20 DECEMBER 1963, Page 25

Those Parties


Tur worst office Christ- mas party I've ever been to was one where hus- bands and wives were in- vited but no partners whose relationships with employees had not been sealed with wedding bands. It was a perversely moral ruling. For one thing it meant that the young and footloose, the one section of the staff who might conceivably have relished a lush, pretentious, free night out, were deprived of a party-- indeed if staff enjoy- ment had been of prime consideration the organisers should have reversed the de'cision. But, more importarit, it singularly failed to come up with any solution- to the real problem 'posed by the office party as an institution. Is it a social activity whose point is to recognise that office people are also outside people and that their two lives should not be entirely separate? Or is it an in-group ritual designed to give people the chance to let their hair down, to say and dc, whatever they feel like, secure in the benign grip of liquor and the knowledge that the status quo will be restored the next day with every indiscretion happily forgotten?

Experience of both kinds has convinced me that the best office parties are the latter 'time out of war' ones which build on the group feeling, however weak, of a lot of individuals. Introduce outsiders like husbands and wives (particularly wives) and immediately it becomes a rigidly stratified gathering where the definition of status is necessary to easy social -intercourse. A pretty typist can flirt all evening with the managing director and they both leave the party feeling well set up, but she can't flirt with the managing direc- tor and his wife. (Ideally the office boy should be taking care of his wife, but it rarely seems to work that way any more.) What the best office Christmas parties have is the illusion, at least While they're going on, that social mobility really Is happening. The chairman eyeing the girl who runs the tea trolley can convince himself that he's' fraternising with his staff, where at best he's just exercising his limited droit de seigneur.

he ambitious young executive can believe that his brilliant, ludicrously frank observations to his superiors are not only not giving offence but are actually advancing his career, when what he's enjoying is the kind of nursery truce a child is allowed during his birthday tea of saying anything to anyone without fear of punishment. This kind of feeling is much more difficult to achieve with strangers present who themselves are trying to work out who's who with labelling eyes that are all too inhibiting.

Strangely enough, it also seems almost im possible to achieve when the staff have a healthy knowledge and regard for one .another, because the successful office party depends, on the will towards illusion and in an office like this the relationships are real. I remember going to work for an organisation one of whose most im- pressive characteristics was that the people working there obviously knew and had strong feelings about one another. They seemed to spend most of their spare time drinking in each other's company and talking about their work.

waited eagerly for the evening of the Christmas party thinking we'd all have a few drinks, let our hair down, button-hole our bosses and tell them our hopes and dreams. Not a bit of it. Just as the button-holing stage seemed imminent,

everyone, stall and bosses, started melting away With vague and unconvincing engagements. Later 1 realised why. What they were afraid of was that they would let their hair down, say indiscreet things, be offensive to their drinking companions, compromise their careers by push- ing their superiors a bit too far. The relation- ships were at once too real for anything said or done to be dissociated from the indi- vidual who said it, and too fragile to bear the weight of slackening ihhibitions.

Inhibitions are most easily; and probably most fruitfully. lost at an office party when there isn't much extra-curricular contact between the staff where the directors can see the pretty little tiling. clerks as pretty little girls without knowing much about them, where the girls from the typing pool giggle happily through the speeches because they're not quite sure who's making them, and the office boy meets the head of the sales department with the genial indif- ference of a pub encounter.

Elsa Maxwell once said that a good party depended on the hostess being determined to enjoy it. This is as true of office parties as of any others. The best staff Christmas parties I've ever been to were given in the height of summer by an employer who cheerfully told us each December that, as we knew, he never gave the stall a party at Christmas because we Were in the habit of celebrating his birthday in July. (He never made it clear whether he considered his anniversary more important than Christmas or just that if he had to spend money celebrating -anyone's birthday it was jolly well going to be his own.) Come July we were reminded that we hadn't had a party in December and with trampling disregard for what we wanted we were piled into charabancs in the middle of a statutory working day and driven, down to Suffolk. There we had drink poured into us non-stop from about 4 p.m., were conducted staggering around the farm, heaped into marquees for more drinks, immense barbecues and ear-splitting steel bands. The whole thing culminated in a fireworks display at about mid- night with 'Happy Birthday, DC' emblazoned on the night sky---by some oversight there were no heavenly choirs. We were then piled hack into our charabancs, and one and all put down outside the office door in the middle of the West End long after the last buses and tubes had finished running. Never mind, as our emplo■er would no doubt have said if anyone had put the point to him, we had a great office party to celebrate Christmas.