The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 23 June

Don’t worry about impressing people on your birthday, advises Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas
I’ve got a big birthday coming up and the guest list for the party is just growing and growing. I don’t want to exclude anybody but it’s all getting alarmingly unmanageable. I don’t know what to do.
Abigail Hunter, Battersea

Dear Abigail
You sound panicked. I don’t blame you. My friend Philip Hensher, the novelist and critic, said the other day: ‘Never invite more people to your party than you can speak to for two minutes.’ Maths isn’t my strong point, but we might assume that a party lasts, properly, for four hours. So that means you can invite 120 people. Although you’re not going to be yapping away solidly for all that time. There will be pauses and distractions, such as vol-au-vents to see to – so let’s say that reduces to 90 the number of people you can talk to for two minutes.

I don’t see how it’s humanly possible to talk to different people for longer than that, even if the party carries on for more than four hours – by which time it could well have become disorderly, especially if you are completely shattered by your two-minute chats with 90 people. Really, by this method, 90 is too many. It should be more like 60.

In addition there are other logistics to consider – can you accommodate that number of people in the space you have? Can you afford it? Some people love to throw a vast bash and spend money they don’t have. But I do wonder how many would rather not but feel obliged. As you say, once you’ve started in this direction, the numbers grow and grow.

There are many pitfalls to be avoided, not least the water supply being cut off or the electricity failing. Even if you have caterers, a hired venue and every comfort that money can buy, the strain is never entirely alleviated.

If you don’t want to do it, don’t. Question your motivation. Are you trying to please people or impress or short-circuit insecurity by surrounding yourself with an adoring throng, whom, when it comes to it, you’ll find intimating and exhausting? Why not have a smaller gathering of people who really matter to you and who will get on well together? It’s a stereotype, but if you’re an older person, you may prefer something more cosy. Or team up with another friend having a birthday around the same time to lighten the burden of responsibility? Another approach could be to have a series of informal gatherings for the different areas of your life – such as family, neighbours, intimates and so on.

They don’t all have to be drinks parties in the evening – lunch or tea (economical and delicious) are also possible. Whatever you decide, remember: it’s your birthday.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

WHAT TO DO ABOUT...Manspreading

Manspreading is when men splay their legs so widely when seated, especially on buses and trains, that there’s no room for anyone else. Actually the days of gender stereotyping the male sex in this fashion are numbered. For years men have been the only group left about whom it is not just acceptable to make unflattering generalisations but positively encouraged. So let’s pile on the abuse before it’s too late. I hear reports from Madrid where signs have recently appeared on public transport showing a bright red stick man sitting prominently with legs splayed. Next to him is a big red cross. ‘El manspreading’, as it’s called in Spanish, is not welcome.

It took an online petition launched by a feminist group, the Microrrelatos Feministas collective plus the collaboration of the city transport company with the Madrid city council’s equality department to bring about this state of affairs. So no smoking, no blocking the doors, give up your seat for an elderly or pregnant person and now... no manspreading. In New York and Seattle, the problem of intrusive (and embarrassing) male legs has also been identified as a public menace. In Seattle the sign depicts a disagreeable purple octopus. Is this fair?