outlook, my parents had taken us to live in faraway Fife when my mother took a phone call which told her, suddenly and shockingly, that her father had died. She wept (I'd never seen a grown-up cry), my father fussed and I was devastated.

My grandad, Fred Williams, had lived all his life in Hyde, and though I'd seen him infrequently in my first ten years, I loved him uncritically as only a child can. Nor did distance dull the pain of his passing, and a week or two after his death I found myself one school break-time lying flat on my back crying my eyes out.

It was then one of my tiny buddies pottered up from the playground to ask what was wrong. He listened to my bad news, sat down and soon we were both staring up at the sky, talking about heaven and the probability that my grandfather was looking down at us at that moment and smiling. My ten-year-old friend had really helped me feel better.

This sentimental image is my one clear memory of Dougie Ross. At the end of the year he moved away from Dunearn Primary School and out of my life. I was happy enough to be left with the memory but, cajoled by the people I call friends today, I logged on last week to an internet website at www.friendsreunited.co.uk. And there was this Ross, no longer in short trousers, but instead grown up, called Douglas and teaching in London.

One of the media phenomena of the year, friendsreunited is the most successful of a number of sites that are making the most of some people's strange desire to dig up their pasts (rival sites are www.oldschoolmates.co.uk and www.lostschoolfriends.com). None of them are produced by the schools organisations, but instead by faceless IT people who have cleverly wrested control of the rose-tinted spectacle industry from Channel 4 and come up with a new way of making money from nostalgia.

Last week Marketing magazine reported the number of visitors to friendsreunited had doubled since July, from 542,000 unique visitors to 1.1 million in August. That made it the 29th most-visited website in the UK with visitors spending an average of 40.7 minutes there over the course of the month. That's serious traffic as any computer nerd could tell you.

It works like this. The site has a database of 22,000 schools and under each institution there is an ever-expanding list of former pupils who have signed up in search of their pasts. Many of these schmucks provide an account of their lives since leaving school, which range from the pitiful ("I am now blind but can typpe verry well so pelase get in toucj") to the plain harrowing ("Sales director of leading-edge marketing company. Drive Jaguar. Married to Sally, three kids").

To get full use of the service you'll have to register for a fiver - allegedly to discourage unsolicited e-mails and "spam" - and the evidence of your eyes will tell you that thousands of people are handing over their money. Someone, somewhere, probably with big thick glasses and precious few social graces, is making a heap of money.

For the well-rounded but curious punter the site is like a bad accident: you don't want to look, but you just can't avert your gaze. Through endless school noticeboards, it is a storehouse of semi-literate sentimentality and the chillingly mundane. It acts both as a repository of the saddest people you ever knew and as a place for bigheads to brag about their successful careers in IT.

The worst offenders? Possibly those who, in their mid-forties, refer to themselves by an old nickname to try to encourage communication from others, long gone from their lives. Thus one 41-year-old former pupil of a minor public school details herself "Linda Rankine (Skunk)"; from another we find "Mark Rhodes (Cecil)". How long did these people take to live down those nicknames only to paint them up in public view again?

Add to them the people whose lives you don't want to share. "Worked for Braithwaites' Prime Meat for the past 20 yrs. Started as a van boy now I'm the buyer." If you think that's a pretty tragic life, think again, for our subscriber adds breezily: "Can't complain". Or there's this: "Working in telecoms, Bristol-based and still playing the organ". Good for you, mate. Now get a life.

Then there are the sad boys, the ones studying physics you used to walk past at school who want to tell you how successful they've become. There are thousands of them out there justifying dismal existences - but behind the certitude of their CVs you sense a howling loneliness. "Living in Leicestershire with wife Clare and three children (ages 11,13,15). Following a degree in Economics and Economic History at Bristol Univ qualified as an accountant. Now working in Essex as commercial director for a private company engaged in retailing. Leisure pursuits are rugby (as coach and referee) and tennis." Or take David Toole from one of my old secondary schools: "I have my own textile business." Yes, but you're still called Toole.

Strikingly absent among this human detritus are people who live productive lives in the midst of healthy communities. Tinkers, tailors, soldiers and sailors are hard to find, or anyone else making something useful for the common good. Similarly, opinion formers, cabinet ministers, broadcasters or the otherwise rich and famous have not taken time to sign up here. At Morrison's Academy, for example, there is no entry for: "Ewan McGregor (Shorty). Just finished making out with Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge (and yes she Can-Can!)"

But at least at the same school we find one of the shafts of humour which are the site's redeeming feature. Rodney Munch ("Muncher") informs his pals that, after a career in Columbia with American covert ops, he is now working for Aeroflot and based in Moscow where: "I live with my partner Horst and two adopted children." If true, Muncher's invitation to the alumni dinner may get lost in the post.

In the same vein, alleged sex-changes are infrequent but funny. Michael/Michelle Graham of Annan Academy (alias "Poof" or "Girl") now lives "in leafy Tufnell Park, with a long-haired Chihuahua called Gerald". Fergus Stevenson ("Ferg") of Nairn Academy has come a long way since the class of '87. "Former research scientist at Huntingdon Life Sciences. Spend my day injecting cancer into puppies' heads. Very rewarding job. Making money to have a gender reassignment operation so that myself and Andrew Clucas can be legally married as man and wife."

At friendsreunited you can travel the length and breadth of the country to chuckle at freaks of all shapes and sizes. But when you narrow the focus and search for what's really important to you, the laughter stops and a happy memory is ruined by someone else's recollection.

For me, conkers and getting the bumps on my birthday seems an important part of the past. I don't recall the notion that one school friend of mine was "resolutely single and heterosexual" cropping up in a 1970s conversation, though nearly 30 years on, he feels his old mates should know he's "still the same guy".

And that's how it is with wee Dougie Ross. At the website he writes: "After school I went to Stirling to do economics, spent some time working in Edinburgh then went to teach in Japan. Now married with a two-year-old son." These days he might be short and bald with a beer gut and black teeth, whistling for his wife to bring him a bottle from the fridge while he gawps at the footie on the box. Alternatively the pair of them could be saintly figures, working with the street children in the east end of London, teaching life skills to make them whole again. Who knows?

In the spirit of professional nosiness I sent Dougie Ross an e-mail, care of friendsreunited. I hope Douglas Ross doesn't reply. I preferred him in shorts.

* Mike Wade lives in Edinburgh with his wife and two kids. He still plays conkers and drinks like a fish.

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