Delicious Sponge Cake

Writing about party-going by Alan Bennett, Dinah Birch, Anne Carson, Tim Dee, Jenny Diski, Lorna Sage, Emily Witt, Bee Wilson, Steven Shapin, A.J.P. Taylor, Ronan Bennett and Andrew O’Hagan.

Instead of a Present

Alan Bennett, 15 April 1982

My first thought was that this whole enterprise is definitely incongruous. A birthday party for Philip Larkin is like treating Simone Weil to a candlelit dinner for two at a restaurant of her choice. Or sending Proust flowers. No. A volume of this sort is simply a sharp nudge in the direction of the grave; and that is a road, God knows, along which he needs no nudging.

Elizabeth Stoddard had a healthy interest in comestibles: hot buttered biscuits, salt pork, clams, cream toast, stewed lobster, grilled swordfish and fried tomatoes. No matter how overwhelming her characters’ melancholy, it doesn’t obliterate an eager appetite for the next meal, and the most cantankerous can be mollified with the offer of ‘a huge piece of delicious sponge cake’.

Poem: ‘1 x 30’

Anne Carson, 5 March 2020

Once the party ended and I was clearing plates with the hostess I asked her about the white bread, its signifying supremacy, its itinerary as a fetish, I may even have quoted Lacan. She laughed. No, it was just a mistake. Her sister had misheard her on the phone, she’d been exasperated at first but then it didn’t matter, there were too many cakes anyway.

For several years now, a number of Walcott’s friends, family and old students have travelled across the world to wish him well on his birthday, listen to him talk, and flit from one sort of jump-up or party to another. The official events were the only occasions I saw the laureate in long trousers.

My Little Lollipop: Christine Keeler

Jenny Diski, 22 March 2001

Christine Keeler is insistent on Stephen Ward having been at the dead centre of political intrigue, rather than just a dilettante at that as well as everything else. Her wish to retrieve her past is understandable. Much better for the amour propre to have been Mata Hari than a party girl who bedded Tory peers and the slum landlord Peter Rachman.

Landlocked: Henry Green

Lorna Sage, 25 January 2001

Henry Green’s masterpieces, like Party Going (1939) and Loving (1945), are devoted to demonstrating the hollowness of traditional loyalties and roles, for all the world as if he were a fictional anthropologist looking at the last days of an alien culture, except that, uniquely uncomfortably, he’s doing it from the inside, almost as trapped and confused as his characters.

The Unpredictable Cactus: Mescaline

Emily Witt, 2 January 2020

My own experience with peyote was inconclusive. I now know that a confusing occasion I got involved in by accident in 2013 was in fact a Native American Church meeting. A friend had invited me to what I thought was a birthday party that would also somehow involve the consumption of peyote. I said yes without inquiring much about the specifics. After stopping at a thrift store to buy a long skirt (I was told I had to wear one) we drove to a farm somewhere in Pennsylvania, outside of which a large tepee had been erected in a muddy field. It was, in fact, someone’s birthday, but it wasn’t a party at all.

She gives me partridges: Alma Mahler

Bee Wilson, 5 November 2015

Alma Mahler Werfel celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out. Luminaries from the ‘German California’ scene came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius’s divorced wife and Oscar Kokoshka’s former lover.

The Darwin Show

Steven Shapin, 7 January 2010

It has been history’s biggest birthday party. On or around 12 February 2009 alone – the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, ‘Darwin Day’ – there were more than 750 commemorative events in at least 45 countries, and, on or around 24 November, there was another spate of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. 

Diary: Birthdays and Centenaries

A.J.P. Taylor, 5 May 1983

On my 70th birthday I was given a lunch at the LSE by some of my younger friends: The party was graced by the presence of Michael Foot and Lord Blake. Soon afterwards Robert Blake struck me off his visiting-list because I had opposed the witch-hunt at the British Academy against Anthony Blunt. I am glad to record that Blake has now forgiven me, or perhaps he thinks I have purged my offence. At any rate, I am now restored to favour.

Diary: My Father

Ronan Bennett, 9 July 1992

The end came on my third birthday. It is my first memory. We lived in a small house in Banbury. But for my birthday party we were invited to the larger home of my godparents, English Catholics in Oxford. They had a lawn, long and flat with neat borders. My father – great joy! – my father played with me in the garden. We played football with balloons. I was deliriously, selfishly happy. I laughed and laughed. And my father picked me up and put me on his shoulders. He held me on his shoulders in the sun and threw balloons up into the air, and we ran after them and I, from my perch, tried to trap them in my arms. 

I’m being a singer: Dandy Highwaymen

Andrew O’Hagan, 8 October 2020

Steve Strange sang at a birthday party in Soho I helped organise in 2005. It was called ‘The Last Disco’ and he was paid £1000 to sing ‘Fade to Grey’. From a previous bash, there was a huge plastic birthday cake onstage, and at the appointed moment he emerged from it, slightly fed up, and sang the song to a rat-arsed audience. When it was all over, I handed him the cash and we stood chatting for an hour at the bar.

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