The pub’s noisy and packed. I’m aware of my parents, smiling bravely while hating every minute. Pubs to them are dens of iniquity. I remember Mum telling me how much she loathed even the smell of a public house as a child growing up in London’s East End. She and Dad have been teetotal for years. I have dim memories of Christmas past, when my uncle used to arrive with crates of sherry and all the adults would be a bit strange by the middle of the afternoon. Methodism put a stop to that when I was five or six. Instead, the annual ritual of selecting exotic fruit juices from the Amethyst catalogue emerged. Guaranteed non-alcoholic. I remember the drinks arriving in a huge cardboard box about a week before Christmas every year. There was always guava juice, although I’d never seen a guava in my life. It was purplish as I recall, and it tasted like cough medicine.
Tonight’s my night I reason, suppressing the guilt as I see them shrinking into the corner of the function room. I’m reminded of my twin brothers’ brief dalliance with the local nursery when they were three years old. They sat side by side on a wooden bench holding hands and looking miserable. They were still in the same place when we went to collect them after school. Mum never took them back. But this is my fiftieth birthday party. I’m not a child, and neither are my parents. Half a century. Doesn’t that give me the right to choose my own celebration? To let my hair down a little? My son’s band are about to play a selection of 1970s rock classics in the main bar. Mum and Dad were never keen on music either, especially at high volume. I must’ve put them through hell when I discovered Led Zeppelin. Ah, that was a moment. The transistor radio crackled and spat, even when positioned at the optimum angle on the end of the sideboard. We were in the middle of Sunday tea when I first heard those chunky bass riffs. Dazed and Confused. I’ve been that way ever since.
I used to spend Saturday afternoons in the bath with John Peel. Not literally, of course. I should be so lucky. I did meet him once, mind. It was in the basement of the BBC’s Paris Studio, which was in London, not in Paris. Still is, for all I know. I was lost. He told me where to go. He seemed like a decent bloke. So much wonderful music he introduced me to, all forgotten now, except by hardcore aficionados. When do we ever hear of Caravan, Kevin Ayers, The Edgar Broughton Band or Blodwyn Pig? Who remembers Bridget St John, who could hold a whole room silent by the power of her voice? Or King Crimson? Terrifyingly, I heard a classic of theirs on a perfume ad last week, though I wouldn’t mind betting there weren’t many who recognised it. 21st-Century Schizoid Man. The 21st century was beyond imagination when I first fell in love with those scorching discords.
The band are warming up. Checking leads and counting into microphones. One two. One two. Some things don’t change. My eighteenth birthday party was a very different affair. For a start, there was the scheduled power cut at 9 o’clock, so music was out of the question. Amazingly, we had alcohol, but only because my friend and I had enrolled on a beer-making course as part of the sixth-form General Studies programme at school. Yes, you really could do that in 1972. We’d made barley wine, but we’d misread the recipe and ended up with less than half the amount we should have had. The resulting brew was satisfactorily lethal, but rather short on supply.
The band launches out with a drum solo. It’s been a long time since I rock ‘n’ rolled … I’ve always loved a good drummer. Who knew I’d someday give birth to one? My whole body aches to dance. To let go the gravitas of half a century and blast into the space in front of the speakers. Why, oh why do we worry so much about what people will think?
I’ve never been a classic beauty. In fact, I grew up believing myself ugly and ungainly. I was tall, clumsy and angular. I had freckles and big feet. My hair was unruly and refused to grow beyond shoulder length. A hideous brace put paid to the worst overbite my dentist had ever seen, but I never quite forgot that it was my own fault for sucking my thumb. All this before I’d finished my first decade on earth, and I don’t imagine for one moment I’m unique. From birth to oblivion we worry about image. My mother longed for snowy nappies and angelic toddlers. Twenty-first century man wants bulging pecs and six packs. Women are encouraged to worry about weight. We’re never quite enough as we are.
Fast forward the better part of twelve years from the party. I’m looking at a fading photo of a little girl with a doll’s pram. She’s confident, smiling. A dusting of freckles across her nose and a halo of dark curls. Nobody’s told her yet that it’s not OK to be who she is, or if they have, she wasn’t listening. By the time I see her next, she’ll be grinning awkwardly between her younger brothers, and trying to hunch herself small. I think I’ve been doing more or less the same ever since.
If I told you being over sixty doesn’t scare the living sh*t out of me it would be a lie. But with age comes wisdom, and not always in the way you expect. While my body lets me know I’ve been ill-treating it for six decades, my head’s in the bath with John Peel still. Only now I know it doesn’t matter what other people think. All the image and gravitas of my oh-so-grownup past were worth no more than a will-o’-the-wisp. If I so choose, I can dance naked round the living room, walk to the Post Office in my pyjamas, or stay in bed and read Barbara Cartland novels all day … no, don’t worry, I’m not that far gone yet … my life’s nobody’s but my own. The little girl in the photo had it right. Six packs and crash diets buy at best only slightly less misery. Give me kind eyes, strong hands and a wild heart I’ll be happy now. But getting here … in the words of the song, it’s been a long, lonely, lonely, lonely, lonely time.