What a difference a couple of years makes.
Last autumn I went to spend a weekend in Prague and meet up with my oldest friend Alan, who was over for the weekend together with his brother Andy and three of their mates, plus a female friend, a wife and a girlfriend of the group, the last of whom happens to be Czech. Dismissively sexist (or perhaps gentlemanly) as it may be of me, I’ll leave the female contingent out of this, since their role in it is more or less irrelevant, a mere catalyst at most. They’re above it, basically. Andy and the other males in the group are about 40, Alan and I are 38 and 37 respectively. Middle-aged, essentially, certainly too old to be thought of as youthful. Old enough for the small age gap between us to be pretty meaningless, right? Ah, but they were two years above us at school, and that’s what’s important. The twenty-odd years since we left are nothing compared to the monolithic two that separate us for all eternity. We might as well have still been wearing our school uniforms.
Though as individuals they all seemed like reasonable, decent people, when the group dynamics took over the vibes turned negative. Alpha-male type behaviour quickly began to assert itself. Within a short time the older top dogs were collectively treating us young pups with casual, unthinking contempt. Decisions were made on our behalf, we were ordered about: drink up, we’re going there, we’re doing this. The choice was starkly clear, either we do what we’re told and tag along behind the big boys, or fuck off. We certainly weren’t going to be party to any decision-making process. It didn’t take long before I decided to fuck off.
This was easy enough for me, since I know
I remarked upon the situation bitterly to Alan, and later regretted it. After all, these were his mates, the people he hangs around with back home, and so this was an ongoing thing. When I fumed about the lack of respect they showed him, he probably felt I was criticising him for having put up with it for so long. I should have done the decent thing and pretended not to notice, but now it was too late. And in any case, how much choice did he have? What could he possibly do now to change the situation, to stick up for himself? It wasn’t as if there was any serious malice involved, or any systematic persecution by a particular ringleader. His response was no doubt more appropriate than mine: he just took it in his stride, with good humour, whereas I was the self-righteous little boy with a complex about his height, stomping off home in a huff. Immaturity was thrust upon me. The role-definition that emerged seemed almost entirely unconscious, and thus all the more unstoppable. In fact it had already evolved of its own accord when we were still in short trousers, now it was set in stone.
Just recently I was reminded of this seeming impossibility of reinventing ourselves when Carl, aka The Impostume, came to visit, even if this was by no means a negative experience. We’ve known each other for almost twenty years now, during the first three of which we shared various flats and houses while at university in
The combination of all these factors, plus whatever relevant others that may exist, results in a situation in which, whilst I enjoy his company a great deal, I sometimes feel frustrated at my powerlessness to resist sliding into the persona that’s been prepared for me. Many people who know me would have good reason to regard me as a ranting, foul-mouthed, over-excitable left-wing yob, a frothing spleen in fact. But in Carl’s company I tend to become measured, stoical, conservative, a steadying influence to bring his intellectual flights of fancy back down to earth. In his words a purveyor of tub-thumping common sense, which makes me sound like a supporter of the British National Party. Suddenly I’m the straight man, a stooge even. How did that happen?
This seems to apply regardless of our positions on any given issue. Back at university I was more left-wing than Carl, on the most recent evidence he’s now to the left of me, but the style is the same as it was then: he’s entertainingly bombastic, I’m drily sceptical. When this happens I’m constantly forced to second-guess myself. Though I’m entirely sincere in my arguments whenever we debate anything and don’t try to score cheap points (usually!), isn’t there a sense of me casting myself as the hardened realist as a defence mechanism against his superior intellectual prowess? Surely there is an element of ego involved at some stage. At my worst I could be sneakily trying to win the debate by undercutting and negating the more bewilderingly complex aspects of his argument with my dour anti-intellectualism. Am I bursting bubbles of ideological hot air with my ruthless, rapier-like astuteness, or am I merely elevating ignorance and mediocrity to the status of virtues?
Am I, when all is said and done, the Dudley Moore to his Peter Cook, a vocation that surely no man could revel in? Whatever the case, unimaginative empiricist plodder that I am, I’m convinced that in this particular relationship I shall remain this way until I die.
Or is all of this just a manifestation of my Napoleon complex?