It’s my birthday today, so today I am, officially, old.
When you have had several dozen birthdays, as I have, it’s difficult to get too excited about another one clicking past. However, given the importance of today’s milestone, I spent a few minutes this morning pondering and reflecting on how many of my birthdays I could actually remember. There aren’t many.
I can remember my 18th birthday which was memorable for all of the wrong reasons. In Britain, you can legally drink alcohol at the age of 18, so for many young people, their 18th birthday is a good excuse for going out and getting drunk, just because you legally can. Now, I cannot claim to have been a complete stranger to the inside of public bars, even before my 18th year, but there was still a certain frisson about finally reaching the legal age.
My 18th was a very sober affair.
In order to have a ‘safety net’, in case I didn’t get into University, I had applied for a commission as an officer in the Royal Navy. I spent three days at a selection board in Portsmouth, where I underwent all sorts of mathematical, psychological and language tests, interviews and practical exercises, designed to establish whether I was a fit person to wear Her Majesty’s uniform and float off into the sunset on one of Her majesty’s ships.
I remember that six of us young men we spent one whole morning in a gym, where two ‘river banks’ had been chalked out on the floor. I was put in charge of the other five other applicants for this particular test. We were told that, on the opposite side of this imaginary raging river, there was a man dying of thirst. Our job was to get a bucket of water across the ‘river’ using only a plank, two oil drums and a short piece of rope.
As this exercise progressed, all sorts of assessors made notes on clipboards. I remember wondering at the time why if our unfortunate man was so thirsty, he didn’t just get a drink out of the raging torrent that separated his side of the imaginary river from ours, but that didn’t seem to impress our Navy supervisors.
One of the other candidates in our group was the son of a Royal Navy captain, (captains, apparently, are the ones who drive the boats), and he had obviously been well prepared for the rigours of the selection board. When we were sitting in the waiting room before our final board interviews with a panel of high-ranking officer sitting behind a huge polished table, my captain’s son colleague spent his time memorizing the names of all the battleships pictured on the walls of the waiting room, just in case he was asked to recite them.
One of the questions that I remember being asked by one senior officer was whether I had had any naval experience. I was 18 years old and had lived almost all of my life in Swansea, a small fishing port, not exactly a centre of navy activity. I replied that I had no real naval experience other than a fairly disastrous family holiday in a cabin cruiser on the River Thames when I was about 12. I remembered that my dad had managed to sink a punt by crashing our boat into it as we tried to manoeuvre into a lock. I asked whether this counted as “naval experience.” I didn’t get a straight answer.
Anyway, the upshot was that, much to my surprise, I was offered a commission, subject to my passing a stringent medical examination, for which I had to travel to London – on the day after my 18th birthday! How unfair was that?
So that was my 18th.
I’ve never been one to make a fuss about my birthdays. When I was growing up, birthdays were recognised in our family until you were about 16 years old and after that no-one paid much attention. I think it was my 30th or 31st birthday, shortly after Linda and I started living together, when my parents came to visit us for the first time. Seeing a birthday card on the mantelpiece, my mother asked “Whose birthday is it?” “Robert’s,” answered Linda. “Oh, happy Birthday, son.”
After that we need to fast forward thirty years or so to my 60th. I remember that birthday because Linda arranged an air-balloon trip over Northampton as a surprise birthday treat. Over the years, I’ve met people who have sailed in air balloons over the Serengeti in Tanzania, or over Victoria Falls in Zambia or even over the Grand Canyon in America, but I have never met anyone who has flown over Northampton in the English Midlands, so that’s pretty special.
And then last year was memorable because we found ourselves in Singapore, where we had to spend a couple of days in order to collect our visas for Papua New Guinea. There is a famous hotel in Singapore which has a swimming pool on its roof, so we checked out of the back-packer hotel into which VSO had booked us, and spent the night at the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, just so that we could use their pool. I have to say it was the most expensive swim of my life, but it’s not every day that you can wallow in a swimming pool and look town on the sky-scrapers of a major city.
And so we come to today, my 65th birthday, which started with an expression of outrage! Grumpy Old Men Rule! Before breakfast, I turned on my home computer, like I do every morning, to check for any emails that might have come in during the night. Much to my consternation, I found that the normal Google logo has been replaced with a design made up of cakes, with the message “Happy Birthday, Robert,” on it!
How dare they? How did they know? Am I not permitted any privacy in this Brave New World? If the Lords of Google think they were cheering me up on my birthday by this example of corporate cyber-jollity, they were wrong. I felt invaded by a communications giant who presumes to intrude into every aspect of my private domain. They have already given themselves the right to photograph my house and publish the picture on Streetview for the rest of the world to see. Did I agree to that? No, I didn’t? Am I happy that there is a picture of my house on the internet that shows a large crack over the front, downstairs window, (long since repaired, I should add)? No, I am not. Who do these people think they are?
I was pleased to note on the news today that Google are being sued in the European Court for unfair business practice, because when someone searches for something, like a new washing machine, on Google, the washing machines from companies that have paid Google are always the first to flash up on the screen before the consumer gets to read any further. I hope Google loses its case and is heavily fined. I hope they get taken to the cleaners, (if you’ll pardon the pun.)
I also understand that in Germany many people have insisted that their houses be removed from Google Streetview. So now I have a task for this year – to get Google to take my house off their world-wide snooper maps. Well, a man has to have an ambition!