Oliver Cross: A life changing garden party and not in a good way

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BRING OUT your gas masks and tin helmets – my annual summer garden party is about to relaunch itself.

The event – described by many previous party-goers as life-changing, although not necessarily in a good way - has taken a sabbatical over the last few years, while me and my partner Lynne have concentrated on repurposing our spiritual outlook and trying to get the garden straight.

Which we’ve finally been able to do (well, the spiritual bit, the garden has a mind of its own) with the help of our long-running pub-quiz fund. Every Monday, we and several of our friends, plus any passing strangers who know about our weak points, such as sport, popular culture or quantum physics, enter the quiz at the Chemic Tavern in Woodhouse, Leeds, and about once a fortnight, we win it.

This would bring us a steady income equivalent to half a bag of crisps a day, but instead, much against common sense and police advice, the team hand the winnings to me for safe-keeping. I put them in the freezer, although, having just blown my cover, I might have, for security reasons, to move them to under the third plant pot in the greenhouse.

Anyhow, the quiz winnings have mounted up and now we have enough funds to put on a fabulous summer party, with more supplies of Cheesy Wotsits than you could shake a celery-stick at. This year we’re hoping to source the party food and drink from a top continental retailer known for its sophisticated take on the budget snacks market (probably Aldi).

Of course, quiz-team members and informants will get all this for free, but there will have to be a charge for people who have not contributed to the team’s success, such as most of our friends, families and neighbours.

They will have to pay a nominal fee (we’re wavering around the £8.75 mark at the moment) or sign a contract which would prevent them from eating or drinking anything provided by quiz-fund monies.

It’s tough but fair and our annual garden party has never chased cheap popularity at the expense of fiscal integrity. Actually, it has never chased cheap popularity at all and I think it’s a mark of my determination to maintain standards that attendance levels remain so low. After all, having hosted summer garden parties for a dozen years or more, I have learned, if I’ve learned anything, which is debatable, that parties are not just about lots of people enjoying themselves.

As my regular readers might remember, I believe that the key to garden-party success lies in choosing the right theme – who can forget my unforgettable beige party, where everybody wore beige cardigans and ate beige food, such as the insides of Cornish pasties, or my chapeau party, where people had to improvise their own hats, often out of found-objects such as beer mats or grass cuttings.

This year, in keeping with the pub-quiz financing of the party, I’m thinking of inviting each guest to come dressed as the answer to a pub-quiz question - Stanley Baldwin, for example. Then other partygoers would have to work out what the question was (in this case, ‘Who is the only British prime minister to have served under three monarchs?’) before being given access to the lavish finger buffet. The combination of top-of-the-range cheesy snacks and intellectual challenges should prove irresistible.

And it doesn’t end there; more imaginative guests could come dressed as, for example, the Suez canal, DNA or the Eddystone lighthouse. The scope is enormous and I can’t see how this garden party could turn out to be any worse than the last one.

Bennett’s bleak northern view leads to a happy end

HAVING WATCHED three-quarters of the recent Alan Bennett season at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, I’ve reached some conclusions about Bennett as a playwright – although conclusions are not the Bennett way; he deals more in hesitancies and ambiguities.

The three plays – Enjoy, Untold Stories and Talking Heads – have in common lots of very funny lines (none of which I can remember because the humour is understated and in-passing); an interest in ordinary people – that is, people who, unlike Bennett, didn’t go to Oxbridge and have never lived in Hampstead – and a kind of surrealism which takes you by surprise because it grows out of seemingly dull, pedestrian surroundings. You think you are watching simple scenes of northern life until something as weird as hell happens.

In Talking Heads, a vicar’s wife drinks all the communion wine and then substitutes it with cough medicine (nobody notices) and, more alarmingly, has a sexual affair with an Asian grocer; and a lonely, embittered spinster finds happiness by getting herself sent to prison – Bennett’s stories can be bleak but things usually turn out all right in the end. Like Dickens, he’s got a soft heart.

He’s also a very regional writer. If he were Irish, this would be obvious, but I suspect non-northerners might miss the Yorkshire speech patters and the pin-point references to places in and around Leeds.

James Joyce spent much of his life away from Dublin and Alan Bennett spent much of his life away from Leeds, but both remembered, with great clarity, what made them.


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