Why give a party?

Have you tried to give a party recently?

If so, you will find that etiquette has changed or more likely, become non-existent.  The formal, polite rules of the past no longer apply and these days, giving a party is often not so much an occasion to be eagerly anticipated and enjoyed as an exercise in extreme masochism.

However, if you have an occasion you want to mark – landmark birthday, housewarming, housecooling, anniversary, retirement, perhaps - and it’s ages since you gave a party anyway, it may sound like a good idea to have a few friends round for drinks and food.

But be warned. This is what typically happens, if my recent experience is anything to go by.

You pencil in a date, weeks or even months ahead, and sketch out a guest list. This includes your must-haves, your optionals and – with any luck – your big celebrity guest, the draw who will entice all the others along. 

You then think about a venue, and decide it will be nicest to hold the party in your own home. Church halls and upstairs function rooms of pubs are simply too bleak for words.  You plump for a lunchtime do at the weekend, as this seems to make more sense than asking people to turn out on a weekday evening, especially as some will be coming quite a long way and/or are elderly. 

You calculate that, at a pinch, 50 people will fit into your house and you send out that number of invitations, in good time, by email and snail mail. You state clearly the date, time and place, and wait for the replies.  Some come back instantly, yes or no. Most are noes, including your big celebrity guest. One invitee rings: “You did say it was this Sunday, didn’t you? Oh sorry, thought it was this week. No, we can’t come on the 26th.”

You cross off the noes, to find your original 50 people have now whittled down to fewer than 30, and of those, some say they will ‘try awfully hard’ to make it. You rummage through your address book to make up the numbers, sending out 10 -15 more invitations. Five of those reply.  You send reminders; still the others do not respond.  Nor do they answer the phone or call you back. 

You now hope that, with a bit of luck, 30 people will turn up and so, armed with your will-they, won’t-they, guest list, it’s time to think about food. You decide to have the party catered, thus saving yourself the additional stress of cooking. You ring round a few local caterers to discover all are booked for that date. Eventually you find a firm who can do it and you ask them to cater for 30. They arrange to deliver one hour before the party starts. You order the wine, glasses and non-alcoholic drinks. 

There is now less than a week to go. The phone starts ringing, emails start crowding your inbox. Sorry, I forgot, we can’t come. Sorry, we’ll be away that weekend. Didn’t realise it clashed.  Sorry, my son’s just come back from his gap year. And they are the ones who actually let you know.

Comes the day. You have invited people for one o’clock, for buffet lunch. The phone rings continuously, from 9am. Sorry, we can’t make it after all. Sorry, the car’s broken down. Sorry, I’ve gone down with flu.  Is it OK if I bring a friend?  Can my daughter’s boyfriend come?  You now have no idea of numbers; however the food arrives on time and you just hope the mountains of nosh will disappear.

It’s one o’clock. You have a glass of wine to steady your nerves.  The house looks fantastic, the food looks fantastic, you look fantastic. You’ve had your hair done, bought a new dress, splashed out on some expensive scent.  Only thing is, there are no guests. One-thirty. Still no guests. You have another glass of wine. The salad is starting to wilt, your lipstick has come off on the wine glass. Your stress levels are astronomical.

Two o’clock. The doorbell rings. Your first guest! No, it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses. You wonder about inviting them in anyway, just so that somebody attends your party.  Next ring, it is the guests – every one of them.  They are all bearing gifts – wine, chocolates, flowers, gardening books, the latest Nigella, scented candles – even though you have said on the invitations: no presents, please.

Suddenly, you cannot cope. You are trying to fill glasses, introduce people, tell them where to put coats and indicate the loo, all at once. But – conversation is buzzing, and the food is disappearing fast. Everybody is starving. Nobody is drinking the wine, though. Your vast array of bottles stays resolutely unopened.  Everybody wants soft drinks as they are either driving or they no longer drink at lunchtime. Even your booziest friend is on antibiotics and on the wagon.

Damn! You have only got in two bottles of elderflower cordial and two cartons of orange juice.

But everybody seems to be chatting and laughing and enjoying themselves.  Relief floods through you but you dimly wonder: where is Jill? What happened to Mike?  Where are Chloe and Peter? Your next door neighbours haven’t turned up, either.  The 10-year old you asked to video this unique event has forgotten and is on your computer, playing games.

However, the level of chatter, the buzz, is terrific. Then, in an instant, it’s all over. The guests have departed and you survey the detritus – the red wine stain on your new white armchair, the empty glasses, the food trodden into the carpet, the umbrellas and coats left behind in the cloakroom.

You realise you never got round to speaking to X and you never introduced Y to Z,  either.

You clear up, sit down, make a cup of tea and experience the most massive downer, a cloud of dark depression. The phone rings. It’s Jill. “You did say it was this evening, didn’t you?”  You do not hear a word from Mike, Chloe and Peter as to why they didn’t make it. Or the neighbour.

After the party, not a single person rings or writes to say thank you. It seems they all thought they were doing YOU a huge favour by turning up.

You ask yourself: was it worth it? Why do I bother? 

But must it be like this? It appears so.

Novelist Rosemary Friedman has a whole chapter on party giving in her new memoir, Life’s a Joke.  A frequent entertainer, she keeps a book, not only of menus, wines and dates, but of guests as well, labelling them ‘no show’ ‘boring’ ‘turned up late’ ‘too rude to reply’.

Rosemary reckons the number of guests who turn up is always around 55 per cent of those invited. If you send out 181 invitations, you end up with 89 guests; for 112 invitations you will get 68 acceptances and 137 invitations will yield 71 guests. Invitations to 40 will yield on average, 26.

Afterwards, she always has a post-mortem to try and ensure the next party is even better. “I write things down like, more elderflower cordial next time – so many people no longer drink – and not to do asparagus again as it is too messy to eat, for example,” she says.

She maintains that you always have to feed your guests properly and that nibbles should never be considered enough. But she says the stress levels are so high that after every party she also asks herself: “Was it worth it?”

Another indefatigable party giver, travel writer Angela Humphery, says, “Entertaining is a bugger!  It’s stressful and expensive, and more often than not, people don’t return your hospitality!” 

She adds: “If you are holding the party at home, you really need a kitchen that will accommodate up to 50 people, as that’s where guests always congregate. Even in summer you can never be sure enough of the weather to hold it in the garden.

“As for ensuring that guests turn up - especially when you are having it catered and therefore must pay per guest – the best thing is to ring round about three days beforehand, saying you need to firm up numbers because you have to pay the caterers upfront.  Of course, between then and the actual day friends can still fall ill or down the stairs!  You can also cater for 2-4 less and if they all turn up, hope they don’t eat too much. If it’s a sit-down meal – and this should be stressed on the invitation – there’s less likely to be no shows. But when I did the final ring-round for my last such party, one or two said they couldn’t make it.

“Would they have told me if I hadn’t rung them? I doubt it.”  One wonders whether the Queen has the same problems with her garden parties.

Angela often hosts fundraisers for various charities, and believes that for these, rudeness levels are even worse.  “Guests have already paid, so don’t feel they have to come if they can’t or don’t want to.”

When I left my London house six years ago, I gave a ‘housecooling’ to which I invited several neighbours in the street. Not one neighbour replied, not one turned up.
Luckily some friends came but there was loads of food left over which had to be thrown away.

So why do we impose this torture on ourselves? The answer must be that, in spite of the stress, the expense, the worry and the casual, cavalier attitude of today’s guests, party-giving fever grips us once in a while like a dread disease. It’s rather like some women who, once they have put away the nappies, the prams, the Babygros and the cots, suddenly decide to have another baby.

You know it makes no sense on any level, but somehow you have to do it.


Life’s a Joke, Arcadia Press, £11.99

As the party season hots up, here are some stress-reducing tips for guests and hosts:

Tips for guests

As soon as you receive the invitation, write the date and time down in your diary and reply;
If the hostess says: no presents, please don’t bring any;
Don’t ever ring on the day of the party; 
Arrive on time or not more than half an hour late;
If the party is being catered, exact numbers are crucial as the food is charged per head,  so don’t mess your hostess around;
Casual dress is OK unless otherwise stated. Your hostess would rather have you in dirty jeans than not at all. (Not that dirty jeans are recommended) 

Tips for hostesses

If at all possible, have the party in your own home;
If space or finances permit, hire bartenders to fill people’s glasses;
Make sure you feed people properly;
Have plenty of non-alcoholic drinks. You will be surprised at the number of your guests who don’t drink any more;
Have a strict policy on children. They take up space without adding to the gaiety;
Expect about half of those invited actually to turn up.
Don’t ever cater the party by asking people to ‘bring a dish’. Many will forget, there will be duplication, and you may get awful food as well. 


The Lady magazine - December 2010