Saturday, 19 May 2012

Report from the celebration marathon

Dear Reader, it cannot have escaped your attention that yours truly has just passed the magical threshold. The various stages of celebration went on for almost a week, reminiscent of the famous story of a royal relative sending a belated cable to the Czar of Russia: “For three days running we have been toasting your health”, to which His Majesty replied: “High time you stopped”.

About a year ago when I first started planning my sixtieth, there were many options I considered. One was to bring the whole family over to Cambridge and have a big party including local friends. It probably wouldn't be unreasonably expensive, but the logistics was too complicated. Therefore I asked the family to keep the date open and await further instructions. Ten years ago, for my fiftieth, I had a huge fancy dinner for friends, colleagues and grown-up family members. I couldn't possibly repeat the grandeur of that one, and I also felt that I wanted all the grandchildren to be present. Eventually we decided on a family-only dinner. We considered a stately home outside Stockholm, but again the logistics would be hard, so we found a very special place in town where we had been and knew the food was superb. It turned out they also had rooms.

That done, I started looking around for some form of celebration here in Cambridge. My first thought was that I only had been here for a short time, I didn't have many friends... and then I started counting, and when I got over forty it was pretty clear – apart from the happy realisation that I did have plenty of good friends – that some event was unavoidable. Moreover, it definitely felt a pleasure rather than a duty.

However, I didn't want to have a garden party at home. I've had those, and the house is big enough, but somehow it felt wrong for the occasion. I made some investigations and decided that the Combination Room at Homerton had the necessary ambience and that their catering would be good value. I decided that a Monday afternoon would be suitable, since people might not want to come in on the weekend. My first attempt was discouraging since the catering people demanded room hire double the costs of the reception itself, although I suggested that as a Fellow I might be allowed to use college facilities for free. I emailed a polite “Thank you, I'll look for another option”. Half an hour later they got back saying that the college Bursar had waived room hire.

As I was relating it all to Morag she wondered whether I would accept, as a birthday present from the teaching team, a fancy dinner. That sounded nice. More or less at the same time, Staffan announced that apart from the family dinner on the day, there would be a surprise lunch with two overseas guests who just happened to be in Stockholm. The serendipity wasn't very convincing, but he refused even to hint who the guests might be. I had my guesses, but he wouldn't confirm or deny. I was almost hundred percent sure the mysterious visitors would be from Finland because it was the only reasonable guess, and I thought that perhaps they would offer me an honorary doctorate. Another option might be a festschrift, but I didn't quite believe it.

As I sent out invitations for the reception at Homerton, two people replied with a comment that their birthdays were two days later, on May 16. I had never, ever met anyone with the same birthday as mine so I wrote back pointing this out and suggested that we three born-on-May-16 ladies should go out for a drink together. Which both thought was a brilliant idea, and we even managed to find a date, after a Faculty meeting the week before.

Meanwhile, my thoughtful daughter Julia wondered whether I seriously considered ignoring all friends in Stockholm and volunteered to do a reception for me which was a very noble action. She immediately created a Facebook event, and the two Facebook-passive friends also received invitations by email. Most of them responded at once and were delighted.

Thus the celebration was to continue over a week: drink with born-on-May-16 ladies on Thursday, Homerton reception on Monday, flight to Sweden on Tuesday, surprise lunch and family dinner on Wednesday, reception on Thursday, back to Cambridge on Thursday evening, and a dinner with close friends on Friday. For each occasion, I very strictly specified: no presents, no flowers, although I was sure at least some people would go against my wish or simply fail to read the instructions. As the date approached, I was torn between happy apprehension and horror. Some days I wished I had decided to disappear to an undisclosed destination.

To be continued.

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