Thank goodness for name badges. There comes a time when they are indispensable — and none more so than at school reunions.
Big lettering on the badges helps, too. It means you can read the name of Perkins minor at a distance before shuffling over to offer a friendly handshake or scurrying behind a pillar before the bastard spots you.
Of course, there are those who resolutely refuse to go to reunions on principle. After all, if you really wanted to re-establish contact with that boy or girl you sat next to in Mr Winter’s history class, you would have done so ten, 20 or 60 years ago. Facebook, LinkedIn and suchlike can all help trace people who were part of your life as a student. So why bother?
I’ve not bothered many times but have also bothered quite a lot over the years. Not long before Christmas an email arrived from my prep school, Sunningdale, inviting old boys to the Rifles Club near London’s Grosvenor Square for a 140th anniversary drinks party.
There was no mention of buying a ticket or any suspicion of an auction to raise funds for a new science block. Just turn up, find your badge and fill your glass. And that’s what a couple of hundred or so of us did.
The current headmaster, Tom Dawson, gave a good speech; his father, Tim, and uncle, Nick, who were joint headmasters before him, were in sprightly form; and even Mary Sheepshanks, wife of Charlie, who was the head from 1953 to 1967, turned up at the age of 83, kissing all the ‘boys’ as if they were eight-year-olds on their first night in the Lower Dorm.
One of the highlights was hearing that earlier in the day Sunningdale had beaten Ludgrove at Fives. Sunningdale beating Ludgrove at anything was always cause for unbridled celebration. If you ever wanted to appeal to the Dawson twins for leniency over some minor misdemeanour, the moment to do it was just after Sunningdale had held Ludgrove to a draw on the football pitch. And on the rare occasion when we beat them, you could ask for pretty much anything you wanted.
Sunningdale, I grant you, has always been an acquired taste. My brother, who was hopeless at games, struggled, and Ferdinand Mount was disparaging about the place in his memoir Cold Cream. But I loved it from the moment I turned up shortly before my eighth birthday in 1962 — and so I loved those couple of hours at the Rifles Club.
Five or six from my year were there, all charming, some rich, some without a bean. We drank a lot of bubbly and then moved next door to the pub for burgers and Merlot. We might never see each other again but a circle had been completed.
During the evening I found myself chatting to a bearded man even older than me. He was not wearing a badge. That’s because he was HRH Prince Michael of Kent. He told me what a ‘great occasion’ it was, and although he has to say that wherever he goes, I think he meant it.
I’ve also been to a few reunions of my house at senior school. In fact, although my housemaster, Martin ‘Bush’ Forrest, died some years ago, dinners are still held in his honour. The speeches are normally terrific. Yes, you might easily find yourself sitting next to someone you’ve spent decades avoiding, but there’s no denying the camaraderie.
Forrest was a kind and forgiving man (once, when he had to beat me, he made such a rotten job of it that I almost felt I should have asked him to try again), and the dinners always seem to be imbued with his gentle spirit.
Forrest was replaced as housemaster by a classicist called Alastair Graham, who was a very different character. He didn’t much care for me and, frankly, the feeling was mutual. A couple of years ago I was invited to attend a dinner at White’s to celebrate his 80th birthday. I went because a couple of friends persuaded me to do so. Then, to my horror, I was asked to give the speech, because apparently I was one of the oldest who had signed up to attend.
Politely, I refused. ‘Well, would you say grace?’ asked the fellow who was organising the bash. A pleasure, I replied.
I then spent the next couple of months learning by heart the longest Latin grace I could find. It went on and on and on. The ‘Amen’ at the end was thunderous, a mixture of relief and bemusement.
Graham looked down the table at me, the stroppy teenager who failed Latin O-level first time round and only just scraped through in French. ‘I always thought Palmer would be a late developer,’ he said.
A week or so later Graham wrote to me warmly, and I wrote back just as warmly. I feel good about that. Reunions are better for the soul than they are for the liver.