I’ve just returned from my brother’s sixtieth birthday weekend in Brinzio, a village above Varese, north of Milan. It was a delightful gathering of family and friends, most of them musicians, and involved dinners, lunches, barbecues and breakfasts from Saturday morning until Monday lunchtime. It was on an extravagant scale but (I am glad to say), nothing in comparison with Her Majesty the Queen’s ninetieth Official Birthday celebrations a couple of weeks ago, nor with Robert Mugabe’s ninety- second birthday party in Zimbabwe, which cost 575,000 pounds (most Zimbabweans struggle to make ends meet).
I am a reluctant convert to birthday parties. My twenty-first was celebrated with about fifteen friends in Oxford. I cooked a vast turkey, stuffed with prunes. A few years later I spent a birthday on my own at a launderette in Highbury, but on another occasion I celebrated someone else’s birthday in the laundry room of the Trellick Tower in West London, an iconic modernist brutalist monstrosity (and with a cocktail beforehand at the Savoy Hotel).
My friend Cedric, of StartupYard, celebrated his fortieth birthday on a boat on the Vltava. My friend Federico celebrated his fiftieth with a red-themed dinner and a shower of sweets under a glitter ball in Prague. My friend Julian celebrated with a rather sombre set of string arrangements of Purcell which pointed up the glass-half-empty memento mori approach to age rather than the glass-half-full approach. And my friend Jill celebrated her seventieth birthday with an improvised opera in a Turkish restaurant in Bristol.
I used to think birthday parties were as spurious as New Year’s Eve, and they usually brought out the curmudgeon in me. There was always, it seemed to me, far too much vomiting. But I don’t think my disdain had anything to do with vanity, or terror at the Grim Reaper’s approach. I’m always honest about my age (well over thirty) and see no reason to conceal it. There’s little point in lying – musculature, skin tone, and one’s greying and receding hair – will always reveal the truth, and I am reluctant to call on the skills of the plastic surgeon or the wigmaker (most men look very foolish when they fight against the onslaught of time). There is nothing sillier than a toupe.
But in recent years I’ve realised that we should celebrate our birthdays. Many don’t make it as far as we do, and we should take stock, pause and give thanks for our family (however much we bicker with them) and our friends (likewise). I’ve more or less grown in happiness as I’ve aged, and I have much to be grateful for and many to be grateful to.
I celebrated my fiftieth with champagne, flowers, limousines, dinner, music and dance in Prague. I thought, after that extravagance, that I’d spend my sixtieth birthday quietly, and wait for a big one at eighty. But what if I never get that far? Time to start planning, I think. Only sixteen months to go.
Any ideas? (My budget is lower than Mugabe’s.)