Last week I helped celebrate my friend Lily’s birthday here in London. Nothing remarkable in that you might think, except that Lily is aged 101.
As you’d expect, she’s one remarkable lady. Born in Germany in 1915, she escaped persecution by the Nazis in 1940 by only a matter of months, eventually settling in the United Kingdom, where she still prospers today at an age when the candles cost more than the birthday cake.
During the course of a delightful afternoon, I asked her to what she ascribed as the secret of her longevity. “The secret,” she replied without hesitation, “is to keep in the race of life. You either take part, or you get left behind. It’s up to you.”
Her words have particularly resonated with me in recent days, as I’ve attempted to justify to myself my recent decision to join the family of Facebook. I realise I’m probably the last person on Earth to do so.
Indeed – or so I told myself – so ubiquitous has it become that it’s now used not just for social chitchat, but increasingly as a means of ID and online security. A bit like the motor car, internet banking and low-fat hummus, Facebook is now one of those modern commodities without which you can’t really function in the 21st century. As Lily might have put it, you take part or you are left behind.
Luckily the teenage son of a friend set me up with my own Facebook page in a few brief minutes. But his assistance came with a health warning. “Brace yourself,” he said as he pressed the button to activate my account. “You’re about to be deluged by people you once would have crossed the street to avoid.”
He was right. A week on, and I’ve got 229 friends. What’s more, I even like a few of them.
Take Melanie for example. Melanie left me a message the length of a short essay welcoming me to her world, saying how fabulous it was to be in touch again, and going on to describe her life since our day spent together filming a scene for the movie V for Vendetta back in 2005.
In the intervening years she’s been to China, Nepal and Australia, and is now running a coffee stall in Malaga, Spain; all of which she chronicled in exhaustive detail. I’m so delighted to know she’s doing so well. If only I remember who she was.
Or what about Guy? Guy was in the year above me in my secondary school. He was built like an all-in wrestler. I recall vividly his principal form of recreation during our years together was punching me with full force between my shoulder blades if I so much as approached within touching distance. Indeed, he is largely responsible for my psychiatrists’ bills in later life.
Yet to read him now on Facebook you’d think we’d been long lost identical twins. “How are you buddy?” he trilled in his opening message. “Glad to see you’re doing well. I’m in London sometimes, how about meeting for a coffee?”
Well Guy, if I do, I’ll invest in some body armour and a couple of bodyguards first.
And so it goes on. Scores of Paulas, Arthurs, Johns and Emmas, each one entreating me to link up with them and reminisce about good old days I can barely recall.
But that’s only the start. I’ve also inherited their friends, spouses, children and pets. One woman, Sandra I think her name is, posts endless identical images of her daughter’s new pony, while Simon, who assures me he was a great friend of mine from my drama-school days, wanted me to post a comment on his new labrador puppy which he’d dressed as Sherlock Holmes for his village’s canine fancy-dress competition. And to think I used to consider talking to my wife or reading an improving novel the best way to spend my spare time.
So if you’re on Facebook, do have a look at my page. Not for me – you’ll find precious little to interest you there – but for the snap I posted of my dear friend Lily. Hers has been a life well and truly lived. No virtual friends for her – only the genuine sort, who have loved her inordinately during her century on this Earth. She’s lived it properly, moment by moment, rather than in virtual time. And long may she prosper.
Michael Simkins is an actor and writer in London
On Twitter: @michael_simkins