This is a piece that toyed with writing about a month ago but decided against. This subject has been tasking me more than it should do and has been doing so for nine months.
Forty-nine years ago this month, I made a new friend. He joined our school at the beginning of the second form, and within days we were firm friends. Within weeks we were thick as thieves, having similar interests, largely shared musical tastes and an almost identical sense of humour. We both toyed with playing guitar. He stuck with it, I didn’t (I had no aptitude whatsoever, and although I could tell a string was out of tune, to this day I couldn’t tell you if it was flat, or too sharp).
For the purpose of this piece, I shall refer to my erstwhile friend as Alceste. One should not necessarily identify the guilty, and it is an appropriate name.
We lost touch after I went to college in September of 1977, though I obtained an address for him (he’d moved to London) and we corresponded for a time. By the time I moved to the capital in 1983 we’d lost touch again and that was it for over twenty years. I confess that after that, I rarely thought about Alceste again until around the year 2000. I had owned a computer for a few years and the Web, though still primitive by today’s standards was developing and the first hints of social media were emerging. I’m not sure that Facebook existed yet, but Friends Reunited and MySpace did. It was this sudden ability to connect with, or at least hope to connect with friends from one’s past that made me wonder what had happened to my old chum Alceste. For a couple of years, occasional Google searches unearthed nothing, but one day I happened upon a photograph of a bloke playing guitar on a rudimentary outdoor stage. Somewhat wider of girth and now completely lacking hair (I’m there on that), it was unmistakably Alceste. Narrowing my search, I discovered that he was now resident in California, and that he had found religion.
This latter gave me pause but only briefly.
In any case, I couldn’t find any contact details, so it seemed like a bust. But then I realised that I could email the pastor at his church and ask him to pass my email address along and see if Alceste would contact an old friend. I heard nothing for a while and then in July of 2005 received a tentative one-line email making contact.
Suffice it to say that we were soon LiveJournal and then FaceBook friends. And so it continued for over a decade, with occasional Skype chats and, when Alceste and his wife came to England on holiday, visits.
It was clear that Alceste had changed. There was still much of my old friend extant, but he was also more cynical and abrasive; dismissive – often rudely so – of fashions, trends, subjects, or whole sectors of society that he didn’t care for, or which failed to fit his world view. But by and large, we could navigate around these obstacles and it was good to have my old friend back.
Then there came a series of events that destabilized everything. Always an underachiever, Alceste had been working as a menial clerk for local government in California. Somehow, he managed to find the wherewithal to retire early in his late fifties. Then his (second) marriage broke down and finally, after professing that he never would, he sold up and came back to the UK.
Since he repatriated about four years ago now, I don’t think we’ve actually met up in person, or even shared a phone call, though we remained FaceBook friends and chatted from time to time over Messenger. Alceste’s negative world view and his reporting of it became darker, more bitter and frankly, offensive. Somewhere, and slowly over time, our paths diverged to the point where although he would meet old friends around the country, he never found time to meet us, even when we were holidaying near him and invited him out for a meal.
This should have been a warning, and I’ll confess that I felt a bit put out by these seeming rebuffs, but I was hardly trying much, either – I stopped following him on FaceBook, but remained an online friend preferring instead to look in once a fortnight or so, to filter through the litany of gripes and misanthropic observations in the hope of finding something of interest, that reflected the personality I remembered. These were few and far between. I was moved more than once to chide him about some casually unthought out or racist remarks (which, in charity, I think were more through lack of thought than simple outright bigotry) and then, in January completely out of the blue, we (the household) found ourselves blocked on FaceBook and Messenger without so much as a word. Although I’d felt the deterioration in the relationship developing, I’d assumed that this would manifest itself in increasingly rare comments on each other’s accounts and that would be that.
Despite the growing distance between us, I was sad. A quick email, message or even a phone call could have straightened out any perceived slight, but no.
I reflected upon this for sometime, and discussed it with mutual friends who were certain that it must be a mistake. Alceste is known to be almost obsessively private and even uses a nom de plume in his social media. I was less certain and decided to let it lie, though my skin is thin enough that it still prickled in the way that the loss of a friendship of a more recent and distant vintage might not. Despite this, I decided to keep options open at my end should he decide to renew contact, but to leave the ball in his court and just let it all fade.
Moving along, and quite separately a number of friends, myself included, have been experiencing an increasing disenchantment with Social Media generally. In any case, a few of us decided to reactivate, or for those of us who still wrote in them occasionally, revitalise our online blogs. And this is where I discovered that Alceste too, had independently decided to start using his account, again. I took the decision not to comment on Alceste’s journal even if he said something that interested me.
Much of his writing was wearily similar to what I’d started to avoid on FaceBook, but in greater and excruciatingly self-congratulatory detail. But there were two longer posts. One was illuminating and the other got my blood up and prompted me to write this in the first place, though as I said, I’ve spent some weeks stamping on the urge to do so. Despite my lack of engagement, the penny must have finally dropped and his blog posts are no longer visible. My access has been unceremoniously revoked.
A few weeks ago, Alceste deleted – though intriguingly, he did not block – a mutual friend from his list. The stated reason was that said friend no longer commented upon, nor responded to his comments and they had previously been quite the chatterboxes on FaceBook and before that, LiveJournal. It didn’t occur to him that this friend was actually quite busy in his own personal life and that social media was, not unreasonably taking a back seat. Nonetheless, the poor wee lamb was hurt, because he felt abandoned.
He also wrote that he half suspected that the mutual friend was ignoring him because he disapproved of Alceste’s blocking of the members of the Gin Palace. Apparently our offence was to have arrogantly patronised him one time too many. The post commenced with something like – and I have to paraphrase since I can no longer access it, “Psychologists call it ‘avoidance’ but I call it clearing the gits out of your life”.
There we are.
Last week despite my annoyance I sent a text to his phone extending an olive branch, proffering the hope that something could be retrieved from a forty-nine year friendship and expressing a little sadness at the fact that if, upset, he could not make direct contact to talk through the offences real or imagined. So far, that approach has gone unanswered and unremarked. So, in an act of catharsis, I must nail my demons to the page and excommunicate them.
I find then, that I was correct in my initial misgivings some fifteen years ago. “Religion” has had a negative effect on my old friend. He fell in with an evangelical bible-teaching sect largely, I think, because they played Christian-themed pop and rock at their services. I strongly suspect that it was the lure of the music and the need for social support that drew him in, rather than a true belief if a Deity.
In any event, he was lucky. Very lucky. He no longer has to think, or otherwise analyse life’s problems, or mysteries. He simply prays and his god rubber-stamps his decisions. I doubt his prayers have ever been answered in a way that did not confirm his own opinions. This is very handy; no blame can be attached or accepted. It’s God’s Will, not his.
It is odd, then, that in his writings Alceste professes to such self-loathing, and it is ironic that such an underachieving personality possessed of such a cursory intellect should home in with unassailable and pinpoint precision on that fact. I will say in his defence that he is not a misogynist. He is a misanthrope. He holds the world to standards he himself cannot meet, and anyone who cannot meet those standards, who likes sport, any music other than his narrow definition, anyone who is different, is a – to use his preferred term – ‘git’.
This then, is Alceste:
The over-imagining underachiever, a man of little ambition, dim understanding, ordinary intellect and irrefutable opinion; a monumental ego built on the shifting sands of his own self-loathing, a reflection of his own misanthropy. A negligent and casual racist who sees remonstration as only arrogance and condescension.
Alceste is a man who avoids responsibility and discord by closing his eyes and ears and pulling back his horizons to the inside of his own four walls and the society of a decreasing number of unchallenging acolytes, slowly becoming dehumanize through isolation and resentment, a Kantian combination dislike and ill-will. A born-again Christian, whose god merely rubberstamps Alceste’s own judgments.
His one true love is in playing guitar and here he has persevered, and to my ears he has attained a competent adequacy, which in fairness I believe he recognises as he has retreated in the main to a comfortable twelve bars and three chords.
He is both dichotomy and a paradox. The man who rages against the dying of the light even as he snuffs out the candles.
I mourn the friend I lost some forty-odd years ago and resent the pitiable reflection that had me fooled for so much longer.