It’s 7pm. Gordon Phillips, a 48-year-old special needs teacher, arrives outside a north-London pub. It’s Saturday night, but Phillips – or Griz, as he was known at school – looks more like a man facing a job interview than someone on a fun evening out. Inside the pub wait four old school friends. One of them he still sees regularly; another he hasn’t seen for eight years; two more he hasn’t laid eyes on since they all walked out of the Dame Alice Owens School at the Angel, Islington, in 1972. He has no idea what they will be like now – or even if he’ll recognise them.
Griz is just part of the viral rash of school reunions rampaging across the country this summer. We’ve never had much of a thing about school reunions in this country – unlike in America, where they are fetishised – but a few weeks ago, Griz heard about www.friendsreunited.co.uk . He logged on, signed up, and here he is now, all too soon, about to meet up with his long-lost pals.
If you had heard about Friends Reunited before reading this, then it was probably in the past fortnight. It is the snowballing, word-of-mouth phenomenon of the moment.
It works like this. The site keeps a list of 32,000 schools and sixth-form colleges. When you log on, you register by entering your email address, your name, your school, the year you left, and then, if you’re so inclined, a few details about what you’re up to now. Then you can find your school on the list, and see how many of your peers have registered, and what they have to say for themselves.
It’s free to register: Friends Reunited makes its money by charging members £5 to forward emails to other members. For this reason it is strictly forbidden to bypass the middlemen and include your email address in your biographical notes. (The authorities have clearly tried to scotch this by running a search on the @ sign and removing all messages that contain it. In true school-cheat style, users have gotten around this by writing their emails phonetically, as in emily.tolstoyATyahoo.)
The site was set up by Julie Pankhurst, a software engineer, who got the idea while she was pregnant with her daughter, Amber. “I just started to think about my old school friends and wondered what they were up to,” says Pankhurst. “I thought that there would be some website out there – but there wasn’t anything.”
With the help of her husband, Steve, she runs the site from a back-bedroom office in Barnet, north London. It has been live since January, and thanks to low overheads, it is apparently already making a modest profit. In early June, it was getting 20,000 hits a day – now it’s getting an astonishing 1.3m a day – and 600,000 people have registered (although most out of pure curiousity, with no intention of paying the £5 to take it further). And that’s all with no advertising. Just simple word-of-mouth.
Since its launch, and evident success, two new sites have popped up offering similar services ( yourschoolreunion.co.uk and lostschoolfriends.co.uk ) and a number of American sites are said to be eyeing up the market.
All these companies deny that their sites are a security risk. Friends Reunited requires a credit card number before it gives away email addresses. For the moment, however, Lost School Friends relies on nothing tougher than self-policing. The possibility of slandering old school friends is a distinct possibility – but the sites are quick to point out that the US experience suggests that users act in good faith.
And so back to Griz. To his visible relief, he finds his friends waiting in the corner of the pub, nervously chatting over their drinks. There’s his regular buddy Chris, a homelessness worker who has travelled down from Oxford for the night. Opposite is Trevor Pell, a computer analyst who now lives in Knowle, West Midlands, and two east-end residents, Pete Fryer, a Post Office worker, and Bill Stallwood, a pawn broker whom Griz hasn’t seen for 30 years. They shake hands, slap backs and order a pint. The nervous chatter turns to raucous laughter – a gap of 30 years is quickly bridged.
“I walked in looking for a table full of old gits,” says Fryer. “But immediately I thought bloody hell, there’s me old mates. They’ve got a few lines but I can’t believe it.”
Remember me? Two of our writers log on
Emma Brockes, Aylesbury High School
Stella Millington is still living in Aylesbury. To appreciate the full magnitude of this news, you would have to have attended Aylesbury High School in the early 1990s, when Ms Millington’s quest to become a great tragic actress first unveiled itself. If you’d witnessed the huffs, the Sybil Thorndyke histrionics, the way she’d look demurely at the floor and then smile a smile you knew had been constructed in the mirror, you too would derive great joy from the discovery that, 10 years on, she is working as a chartered surveyor in High Wycombe and living in Aylesbury.
There is other news, too, on the Friends Reunited website: Melanie Fyfield and Tanya Jones (remember them?), respectively expelled and suspended for telling a PE teacher to “fuck off”, have found their way to the site to catch up with all the friends they never had. And Debbie Morrison – you know you dropped out of a sports studies degree at Loughborough and have been sighted as recently as last Thursday working in Mothercare, so “international diplomat” is a little wide of the mark.
But Jude! I discover that my old friend Jude is a producer on Radio 1, just like she wanted to be, and I’m nearly crying at my desk.
Equal cause for ecstasy: Dean Whitworth, known universally at school as dickhead, has understood completion of the “nicknames” field on the membership form to be mandatory. Thus he appears on the site as “Dean Whitworth (dickhead)”.
John Crace, Eton
The Friends Reunited website is anathema to most Old Etonians of a certain age – but then they were never parted in the first place. They left en masse for Oxbridge or the army before joining daddy’s firm in the City, and if they want to get in contact with someone they just phone and meet up in White’s. So sadly, the site offers me no opportunities to reacquaint myself with former classmates, such as Charles Moore and Oliver Letwin, and we’ll miss out on the chance to have a laugh about what a mess the Tory party is. In fact, there’s just one person registered on the site from my year. His name will mean nothing to most Old Etonians of this vintage as he was so far down the school pecking order – despite being an Hon, good to see you’ve dropped that bit – as to be invisible. But he was in my house, and I shall forever be grateful to him for making me appear socially accomplished. His entry gives no clue to what he’s up to now, but what I’d like to know is why a man who appeared to have no friends at school should bother to register with Friends Reunited. So if you catch my name on the site, perhaps it would be better if you didn’t get in touch. I reckon once in a lifetime was enough for both of us.
Some names have been changed.
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