Diary

Hardly an evocative number

30 November 2013 | Diary

Birthday is it? Passing Go to collect two-hundred are you? Another lap around the sun is it?

Yes, yes, Thursday was my birthday. My thirty-first. Leave me alone.

I was going to open this entry with something like “Thirty-one? Hardly an evocative number,” but on sitting down to do so, I’ve realised it does evoke something.

When I was 18 or so, I had a Saturday job in a warehouse and had a friend there called Steve Hill. He was a sociable if meaty-breathed fellow with a shabby-glamorous John Cooper Clark demeanor.

Steve was popular enough to have his own catchphrase and an impressively Dadaist one at that. The catchphrase was, simply, “thirty-one”.

Somehow it was always applicable. If he was feeling down in the dumps, he’d shake his head forlornly and say “thirty-one.” If he received good news he’d jubilantly cry “thirty-one!”

On one occasion, I happened to be present when Steve lost a piece of fingernail to a improperly-sealed crate and I swear he said “AAAARGthirtyone!

Imagine Steve presenting game shows. He’d come out and say “thirty-one?” and the audience with no further prompting would roar “thirty-one!”

What was the origin of all this? Steve, he explained, had been at a party one night when a comatose man had stood up suddenly from his drunken torpor and, seeing Steve, said “thirty-one” with great gravitas and import.

Perhaps the drunk had seen Steve’s future. Perhaps he’d picked up an important radio signal on his fillings. Perhaps he’d just had too much hooch and was completely insensible. We’ll never know.

“Thirty-one,” the drunk had said to Steve, and then collapsed.

Steve recounted this story to us and we liked it so much that “thirty-one” became a kind of halloo. You’d pass Steve in the corridor and shout “thirty-one!” and he’d shout “thirty-one!” in response.

It was a strange catchphrase, like something from an experimental spoken word night. After all, we were ten young men on the outskirts of an industrial estate, laughing at a number.

It did not take long for the original story to become lost in time. Staff turnover in the warehouse was high and the original gang who knew the providence of the catchphrase soon disappeared. The new kids on the team learned to say “thirty-one!” when they saw Steve, without knowing why. “Thirty-one!” in the corridor; “Thirty-one!” in the staff room; “Thirty-one!” when we were all stuck in traffic on the way home.

I remember thinking in the summer of thirty-one that I’d probably forget the significance of that number when I left that job, but that I’d maybe remember it with surprise in the impossibly distant future upon my thirty-first birthday. Amazingly, I did.

Happy Birthday to me! Thirty-one.