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The dangerous allure of the garden party

This is not a guide on the dos and don’ts of summer refreshments in the garden — that can wait. This is about the serious challenges a person of a certain class in England has faced in not succumbing to the temptation to host or attend a garden party in the first place. And a degree of restraint really has been necessary over the past two years.

The first problem has been the weather. For much of the year, we live defensively, armed with umbrellas, prepared for England’s capricious rain. So when there is an interlude in the clouds, there has been a compulsion to celebrate this temporary triumph over the elements: what we call making the most of the lovely weather.

The second is the garden itself. Despite the lofty ambitions of housebuilders from the Georgian era onwards to give each town dweller a postage-stamp slice of Eden, a garden’s main function is as a sponge for the aforementioned rain. But then, when the sun comes out, and the grass is lush, who doesn’t think, well, one really must make the most of the lovely weather?

There’s also a propensity to find all sorts of reasons to have a drink, often spoken in code: the sun is over the yardarm, the Siege of Gibraltar must be commemorated, it’s Pimm’s o’clock, isn’t it time for a work event?

When the three circumstances converge, it has been terribly tempting. The mind might have drifted to the relative innocence of the formal gathering, held in mid-afternoon.

The original and finest garden parties are those held by royalty, a display of power through cucumber sandwiches. In the past half century, the Queen has opened her garden to the invited public but they are still perfectly choreographed events in the all-seeing light of the afternoon: a reception, scones, courtiers and VIPs. Stragglers who’ve taken one too many cups of tea are firmly out of the gates by 6pm.

Many a garden lunch or tea party wishes to be an echo of this: genteel and sophisticated, playing out in the little suburban Edens. The furniture makers have reminded us of how we want to entertain outside with an array of smart plastic tables and chairs in Heal’s and Ikea and the more traditional rattan style. (Did you know Lulu Lytle does a line of rattan chairs, with weather-resistant striped fabric for cushions at £120 per metre?)

Sausage rolls, a garden party favourite © Joe Gough/Getty Images/iStockphoto

But such a garden party is designed to have the host coming out smelling of roses. During heightened pandemic restrictions, one was unlikely to be held as a slippage. The Queen certainly didn’t.

The other sort of garden party has been more difficult to resist: the ones when the sun begins to set and hedonistic spirits start to rise. I think in particular of London evening parties held in the communal gardens in Notting Hill and private ones in Chelsea with attendant waiters, or the ones that might pass as work events, justifying your long evening out — the sort held by publishing houses in Bloomsbury, a museum, maybe a magazine in their otherwise forgotten back garden.

When The Spectator was edited by our current prime minister in the noughties, he lorded it over the crush of bodies and clink of glasses at its annual summer party.

One 82-year-old grandmother had a socially distanced cup of tea with a friend in the communal garden. The police came knocking on her door later that day

Life is so normally contained by rain, work suits, walls and propriety. An indoor party, with its own set of rituals, can only bend those strictures so much. But in the garden, where do the boundaries lie? As the summer sun subsides into its own tipsy torpor, the rules of the party are as loose as the host. In those dusky hours it becomes a place for the grown-ups to make mischief. (Someone send the intern out for more booze, please.)

How one might have weakened when faced with such a prospect.

But we didn’t. True, there were a few incidents over the past two years of intermittent lockdowns. Some Londoners without gardens would head out together to parks with a tipple, only to be reminded by the Covid wardens that this was forbidden. One 82-year-old grandmother fell into temptation: she had a socially distanced cup of tea with a friend in the communal garden. The police came knocking on her door later that day.

How could you abandon yourself to the pleasures of drinking at a dusk party if looking over your shoulder all the time? Not many can afford to place armed guards on the gates to make sure we aren’t discovered.

If you managed, against the odds, to refrain from throwing a garden party during lockdown, well done — your reward awaits you when the rain abates. The few who didn’t should at least be condemned to pass summer inside at their desks — and for the worst offenders, perhaps their passes to their offices and polite society will be revoked. It was guilt for breaking the rules that had us evicted from the original Eden, lest some have forgotten.

Follow Joy @joy_lo_dico

Luke Edward Hall returns on January 29

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