1978 was a year much like any other year – loaded with all the usual: music, art, fear, death & destruction, ignominy, love and compassion.In terms of disasters, it was the year of the Amoco Cadiz, Harvey Milk’s murder, the Jonestown massacre, and the same year that Charlie Chaplin’s remains were stolen and Different Strokes first aired on TV.
However, on a more positive note, it was the year of the first computer Bulletin Board system, the year artificial insulin was invented, the birth of the first test tube baby, and the year in which 40 years of military dictatorship ended in Spain. It was the same year that Charlie Chaplin’s remains were recovered and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was first broadcast on Radio 4.
And of course who could forget the genius of the thrilling debut solo albums from Chaka Khan and Gene Simmons..?
So in September of 1978, during my first week in “big school” I was approached by a lanky eleven-year old in the school playground. I must have looked how I felt – lost, alone, and wondering why my world had been turned upside down, and why (not for the last time) I was being made to wear a tie, when Robin sauntered up and asked me if I wanted to see a magic trick. Well, before I could say “stranger danger” or “I want my mummy”, he pulled a little green plastic cup out of his pocket and showed me this incredibly banal but utterly mesmerising Disappearing Ball trick. My life has never been the same since. And here we are, 32 years later…
It turns out that before we met, Robin and I lived in Germany at the same time, with both of us being military brats, so he said I qualified to join his international gang. He gave me my code name, tried to make me memorise some indecipherable secret code-book, and we set about designing what every international child spy gang needs – a potato-firing bazooka. Fortunately, we never got round to building it. It would have been very cool, though!
When Robin first asked me if I was into the Beatles, I thought one of the entomology geeks had escaped from the biology department. But, as it turns out, he was talking about the greatest band in the world, who I of course had never heard of at that time. So he made me a tape to listen to, and I came back to school singing Doctor Robert – and it’s still my favourite Beatles song to this day.
Throughout our time together at school, we played our guitars, dreamed about being in a band, and learned about chord progressions and Computers instead of girls. I skived lessons just once, but only went as far as the music rooms, and when it came to our Work Experience week, we were the only two from our year left at school (despite still wanting to be a pilot, the Careers Advisor determined I was supposed to be a tree surgeon), so we dug the school pond and played Flight Simulator on the ZX-81 – all week long. Ah, halcyon days!
Later, Robin developed what I can only describe as a weird fetish for wearing a long old RAF greatcoat. I don’t know where it came from, only that he never left home without it – from the depths of winter to the midst of summer, they were never separated. He even wore it to a fancy dress party. But he didn’t go as an RAF serviceman, oh no – he found half a dozen dolls and tied them together in a long line and went as a white slave trader. He was a strange young man. But then, to keep the perspective, you should maybe ask me later what our friend Jamie Cooper was wearing under his tutu – it was enough to make a nun faint… The only time the coat really came into its own was at a Halloween gig – he threw some white powder on his face and played as a dead airman (except that he had a beard by this time, and the powder only made him look more dusty than dead).
His mad guitar skills come from a classical background, but he has been known to rock out now and then. At a farewell party we played, he’d had maybe one bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale too many, and started leaping off his amplifier like Pete Townsend. Everybody loved it until the morning after when he complained that we’d all put our muddy feet all over his new amplifier.
Music has been the centrepiece for our friendship; so much so that we once rented a small recording studio in the cellar of a hairdressers I think it was. We’d spend as much time in there as we could – mostly eating Mars Bar ice creams, avoiding sunlight, and occasionally producing some music.
In looking back over our years as friends, I unwittingly sent myself on a small journey of reflection. The 32 years I mentioned have passed in what feels like so short a time, but I count myself lucky that I’ve been able to not just witness my friends growing up, but to have so often been a part of it.
I must confess, though, when Robin asked me to be his best man, I found myself asking “why” – I mean, at best, I figure I’m more “least worst”, as opposed to “Best”, material and for a long time I was dreading this. But I had a moment last week where I suddenly realised… Robin and I have been friends for a long time. Of course, we’ve argued and we’ve fallen out – though we only ever fell out over a girl (which was down to my petulance as I recall) and we only ever disagreed about band names, set lists, and what key Robin was going to make me sing “Rawhide” in. But here’s a thing – when my mum died he came to the house. Everyone else followed the instructions and went straight to the crematorium, but when it came to my longest and dearest friends (which I can count on one hand), each one of them came to the house to help me when I really needed it. Friends account for one another and stand up when they’re needed, and so that’s why I’m here today – because a friend asked me. That, and the fact that Pearl paid me to get him to the altar!
Oh Pearl – are you sure that was a wise investment? A green card is one thing, but you do realise he comes with it?
Perhaps a word or two about what you’ve just done…
Man is a social creature – and with little exception we’re driven to group together, with perhaps the perfect group being that of two. In that most perfect of groups, then, we find those things we need the most – friendship, compassion, understanding, and the idea that we’re no longer burdened with singular responsibility. These are things that make a relationship work. They don’t come cheap – we have to learn to forgive when some of these things go missing, and then work at encouraging their return.
The love of my life is sat only a little way off, and Sarah provides all of these things for me and more. I try to do the same, and over time I’ve learned to appreciate her style of … “encouragement”. Haven’t I? … Haven’t I? Oh dear – must try harder!
If each of you gives as much as you receive, then I think you’ll be just fine.
As is so often the case, there are some folks who weren’t able to join us today – either due to other commitments, the distance involved for them, or because they’re sadly no longer with us. Today is a day for celebration, not sadness, but I ask that you spare a kind thought for all our absent friends.
I’d like to end with a poem by Ogden Nash, who though New York born, appears to have had the wisdom of a Yorkshire sage:
To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the wedding cup,
Whenever you’re wrong, admit it;
Whenever you’re right, shut up.
Well, if I thought my throat was dry when I stood up, it’s even drier now, so I think the best remedy is to drink a toast so that I can sit down and follow Mr Nash’s last piece of advice.
Robin, Pearl – may the road rise to meet you, and may the wind be always at your back. Ladies and gentlemen, will you please charge your glasses, and stand and join me for a toast?
The toast is: The bride and groom.
They live in San Francisco, and as the groom pointed out, are legally able to buy a gun. The fact that I’m still alive has to say something… right?