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Lucy Mangan: "Happy birthday? I don’t think so"


My birthday’s coming up. I know I’m supposed to greet it with open arms, a song in my heart and a smile on my face. Another year of rollicking adventures on this high sea we call life completed! Another year’s wisdom gained! Another cake due! O frabjous day, callooh callay!

And once you’re past 30 (25 if you live in a really vicious area or work in a really cruel industry) your arms must become wider, your song louder and smile bigger, in case you look like you might be for one moment afraid of getting wrinkles or otherwise buying into what we all know to be a narrowly oppressive modern female beauty aesthetic (hereafter known as the NOMFBA, because I am not wasting any more of my precious and rapidly decreasing span on this earth typing that lot out in full again).

But I don’t hate my birthday because of its impact on my elastene stocks or collagen-reproducing skills (though for sure it doesn’t make me love it any more. None of my family age well. The men gradually twist and gnarl until they look like ambulant tree stumps and the women simply collapse into heaps of osteoporitic dust and regret). All the fuss about the insanity of the fight against ageing, all the tirades (absolutely right and proper though they in themselves are) about cosmetic surgery and the other invasive procedures celebrities and, increasingly, ‘civilians’* put themselves through in the ceaseless search for recaptured youth and beauty are nowadays obscuring the perfectly legitimate reason we all have for wanting to forget about our birthdays. I’m not afraid of ageing, I’m afraid of DEATH and DYING.

That’s still allowed, isn’t it? No-one came up with a moisturiser or implant that avoids that, did they, while I wasn’t looking? OK, good. Well, not good, but you know what I mean.

Other people seem to cope quite well with the fact that a birthday, whatever else it is, is the day on which you inescapably mark the fact that you are one whole year nearer the grave. How do you contemplate that with equanimity?

A pure, devout, ineradicable religious faith that promises a form of eternal afterlife is doubtless one answer, but how many of us enjoy such a boon in this secular, strife-filled world. Even if I’d managed to hang on to my Catholicism past puberty, I doubt it would have survived the 10 O’Clock News viewed with an adult’s comprehension – bombings, rapes, murders, child abuse, every incident sending out ripples of pain and suffering in ever increasing circles. I suspect even my pious seven-year-old self might have spotted a flaw in God’s plan faced with that lot.

We are all born, we live, we look around for a while and then we die

So, what’s left? Rational acceptance. We are born, we live, with any luck we love, we laugh, we look around for a while and then we die. Time, place and method not of our choosing. Smashing. I’m ready for that cake and candles now! And don’t forget the balloons.

I hoped that as I got older, acceptance would become easier. And I suppose intellectually it has. We are all born, we do all live – and maybe even get to hang around long enough to see how the Kardashian baby turns out – and we do all die and nobody, but nobody gets out of that. In a limited sense, that’s fair.

But as I get older, and as the list of people I have loved and lost – to an eternal peace or an infinity of nothingness – grows longer, true acceptance grows harder. It is so unfair. It’s unfair that we ourselves must go and even more unfair that we leave the people we love and who love us behind. Sometimes I feel that it would be better to have our memories of the departed erased, so that we’ve had all the joy of knowing them but none of the pain of missing them. But then I remember the wise words of Debra Winger in Shadowlands – “The pain now is part of the happiness then” – and know that this is not the way things ought to be.

And now you want me to throw a party! Heaven’s sake, people. No, from next year, my birthday is not a thing that happens. We will not speak of it. Though I will still have a cake, I will eat it in bed and without candles. From now on, that will be the happiest birthday of all.”

(* As the non-famous-for-beingfamous were, er, famously termed by Elizabeth Hurley. That’s Elizabeth Hurley, war hero, of course.)



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