Class conscious

When, during my northern boyhood, my birthday arrived, I would keep pretty quiet about it in the hope of avoiding "the bumps".

This involved being bounced on the small of your back by the four biggest boys in the school, each holding one limb. There was one bump for every year of your age, and the final bump was the worst because, for this one, the lads just chucked you way up in the air and then sort of walked away.

If my parents had told anyone else it was my birthday, I would have seen their behaviour as an act of treachery, but things are different at the primary school attended by my two young children, which is not private but has a very middle-class catchment. Here the norm is to trumpet your child's birthday a month in advance with an invitation, ideally conceived and executed by the kid in question.

At the ensuing party, the parents are expected to provide a smart function room, decent wine for any parents who wish to hang around, a children's entertainer who is not an oddball (a particularly tall order, this) and going-away presents for the children.

A few years ago, I think, parents could get away with handing out bits of crumbly cake in a damp doily to the departing young guests, but now the party bags are expected to contain at least one substantial toy. Increasing social competitiveness, in fact, means that in all departments, the children's party has become a PR stunt for the host family, as my five-year-old son - who's just had one of these big production numbers given in his name for the first and (between you and me, reader) last time - is finding out.

As I write, he sits in his bedroom, with the demeanour of an oppressed executive (calling for drinks, tugging at his hair, agonising over his workload), as he appends his wobbly signature to thank-you notes. The thank-you note signed by the young child is the classic denouement of the middle-class children's party, demonstrating not only the gratefulness of the birthday boy, but also (and much more to the point, I fear) that his literacy is coming along nicely, thank you very much.

This article first appeared in the 23 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Blessed are the pure in heart