Something’s happening in the nation’s psyche and the website Friends Reunited (which allows school contemporaries to get back in touch with each other) is responsible…
Published The Times September 13th 2003
Current trends show that Friends Reunited is the fastest-growing and largest organisation in Britain. Fifteen per cent of the nation’s adults are already registered. It has nine times more participants than the Church of England. Declining political parties can only drool and wish. What can a therapist make of this, especially one who has already capitulated by joining?
Superficially, Friends Reunited is a boasting post. For example, Madeleine in 1975 had no clue as to the whereabouts of Madagascar let alone Manchester. She now tells her peers she owns houses in East Africa, Geneva, Hampstead and Scotland, finally at ease with the atlas.
On the other hand, Graham, who studied electrical engineering to death as a lonely teenager, says he has passed the same lifetime ‘mainly in the railway and railway supply industry writing real-time process control software for signalling systems’. His co-evals mutter something about ‘trainspotter’.
But this is better than a third who has absolutely no clue. ‘Am still in Darlington, a rep for Buxton’s Painter’s and Decorators’. A collective and not entirely pleasant sigh of ‘poor sod’ electronically heaves. Friends Reunited is at worst a snobbery shop at best a parish register of our spiritual journey from egg to eagle, or in the case of those who fall by the wayside, from egg to omelette.
The website lets you find out whether you have achieved a state of grace without ever needing to read your own obituary. You can even check out what might have happened if you’d led an alternative life. A circle of knowing is completed. It provides group biography for free. Previously only God, your GP and the Gestapo were privy; now you too can pore over the files. As the keeper of our conscience, it may even replace the Church in England.
This seems to me a good 50 per cent of the site’s appeal. Humans are meaning-seeking; we want our biographies to make sense. This is what society lost in the previous two centuries, whether as a crisis of faith or the rise of the machines.
Before the Industrial revolution, 98 per cent of people lived on the land and most jobs were done from home. You probably never travelled more than 15 miles to find a marriage partner. The local community and priest became the effective keepers of your ‘Personnel File’. When you died, they all knew your worth and did you appropriate honour. Come the hurly-burley of modern transport and social mobility we are all relatively rootless. The records have been scrambled. As TS Eliot complains: “our beginnings never know our ends”.
What Friends Reunited supply through the magic of The Internet is a time travel machine so that our ends can re-discover our beginnings. There are those acquainted with you between the ages of five and 25 who possess a particular section of your file which cannot be found in any other cabinet.
For example, my reunited friends remind me that I was known at school as ‘Henrietta’ because for some bizarre reason we all had girls names. Take that to your analyst if you like. They also recall me as a fat child who got bullied, who was a bit vicious back, and who hated the school cross country run (compulsory for boys, compulsory viewing for girls), and would do anything to bunk off. As a plump 14-year-old, it was no joke being unable to cover more than 200 yards in front of 500 giggling girls before pausing for a rest and a ciggy.
What they didn’t know until I told them is this. From the age of 19 to last year, when the knee finally gave way, I went cross-country running three days a week. That’s for 35 years. I personally invented British jogging. Now if you mix all that information together, I end up massively exorcising a humiliation. I have completed a circle.
It’s not the only one. While compiling my FR entry I incidentally mentioned that at the age of 12 both ‘PN’ and ‘MR’ used to “beat the s*** out of me” on a regular basis. I can now confidently identify the latter as Mr Malcolm Roberts of Hertfordshire because he has since emailed me his profoundest apology: “You can either blame the violence on an excess of testosterone or the fact that I must have been a complete prat at the time”. It is understandably gratifying to feel that after all these years his 12-year-old self had behaved badly instead of me deserving it. Apology accepted. Circle squared.
However, the other 50 per cent of user fascination with FR is nothing to do with apologies albeit deserving but with an irresistible reprise into early romance and, frankly, lust. We know the Internet is the world’s largest sex aid. Well, Friends Reunited is one of its erotic portals. I guess the excuse rises easily to the philanderer’s lips: “But, darling, we’re only friends, you know. Good friends. Just ReUniting…”
Thanks to web technology, we can raise the Titanic of our past loves, inspect them in the harsh light of day and determine whether they are worth restoring before they oxidise. Or we can dive deeper, search harder for those lost opportunities, tapping memory’s hull. Was it Helen Hobbs you lusted after in the Upper Sixth Arts, or Maureen Dobbs? Friends Reunited in the shape of Ms Hobbs herself will probably soon tell you. And when she does, strange emotions may surface.
Her name flashes across your screen. You tremble. Your fingers no longer command the quirks of qwerty. You type gibberish. You don’t breathe normally– and all this for a name you can’t precisely recall from the year dot. What on earth are we up to?
Well, first loves are indelible. They sit in your data banks like protected programmes. This is hardly surprising since their qualities are unique – first kiss, first emotional rhapsody, first serious loss of virginity. To hell with where we were when Kennedy died, who can forget the peeling back of the covers of childhood when Number One friend became Lover? The fact that this perhaps occurred under a bush in one of Gloucester’s municipal car parks only adds to the unforgettability.
But with whom and with what are you falling in love? Most therapists would accept that love requires a pre-existing ‘template’. We don’t tumble at random. Love’s clichés yield clues: “I’ve known you all my life… You remind me of me… You say what I’m thinking before I say it… You’re my other half… Cupid to my Psyche…” Love doesn’t happen out of the blue, it prosaically meets criteria. Because you are too young to know any better, the first people you tend to fall in love with are your parents. The qualities you will therefore admire in others are based on family traits and traditions, even facial resemblances. All well and good – this is ‘safely’ in the unconscious and has kept the population going for generations.
The danger with rekindling old flames comes from self-delusion. With FR, the rare story is of genuine love between two grown up souls. First attracted as teens, they were cruelly separated by their UCCA forms into different universities. Now, via the website, they find the old magic still applies, and so the emails fly. – I was your ‘old flame’, was I? Funny, I never thought of myself as that. – Course you were. You still are somewhere, so it’s extremely fond memories my end! – Gosh, I’ve no idea what to say. I never thought you’d reply. – I didn’t mean to put you under pressure. But I always felt sad that we wasted our youth. – If only I’d not been so sexually uptight. You see I am now a bridge-playing, gardening, menopausal hausfrau with an empty nest, lost libido and too much time on my hands… – So let’s change it!!!
And so they meet, shift their pension funds and bond.
But as I say, that’s quite unusual.
Far more common is the erotic fishing ego-trip. This is usually conducted by a depressed angler of either sex hell-bent on happiness through regression. Midlife crisis has always generated its ‘Shirley Valentine’ or ‘Secretary’ syndromes. To these we should now add: ‘Online Nostalgia Addiction’. This comprises the obsessive desire to turn back the clock to the last time you were truly, madly, deeply ‘happy’ because there is only one person in the world for you – and that is Barry (‘Bazza’) Riley whom you kissed in the school play 27 years before. The only excuse for your behaviour is that your parents did a major Philip Larkin on you and you really find it challenging to separate wish from fantasy. The template in your head confuses love with submission to some tyrannical, wicked god.
Unfortunately ‘Bazza’ is far from James Bond. He now spends all his days ‘in the ‘railway and railway supply industry writing real-time process control software for signalling systems’. That’s when he is not playing trains in his attic…
It’s cheaper to find yourself a good therapist.