These are my two strongest memories of the two best parties I have ever been to:
1. Eyes closed, feeling the world rock steadily back and forth on the upstairs landing with the soundtrack of the toilet perpetually flushing.
2. Flying through the air giddily, and landing in a huge pile of soft, bouncy cushions. Looking up and seeing one of my good friends with a plant pot on his head saying ‘DO IT AGAIN!!!’ and then doing it again.
Snatched memories from dizzy, heady, occasions to which all other details are completely lost in the mists of time. Not exactly momentous but those sudden seconds when you say to yourself ‘This is GREAT. I shouldn’t ever forget this!’ When I think of parties, I think of those.
I threw my own party a couple of weeks ago. It was fucking ace. My parties always are. Is that biased? I don’t think so. I don’t drink these days so I think I can be objective and, God knows, I’ve thrown some rotten parties over the years so I think you can trust me on this. It was ace. I’m fortunate to know a lot of really good and interesting people and have absolutely no tolerance for twats so, at the risk of sounding elitist, that was a house full of great people. Watching them all interact and get to know each other is a huge thrill. Being able to introduce my pal Ben who has been working with NASA footage to my pal Tim who is completely obsessed with all things space – brilliant! Watching as Richard and Mark – Oxford music’s most wonderful eccentrics of different generations finally crossed paths. Watching shy Emilie who had come over from France bonding with drunk Sharron who had stumbled across from Rose Hill – magical! Ach, it was ace.
I only throw a party at the house every couple of years, I send out mass invites and am always chuffed and surprised at which characters from my three and a halfish decades come sauntering back for a cuddle and a chat. The first person to knock on the door this time was my best friend Tom. The best friend issue with me is a strange one. I would argue that I’ve had six best friends in my life. Two of them I have no contact with whatsoever and so have defaulted on their right to the title. At best, I would call them ‘my best friend at the time’ but rarely find myself ever really talking about them at all. Another, I remain highly highly fond of, as he does me, but the relationship changed, as they do. The three remaining are my best friends, people who I would do anything for without thinking twice. For these people, I would drop anything in an instant and just be there for them.
Below this is a layer of friends who I would describe as ‘one of my best friends’ – who I would do almost anything for. I really sound like an elitist fuck, don’t I? No, I don’t – you know what I mean, everyone has the levels of friends. The trick is to never openly classify them. Well, I’m only classifying Tom today, so that’s OK.
Until that knock on the door I hadn’t seen Tom in 3 years. He helped me move into this house – and before that day I don’t think I’d seen him in a year or so. He has a five year old son that I haven’t met since he was a baby. It seems weird for two best friends, but that’s how life goes sometimes. And the thing about the best best friends is that even if years pass, you still care and you still relish each other’s company and you know that you’re still there for each other. Tom lives in Bristol, which is not far away, but there never seems a desperation to see each other. Maybe because we have a lot of time in the bank. Between the ages of 9 and 17 we saw each other pretty much every single night. 8 years is a long time to kids. When we first hung out, we were playing on 48k Spectrums, we progressed right through ATARI STs, into Mega Drives and SNESs and finally a spell on PCs before Tom left for university and we never really hung out again. I don’t want it to sound like we were total geeks, our hangouts were only partially based on computer games. We spent a lot of time hanging out in one of the two parks near where we lived and, went to the cinema a LOT and once Tom got to 17, we had 2 years of driving around the county in his knackered old car Hilda.
As the summer creeps in, I still feel a pang of emptiness some nights, absent of the guarantee of the laughing, bickering and warm sense of best-matery. The world was reassuringly simple when I knew that each night I would meet Tom in the park, along with a revolving bunch of similar local miscreants, then go back to his house to play ‘Gauntlet’ or ‘Ikari Warriors’ long into the night, whilst discussing how cool ‘Aliens’ was and then falling out because I’d either play unfairly or tease him about his love of Michael Jackson.
Tom’s house was my second home. If I could have, I would have moved there. I loved my family and still do but I never felt I fitted in to our home. I still don’t. Architecturally, it’s the kind of place i have an inbuilt hatred for – suburban newbuild – and my mother is houseproud, which is fine and respectable, but I was a big dirty clumsy teenager and I knew that as much as I was loved, I was viewed as a force of destruction and calamity. The tidiness and the matching colour schemes and delicate nick-nacks felt achingly false to me. Tom’s house was like the Weasley’s house in Harry Potter. It was full of action and stuff and it formed it’s own beautiful character by just being an environment landscaped by the life within it. The furniture was old and battered, there was no handrail on the stair case – tom used to literally jump off the top stair and land in the hallway. The art on the walls was kind of grim but beautiful – I remember a Lowry by the front door, I think. Everything was practical rather than pretty but that kind of practicality radiates it’s own beauty. It wasn’t dirty, it wasn’t scummy, it wasn’t impoverished. it was just completely without pretension and shaped by a family who appeared to me to have their priorities in the right places.
And what a family they were, Tom was the youngest of three kids and he was a year older than me, so his two big sisters Clare and Ele (Same age and sometimes friend of my big sister) and to an extent he were leading far more interesting lives. Clare played in bands and had a cool boyfriend. Ele, well, we didn’t see much of her but she seemed to be off doing interesting things. Tom’s parents were the coolest parents any of us knew. They let their kids call them by their first names -Pat and Hugh rather than Mum and Dad. They drove one of those VW camper vans – and this is decades before surfer chic deemed them retro cool. I think Tom was at times mortified by the naff hippy vibe of the vehicle but to me it was always crazy and exotic and so far removed from anything my parents would ever contemplate driving (we were far from a camping family) that it blew my mind. Pat worked for Oxfam and Hugh was some kind of scientist. I knew him best as the ranger of one of the local nature reserves – that’s how I always picture him – in the wilds, fixing, building, maintaining. He was the tallest person I have ever seen. I’m sure had I seen him since the age of 17, he would have seen much shorter but as a kid, he appeared to be a giant. Our families had known each other since before Tom or I were born and one of my earliest memories is the two of us, each sat on one of Hugh’s feet, arms wrapped around his legs, being walked across the room like the greatest theme park ride of all time. Tom hopefully wouldn’t mind me saying that he was a difficult kid. He hated school and would rarely go. When he was forced to go, he’d run away. It made sense to me but I never joined in the skiving (actually, I did once and was – of course – discovered by my mum), we went to different schools and mine was more accommodating than his. Despite this, his folks never seemed to write him off in any way. I was kind of envious of his relationship with his dad. My dad was – and is – brilliant and I wouldn’t trade him in for anyone but he was never the ‘Boy’s own’ kind of guy – building stuff and climbing stuff and using chainsaws. Hugh and Tom seemed to really enjoy each others company and were always up to something exciting.
Everything felt OK in that house. It was really my solace throughout my teens. That horrible, bleak period where hormones just destroy you and change you and constantly fuck with your perceptions, I always felt safe and happy in that house. That was also the vibe which Pat and Hugh filled it with. Other kids parents were kind of scary – stand-offish, dismissive, grown up. Pat and Hugh welcomed you in and never talked down to you. Even at nine years old, I felt they treated me with respect and warmth and interest. They’d ask you how you were and what was going on in your world and just made you feel less awkward and cursed.
The year after Tom went to University, they moved away. The following year, I moved away. It’s always a little strange driving past their house when I visit my parents. The wild front garden has long been paved over and the climbing plants ripped from the front of the house. New front door, double glazing, garage conversion. It looks very dull now.
So, I see Tom very infrequently these days but he’ll always be my best friend. So, one of the moments from this party which will resonate for years, whilst I forget the others will be getting a good hug from Tom and also his shock at how readily I know admit that all of those childhood arguments were my fault and not his. You have to let some things go, right?
A couple of days after the party, Tom told me in an email that Hugh had died last summer. I had known he had been ill last year but hadn’t ever pressed Tom for any more than he was willing to tell me. I know how hard it must have hit him and understand why he hadn’t been able to tell people not in the immediate vicinity. I do wish I’d been able to be there to help him but they’re a tight family and that kind of thing is a family kind of thing.
Since I found out, I’ve been surprised by my own reaction. I haven’t thought about Hugh much since I was a kid but then you don’t look back so much, do you? and when you do, with adult eyes, you can suddenly see a lot of stuff.
I realise that the home I’ve created for myself is kind of like theirs – when I bought this place, the first thing my mother said was ‘you’ll need to get a hand rail and bannister put in.’ I said no. It’s a little grubby, a little untidy and highly mismatched but it’s practical and cosy and interesting. And when I talk with my girlfriend about the kind of home we hope to make together, the kind of family life we’d want, I find myself thinking of Pat and Hugh even more.
You’re not always aware of your influences, you just kind of take them for granted and absorb them. i can now see what a big influence Pat and Hugh were on me. and I’m very very grateful to them.
I can’t remember any significant memories of conversations with Hugh and that bothers me now. I have a suspicion that, as with most adult-child conversations, he would ask me how I was and I would tell him and never think to inquire back. But the two big memories that I have of him that I will cherish – along with the foot-riding – are both from birthday parties he threw for Tom when we were very young;
1. The pirate party. Hugh hung a heavy cardboard box on ropes from the attic, over the landing. One by one, he’d blindfold us, swing us back and forth in the box whilst continually flushing the toilet to make us feel like were rocking on the waves of the high seas.
2. The clown party. Hugh held sheets of paper over a plastic hoop and encouraged us all to dive through, bursting through the paper and landing on a big pile of soft, bouncy cushions.
Those were the two best parties I ever went to. And I know that, when I have a family, I’ll throw even better kids parties than I do grown-up ones. and hopefully all those kids will feel welcome and safe in our family’s home because I learned how important that is from a very good family.
And from a real giant of a man.