The Demographic Shift - 9
Here's a fact. I'm collecting them. Although not struck by a desire to yomp across Welsh mountains in camouflage with a broken SA80, this is an activity not open to those outside of the 18- to 34-year-old demographic. I learnt this in France, where it is wet, writes Gordon MacMillan.
I'm getting ahead of myself. I wanted to start by saying that it's funny the things that a public school education can give you. For Paul, we had expected the usual (wealth, happiness and a great many complexes), but a desire to desert your friends and your own bachelor weekend for a solo trip to France wasn't one of them.
I apologise about the use of the term bachelor weekend, but as a Canadian said to me recently "do you feel like a stag?". Well, since you put it that way, not really.
At the bottom of all this (France/bachelors) is the fact that what public school really got Paul was five years in the Parachute Regiment, which brings us across the channel to Normandy and Paul's trip to it, which is where we finished last week.
Paul has a hero, a sort of rare thing these days, and an unimpeachable one at that. His grandfather was one of the first people killed during the June 6 1944 D-day landings. He was in the British Airborne and went in by glider and landed near the Caen Canal. He was killed within minutes of landing as they stormed across the bridge they had been sent to capture. He was only 26 and he's still there.
We all knew about this, of course. It was something that Paul had spoken about, we just didn't know it had bred in him a desire to follow in his footsteps and jump out of perfectly good aircraft. He had kind of kept this desire quiet until he made his revelation. If only he had done what everyone else had done and joined a band, the fringe benefits would have been so much better than a ferry ride to France which is clearly not a fringe benefit of any kind.
I could kind of see why he had gone again. Some places call you back, but mostly they are not in France. It was the timing that was literally insane, but what can you say? People do funny things, go to strange places before they get married. It's all more coming-of-age stuff.
So at Alison's insistence, which I did vigorously fight ("I really don't want to go." "Go." "OK."), I saw the rest of the bachelor weekend crew off on the plane to Amsterdam as I headed for France. It took me an unhappy day to catch up with him taking the train and then ferry from Portsmouth.
Alison was worried that he would do more stupid things if not intercepted. The whole Paul doing stupid things, combined for his enduring desire to have a really big car, has also left Alison with a fear that one day she will come home from work and find herself uttering a generally inexplicable line, which in her case is "Oh my god you traded the Mini Cooper in for a Jeep Grand Cherokee".
It was a bit of a trip down memory lane for me also. I had been packed off one summer as a 10-year-old for a "special holiday" by my mother to France with grandfather Alan –- or the mad Scottish one as my sister and I referred to him. This was not a good thing. Not for a 10-year-old or any other kind of year-old.
Granddad Alan was the maddest of any relative you could ever have. His veins totally pulsated with whisky and he was the kind of person who roared just sitting there, even without talking. He was a big Glaswegian guy even in his shrunken older state. There were two things about him. One that he talked of nothing but the war and secondly he took far too much pleasure in the fact that there was an old Scottish tune called the 'Gay Gordon' ("shall we no have the 'Gay Gordon' on again?") -- oh the bagpipe music that got played in our house at Christmas.
A trip to France was anything to be desired. Even more so when all he wanted to do in France was visit cemeteries and places where he had been as a young man in the Black Watch from D-day onwards. All we did was visit endless military cemeteries and battle sites along with the personal biographies of all the people he knew buried in France. As a 10-year-old this is kind of hard to appreciate.
What it did mean was that when I went back to school after the summer holidays I was able to answer the question: "What did you do in the summer holidays Gordon?" with: "My granddad took me to cemeteries, Miss", which of course now would result in a call to social services, but that was the 70s.
I called Paul from the boat and he met me outside the port. Despite having gone there in my role as best man, I was, you might have guessed, seething with anger. So I shouted and stamped my foot. I told him he was completely barking not to mention the fact that the wet French coast and Amsterdam just didn't compare. When I asked him what we were doing here he said a lot of things, but mostly he said: "I just worked out that I'm getting old and he's not. I felt like coming back."
We drove around in the pouring rain. God, France is wet in autumn. It's certainly no time to invade. We went to the bridge where his grandfather was killed, which is called Pegasus after the winged horse of Greek legend to reflect the fact that they swept down from out of the sky. Then we headed out a little towards Rainville and one of many big British war grave sites. It all looked familiar.
Paul laid some flowers. It's weird, so unlike an English cemetery. The white, rectangular gravestones are arranged in neat little rows. They are all exactly the same size and they seem to go back for a long way, but then it needs to with 2,563 identical stones. It's very weird, peaceful, laid out next to an old French church.
This all comes back to demographics one way or another. As the funny thing was, and well it isn't funny at all, was that we were relatively ancient in comparison with everyone who lay there. At 33 and 34, we were in the oldest 1% or 2%. Paul, though not I, also found it dispiriting that we are all too old to join up (30 is like the age limit, phew) should we be taken by some bizarre turn in the middle of the night and trade in North London for some barracks in the middle of nowhere (bagsy anywhere but Deep Cut). The point was we were totally ancient among these youths.
We saw some people the same age as us, but mostly it was rows of 21- and 22-year-olds with sprinklings of 17- and 18-year-olds. We joked, inappropriately or not I'm not quite sure as everything in places like that feels inappropriate, that it would have been hell to be stuck in an Army unit with all those 20-nothings, so raucous. The noise (enemy gun fire aside), could you imagine it?
We sat there for quite a long time. Paul had, after all, come a long way. It started to get dark after a while and then at the going down of the sun we went home. We found a bar and got kind of drunk.
Next week: back to the ever-controversial subject of compliation albums. This one just won't lie down.
The Demographic Shift is a new regular column on Brand Republic as Gordon MacMillan charts his own demographic timebomb.
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