At school, you had friends who liked you when you were unformed, before you became the person you wanted to be. In real terms, they are the last group of people to accept you without judgment or proviso. Scary, isn't it?
Barbara Ellen, The Observer Magazine, 31 August 2003
It's not scary if you still list eight or so of your schoolmates as your closest friends.
Geography enforces long periods during which we don't see each other en masse (although I can be found watching bad TV in the Ruffles's front room of a Sunday afternoon more often than not) but when important ceremonies overcome separation you'll find all of us laughing at each other on the dance floor as if it were a more relaxed version of a school disco.
We congregated on our rural Oxfordshire homeland this week, travelling from London, Aylesbury, Nottingham, Jersey, Australia and New Zealand to celebrate the wedding of one of our number. We went to Mallorca for the hen do (yes, I went to the hen do), visited each other at parental homes, sang in the church that I last stood in during a primary school Harvest festival and danced in a hall not three miles from the school that brought us together.
And, as at last year's wedding, I became overwhelmed by the ferocious affection I have for this group of onetime class mates, I beamed with broad smiles and overflowed with hugs for a whole week. I have other friends I love just as deeply, but since leaving school I've not found and kept a group such as this.
The happiness and support this network brings is so precious that I'm almost scared to analyse it in too much depth lest it somehow evaporate under scrutiny, but there is much truth to the quote above. We know each other from times before we learnt to use the tedious straitjackets of social norms to judge new acquaintances. There are too many embarrassing haircuts, misjudged clinches and jack-knifing life changes in our collective past to let any one of us pass judgement or take the moral high ground. In front of this group I'm not an IT Consultant, or a show off Lotus-owner, or a nerd, or any of the other lazy categories I drop easily into in front of others, I'm just me.
The glorious upside of this deep, warming love was illustrated last weekend in Mallorca. We were drunk; Jo's hen night had brought with it beer, wine, Tia Maria, Baileys, Sambuca and Guinness. We sat in a booth in the Irish bar, the last punters to leave, cackling and hooting, laughing and poking.
As tradition dictates, the equivalent of truth or dare started and deeply personal questions were tossed over the alcoholically lowered barriers of inhibition onto the table for all to answer. A particular measure was asked for, and one by one all those sitting around the table were forced to answer. In private moments I assess myself using the same personal metric and always come up wanting, now I was being asked to reveal it to those closest to me.
Fearful I might suddenly be judged under a newly unflattering light, I nervously threw the number out into the voracious crowd and waited for the disapproval to start... and... and... nothing... just laughter, a couple of raised eyebrows and onto the next question. There is little I could say or do that would ever cause them to judge me more harshly than I judge myself, and there's nothing more to ask of friends than that.
I'm aware that with these friends I'm living through a glorious Golden Age that can't possibly last forever, on dark, long Sunday nights I wonder what pain such closeness might bring in the future as the Universe and Life wield their uncaring weapons on us and our friendships. But fear of future heartache is no reason to hide away from current happiness.
I'm proud to call these people my friends, happy they are the ones I'm marching through life with, I want to be sharing stories, jokes and love with these people for years and years and years to come .