Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)
I don't really "do" Facebook, although I do have a minimal presence on it; if nothing else, it's an effective way to be reminded of certain birthdays. Which is admittedly a bit like using your smartphone primarily as a watch (which, now I come to think of it, I do). It seems to me that Facebook has a way of bringing out the worst in even the nicest people. That is, if you consider greetings-card sentimentality, say, or me-too groupthink as bad things. If you don't, well, go for it. We can't all be pretentious elitist snobs, can we? But nothing exposes the Dark Side of your friends more tragically than an unsuspected fondness for videos of kittens.
Very occasionally, though – generally when someone I lost touch with long ago comes to mind for some reason – I take a deep breath, dive in, and have a look around to see if they happen to be hanging out on Facebook. Happily, they very rarely are; it seems most of my old friends, colleagues and acquaintances are stand-offish killjoys, too, with no interest in cute cats or sharing photographs of their meals. Which is good. Although becoming a grandparent does seem to have a corrosive effect on even the most unyielding of moral fibres. Which is understandable.
If someone does show up in there, however, Facebook is set up so that the only way to get in touch is to send a "friend" request, an act that combines cheery inconsequence with needy self-abasement in such a uniquely strange way that I find it impossible to do, not least with someone I haven't met for 30, 40 or even 50 years. But then I hate having my name written on a cup in Starbucks, too ("Tall Americano for, uh, Mistry Mann!"). That presumption of the sanctity of privacy which is so important to the old is a cause of amusement to the young, I know. But then we seniors have invested a lot more time and effort into becoming who we are (as well as into concealing our mistakes), and don't feel like being quite so careless with our data or our dignity ("That's mister Mistry-Mann to you, sonny!").
But identity is a mutable thing, it goes without saying (what isn't?), and it's so easy not to notice the gradual, cumulative changes to our constructed "selves" as they are happening. But little and often adds up to an awful lot of change over a few decades. So it should have been no surprise when, the other day, I was idly following a series of Facebook links – friends of friends of friends who might be friends of a very old friend who didn't immediately turn up in a search – and it quickly became clear that I no longer had anything much in common with childhood friends with whom I once had everything in common.
Junior School trip, 1965
Life is all about those ch-ch-changes, of course. We continually make choices (some trivial, some not, it can be hard to tell the difference), we seize or fail to seize opportunities and, one way or another, leave the past far, far behind us, as we stumble through our unique, personal, labyrinthine flowchart, a series of crossed thresholds and chosen paths we can never retrace. There is no magic thread which will lead us back through the maze, although social media can sometimes give us glimpses into a maze-like hall of mirrors, offering up broken, refracted answers to the question, "Whatever became of old So-and-So?"
Now, this has to be a "no names, no pack drill" exercise. Let's just say I had been looking on Facebook for someone who was one of my best friends up until the age of eleven. We lived in the same street, went to the same primary school, played together with the same group of friends in the same woods, recreation grounds, back-gardens and bedrooms. His family were East Enders, mine were local yokels, but we all had in common the New Town spirit of the 1950s and 60s. Make yerself at 'ome, son! Fancy a bite to eat? Pull up a chair, boy, lovely grub! Those were good times with good people in a good place in some very good years.
But that friendship came to an abrupt end when the secondary school selection process* sent us on separate paths. My friend went through the door marked "secondary modern", and I went through the one marked "grammar" (or "snob school", as it was more generally known). When that door shut behind me I looked back, and all but a couple of my closest playmates had gone; the door might as well have had "EDEN – NO RETURN" written on it in letters of fire. It was the first instalment on the price of seizing certain opportunities (or having them thrust upon you), and in particular of choosing to walk the steep and poorly-signposted path of "social mobility".
Ah, grammar schools. There is a huge, unexamined nostalgia in this country for grammar schools, and not only, it seems, among ex-grammar pupils. They are held out as the route to social mobility for the "academically-able poor", if we can use such a label, one which was supposedly closed off when comprehensive schools were introduced, leaving potential little swots like me to be bullied and demotivated by peer pressure. What nonsense! A quarter-truth at best. Others know the arguments better: for example here or here, and I can't improve on them. Let's just say a return to grammar schools for a few also implies a return to secondary moderns for the many, and leave it at that.
Grammar Boys v. Grammar Girls 1971
Mobility is always relative, of course. Grammar schools – but also subsequently comprehensives – have been good at providing a steady stream of the kind of conscientious conformists who keep the public services running, freeing up the more glamorous professions for the privately-educated, for whom a steady job with a final-salary, index-linked pension is not the lure it is to the rest of us. Back in the 1960s, although a fair few of my grammar-school classmates were already children of the middle-classes (bussed in from surrounding commuter-dormitory villages), most came from New Town families like mine, working- or lower-middle-class families where aspiration and education were highly prized by our parents, not least because these valuable things had been denied to them.** For mobility even to be an option was a new and exciting thing. But in any school system, bright kids with motivated parents, however financially poor, are never a problem; it's the rest you have to worry about. Like my long-lost primary school friends, for example.
They weren't without ability, those other boys and girls, they just didn't like school, often despised those that did like school, and generally had parents who hadn't thought much of it, either. Quite likely – at age eleven! – they had also lacked that essential qualification: a capacity for deferred gratification. You could leave school at 15 back then, and start earning proper money; a very tempting prospect. People also forget that a majority of state grammar pupils did not go on to higher education, anyway. In those days of full employment, a lack of paper qualifications was no obstacle to anyone with a degree of ambition and determination. So, I was curious. Perhaps I thought that, in the process of triangulating one lost friend, Facebook might give me a glimpse of what had become of some of my old playmates in the subsequent fifty years. Or, more precisely, of how they (and their friends, relatives and business associates) choose to portray themselves now: where they live, what they do for a living, who they married and who they divorced, what their kids do, where they go on holiday, even (inevitably) what they eat. All the circumstantial stuff a person might choose to share with their Facebook "friends" and the wider world.
Old skool (Alleyne's Grammar, Stevenage, ca. 1965)
I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but what I often found – with fewer exceptions than I would have anticipated or liked – was that I was looking into the face of The Enemy: the Daily Mail and Sun readers, the UKIP supporters, the self-satisfied and the downright ignorant, with their racist jokes and toe-curling sentimentality, living in sterile, neat-as-a-pin homes with no books and no evidence of an inner life or cultural engagement beyond a TV the size of a dining table taking pride of place in the living room.*** Ironically, I imagine they would mostly be supporting the return of grammar schools, now. It's UKIP policy, after all.
In the main they seemed happy enough, though. Several developed and ran their own businesses, have clearly made rather more money than me, and live in considerable comfort, a few even living abroad. Others seem just about to have kept their heads above water, bobbing along with the economic tides, and are still living within a few streets of where we used to play. Obviously, I have no way of knowing what happened to the ones whose names I can't quite recall, or who didn't show up on the internet: some may have sunk (or risen) without trace, but most likely they are sensible citizens with moderate opinions and no appetite for self-advertisement or time to waste on Facebook.
But what was clear was that education, work, family life and fifty years of choices and chances had placed an uncrossable gulf between us, with our very different ambitions, achievements, pleasures, and disappointments. We started out from the same place, but live in such different worlds now that we would be entirely mutually incomprehensible on, say, some imaginary long, late summer's afternoon, standing around awkwardly on some complete stranger's immaculate suburban lawn, attempting to catch up over a barbecue and a beer.
So, no "friend" requests on Facebook, then? No reminiscing about long-ago playground larks? No getting the gang together for one last wild charge through the woods for old times' sake? No, of course not, there was never a ghost of a chance of that happening. Not least because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't now have a clue who I am, or any curiosity about what happened to me. Just as the bussed-in village kids at grammar school knew nothing of our townie weekends of underage drinking, music and partying, so those of us who ventured out to universities and a new life cut ourselves off from all those important small-town rites of passage around work, play, marriage, and family that create and strengthen the bonds of shared origins, year by year by year. Nobody ever warns you that to choose "social mobility" is also to choose a form of exile.
There are other kinds of exile you can choose, of course. For example, that sometime best friend I started out looking for? I did find him, in the end. To my amazement it seems he went out to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and became a big noise in the packaging industry out there. There's an unmistakable photo of him awarding a long-service pin to a nervous-looking black employee. Oh, and look, nice house! But what a very big fence...
Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)
* I don't recall sitting the dreaded "Eleven Plus" exam in 1965, but there must have been some kind of formal assessment, as Hertfordshire schools continued to be selective until around 1969.
** Aspiration is also relative, of course. The two most spectacularly academically-gifted pupils I was aware of in the years above me at school (both middle-class blow-ins, as it happens) ended up, after Oxbridge double firsts, as a less-than-eminent academic and a middle-ranking editor on a national newspaper.
*** It's some kind of marker of my new class identity that I do not call this room "the lounge", though that's certainly what we used to call it. Oh, well. What was that about pretentious, elitist snobs?