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Top tips from a party animal by Tom Hodgkinson

Blog | By Tom Hodgkinson | May 18, 2023


I recently interviewed the brilliant and esteemed novelist Margaret Drabble.

I was struck and somewhat surprised when she told me that she panics before parties. Social situations make her nervous.

You wouldn’t have thought she had any reason to feel timid. After all, Drabble is a dame, recipient of many prestigious awards, the author of 30 books, and one of the most successful literary people of the last 50 years.

Surely she would stride into a cocktail party with all the self-confidence of Roger Federer striding on to Wimbledon’s Centre Court?

It’s something we’re all thinking about following the end of COVID-related restrictions and the return of socialising. In contrast to Drabble, Town Mouse has greatly enjoyed putting on his frock coat, trimming his whiskers and setting out to a book launch in Marylebone or a dinner in Soho. There’s something fun about the novelty of it all, the freedom and the pent-up excitement released after a period of involuntary incarceration.

I’m sure it’s the same for Russian oligarchs when they are released from a Siberian prison camp after ten years.

But how long will the fun last? Already I am hearing reports from friends that – after a period of social positivity, where the bores seemed less, well, boring than before – they’re starting to weary of the same people they wearied of pre-lockdowns. Are we drifting back to the old normal? And are we going to get an attack of the Drabbles?

The brilliant Mary Killen, wife of my country cousin on the opposite page, has excellent advice for those of us who get jittery when they’re on their way to a do (which means practically everybody).

First of all, Killen reassures us the other guests are too busy dealing with their own internal psycho-dramas to start making judgements about other people: ‘Realise that no one is thinking about you and how inadequate you are. They are all thinking about themselves and what you think of them.’

Wise Mary has two more tips for the fearful: listen and flatter. ‘Listening,’ she says, ‘is an even greater skill than talking. You can perform a great service to another person by listening at length while they think things through.’

And as for flattery, think about the other person. They are likely to be lacking in confidence, like you. So give them a compliment. Mary says, ‘Everyone loves reassurance. There is no need to be insincere. Think of things you genuinely do admire about the other person and express your admiration.’

Finally, she says, stand near the door, so you can make a quick escape if necessary. I’d add one more tip: arrive early, or on time. You know that awful period, when you’re the host, at the beginning of a party, when no one has yet arrived? Show up then, because your host will be grateful to see someone.

So yes, I suppose we will go back to slightly dreading social occasions. But there’s one new trend that will stay put: the outdoorsification of social life. Like many mice, when visiting my Parisian cousins I used to marvel at the street life as I smoked cigarettes with my espresso in Les Deux Magots. I felt faintly depressed by the bland and empty streets of London on my return. Why couldn’t we become more French, I thought?

Well, we have. Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, London has done the Continental. The cafés have extended themselves into the street. Everywhere I go on my bicycle, I see tables arranged on the street and covered with a temporary shelter. Over the two years of lockdowns, hundreds of pop-up terraces appeared as a way for business to continue during restrictions.

Now Kensington and Chelsea Council are going to grant over 500 five-year licences for outdoor seating to central London eateries. Johnny Thalassites, of Kensington and Chelsea Council, told the Evening Standard: ‘It’s a no-brainer to keep outdoor licensing on the menu when it’s proved so popular.’

The result is a lovely, civilised vibe – and increased income for the cafés and pubs. I’m certainly looking forward to loafing a lot this summer outside Soho’s Coach and Horses, still a great pub after all these years, and furnished with plenty of outdoor seating.

Just make sure you don’t strew the streets with bits of food or my opportunistic enemies, the Town Rats, will take advantage of alfresco London.