“What a thing to celebrate – birth! Like getting up in the morning …” says Goldberg, the vicious bully in Pinter’s The Birthday Party (1957), still my favourite of his full-length plays, perhaps because I taught it so often, and despite it being his first (it must be galling to have your first work constantly praised, but it seems to happen quite frequently. Pinter’s skill was to maintain the high level of brilliance of his early work, although I don’t think he ever surpassed it). Goldberg’s speech is not exactly a jolly paean to birthdays, mind you, ending, as it does, with the rhetorical question “What are you but a corpse, waiting to be washed?”
But I do like birthdays, just as I like Septembers (it’s my birthday, if you hadn’t guessed). The first one I remember was my third. We were a well-off family and we’d moved to the not-quite-Sunderland-not-quite-South-Shields ‘village’ of Cleadon earlier that year (1955). My mother arranged a party, and I was given a wigwam. But I have absolutely no idea what the other children did, because I had also been given a set of plastic gardening tools, and I spent – and I can remember doing it – the entire (sunny) afternoon digging in a small patch of soil with a brightly-coloured trowel and fork, and refusing to speak to anyone. Anyone who knows me at all will find two things about that strange – if there is one thing I don’t have any interest in, it’s gardening, and if there’s one thing I won’t do, it’s shut up. My teachers at school called me William The Silent, and were very pleased with their command of irony.
The funny thing about birthdays, unless of course you are a twin, is that you do tend to regard it as your day, whereas statistically, you share it with millions (I forget what the tipping point is, statistically, before the odds are that, in a given group, two people will have the same birthday, but it’s quite low – something like 25 people before there is a 50% chance). One of my colleagues at the Open University and I were discussing a schedule of deadlines when we first met, and I said, “Oh, I see the first main deadline is on my birthday.”
“Which deadline?” he said.
“That’s MY birthday,” he replied, very proprietorially; and I knew just how he felt. Having said that, I’ve never met anyone born on the same day exactly. (Although I have met another Bill Greenwell, and I know of a couple of others: and I once had a student who went from having me as a tutor to what was then Cambridge College of Arts and Technology aka CAT, only to find that her new English tutor was also called Bill Greenwell.) And on the first occasion I ever plucked up the nerve to ask a girl to dance – I was 12, and it was on a ‘school cruise’ – the jigging about lasted only one round, before I was retired, and I only obtained the girl’s name, and the curious information that she had the same birthday. About seven or eight years later, at a party in Oxford, a light-switch went on in my head when I was talking to someone, and I found myself saying ‘”Your birthday is September 3rd”. It was the same girl. Something in my memory banks tripped a switch. She couldn’t remember me, and I am not sure how I remembered her. But yes, she had been on the same school cruise. I remember the moment, but I had forgotten all about it until sorting through some of my mother’s possessions this year, and came across a long letter I’d written her, in which I mentioned the coincidence. The mind is a curious repository of Stuff.
On with the day.