Birthdays have often held an element of anxiety for me and I imagine this is true for many people. As a child there are the worries about the present you wanted: will it arrive? will it be as good as imagined? At an earlier age, both historical and personal the difficult questioin: have I been a good boy? A bit later, fears about the birthday party: will anyone come? Will my parents embarrass me in front of everyone?Will the right person come? More permanently there is the sense that any birthday misfortune, let alone actual disaster, carries the message that far from being blessed on your special day, there is no exemption for you; you are cursed, singled out for retribution. In my own case I think a childhood incident has accentuated these morbid anxieties.
It was perhaps my eighth birthday, (sorry to be vague but memories don’t come date and time stamped) and I was expecting a very exciting present for a small boy in those days – a cine projector. Unfortunately I was ill on the day with a high temperature. For some reason I had been moved into my parents’ bed, so the whole situation was weird and unreal to me. To avoid disappointing me, my parents, or one of them, had placed the new projector on a chest of drawers on the other side of the room with instructions that I was to stay in bed and not to touch it until I recovered enough to be allowed out.
This was perhaps a rather severe test for an eight year old and in the end, after much inner turmoil,
I failed it and tiptoed across the room in my pyjamas. The projector was mainly a large black metal box, intimidating but mysteriously alluring; I think now there were various bits (reels etc.) that hadn’t yet been attached so there wasn’t really very much I could do with it. In my feverish state I unwisely decided to carry it back to the bed; I had to stretch to reach it, it was heavier than I expected and I dropped it. There was a huge crash and the unmistakeable sound of something breaking inside it.
My parents were left with a bit of a dilemma. I had been naughty, sneakily disobeyed them and broken an expensive item as a result. On the other hand I was ill, it was my birthday, it was my own present I had broken and I was understandably very upset. Who’d be a parent? Anyway it left me, as I said, with a rather wait-and-see attitude towards birthdays and an at times dark relationship with new technology Of course I soon grew out of such childish fears – mostly.
Now I am approaching my 90th I have been looking back over these annual celebrations of continuing life and decided that one of the the most memorable and enjoyable was my 80th, when the world was trying to deal with Covid-19, as it was then known, for the first time.
It is easy now, when we have a reasonably effective vaccine and protecting the vulnerable, our own and the planet’s, has become a more essential part of the way we live, to forget the disruption, fear and grief it caused and the sacrifice, unselfish effort, ingenuity and organisation that went into combating it. The technology of the time was supremely useful in overcoming the isolation of the restrictions, especially for those in institutions and for families and friends already scattered around the globe.
So, going back ten years, I realised I would be celebrating this big number birthday under lockdown. This was a severe limitation, no party and no visitors, but I was aware in my cowardly way that it also restricted the number and nature of things that could go wrong. There was no chance, for example, of having a road accident on the way to some venue, or of my mixing up the names of children, large and small, I ought to have known, or of anyone, apart from myself, becoming disgracefully drunk and considerably less chance of any birthday surprise(s) organised by my wife being too surprising for comfort.
It had been a difficult year for us so far, 2020, and the pandemic hadn’t improved matters. A minor but recent hiccup had been one of my technological disasters trying to upgrade a laptop, which promptly and irrevocably died, in a trice a lifeless lump of metal and plastic and rare earths, taking with it three story drafts.(Back up! Back up! Back up!) There had been, too, a financial setback of my own making, a more serious if less personal defeat.
These misfortunes were nothing beside the actual family tragedies the year had brought, one of them a sudden crashing catastrophe and the other an inexorable, slow-motion disintegration. These disasters affect us all, more as we grow older of course, but optimism had been a little hard to come by since that New Year’s day when my wife’s younger brother was discovered to have died very unexpectedly alone in his flat and then, just around the beginning of lockdown, when my younger sister entered the endgame of her long losing battle with multiple sclerosis.
Despite the resulting shell-shocked underlying mood, I knew people would do their best for a birthday, but had no great expectations in the circumstances. I had made one arrangement for the day myself, having decided, aided and abetted by my wife, to do 80 press-ups (one per year obviously) to raise money for MS research and care – and upload the video as proof.
Lock-down had made us a three generation household of four. One daughter was living with us, working through her qualification year in teaching in the strange conditions of the time, (vulnerable and essential workers’ kids only, once a week) and one granddaughter, finding herself a student stranded in Bath, unable to return home to Athens, had rejoined us and was studying for online exams coming up a few days later.
It turned out to be one of those absurdly gorgeous May days, not just warm and bright but hot and dazzling. Even at breakfast the garden beckoned. This had to be quite early (for a birthday) I found out as my wife informed me there was a live video meeting at 9.30, to accommodate the members of the walking group stuck in New Zealand – not a bad place to be at any time but particularly during that pandemic.
This virtual meeting involved four households, the one in Kerikeri New Zealand, one in Cornwall and two in London. I suddenly found myself watching images of people in masks, gowns and plastic gloves, going through exaggerated hand-washing gestures in time to raucous or mellifluous renderings of Happy Birthday; they were actually equipped in tea-towels, dusters, old shirts, washing-up gloves etc, highlighting one of the hottest topics of the pandemic – shortages of Personal Protective Equipment, PPE (initials I had previously thought of as Philosophy, Politics and Economics). After this there were (more normal) live greetings and conversation. Whether through a cynical lack of faith or merely a desire for entertainment I don’t know, but a clamour developed, particularly loud from New Zealand, to witness some of the press-ups live, so I was forced to do a first ten around 10 a.m., rather early in the day for it I remember feeling.
It was after this that my wife saw fit to warn me that there would be a rather large number of these video conferences. It became clear that the day would be busy, what with the press-ups, the virtuals and the more traditional present opening, cake consumption, champagne, and celebratory evening meal, not forgetting dog walks, a necessary pleasure.
Next it was time for the first official batch of press-ups, in the sun-soaked garden it was decided. The first 10 had not been recorded for some reason and the consensus (of wife and daughter – granddaughter was still abed, traditional student hours) was that they were just extra and I would have to start again from zero. I refused this of course as grossly unfair and demanded a commentator’s introduction explaining a start count of 11, which was accepted, eventually!
I managed 40 (leaving an official 30 more to do) but I‘m not sure I quite liked the tone of my wife’s videoing count, which became ever brisker, faster and more imperious. The dog walk took place early afternoon in Chiswick House grounds. There had been reports at the time of groundsmen insisting on dogs being on leads to assist in social distancing, an attitude I (and the dog) had always found rather officious but, as in Richmond Park, this had given way before popular opinion and dogs and humans again roved freely while generally keeping the necessary distances. This was often the case, as I remember it; a few officials became overzealous but usually softened their approach after a while and were sensibly pragmatic
The grounds were looking very beautiful, typical of that inappropriately glorious May. My wife and I took pictures of nesting birds and spring flowers in our slightly competitive way; some of them appeared as usual in the social media of the day, particularly in our family group, another way of staying in contact.
We went back home and it was time for the next set of 30 press-ups in the garden. Not feeling too ghastly after thirty (of course feeling OK at the time was no guarantee at all that I would be able to move the day after) I continued up to 40 (making 90!!) so that a full 80 were recorded, just in case the cynical failed to believe in the unrecorded first ten and if you, gentle reader, doubt me it is still on record somewhere. My wife managed a nice line in mounting incredulity as I did the last ten, amusing no doubt, but scarcely encouraging and certainly not flattering.
Lunch and cake seemed to get rather crowded together somehow but none of us found this any impediment to eating. Of course the singing of Happy Birthday, the cutting of the cake and the blowing out of the eight candles had to be videoed and witnessed, as central to the tradition. The video evidence shows three cheerful, attractive, lustily singing women and an 80 year old man standing with his arms awkwardly held at his sides and an apprehensive look on his face as if he was about to be sentenced to 10 years hard labour, then bent precariously over the cake, just about managing the herculean task of blowing out 8 candles without taking an extra breath – but at least without suffering the mishap of his 70th when he blew too hard and ended up with a faceful of molten wax!
Next came the virtual meeting with all the offspring, six children and six grandchildren, from four households in the UK and four in Athens.
Daughter Number One sang a spirited solo Happy Birthday accompanied by her husband on ukelele, and there was a lively, carefully positioned ensemble performance led by drama teacher Daughter Number Two (three grandchildren gathered in to safety there).
My youngest, Sidcup based Daughter Number 5, another ‘teach’, sang her own composition with the refrain ‘he’s got so many stories to tell’ – very charmingly done. Resident Daughter, Number 4, had adapted a poem which she had made fulsomely and gracefully complimentary of my paternal skills.
From Daughter No. 3 (then a physio in a Newcastle hospital) birthday greetings came via media star Jolene, a grotesque face swap with an outrageous Australian accent, which she did very well; she should, having done time there (surfing mainly).
I remember thinking that having five daughters line up one after the other to sing the praises of their aged father showed even greater hubris than King Lear, with his three, and could therefore have even more terrible consequences, if that were possible but I comforted myself with the thought that throwing an 80 year old out of the house was probably against the UK social distancing guidelines, howling storm or not, and might even incur a police fine. In any case it wasn’t Lear’s birthday (as far as we know, though it might have been) and more significantly this bevy of daughters are pretty much OK at telling the truth to power, or, since power doesn’t come into it in any way whatsoever, have never had any difficulty telling their aged parent where to get off.
There was some evidence of a healthily sceptical view of parental superiority even in their tributes. I trusted Daughter 5’s reference to my frequent story telling was without irony, implying neither past scandal nor that I was a crashing bore, but her song did contain mockery of my colonial era pronunciation of Kenya. The fulsome praise in Daughter 4’s poem put me at a disadvantage I couldn’t wriggle out of, being unexpected and embarrassing, a situation she may have a little enjoyed and it might have been, also, to make up for the rather more robust everyday treatment I sometimes used to get from her.
These misgivings were of course unworthy of me; it’s just as well to have a little faith in one’s children’s feelings towards one on one’s 80th birthday. Anyway back to the rest of the tributes!
There was a whimsically folksy Happy Birthday, delicately sung to her own guitar accompaniment from hippily artistic granddaughter staying with friends, possibly sofa surfing, in Athens. Granddaughter residing with us in London had to sing more than once, both for her personal message and with the cake. She is used to singing much more demanding repertoire but in this performance she lost her head, or at least the top third of it, through some compatibility issue between Apple and Android!
The endangered male minority in the family contributed in their own style: from my son, (in those days a nursing assistant in Oxford), a media influencer style spoken birthday message using a very fancy white microphone, with a generous but dangerous (for him) invitation to send him some of my stories, (though being willing to receive them doesn’t necessarily mean reading them) followed by a solo, unaccompanied rendering of the birthday anthem: finally, gravely spoken wishes for a happy day and future life, in excellent English but Greek in style and somewhat in accent, from independently living, politically indignant Athenian grandson.
The gustatory plan had been champagne as an aperitif, the geriatric (i.e. probably past it) but classy Australian Semillon with canape hors d’oeuvres and the 1990 Claret that had become too expensive to drink with the roast lamb. We found, though, that the worldwide birthday wishes extravaganza had left no time for aperitifs so, leaving the champers in the fridge for another day (the next weekend actually), I went straight on to opening the elderly bottles, both the corks of which broke off at the level of penetration by the waiter’s friend. (Oh for a real cellar – or a longer corkscrew!) The claret was in a worse pickle because I couldn’t retrieve the remnant and was reduced to sieving it, while I was able to prise up the bit of cork in the Australian neck quite cleanly. I tasted both with deep foreboding, sure that the birthday curse had struck once more, but both bottles had miraculously survived. The claret indeed declared that it might benefit from being left open a bit longer while the gentle Semillon had become slightly austere – odd, isn’t age supposed to mellow? Both still highly enjoyable though. Relief!
Of course we were cooking and eating at home. My usual role as family cook was being gradually eroded by the lock-down ennui of the other three members of the household and I must say they were showing promise, though there had been one or two rather partial culinary successes, which I had been very gracious about, I felt. On this occasion I was naturally merely supervisory, the honorary head chef, though I did have to intervene physically at times, especially with the gravy. The roast lamb was delicious, thanks to the freezer of my wife’s poor brother and his long-standing and close friendship with a lady who bred prize sheep. We remembered him in this slightly uneasy way; he was an irreplaceable, gentle eccentric, tragically lost, sorely missed.
We had to interrupt the meal before pudding for another virtual, this one from the Midlands lot, sister-in-law, nephews, niece and their children. This colourfully Brummy-accented performance included some impressive body part naming and then matching of noises to animals from 18 month grand-nephew Edward, though horse and cow were for a moment confused, soon put right by Dad, and a request from 5 year old grand-niece Maddy that I do silly faces, which she thought a much funnier idea than her mum’s suggestion she ask for the stone angel again – great-uncle lying down spreadeagled at command on concrete or gravel until released.
After pudding there was my wife’s close and extended family, another six households spread from London to Dar-es-Salam. My memory of it all might have been a little blurred by the remarkably surviving wine, but one of the advantages of the technology is that it was of course (nearly) all recorded and is forever available. There were versions sung in harmony to a huge accordion, on two Kazoos without words, to some saucepan percussion, from cousins, nephews, nieces and grandnephews and grandnieces all together or variously, some with “How old are you now?” tagged on (a version, I feel, that can express less than flattering amazement at the length of one’s stay) – particularly memorably from nephew, his wife and grand-nephews in Tanzania, with some very proudly enunciated, absolutely correct English wishes from grand-nephews and the usual unexplained extra small child or two in attendance.
What is remarkable to me looking back is the ease with which the technology was handled, not just by my wife but by all the generations, particularly us oldies; there were really no glitches, (well, one – top of granddaughter’s head but she was with us so we knew it was there all the time) – nobody with their sound switched off or wrong camera selected. As my wife explained to me later (patiently!) the elaborate performances had all been pre-recorded, sent to her in advance and then integrated into the live sessions. This was one of the positive effects of the lock-down; the technology had come into its own and all of us had learned how use it.
The day came to a very satisfying end for me with Scrabble, satisfying not because I am or was a great devotee of the game but because I got a very helpful set of letters and was comfortably in the lead when we suspended the game; it would be my turn next and I pointed out that when I put down ‘serried’ for a seven letter score I would obviously have won. The rest of the family said rather stiffly that the game wasn’t yet over but then I accidentally upset the board, chucking something onto the table. They said even so resident granddaughter had taken a photograph of the state of play – but how long was it, even ten years, ago since photographic evidence had been trusted?
The following day the care home allowed me to visit my younger sister, an ominous privilege. This was one of the harshest human experiences of the pandemic for many. Her fairly rapid decline into the end stages of MS took place almost entirely in isolation in hospital or the care home. The home were excellent about phone and Skype contact but quite soon it was too late for that. There was an OK visit in an eerily empty hospital the night before it closed to all visitors and one good Skype call in the home in which I passed on the dark Private Eye joke ‘Two people with the jobs they’d always dreamed of - Theresa May and Boris Johnson – how’s that been going for them?’ and she chuckled mightily. The technology had done its miracle for us and it is still a good memory to have, if a sad one. Some time that night or the next day she had a stroke and that was really it. There was nothing much any of us could have done during the whole accelerating decline but the lack of contact made things harder, for her and for us. Contact becomes very precious at such a time, nothing more so really.
So, yes, that is my favourite birthday memory, despite the sadness of the year. I doubt if my ninetieth can surpass it. Thanks to the technology and the hard work and organisation of many, particularly my wife, I had delightful, personal and often hilarious contact with practically every member of my close and extended family and with friendship groups spread around the world – and that last, precious, genuine contact with my sister, chuckling at one of life’s little ironies.
Perhaps, too, it is so strong in my memory because I think things have been changing for the better since the pandemic, or rather we have been changing for the better. The human race has begun to respond seriously to the need to protect both our vulnerable fellow humans and the endangered, delicate natural balance of our planet. I hope.