Being a particularly risk-averse person, I believe preparation is key to any new venture or adventure. Having tasked myself with hosting a gathering for my birthday, I took myself off to the library in Wimbledon and grabbed at any book that looked vaguely helpful. Unfortunately there was no “Hosting for Dummies” because I think most people don’t actually need to be told how to have people they love in their own homes, but I did find the aptly named “Perfect Host” by Felicity Cloake.
Ms Cloake writes the wonderful “how to make the perfect…” series for the Guardian wherein she methodically works through a variety of recipes for one dish, works out the pitfalls and successes of each one and then devises the perfect version. For a cook, it’s wonderful as she really gets to grips with the key elements of a recipe and for a reader it’s a delight to read about twelve different chocolate mousses.
Perfect Host was in the cookery section of the library (which, frustratingly has moved around a lot and is now cramped in by the check-out machines) as it is predominantly a cookery book for hosting occasions, but luckily for me, there are a lot of solid advice pages.
I took a lot of notes.
The other tome I turned to was an etiquette book. I love me an etiquette book. I love knowing how you are supposed to behave in any given English high-society situation, how to address a Bishop (I know how to address a bishop in English, in German is another matter. I will need to organise a few German etiquette books and see what the differences are!), how to tie a Windsor knot – all the things particularly pertinent to my actual life!
Mind Your Manners: a guide to good behaviour by Robert O’Byrne was possibly more useful than a Debrett’s. It had chapters on modern romances, work place networking and hosting. It was published in 2006, which doesn’t feel like a decade ago, but some of the points seemed quite old-fashioned.
Using both books, I crafted list after list.
What Went Well
– Ms Cloake recommends planning ahead (a woman after my own heart), and planning the menu with regards how things go together. I didn’t do particularly well here as the majority of my “dishes” were either pastry or featured sun-dried tomatoes, and I did have a last minute panic that I had no meat on offer, so purchased some scotch eggs. They seemed to go down well though.
– She also recommends writing a shopping list for groceries and checking for special equipment you might need. I did very well on this. I had lists coming out of every pocket I had. I also calculated I would need a sizeable mixing bowl, so picked that up, plus an extra drinks jug.
– “…you should have completed most of the cooking and preparation well before your guests arrive.”
The party was on a Saturday, and I had taken the Friday off work to prep the house and get myself organised. This was a smart idea. Particularly because I took it into my head to start washing net curtains and bathmats willy nilly.
Friday saw the cake made and iced, the pastry twirls made and tested, the crudities prepped, the flat cleaned, the drinks organised, the crockery collected and assembled, leaving Saturday for making canapes, bunting hung up, everything popped into serving dishes and me to get myself ready.
– I had arranged the furniture well so that people could chat, but also mill around as they wished, I had a table for savoury dishes and another for sweet, I’d set up a drinks station, I had designated my bedroom as the cloakroom (which was unnecessary given that it was about 30°C and no one had brought a coat, although one person brought a bicycle, so it was good that I’d cleared a space!)
– Decoration wise, my lovely flatmate had bought a gorgeous bunch of flowers and some wonderful illuminated balloons, which added some much needed pizazz to the hallway. I had using up some lovely paper I had been “keeping for good” for at least four years to make a few hundred yards (slight exaggeration!) of bunting to hang around the living room and hallway. There were enough tablemats and glasses to keep the living room looking smart, so I was quite pleased at the low effort, high impact trade-off.
– Robert O’Byrne insists that the second round of drinks is also sufficiently chilled. I was ON THIS. My ex, who dabbled in wine merchantry (that’s not a word), once catered the drinks for a wedding and so we spent a good few months making ice for chilling. Seriously. We had a whole chest freezer full of blocks of ice.
I know ice. I had ice. I had cubes for drinks, I had blocks for buckets (or chilling a bath if I needed a LOT of things chilled quickly), plus frozen citrus slices for water. This was slightly pointless as I could fit all the wine in the fridge, but I felt comforted that I had these scenarios worked out in advance.
– The bathroom furnishings were immaculate. As were the net curtains. Plus the kitchen floor was efficiently washed for any unauthorised bare feet.
– O’Byrne recommends handling pre-party nerves by asking some good friends to come around early and give a hand with the last minute preparations. Obviously, all of the people I had invited were good friends, but I was particularly pleased when Pix, a friend from Oxford, arrived a little early and we could have a chat whilst assembling canapes. It reassured me that people would actually turn up and that I wouldn’t be a complete disaster. To be fair, given that my flatmate was in attendance, there was always going to be at least two people and we could easily have tidied away all the food.
– Having Pix there at the start sorting my Ritz-cracker-Philadelphia-caviar canapes and chatting to my flatmate meant that I was better equipped to actually greet people and, hopefully, make them feel welcome, rather than throwing them into the living room to fend for themselves. This isn’t exactly an achievement on my part, but it was something I didn’t do wrong, so I’m counting that. This is what went wrong in previous attempts – I didn’t know whether to do introductions, take coats or fix drinks that I ended up doing all of them badly and hiding in the kitchen. Poor show.
– One of my main objectives of the afternoon was to affix a name badge to everyone. Names can be very tricky in a group setting, while I did fine on introductions – it was a little presenting-someone-at-court as I ran down our friendship CV at times – sometimes it’s nice not to have to worry about remembering names. Some of us actually had a very British-European conversation about how acceptable it is or isn’t to keep asking someone’s name. As a person with an awkward name, I will easily go by a completely different name if it helps the other person not feel awkward. My flatmate, who is Norwegian, didn’t agree and did in fact clarify a name later in the evening with nary a regard to the name badge. I feel confident that the British were keen on the name badges. They were also enthusiastic about decorating them with stickers, so that pleased me. It was a nice icebreaker, in a way, talking about googly-eyed foxes and golden silhouette flowers, rather than “What do you do?”
– Refreshment wise, I felt I also did quite well. As recommended by O’Byrne, I had multiple bottles of the same white wine and prosecco, rather than variations, and plenty of water and apple juice. I calculated the drinks quite well (by estimating a bottle per two people and then add one further to the total) and there was definitely enough food. I had also been sure to have plenty of reserves, should anything run out (or if there had suddenly been a second wave of unexpected guests)
What Didn’t Go So Well
– Ms Cloake makes a very valid point which I somehow missed: It’s important to reserve the A-Team before the rival invitations come in. Having a birthday in the summer is always a risk. At school, my birthday always fell during exam time. Nowadays my birthday falls during holiday season. Throw in a weekend event and your numbers are sure to drop. Also, I felt slightly that my birthday was an imposition, and so left mentioning it until a month before, knowing full well that my friends are usually booked up well in advance.
That being said, I did have a delightful mix of friends (no one knew anyone but me – ordinarily a horrifying prospect, but I’m coming round to the fact that there my personality is multi-faceted but not clashing, and it’s actually lovely to have people I care about talk together) who were able to make it and the numbers (seven) were totally manageable and not terrifyingly overwhelming.
– I did not have an ice bucket, but I was able to borrow one from a proper grown up. Sometimes I forget that I do not live with my ex in a well stocked household. And I stocked that household, so it had everything. We had dessert forks, ice buckets, cloth napkins, a selection of milk/sauce jugs, a tarte tatin pan… Then at the last minute I realise that I left it all behind in Surrey. I was particularly annoyed about the ice bucket and the dessert forks this time, but it’s better to be without them than still with him [cue: laughter]. Plus, Carrie’s ice bucket was a fancy champagne house bucket, so that was a decided upgrade.
– I did fuss quite a bit. I fussed a bit about everyone having something on their plate and that everyone had something to drink at all times, which perhaps wasn’t quite the relaxing atmosphere I was going for, but that could be the Irish Mother in me coming out. I did simmer down a bit and then put serving dishes on the coffee table, so people could help themselves without actively Going To Fetch nibbles, as sometimes you don’t want to break up conversation to refill your plate. I should remember that for next time.
As O’Byrne says, “When preparing your order of the night, do allow enough time for drinks. Guest should be given around half an hour to chat and get to know one another before being ushered to the table. Don’t rush them there; it implies panic on your part and that’s disconcerting for everyone else.”
All in all, I would give the afternoon a solid seven out of ten. Loss of points for fussing, issuing invitations late and not having an ice bucket. but points for managing to remain civil to everyone whilst carrying out tasks, not commandeering the conversation too often and keeping drinks topped up.
On the back of how fun it was, I decided to create a book group as a reason for more get-togethers. There will be no designated book to read to a deadline, but rather anyone who is available can get together to talk about a book they liked without judgement. It’s a lot lower key and gives me a good reason to practice again.
The next step up is to have people over for an actual meal, but I feel that’s quite a ways away at this point. Baby steps! I do still need to organise an ice bucket, after all! Let’s not run, before we can walk.