Forbidden fruit of the Orange sorority

Plop! On to the doormat lands a stiffy, inviting me to the party for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Further research teaches me that this is awarded only to women novelists. "What?" I ask myself, quoting Borat: "A woman has written a book?"

Actually, I know full well what the Orange Prize is all about, and indeed what the party is like. And not only that: I haven't quite told the whole story about how the invite arrived. A week or so before the event, I still hadn't received it. This put me into a bit of a paranoid flap. All freelancers know how easy it is to be dumped, and although dropping off a guest list does not have the same devastating financial consequences as losing a gig, it does little for one's morale and can be seen as a harbinger of destitution. So I emailed my agent and Daisy Goodwin and anyone else I could think of with some pull to see about rectifying this distressing state of affairs.

For, having gone to them for the past few years, I can confidently state that the Orange Prize bashes are the best of the lot. These days literary party invitations are so rare that you have to go to each one just in case it's the last one that will ever be held. (Come to think of it, where's my invite for the HarperCollins summer party? Buck up your ideas, HarperCollins.)

They are becoming more and more financially constrained, and even the thirsty critic on a tight budget can only sling down so much undrinkable swill before crying, "Enough!" and crawling back to his hovel, trying to get the taste of Château Batpiss out of his mouth. (Who chooses the wine, for instance, at the Hungarian Cultural Centre? We need to talk.)

But the Orange Prize, being sponsored by a phone company, is not going to be short of cash, and so it is held in the huge ballroom of the Royal Festival Hall, which is not only pleasant in itself, but has a large balcony where you can smoke until one of the security people comes up to you and tells you to put it out. Then, when he goes away, you can light it up again.

Then there's the fact that, for the first couple of hours or so, until I drink it all, they serve champagne. For many people there, this might be no
big deal, but it is for me. For one thing, I could only afford champagne if I gave up drinking, which would rather defeat the point; for another, I do not move in circles where champagne is consumed as a matter of course. And neither, I suspect, would I want to.

But this is not to gainsay the yumminess of the drink. And if Taittinger is going to pour the stuff down my throat for nothing, who am I to complain?
(I recommend the rosé, by the way. Are you reading this, Taittinger? Send me a bottle.)

However, the best part is the company. Having long endured male-heavy environments, it is an enormous relief and a pleasure to be outnumbered by women for once. In the days when I was on the pull, or my marriage was disintegrating, I found myself almost levitating with excitement as I passed through the throng of drunken, brainy women.

Now I am not on the pull, I can simply relax in the feminine atmosphere and the general benevolence of the whole idea of the Orange Prize.

I was worried when I first went that it would all be a bit Millie Tant and that I would be looked down on because I was part of the oppressive male hegemony. But it isn't a bit like that at all, and the rhetoric from the podium always seems more sincere and more helpful than that at other literary dos which shall be nameless.

Why do women do this kind of thing so well? Is it because, as Kingsley Amis once noted, they're really much nicer than men? It certainly feels like the benign opposite of something - the World Cup, I think. I contemplate the Gehenna of the footie pub packed full of steaming, puce-faced idiots screaming at a giant telly. Men.

I enjoy the Orange Prize party immensely, as I always do, even though at one point a nice young gel called Sophie sits me down near the Duchess of Cornwall so I can chat with her. I choose silence, and a discreet withdrawal. I don't want to end my days in the Tower.

I walk back by the Embankment in the warm night air. I've met lots of old friends, maybe even made a couple of new ones, but I can't, in the end, help thinking that there's only one woman whose company I'm really missing at the moment, and she's about 60-odd miles away, and asleep. Luckily, she doesn't give a monkey's about the football either.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas