Like getting up in the morning

September 3, 2010

“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.

“September 3rd.”

“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.


The day war broke out

September 3, 2009

I used to hear this catchphrase of comedian Robb Wilton’s a great deal when I was a child, because I happened to be born on September 3rd, and any reference to my birthday, at any time of the year, was always tagged by my father with the line, almost as if he and my mum were proud to have had their eldest on a Significant Day. I wonder if this happens to Caryl Churchill, with whom I share the birthday. I doubt it (not least because she was born a year to the day before war broke out, and, in passing, isn’t ‘broke out’ a curious phrase, as if war was like measles or a change in the weather? I wonder which came first, the phrase, or Robb Wilton’s line).

September was a good day to have a birthday, because a) we were always on holiday then, b) (as I have remarked before, several times) it was the start of the traditional we-weren’t-expecting-that Indian summer. I don’t remember it ever raining. I remember my seventh – or it might have been my eighth – birthday well. I was given a bike. In the morning, my father took me down to the green in front of Bamburgh Castle, and taught me to ride it (there can’t have been many more scenic places to learn to ride a bike), and we were allowed to have a tent up in the garden of the cottage where we went, every year, on holiday. You can see in the picture below that, far from being obsessed with my new means of transport, I had already been diverted into playing picnics with my sister. The bike lies lopsidedly on the grass.

Of course, I can’t be sure this picture is taken on my birthday, and of course, I can’t really say I remember it well. My memory has been conditioned, sharpened and refined by the fact that pictures were taken, and that they seem to take place on the same day. I’ve only just found this one, this past weekend, in an album, dust-covered and unopened since she died.

My family seems, in retrospect, to have been quite food-obsessed, in that it was an unwritten rule that, on my birthday, I could eat whatever I liked, even if the combination on the plate looked wrong. I will spare you the options, but there is no doubt that Twiglets were involved, lots of them. Even now, if I meet someone I haven’t seen since childhood, the subject of Twiglets is raised. Since I actually ate very little then, something my current bulk makes a bit surprising – I almost never ate sweets, for instance – it is clear that it is quite surprising that I did not grow up with knobbly limbs, covered in sticky brown spots.

My birthday cake had to be blue. This was not gender-conditioning. It was because no other food was blue, and I liked the oddity (I did some appalling experiments with food-dyes in my twenties. Heston Blumenthal would understand).

But birthdays are bitter-sweet, like Twiglets and blue cake. Because my sister died eight years ago, and there is no-one I’d rather share it with. So I’ll dedicate this latest one to her.

A birthday

A birthday

Eric Burdon, 68

May 11, 2009

When I was thirteen or fourteen, I used to celebrate Eric Burdon’s birthday – which is today, May 11th. He’s now 68, and shows little sign of slowing down. He was a particular hero of mine because a) he came from the North-East, specifically from Walker (where my mother’s mother was born, not that my mother knew that), b) I liked the Animals’ records more than anyone else’s, and c) and probably most importantly, he had acne. I had acne at that age, too, and it impressed me that, on the photo I had pinned to my bedroom wall, he made no attempt to disguise it. I’m still a fan of The Animals, and of Burdon, although I remember having some deep reservations about an interview he did on a late-night TV show (with Kenneth Allsop) just after Hendrix died in 1970. Burdon said that Hendrix had committed suicide, and that he left a message to Burdon to keep his flame alive. I’m a bit foggy about the details, but I had my doubts about ‘Jimi’s message’. (Burdon had played with him the night before he died, and the bass-player of the Animals, Chas Chandler, was Hendrix’s manager.) To be fair to Burdon, he has consistently linked himself to Hendrix since then, for instance on his website, but something snapped when I saw the interview. My hero had feet of clay.

But he has a voice, still, to reckon with. He’s a ‘shouter’ – it’s said that he shied away from vocal training in case his voice lost its edge. He’s also been unlucky in that he has seen very little reward for his howling success with ‘House Of The Rising Sun’. God knows how many times he has recorded it. (You have to be careful, incidentally, with budget CDs claiming to be by The Animals. One of the hits packages features only one former Animal – and not one of the originals – called Danny McCulloch, who played only on some of the post-1967 ‘New Animals’ songs.)

There was a documentary made about a decade and a half ago when all the original five were alive (Chandler is the one who died). The original keyboard player, Alan Price, got the ‘arranger’ credit on ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, and therefore any royalties, which, considering its repeated playing on radio stations across the world, must be substantial (and must also run out in 2014, I suppose, which suddenly seems very close). The documentary was a Geordie comedy, cutting between Price explaining how he had taught the others to play it, and the others, notably Chandler, saying ‘Pricey hated that song. He wouldn’t play it.’ And the arpeggios with which it opened were certainly the work of the guitarist Hilton Valentine (who must deserve an award for having one of the most unlikely real names – it really does sound as if someone else made it up).

But happy birthday, Eric. You couldn’t write a song to save your life, but you could interpret them better than any of your heroes. I suspect I used to celebrate with an extra large can of Pepsi (they used to come in two sizes, before someone invented the jumbo plastic bottle). It wasn’t much of a tribute, but I cared. And I still think, if pressed, that the version of ‘See See Rider’ (also known as ‘C.C.Rider’) was one of the best, no, the best single ever made. It is also an odd fact that, because The Animals split up just after recording one of their best albums, Animalism – confusing, because the previous album was Animalisms – the album has never had a release in the UK, and, as far as I know, only one CD release, in Canada.

Still unreleased, 40 years on

Still unreleased, 40 years on

and not to be confused with

Released in 1966, with the wrong drummer on the cover...

Released in 1966, with the wrong drummer on the cover...