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B is for Best Man, by AT.
The Best Man. We’ve all got an image in our heads when we hear the words. Mine was that of a gammon-faced man in an ill-fitting suit sweating his way through an ill-advised speech about dragons and mothers-in-law, whilst settling his nerves with too much beer. I was about 9 at the time when I saw this horrific sight and it has stuck with me ever since. The silence when there should have been laughter; the scowls of the aged relatives; the not-unexpected divorce soon after. It was at about the same time that I decided I would quite like to be a best man too (I never wanted to be a groom, I might have had to kiss a GIRL, yuck) but that I would definitely be better than that poor bloke and his marriage-wrecking speech.
As I grew up the wish to be a best man remained with me. I reckoned a best man would be the most amazing bloke: the man who deflects any criticism of his friend, the groom; who takes the flak when it’s flying around; the shoulder to cry on for the bride when the groom’s being a berk. We’ve all seen that man in the movies with the strong jaw line, always slightly in the background to the main star but unwavering and true. Yes, that’s who I wanted to be.
As I moved into my 30′s without much of a serious relationship behind me, I became convinced that I would be a bachelor forever. Things had changed since the girls-are-yuck stage and whilst I had quickly realised that they were great and some of them even liked me, I’d not had much romantic success. It was clear I would never be a groom so the best man job became even more special to me as a result, and I was going to be the best best man…if only I could get the job.
My oldest friend from school announced his engagement to his lovely girlfriend and I awaited the nod but sadly didn’t make the cut. I was devastated. The fact that it was a family-only wedding abroad and that one of the groom’s three brothers was acting as best man couldn’t provide any consolation. I’d been weighed and measured and found wanting. It was my one and only chance as my best friend was, like me, a serial bachelor. He had some good tools at his disposal – intelligent, funny, a good conversationalist, not-uneasy on the eye – but a nasty habit of banging on about cricket three or four minutes into a conversation with a girl was killing his prospects. We knocked around a lot, playing cricket together and partying together. One by one our friends settled down and we became good wedding guests. Good chat and an ability to take advantage of a free bar without disgracing ourselves became our calling cards. Our friends even stopped send us “plus guest” invites, so certain were they that the bachelors would remain so.
However, through a mutual friend I knew a lovely girl who was immune to (and embraced, even) the cricket chat of my good friend. Introductions were made and without me noticing, he and she became an item. Even more incredibly, her best friend was absolutely amazing and before I knew it, I was also no longer a bachelor. My friend and his new girlfriend were both traditionalists at heart, so odds were short that at some point in the future there would be an announcement.
And yes, there was an announcement and much excitement. My new girlfriend and I were both delighted. Such lovely people getting married, and as best friends we’d be pretty likely to get invited to what would most likely be a most impressive weddi…hold on – a wedding. Where there’s a wedding, there’s a best man to be selected. I figured I’d be in the running, but my friend keeps his counsel close and reading his thoughts can at times be tricky. There were so many top candidates – the sporty City worker who everybody liked; the philosopher/hippy/sportsman/chef/sommelier, a man for all seasons; the easy-going country man with the cheeky smile and quick wit; the sharp but fiercely loyal friend; the competition was strong.
My girlfriend and I were invited to the local pub by our engaged friends for a casual drink. Here it comes, I thought, time to practice the I’m-not-disappointed-really face. Time to roll out the what-a-fine-choice-you’ve-made look; the he’s-a-great-bloke-he’ll-be-a-great-best-man smile. So I was genuinely surprised when I was asked to be their best man. Delighted, better than delighted actually, but most of all surprised. I knew that I would have to do a really stellar job given my longing to be a best man for so many years and given the closeness of my relationship to both the groom and bride.
At this point I realised that over all of those years of longing to be best man, I’d never really investigated what one needed to do. Despite having been to countless weddings, I was clueless about procedure, about timings, about stag parties, about the speech. I’d watched them stand up there and remember (and sadly too often pretend to lose) the ring, I’d watched them give their speeches, but I didn’t know what they really did. For a man who plans everything to at least Plan C, this was an utter catastrophe. I immediately rushed out and bought three how-to books and bookmarked innumerable best man and stag do websites. I devoured the information and formulated Plans A through to about H.
Whilst the books and websites were helpful in nuts and bolts organising of stag parties (a walk in the park when you’ve been on thirty-plus sports tours) and typical wedding day procedure, all I really learned was advice for the groom-to-be: make sure the best man knows how to organise people via email and make sure you choose a best man who has been to at least one wedding so he knows roughly what to expect. What the books couldn’t tell me was what I’d feel. They didn’t tell me that as events unfolded I would find myself fiercely keen to be as involved as possible. They didn’t tell me that new, or possibly dammed up, emotions would flow through me like never before. Pride, happiness, love – these were girl things. What was happening to me?
Luckily I had the organising of the stag party to keep me relatively grounded. It was reasonably easy…well, as easy as it was ever going to be with 20 plus blokes ranging in age from 20 to 60. I felt that the main thing I had to achieve was to ensure that the party was specifically shaped to fit the groom’s requirements. Too many are off-the-shelf trips to Prague or Bristol or Ouagadougou that offer nothing of value other than a different brand of beer to drink. I knew that whilst this groom would no doubt use his marvellous adaptability and diplomatic skills to ensure that he had a great time whatever, I had to avoid the Joe Mangel EasyJet-sunburn-booze-strippers-humiliation cycle that so many have to endure. The groom had suggested a disparate but great group of people to invite and given a vague but achievable set of goals. There were the usual large trip hiccups, but nothing that stopped the momentum. We went to [CENSORED - Stag Party Union Rep] in order to see the [CENSORED AGAIN - Stag Party Union Rep] and yes, we had some fun!
Following the stag party I felt a rising excitement. I only really had one big job to do, but I was looking forward to the smaller more intimate tasks required in the immediate build up to the wedding day: just little things like lending a hand crafting items for the church or wedding breakfast table; finding somewhere for the groom to stay; trying to feed him a hearty pre-game breakfast; frantically ironing shirts, straightening cuffs and adjusting spanking new pocket watches; giving the groom his last minute team talk outside (“I want to see 100% from you today, keep a straight bat and let’s see a nice long innings”). All these felt more like payment than duties. With the ring safely tucked in my pocket I was free to enjoy the ceremony, as the trade off for remembering the ring is a grandstand seat to one of life’s most wonderful moments.
The speech gave me more bother than I’d expected. I’m known as a man who finds words relatively easy and who enjoys standing up in front of people and prattling on so I felt there would be a certain expectation of me above and beyond that which every best man experiences. I knew I could stand up and tell a few shaggy dog stories, rustle up a few laughs and avoid any dragon/mother-in-law comparisons and I’d do alright. However I felt that this betrayed the job title. I hadn’t been asked to be a Passable Man or an Adequate Man, but a Best Man. So, for the first time ever, I actually prepared before making a speech. In the same way that I had wanted to ensure that the groom had fun and not humiliation at his stag party (whisking him away from over-boozing at one point gave me slightly vomity shoes but kept him this side of potential humiliation) I also wanted to ensure the groom would remember the speech fondly. I wanted to deliver not a low-rent stand-up routine but some insight into the groom’s best points, what makes me and his other friends love him, and why those who were meeting him for the first time should take note and realise their friend or relative had made a good choice. I was lucky to already be friends with the bride before she met the groom so I was able to weave a little of our friendship into the speech too. Although I was motivated to deliver a decent speech hoping for an ovation, I wanted the newlyweds to remember the sentiments if not the words of the speech. I wrote and rewrote the speech three times, but in the end I never read my notes – I found that the emotions that flowed on the day wrote the speech for me as I went along. I believe I delivered that day, and the expressions on the faces of the bride and groom as I sat down will live with me forever.
So now that I’ve finally been a best man, what do I think a best man is now? I still think he should be that chiselled movie guy who’s always looking out for the groom through thick and thin, and he’s still the guy who’s able to support the bride when things get tough. But now I think it’s also his job to remind the bride and groom of their wonderful characteristics that those characteristics are what brought them together. He should be the frame to their beautiful photograph, helping to accentuate the quality that you see without intruding into the picture. Most of all I think it’s a not a job for a day, but a job for life.
The Best Man - image credit