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14 January 2024

His quiet charisma bowled me over, and he became a friend for life

When we were young we orbited P-J the way the planets orbit the sun. And now he has gone.

By Nicholas Lezard

My friend P-J died last week and I haven’t been able to think about much else. So I’m going to have to write about him. How he died isn’t particularly relevant but it was a long time coming, and we’d known for some time that the end was near. But the end, when it came, seemed from where I was sitting to arrive at a gallop. We had been planning to meet in the New Year but that’s never going to happen.

I’ve written about him and his friends before, but I don’t think you’ll remember the details so I’ll recap. We first met in the autumn of 1980, or what Oxford University – that’s where we met – calls, in its only non-mystifying iteration of its three terms, the Michaelmas term. And we would have met, almost certainly, in the student bar of Balliol College.

In those days Oxford was on the verge of being ruined by the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, but even then I had read the book and had certain expectations, none of which were met except for the beauty of the architecture. I had thought there would be punting and strawberries and rare clarets, but instead there were radical politics, huge mugs of tea and heated debates about whether the bar should stock Twiglets.

But what really impressed me was that I, who was yet to go to university, on being dropped into this coalescing group of first-years, saw an entirely unfamiliar model of human friendship: one that was not, as it was in my experience, embattled and hostile. The reason I was visiting in the first place was because my best friend at school, Andy, had gone up to Oxford, and if you know anything at all about the public school system in the UK you’ll know how unusual it is to have a friend, let alone a best friend, in the year above you. At my school there were too many privileged arseholes about, and children are bad enough as it is without Daddy being a diplomat and Mummy a Liberal peer. For some reason the school authorities were also suspicious of Andy and I – and we returned the suspicion.

So I found myself, wet behind the ears, among a group of young men and women (who were not yet being admitted to the university in any great numbers, hence their relative lack of representation), acquiring nicknames, experimenting with – ie using – hash and amphetamines, not in any great quantities but enough to make the weekend go with a swing, and all washed down by, if I recall correctly, Federation Ale: a beer rarely seen in the south but brought in specially by the college to acknowledge its left-wing leanings. (This may come as a surprise to those who remember Boris Johnson went to Balliol, but he was an anomaly, and even though he was there at the same time we never saw him. One of our group – although he joined it later – was the novelist Mick Herron, who was to make a Johnson clone one of the recurring villains in his Slough House novels.)

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There was no such thing as a leader of this group – it was too democratic for that – but it became clear that it revolved around P-J the way planets orbit the sun. I, for one, was bowled over by his charisma: the quiet kind, and one informed by modesty, intelligence and gentle humour. And what I marvelled at was the way they quickly accepted me. Cliques were something at school I had learned quickly to mistrust, and they shunned me, but here they let me in. (With certain caveats. “Don’t give Nick speed,” one of them said; apparently the stuff made me garrulous.)

The group stayed together after university, and is still together now. It includes a very close friend of mine who is the godfather of my eldest child (and a very good godfather, too). Instead of the career path followed by Johnson et al, P-J went into the Inner London Education Authority and stayed in education for the rest of his life. His ideal was public service, not that he would ever have put it so grandly.

My wife and I would regularly visit him and his wife, south of the river, for dinner: he was a superb cook. After my own marriage collapsed, the usual divvying up of friends left the pair of them seeing much more of my wife than of me: I think this was a function of not only their kindness but also because they were the loveliest of my friends, and my wife couldn’t bear losing touch with them. I was a bit jealous at first but then as I was, and remain, friends with his friends, I never felt that he was estranged from me.

Towards the end of last year, I texted his wife to arrange a meeting. I added that I’d loved him since I first clapped eyes on him. But it was P-J who answered the text. I was mortified: but at least he now knew what I thought of him.

[See also: How I almost became a Young Conservative]

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trump’s Revenge