There are two good things about Big Birthdays (the sort with a zero on the end). The first is the excuse they give for a jolly good knees-up and the second is that in this deadline-dominated, too-much-to-do-in-too-little-time, crazy-paced world, a major birthday (which I’ve just celebrated) offers an opportunity for a bit of welcome reflection. A reassessment. A time to ask, perhaps, if the deadlines really do matter so much.
This was all brought into sharp focus for me, partly, following the loss of my lovely friend Sally Brampton, whose wisdom is so familiar to those of you who follow VH. She was almost exactly a year older than me, so I did get raise a glass of fizz in celebration of Sal’s ‘zero’ birthday with her a year ago – but I keenly felt the fact she wasn’t around to celebrate mine. And I spent a lot of time thinking about some of my other incredibly close friends (and my Mum), who never made it this far. Let’s start with her: my mother died at the ridiculously (it now seems to me) young age of 57. My best friend Paula bowed out at 41. I’ve lost two other incredibly close friends, Jane (who never recovered from a stroke in her forties), and Marina, who was felled by malignant melanoma in her thirties.
That’s a lot of years not lived, and so when I set out to celebrate in style, it was as much on behalf of the people who weren’t there to tuck into what became a series of birthday cakes as the ones who were. I almost feel honour-bound, now, to squeeze as much joy, as much fun, as much laughter out of life to make up for the joy, fun and laughter they’ve missed out on. None of us knows what tomorrow will hold – you’ve only got to open a newspaper to be reminded of that. (So that’s another decision: no papers, except a catch-up on Sundays; it’s just to easy to spend too much time fretting about stuff you can’t change, or be dragged down by the doom-and-gloom.)
I already gave up, long ago, ‘keeping things for best’. My grandmother Kathleen did that, and when she died, her cupboards were full of unused china and pristine linen, her drawers full of beautiful folded scarves, still in their packaging. Well, not me. We use the silver. (OK, so most of it came from boot fairs for pennies, and it annoyingly needs regular polishing, but it makes every meal special.) If I see something I absolutely love, love, love in a shop (and it doesn’t happen that often), I’ll buy it; I’m with my American friend Nicole Still, here, who was brave enough to open a shoe store in the heart of Florence, with the slogan: ‘Life’s short. Buy The Shoes.’ Because truly, it is. But mostly, I want to spend the money I make giving the people I love a good time – creating memories that will last a lifetime, for them and for me, too. And – importantly – on staying healthy enough to enjoy myself (and enjoy them) for as long as I possibly can.
One of the biggest influences on my life, actually, was my darling Great-Auntie Doris. With grandparents who lived in America, I spent an unusual amount of time with Aunt Dot, who – gloriously – owned a haberdasher’s shop where she would happily let me play for hours, cutting out ‘dolls’ from her dress pattern books cross-legged on the floor, or helping to sort the wools, the knicker elastic, the hooks-and-eyes. For a prior landmark birthday 20 years ago, she presented me with an astonishingly wonderful garment: a man’s waistcoat which she’d turned into something a Pearly King or Queen would be proud of, only a hundred times more colourful.
‘I didn’t want to die with a full button tin,’ she smiled. She had literally emptied hers, sewing every last pearl or Bakelite button onto my birthday gift, which immediately became, and remains, my favourite-ever garment (she was chuffed to bits when I once wore it to meet Prince Charles). But to me, ‘not dying with a full button tin’ seemed like the most wonderful metaphor for life. And more than ever, after that Big Birthday, I want to make sure I don’t ‘die with a full button tin’, either.
Which also translates as: giving that compliment to a stranger, rather than keeping quiet. Treating that friend to a bunch of flowers, or a coffee. Taking time to lead my sort-of-adopted-daughter’s own daughter around the flowerbeds, by the hand, while she sniffs every last rose. And yes, buying the shoes – well, definitely once a year, when I’m in Florence (on perfume business, always with a visit to Nicole).
Because life really is short. And here’s to treasuring every minute of it, while we can.