Dear Virginia,

A friend has just contacted me to suggest that we organise a surprise 60th birthday party for a mutual friend.

This would involve old photographs of her being shown on a screen, and recounting amusing memories of her and so on. I am uncertain, because she is very sensitive and I'm not sure how much her children know about her past, which is chequered to say the least.

My friend keeps saying what fun it would be, but I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Yours sincerely, Carole

Well, your friend is right about one thing, that's for sure. It'll be great fun – for her and for you. But whether it will be such fun for the birthday girl it is being organised for is another matter entirely. Personally, if anyone gave me a surprise party I'd never speak to them again. To find myself in some ghastly old dress with no make-up on, confronted by a huge gang of old friends from varying stages in my life, all staring at me to witness "the look on my face" as I enter the room, would seem less of a welcome present and more a form of punishment.

One problem with surprise parties is that often people keep their lives compartmentalised and take pains to ensure that those compartments never meet. At surprise parties, however, they do. All but those with skins like rhinoceros hide are rather chameleon-like in our relationships with other people, and when all our friends are brought together, it's possible to feel a confusing mix of personalities colliding inside us in a squidgy mess.

And if you're planning on people getting up and saying a few words, it can result either in a boring and repetitive paean of praise or, worse, a grimy past raked up in front a jeering crowd. The account from an old school friend of what a madcap the birthday girl was in the sixth form, and how she dealt drugs behind the bike-shed, may be completely at odds with the responsible image she'd like to project now she's older. And who knows, you and your friend may invite friends of the party girl whom she's been trying to drop for ages. If she has what you call a "chequered past", who knows what slimy monsters you may find yourself fishing up from the deep, to haunt her, her children and husband in the future.

There can be something quite hostile about a surprise party, and certainly there's an element of selfishness about it all. It can be like finding the diary of a person, then getting a group of friends round and reading it out loud to them in front of him.

Anyway, part of the fun of a party lies in the looking forward to it. And also deciding what to wear. So, far more generous would be for your friend and you to organise a normal party for this woman. Find out a date that suits her, order the wine and the nibbles, ask her for an invitation list, organise it and pay for it. That would be a real treat. And not a surprise, which might well turn out, for the victim at least, to be a very unpleasant one.

Readers say...

Let her in on the secret

Let me tell you a story. On my friend's 40th birthday, her husband gave her a peck on her cheek and went off to work, saying he would be late in as usual because it was his basketball night. She came home from work, fed the children and herself, then, as he still wasn't home, had a long, miserable, soak in the bath and washed her hair. He arrived home shortly after with a babysitter and said, "Come on, lets go and get a curry."

She pulled on a sweater and jeans, dragged a comb through her hair, didn't bother to put on any makeup, and went to the Balti house to be met by all her friends, dressed up to the nines, shouting "Surprise!" She said this was her worst birthday ever.

My advice would be to join in with planning the party for your friend, but tell her. The surprise can be the venue and some of the guests. And rather than showing photos on a screen, why not make an album she can keep? I've just had my 60th and I planned everything myself. The surprise element was an awful presentation at work that involved "gifts" of incontinence pads and Steradent – hilarious.

Name and address supplied


It's just cruelty

Some people think causing embarrassment is very funny and clever. It is definitely not. Embarrassment is one of the most uncomfortable conditions that you can face. People who carry out surprises like this are sadly lacking in human consideration. Don't do it !

Nick Edwards, Sleaford, Lincolnshire


Let her plan it

Surely your friend has been to enough family weddings to understand the potential for alcohol-fuelled indiscretions to wreck relationships for years to come? Compromise. Help her plan the party and canvass contributions to a "this is your life" photo album. Everyone will enjoy being part of the plot, it can be passed round for people to have a giggle at their younger selves, and the birthday girl will have a book to keep full of reminders of friendship. I did this for a long-standing colleague's retirement and he loved it.

Rita Gallard, Norwich