THE UK has a population of approximately 65 million people and with ever faster transport systems and micro second communication technology it is now just a large village.
Yet it never ceases to amaze me at what a very small world we really live in.
As regular readers of this blog may know, I was brought up near Brighton, on the rolling downs of Sussex – for world readers, this is the deep south of England.
Recently I received a small and quite pleasant shock. My best friend while growing up in the village of Mile Oak was my next door neighbour, Johnny. Please read There’s danger on the battlefield where the shells of bullets fly for further references. I lost complete touch with Johnny when I left school at 18 for university life in Yorkshire… that was 40 years ago!
Two weeks ago, while browsing updates about old class mates on the website Friends Reunited, I noticed Johnny’s name and the fact he was living and working as a boat builder in Argyll, in the north west of Scotland. I tracked his company email address and fired off a “how are you?” email. Ten minutes later came a surprised reply. He had moved to Argyll in 1990 – the same year I moved to Argyll – and has lived there ever since. He lives in a village some seven miles away from where I used to live for two years. But most surprisingly he used to read the newspaper I edited every week, never realising that I was the editor. He even remembered in detail one story I had published. We both laughed at the fact that we still remembered in detail the hand grenade incident in 1966!
One of the more bizarre examples of the village-like geography of my life reads like a Pete Frame “Rock Family” tree.
I studied for my degrees between 1974 and 1979 at Huddersfield Polytechnic and the nearby Bretton Hall College. My oldest and best friend from this time was an art student called Judith, while the best man at my wedding was a music student called Howard. In my second year at college I was gobsmacked to find that while I was at home for a reading week, the famous folk singer/comedian Mike Harding had slept in my bed following a gig at the college. I dined out on this simple story for many years.
As time went on I became a huge fan of the English folk rock group Fairport Convention and would often attend their annual Cropredy Convention festival in Oxfordshire each August. Over the years, I got to know a few members of the band, while sharing a beer at the festival bar – the most lugubrious of whom was multi-instrumentalist Maart Allcock.
In 2007 I discovered that Maart lived close to me in North Wales. I popped along to watch him perform in a local pub and briefly chatted to his wife Jan.
Roll on August 2008. My old friend from student days, Judith, said she would like to come to Cropredy with me. We made plans and packed our camping gear. A couple of days before the festival started, Judith told me that her sister in New Zealand had mentioned that an old best friend from their childhood in Coventry called Jan had married a member of Fairport Convention. There could be only one combination! So three days later I introduced Judith to Maart and Jan Allcock at the festival bar. There followed a mix of laughter and tears and a few pints of beer. We later bumped into Mike Harding, who was compering part of the festival!
But this, by chance, simple reunion didn’t end there.
Over the next couple of years, Maart and I began to swap matey emails and I discovered that (a) He studied at Huddersfield Polytechnic while I was studying there. (b) He played with my best man and fellow music student Howard. (c) After leaving Huddersfield he moved to Leeds and played with the aforementioned Mike Harding.
Meanwhile, on the back of my “look who’s been sleeping in my bed” story I became Facebook friends with Mike Harding and mutual friend Andy Kershaw – who happened to be the events secretary at Leeds University – a spit away from Huddersfield – in the mid 1970s.
And to take things to a natural conclusion, last year I found out that Andy Kershaw is currently a neighbour of a good friend Yvonne in Todmorden, near Huddersfield. That friend is in turn a mutual friend of Judith!
A silly and quite bizarre post script is that one Christmas Eve, 20 years ago, my wife’s parents received a knock on the door at their home near Coventry. My mother-in-law opened the door to be greeted by a man carrying a large turkey. “Oh my God, you’re that Mike Harding from the telly!” she exclaimed. It wasn’t… it was fellow comedian and local Brummie Jasper Carrott, whose sister lived next door. He had simply knocked on the wrong door!
Mike Harding was acquainted with this tale only last year!
Which all goes to prove the six degrees of separation theory!
And it is with my wife Gill that the next simple twist of fate takes place – and it really is a double whammy!
Long before we met, Gill lived and worked as an English teacher in the Greek city of Thessaloniki for 10 years. She returned permanently to the UK in 2002 and often tells me stories of the sun drenched café lifestyle, restaurants and architecture of this beautiful Greek city.
When Gill and I first got together we lived in small hamlet in the North Wales hills. My son Nathan attended a primary school in a nearby village. The school was tiny with just 10 pupils in his year group and 96 pupils at the school in total! One day, about 18 months ago, Nathan told me that a new Greek boy had joined his school. “And he does taekwondo too!” he enthused (his favourite sport). A few weeks later at a taekwondo training session, Nathan introduced me to the new boy Yanni and his Greek dad Dino and British mum Nicola. I, in turn, introduced them to my wife. The next 15 minutes stretched believability as we discovered: (a) Yanni’s family had moved from Thessaloniki. (b) They lived just one street away from where Gill had lived. (c) Dino and Nicola owned a restaurant which Gill dined at almost every week. (d) They were both friends with one of Gill’s closest friends from her time in Thessaloniki. (e) When Nicola first arrived in Greece she had gone to the British Council where Gill worked to ask for advice on learning Greek! Needless to say we are now all good friends!
But Gill and my life coincidences don’t end there.
Gill is nine years younger than me and the first coincidence is we share the same strange surname: Outterside. There are only about 240 Outterside households in the entire UK!
Both our families originally herald from the Newcastle and Sunderland areas in North East England.
In September 1984, my first wife Ann, our new born son Ben and I were staying with relations in the region. We took the opportunity to visit my elderly Great Aunt Nan Charlton (my grandfather’s sister) at her small villa at Bank Top in Throckley, a few miles west of Newcastle. Aunt Nan was aged about 94 at the time and I had not seen her since my grandfather died three years earlier. When we arrived at the house I was amazed to find this frail old lady picking blackberries at the end of her garden. She looked pleased to see us and chirped: “The blackberries are good this year. The young girl next door is picking a basket full too.” I looked through the hedge to see a pretty young woman of about 18 years of age picking the fruit.
Over a cup of tea, my great aunt explained that the new next door neighbours were also called Outterside, but had not realised her own maiden name for many months after they had moved in. She said she did not think we were related in any way, but the girl’s father Bruce had once worked with my father’s twin brother Geoff at Heathrow Airport!
I thought little more of it and was saddened a few years later when I had to miss Aunt Nan’s 100th birthday party, and a year later, her funeral.
Anyway, time and divorces passed by and sometime about 25 years later I befriended Gill via Facebook. The friendship was partly based on the fact we both lived quite close but mainly because we shared the same surname. The friendship blossomed into love two years ago and in February 2013 we became married.
Along the way we discovered that (a) we share the same great-great-great grandparents (b) I had worked with Gill’s brother on the Outterside family tree some 10 years earlier (c) Gill had attended my great aunt Nan’s 100th birthday, because (d) she was the young girl picking blackberries in the neighbour’s garden all those years ago.
It is a very small world!