Fergus Henderson gives new meaning to hamming it up in his top tips for successful entertaining.
Let's not muck around here - whatever tips you may want to take away from this party issue, the first thing you want to get in hand is the drinks.
As soon as booze is involved with a large number of people, in my experience, a little gentle contentment sets in. But a lesser-known useful tip to further this contentment is to have someone in the middle of your party carving slices from a Spanish ham. This focus is very therapeutic - just as the feng shui people believe fish ponds and raked sand induce tranquillity, likewise folk at a party will calmly stand for ages and watch a ham being sliced, making this a very fine and subliminal form of crowd control. Just don't give in to offers from guests to slice the ham themselves once the first few cocktails have been downed. That is guaranteed to end in tears, if not stitches.
It may seem out of kilter to talk of giving a party in the same terms the police might use to speak about managing mobs after a football match, but there are basic similarities. The herd mentality is not to be underestimated. You want it to go off happily and without anyone injuring themselves, which sounds reasonable, and none of the theories detailed here should be intrusive to the core business of having fun.
Now, to the business of feeding the hordes. Seat everyone, if you can, with place names, which breaks up any factions that might have been forming. This solution will naturally collapse over the course of the evening (usually around the cheese course), but in itself causes a frisson of anticipation over the meal about the forthcoming conversation. Once seated, serving the food family-style is a wonderful way to get folk together; there's something very bonding about helping your neighbour to their lunch.
Have you ever partied in someone else's hotel suite? There's a special tension there between the sense of freedom you feel being in an anonymous space and the voice in your head reminding you that the space is not your own and therefore some kind of order should be maintained. Contrast this with the time I rather foolhardily asked the whole restaurant team from St John back to my place for a drink after our Christmas party. They rightly thought that it was their day, which somehow made it okay to smash every glass in the apartment. I took this as a sign that they were feeling comfortable, which was reassuring, and quietly resolved never to have them over en masse ever again.
Like glass smashing, there are those telltale signs that the party is slipping away from you. It's important to monitor these as your merrymaking proceeds although admittedly some are easier to spot than others. The signifier closest to me is when my dear wife starts dancing with chairs, which routinely entails her swinging them around like an obliging dance partner (but a little more destructive). So if we are at a party together and you hear me shouting "No chairs!" then you know what's afoot. Take shelter.
I feel we have covered a whole gamut of emotions here this month, which is very appropriate for this subject - giving a good party is emotional stuff. The initial fear is that of wondering whether anyone will turn up, then they do and you can relax for a moment, and then suddenly the dancing-with-chairs moment creeps up on you, and that contentment passes. But everyone sounds like they're having such a nice time. They have the ham, so don't worry about them.
Party on, I say.
Illustration Lara Porter