Being a technological caveman it took me a couple of years longer than most to discover the phenomenon that is Facebook.
But, prompted by my twelve-year-old twins who use it as a means through which to communicate with the world, I have finally activated the account that I'd forgotten I set up some time ago and I spent most of last night trawling through lists of friends of friends to see who was on there that I knew. Throughout the night I fired off a couple of dozen friend requests, and have received several returns, some from people with whom I'd lost contact years ago.
Two of these were brothers who attended my primary school. For the purposes of this article I'll call them Jimmy and Robert. I remember both of them well, Jimmy being about my own age and Robert a couple of years older. There were both really nice lads, well liked by everyone. I can't remember either of them ever getting into an altercation with a fellow pupil - not even me, and as a kid I made it my business to upset most of the other kids at some point or another.
Jimmy's and Robert's roots are in the Caribbean. They hail from a very famous sporting family in the West Indies. My recollection of Jimmy was that he could throw a cricket ball seemingly for miles. He also went on to become a very good boxer, although his progress was hampered by a nose which gushed with blood whenever you called it a name.
I had seen Jimmy more recently than Robert. He provided the disco at mine and Caroline's wedding back in 1995 (I do hope I haven't got the date wrong!). Although he himself had moved out of the area some of his folks still resided locally and I was able to make contact with him.
Well last night I came across them both and I sent off a request to them both to become my Facebook friends. A few hours passed before Jimmy responded, accepting my request and joining my thus far embarrassingly small but thankfully growing list. But this afternoon I received a message from Robert informing me that he had no wish to have anything to do with me on account of my political history.
I have to say I was quite hurt when I read Robert's response. Their different ethnicity hadn't even registered when I had sent off the request, just as it had seldom registered at primary school. It just simply wasn't an issue. I had almost forgotten that for so many years I had been an active member and organiser of the National Front. Robert's reply to me provided a disarming reminder of that dark period of my life.
The sense of hurt which I felt upon reading his words was not directed at Robert himself, but was more a reflection of my own feeling of shame at the unhappiness that I must clearly have caused to such a decent man to inspire him to react in that way. During the course of my political work as an independent community councillor I come across politicians all the time who speak to me and even drink with me privately one evening and then announce publicly the next day that they would never have anything to do with me because of my past political activities. This is tacky politicking at its worst and I really couldn't give a toss for the feelings of such people. But Robert's comments provided me with a sobering reminder that it is sometimes wrong to assume that any damage caused by our actions can always later be repaired.
If my experience today strikes a cord with anybody who is still labouring under the illusion that they can reconcile their far-right activity with a "normal" life outside of extremist politics then they should think again, and think carefully. The deeper you sink, the more difficult it is to get back to where you need to be should you ever wish to reconnect with the real world.