I didn't know Matthew Perry the man but I knew Chandler better than many of my real Friends
The Queenager: Eleanor's Letter (October 29th 2023)
Friends was us, Generation X, leaving Uni and setting out on our lives, stuck in second gear, seeking succour from each other.
The clocks have changed and it is officially winter though from my perch above the azure blue of the Mediterranean it doesn’t feel like it. Even here in Spain though, the hour shifted – giving today that jet-lag feel of everything being a bit out of whack. Yesterday morning there were still 18 of us here, then seven for a last lunch, and now only three – me, my husband and by mum. The house feels a bit maudlin stripped of teenage cousins and the darling toddler niece, though it is wonderfully quiet…Tomorrow we come home and my Indian summer will be done – October has been my August as I was chained to my laptop all summer finishing my book. Today is my last day of sunshine for a while; the Hampstead pond is going to feel cold after the sea; I had a dream last night of rushing, being in the wrong place, of having lost my phone so I couldn’t sort anything out. The crush of reality beckons!
Adding to that sense of an ending was the sad news I woke to this morning that the actor Matthew Perry had died. Only 54, found dead in his hot tub after years of rehab (at one point he was taking 55 Viocodins a day… that is a hell of a lot of pain killers!). I didn’t know Perry the man. But I’ve spent a hell of a lot of time hanging out with Chandler from Friends. I know him and his jokes and his raised eyebrows and brilliant comic timing better than many of my real friends. My kids loved him and that show, too… it’s one of the few programmes that I can always watch. The comedy is so finely honed, the writing so sharp, the characters so familiar. Perry’s death feels personal. Truly sad.
No more Friends! Like so many of my generation I felt they were me and my mates; as it hit our screens in the early nineties, so we too were leaving Uni, moving to London, living on our own in flats, our friends the family we chose; heading out into our adult lives ‘always stuck in second gear’ cheered by the fact that the glamorous, loft dwelling New York Friends also had up and down love lives, bad hair days and bosses who balled them out. That for them too their mates were their life line, their sanity, the good stuff. Friends really was the voice of Gen X, of our lives as young adults as we made our way in the world. The death of Chandler at only 54 is a big one, a big loss – the death of a chunk of all of our lives.
I talk a lot about the 100 year life, about how statistically we’re likely to live that long; how fifty these days is only half way through. That we women aren’t done. We’re not invisible, not finished. That sense of only being at the mid point, my belief that there is truly So Much More to Come – is why I called my platform Noon. But of course statistics don’t take into account the outliers, those we lose along the way, the ones who don’t live that long; who live hard and die young… the ones who make us all so aware of how precious life is. How lucky we are just to be here: to see the light bouncing off the waves; the silver sea glistening in the sun as it does in front of me now. Or the comforting thwack of ball on bat; of cold water on sun-warmed skin; the delicious clasp of a small child’s trusting hug, or their idiosyncratic speech: ‘orry’ she says, not ‘sorry’ – ‘go way’ when she wants to be a big girl with her cousins.
Maybe I feel touched by the passing of Perry because I have been feeling acutely myself how swiftly those toddler days pass; how though to me it seems like only yesterday, my own little girls are now grown up and back in England at university. No more ‘orry’ or sticky hands waddling down the beach for an ice cream… I’ve been out here with all my siblings and their families celebrating my mum’s birthday: “How can I be 80?” she asks. “How can I have a daughter of 52, a grand-daughter who is 21 on Friday?” How quickly our days run through our fingers.
I’ve been lucky enough in my life to meet many famous and powerful people. Not Chandler, but many others who like him seem to ‘have it all’ – fame, professional success, money, status. All the stuff we are taught to want, to aspire to. The truth is that whatever it looks like on the outside, in my experience of interviewing everyone from prime ministers to captains of industry, pop stars and actors to the Dalai Lama, everyone is carrying something dark or difficult. No-one has a gilded life. And when it comes to the very famous, the very successful, they are often the least happy of all. The drive to get to the top eats them up; they are the ones who practiced harder, banged on more doors, were obsessive, who never gave up, who did whatever it took to make their own luck, to be in the right place, meet the right people. Who are never off duty, working or shmoozing even at weekends. Eaten up by the pursuit. These kinds of people get to the top because they want it more; need it more – in my experience they have a hole inside them that they think they can fill up with riches or fame or power or success.
But the truth is however much they achieve, however much they get, it is never enough to fill up that emptiness. To appease their sense of lack. Even when they make it there there is always someone else with a bigger yacht, more power, a bigger selling song, or larger Instagram following. And having got what they thought would make the hole go away; the fame that would fill it up; the power that would show they have arrived. They find that the hole is still there; that the void inside them can never be filled by external success. So they hit the drugs, or the booze, or the girls… or whatever helps to numb the pain for a while. Or indeed the Viocodin like poor old Mattew Perry – he admitted in an interview once that he liked going to open house viewings in LA where he lived just so he could ransack bathroom cabinets for prescription drugs.
How sad to have ‘everything’ the world tells you makes you happy and to need to numb it all out by stealing strangers’ medication…
There’s a lesson here and an important one. Cherish what you have while you have it. Count your blessings. Feel grateful for all the good stuff in your life. Cultivate a glass-half-full narrative rather than mulling regret, or lack or might-have-beens. Most of all cherish the now; the cosiness of a Sunday afternoon in the warm after a good lunch or a damp walk. The people you love and who love you. The crazy, lucky beauty of being alive, just as you are. Right now.
It’s funny, I was going to write today about how young I feel here on the Costa Blanca surrounded by retirees… I walked out to get some bread this morning and two sportscars whizzed by me. A natty green Porsche and a black MX5 (I had one of those in my twenties, I bought it when I got my first big job, I loved that car). Both were driven by male Octagenarians, their molls beside them; farting past me to the beach, vrooming through yet another day in the sun. I was going to write about how although it is a wrench to go home to leave the warmth and the sea and the sybaritic pleasures of holiday, how in another way I am ready for it. How important it is to have a purpose, a life to return to. How the tedium of sun, golf course, Gin and tonic all year round would drive me crazy. How in the 100 year life we can’t just turn our faces to the sun and pickle ourselves from 65 onwards like so many of the people I see around me have chosen to do; that we need a plan and a point. Application, work. A plan to bring meaning to the last half of our lives. That the longevity that we are lucky enough to be benefitting from needs to be planned for, relished, used! How the very notion of a thirty or forty year ‘retirement’ sitting at the edge of the world, doing nothing, holds no appeal. How this part of Spain is rammed full of healthy-looking northern European wrinklies counting out their lives on stand up paddle boards. How weird it is that that is ‘success’. How purposeless and soulless that looks and feels. How it holds no allure to me….
But given the news about Chandler that seemed too churlish. Let them enjoy their long years in the sun – and may you enjoy yours too. Chacun a son gout – or each to his own – as the French say.
I’m going to leave you with Matthew Perry’s words: “When I die I know people will talk about Friends, Friends, Friends. And I am glad of that…. But when I die as far as my so-called accomplishments go, it would be nice if Friends were listed far behind the things I did to try to help other people. I created the Perry House in Malibu, a sober-living facility for men. I also wrote my play the End of Longing which is a personal message to the world, an exaggerated form of me as a drunk. I had something important to stay to people like me and to people who love people like me. If an alcoholic or a drug addict comes up to me and says: ‘Will you help me?’ I will always says ‘Yes, I know how to do that for you, even if I can’t always do that for myself.’
So let’s mourn for Chandler from Friends and all that meant. But also for the damaged man who achieved so much ‘success’ but could never fix himself but tried to fix others. And resolve to relish the time we have here and those we spend it with.
Ps If you’d like to come and spend some of your precious time with me and some other Queenagers; if you like to ski but don’t have anyone to go with, or if you’ve never ski-ed but would like to try something new and meet a new posse of friends and have some fun then wee’re heading off to Switzerland on February 2nd to Feb 7th for our first Queenager Noon Ski Trip. Do come and join us! click that link for details and if you are interested you can sign up for more info on this google form or email me firstname.lastname@example.org
By Eleanor Mills