Sue Arnold: A good excuse not to throw our Christmas bash

'Who brought you, I asked a bald youth with one gypsy earring helping himself to ice cream from the fridge'
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The Independent Online

No one, according to my friend Kate, who knows everything or at any rate thinks she does, is giving parties this Christmas. Why ever not? I said. Because of anthrax and the war, said Kate vaguely. Without wishing to sound insensitive or contrary I should have thought those were two very good reasons to give as many parties as possible on the "eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die" basis.

On the other hand it might be a good excuse not to have our annual Christmas thrash which is getting out of hand. I used to sneer at people who employed professionals to organise their parties but I now understand why they do. The real problem is that you never know how many people are going to show up because nobody these days replies to invitations no matter how many times you underline the RSVP.

That's not strictly true. There are one or two people who reply by return – like George, who I met when I was a cub reporter on the Tehran Journal and he was a brand new diplomat at the British Embassy. Like all diplomats George is a stickler for etiquette.

Not only does he reply by return, but he follows this up with a telephone call to ask about the dress code. "There isn't one," I said the first time he asked, "wear anything you like".

"No, seriously, is it formal, smart-casual, informal, or fancy dress?" persisted George, adding that it was really Suki that wanted to know.

Suki is George's Japanese wife and epitomises everything you ever heard about Japanese formality. Suki wouldn't dream of having a pee in someone else's house without turning the taps full on to drown out the noise. The first time they came to our Christmas party they arrived 15 minutes early. "I know we're early," apologised George, "but we wanted to know if we were suitably dressed. If we're not we've brought a change of clothes in the car".

Giving a party can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth, despite the sound advice I was once given on the art of entertaining by Sam and Sal, an upwardly mobile young couple – he's a political lobbyist, she's a celebrity PR – whose annual Twelfth Night bash always includes stars of stage, screen and spin. Here's what they do. Their tall, narrow Islington house can hold just about 200 vertical bodies so they invite 300 (knowing a third will refuse) and then they put all the furniture, apart from rugs and pictures, into two Pickford's vans specially hired for the occasion. This way guests can mingle and network, explained Sal, without bumping into boring things like sofas and coffee tables.

Notwithstanding the ramifications of carting all our furniture down five flights of stairs into waiting pantechnicons, mingling and networking are my idea of hell. I like parties where I can hole up in a corner, preferably on a sofa, a large drink and a larger plate of canapés on a coffee table beside me, and with a string of fascinating people wandering over to chat. Last year I invited 100 people to ours, expecting 70, and 150 turned up. "I knew you wouldn't mind if we brought David's parents/ Valerie's Australian cousins/ the children's German exchange student/ the people from downstairs..." they all said cheerfully. "Who brought you," I asked a bald youth with one gypsy earring and orange trainers helping himself to icecream from the fridge. "Speak English no good," he said and disappeared into the throng.

Kate is misinformed. People are still having parties, says my informant from Bentley's Entertainments, London's poshest party organisers, but with recession looming they're possibly cutting down a tad. How much tad? Margaux instead of Petrus, Sevruga instead of Beluga, that sort of thing, said my informant.

The chief problem these days, he said, is not finding the clients but finding them exciting, original venues to have their parties in. Clerkenwell Prison is proving popular this year. Guests like the spooky atmosphere and being shackled to the wall with iron chains. Just like Scrooge and very Christmassy.

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