A couple of months ago a relative had a birthday and, being a few thousand miles away with nothing material here to send, I looked on Youtube for a suitable silly video. I found a compilation of birthday-cake disasters. You know, the child leans forward to blow out the candles and falls flat on his face into the cake. Or a leaf or leg of the table collapses and the cake slides to the floor, or the proud cake-bearing mother trips on the way in and…
It was with mixed feelings that I attached it to an e-mail. You see, when I was very young — perhaps three — I lived with my mother somewhere in London; Queens Park I think. Every Christmas she would take me to Bertram Mills’ circus at Earl’s Court. It would be night-time; she would wake me up and off we would go by the underground, a treat in itself. I still have a cartoonish ‘wonders of science’ image of a tunnel sloping down into the ground and then back up again at Earl’s Court, with a worm-like train running through it.
The circus was, perhaps still is, one of the world’s greatest: there were lions in a cage, with a jack-booted whip-wielding master; tightrope walkers and trapeze artists; elephants; bare-back riders standing on their horses in balletic poses as they galloped round the ring; and of course clowns. There was a famous one called Coco, a big man with enormous shoes. And there were dwarves or midgets (I’m never sure of the distinction) who ran round on little dachshund-like legs; it was still OK in those days to laugh at people who would now be called ‘Vertically challenged’ or some such.
There was one particular sketch the clowns did every year: one clown, whose birthday it was, would sit expectantly in the middle of the ring, and another would enter carrying an elaborate cake with great pinnacles of icing. He would trip and fall face-down in the cake; everyone would laugh uproariously.
Everyone except me. I would burst into tears, sometimes so inconsolably I had to be taken outside. My mother would try to get me to explain, and I would blurt out between sobs something about the waste of a lovely cake. But what was really distressing me was something for which I simply didn’t have the vocabulary, for which I couldn’t, in full consciousness, frame the concept, let alone find articulate expression: the disappointment of the birthday clown, and the mortification of his cake-bearing friend.
I suppose it sounds silly, trivial, or worse still precious, but its psychological significance for me is huge. I remember that for years afterwards I would re-enact the scene, making cakes out of paper and cardboard, enlisting my sister or my cousin to play the part of the birthday clown. (I was always the tripping cake-bearer.) I would do it over and over again, trying to exorcise something. I never succeeded.
It has left me with a horror of a child’s being disappointed, and an almost murderous rage against anyone who disappoints a child.
I don’t know; make of it what you will: I felt the need to write about it; perhaps this will be the exorcism I failed, back then, to achieve. Anyway, what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write whatever you feel like writing?