One of the many highlights on the landmark 1968 Kinks album, ‘The Village Green Preservation Society’ is a song called ‘Do You Remember Walter?’ The narrator fondly recalls a childhood sidekick in a series of anecdotal reminiscences that celebrate Walter’s semi-heroic status – ‘Do you remember Walter playing cricket in the thunder and the rain?/Do you remember Walter smoking cigarettes behind your garden gate?’ Gradually, the tone of the lyrics alters as the narrator acknowledges his wistful curiosity over what became of his old mate will no doubt be dampened by the inevitable and humbling reality of time passing – ‘I bet you’re fat and married/and you’re always home in bed by half-past eight’. The singer of the song concludes with detectable melancholy, ‘Walter, you are just an echo of a world I knew so long ago/Walter, if you saw me now, you wouldn’t even know my name.’ The song speaks volumes because we all have a Walter and we’ve all wondered ‘Whatever happened to..?’

Take Joey. Joey was my first ‘best mate’ when I started school, the first kid who joined me in a playground re-enactment of a ‘Top of the Pops’ performance from the night before (‘Blockbuster’ by The Sweet, in case you were wondering); barely six months after I started school, however, my parents relocated us all to another part of town and the friendship ceased to exist overnight. The last time I saw Joey was the summer of 1973, and that’s where he remains in my head. As children have a slim grasp of a past too brief to linger in, their permanent presence in the present means they can shrug off the loss of one friendship and quickly move on to the next without dwelling on it; I did just that several times over the next couple of years, when my family imposed nomadic social mobility on my education. I thus became accustomed to the idea of friendship as a short-term arrangement; but as the casualties began piling up, I eventually started to wonder where those fading faces had faded to.

What just one standout vignette in an entire LP of them says about absent friends is both touching and potent – how the flesh-and-blood of the here and now invariably dissolves into the ether of memory as tomorrow supersedes today. People it can be impossible to imagine our lives without will all vacate the present tense and find their way to the cemetery of friendship in the end; and the longer we live, the more crowded that cemetery becomes. When a resident of it gatecrashes our thoughts without warning – an unexpected intrusion often triggered by stumbling upon something they were associated with – we pause, attempting to picture their face. We try to reconstruct that countenance as it might have aged when we were no longer looking at it; it’s a mental equivalent of those strange imagined impressions of the adult that a missing child could have morphed into, ones the police produce to complete cold cases. We can’t quite do it, though, for lost friends are indeed the living dead, frozen phantoms preserved in our internal graveyard that never grow old.

Yes, it is true that we can disentangle ourselves from family if we so wish, though the intricate web of emotional blackmail many families survive by can make such a move a minefield; with friends, it’s different. Friends were our choice, those we instinctively gravitated towards because there was a connection we discerned that meant more than a mere shared surname. As the old saying goes, you can judge a man by the company he keeps – and the choice of our friends is an expression of us as individuals. This is especially important when we are children.

As a child kicks and pushes its way out of the infant egg, part of the hatching process is establishing a life beyond the confines of mum and dad; forming friendships is a crucial aspect of that process, enabling the child to make its first independent mark in the world free from the parental CCTV. We therefore naturally develop a possessive bond with our chosen companions that can sometimes manifest itself as loyalty blinding us to faults and failings we prefer to believe are the exclusive province of those we didn’t pick for our private football team, i.e. family. What, indeed, does it say about us or our judgement should our cherished friends be exposed as owning feet composed of clay? When they betray or abandon us, it hurts because we expected better from them; we anticipate being let down by family, but not by friends. Forgiving is hard enough; forgetting can be even harder.

Social media can put people back in touch, this is true; but is that such a wise endeavour? I know one friend who has done just that more than once and the outcomes have not always been happy; sometimes it’s best to leave well alone and keep the recollection intact and unsullied by the passage of time. Charles Dickens carried a torch for adolescent sweetheart Maria Beadnell, his first love; but the torch was abruptly snuffed out after years of burning bright in his heart when he met up with her in middle age, long after she had roused his nascent passions; he imagined she would still be as he remembered her. She wasn’t. Indeed, any form of high school reunion can be fraught with dangers that stretch back decades. We never forget the friends who let us down, but do we recall the ones we let down? Who knows what bitter resentments we may have inadvertently fostered in the memories of others? We may be disappointed to see our own Walter ‘fat and married’, but what of those to whom we are Walter? Memory has the capacity to be a uniquely selective tonic.

Each act of my existence has come with its own repertory company of players, and very few have remained with the company for long. There is rarely any crossover between productions either; there tends to be a fresh crop of actors for every new script. Such a scenario often imbues the leader of the company with a rootless insecurity and a feeling of belonging nowhere; this is a direct outcome of those blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em blood brothers of childhood. There are times when I envy those who have stayed in touch with most of the friends they’ve made in their lives; there are other times when I wonder if such a network can be as much of an impediment to personal progress as family can be. Granted, some friends had a sole role, that of facilitating the next phase; once the next phase was here, they had gone; others should have stuck around a little longer. Some I don’t miss and have no desire to reunite with whatsoever; others were worthy of eternity and their disappearance left behind a black hole that still radiates the sense of something missing, something that would have continued to enrich my life had it remained.

One of the trickier elements of this constant changing of characters is that there can be gaps between an outgoing cast and an incoming one – and these gaps have a habit of gradually widening on each occasion they come around. At the moment, I’m reduced to monologues; I recently staged a one-man show that spanned seven days, playing to an empty theatre every night. But, hell, I’ve been here before and I’ve always managed to recruit an audience eventually. I ain’t panicking. I guess at times it can be hard not to envy the child’s lack of a past and stoic ability to forge ahead free from being haunted by the lost; the only thing a child can glimpse when he looks back over his shoulder is a void – and it’s far better to have the void behind than in front, for sure.

So, yes, to answer the question posed by Ray Davies fifty years ago, I do remember Walter – lots of Walters. But where are they now, those collective Walters that contributed so much to the weaving of this tatty tapestry now looking distinctly frayed at the edges? No idea, but thanks for the memories, wherever you are – hopefully healthy, wealthy and wise, passing through the lives of others like you passed through mine.

© The Editor

3 thoughts on “ABSENT FRIENDS

  1. >There are times when I envy those who have stayed in touch with most of the friends they’ve made in their lives; there are other times when I wonder if such a network can be as much of an impediment to personal progress as family can be.

    With my old friends, I find their joys become my joys and their sorrows become my sorrows. My conception of my identity may change, but my friends give me a sense of continuity with my past. They remind me of who I was (for bad and good) and often prod me to better myself in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

    And other times they are insufferable and I cannot believe that they are smitten with certain trends, or still doing the same thing that they were 20 years ago. What is pleasure without pain to define it, eh?

    Best wishes to you, Johnny.

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  2. I think, as we get older , and more in touch with our own mortality, we’re more inclined to get nostalgic/ I often don the proverbial rose-tinted spectacles, look back with fondness to days/years gone by and, with a degree of curiosity, wonder what become of those who (at the time), were major figures/influences in our lives? Especially those who conjure positive memories – however fleeting any interaction might have been.
    Our paths (yours and mine), first crossed as 7 year olds, become more frequent in our teenage years and grew into what has, for me, been one of my most enduring and rewarding friendships. I thank you for that.
    You’ve written another poignant article, which, I’m sure, will have most readers regressing into the annals of their respective minds. X

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  3. The thing with meeting old pals is that you’re astonished how much they’ve aged, whereas your own mirror never saw you age yourself, spooky that.

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