The lovely KatePonders has had a birthday. A visit from bestest-friend-in-the-whole-world, a morning’s shooting at clays (we know how to live) and an unfeasibly large amount of cake: we may have stumbled on the recipe for the perfect birthday celebrations. With the aching chasm of another 365 days to go before she has another birthday (2016 being, my maths suggests, a leap year), we do at least have plenty of time for a thorough survey of bookish birthdays to see how we might do it even better in future.
Serendipitously, KatePonders shares a birthday with Harold Pinter, whose The Birthday Party must therefore take first place on this week’s bookshelf. Fabulous, funny, menacing, absurd, enigmatic and contradictory, Pinter’s play is definitely a must-see as well as a must-read. I was quite surprised to find that it is not, as far as I can see, being staged anywhere at the moment. Presumably it is not an A level set text and therefore cannot be guaranteed to bring in enough audience to break even. It seems to me to be a shame that theatre, especially in the hugely-funded London theatre, has largely become musical adaptations of Disney films, revivals of musicals from the mid-twentieth century or confections that string the collected works of Abba into some sort of narrative (no I haven’t seen it, nor am I making any plans to). The few bones thrown to us non-metropolitan types via the undoubted glories of live streaming should be the beginning of a rich play-going renaissance, not a meagre sop to keep us knowing our place and looking grateful. How easy it would be for the Arts Council, which currently gives an overwhelming majority of its coffers to London-based endeavours, to insist on countrywide screening as a condition of funding. ‘Thursday night is theatre night’: don’t you think that has a pleasing ring to it?
Eeyore, Kipper and Little Grey Rabbit all celebrate their birthdays, or have them celebrated for them, in children’s books, and the eponymous My Naughty Little Sister and her friend Bad Harry have a great time at another child’s birthday party, even if they do suffer the aftermath of greed later that day. As ever, we need to turn to Dickens for some relief from all the sweetness and light. David Copperfield has what he himself calls A Memorable Birthday. Yes, should vague memories of the plot of his Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation be trickling back to you, it’s THAT scene in which Mrs Creakle, the headmaster’s wife, has a crack at the difficult art of breaking bad news gently and, it would be fair to say, proves not to be a natural at it. Oliver Twist’s ninth birthday sees him moved from Mrs Mann’s establishment for ‘juvenile offenders against the Poor Laws’ to Mr Bumble’s workhouse. Good though the film is (even despite the inexplicable failure to cast the original stage ‘Nancy’, Georgia Brown), go and read the book again to send a shiver down your spine at the sheer relentless drabness and nastiness of the Victorian approach to welfare. Only Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich comes close.
Birthdays in books aimed at adults – and Dickens, of course, was aiming at absolutely anyone of any age who could be persuaded to join his legions of readers – are sadly often a focus of gloom and despondency, almost especially when the celebrant is a child. Poor old Leo in The Go-Between, for example, ends up with a thirteenth birthday that is certainly memorable. Irina’s name-day is the starting-point for Chekhov’s The Three Sisters; a good enough reason to urge you to read this wonderful, witty, dark and heart-breaking play from the greatest of nineteenth-century playwrights (and indeed one of the very greatest of any time). Irina is twenty at the start of the play, but still child enough to be thrilled with the spinning-top she is given. Perhaps Chekhov, a doctor, was ahead of us in acknowledging that, as the most recent research has established, the human brain does not achieve maturity until it is at least as old as KatePonders.
And we must have poetry. For once, Dylan Thomas is just right here: not, for me, his ‘Poem for his Birthday’, which feels too sonorous, too consciously beautiful, as if Thomas had slipped across the line between a unique voice and a parody of himself; but ‘Poem in October’ (another autumn birthday celebrant), with its wonderful images of the heron priested shore and a walk ‘in a shower of all my days’. Which of us has not had an autumn walk like that, misted and fine-spray drizzled, kicking up the golden leaves and letting thoughts and memories cascade? More sobering, perhaps, but indispensable, is Louis Macneice’s ‘Prayer Before Birth’, whose litany of imperatives – hear me, console me, forgive me – could usefully be required reading for those contemplating parenthood. Finding a poem for someone’s birthday is, though, fraught with peril, as you steer a precarious path between trite nonsense on one hand and the tendency of good poets to think of birthdays as another milestone on the road to death: true, of course, painfully true, but not quite what you were aiming for to go with your carefully-wrapped present and your balloon. But we could certainly give Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’. ‘Shades of the prison-house begin to close / Upon the growing Boy’ might seems a tad melancholy for what should be a happy day, but forewarned is forearmed, and we might do a lot worse than determine to keep the clouds of glory trailed about us. Now that would be a great birthday present.