If you are like me, you probably have a mental list -- quite a short list, if you're lucky -- of the people who unexpectedly vanished, dropped out, or withdrew from your life at an unexpectedly early stage. They are the friends and acquaintances who moved away, lost touch, lost interest, fell out with you, died, or who became mad, bad and dangerous to know. The Lost List.
Thinking of my second year at university (see previous post) reminded me of the person who had occupied the room beneath mine on Staircase 10 in 1974/5. Steve was one of the gentlest people I have ever met. From his "posh" voice and careful manners, I had always assumed that he was privately-educated, but later discovered that, like me, he was a grammar school boy (though you might argue that William Ellis School, Highgate was in a different league to your bog-standard state grammar). How anyone survived twelve years in the state system anywhere in London whilst holding on to their RP pronunciation is a bit of a mystery, though. Being really well spoken is not usually much of a defense against the levelling thuggery of the school playground.
As it happens, his family were Communist Party aristocracy -- his father was, amongst other things, the director of Progressive Tours (the Communist Party's travel agency), and his sister Nina was to become the very last Secretary of the CP in Great Britain, before it packed up shop in 1991. His older brother Julien found fame as a film-maker and chronicler of punk rock. Of course, in those days of student radicalism the CP was thought of as very staid -- reactionary, even. We did a lot of shouting and pushing and shoving, and Steve was not the shouty pushy type.
It is a sadness to me that I didn't really get to know him as well as I had expected; I had him pencilled in, so to speak, as a long-term friend. I enjoyed his company but, as he was not fond of the late-night smoke- and music-filled rooms that were then my natural habitat, he would usually make his excuses and leave before the evening got going. Scientists, after all, have work to do. But I found him intellectually curious and open minded in a fun kind of way, and he was not dismissive of my art-making efforts or New Agey obsessions -- he would often mention his similarly-inclined elder brother.
For example, we constructed and carried out together a practical test of the powers of pyramids. I had read somewhere, in one of the wacky books I was fond of reading, that a blunt razor blade, placed under a pyramid made to the strict proportions of the Great Pyramid of Cheops on a platform exactly one third of its height and aligned north-south, would become sharp again. In an anticipation of MythBusters, we carefully constructed such a device out of cardboard, and tested it out, complete with control setups which pointed in the wrong direction, etc.* It was fun in that intense way that serious-minded ten-year-olds have fun.
Steve's Grand Project of that second year, though, carried out meticulously in the room beneath mine, was a hot air balloon constructed out of large glued sheets of tissue paper. It was a thing of wonder: when filled with hot air from nightlight candles, it swelled impressively and rose to the full height of his room -- about eight or more feet tall. One evening, I made this poor but evocative snap of it with my Instamatic:
Later in that summer of 1975, Steve fired it up outdoors, and simply released it into the wild. All those hours of painstaking work rose into the air and vanished over the chimney pots and crocketed gothic finials of Oxford. A beautiful, zen-like act, I thought. Though something of a hazard downwind, in retrospect.
Later still, during that summer vacation, Steve was suddenly taken ill, struck down by a rare and untreatable cancer, and died. I had no idea of what had happened, until he failed to return for the start of the third year, but my London-based friend Andy got word of the tragedy and thoughtfully went to visit the family. He says he had never seen people so stunned by grief. They were still in mute shock, days after Steve had died.
Well, you can imagine. I always felt, however, that someone who could let go of that magnificent balloon so deliberately, so happily, might also have been able to let go of life with uncommon grace, too. I don't know that, of course; it's just one of those consolatory fictions one makes up. So it goes.
Thirty five years later, I still think of Steve as "someone with whom I almost had a long-term friendship", a name high on my Lost List. I know that others, too, still remember him with affection. He is in this college group photograph from 1975, displaying his deplorable taste for 1970s gear at its very worst, but you don't need to know which of us he is. There are plenty of candidates to choose from.
Yes, yes, we were a very geeky crew. What do you expect? You're looking at the inmates of a notorious academic hothouse: some of those young people are as clever as clever can be. The rest are all just extremely bright or, like me, simply very good at taking exams.
Alarmingly, now I come to think of it, virtually everyone with whom I have a long-term friendship is also already in this photograph. I'm not sure what that says about me other than that I have tried quite hard to keep my Lost List as short as possible.
* No, of course it didn't work, idiot.