March 21, 2014 6:39 pm

So nice not to see you again

‘The very technology that enabled renewed contact has also rendered it unnecessary to meet in person’
An illustration of a communications satellite with the words 'Keep in touch'©Lucas Varela

It began as a pleasant surprise: an email out of the blue from an old classmate I had not seen since my last day at school. Ordinarily, I take a tough line on nostalgia but he was someone I had always liked but from whom, for one reason or another, I had drifted apart over the final years of study.

A few days later came another and then a third and fourth. Men with whom I had not exchanged a word in more than 30 years were suddenly getting in touch. It must be how Nasa feels when one of its long-forgotten satellites unexpectedly delivers a new message from the edges of space. Then it struck me: this is the year we all turn 50.

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Robert Shrimsley

Turning 50: why else would sane, successful men feel the need to contact people they haven’t bothered with for three decades? Or – worse – be seized by an inexplicable desire to round up a posse and relive the smell of plimsoll at an Old Boys’ dinner? Only a brush with death or a major anniversary can explain such a lapse after 30 years of conscientious objection to such events.

I cannot be certain about the motive but the coincidence seems too great. I imagine former classmates stirring restlessly as they ponder their looming half-century and wonder what ever happened to so-and-so, whatshisname and thingamabob from 5D.

Were I possessed of a more rose-tinted view of my school days, I might have grasped the opportunity. But in general, I’ve always taken a fairly Darwinian view of these things, tending to believe that if you’ve managed to get by without someone’s company for the past 31 years, then the reasons for seeing them in year 32 are unlikely to be pressing. Nor do I imagine there was any special desire to see me in particular: I’m just easy to find.

The reunion dinner, with its inviting opportunities to bellow “remember old Taffy” across the table and sing the school song until the whole room is soggy with nostalgia, has always been a concept to make the innards shrivel. I suppose it does at least offer the chance to see people in a fleeting, commitment-lite manner. Perhaps you can laugh like you did at school and, for a few hours, recall how it felt to be 15 again. But even if one could put up with the false bonhomie, you wake up the next day still 50. And all those you remember as young boys are now middle-aged bankers or lawyers, talking about their second marriage or their pension plans – and seeing you the same way.

Some pressed ahead with the Old Boys’ dinner plan. Others suggested meeting up regardless. We exchanged information about those we still knew and then, inevitably, the emails died away. It was as if the initial enthusiasm was replaced by the realisation that we had actually all moved on.

The curious thing is that the very technology that enabled renewed contact has also rendered it unnecessary to meet in person. It used to be difficult to track down old classmates; now it is a couple of hours googling. One can find out how they turned out without having to go through the ordeal of actually seeing them again. I now know that my year boasts an Australian rabbi, a professor of ancient history, a plastic surgeon and any number of lawyers, bankers and property developers. One pleasant surprise was seeing how many had the careers they wanted. Largely I found men who, professionally at least, could look their childhood selves in the eye. To my inexplicable joy, two or three slightly quirky characters had jobs that perfectly matched their personality. The only one I could not pin down was the boy who had apparently murdered his wife. Melbourne rabbis I could find but a killer in north London proved too much for Google.

I’ve little notion of their personal lives. Facebook could help – but the risk is that you have to offer a friend request to find out. Oh for a 10-minute prying pass to bring yourself up to date without having to re-establish contact.

I could be wrong. Perhaps we will end up meeting. But for now it feels more like the last contact: the final signal from the Voyager spacecraft before it leaves the solar system and heads out into deep space.

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robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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