Covid-19 has ruined many things. It has taken loved ones, destroyed livelihoods, damaged mental health, disrupted education and suspended much of the family and community life we hold precious.
But there has been some silver linings. And for me, one of these is how much more time I have spent with my oldest group of mates.
I first met Andrew Bellwood at Sunday school when I was 6 years old and just had just moved to Croydon. The next day I walked into a class at my new school and he offered me the seat next to him. For the next 5 years he let me copy his maths.
Then we went to the same secondary school. My maths struggled as he selfishly went into the top set, but 42 years later, we are still mates.
About 10 years ago, Bell (as he is known) set up a ‘Beer Club’ for our group of friends. This was his response to his wife joining a Book Club where the main focus was drinking wine.
Pre-Covid, a core group of Bell, Stoon, Greeny, Stevo, Tink, Tim and Kuhrty (we like our nicknames) met up somewhere in London, had some beers, maybe some food and caught-up with each other. The original aim was ‘to discuss beers’ but that never actually seemed to happen in any CAMRA sense. We generally managed to hold a Beer Club every 3-4 months.
But since Covid struck, Beer Club went online and the frequency increased. At first we met fortnightly and now its every month.
Someone normally runs a quiz (in the loosest sense) and we also regularly have a ‘guest star’ invited along to join in the fun. In the summer we held a special ‘Samrat’ event (a reference from That Peter Crouch podcast) where we invited a whole heap of guest stars (see photo above). It was chaos.
The chat always goes into the early hours as no one has to leave early ‘to get the last train’. I have LOVED it.
Decades of friendship
As a group we have known each other since we were 11 or thereabouts. The decades of friendship means there is no shortage of tales to recall: school stories which become wildly embellished, 18th parties at the cricket club, holidays in Ibiza, chats with Kate Moss in The Blue Anchor, dodgy jobs, dodgy relationships and dodgy haircuts, stag dos, weddings, Crystal Palace getting to Wembley, the arrival of our children…
But of course there are also the tough times. Parents becoming ill and passing away, relationships that have broken down, jobs that don’t work out, Palace losing at Wembley…
As a group, the most significant was when one of our closest friends, Nick, died in our twenties. His death is a continual, collective loss. We talk often of him and miss him more than words can say.
Today is International Men’s Day. It’s a good day to acknowledge what has become a cliché: men find it hard to share openly how we are really doing.
Blokes, especially in groups, tend to hide behind banter or sticking to familiar subjects to avoid the deeper issues. Its easier to assess Palace’s lack of creativity (Zaha excepted) than share our actual anxieties. Or we can debate politics or current affairs rather than talk about our feelings. Often, we marinate everything in beer to cushion the awkwardness of making ourselves vulnerable.
These forms of denial are not healthy. Talking is vital. We either talk things out or we will act things out. Frustrations and pain cannot be suppressed – it will always have an impact somewhere. Too often it is wives and girlfriends who bear the brunt of our anger or sadness or have to shoulder the weight of our worries. It is not good for us and certainly not good for them.
One Step Beyond
So in this most difficult of years, I have appreciated my mates more than ever. We have had the beer and the banter but we have also (a little) shared more about how we are, especially when things are hard and when we feel low. We have gone one step beyond into the zone when we talk about things that matter.
Quite rightly, there is a lot of concern about men’s mental health at the moment. I’ll end with a simple, anonymous question to help men think about who they can really talk to:
See: Men’s Minds Matter, online resources for men’s mental health