I was catching up with friends over the weekend. The main event was watching the Wales v South Africa Rugby World Cup quarter final match at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon, but as ever with this sort of thing, it was at least as much about the time you spend with your friends as it was about a sporting event. On Friday night, we had planned to go to the Oxford beer festival, but the queue was a bit big, so ended up chewing the cud over a few beers in a pub… which was more than fine with me.
One of the people there was someone I haven’t seen in more than twenty years. We used to study History together at A-level, and for a while she went out with one of my best friends. We were friendly at school, but I wouldn’t say we were particularly close or that I even knew her that well (she was a girl, remember, and I was a seventeen year old without the faintest idea how to sustain a sensible conversation with a girl). She was in town because she’s just started a post-graduate course in English and History at Oxford University with a view to a PhD and a career change into curating, or somesuch and was matriculating on Saturday morning.
After twenty years, where do you start? Well, she’s got three kids with the youngest just starting school. She had a decent career in marketing, but fancied a change and is taking her chance as her youngest starts at school and gives her a bit more time for herself. She asked me what I did, and I had a moment’s pause before replying. It’s not that I’m embarrassed about what I do for a living by any stretch of the imagination, it’s just that it says so little about who I am or what I stand for, and I’d hate for anyone to think it was. I enjoy my work and I like the people I work with, but at the end of the day, it’s just a job. Some jobs are pretty easy to explain; my job isn’t… and as soon as I’ve said what I do, I usually get asked what that is, and find that I have to go into a little explanation about how it works. Whenever I do it, I can hear that polite interest being stretched, and even as I’m speaking, I realise that my job really isn’t a good way of understanding me at all.
I’m 41 years old. Why do I feel the pressure of a chance encounter like that to reflect on my life and convey in small-talk that I’ve somehow led a worthwhile life?
So how would I summarise my life in the twenty years since we last met at our mutual friend’s twenty-first birthday? Well, you can’t do it can you? You just can’t.
It was lovely to see her though, and she’s looking well. I think that my school was a very strange and difficult place to be a girl, and it was nice to be able to talk to her away from that bizarre and artificial environment and to reconnect, even just a little bit within the confines of a few hours of small-talk in the pub. We have history in common, the subject as well as our own pasts, and we talked happily for a little while about the concept of kingship in medieval England (kingship as a concept distinct from the physical body of the king).
It was good.
It’s funny how the seventeen year old me has never really left.