By ALAN BRIEN
ONE of the rewards of growing-up—for me at least—is no longer feeling obliged to live in a crowd. When I was a boy, we travelled in a gang the way adults travelled in a bus. The group was a means of locomotion so that each individual member felt that he could almost retract his legs and be carried along by the impetus of twenty tramping feet. We left grammar school each afternoon in a succession of phalanxes and followed a circuitous route through the suburbs, dropping off passengers one by one at the corner of their street. It was never decided among us which was the least favourable station on the journey--to be the earliest to dismount meant that you trailed up the garden path to your dull family, the warm glow of comrade- ship fading like an old sun tan, while the rest rumbled along inventing jokes you would never properly appreciate, collaborating on fantasies of which you were probably the butt, stumbling over such free entertainment as a pair of copulating dogs in the vicar's garden, a tramp changing his sock in an alleyway, or an elaborate funeral with a marching band which would be the fashionable talking point at break tomorrow. It was like being first to be thrown to the wolves of that famous overloaded Russian sled. Some- times the pull of the gang was so strong that a passenger would leave, punch the parental time-
clock, snatch a piece of cake, and hare round the block to join it again.
The boy who lived at the terminus, however, began to imagine that his house must be situated near the end of the world where dragons played and the great snake lay sleepily coiled. He grew nervously dependent on the penultimate boy— for a quarrel with him would leave even longer stretches of lonely streets to be negotiated alone without guards or guides. The last quarter of a mile was like exile on Juan Fernandez. Elaborate precautions had to be taken to avoid being left tuned-in to your own thoughts so you stopped to kick the gate of the house where the mad woman was reputed to live. You stared up at the window where a young woman was once seen, or thought to be seen, undressing. You scrutinised once more the gutters where sixpence was lost on a memorable occasion. You collected earwigs from one decayed stretch of palings and trans- ferred them to the most well-kept garden in the road. You pondered the mystery that grown,ups could be so similar when boys were so different. You searched for explanations why your neigh- bourhood alone should be so denuded of interesting-looking girls when everywhere else they sprouted like weeds.
The reason you were in your gang, and not in another, was mainly geographical. The com- panions on your morning and evening shuttle service were not those you necessarily chose to spend time with in the classroom or in the quad. But however popular or distinguished you were inside school hours, you could not face the tern-
porary solitary confinement of travelling outside the gates on your own. During weekends and holidays, you were also mainly restricted to the gang members who occupied that segment of town radiating out from the hub of the school.
One of the most infuriating characteristigs of adolescents, I realise now as an adult, is their absolute inability to make plans for tomorrow. Almost all of us in the gang had some par- ticular school-friend at the opposite end of town, but neither one of the pair could ever be brought to admit that he would be free for a visit on Saturday afternoon or Sunday night. We each liked to give the impression that our leisure was packed with fascinating hobbies and family outings. In those days, and in that place, the telephone barely existed. To wait for a postcard was to confess yourself a wallflower. And so the gang would re-form, member by member, over an hour or so until we stood on a street corner without a single idea in our heads about where to go or what to do. We were a miniature crowd and eventually, after interminable and abusive argument, we would decide to go wherever the big crowds were and do whatever they were doing. We would no more have thought of look- ing for an empty beach than our parents would have thought of seeking out an empty cinema or an unpopular cafd.
Occasionally, under the influence of Romantic poets like Byron and Shelley, I would decide that the hum of cities and the haunts of men were intolerable to me. I rejected the herd and sought for communion with my own high-flying soul in the solitude of nature. Such outbreaks could not be arranged on the spur of the moment. First, I had to visit the local library to find a sufficiently pretentious book, probably Thus Spake Zarathustra or Myth and Folklore in the Old Testament. Then I had to collect a supply of food and drink—a couple of oranges and an apple plus a bottle of lemonade. Defiance of con- vention would be represented by ten Woodbines and indulgence of luxury by a groundsheet and a cushion. At last, all equipment for a self- sufficient afternoon packed in a rucksack, I caught the little bus into the country.
There, up-river from the shipyards and the docks, I would be rowed across into a no-man's- land of nettles and reeds by a gnarled, one-eyed ferryman for a penny (to put in his eye, I ex- plained humorously to my friends) and search for a nesting-place. Looking for somewhere to lounge and read and scribble opening lines of poems is like looking for a cheap, superb, un- known restaurant in a foreign city—eventually, worn out by making decisions, you choose your tenth choice. There was always something wrong about my retreat—ants' nests, cow pats, damp, broken glass, smells—but I was out of sight of humanity. It did not matter that the lemonade was hot, the fruit bruised, I'd forgotten the matches and a pencil, and the small rain down did rain. As I posed there, I knew I was missing one real essential—a witness. Unless I could produce evidence that I was spurning the world, how would the world ever know? I yearned for the appearance of some literary gent on a walk- ing tour who would be impressed by my devotion to 'the precious life blood of a master spirit.' Or why not some beautiful, eager, inno- cent daughter of the Lambtons to whom I could explain that her family was living on the back of the working classes? Three uncomfortable hours later, I was back on the housing estate searching for the gang.
The value of a gang to the young (and, probably, to many adults) is that there you do not have to pretend to be an all-round Renais- sance hero—wit, leader, athlete, polymath, clown, schemer rolled into one. You play the character role which is written for you, and you are for- given all your weaknesses for that one quality. If you are handsome, you are positively ex- pected to be stupid. It doesn't matter if you are fat and graceless, so long as you can finance the rest out of your mother's purse. A comedian does not have to be brave and a muscleman need not be intellectual. You have a part in a soap- opera serial and no understudies are permitted to join the company.
Nowadays, I tend to believe that the gang is always wrong and that crowds are always misled. I can fly into fury at the sound of a transistor a mile away and detour for an hour to miss seeing another car. But I wonder if this, too, is not often a pose. After all, I positively enjoy being crushed and deafened at a party if I know most of the guests. I feel an instant pang of envy if I hear of half a dozen of my friends lunching without me in a restaurant. I go each weekend to my cottage in the country and then start inviting people down to fill it up. Bank Holiday, 1 crow to myself, think of all those fools swallowing each other's exhaust on the roads, elbowing each other for a square foot of pebbles on the beach, fighting for a drink in a steamy bar. But in my snobbish superiority, is there not a small, secret desire to be one of the crowd, with a secure place once more in the pecking-order of a gang?