It's New Year's Eve and you're not a tragic social failure

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The Independent Online
NEW YEAR'S EVE is an extremely complex business. Key problems include: what to do with that bottle of Liebfraumilch that's been circulating since 1987; where to buy earplugs after 6pm; what to do if a group of 17-year- old girls start laughing at you on the dance floor. Here, then, for the confused, is a step-by-step guide to the big night.

1) November. The question 'What are you doing on 31 December?' can be asked casually, as part of the general how-lovely- to-see-yous expressed when leaving a dinner party, without everyone thinking what a tragic social failure you are. (That comes later.)

Don't, for God's sake, say 'Why don't you and Crispin come round for dinner?' The point of the question is not to make plans but to suss out the options. Everyone is playing the same game at this point, so the standard reply will be 'Not sure yet.' Don't worry; it's a bit like playing poker.

2) Early December. At this stage the question, 'What are you doing on 31 December?' becomes a lot more serious. Only put it to people you really want to spend the evening with, or people who are spending it with people you really want to spend it with.

With a bit of luck Andrew will be unable to resist boasting about his invite from Julia and Adam, who live in a big house in Hampstead, have a lot of good-looking friends and host a famously glamorous bash every year.

Invite Julia and Adam round for dinner, immediately. They won't be able to come, of course; practise sounding disappointed. Follow up with a beautiful, glossy Christmas card. Bide your time.

3) Mid-December. The negotiations begin in deadly earnest. Hold your nerve. Ignore the first two messages from Marie, your friend who is recovering from depression, inviting you for a quiet evening watching BBC 2. How are the other options progressing? Think about Julia and Adam. On the third message from Marie, phone back and blather about godchildren and babysitting. Remember to explain that the parents are strict intellectuals who don't have a television, not even one stuck on BBC 2.

Meanwhile, the Morgans have invited you round for a combined adults and children bash. This is preferable to the telly option, but very much a last resort. Say you have this friend with depression, and agoraphobia. If she's been readmitted to hospital, you'd love to come, but you may have to stay in and keep her off the booze. Can you let them know?

Andrew, of course, is by now a huge problem: smug as hell and desperate to know how sad your evening is going to be. Of course, you have to be vague, in case Julia and Adam come up trumps. If you're going to lie, make it big. Say you're going to New York to visit your artist friend, Cindy, who lives in a loft in SoHo. You can't stay and chat and fill in Andrew with the details: got so much work on . . .

(You may like to start taking notes at this stage. Otherwise you may start telling Andrew about your friend with depression, which would be catastrophic.)

4) Last week of December. Phone Julia and Adam and ask them if they'd like to come over for dinner on New Year's Eve. Of course they can't come, because they have rented a cottage in Devon with a group of friends. Has Andrew been bluffing, too? In which case, you wasted pounds 2.50 on the card to Julia and Adam.

Phone the Morgans. Tragically, your friend Marie has had another go at her wrists. 'You can come, then?' they say. 'Andrew will be pleased.' Disaster] He thinks you're going to New York. And not even Mother Teresa, never mind the Morgans, will believe you're going to spend New Year's Eve at the hospital. 'See you around 8pm,' you say, brightly.

Now work quickly. Phone up the godparents and offer your services as a babysitter. Gosh, thank you, but the whole family is going to a matinee of Aladdin. They'd love you to join them but it's fully booked. 'Oh jolly good,' you say, through gritted teeth. You'll accept that party invitation in Hampstead, after all.

5) 31 December. Phone up Marie. No reply. Has she gone and done something stupid, after all? Rush round - wearing velvet hotpants, just in case - with the bottle of Liebfraumilch. She's just got out of the bath, and is on her way to Andrew's for dinner. What the hell is going on?

Rush home. Skid on vomit outside front door. Scream abuse at group of 17-year-old girls who laugh at you. Unplug phone. Spend 20 minutes searching for television guide. Give up, when you realise telly will be drowned by party hosted by Van Halen fans down the street. Spend 35 minutes ransacking bathroom cabinet, before turning up one grey earplug. Cork Liebfraumilch. Happy New Year]