I have three friends whom I’ve kept up with since we sat together, aged five, in Mrs Asplin’s class at the local county primary school. After Mrs Asplin, we were taught by Mrs Dobson, then Mrs Asplin again, then Mr Seager, then Mrs Dobson again, then Mr Middleton and then Mr Farrell. These teachers were all kind except Mr Seager, who was Welsh and shouted at us and made us write out hymns. After that we were swallowed up by a huge, new and somewhat terrifying comprehensive school and in the second year I moved away from the area.
These friends have been easy to keep up with, however, because whereas I’ve moved about the country a fair bit, they’ve stayed put. One we’ve always known as Dot, one as Phy, and the other we call Man, in a parody of the hippy greeting. I’ve always been Jel. For several years Phy and Man were in a rock band called Heironymous Boch and I moved back briefly, having no job or commitments, and Dot and I were the band’s incompetent roadies. We lived in a cottage on a farm owned by a retired East End gangster that was also a front for a car-ringing operation. I lived there rent-free in return for looking after a few fig-leaf calves.
Boch were a talented outfit, making a name for themselves on the local pub rock scene, which at that time included Dr Feelgood. But the sought-after record contract failed to materialise. Dot became a freelance gardener, Phy a successful entrepreneur, and Man teaches juvenile delinquents, or whatever they are supposed to be called, describing himself as a children’s entertainer.
I was always the feckless, itinerant bum of the quartet and a textbook cretin. A single example will suffice. When Man was married for the first time, I was led away from the reception in handcuffs and covered in blood, having briefly nipped outside to do a smash-and-grab raid on the off-licence next door. (‘Oh, you are a nit, Jel,’ said Man’s lovely mum, June, the next time I saw her.) I stayed out of touch for about a decade, from approximately the mid-Eighties to the mid-Nineties, during which time I attempted to pull myself together. The next time we met, to everyone’s incredulity, I had a job as a columnist for a new highbrow magazine called Prospect.
But after they’d read a few of my columns, they were surprised not so much at my unexpectedly exalted occupation, but at how such a serious magazine could publish such rubbish. They thought it was hilarious. ‘Saw your column in Prostate the other day, Jel,’ they’d say. ‘What a load of s**t that was!’ They even wrote letters of complaint to the editor. And when three people you’ve known since you were five are unanimous in their conviction that you’re a rubbish columnist, who are you to disagree? So now I’m the chancer, the Emperor with no clothes, the worst hack in the history of British journalism. And for the most part it is a role I’ve accepted with submissive grace and not a little acquiescence.
Last week was a landmark in the history of our friendship. Phy has recently treated himself to an expensive gadget that grants him instant access to 6.8 million music tracks on a website and installed speakers in every room of his house. To celebrate its installation, he gave a Desert Island Discs dinner party for the four of us — plus partners. The idea was that we’d send in advance a list of our eight all-time favourite tracks, he’d key them in to his gadget, shuffle them, and then we’d listen as we dined, and try to guess who chose what.
I’d not been to Phy’s lovely home before, nor met any of the partners — though I’d heard reports. And, to be honest, the Desert Island Discs part of the evening was not a success. People were snobbishly rude about other people’s tastes in music. Sting in particular took a bit of a pasting, as I remember. And before he became too catatonically drunk to operate his gadget, Phy made unilateral decisions about which choices were worth playing and which weren’t, which led to violent squabbling. At five years old, I realised, our characters had been fully formed. At one stage all seven of us were standing up and shouting abuse and threatening each other across the dinner table. Dot and his wife refused to speak to each other after that. Phy’s wife’s look of impenetrable sweetness belied, one felt, a plan involving the death of her husband the moment his guests departed. But then someone prised the track-finder out of Phy’s corpse-like hands and chose a succession of ska and reggae classics and we immediately forgot about our arcane white-boy choices and danced standing on our chairs till the sweat showed through our clothes.
Ska and reggae: what else is there, really?