It was two weeks away from Max's fifth birthday. So I asked 'What kind of a party would you like Max?' And Max says 'I want a clown with a rabbit and a bouncing castle.'

Oh, no. Until now he's had a paddling pool in the garden with a few friends. He'd got wise to the fact that a pool was pretty low rent. To avoid irreparable psychological damage I grabbed the Yellow Pages and found 'Ali-do-Lali: Magic-disco-fire-eating-puppets-fun.

I rang the High Wycombe number and spoke to Mr Ali-do-Lali. He seemed nice, charged pounds 125 plus travel for 2 hours and had entertained royalty here and abroad. Unfortunately, he wasn't available for Max's birthday. Probably fire-eating for a king.

I rang Rent-a-Clown. I spoke to Mattie. He'd been a clown for 23 years and been voted Clown of the Year - a sort of Oscar, he said proudly. He did magic, games and face painting. Unfortunately he was going to be a best man in Canada on Max's birthday.

I suddenly remembered people booked good entertainers a year in advance - like putting your towel by the pool at 5am. I had no chance. In a panic I rang my friend Simon and explained my predicament. He offered to do bird impersonations for Max: a reed warbler, a chicken and a duck. I think Max would demand family therapy if Simon started being a chicken in front of his chums. But Simon did mumble something about Smollensky's Balloon, a restaurant with children's entertainers at lunchtime on the weekend.

I rang the restaurant. Yes, they had entertainers available. Roger Cane could do two 45-minute spots for pounds 90 or Stephen Ford could do the same. 'Which one would you suggest?' 'They are both of the same high calibre. It's like a song. Frank Sinatra sings it one way, Tony Bennett another.'

I was very confused. So I rang Party Pieces. No answer. I then recalled Frog Hollow, a children's party shop run by Sloaney types in W8. The girl reeled off 10 names. There was someone with a performing dog. Alas, inquiries revealed that the dog had retired. And there was Captain Dick. Simon had warned me that Daniel, his six-year-old, had greeted the Captain with 'Hallo. You've got a big one.' Maybe the Captain wasn't quite right. Then there was the Ali Pali Magic Fun Show. He sounded great: genie outfit, games, kiddies' disco before tea and magic after tea. But - pounds 150 plus VAT for two-and-half hours. Hold on. What's this? Someone with a rabbit and doves. Walligog, the Wizard. And yes, he could accommodate us. We were on.

Fifteen minutes before our 17 five-year-olds were due, Walligog arrived to set up: two trunk-sized black boxes and a ghetto blaster. Children turned up and he started with old chestnuts like the Hokey Cokey. Most were happy to join in though a few sat clinging to parents for dear life. Needless to say, the Birthday Boy wouldn't join in. Musical bumps was a success and somehow Walligog managed it so no one was left out. The 'Who can do the best Laughing Policeman impersonation was fun and after 45 minutes it was tea time. Then Walligog put on his wizard outfit. By now he had everyone under his spell. Even Robert - whose Dad had told me all parties were ghastly as he left his unhappy five-year-old - appeared to be in the swing of things.

It was a magic moment when the rabbit was revealed. There were scarves that changed colour and balls that appeared and disappeared and sausages that arrived from nowhere. Even the 'I'm not joining in' Birthday Boy was won over. Success is sweet.

Later I met the father of one of the boys at the party. His son had had a great time. He'd rushed home and said: 'There was a proper goal in the garden with a net and a bouncing castle.' So much for the rabbit and doves.

Where to find a clown or two

Walligog: via Merlin Entertainments (081-866 6327)

pounds 95 for two-and-a-half hours.

Ali-do-Lali: (0494 715717) - pounds 80 for hour/pounds 215 (plus travel expenses) for 2 hours.

Ali Pali Magic Fun Show: (081-341 1222) - pounds 95 plus

VAT for 45 min /pounds 150 plus VAT for a two-and-a-half hours.

Frog Hollow: 15 Victoria Grove W8 (071-581 5493)

Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm.

Specialist Toy and Party Shop: Impeyan Productions (0992 446211) - Marmaduke the clown (half magic show, half animals) and Animal Encounters (animal show) are both pounds 130 an hour; Tubs Disco (music and animals) costs pounds 120 an hour.

Oscar's Den: 127 Abbey Road NW6 (071-328 6683)

Mon-Sat 9.30am-5.30pm; children's party shop

supplies entertainers, bouncing castles etc.

Rent-a-Clown:(081-903 5533) - pounds 90 for 2 hours.

Smollensky's Balloon: Restaurant Bar via Dawn Judd Entertainments (081-903 5533).

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