Liz and Alex meet up after 47 years

Dream of being reunited with your first love? One woman’s tale of staying friends with an ex

PUBLISHED: 22:27, 13 April 2012 | UPDATED: 22:27, 13 April 2012

At a lovely summer party given by a schoolfriend in our old hometown of Huntingdon, I became aware of a tall, elderly, white-haired gentleman striding purposefully towards me.

Now, it’s many years since men of any age strode eagerly in my direction, so I wondered who he was and what he wanted.

As he got near, he said, ‘Liz?’

‘Yes?’ I replied to this complete stranger.

‘It’s Alex, Alex Williams.’

‘No! I don’t believe it!’

Reunited: Liz Hodgkinson and Alex Williams were lovers 47 years ago. Now they are just good friends, but their reunion was a poignant moment for both

Alex had been my first ‘real’ boyfriend when I met him as a 17-year-old schoolgirl in Cambridgeshire; the first young man who had ever made my heart beat faster.

It was thrilling to see him again unexpectedly after so many years. Once I recovered from my shock, he uttered the mischievous words: ‘We never really split up, did we?’

Indeed, we did not. We just drifted away from each other in the way one did in those days, without ever saying goodbye or realising that we might never meet again.

Even though I had not seen him for 47 years and would never have recognised him, we instantly bonded once more.

A rapturous reunion and floods of shared memories followed, accompanied by generous amounts of wine.

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We both realised that we couldn’t just drift out of each other’s lives again — particularly as it turned out we lived so near each other, with me in Oxford and Alex in Cheltenham, an hour’s drive away. Now and then, Alex had flashed into my mind over the years, but not with a strong enough impetus to try to make contact. But now, having met him again, it became clear he’d made a strong impression all those years ago — and was reinforcing that now.

There’s always an inherent danger in reconnecting with old flames, especially those from your very distant past. Either you wonder what on earth you saw in each other in the first place, or, even more dangerously, there may be a remaining little spark, not quite extinguished, which threatens to re-ignite itself against all the odds.

There is possibly even more risk involved when one of you is single and the other is married (I’ve been single since my partner died in 2004 and Alex is happily married).

Perhaps most threatening of all is the fact that however many years have passed, if you knew someone when they were young, to you they always are young. The minute I met Alex again, all those years and decades rolled away as we saw ourselves as 18-year-olds again.

Back in 1961, Alex Williams had been one of the most glamorous young men I had ever encountered.

He was an art student at St Martin’s School of Art, rake-thin, dark, handsome, brooding and talented. I was a raw sixth-former, longing for sophistication and decadence, and he seemed to provide it.

He was that little bit older and had already escaped to London.

Bright young thing: Liz in her youth

We had met as aspiring young intellectuals at the Huntingdon Music and Arts Society (a regular gathering for those interested in the arts) and rapidly progressed to the kind of teenage parties I would call ‘sex orgies’ in my diary at the time, not having any idea what a genuine sex orgy might be.

Alex and I were instantly attracted to each other, but as he was away at St Martin’s, we could only meet up in the holidays. We fancied ourselves as the fashionable young things of Huntingdonshire, gilded youths who could get away with anything.

And for those who imagine that teenagers in those far-off days were innocent, demure young creatures who never did anything wrong, I have news. Alex and I — and our friends — were no strangers to falling out of nightclubs at 3am, or binge-drinking, come to that.

We would stagger drunkenly into the meadows of Godmanchester, the pretty village where Alex’s parents lived, and wonder how on earth we would ever get home. We went on pub crawls, driving our parents’ cars while well under the influence and, one night, painted the village white with huge ban-the-bomb signs.

It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead. But underneath the teenage rebellion, he was ambitious, dedicated and completely obsessed with art. I was ambitious, too, with a secret yearning to be a writer.

It all felt so daring and exciting. Alex was a young bohemian, up to all sorts of mischief, and I was a besotted schoolgirl, ready to follow his lead

Alex and I last met in Paris in 1962. I had gone with two girlfriends, just before we all parted for university, and Alex and two of his friends joined us, somewhat secretly, later — our parents were not to know.  But I think Alex had already moved on; meeting girls at art school who were far more exotic and experienced. And I was about to embark on a new life as a university student and wanted to feel free of Huntingdon.

The oomph, if such it was, had already gone out of the relationship, and we faded out of each other’s lives, with no contact of any kind, until three years ago.

Brooding: Alex as a young art student

After parting, we both soon fell in love with other people, made very early first marriages, both aged 21, had families, children (a boy and girl for him; two boys for me), got divorced, buried our parents and were fortunate enough to find fulfilling new relationships in later life. By the time we met again, Alex was happily married to his second wife Celia, a maternity nurse.

I had been single since my partner, the writer John Sandilands, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2004. 

So what now? Alex and I were no longer bright young things, but grandparents, hurtling towards our threescore years and ten. Even our children were middle-aged.

We agreed at this party that we would stay in touch but we understood that in our case, the youthful romance had long burned itself out and there was nothing left to ignite.

Friendship, on the other hand, was on the cards. The next time we saw each other was when Alex invited me to his arty home for dinner. There I met Celia, his wife. She had been at the party but I had been too drunk, or too surprised, to notice anybody much but Alex. Celia was brilliant from the start.

A very attractive, warm and friendly woman, about ten years younger than Alex, she encouraged the friendship and we soon bonded.

It became clear to me Alex and Celia were very much in love and really only had eyes for each other. Celia expressed regret that she’d never known Alex as a very slim young man with jet-black hair, as I had. Thankfully, over time, Alex and I slotted into an easy, mature friendship that included Celia, our children and their partners.

As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured to follow his dream, go to art school and become an artist. He had been opposed at every turn by his strict father, a RAF squadron leader, decorated war hero and ultimate man’s man.

As I learned more of Alex’s life, I began to appreciate what a desperate struggle he’d endured

Mr Williams senior wanted his elder son to have a proper job with nice guaranteed pension.

Artists were, in his view, poncy layabouts, and his wayward, untamed son seemed to be fulfilling all his worst fears. There were mighty family battles behind closed curtains, something I had not known at the time. Alex’s life had been full of thrills and spills, success and failure, acceptance and rejection, huge elation and deep despair.

While his college friends David Hockney and Peter Blake enjoyed international fame and success at an early age, Alex took longer to find his unique style, and establish himself as a significant modern artist.  But he got there in the end.

I was so intrigued I suggested we collaborate on his biography, and Alex agreed. It meant delving deep into his psyche and dishing it up for the general public to read, but also spending months in close contact — as it turned out, ringing or emailing each other almost daily and meeting frequently.

Celia, bless her, was very supportive of our project. She was generous with hospitality and time, in spite of having her own busy career.

Meanwhile, I got to know Alex better than ever before. In the mature man, I found a restless but warm-hearted, witty and kind but still ferociously ambitious, person.

I also learned that art came first.  Anybody who embarked on a relationship with him had to accept that — a sacrifice that would have been too much for me.

As much as I enjoyed our time together, we could never have been life-time partners. Our teenage fling was just that — a fling.

Two years after our reunion, our book is almost out.

What’s more, we’ve disproved all those who say you can’t be friends with an ex — particularly your childhood sweetheart.

And now we have the best kind of relationship there is: close, affectionate, productive — and platonic.

Alex Williams: The Survival of an Artist by Liz Hodgkinson is published by Quartet Books at £35 on May 2.

Daily Mail - April 2012