London - “Do come... it’ll be a lunch party of 12 of my favourite friends,” said my old school chum Susie, inviting me to her 60th birthday celebrations.
“Ladies only,” she emphasised. “No husbands allowed!
“John’s been given strict instructions to remain in the attic till it’s over!”
Although I am very fond of my friend and was flattered to be asked, I frantically searched my mind for an excuse.
I was going away that weekend. Could I take her out, instead, for a birthday meal a deux? I’m ashamed to admit it but I lied - that date was completely free.
I would have accepted, except for the fact I absolutely loathe all-female groups - and if I had attended, my grumpy presence would have probably cast a shadow over the proceedings.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I hate women. I have dozens of female friends and I’m deeply fond of them all.
But if you put a load of women together, a toxic chemical change seems to occur - one that turns them into bitchy, gossiping harpies, and produces an explosive reaction in me. And I’m not the only person to feel this way.
Viewers of TV show The Apprentice, in which contestants are regularly divided into teams by gender, frequently complain that the women’s attempts to work together descend into unedifying, shrill arguments.
One of the show’s advisers, Karren Brady, has even pulled contestants up for it, telling them their in-fighting was giving women a bad name.
This is something I have certainly seen first-hand. I used to work at Woman magazine - wall-to-wall women, as you would imagine, except for an art director who sensibly kept a low-profile.
It was there I discovered quite how bitchy and cruel women can be when they’re in a group - women who, on their own, are perfectly nice and friendly.
Many of them were so insecure that they tried to shore up their positions of power by snapping at their secretaries or forcing poor sub-editors to work long into the night just so they would have some company when they had to stay late themselves.
Around that time I also learned that when a lot of women spend time together in a confined space, as they do in convents, they all start to menstruate at the same time.
So I’d hold my breath in the lifts just in case any of the lunar hormones, or whatever they were, got to me, and set my cycle working in some ghastly physical unison with the fashion editor, the cooking editor and even, heaven forbid, the daunting Editor herself.
When one of us had PMT it was bad enough - God only knows what it would have been like if we were all in sync.
Raging hormones aside, one thing I hate about all-women groups is the competitiveness they breed - which manifests itself in boasting about everything, from how well their children/grandchildren are doing at school to how cheaply they bought designer clothes for at Oxfam.
Yet there is one thing guaranteed to bond even the most fraught group of females: the idea that it’s frightfully good fun to be female, and aren’t we lucky that those silly old men aren’t around.
Men, they all agree, are like little boys. Men get man-flu. Men are hopeless. Men don’t have feelings and (as the “girls”, as they call themselves, reach for the fifth glass of white) men only ever have one thing on their mind.
While I’m sure I have said all of those things myself in my time, I still feel uncomfortable listening to a gang of women talk about how useless men are.
There’s a “them and us” feel to it that is a tad too shrill, and curiously rather reminds me of the below-stairs staff griping about the lords and ladies upstairs.
There’s always been a tendency for women of my generation to moan about men when they’re en masse - which I suppose dates back to the growth of the feminist movement in the Sixties - but I find it all so terribly tedious.
More recently, I was sent by this newspaper to review The Vagina Monologues, which consists, basically, of an all-female cast of four talking about how men stink and how if women ruled the world there would be no war.
The audience is urged to shout out each letter of a rude word in celebration of womanhood. Naturally it attracted hen parties - it would have taken a brave man to venture into the theatre - and the smug superiority of it all, the “us and them-ness”, made me feel as if I was drowning in a sea of Tampax.
This anxiety about keeping myself free of all-women environments extends to my home, where I have a couple of lodgers - strictly one of each sex.
Experience has taught me that a house full of women is an icky business. There tends to be bitching in the bathroom about who used whose shampoo, and carping in the kitchen about whose crumbs are on the floor.
Any criticism results in sides being taken and gossip in the hall - whereas blokes, on being asked to clear up or stick to their own food will either ignore you or just get on with it. All-women groups make me yearn for the “difference” of men - for their deep voices and practical natures.
Lest I appear too sexist, I should add that large groups of men can be equally off-putting - with their swearing, hectoring, back-slapping, and jostling for superiority by showing off the makes of their respective cars.
The solution to this? I resolve to restrict myself to mixed gatherings in future.
There’ll be no hen parties for me, no Women’s Institute meetings, no Ladies Luncheon Clubs, no girly sewing bees and no women’s bowling associations.
I don’t think I’ll even be watching the women’s doubles at Wimbledon (nor, come to think of it, the men’s).
When it comes to making a gathering go with a bang, there are only two things you really need - men and women. - Daily Mail