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Birthdays and Other Landmarks


This time of year always stimulates my nostalgia response: the defining colours of Autumn, three significant birthdays (my daughter Millie’s, my sister Catriona’s, and mine) and the start of a new academic term. I almost feel the need to buy myself a new school uniform.

Historically, birthdays in our house were rather unconventional – no surprises there I suppose, given that our family world had all the component parts of an Iris Murdoch novel, and absolutely none of the idiom of 1960s suburban life. We never quite knew what to expect when October rolled in – indeed, would our birthdays even be remembered? It was always a great relief to me when

October 6th went past; because if my sister’s birthday was remembered, there was a fighting chance that mine (exactly one week later) would be too.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though: the effort of remembering, and then having to provide some kind of ‘event’, made evident inroads on our mother’s patience; and our father had little interest in birthdays – maybe because he was adopted, and the whole issue of birthright was delicate for him. Additionally, although he was the most generous person I have ever known, he had a strongly Calvinist streak when it came to things that he regarded as self-indulgent; and what could possibly be more self-indulgent than one’s own birthday?

However, he did always take us out (and this was true until he died twenty two years ago) to let us choose something for our birthdays, and nothing gave him greater joy than buying presents for the three women in his life.

Over time, he mellowed in rejection of the birthday idiom, and in fact, the enjoyment of celebrating his own birthday with family became an annual

treat-fest, encouraged in particular by my sister’s burgeoning interest in cooking: each year from the age of eleven she made a more distinguished cake, starting with a Victoria sponge, developing into exotic fruitcakes, then moving into a Portuguese orange cake, eventually culminating in a French almond sponge,. She’s still at it now, much to the delight of her nephew and niece, although the boundaries of Cakedom extend far beyond Europe these days, venturing into Persian cakes known only to the very nichest of niche market, or Russian delicacies rarely experienced outside of St Petersburg.

Catriona and I grew up in Barnes, now an unbelievably expensive and fashionable suburb of south-west London, then, a rather bohemian area, populated by an intriguing and eclectic mix of actors, writers, musicians and indigenous Barnesians. It’s hard to believe in 2018, when a very unremarkable house in that area can command six noughts on the end of a two, that back then, houses were selling for a few thousand pounds, that there were council dwellings throughout the area, and that there was a vivid community of people who had lived there long before it became ‘THE’ place to live. People who drank Young’s beer at the Coach and Horses; who ran local shops; who attended local churches. Real people.

Catriona and I attended the local Convent school in Barnes – now no longer in existence, which was a very tiny, very quirky sort of outfit, populated by a small order of nuns. Initially the choice seemed ideal – literally round the corner, very closely allied to the local Roman Catholic church, of which we were parishioners; and attended by all the children of local catholic families, of which (predictably) there were many.

However, as time went on, it started to emerge that the school had little to offer other than contiguity; indeed, it was probably damaging in some ways, as the nuns who taught there were often relatively uneducated, and in some cases, antediluvian in their teaching/childcare practices. For example, pupils were not allocated to their class according to just age level: ability was filtered to an almost insane degree, so that Catriona aged eight, was in the same class as children of thirteen. Her brilliance had been identified; but no other element had been factored in. Conditioning by humiliation was considered to be a perfectly acceptable educational tool; and ‘incentivisation’ involved such primitive mechanisms as getting the children to line up for lunch in order of achievement. Had the lunches not been so revolting I might have been pleased on the rare occasions when I was head of the queue; but lunch, where you had to sit till you finished what was on your plate, was probably my particular, personal Armageddon.

The school also subscribed to the pre-Vatican Two view of RC education, so we were all sausage-machined through our First Holy Communion at an age where we might reasonably still be working out how to hold a knife and fork; and the whole business of dogma was full of angst for small children – all those billions of ways in which it seemed you could annoy an angry God without meaning to…and as for the First Confession: the point of that completely eluded me. I heard the words Father Ryan said to us about what we ‘should’ tell the priest once we got behind the closed door of the confessional box; but in reality, I couldn’t think of anything interesting he might want to know, so I decided to make up a few things to brighten his afternoon.

I remember coming out and asking my sister what she had been given as penance; but she responded primly ‘you’re not supposed to talk about it’. I was irritated by not knowing whether I had done better or worse than her; which all goes to show that the point of the exercise had been well and truly missed by yours truly.

The prospect of my First Holy Communion had been on my bucket list for two years when I graduated to it aged six: that two year catch-up thing, trailing the inevitable twenty four months behind my sister until I could wear the coveted FHC dress and its matching veil. A bit like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, only for mini-bridelettes; and all celebrated in the same way as a wedding with a FHC Breakfast in the church hall beforehand.

Godparents I saw rarely were exhumed from some distant place, dusted off and made to look Godparently, while I strutted my stuff in The Dress.

RC Godparents were hard to come by in my family, because most of our parents’ friends were not ‘of the faith’ – in those days, the rules of the church were that only fully committed RC candidates were acceptable for the job, so both Catriona and I had rather make-do-and-mend Godparenting arrangements; but none of that took the shine off the day. The whole machine rolled out inexorably.

Much of the dogma we were force-fed at school was channelled through ghastly books and pamphlets produced by RC educational publishers. The ones I remember had lurid, coloured illustrations showing, for example, the seven deadly sins through images of horned red devils wielding pitchforks. It took me some years to work out that only six of the seven had been represented in this particular publication; and by then I had probably started to question the whole presentation anyway. Some years later, the local parish church was pedalling publications for the adolescent market in a similar vein. ‘Chaste or Promiscuous’ is the title that still hangs on in my memory.

Things at the convent drifted on for a bit, and no one asked too many questions at home; but it became clear that things were not altogether happy in the school; and although institutional rigidity might have been expected by our mother (born and bred a Roman Catholic) institutionalised unkindness wasn’t.

Luckily, the school was closed down anyway, because the Bishop wanted to sell the property in which the convent was housed (beautiful, period buildings) and turn the school into a Local Authority Roman Catholic school.

At the time, there was high drama around this move, and I recall that our mother mounted one of the many High Horses she rode during her life, doing a fine impression of Joan of Arc at the public meetings to rally support for the beleaguered nuns.

Notwithstanding, the school was closed, and that was the end of local school life for us: there was no Roman Catholic school closer than Notting Hill Gate, which was at least an hour away by car, or a long journey taking two different buses. So at the ages of six and eight, off we went on our new school Odyssey.

One of the things that I have always been grateful for is that our parents brought us up to enjoy a wider world than that of our own backyard: I’m not sure how planned this was, or whether (more likely) it just happened as a result of including us in their own journey; but in a way, it doesn’t matter. Our horizons were broadened by default: in the ‘60s, familial eating out wasn’t generally something that happened in an unplanned way, and the casual ‘going out for a meal’ that happens frequently now, was very rare. However, our parents enjoyed taking us out for meals, and in Barnes, there were a few eateries where we were taken regularly.

An Italian restaurant in Church Road, situated underneath the Olympic Studios, then a working recording studio and host to some very distinguished work , rather than the ritzy cinema it now is, was a particular favourite: there were two sides to the restaurant – a Pizzeria on one side, and a Trattoria on the other. As I recall, we started our journey into Italian food on the Pizzeria side, and then graduated to the Trattoria when we were considered sophisticated enough. So we would have been about six and eight.

One of the tenets of our upbringing was that if we wished to be tolerated by adults, we had to behave like them. Manners were a given; but conversing in an adult way was definitely a learning curve: if you had nothing to contribute, then you sat tight and listened. God, I learned a lot sitting at table with my parents: the internal workings of the Royal Academy of Music , where our father taught, was often the mis en scène; and at a very young age, I had the whole dramatis personae of that place completely wrapped. Fun in many ways, although moderately awkward when I became a student there myself in 1979.

The Barnes Italian restaurant was very welcoming to the Kelly family, and because of the European view that children should be part of everyday life, not just wheeled out once in a while when they had been fully sanitised, Catriona and I never felt de trop. It taught us much about social integration, and besides that, we were exposed to different foods at an age when most of our peers were stuck with fish fingers and baked beans.

Our parents believed in allowing us to try all kinds of food, with small amounts of wine to accompany that food; so it was that duck became the birthday meal of choice every year. I suspect that initially, I chose it because SHE chose it…one must always appear to keep up with the Older Sister when you are two years younger…but to this day, I’m extremely fond of duck.

Last weekend we had a family get-together to try and capture as many points of celebration as possible – the birthdays, the beginning of a new life for my daughter Millie as a PhD student, and very nearly reaching the end of mind-altering building works for me. I suppose building works are always mind-altering as well as ergonomics-altering; but somehow, the naïve hope flickered within me that THIS time, it would be different.

It wasn’t.

A Sunday morning walk along the beach in Dymchurch in stunning Indian summer conditions, with cloudless blue sky and enough warmth for me to wear only the flimsiest of T-shirts, provoked a number of childhood memories: in the distance, we heard the comedy-style tooting of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, causing Catriona to remark that our nanny Pappy had tried to teach us to smoke on that very railway when we were children. Once reminded, I recalled the scene vividly: an open carriage on the tiny train; sideways rain, so we all had our feet up on the seats opposite…and Pappy, with a packet of cigarettes, telling us that ‘you should know how to smoke by now’.

Bringing this memory back from the moth balls I was at once horrified and side-splittingly amused that the person who was meant to be looking after us, was actually leading us grotesquely astray at the ages of ten and twelve. In turn, I reminded my sister about the time our parents came back from a tour, to be told by eight-year old me, that ‘I much prefer Dubonnet to Gin’.

I recall that some gentle questioning followed, in which it emerged that Pappy the nanny had given us various alcoholic libations during the time our parents were away, and I don’t think it happened again. Catriona claims that the smoking lesson put her off for life, thus offering a solid ‘aversion therapy’ experience. The drinking, we agreed, simply put us off things sweet and alcoholic; but not things alcoholic in general. I’m not sure we have the ingredients of the perfect child-rearing manual here, but it’s interesting to reflect on the outcome. Could Pappy have intended to push me along the Sauvignon Blanc path?

At the time when my own children were tiny, I was living in a place that had none of the character or eccentricity that Barnes had offered us: Tonbridge always felt to me like a place of passage. In transit. I stayed there long after my Tonbridge shelf-life was exceeded, but only because it was expedient to do so. However, while my mother was alive, she rejoiced in coming down to visit us, and taking us out for meals. Even in the far from exciting choices of restaurants in Tonbridge of the early noughties, we managed to reprise something of those early Kelly family traditions, and I love to think that one day, my children will allow me to continue that tradition with their offspring.

One particular memory of a meal out with my mother and children in Tonbridge is of the four of us sitting near the front of a restaurant that made an all too fleeting guest appearance in the town. I spotted a family coming in through the door and passing right by us at our table. ‘Oh look Millie’, I said brightly, ‘there’s your friend John from school’.

‘I hate him’ announced four year old Millie firmly; and loudly. From which there is absolutely no possible recovery.