15 DECEMBER 1961, Page 29


The Office Party


I CAN'T think what it is

people have against Christmas. Personally, I like it all—the tree, the crackers, the turkey; eight million people stamping on each other's parcels in Oxford Street, the candles, the brandy butter, the wrapping of presents and failing to post them early—the lot. Carol singers certainly aren't all easy on the ear, but a good many People never sing at all except at Christmas; Christmas cards are certainly uphill work, but no one has so far thought of a better way of keeping in touch with people you cannot sec constantly. It is said that, from a commercial Point of view, if Christmas did not exist it would be necessary to invent it; and I am inclined to think that there is as much hypocrisy among those who, living contentedly mercenary lives 411 the year, complain about the commercialisa- tion of Christmas, as there is among unbelievers Who sell cribs and stars to other unbelievers. Christmas is, of course, to a certain extent cruel, as all compulsory jollifications are cruel--be- cause they underline loneliness; but at least Christmas (unlike New Year) carries some obli- gation to include the lonely in, the fun. Even the season's most questionable manifestation, the office party, may be a boon to those who would otherwise have no party at all.

Questionable, however, there is no doubt it is. I must admit that 1 am prudently writing this before the parties of any offices I happen to attend, so I have no up-to-date information on the subject; but they seem to fall into much the same pattern from year to year. There is, for a start, the frozen jollity of the upper reaches, smiling benevolently on those they normally order about; there is the usual embarrassment

trying to sort out the faces of those one normally sees only in a uniform behind a given Partition, now burgeoning anonymously in Magenta silk; there is the strain of feeling that it is unsuitable to talk shop and impossible to think of anything else to say. And there is the think problem: one knows that only a flood of (kink will wash away all awkwardness, yet what indiscretions, Like drowned pigs, may not come lown with the flood?

It is no wonder, 1 suppose, that voices should be raised against the office party. But one thing you can tell for certain about the voices is they Fill speak in very OK accents; and I cannot telP thinking it is naïve of people who suppose are in the upper strata of their organisa- 1°fls to complain because they do not enjoy their °1rIce parties. It is never intended that they should. That is not what office parties are for. point of an office party is the point of a saturnalia, of officers serving the men in the n leSS a reversal of the natural order of things.

An office party is not, as is sometimes supposed, the Managing Director's chance to kiss the tea- girl. It is the tea-girl's chance to kiss the Managing Director (however bizarre an ambition this may seem to anyone who has seen the Managing Director face on). Bringing down the mighty from their seats is an agreeable and necessary pastime, but no one supposes that the mighty, having struggled so hard to get seated, will enjoy the dethronement.

. I would go further and say one probably en- joys an office party in exact inverse ratio to one's status in the firm. J have never enjoyed another office party nearly as much as the first I ever went to, when I was green enough to think it absurd that the chairman of our publishing firm who never read a book or met an author, should talk about 'our efforts in the year just ending.' Under the safe conduct of the office party, I could even tell him how he had got his jokes wrong.

Granted that the other ranks arc going to en- joy an office party a good deal more than the nobs, there are still factors which make for less or greater difficulty. Some firms propel the entire works down the Thames on an all-day barge, and there are tales Of typists already slewed by 10 a.m.; this is possibly carrying frater- nisation to extremes. The FBI used to go in for paralysing tea-parties, in which all the secretaries would arrive punctually and range themselves on chairs against the wall, leaving, the executives to shamble in a nervous bunch in the middle of the room. Sonic go in for formal dinner- dancing, with wives; which is apt to put a strain On the dancing of those who don't dance and the manners of those who do; others simply push the desks to one side in the office itself and get down to serious drinking. And some even go in for fancy dress, which is a great help to the saturnalia principle: apart from the fact that the costumes provide endless topics of con- versation, it is easier altogether to unbend in an assumed personality; and the damage the next day is much lessened by the feeling that it was Wyatt Earp, not the Assistant Manager, who slid down the banisters with Gwyneth Switch- board, and only Long John Silver, not the messenger, who used oaths with ‘N hich his parrot would not have sullied its beak. What every ollice party really needs, of course, is a natural. focus; and 1 have come to the sad conclusion that the only natural 'focus that really works is disaster. Picture Post used to do a fine (and frequent) line in parties 'for retiring editors (one man was made editor twice, and practically caught his farewell party coming round for the second time); and it achieved real closeness on the day of its collapse. There was, too, 1 re- member, one unintentionally •.disastrous office beano brought on by the need to drink the runners-up in a Farmer's Weekly Home Wine- making. Competition. The significant feature of this competition was that contestants could make their wine from anything, and the effects of mix- ing liqtfids made from .birchbark,-elderberry, holly and agricultural overalls had to be heard to be believed. Possibly the most ,popular thing a management could do to bring its staff together would be to burn the place down.

For the good will does exist, if you can only get at it Which is why I feel that the best office parties are the ones where the Wives and families are not invited and the proceedings take place in the familiar surroundings ..of the office itself. All that one can hope for, ,after all, is a 'brief intensification of a working relationship. Wives put a strain on the juniors and unduly restrain the seniors—:directors may kiss office girls, but office boys are hardly likely to kiss directors' wives. And wives, hotels, dinner-dances, mock- ups of other social situations 'only serve to bring one face to face with one of the saddest but most unavoidable truths: that one can have a 100 per cent. excellent working friendship that will simply not carry over into private life. Let it he intensified, reversed, stood 'en its head; let it change hats for one evening of the year by all means; but not falsified by a pretence of out-of- hours bOnhomie.