I was dreading my 50th birthday celebrations. Setting aside the existential crisis associated with having never been this old, planning a party when you’re so fat you could pop at any moment is no fun.
At the beginning of this year, I wasn’t just the size of a house — more like a housing estate. So, I put myself on a strict diet. I didn’t want to be fat at 50. I had just under five months to lose the weight, and started to draw up plans for suitably lavish 50th birthday celebrations to show off my (hopefully slimmer) physique.
The plan was to have a big drinks party in London at one of my members’ clubs; a barbecue and drinks bash at our beach hut in Frinton-on-Sea; a weekend away with some friends in the Cotswolds, followed by a stay à deux at Soho Farmhouse. A range of bank account draining celebrations suitable for a landmark birthday.
Of course, the coronavirus meant that normal life as we know it was cancelled. How do you celebrate a significant birthday under lockdown?
By the age of 50, inevitably, you’ve had a few midlife crises (anyone who says they haven’t is lying). Whether it’s trainers designed for your bank account but not your age, cars that are elegant until the moment you have to get out, messy relationship break-ups, or holidays where you behave like teenagers. By the age of 50 you should have come to terms with a simple fact. At best, you’re middle aged.
Fifty is not the new 30, or even 40. But it’s a half century (not out) and one must celebrate. Judging by some of the other 50th birthday parties I’ve been to, it’s a wake for your youth.
A music industry friend took over a country house hotel for the weekend. A drinks party and barbecue on arrival, followed by fireworks and a live band. Next day, a range of activities and a formal dinner.
Another friend had a party in the Caribbean at a fab hotel involving four days of nonstop revelry. All I had to do was book the flights. Everything else from accommodation to dinners, to competitions and races, drinks gatherings, picnic lunches and barbecues were all on the tab.
Most recently, a friend of mine invited hundreds of his “closest” friends to take over a well-known restaurant in the West End. Champagne and cocktails flowed; there was a seemingly endless supply of “bowl food” and a live band took the proceedings well into the small hours.
Each of these efforts cannot have seen much change from £100,000. That’s a big wedge to drop. For a party that you’ll remember forever, you might think it’s worth it — but think of all the things you’d have to worry about and organise. The services of party planners don’t come cheap.
When my last day of being 49 rolled around at the end of May, my dreams of a gargantuan bash were replaced with a glass of fizz (or six) with our neighbours.
In lockdown, we’ve practised the art of drinking like naughty schoolchildren at the end of our gardens. We keep our distance and chat (well, guffaw) over the fence. This worked well until the compost heap on which they relied for height was dug out and deployed. Standing on a step ladder isn’t a good idea whilst quaffing sparkles, so we gathered in our respective front gardens instead. An apple picker facilitated crisp distribution at a distance (and Seabrook’s crinkle crisps are just 99p a bag from Aldi). We know how to live!
The big day began with a suitably distanced dog walk on the beach. Some may blame climate change for the 26C temperature and glorious sunshine, but if lockdown means staycation, I say bring it on.
Our friends in a neighbouring beach hut served (at a suitable distance) a breakfast of freshly baked bread rolls stuffed with barbecued bangers and runny eggs from their own hens — a more delicious feast than any fancy restaurant could conjure up.
Then, back home to open a few presents. All week, deliveries had been rolling in and a pleasing stack awaited my attention. Prestigious retailers festoon their name on the outside of their boxes so early salivation may commence as you wonder what’s inside. Fortnum & Mason do the best packaging; it’s worth organising a present from them just for the box.
An apology from the other third (who will now, post weight loss, be referred to as the other half) as my main birthday present — which was being handmade in Italy — won’t arrive any time soon due to Covid-19.
Yet the emergency internet birthday presents were wonderful. A DAB Roberts Radio, a little something from Hermès and a striking canvas painted (secretly) in lockdown. And one of my best friends supplied a homemade cake in the shape of an Aston Martin.
Sadly, I couldn’t see most of my family (although we did enjoy a Zoom call). However, the surprises weren’t over. At 6pm I was ushered outside the front door and instructed to stand on a makeshift podium for a photo opportunity. What on earth was going on?
Suddenly, I heard hooting, revving and a racket on the way. My neighbours have a rather splendid old Lagonda which cruised past festooned with balloons, dragging some empty tennis ball cans tied to the rear bumper.
But hang on a minute. It wasn’t just their car. There was a parade. My friends from the local classic car club had organised a distanced “drive past”. All manner of splendid motor cars from a Mercedes Pagoda and SL, to E-types and MGs, Ferraris, Bentleys and Aston Martins passed by (21 cars in all) with letters stuck to their windows spelling out “Happy 50th Birthday James”.
Standing on the podium, I felt a bit like a dictator waving to his subjects. It was quite overwhelming. I do hope we can have a proper party when lockdown ends, but it was such an inventive and unexpected way to mark a special occasion.
By the end of the day, I was pooped. The efforts that friends and family had made to make the day special was far better than anything I could have hoped or wished for. And since I’d not made the arrangements, I was able to enjoy every moment. In fact, because it was so unusual, creative and impromptu, my 50th will be remembered for eternity. It’s the best birthday I have ever had.
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