In the 80s my Dad threw the best kids parties in the whole of Cambridge. Our birthdays were legendary. Each one had a full-on theme… we’re not just talking about a couple of hats and a paper tablecloth. No, these parties involved several months of preparation and a full week in which parts of the house were gradually transformed. There were always grottos. These were created by moving pieces of furniture into unusual places and hanging blankets and sheets everywhere. Pathways were formed through wardrobes, under beds and across ladders. It was magical.

My little sister, Susie, and I have our birthdays one week apart – so we did one grand party day a year – one straight after the other. At the pirate party we had to follow my older brother, Anthony, in full character as ‘Old Judd’ around the garden in an epic treasure hunt while singing sea shanties. My sister Alison, armed with a megaphone, embodied the voice of the dragon behind an elaborate red screen which lit up to resemble fire as she spoke. At this particular party, the landing and our bedroom was transformed into a pirate cave grotto where an elaborate naming ceremony took place. Dad created a game in which each child had two parts of a name and could win the right to swap name parts with others, before officially being named. We were no longer Eleanor and Lorraine, but Blind Jesse and Cutthroat Rex. Caroline Crossley was very upset at becoming Stinker Pete and cried for much of the party. On the same day, Paola Barbieri had to be removed from the bed slats in which she’d become jammed. She had been left behind in the grotto as she was at the back of the line and it was about 15 minutes until anyone heard her screams. She went home early. That was not unusual. There were always casualties.

The party that really went down in history was Dad’s last hurrah – the Astronaut’s party. Children were met in the driveway and ushered into the garage – or “Astronaut Training Centre” as it was renamed. There the party-goers performed a series of physical tests – including pulling on an industrial weight spring balance – designed to see how much weight they could carry. Each astronaut was bedecked in full astro-kit including bin-bag suit with various tin foil attachments. In addition each child was required to carry part of a paving slab to present as a gift to the god of the planet we were to visit. This was the point at which Dad started to disperse the crowd of curious and anxious parents, who had congregated on the driveway. When everyone was kitted up, it was time to enter the space-craft – a.k.a. the utility room. We were pressed up next to each other in the tiny space. The combined noise of the washing machine on a spin cycle, the hand-held dustbuster and my Dad’s narrative made several children believe we actually were heading into outer-space and wondering if they’d be back in time for tea. The only light came from the bicycle lamps we had attached to our heads, which only served to augment the atmosphere. 

When we landed, we cautiously entered a new world… Planet Ixos. A ladder, which had been placed across half of the stairs, had to be scaled. I remember Mum grumbling earlier in the week because she couldn’t easily bring the early morning tea-tray upstairs whilst having to climb the ladder. The other half of the stairs had been made into a tunnel, for our descent, so that was no easier for Mum. Once the mountain had been topped, we made our way through a shadowy world where we met the first of several characters. My Dad was the headteacher of a local comprehensive school at the time and would rope in pupils to play parts in the worlds he would create. Two girls with prosthetics and peeling skin met us by the bathroom. They introduced themselves as Guardians and explained that before we were permitted to explore the planet further, we’d have to present our gifts to the god. A rope ladder suddenly appeared and gasps were heard as the assembled astronauts realised they were required to journey into the loft. 

Now before this party, the loft was a sea of fibre-glass and even my Dad thought it unwise for  twelve 9-year olds to traverse it. So during the party preparation period he had boarded and carpeted the whole thing. Strange lighting had been erected and a giant screen hid another pupil – The God. Dad managed to get hold of some sort of voice-changer, which distorted and amplified the teenager’s speech, so when God spoke it was pretty awe-inspiring. The paving slabs were duly offered, and we thankfully descended – much lighter and considerably relieved to leave behind strange boy-God and his guardians with the peeling skin. 

Lunch with the King of Planet Ixos, another pupil, had been arranged, but this was no ordinary party food.  No, we had to sit in the King’s grotto (of course) while, the guardians – who had popped up again – brought us Ixosian ‘delicacies’.  The menu is burned in my mind as it was the most memorable meal I or any of my friends had ever had. The four main courses were as follows:

  1. Pickled onions and gherkins in hot chocolate sauce.
  2. Bananas wrapped in melted cheese.
  3. Sausages in strawberry jelly.
  4. Chicken nuggets in ice cream.

There were also two drinks, which is all that most guests could stomach. Personally I felt that the chicken nuggets in ice cream were quite special and managed quite a few chocolaty pickled onions. But the sausages in strawberry jelly were the most repulsive thing imaginable. Many called for sick buckets and spittoons. Dad thought we were making a fuss and being bad sports. Later on that night, he had a spoonful of the cursed jelly – to prove how palatable it was – immediately spat it out and then spent the next ten minutes laughing uncontrollably. I think the sausages in jelly were the nail in the party coffin. The next year I had a board games tournament instead, with normal party food. I doubt I would have had any guests otherwise.