Old Friends

Following on from yesterday’s post on friendships and politics, let me jump back in time to September 1996. That month, 3 people joined about 120 others in starting a course in Mechanical Engineering at the University of Manchester: me, a chap from Worcester called Simon, and a Northern Irishman from Strabane I’ll refer to simply as G.

G had grown up in a staunchly nationalist part of Northern Ireland in a Catholic family, and to say he was brainwashed when he came to Manchester is an understatement. He was 19 years of age and all he’d known was the Troubles: they dominated his life, they defined who he was, and they constituted the bulk of any conversation you’d have with him. Of course, being from Strabane, nobody had the first clue what he was saying (including other Irishmen). Most people thought he was some weird foreigner who couldn’t speak English, which I suppose he was. He left Northern Ireland an insecure, angry young man, appalled at what he saw were gross injustices committed by Britain in the province and pre-independence Eire. He was an avid supporter of the IRA and Sinn Fein, and we learned later he’d come very close to joining the IRA in person.

His two best friends at university, who he met almost immediately, were me – a loudmouth from Wales as insecure as he was – and Simon, a big, blonde, grinning mountain of a man who was very good at rugby and not in the slightest bit insecure. Simon and G had little in common, whereas I had things in common with the both of them, but they got along famously. In those early months, G used to bombard us with lengthy harangues on Northern Ireland much to the bemusement of Simon who barely knew where it was, let alone what all the fuss was about. I knew a bit more and used to argue back, or take the piss. Mostly it was taking the piss. Then in February 1997 Simon, acting on a whim, joined the Royal Marine Reserves. He threw himself completely into the Marines, largely abandoning his studies, and within 9 months or so passed the Commando tests and got his green beret. From then on, he was 100% a military man.

Now this was a time when the Royal Marines were still being deployed to Northern Ireland. Their reputation wasn’t as bad as the Parachute Regiment’s, but it wasn’t good either. Simon’s new hobby put G in a bit of a quandry; he was supposed to go around blowing up British soldiers, not be best friends with them. He tried bringing it up with Simon, but couldn’t get him to take him seriously:

“Simon, what if you get sent to Northern Ireland. Could you shoot me if you were told to?”

“Mate, I’d shoot you even if I wasn’t!”

“Seriously Simon, could you do it?”

“Of course I could! I’ll shoot you now if you like!”

At some point in that first year we all went home to study for exams. G needed me to send him some course notes and gave me his address in Strabane. I sent them, but included a load of UVF propaganda, some signing on forms, a picture of King William of Orange, and a red hand of Ulster.

“What the fock is all this shite you’ve sent me, you daft focker?”

was the phone call I got shortly after. And this was the thing: the Northern Ireland troubles were G’s entire world, but he found to his dismay that almost nobody in Manchester knew anything about them, much less cared. He would launch into a diatribe about black and tans or some other obscure nationalist sore point, and nobody would have the faintest idea what he was on about. When he’d explain these supposedly gross injustices, everyone would just shrug and agree with him, even to the point of saying Britain should give up their presence in Northern Ireland if that’s what G wanted. For someone who’d grown up in a place where this was a life and death matter, he couldn’t understand it. How could nobody care? Some time later he played us a tape of IRA music, and we just laughed at how bad the recording was. I went even further and took the piss out of the lyrics. It dawned on G that this was a bit of an embarrassment.

Within a year the rhetoric had halved. He accepted Simon being in the military because he realised he was a good bloke and wasn’t the enemy, and he found much more important things to occupy his mind, such as his studies, the welfare of his siblings, and his precarious financial situation. There was a chap on our course from Belfast called William – I’ll let you guess which side of the sectarian divide he was from – and G got on with him just fine. When it came down to it, G was a sensible chap. He’d got himself out of Northern Ireland to better himself, not to remain stuck where he was.

By the time the next year was out, G barely mentioned Northern Irish politics and they only came up when Simon or I wanted to take the piss. He’d embedded himself firmly in Manchester, got his head down into the books, got himself an English girlfriend and moved in with her. One of his siblings was now studying in Glasgow, and he was looking out for her. His world had opened up and totally changed his outlook; more importantly, he’d grown up. He’d worked out what was important in life and abandoned the nonsense that was dragging him down. Any time later when the subject came up he’d say:

“Fock that shite, I can’t be arsed with it.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a positive turnaround in anyone in such a short space of time. We all changed, of course; the period between ages 19 and 23 were huge for me in terms of laying the base of who I’d become, and both G and Simon played a major role in that (usually by keeping me on the straight and narrow when there was a danger of me wandering off it). Simon changed less, mainly because he was a confident, successful young man by age 19 anyway. But the change in G’s mindset was remarkable.

After university we each went our separate ways. Simon immediately joined the Royal Marines as an officer (still saying he was looking forward to shooting G), G went first to Dublin then back to Manchester, and I stayed in Manchester before emigrating. But we stayed best friends; I was Simon’s best man at his wedding in 2005, and we both went to G’s wedding in 2014 where we got hammered and made idiots of ourselves. Even though we’d stayed in regular contact, G’s wedding was the first time the three of us had been together in a long time, and only the second time in almost a decade. Sadly, it was also the last time: Simon got diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of cancer and died in July 2016 aged 38, still serving in the Royal Marines having attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel; G and I blubbered together at his graveside. We returned to his grave last December, and drank beers in what we believed was his presence.

My point in all this? Politics isn’t everything and, when it comes to friendships, shouldn’t be anything at all. If G can get over his brainwashing and become best friends with a Royal Marine, anything’s possible. I still take the piss out of G for his attitude back then, and I still mock the lyrics of that daft IRA song he made us listen to, and watch him go red and swear at me. Simon would too, if he was still around. Good times, great friends.


36 thoughts on “Old Friends

  1. Going anon. I used to have a good friend for many years when I decided to support UKIP she called me a racist bigot, didn’t speak to her for 2 years.

  2. I used to have a good friend for many years when I decided to support UKIP she called me a racist bigot, didn’t speak to her for 2 years.


  3. Thank you for sharing that story, Tim.

    Like Anon above though, I have had an opposite experience fairly recently. A good (lefty) friend of mine of around a decade has broken off all contact because I had the temerity to follow Milo Yiannopoulos on instagram… Of all the offenses to end a friendship over, this one seems particularly pathetic and so typical lefty.

  4. Nice story.

    The unlikeliest friendship I came across was when I was teaching at the Zimbabwe School of Signals straight after independence.

    The class was a mixture of whites who’d fought, whites who hadn’t fought, blacks who’d fought on the regime’s side, blacks who hadn’t fought, a bunch of Zipra guys and, bizarrely, a white woman form South Africa who’d moved there because she was gay and it was a more tolerant country.

    A very good friendship quickly developed between a former Selous Scout and former Zipra guerilla and they even worked out they’d been in a firefight against each other. The Zipra guy was by far the brightest of the two, and me for that matter, and used to help his friend with his studies.

    I’ve no idea what became of them as I lost touch when my 6 month tour ended. I would have moved there had the Mugabe’s writings not been already on the wall.

  5. Nice story, but the problem isn’t the political loons who do do mechanical engineering and get straightened out by decent blokes and common sense, it’s the multitudes who do sociology and gender studies, etc. and who marinate in that stuff in their formative years, and beyond as well.

  6. As a relative of mine would say: most people are alright, but their shit stinks.

    I suppose the lesson of this, then, is to distance oneself from the shit as much as possible.

    RIP to your friend Simon.

    (BTW, on the subject of cancer, learned yesterday that a 12 year old lad who helped at his parents’ business has gone down with a form of cancer and currently is in a life-support tent as his immune system has failed. Sometimes you do wonder about the design, purpose and function of the human body)

  7. I guess you didn’t used to hang around in the Ducie Arms then.

    No: Owen’s Park Bar, Robinskis Wallet, Durty Nellie’s, Scruffy Murphy’s, Queen of Hearts, and the Drop Inn.

  8. It looks like they are all gone now (sad fact – I checked). I think Queen of Tarts was the only one of those I ever went in. Maybe OP.

  9. Yeah, I’m not surprised they’re gone. Students have changed, and apparently the drinking culture gone as well.

    In January 1999 my pal Simon copped off with a girl on the upstairs dancefloor of Robinskis, and I ended up chatting to her mate, a Jewish girl from London. As it happens, I’m still in touch with her: she stayed with me in Annecy last August, along with her husband and 3 kids.

  10. I agree with your conclusion and it has been the story of my life.

    I have enjoyed friends across the political spectrum at University and here in the Basque Country where that could and can be a problem.

    A client of mine was murdered in 82 by ETA (machine-gunned in his car on his way to work, his son, uninjured alongside him). I received anonymous threats from the radical left due to collective bargaining negotiations, got spat at and accused in the street of being a murderer because I wore a blue ribbon demanding the release of people ETA had kidnapped but still managed to drink, play football, go hill walking with people on that side (mostly they have calmed down a little but not enough).

    However, like others here, I find the puerile champagne left ever more difficult to put up with. When a friend who is clearly in the top 0.05% (in Spain) with half-a-dozen properties (real properties not shacks in the outskirts) and major professional income tells me she is worried because she thinks I am going far right (close to nazi she means), I find it difficult going. I hear stuff like people are going hungry in Spain!!! yet food banks are everywhere, in the Basque Country we pay between €600 and €1100/month as an income guarantee to 3% of the population with a spectacular level of fraud (denied by the left) and with much going to immigrants rather than the permanent population. And all I hear about is inequality is increasing as if that is important in a rich, highly redistributive place.

    The rich and lazy left are working on feelings and simple data to confirm prejudice while people like me/us? who try to go deeper and analyse the data find the answers are different. But if you bring that up and try to talk about it, you are beyond the pale. See the Creasy/Andrews video (or Peterson/Newman: no relation eh, Tim).

    It seems to come down to unthought through equity vs. equality of opportunity and personal responsibility. We have created a society where people expect to be kept and some of us a rebelling. And it seems to be splitting society more than before.

  11. That’s a lovely story, despite the sad loss. I reckon this “getting the rough edges knocked off you” is one of the great advantages of the British system of universities being essentially residential (certainly was for me, a mouthy Cockney left-wing gobshite when I was 18) – or at any rate you go away from home and meet people from various different backgrounds and find out what they are actually like.

    I’ve read your blog on and off for years and had not the first inkling you were from Wales, though!

  12. I’ve read your blog on and off for years and had not the first inkling you were from Wales, though!

    Really? I drop references in from time to time. Born and raised in Pembroke until aged 15, then went to boarding school in W. Sussex until 19, then went to Manchester and never really went back to Wales.

  13. The Irish of the Island seem to be more tolerant of Sasenachs than some of their American born and bread compatriots (not all by any means but some). The only time I’ve really experienced Irish intolerance was in Boston.

    I note that I get on fine with older people of just about any political or religious slant and I get on with younger people of many, but there’s one big exception in the younger end. The ones I don’t are the virulent SJW crowd who seem incapable of leaving politics out of any conversation and who suffer major sense of humor failures when someone makes a joke about microaggressions or safe spaces or something else dear to their hearts

  14. Great bores of yesterday. Everyone has one. (Or maybe is one.)
    We had a boyo who thought it was a hereditary right to go down the pit. Since we were doing shit jobs (and the govt was handing out development permits like Christmas cards) so that our kids could get decent jobs he didn’t get much attention.

  15. One of my new acquaintances as a fresher was a chap from a mining village in Durham. He kept pretty quiet for a fortnight or so. Then he said to a gang of us sitting around chatting in the common room “I suppose some of you are Tories. If so you are the first Tories I’ve ever met in my life.” Peals of merry laughter.

    “Ah” says I “it’s struck you that we are quicker, wittier, and better educated than the average in your village. But why does that mean we must be Tories?”

    Anyway he softened and joined in our chatter from time to time (though he never quite mastered teasing). Later he joined the student Conservative Association though his motive might have been the usual one. (Pretty gels.)

  16. We’ve all had em. Mine was a Romanian, living in Romania, who thought that Brexit was caused by racist xenophobic morons. He never seemed to tire of saying so on Facebook and it got to the point where he was being abusive about the English in general that I called him out on his hypocrisy. Friends no more. And I don’t miss it as the self righteous smug ones are not that great company anyway. The good company you keep regardless of differences.

  17. I guess the moral of the story is “if they’re good enough to be your friends then their values can’t be too far from your own, ideologies be damned.”

    I commented yesterday that I don’t agree that you can overlook politics in many cases. I say that as a person who does not have one single friend who shares my political ideology, save one. By pure happenstance all but 1 range from lefty to Mao, but their values are close enough that we get along. However, with some radicalization and further political polarization I can imagine a scenario in which we’re exchanging funny stories one month and bullets the next.

    That’s why civil wars are particularly brutal – you’re best buds right up until the moment you are mortal enemies. I think the big question is when exactly that moment comes, and how to stave it off.

  18. Another great read Tim, thanks. Sorry about your friend.

    then went to boarding school in W. Sussex

    Not Hurstpierpoint College by chance?

  19. One of your better posts….even if you do look like one of the lippy drunken studes I’d ‘gently’ escort from the building at 2.15.

  20. even if you do look like one of the lippy drunken studes I’d ‘gently’ escort from the building at 2.15.

    Heh, don’t all students look like that?

    I don’t think I ever got chucked out of anywhere, I might have needed some help leaving a place at closing time but was not daft enough to start gobbing off to bouncers, and thankfully nor were my friends.

  21. Not Hurstpierpoint College by chance?

    Close! We used to play them at sport: I was at Seaford College in Petworth.

  22. I wonder if there are selection effects which mean pockets of nutters morph into cesspits of confrontational low IQ identification-obsessed dickheads over time as all the smart people outmigrate. NI, Gaza, London zones 3-4 come to mind. Of course for that theory to hold water you’d have to think being aggrieved was a heritable trait.
    RIP that gentleman Simon, and great story telling by our host.

  23. I’ve always had a sort of idealized vision of the British pub, and of the sorts of beverages served in them of a type that I enjoy immensely.

    And now, in your picture, I see a large sign over the bar – a neon sign – that says “Bud Light.”


    (In an old trope that has become truth, conservatives see liberals as dumb, while liberals see conservatives as evil. As one liberal said to me, how can you be friends with evil?)

  24. We get a lot of tourists around here. At any rate two young French girls were having a bit of trouble with their rental car and I helped them out. One of them worked up her courage and asked me about Trump and people who voted for him. I told her most of the people in this area probably voted for him.

    She replied “how can that be? Everyone is so nice.” I got a huge laugh out of that.

  25. Close! We used to play them at sport: I was at Seaford College in Petworth.

    I know that area very well. My sister and her husband lived in Hurst for many years and my nephew went to Hurst College. I wonder if you two ever played against each other, he’s about the same age as you 🙂

  26. I wonder if you two ever played against each other, he’s about the same age as you

    Probably not: I am to sport what Justin Trudeau is to serious statecraft.

  27. “”In an old trope that has become truth, conservatives see liberals as dumb, while liberals see conservatives as evil. As one liberal said to me, how can you be friends with evil?””

    Possibly very UK specific (maybe very me specific) but many conservatives would not see those on the left not just as well-meaning-but-ignorant but now as purposefully-ignorant-and-evil.

    My work involves looking at corporate and sovereign financial distress all over the world. So lots of: how did it get this bad, what can be salvaged (business/economics), and what will be salvaged (incentives/politics). It is nicer when the story ends well but at the end of the day you are betting money and priority #1 is predict as accurately as possible (if you want an honest answer ask a gambler).

    I have always argued with my friends on the left as the policies they wanted had – from my observational work – tended to lead to bad outcomes (which is not what they wanted). Nothing new or special there.

    Labour supporters willingness to ignore corbyn & co support for vicious regimes is nasty. Can you imagine the outcry if one of the key figures in the conservative administration (who are mostly pretty stupid) had a key financial backer who liked to dress up in Nazi gear and hire various ladies for some costume play? I think this is different. [Though there has always been a free pass for supporting mass murderers of the left this support has been niche for the past 20 years]

    On the economic side it might suck to be poor in a rich country, but it sucks more to be poor in a poor country (when you talk to cleaners/taxi drivers you often find they were middle class back home). You can try to explain exactly how toxic Labour economic proposals are, and the response is “you would say that you are rich”. The left can joke about maybe capital controls might be needed for a short while. Again, the UK has had 20 years of pretty solid economic performance (especially if you were a London based civil servant) and people don’t get that capital controls means nice middle class people queuing for 2 hours everyday to try and find a cash machine that will let you get £50 so you can pay for food. Nationalisation is not about the money it is all about the incentives, and incentives determine productivity determines living standards – again not just clueless but people will refuse to acknowledge this (just read any ministerial biographies from the late 70s/early 80s). The irony is that the UK based pro-european people I know are astonishingly insular when it comes to: cross country comparisons; understanding what it means for a country to get in trouble; and the areas in which the UK is backward compared to many other countries. Though one more personal observation is that when it goes tits up the private sector guy who has 300k of government bonds as the core of his pension loses 80% and finishes his days in poverty, and the civil servant who has a pension worth 300k keeps everything – so maybe they are being rational as they know all the losses will be imposed on others (and I’m the bad guy). I think we have more extreme policies coming from the left and this is different.

    The left have always seen the right as greedy and never understood that most people on the right see growing the pie as the path to making everyone better off. The right have put up with that as in practice the left were following pretty centrist policies which were a bit stupid and wasteful but not aggresively harmful. So for the sake of harmony you just put up with it.

    The left are now lining up behind someone who has the potential to cause tremendous economic harm and real misery. On the right if you care about that then of course you want to speak up and ask your friends on the left if they realise the consequences of what is being proposed – just continuing with paying up and shutting up doesn’t feel right. The left have always known they are the good guys, and if you are the good guy what you are doing must be good so being challenged gets the traditional response of “you are just saying that because you are a bad person”. That is not a dynamic which is likely to lead to anyone learning anything, and frustration in arguments leads to higher volume. I do think the move is on the left as I would class the current conservative government as solidly centralist (stupidist/uselessist).

  28. She replied “how can that be? Everyone is so nice.” I got a huge laugh out of that.


    I know at least two women who said they no longer want to go to the US because Trump’s election has shown it is intolerant and full of racists. I don’t think the Americans are missing out on much if that’s their attitude, frankly.

  29. @Tim N

    I know quite a few (mostly ethnic minority) Londoners who now refuse to leave London to visit the rest of the UK, especially the rural areas, because they believe (especially since the referendum) that it must be full of ignorant uneducated bigots. That if anyone sees them or hears their accents they’ll be judged as dirty/scum/terrorists. It genuinely frightens me that people are becoming so insular. (On the flip side I know plenty of sticks-dwellers who refuse to visit their national capital not just because it is crowded and the transport system is hellish if you’re visiting during a working day and have to get around at rush hour, but because they find it uncomfortable / a “foreign country these days” / violently dangerous – there’s fear of muggings etc but I also know several people who haven’t dared visit since 7/7 due to fear of terrorism, which is pretty irrational statistically.)

  30. I know some wen-dwellers who find it uncomfortable / a “foreign country these days” / violently dangerous. And I must say I’ve never remotely considered it my national capital in any emotional sense – it’s just the place where The Establishment hangs out. I do like the National Portrait Gallery, mind.

  31. My son recently moved to a flat in Stepney Green – trust me, that is like a different city – Karachi.

  32. I doubt anyone from the north has ever considered it our capital, the old kingdoms still remain here in perhaps some distant memory.Much to the joy of the rest of the nation no doubt we scousers barely consider ourselves English.

  33. Probably not: I am to sport what Justin Trudeau is to serious statecraft.

    LOL. Although I think the word “serious” is superfluous in that sentence 🙂

  34. An intelligent and humane piece, Tim. I was reminded of Jonathan Haidt’s ‘The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion’

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