When I was 13 a new boy called Matthew Arnold arrived at my secondary school. It wasn’t the beginning of the year, just some random autumn day—not even a Monday. 15 minutes before the bell went for school Ms. Bolton brought him to me through the drizzle, told me his name, and told me to look after him and introduce him to people. He wasn’t in my class, and Ms. Bolton had never taught me, so God knows why she asked me to do it—I was not the friendliest, or the most socially adept, kid, by a long shot. He was taller than me, gangly, with big NHS specs, and more socially awkward. Being the new kid could be a cruel experience, as I later discovered myself.
We became sort-of friends, me and Matthew. He loved that ELO, in whom I had no interest at all (but I do love them now; they were/are great!). I realise now that he was clever enough to mess around in our Ad Maths class and still do well (whereas I wasn’t, really, so I messed around a bit less than he did). He lived near the school so I remember occasionally stopping at his house on the long (2 mile) walk home. He had a stupid teenage sense of humour. We all loved Reggie Perrin, and some significant amount of time was spent doing call/response “Great, CJ”; “Soooouper, CJ”. (One unfortunate kid in our year had the initials CJ, but had the character to just accept that as his given name after a while). He prank-called people called Perrin by looking them up in the phone book, and asking “Is Reggie there” and then, when whoever was on the other end denied Reggie’s existence, he’d say “Tell him CJ called. I didn’t get where I am today by not knowing Reggie’s number” or some such. It seemed hilarious at the time and, frankly, I can’t write about it even now without grinning. He was mischievous, and naughty, but never unkind—there were boys to whom many were cruel, and although I hope I never partook in that, I know he didn’t. I’m sure he had a crush on my friend Caroline, though he’d never have admitted it; we always sat with her in Ad Maths, and I’m sure that was his doing rather than hers or mine.
I moved schools 3 years later, and became the new boy myself. It was a different situation—I moved into a small 6th form in a large school—several groups of kids had known each other since reception class, and I was a distinct interloper (and the son of the Chief Education Officer). And still not especially socially adept. Nobody was assigned to me. But 2 lads called Robert—Knight, and Downer—took it on themselves to befriend me. They lived bloody miles away (as did half of the 6th formers) so I only saw them at school. We had bugger-all in common—Downer was a talented artist, and Knight was obsessed with the military; whereas I am oblivious to visual art, and more or less a pacifist. But I liked them, and found their company effortlessly relaxing. Unpretentious, unassuming, and accepting. They talked about interesting things—Knight had opinions about Israel and the Middle East which nobody I had ever known under 60 had! Downer made fun of me for being a ‘leader of men’ because of my increasing involvement in political activism, but it was always only partly fun-making. I don’t think they knew how kind they were being. But it was so easy for English kids of our generation just to ignore and marginalize other people without ever being called out on being rude or cruel. Still is no doubt. And we all knew it! Over time I became much more integrated, and had other good friends. It was only quite recently that I have re-established contact and thanked them—both of them, separately, just said something to the effect of “Its probably just that nobody talked to us, either!”. Knight buggered off into the some part of the armed forces at some point—in fact, I suspect I knew him for no more than 9 months—but Downer saw out both years of the 6th form.
I learned two weeks ago that Matthew Arnold died in a motor bike accident shortly after he left school. Is it ridiculous to be shocked and saddened by a death that occurred so long ago to someone I wouldn’t have seen anyway? Well, I was. When the information emerged in a school-based facebook discussion, several unexpected people expressed their appreciation of him. Apparently he was a fine musician, something I never knew! I hope he understood that he was appreciated: it was so easy for English kids of our generation never to know they were liked. And I hope I was half as good at making him feel welcome on that grey autumn day which wasn’t a Monday as Downer and Knight were at making me feel accepted just a couple of years later.
As for Knight and Downer: Downer is a quiet presence on my facebook feed, and teaches art in a secondary school. Knight, by contrast, is one of the loudest presences on my facebook feed (he’s the person facebook points me to most frequently)—he left the military after, from what I can make out was a long career, and makes a living as a photographer I think in Germany, and plays the role of a grumpy old man who wishes he was politically incorrect, but doesn’t have it in him. Their Christmas present from me: getting tagged in the facebook mention of this post. Thanks Rob, and Bob, and for you, in particular, Rob, don’t think you can get out of your newer friends finding out exactly what you are really like.
And if you knew Matthew, do as I do, and think of him every time you hear this one. And grin: