For my son’s eighth birthday, I invited all 18 of his classmates (according to diktat) to his exciting climbing party at the Westway sports centre. I sent a round-robin email to the parents. I pointed out how very easy it was to reach the sports centre from north London. I said that all their sons would be coming home from school that day with invitations to this exciting event. I should, for honesty’s sake, admit that I gave everyone only a week’s notice.
‘As you must know, Saturday is the day of atonement,’ said a mother, as she declined. Out of the 18 boys I asked, 17 had copper-bottomed reasons regretfully to have to say no. I began to feel a bit swivelly-eyed about the party situation. So I collared another mother at the school gates and asked her what was going down. ‘I’m so sorry no one can come,’ she said. ‘But the thing is, your party clashed with Otto’s football party.’
These are the four things I learnt from the experience. One, I’d left it too late, by about six months, to expect any seven-year-old to be free only a week hence. London-based children’s schedules are too jam-packed with extra music and Saturday language school, sports coaching and the dreaded tutoring to have time available for a last-minute party. Two, I hadn’t checked whether the date clashed with any important religious festivals for my son’s peer group. Three, I hadn’t done enough undercover spying at the school gates to know that our party clashed with another party that was probably ‘put in the diary’ back in 2003. And four, I learnt that if you don’t want to invite all the children in the class to your child’s birthday celebration, you don’t ever admit you’re having a party. You just ‘have a few children round for tea’.
I found this advisory email in my inbox this morning, forwarded to me by a protective girlfriend. It was catchlined ‘Scam’. I hate the warnings that get sent around, but I have to admit that this one is important. ‘Please protect everyone you know by sending this to your entire email list. If a man comes to your front door and says he is conducting a survey and asks you to show him your bum, do NOT show him your bum. This is a scam — he only wants to see your bum. I wish I’d got this yesterday. I feel so stupid and cheap.’ Feel free to pass on this important public safety announcement to your loved ones.
I am always delighted when I mess up, cars break down, friends are difficult, children impossible, etc., because it often makes for better copy. Crappiness doesn’t write white. But I am most delighted when animals provide my material, because then I can write without fear of redress. I have written often of our dog, for example, without receiving sorrowing telephone calls. I have written reams about bats and rats without being flung into outer darkness. But recently I wrote about a family of barn owls which are squatting in our Exmoor chimney. The editor of the Daily Telegraph has kindly forwarded me a letter he had received from a satisfied reader. ‘Dear Sir …I usually devour every page of my Telegraph, but I have had more than enough, in her Mummy Diaries, of this utter drivel,’ a Mrs Rogers hoots. ‘The last offering only included one sentence on the Barn Owl family. Miss Johnson should bone up on her nature facts,’ she flaps. It is my duty to answer this letter (this reader, inevitably, lives in a house called ‘White Owls’ in deepest Dorset). And I will, though it appears that I can’t even write about flora and fauna without someone somewhere taking tremendous offence.
At the climbing party, there were ten children in the end, and only two instructors, so I gamely volunteered to ‘help’. We all trussed ourselves up in our harnesses, which are like a sort of bridle for your nether regions, with a special girdle arrangement for your buttocks. If you’ve ever seen a picture of either Bushes jumping out of a plane or being winched into a helicopter, you’ll know what I’m trying to describe. Put it this way — it’s not Touching the Void, it’s the reverse. So I spend most of the two hours belaying small boys up and down walls. It is cold and tiring. Then I go up a 12-metre-high pole, just for the hell of it. I’m at the summit, dizzy with vertigo, wondering how I am going to make it down, and I hear my nephew Milo laughing. ‘Great wedgie, Aunt Rake!’ he yodels up to me. I get down to ground level. ‘What’s a wedgie, Milo?’ I ask, still trembling, but elated. ‘It’s when your trousers and your pants and everything go right up, like this,’ he replies. Then he demonstrates horribly, using his own harness and jeans. So just remember this. Whether you are going up the greasy pole, or coming down it, you’ll get a wedgie, both ways.
I have been forbidden from plugging my book in this space, so perhaps the editor will permit me a reverse-plug instead. Quickly, then, before he stops me: I was chatting up (Sir) Peter Stothard at a do this week, and warned him that my wonderful publishers, Penguin Viking, would be biking the next day a freshly minted copy of The Mummy Diaries to his desk, from which lofty eyrie he edits the Times Literary Supplement. He gave me a surprised look. ‘But what,’ he asked, ‘can your Mummy Diaries possibly have to do with the TLS?’ So I struck him over the head with my enormous copy of Feast, Nigella Lawson’s lovely new cookery book (plug, plug), and then, as he was trying to escape, I got him in an armlock and told him that the book is based on my eponymous column, but contains oodles of fresh new material, and was just the sort of thing that would appeal to the highbrow literasts at the TLS. Can’t wait to see the review!
Speaking of Nigella…. I was recently asked by Charles Saatchi what we did in the evenings in the country. ‘We read,’ I said. ‘We play records. We sit by the fire….’ He looked incredulous. ‘But where do you go out to eat?’ The words ‘every night’ sort of hung in the air. ‘We eat in, and there are some very good pubs….’ I trailed off. ‘And during the day,’ he pressed on. ‘What if you suddenly need to go to Selfridges?’ Turns out, Charles may be looking for a fully staffed weekend pad, somewhere in the country, with a pool heated to bath temperature. But it has to be within shooting distance of Selfridges. I cannot help with this property quest, but if the Lawson-Saatchis need any baby owls for their baronial chimney, they know whom to ask.