When a decade of your life becomes a party theme


I blame the weather. The brittle, volatile autumn light you could snap with your fingers and crunch underfoot, has vanished. Outside my window, glowering, flabby clouds have gathered like great big scowling washerwomen; they’ve crossed their fat arms and have settled in for the day.

I’m cold. I met a man the other night who told me that when he retired he went to live in southern Spain, rented a finca in the middle of the countryside, and got the bus in and out of the city every day to a university where he studied Spanish literature. When he arrived there he had two words of Spanish, “dos cervezas”, a far cry from the linguistic jigsaw of Don Quixote.

I’d like to have talked to him some more, asked him if his brain felt like a shredded mantilla trying to assimilate all that language, the rapid Spanish on the college stairways that must have sounded like a riot of starlings.

But we were freezing our respective tooshes off, sitting outside a bar that was hosting a themed birthday party we were both attending, and he was wearing a blonde wig and a Johnny Logan-esque white suit, and it was difficult to concentrate with fingerless lace gloves waving around and legwarmers swinging back and forward.

And my backcombed hair was hurting and I’d so much kohl pencil rimming my rheumy eyes I could barely focus. And then people started singing Happy Birthday and we all tottered back inside in our party shoes, and I never did get to finish the conversation.

We were at a 1980s-themed 30th birthday, and the 30-year-olds all looked fabulous, a pastiche of Day-Glo and Flashdance and fluorescent tutus and diligent crimping. Meanwhile, those of us who had been around that particular block the first time were looking a little less perky.

It’s disorientating when a decade of your adult life gets transmuted into a party theme. If you had asked me then how the era would translate retrospectively, how it might all boil down into an evening’s entertainment, I’d have thought you’d been hitting the Cinzano a bit too hard. Why, I would’ve asked, would anyone want to revive a decade of unemployment and recession, of dizzying interest hikes and cheese mountains and milk lakes? Not to mention the shuddering mail boat to England and mad fares to America, where you hid out in Brooklyn, sweeping the floor in a diner hoping that the immigration man didn’t come in looking for his eggs easy-over.

I spent most of the 1980s waiting for buses that never appeared. I swear it rained for 10 years. You had to walk all the way to the end of George’s Street for a decent embattled feminist with a perm to give you a prescription for the pill, and no sooner had you heard the faint melody of sexual freedom on the damp air than those damn advertisements started pounding out of your television set.

A plague was on its way and if you’d had the temerity to share your bed with anything livelier than your hot-water bottle you were as dead as a Chernobyl daffodil. And to add insult to injury, the whole shebang was played out against a backtrack of REO Speedwagon.

The birthday girl was very lovely. She’d been wrapped in swaddling for a chunk of the 1980s and probably been rocked to sleep by the Eurythmics – it was entirely understandable that she might want to locate her birthday party in its tendrils.

Later, after we left, we walked across the city, breath frosting, sky black.

Earlier that afternoon, the same city streets had hosted marchers, protesters, a candle-wielding infantry.

Funny, decades march on, years fly, hours seem like minutes, the analogies are endless – but some things, it seems, never change.

From Granard to Galway, the news is as pig-swill awful as it was 20 years ago and our anger, it seems, has not diminished. There remains an overwhelming urge to grab the State by the lapels, pull its ragged fingernails from its mouth, compel it to live up to its duty.

But we’ve watched this mime show before.

There are still impoverished students and frozen pensioners; now, there’s also a nonsensical national debt that will be each and every one of our epitaphs. But this last week or so, man, that’s really taken the biscuit.

We may have acquired our credit cards, our half-built haciendas, our crucifying mortgages and our iPhones – but unfortunately we haven’t managed to shake off the ignominy.

Maybe this time will be different, maybe this time we will be allowed to grow up. Maybe this time we’ll gnaw through the shackles.

And maybe, one day, our offspring can have themed parties that don’t feel like a grim reminder of how our world keeps repeating itself.

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