Being asked to be the Best Man at a wedding, is a bit like Jury Service. Some spend their whole lives without a summons, others have to appear frequently. I have been asked to be the Best Man on many occasions, (actually six) and have never had the heart to decline this honour. Every time, it was very different, yet I am very happy to have had the experiences.
The first time was long ago, as far back as 1970, when I was just 18. I had been asked by one of my best friends, and I was very pleased to be asked too; I think I would have been upset if he had asked someone else. He was marrying his childhood sweetheart, someone we had both known from school. In fact, I went out with one of her friends, and we frequently double-dated (as they say in America). Although young to marry, at 18, they were a determined, and loving couple, who are still together today, having raised five children; which, considering my own poor track record, is something to be commended.
The groom had decided that we would defy convention, by wearing white suits. This was a long time before ‘Saturday Night Fever’, and it was also in Rotherhithe, a down to earth working class area of London, so it wasn’t going to be normal. Then again, it was 1970. We managed to get the suits made to measure, at a very reasonable price, by a tailor in nearby Peckham. The lapels were as wide as the wings on Concorde, and the bell-bottoms of the trousers completely covered our shoes, but this style was all the rage then. We chose plum-coloured shirts and white ties to complete the outfit, and we had a great day, at a lovely church next to the Thames. I was so pleased with the suit, I wore it for years afterwards, sometimes as separates, and became known as ‘The man in the white suit’, by some friends. Over the years, the dry-cleaning costs far exceeded the original price of the outfit, yet I was sad to let it go.
The next occasion was some years later, though still just in the 1970’s. My good friend was marrying a lovely girl he had met as she worked behind the bar in a pub. The venue was Marylebone Registry Office, in Central London. This is a famous building, an imposing, Greek-styled edifice, where Paul McCartney, and many other celebrities, were also wed. As it was less formal, I chose a blue velvet jacket, and grey trousers, both bought new for the purpose. After the short ceremony, there was a reception in Covent Garden, and a very pleasant time was enjoyed by all. I later discovered, that sitting with my arms on the table all afternoon, had completely crushed the pile on the arms of my new jacket. The shop refused to replace it, alleging that it had been ‘worn excessively’. (In a week?) That couple also stayed together for many years, and had a lovely daughter. Though they later split up, we all remain great friends, to this day.
Moving on a few years, I was again asked to step up, by a colleague and friend that I knew from the Ambulance Service. I wasn’t too sure that he was making the right choice. He had given up on someone that I really liked, for a quieter, somewhat distant girl, and he had not known her for too long. She was a nurse, and hailed from Lancashire, and as he was a lively, popular boy from East London, it seemed an unlikely match. I kept my mouth shut, and went along with his request. As the wedding was to be in Lancashire, some 200 miles from London, there were a few logistical problems to overcome. The guest list, at least on the groom’s side, was limited to those that could get time off, and afford a couple of nights in a hotel. We had to hire a small self-drive coach, and arrange for a few drivers to be on the insurance; we also managed a block-booking discount, for a nearby small hotel. The long distance worked well for me. As the groom was to be up there for some days before, my duties would be very few. All I had to do, was to collect the flowers on the day, stand in the church for the service, and then make my speech later.
That was a speech that I wish I had never made. As some people in the North of England can be quite serious, (the word often used is dour-look it up) I reasoned that a lively, slightly controversial speech would jazz things up a bit. I led off by illustrating the differences between the sense of humour, and the contrasting traditions, that made English people from opposite ends of the country so unsuited. Not a good start. References to flat caps, ferrets, and black pudding with chips and mushy peas, did not go down too well at all. As the Southerners guffawed at my witty observations, the faces of the others grew stonier, and determinedly smile-free. I hoped to salvage the situation, by referring to his many and varied previous girlfriends, intending to point out that he had made the right choice, after a lot of false starts. Maybe it was the lack of sincerity in my voice, but even the bride began to blanch, and looked as if she was about to burst into tears. I stopped talking, and made the toasts. Later, there was a drinks evening at the family home. We were asked to go there, then shown into in our own room, away from the other guests. Can’t imagine why.
My next appearance was in 1989, and by now, I considered myself a veteran. This was a much smoother affair all round, as it involved an older couple, who had both been married before. A former colleague from the LAS, and great friend, I half suspected the groom was going to ask me, even before he announced the event. A brief ceremony at Wandsworth Town Hall, was followed by a superb meal and reception, at a lovely hotel in Kingston. It was all very civilised, everyone looked fantastic, and even my speech (modified since the Lancashire episode) was well-received. All weddings should be like that one.
The Ambulance Service was proving to be fertile ground for my Best Man role, which was fast becoming a part-time job. At the time, the late 1990’s, I was working with a much younger colleague. He had started to get ‘serious’ with a young nurse from Northern Ireland, and I could sense wedding bells were not far off. I was confident that I would be beyond consideration for the job this time. After all, I was born in the same year as the groom’s late mother, and he had a wide circle of friends, all of his own age. I thought that I may be invited, but as the wedding was to be held in Belfast, I was already preparing reasons why I would be unable to attend.
I was really shocked, when he came and asked me to be Best Man after all. It seemed that his younger friends had all declined, citing various reasons, as well as a fear of public speaking. With my track record, I was the next obvious choice, albeit some way down the original list. This presented numerous problems. It involved flying, or the infamous sea crossing from Scotland, which I would not consider for a second; as well as needing a fair bit of time off, as I could hardly arrive on the day. Coupled with this, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that the bride was unhappy. She had never seemed to take to me that much, which considering our huge age difference, was very understandable. I could also not ignore the fact that Northern Ireland is hardly the place for a 40 something Londoner, with a strong accent, given the troubled history of the Province. The groom was also well-known to be reckless, and another guest was a Territorial Soldier, also a Londoner, who just happened to be black, something of a giveaway, in the Six Counties.
I went over a couple of days early, and soon felt the strangeness of the place. This was somewhere I felt I already knew, after a lifetime of The Troubles, shown on TV; but I had no idea just how dark and unfamiliar it would actually feel to be there. However, I was warmly welcomed by the bride’s family, who despite being Catholics, and also Republicans, were all very nice to me. The wedding was in a local church, with a lavish reception following, at the romantic venue of Belfast Castle. As I rose to begin my speech, which I had decided would be a little cheeky, and might focus on cultural differences, as well as political, some other guests decided to show their displeasure, by unplugging my microphone. I soldiered on, but was only talking to a quarter of those assembled. I am pleased to add that the couple are still together, have a lovely young son, and a settled life in Northern Ireland. I have never been back, can’t really think why.
My most recent return to the groom’s side, and hopefully my last, was another much more sedate, and very pleasant duty, at a wedding in Lincolnshire, in 2008. Again, both had been married before, and the groom was an ex-colleague from the Ambulance Service. I was lucky enough to know both families and many other guests in advance, and to count most as good friends. We stayed in a nearby guest house, and helped with preparing their home for the after party. It was an exceptionally good day, with great company, in a delightful atmosphere. Not a foot wrong that time, and I even turned up to help clear stuff away the next day. One of the best.
I am happy to report, that I never once lost, or mislaid a ring. I did not disgrace myself with a bridesmaid, get unduly drunk, (at least not until after the speeches) or ever, intentionally at least, cause undue offence. I feel that I have served my time at the Best Man coal-face, and should now be excused duty. I might also mention, that as I have been married three times myself, I have managed to ‘return the favour’, and at least two of those mentioned above, were also Best Man, at my weddings.