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Toby Young: The surprising lesson of my old friends - middle age makes you nicer

Decades of boys' Christmas lunches have taken us from aggression to acceptance

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

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.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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Show comments
  • DaveAtherton20

    What a charming and touching story. I maybe able to add to your piece but twice a year I catch up with my six school friends, one I first knew from nursery school. Most from primary and my comprehensive. Alpha male becomes soft old git, doting on the children.

  • davidshort10

    We working class grammar school boys were just happy to do better than our fathers. It was not one-upmanship on the old man but all the family were glad their children did not have to be coal miners or work in the shipyards, but could become a world-renowned consultant paediatrician (as one of my schoolfriends did), or an international tax accountant, or a publisher, or a national newspaper journalist, or a stockbroker, etc., despite being brought up in a Tyneside slum. Those were the days of social mobility. There has been a converse experience for people of Toby Young’s generation, people born to relative privilege who are doing less well than their father and living in worse houses than their parents’. But Toby Young is achieving something with his work on a free school despite all the opprobrium he gets from the born rich Hampstead lefty liberals. Let’s hope he gets to be an MP. It’s a lot less shaming than having to admit you work for Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neill!

  • rtj1211

    THere are of course people who were nice to begin with who got shafted by Masters of the Universe.

    Do they get nicer with middle age, or tougher, more ruthless and less compassionate about the charlatans who get nicer in middle age to appease their consciences??

  • ‘a bit melancholic’ despite all your advantages? What hope is there for the rest of us?

  • Son of Hayek

    I am fast becoming like Ed Reardon!

  • FellowHQ

    Great, honest piece, although I’m glad I didn’t encounter you and your friends back in the day. You’re entering the third and final phase? Not necessarily. The Hindus have it that there are 4 stages and you, like me, are entering the third, which is the Forest Dweller. You spend more time as a wise man in the forest, your purpose to ponder on the lessons you’ve learned and to help others who are behind you on the journey – it’s more about helping them than about helping you. Your friend who retired early after being a total big bottom to everyone would do well to ponder how he can be useful in this phase of his life.

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