Recently, while driving somewhere or other, I heard a song – one of those radio-friendly, kit-assembly MOR rock numbers that used to dominate the charts. But this one, unusually, grabbed my attention. As so often these days, the babbling DJ failed to identify it, so I had to google the lyrics later on. It turned out to be "Photograph" by Nickelback, a band I had never heard of, but which, I am informed, it is de rigueur to mock. However, "Photograph" is a good song, and captures the spirit of this second batch of pages from my imaginary Elective Family Album.
A long time ago, in a small town where nothing much happened, there was a little gang of friends, largely from the same school, all devotees of various denominations of the church of rock'n'roll. I think it is a truth universally acknowledged that the longest, most intense years of your life – if you're lucky, which not everybody is – are often the five years from 16 to 21. They can be hell, they can be heaven – often both on the same day – but rarely anything in between. These few years (in my case, 1970-75) are best savoured with a generous sprinkling of idiotic risk-taking, and the scars and the memories acquired will last a lifetime. Another song, Jackson Browne's "The Barricades of Heaven", evokes the bitter-sweet nostalgia of time spent with other seekers-in-training, "trying to hear your song". These are among the closest friends you will ever have and yet, having finally found your voice and left home to see where it will take you, you may well never see them again.
What you don't know – can't know – at the time, of course, is that simply being the same age in the same place – having sat in the same classrooms, haunted the same playgrounds, parties and pubs, and shared the secrets, anxieties, and enthusiasms of youth – is far from unique, nor is it the basis for anything long-lasting. All over the world, similar brightly-coloured scenes are constantly coming into being and then – after a few intense years of fun, irresponsibility, occasional brushes with the law and even with tragedy – breaking up in the grey but far stronger currents of adult life.
So, although those guys are part of my "elective family" – brothers, sisters and cousins by choice – with few exceptions we haven't actually met in over twenty, thirty, forty years, although the advent of email and social media in the meantime has turned some of us into a later-life version of those youngsters who conduct the majority of their social life on a screen. But, inevitably, we've all changed, one way or another, and live in very different worlds now, with little other than a rapidly-receding and patchily-recalled past in common. There's not a lot to say, other than, "So, how was your life?"
But that's the point. After all, I haven't seen or spoken to my own much-loved sister since our father's funeral in 2009, but the nature of our relationship is permanent, if no longer close, or even, in a day-to-day sense, important. That's how it is with family, isn't it?