Sunday, 11 July 2010

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.

I have never been especially fond of parties. As an adult my prime concern is how to I get back home before the late night transport stops. A taxi ride is rarely an option unless the venue is in relatively close proximity to Brimstone Butterfly Towers and unquestionably on the same side of the River Thames. Occasionally I have stayed overnight at a party. I remember one, the leaving do of a colleague, in which we all brought along our sleeping bags and hunkered down on the living room floor after the festivities. That was when I discovered that I can hold lucid conversations whilst fast asleep, according to several independent witnesses, which does not surprise me. I am one of those people for whom the boundaries of the dream world and the actual world occasionally merge.

For many years I was plagued by night terrors, in which, like the denouement of a classic horror film, I would wake up in agitation from a nightmare only to realise that the dream was in fact no such thing and was spilling over into the real world. I have never taken illicit drugs or indulged in binge drinking, but I doubt if my visions of giant insects and being strangled during a night terror could be any less vivid or terrifying than those deriving from drug abuse. As a child I was given to sleep-walking and had even made my way out of the house and down the street in such a condition. Fortunately I was found and returned safely to my bed, completely oblivious to what had happened

I recall another stay over at a party given by people who were passionate about steam trains. Each year they would club together with fellow enthusiasts and hire a steam train in various far flung places, such as South Africa, whiling away days stopping and starting the train along its route so they could film the train coming towards them, travelling way from them and whilst on board. After the party proper had finished, I found myself squashed between two steam train enthusiasts on the sofa as they decided to watch some footage of one such journey taken earlier that year. At one point I fell asleep. When I awoke several hours later they were still watching the damned film. I was not amused as they were effectively sleeping on my bed for the night.

It was at that party that I realised the truth of the lyrics to Jona Lewie’s song:”You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties.” On that occasion I only knew the hosts and the rest of the guests seem disinclined to welcome me into their cliques so I wandered off to the kitchen to do some washing up. Sooner or later nearly every other guest passed through the kitchen and engaged me in chit-chat. The ice having been broken I returned to the party, no longer feeling like a pariah.

I threw my own birthday parties as a small child. We had sandwiches, jelly and cream and a home-baked birthday cake with the requisite number of candles and played traditional games like pass the parcel and musical chairs. I would have received birthday presents but there was never any suggestion that each child should leave with a goodie bag. I feel a certain degree of sympathy for modern parents, who feel constrained to spend small fortunes hosting parties for their own young offspring. I cannot remember going to birthday parties when I was very young, although I assume I must have done. However, I do recall, in my penultimate year of Primary School, hearing my school friends discuss a birthday party to which they had all been invited to. To my bewilderment I did not receive an invitation despite being a close friend of the birthday girl in question. In retrospect I think it might have related back to an even earlier incident which occurred when I was around 7 years old. Another school friend had invited me home to tea. I arrived at the house dressed in my prettiest frock, specially laundered for the occasion, only to have my friend’s mother grab her daughter by the hand and hurry her inside before firmly slamming the front door shut in my face. I can still vividly recall walking slowly back home pausing only to deviate from my path to step along the crenulated parapet wall of the pub car- park, something which I always derived pleasure from as a child. The other little girl stopped speaking to me after that.

When I lived with my mother I could usually only entertain a group of friends at home if she was out of the country, although she did allow me to have the occasional friend around to stay when she was there. One such friend was the flame-haired Edna. On my first day at Grammar School the headmistress introduced me to her and instructed Edna to look after me. I assumed that Edna was the head girl. In fact she was the same age as me. One shared memory we have is of a play we made, using the cassette player my mother had given me. My mother had been of the opinion that I had a speech impediment and she thought if I could but hear the sound of my own voice I could work on overcoming it. If it did not succeed, she warned me, I would be compelled to have speech therapy. For some reason the thought of speech therapists terrified me. Strangely enough no-one else ever mentioned that I had a speech impediment. Indeed, one parent wistfully told their daughter that she wished her child could emulate my speech. Nevertheless, the cassette player provided me with hours of fun. In our play, for some reason Edna’s character threw herself from off a high tower. Long after her body had hit the ground and she was supposed to be dead, Edna’s plaintive yells could still be heard on the tape as I mourned her death from my supposed vantage point at the top of the tower.

Rather than the party games and food of my early youth, when I invited a group of friends around in the latter part of my childhood, I preferred us all to muck in and prepare a simple feast we could then sit down and eat together, set out on the Wedgwood crockery, which otherwise laid wrapped up in a cupboard never otherwise being used since my mother had received it as a wedding present.

Nowadays, the kind of party I most like to attend is a garden party. I was invited to one recently. It was an inter-generational affair given in the mature grounds of a large detached house in one of the most sought after areas of London. As several of the hosts were keen gardeners I took along a bouquet of multi coloured sweet pea and a single highly perfumed tea rose, the first I had ever grown, all cut from my own garden as a small offering.

What I love about garden parties, should the weather be fine, is that they tend to be far more relaxed affairs than their evening counterparts and there is no raucous music to render conversation nigh on impossible. Thus I found myself discovering an extraordinary amount about the different guests present. The myriad and to my mind fascinating personal stories I was regaled with included:

• A mother, whose daughter had just been expelled from a famous public school. The girl’s parent was at her wits end as to what she might do next. Such a disruptive child would not be welcome in most schools, with league tables to jealously protect. I had known the child from a distance ever since she was born. I used to think she was quite a charming child, then I thought she was turning into a spoilt brat and later that she would try the very patience of a saint. I have to declare at this point that I am no saint. It seems the various educational establishments she attended eventually drew the same conclusion. Only her parents’ comparative wealth has spared her from the serious consequences of her behaviour in the past. It might not be enough to save her in the future.

• A woman who lives with her widowed mother, the latter suffering from dementia. It seems she and her siblings have decided to place the ailing parent in a nursing home. They plan to sell the parental house, worth well over a million pounds, and share the proceeds between them. The siblings have compacted to continue to fund their mother’s nursing home costs should her current life savings run out although they privately hope they will be able to persuade a local authority to pick up the costs.; the latter seems unlikely given the radical expenditure cuts being imposed by Central Government. The issue of elderly parents with dementia seemed to be a recurring theme for a number of the middle-aged children present. In a sense the premature demise of my own parents spared me from such horrors.

• The story that stunned me the most concerned a Squadron Leader in the RAF. I had always assumed that there was a tacit agreement that he would marry a close friend, given the amount of time they spent in one another's company and with one another’s family. Instead, he recently married someone else altogether, after a whirlwind courtship, the couple having met by chance at a mutual friend’s house.

• At one stage I was somewhat perplexed to find myself being chatted up by a man, holding a small child in his arms. I erroneously assumed the woman behind him must be his wife, given the apparent strong resemblance between his child and her own. He gave me a rather peculiar look when I told him I had just been speaking to his spouse. I later discovered that he was engaged in an acrimonious divorce from his second wife and had been boasting about he was now determined to enjoy life to the full from now on, beginning with the party. His estranged spouse had declined an invitation to join him there.

Nowadays I neither have the space nor the inclination to throw anything other than intimate supper parties. But it does mean I get to hold them far more frequently than I would be if I were throwing bigger bashes. As I have a reputation for cooking and preparing all my meals myself, the words of the Jona Lewie 's song are as pertinent as ever: “You'll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties (especially my own).