Ah, the summer party season is upon us; once again discreet garden squares echo with the trill of the chattering classes. Except that this year the party scene is anything but discreet. More than ever, it's a downright scrum, according to those on the front-line. "There are so many and the best ones are often on the same evening," moans one literary ligger. "Tonight I'm going to at least two, but you may as well go to as many as you can in one evening. Decisions, decisions."
But with the flood of crisp white invitations comes a new set of rules. Some party-throwers are trying to test allegiances.
The New Statesman has decided to hold its annual bash at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London's Mall on 1 July, the same date as the Spectator's which will be in its Doughty Street garden - as always. Cristina Odone, deputy editor of the New Statesman, says: "It was deliberate. We wanted to underline that we were going to get some throbbing, thrusting new Labourites while the Spectator will get some old Tories." And those "throbbing, thrusting" guests will include? Gordon Brown, Melvyn Bragg, Alastair Campbell, Barbara and Ken Follett, Sir Robin Day and, er, Paul Johnson. So what about those cobwebs on the Spectator's list? None at all, says Kimberly Fortier, its publisher, who says they're inviting "established" rather than "establishment" figures. Apparently there is a difference.
"The Spectator's summer party is the most famous so I think the New Statesman is in a bit of a panic. What may happen is people will come to both," says Fortier. Expected guests at the Spectator will include Melvyn Bragg, Paul Johnson, Tom Stoppard, Lord Jenkins, a smattering of Lawsons and, according to Fortier, "all the beautiful Frasers". Tara Palmer-Tomkinson may drop in - she's fond of the Spectator since it gave her a journalistic break in the form of a piece entitled "Why I'm not a bimbo".
So what will woo guests to one and not the other, apart from the company? Whisky drinkers will head for the Spectator - apparently they're serving loads of it. But there will be champagne at both. "People may end up coming to both," says Fortier. Isn't she nervous they may start at hers and then leave for the opposition? "Oh no," she laughs confidently. "The problem isn't anyone not turning up; it's shaking them out of the garden at midnight."
Social dilemmas like these will be common throughout July, if June is anything to go by. Camilla Cecil, Harpers & Queen social editor, says: "Clashes often happen around this time. For instance, three weeks ago the Versace party at Sion House clashed with the Grosvenor House antiques fair." There was no competition, really. The Versace guest list would have put the Oscars in the shade: Catherine Zeta Jones, Prince Charles, Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley, and Kate Moss were among the attendant glitterati.
There is a strategy, advises Cecil, for those who suffer from a surfeit of invitations. "People usually wait until the very last minute to decide," she says, although this summer it has been more of a dilemma than usual. "People were ringing me last year and asking what dates I would be free next summer."
Last week proved a strategic nightmare for the most stalwart of schmoozers. Sotheby's threw two parties, one on Tuesday and another on Thursday. The first attracted, among others, Mick Jagger; the second a smattering of dukes and viscounts. Then there was the highlight of the publishing calendar, also held on Thursday: Faber's famed garden party in Bloomsbury's Queen Square. Guests hovering around the well-pruned rosebeds included Julian Barnes, Andrew Motion and Tom Stoppard.
Last week there were three parties, two publishing and one business, held in the grandiose function rooms at the House of St Barnabas-in-Soho, also a refuge for homeless women. As one journalist says: "There have been so many summer parties held there, the homeless women must be sitting on a mattress in the attic under a bare bulb." Meanwhile the champagne corks popped below (the proceeds are donated to the refuge).
This summer slick of conviviality could be for any number of reasons. The promise of good weather, low interest rates, increased corporate competition and millennial abandon could all play a part. Gerri Gallagher, special projects editor at Tatler, says it's because we're more relaxed about socialising. "There are more parties in the summer, perhaps because we're not quite so manic about formality any more. We're not quite so exacting about our standards." Does this mean a return of warm Chardonnay and salted peanuts to the garden squares of WC1? Oh no, she says, rather, "It's just that sense of one-upmanship has gone. Parties no longer have to be picture-perfect."
The party planners tell a different story. There's a frantic fight for the most unusual London space, preferably al fresco. Gothic balconies, overgrown squares, Nash garden terraces - anything as long as it's virgin territory for the canapes crowd. "There's real competition to find interesting ones", says Mark Sanderson, Literary Life column editor for the Sunday Telegraph. "Thames & Hudson recently had a party in the National Gallery and the champagne did not stop. There was another impressive one in a Robert Adam house in Portman Square."
The autumn season has come forward and it's busy all the year round. Few are busier than party organiser Johnny Roxburgh, responsible for the modest Versace bash. He is constantly ferreting for well-appointed summer locations. "I'm a big believer in London garden squares because so few of them are available."
Roxburgh is a big believer in novelty, too. "We're doing table tops made of mirrors," he enthuses. "I'm about to line a whole room in mirror. You have to be constantly different, endlessly inventive. For instance, we can serve canapes with waterfalls running over them, or with neon lights and plasma discs."
So pity the poor summer party guest this year, juggling invitations, appeasing possessive party-throwers and eating food off flashing lights. Partying has never been so tiring. Perhaps it's time to pass the Pringles and stay at home instead.