Magazine article The Spectator

Why a Crash Won't Hurt Us

Magazine article The Spectator

Why a Crash Won't Hurt Us

Article excerpt

IT is always sad to see a fine old game undermined by rampant materialism, but I never thought I would live to see the debasement of `pass the parcel'. In its simple form - many layers of paper torn off to reveal one prize of modest value - it seems to have died out. There are now many layers of paper, each containing sweets or some other prize, while at the heart of the parcel is some yet more sumptuous trophy.

In the old version, every child lost at this game, except for the lucky winner. Now there are no absolute losers: all shall have prizes - a message reminiscent of a politician trying to buy our votes, and one that is reinforced when each child receives, on going home, a party bag containing further goodies. `Party bags are awful, and they shoot up the cost,' one of my fellow Hampstead parents said to me. `But the thing I don't like - but I don't know how you deal with it - is that it does seem like a huge pile of presents for whoever's birthday it is. It does seem disgusting.'

The cost of the whole affair can be considerable. The number of guests at a six-- year-old's birthday party can reach 25 or 30, if the whole class is invited. Even if only ten children are asked, the total cost of the presents they bring can easily exceed 100. An American friend tells me that this `progressive exchange of more and more elaborate gifts that are then destroyed' is reminiscent of potlatch, a feast among certain North American Indians, at which, according to Brewer, `gifts are distributed lavishly to the guests while the hosts sometimes destroy some of their own valuable possessions. It is a social barbarity to refuse an invitation to a potlatch, or not to give one in return.'

The word potlatch, or potlach, is Chinook. The reader may already have observed that I am seeking, in these cursory notes, to suggest avenues for further research which energetic young doctoral students may wish to pursue. I am 43, an age at which the attractions of the broader brush become overwhelming, especially when one has two small children. To elucidate the origins of the party bag, which to me are lost in the mists of bachelorhood, could be the start of a promising academic career.

I would also like to know whether the Chinook, when holding a potlatch, felt obliged to hire an entertainer. In London, this is a very common proceeding among parents, and again can cost well over 1100. The motive is often fear. As my fellow Hampstead parent said, `At the age of four or five, the children start getting left at the party by their parents. That terrified me. That completely freaked me out. We had about 15 children, including some of the rowdier element from my daughter's school, so I had all these boys, a wildish kind of kid, running around, and I was frightened for their safety as well as our house. If you don't organise something, they just destroy the place. We spent about 200 on a kind of actressy person who told the kids a story and got them to act in it. Thank God I had her. She had the children eating out of the palm of her hand.'

Not every entertainer is so skilful. At an Outer Space party in a church hall in Islington, the father of the birthday boy had built a rocket out of plywood, while the mother had painted a 15-foot-wide representation of the solar system. But the crucial role of master of ceremonies, responsible for animating the space theme, had been awarded to a professional entertainer. According to the father, `She started them with three minutes of games. Then we had 20 minutes of eating: boys are very quick eaters. She then hoped to entertain these 20 sevenyear-old boys with things like face-painting. Within four minutes, they had completely wrecked the room. The poor woman was so traumatised that she just left without even taking her tape-recorder.'

The most expensive troupe of performers I have heard of will come to your house with exotic animals - a snake, a huge owl, a spider, a lizard - which sounds like fun, but costs about 500. …

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