From That Day to This
IAM apt to be lax in my attendance at reunion dinners. This is partly because I do not live in London, but another reason is that they induce a feeling of sadness. It is delightful to see one's old comrades again, but there is a sense of what I can only describe as downhillness in the air. The bonds that unite us are still strong, but are they not perhaps becoming a trifle frayed? The memories that we share are still precious, but every year what we remember moves a little farther into the realm of travesty, or at least of legend, and a little farther away from what actually happened. Every year we are a year older, and almost every year the dinner is slightly more expensive than it was last time.
Above the diners hover the ghosts of the men they were, accompanied sometimes by the even more insubstantial wraiths of the men they might have been. In a way, I suppose, this makes us all more interesting but it does not jollify the proceedings. The conversation slips into well-worn grooves.
'Seen anything of Archie lately?'
'No. He lives in the Argentine now, you know.'
'Oh yes, of course he does. I remember somebody telling me at the last dinner. Didn't he marry again, or something?' `Did he? I hadn't heard.'
A silence, during which the ghost of Archie, riding a pony across the pampas, mingles briefly with the other ghosts, then goes back to do another year in limbo.
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For people, like myself, whose memories are erratic these occasions present especial problems. One knows a kw of one's fellow guests very well and a good many hardly at all, because they belong to a different age-group or served in a different battalion or for some other. sufficient reason; but there is a large sprinkling of those whom one half knows and half doesn't know and only meets at these reunion dinners. One generally sits next to one of them, and one remembers having had a long and agreeable conversation with him last time.
But what on earth was the conversation about? Is this the Chap who had something to do with looking after ancient monuments and was getting a divorce? One is almost sure thatit is, yet somehow, looking at him again, one's brain receives—God knows whence—the message 'In civil aviation. Daughter won a prize for something.' The nearest one can get 1.0 picking up the threads where they were dropped last year Is to say, in a genial but guarded manner, 'Still as busy as ever'?' Even that old trusty, 'Family all well?,' is not a safe card to play with a putative divorce in the background.
One of the troubles with reunions is that they recur too frequently; the intervals between them are too short. This is of course inevitable. If they were not annual events, most of them would cease to recur at all. Lists of addresses would be mislaid or become obsolete, the indefatigable organisers would lose their grip on the old comrades, the dinners would no longer be habit-forming institutions and the whole business would forfeit its status as a tribal custom.
But the penalty for retaining this status is a certain atmosphere of repetition, as the same people meet in the same place year after year. The element of surprise is lacking, and a truant who turns up after a long absence has almost the standing of a celebrity; he is pointed out, plied with questions, passed from group to group. In theory a whole year of adult life ought to give everybody something fresh to talk about; but in practice conversation among the regulars tends to follow well-beaten tracks. It is an exaggeration to say that during the first part of the evening half the company is talking about school fees while the other half is talking about the servant problem; but it is not much of an exaggeration.
Last week I attended a reunion dinner of a different and altogether delightful kind. It was far from being an annual event. I had not seen the man I sat next to for thirty-five years; he said-1 am sure truthfully—that he was a Rear-Admiral. The dinner was attended by about thirty men who had been at the same private school between, roughly, 1910 and 1920. The headmaster, a man of character, genius and eccentricity, has long been dead and the school no longer exists. But some public-spirited Old Boy conceived the idea of a limited reunion, and a fascinating time was had by all.
I say `fascinating' because, for me at any rate, that is the word to describe a series of encounters with small boys sud- denly metamorphosed into middle-aged men. Of my con- temporaries who were present there was one with whom I had kept in touch and another whom I had met at odd times fleetingly; the rest .I had not set eyes on from that day to this.
The ghosts that hovered over their heads were not the ordinary sad sort, the inveterate reunion-haunters who promote downhillness by reminding us how much stouter, balder and more harassed James is than he was in the days when he commanded 'B' Squadron with such dash. These ghosts were cheerful imps, conjured suddenly out of a forgotten past and in most cases differing so widely in appearance (as well, of course, as in size) from the pillars of society to whom they belonged that no invidious comparisons were possible. My Rear-Admiral, for instance—what was there, save pleasure and interest, to be found in tracing the long links which anchored this hawk-faced sea-captain to the tubby, rather determined little boy whom I remembered?
At normal reunions the common stock of memories have been mulled over until they are trite; to hear an old story well retold is the most one can hope for. But after an unbroken lapse of three or four decades there is no established folklore, no authorised version, and at our dinner everybody unlocked a door whenever he opened his mouth. Different people remembered different things, and their memories seemed strange and fresh and surprising and curiously true: for children make good witnesses.
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Our reunion was a great success, and it was generally felt that we should repeat the experiment. 1 very much hope that we shall, and I can see nothing wrong with 1970 as a target- date. It is a mistake to lose continuity. STRIX