Ingredients for a surprising day

Take a date 2 months earlier than the event being celebrated, for maximum surprise factor.
Ensure those co-ordinating possess epic planning skills.
Find an excellent group of people who can keep secrets and sustain the surprise.
Maximise contacts who can enhance the day immeasurably.
Allow to brew for several months, then watch the surprising day unfold…

It has become Clutterbuck practice that 30th birthdays are celebrated in surprising way. This time 3 years ago, I had just discovered that I was being taken to Paris to celebrate mine. Time seems to have flown, and since Christmas, plans have been afoot to celebrate my sibling’s approaching birthday.

Our birthdays are late July, but thanks to her planned excursion to America’s East Coast and the limits of school holidays for a teacher, we fixed upon a date nearly 2 months before the day she actually turns 30. There was no Eurostar to Paris, but instead, a couple of days in London doing fun things – the nature of which she was completely kept in the dark about.

You might be thinking that a day in London doesn’t really compare with a weekend in Paris, but if you add in enough surprises, it does. Mim is terribly at weasling information out of people (in that she’s very, very good at it), so keeping things secret was an absolute imperative. Knowledge was strictly on a need-to-know basis – even her husband and father remained utterly clueless, just in case! But all involved kept the day’s plans under their hat and, my goodness, it was worth it!

Mim thought she was having 24 hours of fun with her sibling and mother – which she did, but with many extra lovely people thrown in too. We lulled her into a false sense of security with dinner and cocktails the night before. Mum took her on a nail-biting trip on the Emirates Skyline the next morning (how I wish I’d been with them to see their reactions – neither like heights), followed by a boat trip down the Thames, en route to meet me for brunch at our favourite bread themed restaurant. All good.

Bar buddies Cocktails for three. Obviously. 

The surprises of a trip on the London Eye (her very first), afternoon tea and concluding with a trip to see Les Mis would probably have been more than satisfactory. After all, she must be one of the last drama teachers not to have seen the world’s longest running musical! But what made the day especially surprising was the steady drip of surprises…

  • The arrival of four unexpected friends while we took a tea break at the RFH. The mother of two of our favourite friends might have been a coincidence, but it was soon clear that her daughters were due to arrive any minute. Their company might have been predictable (although nonetheless very appreciated), but the appearance of Mim’s favourite uni chum was not. I patted myself on the back for that effort.
  • Tickets for the London Eye were distributed. Mim suspected this might be on the schedule, but still, she didn’t know for sure.
  • Arriving at our afternoon tea destination and being greeted with “two of your party have already arrived” – Mim may have thought our party was complete, but no. Some people had even made the journey from Gloucester to celebrate.
  • Gloucester friends’ London based eldest daughter was an added bonus, arriving during a Prosecco break at my flat.
  • A dash through the West End culminating in the distribution of tickets for a long-loved show – courtesy of another of Mim’s uni chums who sourced the tickets for us. In his words “Anything for Mim!”

Girls on the EyeOn board the Eye.

I love it when a good plan comes together. I love it even more when it’s abundantly clear that absolutely everyone has had an excellent time – not just the birthday girl!

Tea Time


A jubilee surprise – or two

I love a good surprise, thing is, not everyone appreciates them. In our family, it’s well known that our Dad is not a fan. [Christmas Day 2000, my Dad receives a copy of ‘How to train your puppy’ and a dog lead, indicating that his wish to own a labrador is finally being fulfilled. He spent the rest of the day asking my mother worriedly if she was sure…] However, our Mum is a fan – I still delight in the memory of my surprise visit over to Belfast nearly four years ago.

Birthdays are meant to be full of surprises, but mostly they’re restricted to presents. Mum certainly had her fair share of those – Dad did well with a spa day for her imminent trip to Oz, while the daughters excelled themselves with a monogrammed purple leather satchel (she thought we were psychic!). But there were two other surprises that took a fair amount of sororal networking and organisation…

Firstly, the birthday cake. Now, you’d think a birthday cake would be a logical thing to organise for a 60th birthday party, wouldn’t you? Not if you follow my father’s logic of thinking, apparently. Mum was organising the bulk of the festivities (Dad doesn’t really do parties) but refused to organise the cake (understandably). We ascertained less than 2 weeks before the big day that no cake had been ordered – the reply to our email asking if there was one said “do you think she wants one?”. People ALWAYS want birthday cake!

That night, around 11.30pm, I fired off an email to two of my mother’s friends in Belfast asking for help. Within half an hour, we had a response from both of them and a potential cake contact. To quote Mim’s Facebook status the following morning: ‘Mim loves that urgent cake-related emails get instant replies.’  Within a few days we had an excellent cake maker on board, in fact, the baker of cakes for Mum’s favourite Belfast cafe. It was collected under false auspices and went down a treat at both parties. [Yes, my mother had two birthday parties on the same day…she wasn’t going to be outdone by the monarch.]

Yes, I failed to get a photo of the birthday cake.

The other surprise was person, or people, related. Amongst the invitees to the parties were our former next-door neighbours in Gloucester. They sadly declined, on the grounds that they were off to Verona later in the week and Belfast’s a long way from Gloucester, which was fair enough. However, in the month leading up to the big day, a plan was hatched – I was to meet Juliet and Doris at Birmingham International and take the same flight over on the Sunday morning and they’d return with Mim the following day. Dad knew, so that room arrangements could be made, but Mum had no idea.

Arriving from the airport, we sent Doris up to the front door while we hid behind the car. A squeal from Mum alerted us to her reaction – she genuinely couldn’t believe her eyes! Bless. (We tried to persuade Doe to greet her with “I heard there was cake, and lots of it.” but I think she was too overwhelmed.) It really was the icing on the cake of a very special day – and illustrated just how duplicitous we Clutterbucks can be…

Guest of honour – using her first ever ‘proper cup’ (with extended pinky) 
and enjoying a triple-layer cream scone.

The dangers of surprises

Surprises are tricky things. Some people just don’t like them – like my Dad (it’s a good job the last surprise I sprang on my parents was aimed more at my mother than him…), and other surprises have to be done in the right way in order for them to be appreciated properly. For example, when surprising me with a weekend in Paris, my Mum & sister sensibly gave me a month’s warning so that I could plan my trip (I love surprises, but I like planning travel itineraries even more). I adore surprises – it’s why I have an Amazon wishlist, so people don’t have to ask what I want as a gift (yet still ensuring that it’s something I actually want). Surprises are definitely something I’d love to have more of in my life.

Birthday surprises are particularly tricky. Make it a total surprise and you run the risk that the recipient will think that everyone’s forgotten them and make most of their special day utterly miserable. A recent addition to the 30 Club was given a surprise of this variety, but luckily they’d twigged that something was up – otherwise I’d have feared for the consequences. This past weekend saw another 30th surprise, but I was worried for a different reason – the birthday girl seemed very keen to ignore the day, what if she resented the sudden appearance of several of her closest friends?

In the end, it was a fabulous day. The plan was well orchestrated by birthday girl’s sister – all we were doing was joining her family on an already planned day out involving the Lord Mayor’s Show and fireworks. (Well done London for putting on such a spectacular event in honour of Jenni’s 30th!) Jenni was suitably shocked and there were squeals and tears – all in all, it had the desired effect.

Should you ever be in London on the second Saturday of November, I highly recommend catching the Lord Mayor’s procession. It’s a eccentric bit of London history (it’s taken place for over 800 years) and involves all the classic bits of English pageantry that tourists assume happens all the time – marching military bands, people in odd clothes, gold carriages, plenty of horses (also in odd clothes), floats carrying scantily clad women, oh, and Stephen Fry…

To quote Gill (whose Dad took this photo): “IT’S STEPHEN FRY”
(He heard, turned round and waved – bless him.) 

We were rather late to the party, passing through the Strand as people began relax after the parade, but passed the Royal Courts just as the Lord Mayor arrived so got a glimpse of the main piece of action. We also caught some of the procession on its return, as we made our way to Pizza Express and phase two of the birthday celebration. On our way to surprise the birthday girl, we also came across a surprising roadblock: 
Did you know the MET have regulation board shorts? 

The other element of the Lord Mayor’s ‘thing’ is a fireworks display over the Thames. Unlike the New Year’s display, you can get an excellent viewing point simply by turning up an hour before it kicks off. We were right in the middle of Waterloo bridge, meaning that we had a totally unobscured view of the fireworks exploding from a barge in front of us. There are a few things you ought to be aware of though:
  • Coffee places near the bridge get very busy immediately prior to the fireworks. Nipping off for hot beverages 45 minutes before the display may sound reasonable – in actual fact it means you’ll get stuck in an abnormally long queue and then get prevented from crossing the bridge due to the crowds that have congregated in your absence.
  • Old ladies can have very sharp elbows and few manners. While trying to preserve space for the beverage-getters, we had to see off a few potential invaders. In most cases the ‘saving space dance’ and loud talk of the returning friends “who were here first, but have gone to buy tea” sufficed, but one particular lady could not be deterred. She pushed, poked and prodded – nearly knocking over Jules in the process – and was generally rather annoying. [We weren’t utterly heartless though. Once it became clear that they weren’t coming back, we let her in – but she could have asked nicely and said thank-you though.] 
  • Standing on a bridge leaves you rather exposed to the elements. It was windy and this meant that not only was it chilly, but the fireworks were blown in our direction – slightly nerve wrecking. 
  • Birthday biscuits are an excellent firework accompaniment. 
  • People will always get carried away with taking photos of the sparkly things, especially if their camera has a firework setting… 

On the left, my firework setting; on the right, Gill’s ‘proper’ photo.

The loss of the beverage-getters had one advantage, it enabled them to purchase something without which no birthday would be complete: champagne. (Ok, so it was cava, sue me…) Of course, for al fresco champagne drinking, one needs appropriate receptacles and what better than some Starbucks red cups? 
It looks like I was a little dubious of the ethics of the situation…
(Or, wondering if anyone would notice that I’d somehow acquired two cups.)

Happy birthday Jenni! 

I ♥ surprises…

…and planning.

Yesterday’s day of birthday surprises in honour of my mother went well. We strolled happily through a very sunny London; spent nearly three hours engrossed in afternoon tea; drank cocktails; and spent the evening watching Alison Steadman cavorting about the stage in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (highly recommended, though it closes this month). What I had not expected, on returning from the bathroom somewhere between pots three and four of Ceylon tea, was the appearance of a parcel and card addressed to me.

Opening it, I discovered a card containing a train ticket and a cryptic (ok, not so much cryptic as written in small writing around the edge of the inside) message plus Drina Dances in Paris – a volume of one of my favourite childhood series. This package also solved a mystery I had been pondering for several months – what I’d be getting up to over the weekend of July 9th…

On February 21st, I was sent an e-mail from ‘birthdaysecrets at hotmail…’ informing me that a surprise was being planned for my forthcoming 30th and asking me to state my availability across a series of summer dates. Later, I had further e-mails confirming dates and instructing me to await further information. I told a few people of this intriguing development – several thought it was some form of elaborate hoax – while others encouraged me to guess what it was.

The thing is, I’m a canny bean and I noted various factors:

  • The first e-mail was sent during a weekend when my mother was staying with my sister.
  • The writing style was similar to my sister’s.
  • My parents announced that they were holidaying in England this year, beginning on July 8th.
  • It’s well known that I’ve never been to Paris and it’s high on my list of places to visit.

I didn’t put too much effort into cementing these guesses – I love surprises and liked the effort that was being put into it. However, I did test the Paris guess (one friend having pointed out that I might be bitterly disappointed), when I had a week of in March and went to the spa, I mentioned in passing to both my mum and sister that I’d toyed with the idea of a spontaneous trip to Paris. In reality I was too tired for Paris and didn’t have enough time to plan (a fact I mention to them too) but they stood firm and didn’t let on.

But why not surprise me at St Pancras on the day itself? Well, although I love surprises, I’m also passionate about forward planning and organisation – especially where travel is concerned. So, in addition to the childhood Parisian clue, I’ve been left a Dorling Kindersley guidebook so I can decide on an itinerary. Fabulous.

And it gets better. When sharing my news with a friend this morning, he pointed out that I would be missing out on the essential pre-travel trip to Stanfords (or Daunts) for travel guides. However, on closer inspection I’ve discovered that the guidebook is in fact the one my mum and sister took with them on their mini-break to Paris in 2000 (published in 1997, it contains references to Francs) so while it will be fantastic in the city (DK are brilliant for details) I can justify buying a small guidebook of my own too – which can be added to my collection. Trips to Stamfords are also useful for the purchasing of travel journals, though I’m not sure that a weekend trip justifies a journal – aforementioned friend suspected I do one anyway, he may be right.

So yes, I will make it to Paris before I’m 30. I will make my first trip over the channel since 2003 and my first time on French soil since 1996 – I feel I’ve been neglecting continental Europe somewhat. Tips on what to do during a summer weekend in Paris would be appreciated, am I right in thinking that the Louvre can wait? Is wanting to go up the Eiffel Tower utterly touristy? Is it wrong to only eat croissants, baguette and cheese all weekend? Most of all, how far will a GCSE in French get me? (I suspect people will not be terribly interested in the many fascinating facts I can explain about Gloucester…Gloucester cette une ville moyenne dans le sud-ouest d’Angleterre. Il y a beaucoup de distractions en Gloucester, il y a une piste de ski artificiel...) Do let me know.

In the mean time, I’ll be revelling in the reading of an old favourite and, in about 24 hours, ruing the fact that the rest of the series is in Belfast.

Surprising Friday Fun

I love surprises – presents, unexpected visitors, random happenings – anything to make my life a little more exciting. What follows is a collection of videos, all of which have some sort of surprise element. Of course, in telling you that there’s a surprise coming, I have completely spoiled it for you, but nevermind…

A wedding surprise (in a good way)
Last Saturday, I should have been at an amazing wedding. Instead, I sat through nearly 6 hours of meetings (and I left early, if I hadn’t it would’ve been over 7 hours) and then went to the glamorous 1930s party. Fortunately, one of the best moments of the wedding was captured on video – no, not the vows, the couple’s first dance:

That, people, is what I’d expect from a rather fabulous couple and a particularly talented bride. How much do I wish that I’d seen that in flesh (and been able to dance into the evening with everyone else too). I know the insertion of the surprise/comedy dance is becoming a bit of a tired theme, but I think these guys pull it off with considerable flair – you really need to watch it to its end. Congrats to the Titcheners!

Musical surprises in two parts
It’s practically Christmas, and thus in classical circles this means it’s Messiah time. I’ve never totally understood the obsession choral societies have for performing it at this time of year, but it’s nice to have the consistency. Here we have a random act of culture, in which the combined force of Philadelphia’s choirs take over the city’s branch of Macy’s for a flash mob rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. Fabulous.

Could someone please explain to me how a massive pipe organ ended up in a Macy’s? Very bizarre, but loving the random old ladies singing their hearts out. It did make me wish someone would do a flash mob singalong with the gospel version, that would be all kinds of awesome. Not heard of the gospel Messiah? In 1994, America’s best gospel artistes teamed up to produce a gospel version of the classic choral work – Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration. Sadly, it’s hard to locate, but I have found the Hallelujah chorus on Spotify.

In a flash mob musical event closer to home, here’s a T Mobile advert which caused quite a stir at Heathrow – beautiful. It’s reminiscent of the lovely moments in Love Actually and reinforces my desire to be met on arrival at an airport and be swept off my feet (this is not what happens when I arrive at Belfast airport to visit my parents).

It may seem like these three videos are only tenuously linked, when in fact there is a logic (of course). The first video took place in my church, the second is Christmassy, the third includes the wonderful Swingle Singers (you can see them more clearly in action here) – in just two weeks time all three will come together (the church, Christmas and the Swingle Singers) for a totally awesome carol service. I’m rather excited – can you tell?

Hopefully this little lot will brighten up your Friday. It’s certainly brought some joy to my life on a morning which may prove to be rather testing (and I’m not even at work, that’s how unfair this morning is, but if I will bring these things upon myself…).