By Melanie Reid in THE TIMES, Saturday 15 September 2018:
Friends are gloriously random things, like road signs, stopping you at forks in the road and suggesting which way to go. Depending on your mates and where you met them, your life is shaped. Inspirational, goodie goodie, funny, naughty – or just a lesson in what to avoid – they subtly influence what you become in life: where you live and what job you do, the choices you make, the books you read, the food you eat.
Last weekend a friend and I had an unplanned golden anniversary from September 1968, when we sat down next to each other at a northern grammar school, wide-eyed and pigtailed, gripping the undersides of our prewar wooden desks in terror. Having survived so far, she and I tried to define what essentials have sustained our good lives:
1. Learning by rote and some experience of physical discomfort. We can still recite the poems and the plays we memorised for English O level – oh yes, we mean you, season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – and regret we weren’t forced to learn more, because that would make us sound more intelligent. And if we’d never known the agony of purple, blotchy thighs on the hockey field on a freezing morning, we’d never know how fellowship feels. Or appreciate the wonders of modern sports clothing.
2. The experience of a crap job. The summer we left school, we worked as vegetable packers, cycling ten miles a day round trip to the factory – there was an absolute bitch of a hill on the way back – and enduring the leers of the permanent staff as we stuffed cucumbers into plastic bags. (“Here y’are, girls, here’s a big one.”) Our wages were £17 a week and Helen blew her first pay packet on a velvet jacket from M&S. Working in a pub felt like bliss after that.
3. Crashing disappointment. We had to cope with various failed dreams, false starts and bad exam results. It made us resilient. We won through. She’s now a professor.
5. Learning to treat men as friends, not a tribe apart, stood us in good stead for rearing our own boys. Men are simple but sensitive creatures: like puppies, they require firm but fair discipline, lots of exercise, praise when they do well, and a biscuit.
6. Gratitude. One member of our close gang of five at school died needlessly of a cancer girls are now routinely inoculated against. The trivial regrets and worries of middle age – failure to have looked after your teeth better or have had more sex – are ones she, poor kid, never got a chance to have.
7. Friendship. Keeping in touch is difficult and takes hard work and persistence (mostly, where we’re concerned, down to Helen, not me). But the effort counts. Superficially, social media makes staying friends much easier but it’s misleading – it puts up a front that makes everything look glossy. The truth, only discovered by real friends, not Facebook ones, is often very different. One final essential: don’t maintain a friendship with someone on the basis you feel sorry for them.
8. Parenting. We were raised to do our own thing, as opposed to today’s 24/7 suffocation, smartphone surveillance and in-house taxi service. Our parents didn’t dedicate themselves to entertaining their children. We were left to get bored and get on with it, as long as we were home for supper.
9. Mothers’ wisdom. We wish we could spend time with our mothers now. Because you don’t appreciate them properly when they’re there, and when they’re gone and you try to pin them down, they elude you. They’re more a presence residing in your heart than a clear-cut memory. But we remembered their favourite aphorisms. Helen’s mother was a scream: “Love is nice but passion is rude,” and, “God got his design wrong, putting the playground next to the sewer.” Mine was more Edwardian: “Comparisons are odious,” and, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” which if nothing else demonstrates she didn’t see into the future.
10. The terror of wondering what our sons will remember us for.
Melanie Reid is tetraplegic after breaking her neck and back in a riding accident in April 2010