A Fete Worse Than Death


IT’S NOT FOR me to question the gods of journalism, however debauched they now seem, not to mention irrelevant to our accelerated and democratised culture. But let’s be truthful: if you are thinking about parties and their meaning and you get an email from John Lewis (aka the department store so comfortingly middle class that many people now ask for their ashes to be scattered in its soft furnishings department) headed “It’s party time”, you must surely read the runes. Let’s investigate further.

“As your social calendar ignites,” it begins, which causes me to stop for a moment. Do I have a social calendar? Is it really about to ignite, and has it ever done so? No, on both counts, truthfully, but let’s press on: “… with plans for exciting festive celebrations in the coming months…”. Again, got to say — drawing a blank. Let me think a minute. Wait! I’ve got it! Two things: first, some friends — yes, an actual group of friends, like in, well, Friends, only less irritating — have floated the idea of meeting up in a pub before Christmas, and it went fully five minutes before we all decided that everywhere would be heaving with braying toffs unused to proper drinking; and second, I have booked tickets (free) to the recording of a radio programme at the beginning of December. Also, I have been included in a round robin email about a Christmas lunch, although I must confess it has clearly been sent to me in error by a former employer.

God! Manners! I won’t even let John Lewis, the very arbiter of etiquette, get to the end of its sentence, which concludes thus: “… we’ll ensure you’ve got all you need to party in style.” Oh. That was more of a whimper than a bang, though to be fair, the products featured below do include an Alessi Magic Bunny Toothpick Holder, without which it is hard to imagine not only throwing a party, but also living.

The Alessi Magic Bunny Toothpick Holder.

It’s the time of year, of course, but also the fact that Pippa Middleton, a professional party-planner and the sister of the wife of the man who would be king, has recently launched a book called Celebrate: A Year of British Festivities for Families and Friends. On her publication day, she was photographed hopping around town in no fewer than four different outfits, more than I might wear in a week. That tells me all I need to know. She is in a different league from me.

But we can only work with what we’ve got. So here, in the firm knowledge that whatever I say and whatever you do, none of us will get very far through December without sitting down on the cobbles on at least one occasion to weep softly for our ruined promise, trashed bodies and wrecked minds, are my ten essential rules for party-giver and party-goer alike.

1. Before you do anything, think carefully: why am I doing this? What is the motivating factor behind this so-called “party” that I want to throw? Do I want to thank my nearest and dearest for playing their part in my life, for taking my hand and saying, let’s show this funny old planet what we’re made of? Or do I just want to sleep with someone? Because if it’s the latter, there are quicker, easier and cheaper ways of doing it.

2. Be honest with yourself about your A-list and your B-list. There is one: don’t pretend otherwise. But the people you really want to come will absolutely, without fail, be out of town/having a surgical procedure/somewhere better with someone they really like when you have your party. Live with it. The B-list, who subtly know they’re on it, will be chippy. The trick is to have a C-list, who are simply grateful to be invited anywhere and will act accordingly.

3. If you are the guest, do read your invitation carefully. I recently spent many hours researching a complicated journey, involving a dawn flight to Rome, a hire car, a ferry and a night in an Italian hotel so exclusive that you have to book a year in advance so that I could attend a birthday party. Eventually, I rang the inviters, filled with regret, to explain that the logistics would both bankrupt me and cause me to lose my job and that, therefore, I would have to decline the invitation. How we all roared with laughter when it transpired that the party was being held in an Italian restaurant of the same name a couple of miles from my house.

4. Speaking of restaurants: food. Don’t. Just asking for trouble: carpets reeking of ground-in peanuts, a midnight dash to the hospital with someone who is allergic to even the vapour of those peanuts, tears, lawsuits, etc. Tell them to eat before they come.

5. Fancy dress. Another no-no. It sounds brilliant at the time (well, not to me, but in the interests of balance I’m trying to imagine people to whom it would sound brilliant). In fact, it betokens stress, expense and vulgarity. Given that these are all more or less unavoidable by-products of parties, why increase the chances?

6. Host or guest, do work out what degree of natural wastage is acceptable to you. In other words, during any party “season”, you will lose a friend, a partner, an item of clothing, an accessory and/or a psychological crutch that has hitherto seemed essential to your well-being. It is up to you to work out what combination of the above, and the extent to which the process will be reversible, you can live with, and act accordingly.

7. On the night, the urge to cancel is absolutely standard. The only pity is that more people don’t listen to it. I tell you, everyone involved would be completely thrilled.

8. OK. You haven’t cancelled. You literally hate everyone around you. Their grinning faces, empty glasses, idiot requests, vapid chatter and meaningless lives are anathema to you. Who are these people? Who are they?

9. They are your friends. Some of them may share DNA with you. You may even have created another human life with one or more of them. You are they, and they are you. I know. It is an unbearable thought. Suck it up…

10. … and take responsibility. Soon, they will be gone, and you will be crestfallen and slightly drunk and sentimentally remorseful. You will assume the bearing and aspect of someone in a film who is clearing up after a party; shoveling rubbish into plastic sacks, sitting at the kitchen table scooping cake into your mouth, holding the shattered remnants of a beloved heirloom in your hands, lying dry-mouthed and wide-eyed in the dark, in the maw of an existential crisis. I know. Bummer.

Even Pippa looks like she'd rather be elsewhere

About Alex Clark

Alex Clark is a freelance journalist living in London, writing about books, arts, football and a whole host of other things for papers such as The Guardian and The Observer. She is also editor at large of Union Books and the former editor of Granta.
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