A few weeks ago, a city trainee called Lucy Gao was widely mocked for sending out an extremely detailed email invitation to her 21st birthday party at the Ritz. Ms Gao, a real estate equity researcher, specified no flip-flops or denim and staggered times for her guests to drink champagne. The mortified young woman sent a second email to her colleagues and tormentors which read, ‘I am sorry if you found the content of the invitation details offensive and I am glad to entertain. But please stop now.’
I think I can understand how the invitation was conceived. The point about 21st birthday parties is that they are your first big adult statement. Eighteen may be the official threshold of adulthood but you are still your parents’ child. Eighteenth parties have an air of play-acting about them and the mask drops as soon as the throwing up starts.
It is a contemporary problem that all youthful parties are a battle of will and wits between guests wanting to get plastered and organisers/parents trying to stop them. The Capital Disco parties, so beloved of the wealthy middle classes, flourish because they keep children within their own social groups and because they police the booze. Just in case, they also provide the must-have accessory of paramedics and beds for teenagers who smuggle drink past the Heathrow-style security scanners.
Twenty-one is still amber to red alert for parents — sobriety and common sense come much later, but there is a greater sense of personal responsibility and accountability and survival. Above all, it is a personal expression.
Of course, many parents hope that the personal expression will be understated — and cheap. On the one hand, you might discuss a ‘civilised’ dinner for say 12 friends at a smart restaurant. You can call it a ‘Black Tie’ or even a ‘White Tie’ dinner to give a vaguely Mansion House feel to it. On the other, you could go for a fully blown James Jagger-style, fancy dress all-night bash.
In a way, 21sts are more like weddings than parties. For 18ths, the guest list is simple, you invite your mates. Twenty-firsts are more likely to be inter-generational and you have a bigger cast list. You have university friends, gap-year friends and friends of friends. The tensions are also proportionately greater.
In my own case, the trouble started with first base. The law of the 21st is location, location, location (away from neighbours and gatecrashers). My son’s father — and my ex-husband — is fortunate enough to own a house with around 20 acres of land an hour or so from London. For years, he has run a sideline in weddings and parties in the grounds. If ever there was a moment for a big gesture towards our adorable son, Henry, it was now. But Henry’s father ruled his house as the venue for the 21st ‘inappropriate’, leaving me in a colossal sulk. While Henry scoured venues patiently on the internet I stood behind him, lips pursed in Nora Ephron-style satirical fury and said helpful things such as, ‘Well, it is perfectly obvious where this party should be held.’
A curious thing in life is that for every person who disappoints you another comes up trumps. My brother and sister-in-law, who live in Norfolk, own a couple of fields behind their house and a deconsecrated church where my brother writes his songs for his cabaret Kit and the Widow (kitheskethharvey@ hotmail.com), stepped into the breach.
Suddenly, my son was living the dream again. The theme was gothic erotica. His student savings — a contradiction in terms, I know, but he is on an army scholarship — went on a repulsive show called Carnival of the Bizarre (www.circusofhorrors.co.uk). That was most of the budget. We discussed DJ versus the iPod and correctly settled on a DJ. Reluctantly, and also correctly, we forked out for a couple of gate watchmen (or bouncers as one might call them in Piccadilly) and bar staff. The other major expense was the hog roast — simple and plentiful.
As far as drink was concerned it was quantity rather than quality. The booze cruise to Calais suffered when my son’s van broke down, blocking the Majestic car park just as a thousand or so Essex men were leaving to catch the return ferry. But eventually Henry returned with a sea of vodka and champagne/ lavatory cleaner for £2.50 a bottle.
The evening was not Glyndebourne, but it was superb in its fashion. A show so grotesque that women fainted, and relentless drum and bass music for around six hours. A full moon, a gigantic bonfire, and a chorus of marching tunes from the handsome, cross-dressed, wildly drunk yet ramrod-backed and polite army officers; ex-husband on sweet behaviour. Nobody died, the police were not called, the house and grounds were not damaged. I could not have asked for more.
These are the lessons that I have learned:
1. There is even more work in a party than you fear. Guest lists are the easy bit. Someone has to think about hiring lavatories, buying enough bin-bags, ordering the ice.
2. Dressing up gives everyone a stake in the party. Whatever the theme, make sure it allows a glamorous interpretation.
3. If the party is at home, your neighbours need to be saints or guests. Clubs are less risky, although less personal.
4. Entertainment gives the party personality.
5. What ultimately guarantees a good party is nice friends. Fortunately, my son’s friends were a delight at midnight and tolerable at 6 a.m.