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I like to celebrate my date of birth several times a year – not just once, says Tony Barrell


“A week is a long time in politics,” Harold Wilson once said. “But it’s not just politics, Harold,” I would have told him if I’d been there. Surely a week is also a long time if you’re stuck in a prison cell, or holding down a mind-numbing office job in Basingstoke. Put 52 of those tedious weeks together, and you have a whole dreary year. That’s one reason why our ancient forefathers (and foremothers) put special annual celebrations in the calendar to cheer us up, like Christmas Day, Valentine’s Day and Halloween.

Birthdays also help to relieve the monotony of life, but once your birthday party is finished, you have to wait another 12 months for the next one. That’s why I decided, many years ago, to celebrate my fractional birthdays – my half-birthdays, quarter-birthdays and one-third-birthdays – in addition to my “whole” one. My whole birthday is February 23, but I celebrate a quarter-birthday three months after that, on May 23, and my one-third-birthday on June 23, and my half-birthday on August 23, and so on.

Lewis Carroll would have appreciated the idea of half-birthdays and quarter-birthdays

I’ve been doing this for so long that I don’t remember exactly how it all began. I might have been inspired by the brilliant writer Sue Townsend, who created the hilarious teenage diarist Adrian Mole. The first fictional Mole diary, published in 1982, captured our hero at the difficult age of 13 and three-quarters. Another inspiration could have been Lewis Carroll, who introduced the concept of the “un-birthday” in his 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass. Being a keen mathematician, he would surely have appreciated the idea of half-birthdays and quarter-birthdays even more.

With fractional birthdays, not only do you get to swallow more beer and have more fun, but you also establish a heap of new connections with celebrities. You see, I share my whole birthday with a slightly disappointing list of famous people, including the Swiss chef Anton Mosimann, the actor Peter Fonda, and the bass player in the Sweet. However, my half-birthday, August 23, coincides with the whole birthday of people like Keith Moon, River Phoenix and Gene Kelly, which is much more showbizzy and exciting. And my two-thirds-birthday, October 23, is the whole birthday of such legends as Martin Luther King, Pelé and Cat Deeley.

Of course, mathematically minded types will scoff and say: “Wait a minute, Tony. The months have varying lengths, from 28 to 31 days, and so your adopted half-birthday of August 23 is not exactly a half-year after February 23 – it’s more like 181 days.” But am I going to let a bunch of pedantic geeks spoil my fun? Of course I’m not.

Nevertheless, there is one serious problem with fractional birthdays, and it concerns some people who were born very late in certain months. For example, if you were born on August 30 or 31, your half-birthday is a date that never exists: February 30 or 31. But there’s a big problem with whole birthdays anyway: if you happen to be born on February 29 in a leap year, like the late jazz saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey, you only get a proper birthday every four years. All those February 29 babies need fractional birthdays even more than the rest of us!

I went into a major greetings-card outlet and asked why they didn’t have a single half-birthday card on display

I’ve been celebrating people’s fractional birthdays for so long (about 120 quarter-years), I’m continually disappointed that the rest of the world hasn’t caught up. Facebook doesn’t automatically alert you to your friends’ half-birthdays, let alone the other fractional ones, so you have to work them out manually. And the makers and sellers of greetings cards are certainly missing a trick. I recently went into a major London greetings-card outlet and asked an assistant why they didn’t have a single half-birthday card on display. A friend of mine was another six months older, and I had nothing to send to her. The shop assistant gave me a peculiar look when I sighed, bought a standard whole-birthday card, and tore it into two perfectly equal pieces in front of her.

Tony Barrell has been published by The Times, The Idler, Cornucopia, the London Evening Standard, HarperCollins, Omnibus Press and ACC Art Books, among others.

© 2015 Tony Barrell

August 21, 2015

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About the Author

Tony Barrell is a pop historian, journalist, editor and Londoner who has spent much of his life interviewing musicians. He has written many major articles for The Sunday Times and other publications. His 2017 work The Beatles on the Roof is the first book to be published about the Fab Four’s famous 1969 rooftop concert.

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