The Strange, Strange, Politics of Reunions: Part 1 – Two examples – April 2016

The ubiquity of the internet has brought about an acceleration in processes that had always taken place informally, such as reunions of people who had known each other before. I stress “had known each other”, because much of the literature about reunions centres round the meeting of people who had not known each other; people meeting their birth parents or children from whom they had parted at birth. The latter has also accelerated because of the opening up of the right to make contact. I have had no experience of this, and it does provoke all manner of responses, often deeply emotional; very understandably so.

My focus here lies upon reunions between people who had worked or studied together, former neighbours, long-distant family members, or former partners and friends. I have experienced or witnessed all of these categories of reunions, and I should enter a clear disclaimer; if you know me now through a reunion, it is unlikely that this essay or its successors make reference to our meeting, so this is not a coded message in any way. The “politics” is more the “politics of the interpersonal”, riven with expectations and the unfulfilled, and I will contend that that is what makes it so strange.

Reunions may involve much delight, and often major surprises, as processes of rediscovery develop, but they can bring disappointment and even trauma. Therein lies part of the politics. Another political component is the tendency, for many of us, to find ourselves grouped with others and for those groups then to be dissolved; this may, in part, be a consequence of the assumed necessity that people should move long distances to secure formal employment, and the propensity for many partners to part rather than spend a lifetime together. I do not write of these wider factors as though they are necessarily to be condemned, but they are clear forces. They also explain why so many potential reunions can take place – why so many people parted company at some point.

To avoid apparent judgements on individuals that I have known, I will briefly focus upon two reunions that I have encountered in the last decade. The worst reunion was an unplanned one. Some years ago, I joined an informal organisation that included a character with whom I had attended the same secondary school, and at the first meeting that I attended, this person turned up. I had recognised his name from the organisation’s website, but would not have recognised the somewhat haggard-looking and bloated middle-aged man who turned up. Within a group that was largely working-class and retired, it seemed bizarre for this former (??) public schoolboy to explain that he was late because he had been lunching with old “masters” from his school; one of these he referred to as “Spiney Norman”, a silly nickname that I could remember from the early 1970s. Oddly, none of my new colleagues, many of them left-wing, seemed to react to this display of status arrogance; perhaps they were used to his eccentricity.

Even after this entrance, I was prepared to reminisce with this person. I suppose I might well have recalled the odd amusing incident, and commented how perspectives change in middle-age, so that what appeared oppressive then can now merely bemuse. (This was not, in fact, my position, but I could have maintained an alternative view). To my surprise, once I had identified who I was, this person seemed to reproduce perspectives entirely unmodified from his schooldays. He launched into a sneering jeering mini-tirade about how much pleasure “we” (he and his former schoolmates) had taken in attempts to humiliate me, and in putting about demeaning stories about me which, it was clear, he still believed. I kept my temper, but I should, probably, have pointed out what an embarrassment this character had been as a boy. He was an arrogant, smart-alec, precocious, socially and intellectually snobbish in the extreme, and, worse of all, ignited the anger of teachers who needed only the smallest excuse to launch into verbal and physical violence. I was not the only one who felt that he was so egotistical that he would set out to provoke these powerful representatives of the class to which he owed such unquestioned allegiance. I was also not alone in wishing that he would keep silent and raise the possibility of a quieter life for his fellows. I shared that in common with some of the over-privileged snobs with whom I otherwise shared little more than compulsory attendance at the same institution.

Having known this person 35 years before, I might have predicted that he would not have changed, yet I was staggered. His appearance had changed but he seemed, in his head, never to have left the school. This leads me to the first aspect of a reunion: that while everyone has changed, some features will have persisted, notably memories. His failure to grow up himself, and (totally immature) failure to conceive and consider my predictable feelings, demonstrated one danger – that a reunion can involve disturbing encounters with people who have failed to outgrow their unpleasantness. A second danger is the lack of assumptions about past involvements – I loathed and detested my secondary school, and wanted to forget much of my life there, but he obviously worshipped the place. A third, is that memories are always a set of constructs, even if they are vaguely related to events and developments that may be recalled. He and his nasty pals had built and maintained unpleasant myths about me, and he persisted in believing these myths. This seemed to have been compounded, as the years went on, into a solidified set of “memories”, not only of fictionalised events but also of invented personal characteristics and a seriously modified vision of his own position. I suppose he presented an extreme and disturbing example, but a reunion could involve all of these hazards. I have entertained the desire to initiate a second reunion with him, in which I would be ready for him, but he has since moved far away from the Wirral, is not worth the energy, and I am content to assume that this particular reunion was the only one.

So much for unpleasant reunions. By comparison, I more recently attended a formal reunion of people who had been fellow-students, most of whom I had not seen for over 35 years. After the first tentative contact, I was very uncertain about this. As a student who had commuted daily from his parents’ home, I had had little social contact with fellow-students, and I had kept in touch with no one after we graduated, partly because few opportunities for this had been available. I knew that two former colleagues had died, both many years ago, but little about anyone else. I had taught on the successor to the degree that we had attained, and was aware that, for many, the attraction of this professional course was not any desire for knowledge or enlightenment, but the key to a successful and acquisitive life. I wondered whether I was going to meet a lot of wealthy and complacent middle-aged people basking in their material success.

I would be pleasantly surprised about this apprehension. I did learn that one fellow-student now had a helicopter, and about the property empires of others, but many seemed to have quietly retired, as I had done, so that paid work, and the education that had preceded it, seemed now to hold no special status. I spent quite some time talking to people who were not yet retired, but wished that they were. One told me a familiar-enough story about the pressures involved, the productivity-driven expectations of a business run by accountants. Somehow, the discovery that not everyone regarded paid work as a mark of “success” gave me some sense of solidarity, if not a bizarre comfort; perhaps for me the idea of “failure” in paid work was (and is?) still extant in some residual sense. I suppose the knowledge that, for those who were dissatisfied with their paid work, retirement cannot be too far off, reduced the sense of disturbance that this empathy with unhappiness might bring. If one has already escaped, the knowledge that escape lies ahead for others can be a comfort.

I shared a familiar concern with other long-term reunions – how to recognise people. In this case, I had agreed to meet members of the group in a bar in Liverpool, not far from where we had studied. Approaching the pub, I noted there was a group of older men at the pavement tables, and I walked past them to look for my former colleagues inside the bar, only for a voice to call out “Joe”. Despite my long white thinning hair, I was apparently recognisable after 35 years, but I did not recognise the person who had called to me. Eventually, when he and other people had explained who they were, I experienced an odd sensation, looking at each person now, trying to see the 1970s appearance that my memory, without photographs, had evoked, and producing a hybrid impression of the person that I could now see. Oddly, the oldest man was now 70, but he was clearly and immediately recognisable, and the three (only three, in the 1970s!) women were similarly unchanged.

Conversations that evening were a combination of “catching up” and reminiscence, but what I began to realise was that some former colleagues recalled a persona that was somewhat dissonant with my own memories of myself. This evoked a contrast with that of the immature ex-schoolboy colleague; in fact, their images and memories of me were generally positive. There seemed to be a view that I was the radical member in what was generally a conservative group. One person said that he had followed up my interest in politics and joined a far-left group for a time; I was surprised at this, because although I used radical language sometimes, I was not involved in any Left-wing organisation in my student days. Noone seems to have resented this, but just regarded it as a curiosity (then and now), as was my subsequent involvement in unions like NALGO and NATFHE/UCU. Shared memories were, as I might have hoped with the school colleague, amusing stories from the past rather than anything judgemental. This made this a pleasant occasion and one that I will hope can be repeated. Unlike the school encounter, I had no regrets about this reunion and remain very pleased to have seen people whom I had almost forgotten.

This positive experience shared some elements in common – the tricks of memory that enable instant recognition of some features, the surprises of involuntary memory akin to those of Proust and his madeleines, and a dissonance between the expected courses of lives and those that had developed. So, wherein lies the “strange politics”?

An initial reaction to the title might be to deny that there is any “politics” involved in meeting again people from whom one has been parted. But, politics is about the structures and exercise of power, and their analysis, and these are involved in reunions. There is a politics of the self, in the way in which we present our present selves and relate this to perceived past selves, themselves perhaps constructed in manners that we might now repudiate. Reunions involve a politics of the interpersonal, in the reconstruction of past relations; in the case of my schoolday buffoon, in placing himself then and now in a position to define and declare continuing power relations. The interpersonal may also involve future relations – how those now reunited might pursue new relationships on the basis of their renewal. Finally (for now), there is a politics of memory, linked with a politics of the past, with the power to take the half-remembered and reconstruct a past that may never have existed. This involves the exercise of power, sometimes perhaps in a beneficial way, in that past misdeeds or antagonisms can be forgotten or forgiven. What is “strange” about these “politics” (and other factors, which I will consider in a later essay) is that reunions generally involve them all, often in odd mixtures, so that it is difficult to predict with any accuracy what will be the course of a reunion process. In this, there may lie much sadness and disappointment, but also joy, in confirmation that the past did involve significant relationships that may be renewed.