WHEN my children were young we had very little money, a large mortgage and a rambling house with a big garden that opened onto a wild common. We always managed to take them on holiday – often to a friend’s cottage on Dartmoor, where they could run free and make friends with the neighbouring farmer’s cows. And we always put on birthday parties. We made egg sandwiches and baked cakes – my partner’s ultimate showstopper one summer was a Funnel-Web Spider cake, inspired partly by her visit to Australia, partly by Dame Edna Everage whom we had recently seen in Bournemouth (my partner was one of her “victims” ending up on stage being force-fed much-squeezed cheese that had previously been in Sir Les Patterson’s trouser pocket – don’t even think about it!) and a little bit by a desire to spook me, with my notorious arachnaphobia.
Depending on the weather, they went wild in the garden and out onto the common, or slightly less boisterously in the house. We prayed for fine weather. February or August, the common was an inviting place for adventures, often in fancy dress dug out of the dressing up box.
The dressing up box was a legacy from both our families – my partner’s mother was a glamorous and accomplished amateur actress and there were always interesting clothes around their house; my grandmother had an old chest in the attic, spilling over with discarded dresses, shawls and odd scraps of material (my favourite was a tattered dark green dress in which I was sure I was Maid Marion and which apparently had been worn by my favourite aunt as a child to parties in the 1930s.)
It sounds idyllic, doesn’t it, but it’s how it was. Very little cost was involved, simple food, old clothes, the freedom to run and then come back, stuff themselves and go out and run around some more. It went on being enough all the time we lived in that house, and tea is still at the heart of my idea of a birthday party. Proper tea, with scones and cakes, and real tea in a tea-pot, served into cups with saucers.
But while we were still in that house, my son became friendly with a boy in his class from a wealthy family in the village. He was invited to a birthday party, at which about a dozen children were to be taken to Poole Speedway and on to a burger bar (both definitely novelties for most of the children). We were worried – were we going to have to organise similar lavish entertainments for future parties? If you can’t beat them, don’t compete. We stuck to our tried and tested food and fun recipe and it seemed to work.
Fast forward 25 or so years and my children have their own children, live in different countries (son in Berlin, daughter in California) and have correspondingly different lives. My son’s three children pretty much make it up as they go along – the girls’ latest thing is making mini-films, for which they write the scripts and get their friends to act, usually heading off to the nearby large park where they can run pretty wild, taking sandwiches, crisps and drinks with them. My daughter’s children live in a competitive society, where parents agonise constantly over their children’s education, out of school activities, where the term “tiger mum” would be praise not criticism, where parties are an opportunity to show off your creativity, not only in cooking (lacy fairy-wings on your cupcakes, anyone?) but in the choice of gifts for the guests’ goodie bags, and quite probably making those goodie bags yourself, hand-trimming and decorating for each individual child (thank you Martha Stewart). Getting ready for a children’s party in California is like preparing for a wedding, almost down to place settings. Entertainers are hired, sound-systems installed, pictures tweeted and Facebooked to impress the neighbours …
So we shouldn’t be surprised at the latest manifestation of the subsuming of children’s parties into the consumerist culture of the 21st century – invoicing parents because their child doesn’t turn up at a party, taking them to the Small Claims Court. As if the courts don’t have proper, serious issues to address. When it’s all about money … that is all it’s about. It’s about YOU. It’s not about fun. It’s not about celebrating a birthday. It’s not about giving a bunch of children a good time. It is not, heaven preserve us, about what YOUR child – the birthday boy or girl – might actually want or enjoy.