September 2016


The perfect host

By Robert Skinner
There’s more to throwing a party than putting out some dips

The first time I attended one of Manoli’s parties was around the time of the global financial crisis. I remember him smashing out the lights of his own house so that we might “dance more freely”, which we appreciated given those turbulent times. He was the perfect host for the occasion: attentive, entertaining, and drunker than anyone else in the room.

One of Manoli’s guiding principles is that a party must always have a theme. For those attending, that means suffering the tyranny of dressing up. The light-smashing party was called ‘The Recession Party’ (or, taking inspiration from Paul Keating, ‘The Party We Had To Have’). I remember a lot of pleased-looking lawyers wearing grey beanies and fingerless gloves. At the time I was against the whole business of dressing up, so I just wore my regular outfit. But given the condition of my wardrobe in those days, I blended right in. Other guests kept slapping me on the back and saying, “That’s the spirit.”

I used to complain, “Can’t we just drink heavily together?” But it’s true, a theme provides a sense of occasion. And by asking guests to don a costume you’re soliciting from them a genuine commitment to the party. No one’s showing up dressed as a blancmange and pretending they have some place better to be.

Even great parties have awkward beginnings: three people trying to be a crowd (four if you count the blancmange) in an otherwise empty room, and a host trying to quell the terror that no one will arrive. When more guests do arrive, they’re always in impossible combinations: your Aunt Wendy from out of town, the crack-smoking anarchist from next door, and the overseas basketball player whom you met on the tram that morning and promised a good time.

At a Manoli-hosted party, guests usually have to wait for him to make his entrance – fashionably late. He sweeps in through the front door wearing some floor-to-ceiling gown, gestures broadly across the room, and in his booming baritone says, “Ladies and gentlemen, have you noticed the dips?” He elevates the business of dressing up to an art form, and embodies another of his golden rules: as the host, you must always set the example for how to party. (Or, as he puts it, “You should always be the first person to start smashing stuff.”)

On arrival, the guests should on no account be able to see the whole party with one sweep of the eyes. Separate rooms are ideal, or partitions at least. It is important that guests can retain, for as long as possible, the hope that they might meet a soulmate, even if the party is populated entirely with real estate agents. There’s no need to disappoint them at the door.

Social interaction is laborious at the start of any party. The host’s role is to provide a gentle heat, so that people in the room, like particles in a beaker, become energised enough to start reacting. Manoli is more of a centrepiece than a conversationalist, but he still brings people together – the way, say, fireworks might. Or a car crash. And as the house starts filling with friends, strangers and love interests, a party finds its second gear. Everyone becomes charming at the same time. Dancing seems possible. You can tumble easily into conversations, into arms. A good party feels like a rich life, which is presumably why we throw them.

There are people who would be content with an evening like this, who would speak for days about what a lovely party it was, about how they saw Aunt Wendy and that crackhead discussing beanie crochet patterns, and how that basketball player couldn’t stop smiling, just kept towering over everyone and telling them what a good time he was having.

But a party has a third gear, too. What might be referred to as “getting carried away”. It is the moment when widely held social conventions are abandoned, and a party conga-lines onwards according to its own logic. Everything that happens in the third gear – the armpit licking, the couch racing, the String Cheese Incident – makes perfect sense in the context of the party and nowhere else. If your 2 am self went back in time and tried to explain to your 8 pm self what the party had descended into, your 8 pm self would have a hard time understanding how it had all gone so wrong. Though, if you’ve been to enough parties, your questions are likely to be logistical rather than philosophical: “But where did the wedding cake come from?” or “Why did the possums only bite that one guy?”

In the early days of our short-story magazine, The Canary Press, we recruited Manoli to help host our launch parties. He insisted that, at some point in the evening, we present the new issue with a big reveal. “People deserve a show,” he’d say, and we often went to traumatic lengths to make this happen.

By the launch of Issue 3, he had already performed as a giant stork, his own mother, Mr and Mrs Shakespeare, and the back end of a pantomime horse. We were pretty short on ideas. There was a popular photo of Manoli going around at the time, titled ‘Man Reading in Desert’. He was in the outback somewhere, half-naked, hair in a Princess Leia bun, reading a copy of Issue 2. So for our Issue 3 launch party we wheeled him out in a giant pool of jelly and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are thrilled to present our follow-up: ‘Man Reading in Dessert’!” Manoli was sitting in the jelly wearing bathers and a scuba mask, and reading a hitherto unseen copy of Issue 3. The crowd went wild with confusion. The idea was that everyone would rush forward, throw their money into the jelly and fish out a copy from somewhere near Manoli’s legs. No one thought to question how this might impact sales.

Though it’s hardly on the scale of raising barns or building orphanages, a party provides the opportunity to bring people together, briefly, in one unifying moment, before we all return to our lonely homes. At a house party we wanted to see how many people we could bring together in our kitchen, which even our landlord described as “kinda poky”. There were 58 of us in a room the size of most people’s bathrooms. People tried to pass around drinks. Someone gave a speech. Manoli found himself up near the kitchen shelf, from where he started handing down strands of saffron like some Babylonian king. From inside the mass of bodies one of our more responsible housemates yelled, “Manoli, you’re blowing our whole budget! You wouldn’t even let me buy hummus!”

The withholding of the hummus was in accordance with Manoli’s theory that you want to keep people slightly on edge and hungry with desire. Food only quells the revolutionary spirit. This was hard for him, given the ancestral weight of Greek tradition, its thousands of years of hospitality. “It pains me,” he said. But the evidence on the morning after suggested that people made do: a jar of Vegemite with a spoon in it, beer coasters covered in barbecue sauce and bite marks.

For one anticipated launch I bought a dozen bottles of champagne, hoping to make a dignified toast. But it was only much later, once the party was in full swing, that we remembered our plan. “The toast!” we cried. By then the bar was in disarray, and people who wanted a drink were being sent back into the crowd to find an empty glass or mug. So Manoli and I weaved through the crowd with the champagne, pouring it straight into the mouths of friends, comrades and eminent figures of Australian literature. In between, I took swigs so as to assure everyone that all was safe and above board. It wasn’t quite the portentous moment we had imagined, but at the time it was hard to imagine a greater pleasure than that unholy communion. I must have swigged a little too hard in all my excitement, because someone stopped me in my travails and said, “Dude. You are bleeding. A lot.”

Where does a party go from here? Down, usually. Like the fall of Rome. Those people with lives to go back to will stagger home, or pair off and dive giggling into the sheets. The morning after the jelly episode, Manoli went interstate and I was left with the clean-up job. While I trudged around picking up bottles and pulling down streamers, I had the sensation of being watched, that bad news was lurking for me somewhere like a lion in the long grass. And then I saw the pool of jelly.

We had purchased the jelly powder from a professional jelly wrestler. To turn it into jelly proper, all we had to do was fill our blow-up pool with water and stir it in. “Keep going!” cried my treacherous colleagues as I directed the hose from the laundry tap. “More! More!” We made that jelly with such wanton revelry. The next day, standing over the pool and its solidified contents, I had the same feeling that one might have on the morning after a coup.

The jelly and I were on the first floor. The only way to get rid of it was to carry all 300 litres of it downstairs by the bucket-load. Once outside, I lumbered onto the street and tipped it into the drain. The jelly wrestler had assured us it was biodegradable, but who the hell knows? Hunched over and pouring out the red sludge, I looked as if I’d committed if not a homicidal crime then at least an environmental one. A few bedraggled copies of Issue 3 tumbled out with the jelly, as young families watched on in disgust from the sunny side of the street.

With the right company, though, mornings after a party can be immensely pleasurable. People emerge, bleary-eyed, to piece together the night’s events. I imagine this is what old age might feel like, if you’re lucky, and you’ve managed to live well: connecting aches and pains to fondly remembered events; trading stories with your closest friends; feeling the sun on your face, the rumble of the stereo; pottering around the house for a while and, finally, out to lunch.

Robert Skinner

Robert Skinner was born and raised on the Adelaide Plains. He is now based in Melbourne.

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