When I first suggested to my closest male friends that we have a boys’ Christmas lunch, it didn’t occur to me that this would turn into an annual institution. We saw each other three nights a week as it was, so this was just another excuse to go out and get drunk. But a one-off became a habit, a habit became a ritual, and that ritual now enjoys the same status as all the other little ceremonies that make up Christmas. Today, I would no more think of missing that lunch than I would of resigning from my job as ‘paper elf’ — the person whose job it is to pick up all the discarded wrapping paper on 25 December.
The reason it’s become so imbued with meaning is that it’s now the only time I see these friends. Part of the ritual is going round the table, with each of us taking it in turns to tell the others about the year we’ve had, our triumphs and disasters and how we’ve tried to meet those imposters just the same. Inevitably, the lunches have begun to seem like an unfolding narrative, almost as if we were characters in a play. When one of us reveals something significant, such as a marital crisis, it’s both shocking and inevitable at the same time.
The first act of this drama was full of testosterone and braggadocio. We would boast about battles won, enemies vanquished, conquests made. We all thought we were heading to the top of our respective professions and would soon be very rich, very famous or both. This wasn’t just the arrogance of youth; it was also a reflection of our privileged upbringings. None of us had had to struggle very hard to get into Oxford or Cambridge, and the good jobs we’d managed to get afterwards had come easily. Life was a magic carpet ride.
Act Two brought a few shocks, as you can imagine. One of us did well enough in the City to retire in his early thirties, but has spent the last 15 years trying to come to terms with the things he did to make that fortune. Not atoning for his sins, exactly, but trying to rebuild his conscience.
Another became a successful barrister — and still is — but his personal life hasn’t turned out as he expected. When you’re in your early twenties, going out with strippers and exotic dancers is great fun, but still to be doing it in your late forties is a bit sad. To be fair, he doesn’t seem that bothered by it — but the rest of us, all of whom are married with children, we definitely think it’s ‘sad’.
One of the consolations of all these setbacks and disappointments is that we’ve become a lot nicer. Not just less cocksure, but more compassionate too. We used to be all broadcast and no reception; now we actually listen to each other. Looking round the table, I used to see Masters of the Universe; now I see the real people beneath the cartoons — rueful, stoical, a bit melancholic, but able to laugh at their misfortunes too.
We are in a transition phase, emerging from the end of Act Two and beginning to get a glimpse of what the third and final act will look like. At last year’s lunch, we spent more time talking about our medical ailments that we did about our careers — a first, I think — and this year I’m looking forward to telling them about my colonoscopy in much the same way that in years gone by I would have looked forward to relating a sexual conquest. Perhaps the barrister isn’t the only saddo in our ranks.
As our health has deteriorated and our bank balances have shrunk, we’ve begun to go to more and more modest establishments. Back when we were obnoxious little twerps, we used to make a point of going to the best restaurants in the country and ordering le menu dégustation. This year, we’re going to a pub in Berkshire. Is that what’s meant by youth being wasted on the young? Back then, I’m not sure I appreciated these gastronomic feasts. Today, I can’t think of anything better.
When I’m in the final throes of stage-four bowel cancer, I’m going to insist we all go to Le Gavroche for our last lunch together. At that point, and only then, I expect us all to have become fully human. What a pity that wisdom is wasted on the old.
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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.
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