Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Ghosts of Birthdays Past - Thoughts on my Birthday

Today is my birthday and, at 56, I am closer to 60 than to 50. It feels very strange. In my head, I’m still in my thirties; my body disagrees. Heck, this morning, I had to shave my big toes. When did I get so hairy?
I’ve always enjoyed birthdays, apart from one small thing: being born on Guy Fawkes’ Day meant that my childhood parties were dominated by a bonfire and fireworks in the garden. I hated the noise of the fireworks and didn’t like being out in the cold, huddled around flames, so I spent this part of the proceedings hiding under the dining room table while all my guests frolicked outdoors. 

Worse, I lost out on presents as a result of my birth date. While some kids brought me a present and a box of fireworks, many brought just the latter. When you grow up with people bringing you explosives as gifts, it gives you a slightly warped view of the world.
My baby book catalogues just my first five birthdays. There are “frou frou pants”, nylon petticoats, shoes, a bonnet and muff, a cookery set, mittens, and money. Lots and lots of money. Every year.  If only that pattern had continued, I might not be in the financial mess I am now. As it is, I am more likely to develop a penchant for blowing things up rather than opening a savings account.
I was a great party organiser. As my guests arrived and I recovered from my “sad face” as I unwrapped another box of Standard Fireworks, I would line everyone up in order of height. Quite what this achieved, I have no idea, but it clearly spoke to my need of order that continues to this day.
I was very good at party games but, being the host, was never allowed to win. I could never understand this. Having always been very competitive, even on my birthday I needed to prove that I was the best at everything – musical chairs, musical hats, pass the parcel. In retrospect, I think I would have been happier having no guests at all.
I recall my ninth birthday very clearly, as my parents had given me a cream plastic tea-set, decorated with brown leaves. I can see me now, taking it out of the box where it sat among the other presents on the green dralon armchair, and wishing that everyone waving sparklers in the garden would hurry up and go home.
My 18th birthday took place in Bridgend, where my parents had moved because of my father’s job. I wore a turquoise pant suit and had my hair whisked up into the kind of bouffant that could cause a total eclipse of the sun. Mum and Dad gave me a gold bracelet, and I thought that life had never been so glamorous.
On my 30th, I was living in London, and my (still) close friend Liz, let me take over the lower floor of her restaurant, Chalk and Cheese. I insisted that everyone play “The Shoe Game”, which involved singing “Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go” (passing pairs of shoes one at a time in one direction), and then, at the line “and a walking stick” changing direction. 

Honestly, it’s really easy, but I suppose you have to see it. I threw a shoe at a friend who was chatting up my on/off manic depressive boyfriend (female friends “stealing my men” has been a recurrent theme throughout my life). Then, the journalist I was crazy about and who I hoped would turn up finally arrived at 1am and I was in tears. To top it all, a waiter stole most of my presents.
My 40th was the happiest day of my life. Held in the private members’ club, Soho House, I felt blessed to be surrounded by wonderful friends and family. My mother and brother both made speeches, and I recall cries of “Hear! Hear!” when my mother said how loyal I was to my friends (I was and still am).

My brother tracked down my favourite singer, Ricky Valance, and played a recorded message from him before giving me a framed signed photograph. We struggled with the many bouquets travelling back to my Cardiff home the next morning. “Still, it was a lovely funeral,” I said, getting off the train.
I had three birthdays for my 50th. The first, a dinner for close friends (many of whom had been at my 40th, and some at my 30th) was at The Bleeding Heart restaurant in London. 

For the second, I cooked for 60 guests in my Cardiff home. 

The third was at my Paris apartment, where I cooked for 30, and the last guest was taken away, unconscious, by les pompiers (basically, the fire brigade who have to deal with all manner of emergencies). They were not happy and shouted at me. I knew enough French to understand they were saying that taking drunk people away was not their job. Hmph. Don’t go to Cardiff on a Saturday night, I thought of retaliating, but thought better of it.
Last year, I was with friends in Los Angeles; this year, I am in New York, where I will again be celebrating with friends – all of them new ones. It’s hard to believe that when I came to the city in April, I knew no one; but on a daily basis, in the most friendly city in the world (don’t believe the myths about horrid New Yorkers), I widen my social circle.
It’s a long way from Bridgend, and there won’t be any fireworks, but far from feeling depressed about my age, I feel grateful to have lived a life that has involved so much travel, adventure, great friends and family, and work that I love. There has never been one day I have woken up and not felt incredibly lucky that I have been able to do not only what I do best, but retain a passion for: writing.

Well into my sixth decade, I continue to make many mistakes. But I learn from them – and then I make different mistakes. But that’s the way it should be: none of us gets it all right. So, on another birthday, I’m going to celebrate simply being human. Because, for all its ups and downs, joys and sorrows, there is still so much, so very, very much, to feel happy about. 

Other humans, being top of that list.

1 comment:

  1. Belated happy birthday! My auntie (and Godmother) was born in '58 also. They say it was a good year.