Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The Lost List

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.


Gavin McL said...

My list is probably longer than it should be and generally my fault rather than theirs.

I like the balloon, I remember making something similar in the seventies with aunts and uncles, It was launched I think (unreliable childhood memory warning) near Edin's Hall Broch in the borders. I do however remember being very disappointed to see it vanish.
Both photo's are rather fine in their own way.

Poetry24 said...

A poignant post, Mike.

If I ever had a list, it's probably screwed up in the corner of an imaginary pocket.

I've never forgotten one dear friend from my first year of secondary school, though. We were complete strangers. He, from West Wellow - me from rotten Totton. The last I saw of him was one evening, following football practice. "See y' tomorrow."

Ten minutes later, the duffle bag he was swinging (the way lads do) snagged on a sheeting hook of a passing lorry. He was dragged under the wheels of the trailer and died as instantly as we had become pals.

Mike C. said...

Yes, it's those early disappearances that make it onto the Lost List. a school friend of mine witnessed the death of his own younger brother in a very similar accident, and -- not surprisingly -- it haunted him for the rest of his life (I know this because I read his own harrowing account published on the Web just a few years ago).

Those losses can become part of the family story -- despite never having known him, I have always been aware of how my grandfather lost his best friend in WW1, for example (though admittedly he won a VC in the process, so it was a good story).

But it's not just deaths: one of my own "lost" friends simply moved to another town. Before the internet, that was pretty final. It was partly my daughter's revelation that she is still in touch (via Facebook, etc.) with an ex-classmate who moved to Scarborough when they were 11 and another who returned to Hungary that prompted my reflection on the subject. On the Web, no-one and nothing is lost!


Adam Long said...

Considering almost all my friends are climbers and mountaineers, I might consider myself lucky to have escaped what Joe Simpson called 'the remorseless attrition' of friends' deaths whilst pursuing their sport. Perhaps the sport has got safer, or climbers less bold, but I can't help feeling there's a grim irony in me losing three of them to suicide instead, all whilst in their twenties.

The book wasn't The View over Atlantis by John Michell was it? A bit like Casteneda - fascinating and convincingly scientific, but ultimately must be mostly hokum.

Mike C. said...

Three suicides is an awful lot,Adam, although I have read that the rate among young men has gone up dramatically. My sympathies if these were good friends.

"The View Over Atlantis" was certainly on my bookshelf, but I can't recall the actual book with the pyramid stuff in it. There were so many such books... In the 60s/70s we were desperate for evidence there was more to life than what grey old Britain had to offer.


Anonymous said...


Your posts of late, as well as the images, have been very nice, though this one was a "bit of a downer".

Especially liked the fog images.


Dave Leeke said...

Perhaps this was all a very prescient view of the early 21st century. With all these Chinese Flying Lanterns being released into the wild night skies, you and your peers were early pioneers.

A few weeks ago I was at a 50th birthday do where many were released into captivity - only one of the 50 that were let off caught fire.

Guess who let that one off?