The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts is a good place for me to spend a birthday. It’s in the University of East Anglia, and it’s a beautiful, calming and creative place. I recommend its Elisabeth Frink exhibition, Humans and Other Animals, that I went to see with a little posse of my youngest kids, my wife and a few friends last Wednesday. I love Norwich, and the Sainsbury Centre is one place I always go to.
Frink was a major English sculptor and printmaker of the last century and her heads are particularly big and thoughtful. Her drawings and prints are likewise strong and engaging.
The centre’s permanent collection is well worth a visit, combining modern with what used to be called ‘primitive’, but I can’t remember the new word for this dismissive one. Here, you have a mixture of art in a creative display, with objects standing with drawings and oils.
On my birthday it’s exactly 50 years to the day, according to the Financial Times and other publications, since The Beatles played for the last time together. It was on the roof of Apple Corps headquarters near Piccadilly Circus, at 3 Savile Row, 1969.
I remember the morning well. I was working as an all-night washer-up in a hotel on Kensington High Street. I’d left work at 8am and didn’t go back to my room in the World’s End, Chelsea. Instead, I took the bus to the West End, had another breakfast, and mouched around. I heard the noise from the roof. And then I saw the crowds. I was told it was The Beatles and wandered into this historical moment – and then wandered out – never having liked The Beatles much.
I went back to my room and climbed into bed, and later went to see the girl who would become the mother of two of my five children and who completely and utterly changed my life – from police-avoiding drifter to stable taxpayer. And then on to social entrepreneur and crossbench peer.
My World’s End room was like the kind that Samuel Beckett might have imagined for one of his characters. Peeling paint and mice. A house much like the one I was born in, which was destroyed by the developer’s ball. But I was happy, for I had stability and I was living with a Jamaican family, not long off the HMT Empire Windrush and who treated me as an equal.
Nineteen forty-eight was the snowiest birthday but I was only two years old so didn’t remember it. We were living in the slums of Notting Hill and apparently my mother spent the day in a large tea shop in Westbourne Grove, begging cigarettes and nursing cups of tea. The day ended with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in India. A man who refused security and was gunned down by an Indian nationalist who thought Gandhi did too much for others, rather than his own.
Were The Beatles that important? I struggled against how profound an influence they had on us, and on world history. They were in one sense an expression of how people wanted new products; clothes, music, perhaps drugs, and what was called ‘youth power’. More consumerism packaged as ‘self-expression’.
Were The Beatles that important? I struggled against how profound an influence they had on us, and on world history
The Amazon of their time, but with a nicer face. Maybe that’s a bit too flash, but it captures the change that overwhelmed the world.
The year before on my birthday, the Việt Cộng overran Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, and the slow defeat of the USA was on the cards. What a puncturing of American prestige as a controller of what was called the ‘Free World’. But they came back materially and expanded the American high street, their McDonaldsisation of our own communities. Money and wealth and trillionairism has created hundreds of them, from the US outwards, following the defeat of the USA in South-East Asia.
There was no snow on January 30 1969, the day The Beatles threw in the towel as a stand-alone group. I went to a Chelsea pub with my girlfriend, worried about policemen, and drank too much.
In total, more than 92,000 people have sold The Big Issue since 1991 to help themselves work their way out of poverty – more than could fit into Wembley Stadium.
A few years before on my birthday, the world of London came to a standstill as they carried Britain’s last great hero through London, up the Thames, and on to his last resting place at Bladon, burying Sir Winston Churchill on this very birthday day of mine.
Was there a pattern developing? Wasn’t I born on a day that echoed through history?
Of course, I knew about Adolf Hitler coming to power on January 30 1933 (when president Paul von Hindenburg appointed him as chancellor) 13 years before I was born. But hey, this was expanding out.
And of course, I have the same birthday as Franklin D Roosevelt who, at the same time as Hitler, came to power was waiting to become the 32nd of the US leaders; a man who would lead America into the Second World War.
Then a few years later, Stalin had his Moscow Trials on the same day, which destroyed the military leadership of the Soviet Army, the Old Bolshevik party leaders and top officials of the Soviet secret police.
And now all these years later, I sit with a friend of mine and his wife, and my wife and my kids, and we talk about all manner of things, hoping to get the best out of Brexit.
Brexit, which would never have happened if it wasn’t for big things in history that had happened on my birthday; historical events linked to the Second World War which slaughtered many in Europe, and then – in its recreation – a Europe that came into being and morphed into a Union.
And then of course, the UK joined and there was an increasing amount of people who felt it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
I’m sure all these little strands also came together in some way in our decision to leave the EU. History, as know, is all about ingredients.
Happy birthday to you.