One night a couple of weeks ago I met up with an old school chum and his wife visiting for the holidays. Over one of those multi-coloured salads that replaced steak and chips as the late-night staple round about the same time our hair went grey, he mentioned that, just before coming away, eighty friends had joined him for a birthday party “including a magician”. Ever the accountant, I quickly did the calculation in my head, remembering that he and I had spent seven years in the same class, and ventured: “55th birthday party? Aren’t you planning making it to 60?”
The world has gone mad with anniversaries.
When we were young, apart from all those balloon and trifle things when we were 5 or 6, we were brought up to expect a 21st birthday party, a wedding, a silver wedding anniversary, a golden wedding anniversary (if we were lucky), a funeral and good-bye. Jewish boys would have the 21st swapped for a 13th unless they were Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate, in which case they would get both with a bit extra on the side.
As the April 15th tax filing deadline looms, Americans may be forgiven for marking a century of the Federal Income Tax. Back in 1913 that was no small achievement, requiring the 16th Amendment to the Constitution that had previously forbidden the imposition of direct income taxes by the Federal Government.
I might also escape a full-blown raspberry were I to mention that, had I not been handbagged into writing an unscheduled appreciation of Baroness Thatcher a few days ago, this would have been my 75th post (forget the standing ovation).
But when the BBC reminded me on April Fools’ Day that exactly 40 years had passed since the introduction of VAT in the UK, numbers started to whizz round in my head.
25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th anniversaries make some sort of sense (I suppose) – but why on earth do we have to ‘celebrate’ 40 years of a necessary but reviled tax, a mid-decade birthday or, for that matter, all those obscure anniversaries that appear on the Google banner forcing you to google them to understand (“The 338th birthday of Wing Wong Wu”) ?
My hunch is that it is a combination of three things: man coming to grips with a secular world; 24/7 news looking for the vaguest connection to a story; and any excuse for a good time.
Once upon a time, when God’s servants and their friends ruled much of this planet, the world was something like a Mongolian Transit Camp – an utterly miserable stopover between somewhere nobody remembered and a perfect eternal destination nobody had yet visited. You got hammered during your stay in the Transit Camp (unless you were one of God’s servants or their friends, in which case you did the hammering). Time had little meaning because all there was to hope for was eternity.
One day God’s servants and their friends were pushed into the corner of the Transit Camp and scientists told the inmates that there was nothing but the Transit Camp so they had better make the most of it. And the inmates turned the Mongolian Transit Camp into the Western World.
If all man has is the space and time in which he exists, it is natural that he should try to exploit his space to the utmost (the comforts of life) while sharpening his perception of time. We all anchor time according to our own experience. Thus, at 55 (yep. I am 4 weeks younger than the other guy) my memory stretches back more or less exactly 50 years. My conception of all points in history is a function of that half century. The introduction of VAT I actually remember by chance (I got an early 15th birthday present of a new guitar from Macari’s on Charing Cross Road on March 31 before they slammed on the 10% tax). Blimey, is it 40 years already? Tempus fugit. And everything before 1963 is pictured in black-and-white; I remember being totally disoriented when I first saw rare World War II footage in colour.
In the 21st century we are bombarded with news. Although there appears no limit to the extent to which a story, however insignificant, can be masticated, ruminated, milked and churned ad nauseam, editors are always on the look-out for anything (ANYTHING) newsworthy. Used to the constant talk here of the Iranian nuclear threat and Hezbollah rearmament, I was amused on a recent trip to England to turn on local radio and hear about a female pensioner who had stolen two plant pots from a local nursery. So with material like that, if you can find any excuse (ANY EXCUSE) to delve back into history and talk about something as utterly interesting as the introduction of value added tax, you will do it.
Increased leisure in the modern world ironically forces people who have rationally refuted any meaning in life, to look for the meaning of life. When people worked 15 hours a day 6 days a week they didn’t have much time for that sort of thing and, to the extent they did consider anything, outsourced it to the local priest or rabbi (once upon a time you didn’t hear much about imams and the like in the western world). If there is leisure and not much meaning you at least need a rational excuse for the leisure. Enter anniversaries. Doesn’t matter what, where, how. Anniversaries are the excuse. Let’s party.
I almost succeeded in escaping my 55th birthday a couple of days ago. I fielded several “Happy Birthdays” gracefully (and gratefully) at work and a few former employees even contacted me, which was especially gratifying. My son called from Australia and we chewed the fat. Then I arrived home to discover that his 19-year-old brother had gone out, bought the ingredients for a celebratory evening meal and, with a little advice from his mother , come home and cooked it ( fish – delicious).
OK. I’m hooked. Whose birthday is next?