Alec Marsh

Are school reunions really that bad?

  • From Spectator Life

Outside a visit to the dentist, there are few things in life as unappealing as a school reunion. That’s particularly the case when it marks an anniversary with a big number attached. In our case, 30 years.

On the face of it, it’s a micro-disaster in the making. The plan is to take a hundred or so men and women – many of whom are deep in the grip, knowingly or otherwise, of a mid-life crisis – wrench them away from their daily lives and transport them back to the boarding school where they were all teenagers together. You then throw in a free bar and disco – and let them get on with it.

It sounds like the pretext of a particularly cringey Channel 5 reality show, one in which Davina McCall emotes sympathetically alongside a therapist, who’s on hand to help pick up the pieces once bourgeois lives have been shattered.

You realised what you got was a snapshot shorn of all the horrid bits – the unrequited loves, the divorces 

Before my own big day arrived, spirits among my cohort of Old Ardinians were running high. A dedicated WhatsApp group had been set up and was being deluged with unearthed photographs. The pictures were so ancient you could scarcely recognise yourself in them, let alone anyone else. When one such snap popped up on my phone my wife peered at it closely before pointing at the wrong person and asking: ‘Is that you?’

Then there was the chit-chat, made all the more entertaining by alterations of surnames since our Ardingly schooldays. On WhatsApp one male friend asked a woman whose name rang a bell if they’d been an item at school, which was putting it politely. ‘No,’ came the response. ‘That was the other Hannah.’

As the day approached it dawned on me that a school reunion like this is the demographic equivalent of one of those mid-life medical check-ups, where you discover your levels of visceral fat and have your true biological age scientifically calculated.

By getting a before-and-after shot with 50 to 60 people you last saw when John Major was in Downing Street, you’re undergoing a brutal progression assessment -– in terms of life and career performance, as well as sheer physical upkeep or decay, and all against a cohort which in some respects is closest to you demographically in the world. It’s like having your own Ofsted report.

Moreover you have to contend with that strange psychological phenomenon which strikes when individuals return to a former social group, like the regression that occurs when siblings get together. Even if a full-on relapse isn’t on the cards, what about the fact that everyone will expect you to be the 18-year-old you once were, just with less hair, another stone or two and fewer of your actual teeth? In other words, an annual visit to the hygienist is a piece of cake.

For my own reunion last June, we had a gloriously sunny day, with the Sussex landscape every bit as beguiling as I remembered. It was mercifully easy to recognise some of my former classmates; they and their identities came back immediately, even if, like me, they had aged significantly in the interval.

It was a little odd, however. (I’m reminded of my son’s confusion after watching the Star Wars films in short order as to how it was that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher could all age so rapidly over the course of five or six films). Only one or two of my former contemporaries had completely fallen from my memory, but even they could be wrestled back from the off-site archive after a few excruciating seconds. Nobody likes to be forgotten, but it’s worse to be the person who entirely forgets. Some of us have gone to seed, sure. One or two were in better shape than our 18-year-old selves.

There was success in the room, too: someone does something very important for one of the world’s most influential American billionaires; another is a film producer; there were CEOs of this, that and the other; we had a landscape painter, the partner at a law firm. One old girl flew in from California, where she works for Google or Facebook. Another wore a silver sequinned onesie that, while a little over-the-top for 5 p.m., was a triumph by 10 p.m.

‘Dad, I hope you’re not using ChatGPT to write my essay!’

After a couple of glasses of champagne the trepidation was gone and people were enjoying themselves. The confirmed friendship groups disintegrated, people mixed and explored the past. The lavatories, formerly known as ‘the dykes’ in honour of what was presumably once rudimentary plumbing, were now Maoistly labelled ‘Male toilet’ and so on. Everything had signs on it; the tuckshop has been swept away for a sixth-form bar. Things once shabby had been painted.

By the third drink, most of us had established a patter to summarise the intervening decades. Quickly you realised that what you got was a snapshot of life shorn of all the horrid bits – the unmentioned first marriages, the unrequited loves, the divorces, the breakdowns; they were the ghosts at the party, as much as those from our year who didn’t attend. By the time the evening wound up at shortly after 11, my dateline on the cohort had been recalibrated. I had looked the past in the face and it really wasn’t so bad. Life-affirming? You bet. Am I looking forward to the 40th get together in 2033? Absolutely. It’ll be about time for another personal Ofsted.