There’s something rather comical about seeing two 60-year-old men in shorts trying to squeeze into a teeny passport photobooth on Skegness station platform.
Knees creak, seagulls squawk and the little blue curtain flaps as Martin Dowle and Keith Laughton giggle and wiggle and jostle to get purchase on the single grey swivel stool inside.
‘Budge over. I can’t get my bum on!’
‘Ohhh, my knees!’
Martin, a semi-retired paramedic and long-distance cycling fanatic, is on the right. Keith, a probation officer and grandfather of six, on the left (as we look at them). Exactly as they have been for the past half-century (other than absent-minded blips when they were 40 and 55).
1972: Keith (left) and Martin paid 20p for their first close-up at a photobooth near the pick ’n’ mix at Woollies in Lincoln
1977: Five years on and the boys are back in town in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year. Concorde makes its first commercial flight
1982: Long hair and beards are all the fashion, Eye Of The Tiger is in the charts, and a pint of beer costs just 73p
Indeed, ever since they were boys they have met religiously in supermarkets and stations all over the country to celebrate landmark birthdays ending in five or zero.
‘I’d even fly back from wherever I was abroad,’ says Martin.
For their previous photo, aged 55, they used the booth on the platform at Lincoln station. And you’d think, after so long, they’d have got over any shyness about their sweet little tradition. But perhaps not.
Keith laughs: ‘We got there at about 8pm one night and the platform was heaving. Four legs inside and the curtain flapping about isn’t a great look. We had to wait and wait, but we got the photo.’
Which, of course, they duly added to their collection. Not that this story is really about the photos — brilliantly evocative though they are, marching through the decades — fresh-faced monochrome to wrinkly colour.
No, it’s about male friendship in an era when so many middle-aged men struggle to maintain close friends. And the pictures are merely a physical reminder of a wonderfully enriching relationship between two boyhood pals that has somehow endured everything: from bad hair to beards, one girlfriend dated by both, grubby flat shares, huge geographical distances, weddings, a divorce (Martin), children and grandchildren (Keith), ill health (Martin), a spattering of cycling accidents (Martin), a lot of beer (both) and yet, by their account, not one row.
‘What would we even argue about?’ says Keith looking a bit stumped. ‘We’re there for each other — always will be.’
1987: Shorter hair in the year that Pat Cash wins Wimbledon and Timothy Dalton is James Bond
It all started in the sleepy village of Bardney, near Lincoln, in 1972. Edward Heath was Prime Minister, Donny Osmond was in the charts and best mates Martin and Keith were ten-year-old choir boys and bell-ringers for the local church.
‘There was nothing else to do and we got 50p for a wedding!’ says Keith. So, awash with their bell-ringing booty, they hopped on the bus to Lincoln on their first solo trip. Popping into Woollies to browse the pick ’n’ mix, they spotted a photobooth. ‘It was only 20p back then, so we did it for a laugh,’ says Keith.
And there they are — grinning bright teeth with shiny clean hair, celebrating newfound independence. ‘We look very sweet!’
Five years later, by then 15 and having swapped the bell-ringing for home brew, cycling and chasing girls, they found themselves back in Woollies, this time browsing records — Dylan, Bowie, Jackson Browne.
They spotted the booth again — was it more than just coincidence? Hopping in, they made a pact: they’d do it every five years for the rest of their lives.
It’s the sort of promise lots of us make when we’re young and full of zesty optimism. But, of course, it’s one few of us manage to keep. We drift apart. But not this pair.
Not when they were 11 years old and Keith went to the local grammar and Martin to the secondary modern. Not when Martin moved first to South Africa, then London, then Margate and Brighton, while Keith stayed in Bardney.
And not even when Keith got off with Martin’s ex-girlfriend. (‘To be fair, I didn’t know about that until today!’ says Martin.)
1992: For the Royals it was an annus horribilis, but Martin and Keith celebrate their 30ths
1997: Still youthful, they could buy a house for £16,000 as Tony Blair enters No 10
2002: Oops, a few birthday bevvies (a pint is now £2.10) means they are sitting the wrong way round
As Keith found himself surrounded by a rapidly-expanding family and Martin became consumed by his stressful job, still they always kept in touch — by phone, postcard, good old-fashioned letter, and they have never, once, missed a birthday.
Sometimes they’d meet up to let their hair down at Glastonbury. Or go to Slade and John Cooper Clarke gigs. And then there was Martin’s ‘rather hectic’ 40th birthday party in Margate when they were both feeling so clammy and confused that they dashed off for their five-year snapshot and, afterwards, realised they’d sat the wrong way round in the photobooth.
‘We were a bit frazzled around the edges. It was a very good party,’ says Keith.
Meanwhile, their lives marched on. Martin has been a paramedic since 1986. He got married and divorced, took up long-distance mountain biking and now works part time.
Keith has worked as a probation officer since 1986. He married wife Julie 37 years ago and they have three children.
‘Of course, we have other friends which shift and change. But Martin’s a constant,’ says Keith.
2007: Big smiles, less hair, in a year that Chelsea win the FA Cup and Apple introduces the iPhone
2012: Still friends after 40 years, Keith and Martin keep the tradition going as GB goes Olympics mad
‘Though there was that period when he disappeared off the face of the earth for a while,’ he continues. ‘I’d written and written and I was getting really annoyed and worried. I felt helpless.’
In the end, it was Julie who said, ‘Let’s just book a hotel, get in the car and drive down to Brighton [where Martin lived at the time].’
‘He was in a terrible place,’ says Keith quietly.
‘I was suffering from depression — the job, the shifts,’ admits Martin. ‘But him coming down changed everything. It somehow kicked me out of it.’
Because unlike so many middle-aged men who find it hard to discuss anything other than beer and sport, this pair really talk.
Yes, they joke and tease. But they also confide in each other, sometimes cry and never put up a proud front. ‘There’s no competition — we’re on each other’s side,’ says Keith. ‘Though he does go on at me about my drinking and smoking!’ So has there really never been any jealousy between them?
‘I’d like his six-pack,’ jokes Keith. ‘You can see from our physiques who gave up cycling aged 17 and who carried it on.’
And Martin? ‘I’d probably have liked to have had a family and Keith is a shining example of how to have a family. He’s such a good dad.’
2017: Another blip as they swap places again. Donald Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th U.S. President
2022: The big 6-0, Keith and Martin pay £8 for these latest pictures. A small price for a lifetime of shared memories
But otherwise, they’re both more than content with their lot.
‘Our lives haven’t been super exciting. But most lives aren’t,’ says Keith. ‘We’re just two normal guys who’ve had good lives and stayed friends and we know we’re very, very lucky.’
To mark the big 6-0, they’d dreamt of travelling to Rwanda to see the gorillas and have their photo taken in the jungle.
‘It didn’t quite happen — we didn’t get ourselves organised in time,’ says Keith. So, instead, this week Martin travelled up from Brighton to sunny Skegness. ‘Which is almost as nice,’ says Keith. ‘And I bought him a lovely toy gorilla instead.’
There is one downside to cataloguing your life in photographs.
‘Of course, it’s poignant. Every time we think, oh s***, another five years have gone by!’ says Keith ‘When you get to our age, you try not to think about it, but we obviously don’t have another 50 years of photos ahead.’
They have, however, planned for the worst.
‘Whoever’s left will take the final set of photos with a cardboard cut-out of the other,’ says Martin. ‘And that will be the end.’
But for now, they’re giggling and jostling in the booth and exclaiming at the cost — ‘Eight pounds! It used to be 20 pence!’ — just like they’re ten years old again.
Read more at DailyMail.co.uk