Jean tells her school reunion story – 50 years since she discarded her green blazer
Do I want to go? It wasn’t easy being young. Do I want to meet all those scary people in green blazers? I tell myself not to be silly: there will be no green blazers, more likely walking sticks and thermal underwear.
The invitation to a school reunion, 50 years on, had come from an old friend. Soon emails flocked in from Europe, the States, the Home Counties and of course London. The green blazers sent mini biographies. My anxieties began to dissipate, reading amazingly positive life accounts, with the inevitable less positive glitches mentioned lightly in passing.
It must be like sending pictures of a holiday – only the smiles are kept and recorded. There were a few rather sombre mails, giving news of the poignant early deaths of some of our number, usually alongside a warm appreciation of their lives. This was sobering! Although, approaching the three score years and ten, I’ve adopted the policy of my late mother-in-law who, at 90, said with conviction: “I never think of death, dear, too much to do!
Still conflicted about making the considerable journey, I began in a very disconnected way to remember the school building: a stone spiral staircase lit by a cupola above, a marble floored circular foyer, stone-flagged corridors in the semi-basement, leading to the dairy, aka the biology lab. This was the old part of the school. It had been the home, when he retired to north London, of a viceroy to India.
I remembered the smells: chalk, dust, polish and feet. The crowded tussle of limbs, satchels and duffel bags in the corridors, when every forty minutes the whole building erupted with noise and movement, as pupils and books travelled from one lesson to another. They clumped on the wooden boards, no longer polished by troops of servants, clattered on stone and marble, hauled up an elegant staircase made for ball gowns and evening gloves. They climbed inappropriately out of elegant Georgian windows, rampaged across what once was parkland, to make dens in the woods and smoking clubs in wartime Anderson shelters.
The boys were all loping limbs and green blazers, whose sleeves stopped above the wrist. Glossy hair flopped over eyes (we wore it long then). If you were female, the thing was to cinch in the waist of your pleated green skirt with a very wide belt, having ensured that it stuck out like an umbrella supported by many frilly petticoats (rumour had it petticoats stiffened with sugar water, but surely they would have stuck to the chairs?)
Well, on balance, the warm and enthusiastic emails and the hard work of good friends in setting up the meet, alongside my strong curiosity, determined that I must take part in this 50-year reprise.
It was difficult to penetrate the venue, a Tudor hostelry in a salubrious leafy suburb. Wine glasses were clinking and held high, cheek kisses and hugs ubiquitous. I felt panic. Who were all these people? But then a smile, a gesture, a familiarity, seeped through rumples and folds and there was the boy who understood maths, and there the good-looking heartbreaker, and wasn’t that the shy boy who was now dressed in Armani? Strangely, the present disguises of solid white-haired citizens with CVs to die for could not overlay the potent images of vibrant, enthusiastic youth, dressed in ugly green.
There were moving moments when recognising a peer also meant noticing two sticks, and realising that a progressive and debilitating illness had curtailed a successful business and private life. Of course it will be the lucky few who avoid this experience, as long life, in itself marvellous to have, tends to move into undermining mode in our later years, tempting all but the bravest into King Lear moments. Interestingly some of the most individual characters from the school had elected not to come. Some remembered as super creative, some clever, or cynical. We missed them and trawled for news of their progress or decline.
There were those who, after a lunch and more wine, threw themselves into an active recreation of the past by singing the school song. At this point I escaped to the back bar, and fortuitously met a friend who had been a role model for political activism. I remember feeling that I was on the road to social hell when, at 15, he took me to meet a communist MP, such was the family paranoia then with respect to the far left.