Most popular newspapers and magazines have a page or column where some well known person or local luminary answers questions about themselves, some bland, some quite intimate. What three things would you take with you to a desert island? When were you happiest? What keeps you awake at night? What do you do to relax? When did you last cry? It’s not meant to be revealing or taken too seriously; at most mildly interesting. Comics have a difficulty of course as witty answers are expected; artists have to be profound and down to earth at the same time, and politician’s answers are likely to be dull or safe, though wouldn’t this mean that current politicians are not chosen?
One question that appears regularly is ‘who would you most like to have dinner with?’ or ‘who would you most like to invite to dinner?’ Often this includes notable people from the past being asked to dinner, though they would have to be brought back from the dead to sit at your table. And it is usually the case that the person must be well known. It wouldn’t be of much interest if the ‘interviewee’ said ‘my grandmother’, or ‘my wonderful hubby’, best friend, or the gardener ‘because he is so entertaining’.
What never seems to be mentioned is the food that would be served, nor who would do the cooking or the washing up? Suppose a famous chef was doing the inviting. It wouldn’t do for the guests to expect some lavish or experimental dishes. The modest chef would want to play down their expertise, so french onion soup, followed by scrambled eggs and smoked salmon would be rustled up, to be washed down with elderflower presse or Belgian beer.
In tabloids and provincial newspapers, the dinner guests seem to comprise predictable celebrities, popular heroes, and people in the public eye, often for some scandal or their outrageousness. Andy Murray of course, Bob Marley, Kerry Katona, Gordon Ramsay, Ann Widdecombe, Chris Hoy, Boris Johnson, Abraham Lincoln, Chris Moyles, Russell Brand, Margaret Thatcher, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Usain Bolt, Simon Cowell, David Beckham, Joanna Lumley, Henry VIII, Steve Redgrave, Sienna Miller, Nelson Mandela, John Lennon, Jimmy Carr, Princess Diana, Nigella Lawson have all been invited, the list is endless. Even the Kray twins and Genghis Khan have been sought after as guests. Sometimes it is a fantasy dinner party so anything goes, though looking at the above names we are surely well into the realms of fantasy anyway. Are they likely to turn up? Popular fictional guests are Harry Potter, obviously, Del Boy, Sherlock Holmes, Indiana Jones, Mr Bean, Ellen Ripley, Jeeves, Superman, David Brent, Captain James T Kirk, Tintin, and James Bond.
When it comes to the broadsheets, one could say that the guest list is more refined, less obvious. Stephen Fry, a dinner guest must-have surely, Jane Austen, Peter Ustinov, Beatrix Potter, Dr David Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Ondaatje, Steve Jobs, John Humphrys, David Attenborough, Germaine Greer, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Rachel Whiteread, George Clooney, J K Rowling, Warren Buffett, Albert Einstein, Joan Bakewell, T E Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, Nicholas Serota, Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Oscar Wilde, Will Self, Brian Cox. There are of course thousands of potential guests like these. But are not these fantasy guests as well? Would they really be worth inviting?
If you were asked ‘who would you like to invite to a dinner party?’, then you would hope to enjoy the occasion. You want to be able to have a conversation with your guests, and for them to get on well with each other so that talk would be stimulating and flow easily. Good conversation requires stories, opinions, variety, humour, and liveliness, as well as a willingness to listen, and knowing when to stop talking. This would eliminate most celebrities, and those in the halls of fame who are known to be brusque or self-important, or who can’t hold their drink. You wouldn’t need guests from similar walks of life, a good mix would be better, though people from different ages in the past might feel a bit out of place.
My dinner table only fits six, so as well as my partner, my four guests would be:
- Aubrey Manning (b 1930), distinguished English zoologist, broadcaster and environmentalist; leading authority on animal behaviour and evolution
- Caroline Lucas (b 1960), green campaigner, and Britain’s first & only Green Party MP
- Stanley Kubrick (1928-99), perfectionist American film director & screenwriter who did most of his work in the UK, including Paths of Glory, Lolita, Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining
- Judi Dench (b 1934), renowned English film, stage and television actor