Philip Hensher: The key to a good party is to forget it

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The Independent Online

David Miliband is slowly revealing his brilliant gift for embarrassing behaviour.

A few weeks ago, it was claiming that The Gruffalo was his favourite book. This week, his team issued a six-page document explaining to anyone thinking of supporting him how they could host what they called a “house-party”. By this they seemed to mean a party held in a house, rather than, more conventionally, one where the guests stayed overnight.

But the whole document bears a deliriously vague relationship to ordinary human behaviour, from the moment it explains how to invite your guests to the moment it suggests that you read out a pre-prepared statement: “The Movement for Change is going to be a long process for the Labour Party but, if it is going to be successful...” It includes suggestions for topics of conversation, timetables for putting “nibbles” on and chilling the drink – “if there are drinks”. None for music or dress, or what to do when that difficult guest starts going on about immigration, or is sick over the rubber plant.

Here is my guide to holding an unsuccessful party. A week before, suddenly think “Let’s have a party”. Form image of engraved invitations, well dressed and witty friends, white-jacketed waiters circulating with trays of oysters. Reformulate in view of reality. Post general invitation on Facebook. Delete invitation on Facebook, having remembered that you have 400 “friends”, some of whom are people met once on holiday, students, people pretending to be Nigella Lawson. Send a text to 50 people you actually know.

Two days before, decide to do something about the food and drink. Go to Oddbins and buy 48 bottles of wine. Spend rest of day preparing food. Realise at bedtime that the entirety of your preparation has consisted of reading magazine articles about hideously elaborate canapé suggestions. Realise further that you will never get round to making miniature steak-and-kidney pies. Wake up with brilliant idea for party. Spend morning in pursuit of brilliant idea, i.e. buying green velvet smoking jacket for yourself. Finally, on afternoon of party, get taxi to M&S and buy huge quantities of smoked salmon pinwheels and 40 bags of peanuts. Push everything back against walls. Think about hoovering: decide it’s not worth it. Put smoking jacket on and programme Sly and the Family Stone to repeat in an endless loop.

Pour first guest a drink and refill. Pour second guests a drink and suggest they get themselves a refill when they want one. Hand third guests and subsequent ones a bottle and suggest they get on with it. Get into surprisingly personal and ill-informed argument with very old friend about the Mediaeval Warm Period. Totally unknown guests arrive, turning out to be ex-students off of Facebook. Let them in. Some more unknowns arrive, mumbling something about being “mates of Dave’s”. Eject.

Seven hours later, you will be sitting on the floor listening to a stranger’s tales of love, woe, and working for David Miliband. If it is a very good party, it may be brought to an end by the police. At no point will anyone, one hopes, have mentioned the words “The Movement for Change”. It seems really quite easy.

A cougar is just a cat

Do young men go to bed with older women? Why, yes, if it seems to both of them like a good idea. They might even repeat the experience and – it has been known – even form a relationship based on mutual affection. To be perfectly honest, it doesn’t seem the most remarkable social phenomenon.

Interestingly, however, in recent years such older women have been termed “cougars”, and their existence has been strongly debated. A Dr Michael Dunn at the University of Wales has now declared that the whole phenomenon is a “myth and a media construct”. Rich women with fame and power may go for younger men, Dr Dunn claimed, but it was otherwise very rare and such “relationships don’t tend to last”. Up pops a Rich Gosse, a gentleman whose claims to our attention are less clear, apart from being an evidently rather superannuated pillar of the cougar network. He says that they do exist, they are a marvellous idea and there ought to be more of them.

All very curious. I would love to hear from a woman on this subject. In the meantime, it is curious how many statements on this vitally important subject are uninfluenced by the obvious truth that, as with any imaginable human relationship, some people do, some people don’t. Why would anyone make recommendations?

Rich writers and fame

Forbes has released a list of the ten best-paid novelists in the world last year. It makes interesting reading, not so much for the sums involved, but as an insight into a world one knows absolutely nothing about. The 10 novelists are James Patterson, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Danielle Steel, Ken Follett, Dean Koontz, Janet Evanovich, John Grisham, Nicholas Sparks, and JK Rowling.

Despite their evident fame and success, it seems to have taken place in a kind of parallel world of writing. I am a voracious reader who will pick up anything at all, but I admit to having read books by only four of them, and in two of those cases, it was because I was paid to. Still more surprisingly, I find that I actually hadn’t even heard of another four of them. Nobody has ever said to me “You’ve got to read James Patterson’s Swimsuit, or Nicholas Sparks’s Nights In Rodanthe – they’re fantastic.” How can it possibly be that the name of the most successful author in the world suggests absolutely nothing?

For all I know, Dean Koontz, though it seems unlikely, might be an exquisite petit maitre of the genre. On the other hand, I did read a Stephenie Meyer. It was the most awful tosh, alas.