Josna Rege

110. The Party

In 1970s, Britain, Food, Music, Stories on May 15, 2011 at 1:28 am

London, early summer, 1974: It was the first party I had ever thrown. My parents had always thrown parties, lively, generous ones with music and dancing and lots of food and drink. At least, they danced in Greece; in the United States, where, to my mother’s disappointment, people their age didn’t dance at parties, they heaped the dining table with enough to feed the guests for a week, served tray upon tray of savory delicacies, and talked animatedly late into the night. When we were children my mother would organize birthday parties for us that our friends remembered for years afterwards, complete with treasure hunts and games like Squeak Piggy Squeak and jeweled jellies wobbling on the plate. Now I was nineteen and all winter and spring I had been living entirely by myself for the first time in a posh studio flat on Albert Street, in the gentrified part of Camden Town. I had promised friends and family alike that before I went back to America I would give a party, and so after my exams were over I set a date and started making preparations.

First I went down to the Friday street market off the Camden High Street, bought pounds of pink, glistening prawns off a man at one of the stalls, and brought them home wrapped in newspaper. Then I procured rice and peas, potatoes and tomatoes, onions, cashews, and raisins and made sure that I had a good stock of spices: cinnamon and cloves, cardamom and coriander, fresh ginger and garlic. Using the recipes for prawn curry and pullao rice that Mum had written out for me before I left for my year in England, I made a huge batch of each, following her instructions to the letter.

I had invited a diverse crowd, including my friend Barbara and her parents Bob and Ruby, our neighbors from the year I had attended high school in the suburbs of Hertfordshire; Cliff and Dot, some of our oldest and dearest family friends, through whom my parents had met; James and Anna, my avant-garde film-maker landlord and his lovely, extroverted wife—an intelligent woman with a certain dizzy, distracted air whom everyone fell in love with; and an assortment of aunts, uncles, and cousins, even those who weren’t normally on speaking terms with each other, since ours was a close-knit family who loved to feud. I was a little apprehensive about how they would all get on, England being a highly stratified society where people of different classes might live cheek by jowl but would never meet or mingle socially.  But because we were the only branch of my mother’s side of the family who lived out of the country we remained close with almost everyone (I say almost, because even my mother, the peacemaker of the family, was not altogether free of the feuding instinct). But I set my fears aside and instead concentrated on laying on enough food that there would be no risk of anyone going hungry and concocting a prawn curry that would make everybody forget their differences.

The day of the party dawned and preparations went into full swing. My cousin Jacky, who was in medical school up in Liverpool, arrived first. My Uncle Ted, her father, had kept us apart as much as possible, afraid that I, living alone as an occasional student in the big, bad city, might be a bad influence on her, but she disengaged herself from her studies for a weekend and threw herself into cleaning and clearing, utterly disarming my usually taciturn landlord with her openness and charming naiveté.  I changed into my party dress,  a sea-green, clingy cotton-knit nightgown I had just bought from Biba, the fashion emporium on Kensington High Street that I thought the height of sophistication. (Biba was far too expensive for me, but fortunately  I was small enough to shop in the children’s department, which sold the same designs for a fraction of the price.) Finally the guests began arriving, dressed to the nines (especially Auntie Bette) and bearing food and drinks that soon crammed my small fridge and overflowed onto every surface in the small flat, turning my prawn curry and rice into a huge, multi-course feast.

I needn’t have worried about the guest list; soon everyone had shed their coats and their inhibitions, and were all talking at once, huddled on my single-bed-cum-divan having heart-to-hearts, swaying and singing and eating together, filling the kitchen and spilling out into the front hall. The older generation were tolerant and expansive, remembering fondly their Bohemian parties with my parents before my sister and I were born; my relatives flirted with my landlords and my landlords flirted right back. Mothers and daughters chatted and giggled, uncles refilled mugs of beer, and everybody lost count of their helpings of prawn curry, telling me that I had outdone myself and that this batch was every bit as good as my mother’s.

We had music, of course, though I can’t quite remember what we played or who provided the sound system. What we must have sung: surely (Wa-wa-wa-wa) Waterloo, the song by the new Swedish band ABBA that had just won the Eurovision Song Contest a few months before, and some of the older favorites, like Mary Hopkin’s nostalgic Those Were the Days and the Beatles’ mantra-like Hey Jude. I imagine that at a certain point in the festivities the older generation reverted to Cockney rhyming slang and old numbers like (Come, come, come and make eyes at me) Down at the Old Bull and Bush; and I’d like to think that Auntie Bette finally penetrated James’ reserve and showed him how to get up on a table and have a good old knees-up.

At some point the noise, the excitement and, eventually, the fatigue, must have overwhelmed me. I remember only vaguely the first of the guests calling out their goodbyes, and the next thing I knew I was waking up in broad daylight to an empty flat that looked as if a tornado had passed through it. I roused myself with an effort and surveyed the damage. The prawn curry had been completely polished off, but there was still a good quantity of pullao rice and peas left over in my biggest saucepan.  As I cleaned up, a few spoonfuls of it right out of the pot were a instant cure for my morning-after grogginess. (Ever since, a large pot of pullao rice has been a staple at all my parties.)

My tall, handsome cousin Billy came by a little while later that morning and took me out to a full English Sunday dinner at a local pub where, despite the feasting of the night before, my appetite was fully restored the moment I laid eyes on the crisp brown roast potatoes and the delectable Yorkshire pudding. The night before, Billy and his younger sister, my dear cousin Sue—who had been legendary dance partners as teenagers—had jived together, to perfection. My memory of the meal with him is bittersweet, though, because soon afterwards he had a falling-out with the rest of the family and I haven’t seen him since the weekend of that mythic party.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents

  1. Hi Jojo,
    Wow, wish I had been there! I’m just glad I was part of so many of your parent’s guest list in Brookline & Newton, those were the days. My question is, what is “a good old knees-up”?

    Miss you all,

    • A knees-up is a lively party, usually with dancing, and it comes from a 30’s Cockney song called “Knees Up Mother Brown.” If you get a bunch of Londoners of a certain age together and they’re having enough fun, eventually somebody’ll start doing the knees-up. Miss you guys too, Vincent, let’s make a plan soon with all of us.

  2. What a wonderful sounding party! I’m wishing that Billy will somehow stumble across your blog and write to you. Isn’t that a lovely fantasy?

  3. I remember this party well Cussin Jo Jo! I still come across the occasional photo with my mum with her bouffant hair style (shampoo and set days) with cousin Billy and his wife. I wore cord/velvet maxi dress with a smock-type top that I loved. Remember the gloves you bought from Biba? Or did I buy them? And my mouth is watering for your prawn curry and would like the recipe please! Those were the days. That was a lovely flat wasn’t it? remember your mum burning that toast when my dad came to take you to the airport? Lots of love and hugs xxxx

    • So glad you remember all those details, Lesley! It might actually have been your dad who took the photos, of which I have been able to find four–one with you in it. (I will study your outfit, though it’s a bit dark in the pic.) I’m searching for Mum’s original prawn curry recipe that I’ve kept and referred to constantly over the years but seem to have mislaid, and will send it to you as soon as I’ve found it (or if not, I will reconstruct it from memory). I don’t remember the Biba gloves: what were they like? I do remember going to their big shop and to Laura Ashley together. I still have a Biba black plastic bag somewhere; and somewhere in the attic I think I even have that dress I wore for the party! Yes, that was a great flat and I was lucky to get it. Such a coincidence that Mum and Sally and I had stayed in it back in ’69-’70. And of course I remember the toast–how could I ever forget?! xo J

  4. Sounds like a great party! How do you remember so many details of all these wonderful experiences?
    Age seems to be blurring the edges of most of my memories. Which reminds me, I promised to help my mom go through her thousands of pictures to decide which she will use for her book.
    Pictures certainly help remind us of details of the past, don’t they? They also emphasize how much we
    have forgotten. My mom used the wonderful letters which my grandmother wrote to her all those years in India along with her replies which my grandmother kept. I wonder what people of the future will do to write when they have no more letters? Sad thought!

    • That inevitable “blurring” of “the edges” of memories is perhaps one of the underlying reasons why I find myself writing these stories now. I actually have some photos that were taken at this party. Yes, letters are precious and increasingly rare and I keep all mine. (And as you know I also save my email correspondence with you!)

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