Happy birthday to Her Majesty . . . and me

PUBLISHED: 09:36 07 June 2016 | UPDATED: 09:36 07 June 2016

Jan (in big hat) and her Tiffin 'gels'

Jan (in big hat) and her Tiffin 'gels'


Old friends are best . . . but new friends can be just as wonderful, as Jan Etherington is discovering in her new role as a Lady of the Village

As it’s the Queen’s official birthday, I accept that most of the cards will be popping through her letterbox, but I’d just like to point out that June is also my birthday month. I say ‘month’ because, in our family, a mere day was not considered nearly long enough for proper celebrations and we could rival the royals in forward planning.

Banners (more felt tip than heraldic) were draped across mantlepieces, some bearing warnings. ‘You’d hate yourself if you forgot!’ or ‘Only two sleeps to go!’. Secret arrangements were made, presents stashed, cakes and trifles whipped up, balloons inflated and my mother swept the path, so Interflora could get through.

I’ve inherited her belief that forgetting a birthday is a cardinal sin and singing down the phone, is mandatory. Oddly, I married a Scotsman who thinks we’re all barmy and birthdays are best ignored. It’s taken over 30 years to make him see that this attitude is not conducive to my happiness and at last he’s got round to buying a card. The surprise present is still in my realms of fantasy.

How to spend your birthday? I imagine the Queen doesn’t have a lot of choice. I wonder if she’d like to spend her day laughing with those who know her best, as I would. Lyndy, Elaine, Molly, Annie, Prudence, Ann, Carlina, Vivienne and I met on our first day at Tiffin Girls’ grammar school, Surrey. Half a century later, we still meet regularly – and always to celebrate birthdays.

Mostly, the ‘gels’ laugh a lot when we’re together. The last time we had to mop up tears was when one of us broke down at the inadequacy of her pension arrangements. Our lifelong history is unusual, because not every friend you make is forever. ‘School-gates’ friendships fade, neighbours move, interests change.

My mum nurtured her friends all her life. Every Friday, she phoned my godmother, Nira, her best friend from primary school. From her, all the family learned the importance of friendship. When my son got married in Australia, six of his school friends travelled across the world to the wedding and my daughter’s schoolmates are still her best friends. I remember the day she set off for ‘big school’ and I told her she would make lots of new friends. “I’ve got enough friends,” she announced. “I don’t want any more.” As we get older, that feeling returns – or at least, we think it’s unlikely we’ll form new bonds as strong as those we’ve already made. When Gavin and I moved from the Surrey suburbs to a Suffolk seaside village, we assumed that, at best, we’d probably end up on nodding acquaintance, perhaps, with our immediate neighbours. Forming new, deep fantastic friendships was not something we ever imagined would happen.

Nearly four years on and I can happily confirm that we were wrong. From the crazy, wild sea swimmers, to the village walking group, the spectacularly good artists and sparkling amateur actors, poets, pundits, philosophers and pianists, we have partied, walked, swum and mostly laughed with our smart, funny, kind, strong, brave, dog-loving new friends. Thanks to them all for offering warm friendship to us newbies.

What I especially love is that they share my mum’s passion for celebrating, at the slightest excuse. Birthday parties, for sea swimmers like me, start at sunrise on the beach with a cake, something fizzy and ‘Happy Birthday’, sung in three part harmony. It’s handy having an Ivor Novello award-winning composer in the group.

With old friends, yes, I have a long history, but I’m already making memories with my new best friends, and I hope the sea breezes will blow out our birthday candles until we reach Her Majesty’s great age – and beyond.

Jan Etherington’s column behind the Beach Huts appears every month in Suffolk Magazine

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