Well, that was fun. A period of intense research has produced definitive answers to the important questions, ‘How many people can we squeeze round the table while still leaving room for them to be able to move their arms enough to eat and drink?’; ‘what is the correct thing to do with an excess of tree decorations?’ (no, I didn’t think such a thing as ‘too many tree decorations’ was possible either, but it turns out that it is); and ‘could this become the sort of family that plays board games without gnawing off our own arms with boredom?’ The answers, incidentally, are twelve – and a jolly festive affair it was too; set up a second tree for the dogs (duh); and yes! Yes we could! Provided one of is lucky enough to be given the Great Penguin Book Chase for Christmas (and I’m looking thoughtfully at an ad for Ex Libris, which claims to be a game of first lines and last words and sounds as if it might have been designed specifically for the NorthernReader household). But opportunities for fireside sloth are still pretty thin on the ground as we hop cheerfully from party to party (see Week 69 for the strain this can put on pleasingly meagre wardrobes, unless of course you are a chap, in which case the rule set out in Week 70 still applies). Just time for a quick browse to see how our social whirl compares with parties in books.
No family get-together can completely avoid a faint sense of the Starkadder Re-enactment Society, it seems to me: re-read Cold Comfort Farm as you prepare for your multi-generational gathering and do not let anyone hear you call your party a Counting. But take comfort, cold or otherwise, from the fact that pretty much all parties in books for grown-ups (I hesitate to call it ‘adult fiction’ because the phrase sounds so queasily Fifty Shades-ish – and imagine my surprise when I discovered that that wasn’t a Farrow and Ball hommage after all) – all parties have their steel core of social anxiety, awkwardness or downright misery. Hurray! One of life’s sparkling little lessons safely under the belt: you are not there to enjoy yourself, you are there to circulate. Stiff upper lip and remember that Darcy hated it too. Getting ready for a party can be fraught, as well: remember the Little Women sisters, Meg and, to a markedly lesser degree, Jo, scurrying around before the New Year’s Eve party to which they have been invited. Jo burns Meg’s hair (so much for straighteners) and finds a splendid iron-burn on her own frock and gloves too stained to be worn, while Meg adds to the fun with too-tight shoes (and haven’t we all done that) and a crushing certainty that her sister will behave badly and show them up. And after all that, well, what do you know, they have a perfectly splendid time after all. Hope springs eternal.
New Year’s parties are set a high standard to live up to, not only by the wonderful Old Year’s Night celebrations in our own Village Hall here in NorthernReader-land, but also and more anciently by King Arthur’s jolly get-together at Camelot as chronicled in Gawain and the Green Knight. When I tell you that this particular knees-up is gate-crashed by a green giant who proposes a friendly Christmas game involving AN AXE, you will see that, put like that, the parties you go to are not nearly as hair-raising as you thought they were. You will also, of course, make an immediate resolution to get no more than a couple of days into the new year without avidly reading Simon Armitage’s translation of the story (translation because the original manuscript we have is from the late fourteenth century and is written in Middle English, which is related to what we speak today but not so that you can read it without limbering up first).
I don’t know whether either of our current Beloved Leaders is planning to go and pluck the gowans fine this New Year’s Eve, but Prime Ministers in fiction have had their partying moments. Alan Hollinghurst deftly captures the horror of the whole decade in his image of Mrs Thatcher, dressed in some sort of Ruritanian outfit, gliding across the dance-floor with the cocaine-sozzled hero of The Line of Beauty. The Prime Minister who attends the party that is the climax of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, un-named in the book but presumably Stanley Baldwin, pays the price, whether he is aware of it or not, of mixing with colleagues and –even worse – voters, when other party-goers take one look and think, ‘One couldn’t laugh at him. He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits.’ Ah. I feel I should point out that, yes, she was a crashing snob, over-burdened with a full and distasteful armoury of bigotries and prejudices, but nevertheless you might well enjoy reading Virginia Woolf. Probably our greatest Modernist, so it would be a shame to miss out. And she does have the distinction of making Evelyn Waugh seem positively kindly – not an easy manoeuvre – by comparison: in Vile Bodies, Waugh contents himself with merely calling his Prime Minister ‘Mr Outrage’ and then feeling sorry for him for being ‘just a Prime Minister, nothing more.’ Ouch.
And of course, if you are hosting a party, keep a weather eye out for gate-crashers. Especially if you are called Capulet and you have a teenage daughter.
Anyway, glad-rags on and out you go. If you are very, very lucky, you might find, as we do, that you are among friends and that you are really, truly, enjoying yourself hugely. So have a lovely time and remember that you have the pleasure of a good book to come home to. Happy New Year. (This picture is of the Tar Bar’l Ceremony in Allendale and I think you’re going to love listening to this song from the lovely Unthank sisters)