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Who would you like to sit next to at dinner?

Would you rather spend an evening chatting to a genius, a fictional heroine, a comedian or a saint?

January/February 2016

Susannah Clapp Charlotta

She does not know how old she is or where she comes from. She doesn’t know what she’s doing on the Earth. Yet if I sat next to her, perhaps I could find out more about Charlotta, the mysterious governess in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” – one of the most intriguing characters ever to have appeared on stage.

Everything about this droll, sceptical creature is unexpected. Her table manners would be a study in themselves. During her most soulful speech, she starts to munch a cucumber she’s concealed in her pocket. Her get-up is likely to startle. Surrounded by women in the trailing dresses of early 20th-century Russia, she appears in a forage cap with a gun over her shoulder. Would she bring her dog? Her opening words are a deadpan announcement that the mutt eats nuts.

And would she perform her conjuring tricks? She can pluck playing cards from the pockets of unsuspecting gentlemen. She can make strange voices seem to rise from the floor. She can make a shawl look like a swaddled baby and ventriloquise infant wails. She would banish boredom from the table.

I’d like to quiz Charlotta about her infancy, travelling around fairs with her parents and performing little dances, and about her life after she was orphaned, when a German lady educated and took care of her. She complains that she wants to talk but has no one to talk to. I could be that person, and give her more lines.

Charlotta is a small part yet Chekhov considered her a vital character. He wanted his wife Olga Knipper to play her, and worried that no other actress would make her funny enough. For me she’s a proof of the playwright’s genius. She’s unlike anyone else: apparently peripheral, she focuses the sense of being adrift that everybody feels in “The Cherry Orchard”. She would make me laugh with her sharp, intolerant tongue – as long as it was not turned on me. And if the food were not up to scratch, she could magic it away.

 

Clare Clark Charles Dickens

Perhaps it comes from making things up for a living but I struggle with hypothetical questions. I worry: what if my perfect dinner companion turns out to be tongue-tied or sulky, an under-the-table groper or a raging drunk? What if they insist on talking only about their children or, worse, mine?

The only answer is to play it safe – to choose a performer, a raconteur, someone bursting with stories and ideas, someone at their best in the limelight. Someone who would not dream of wasting our few precious hours asking me questions about myself. A man, then. A man whose novels have taken me to a place beyond myself and brought me back forever altered, as the best books do.

Charles Dickens was arrogant and vain, a cruel husband and a dictatorial father. Who cares about that at dinner? He was also that rare creature, a writer with an insatiable appetite for company. Vivified by the worship of his public, he toured tirelessly but he did not give readings. He performed his books. An actor manqué, as wildly, electrifyingly inventive on stage as he was on paper, he transformed himself into as many as 20 characters in a single show, from tight-fisted Scrooge and brutal Wackford Squeers to the blindly optimistic Mr Micawber and the gin-swilling midwife Mrs Gamp. The climax, a dramatisation of the murder of Nancy by Bill Sikes, was so terrifying that members of the audience frequently fainted.

Dickens adored it, laughing with the audience, moved almost to tears when they wept. “To commune with you in any form”, he wrote to readers in 1841, “is to me a labour of love.” So this dinner would be a joy for us both. He would have my worship willingly, for what happier evening could there be than one spent in the company not just of one unforgettable man but of a score of them, each of them an old friend?

 

James Harding Eleanor Roosevelt

I’m assuming that on this occasion, literally, everyone is there: William Shakespeare and Mao Zedong, Cleopatra and Ludwig van Beethoven, Herod and Isaac Newton, Aristotle and Van Morrison. No doubt, we’d get to mingle.

And I’m expecting that this is the kind of evening when, after dinner’s done, we tumble into a bar and I end up in my cups with Han Solo, who unburdens himself of his bumpy love life with Leia before giving me a lift back to my home in London, NW6, in the Millennium Falcon.

So, with all that to look forward to, I’m opting for Eleanor Roosevelt, someone who both made history and witnessed it. She forged progress for human rights, equal rights, women’s rights. And, as the first activist First Lady, she sat at the fulcrum of US power in the pivotal years of the American century.

Greatness as a dinner companion is not measured by fame or legacy. It depends on the stories you can tell. I expect she could tell a few. I’d want to know about her battles with FDR, on the occasions he shied away from public life or played it safe on civil rights. She’d have tales about having Winston Churchill to stay in the White House: his drinking, depression and determination during the second world war. And along the way we’d talk about Teddy Roosevelt, Frank Sinatra and the Tuskegee Airmen, too.

The women in her life command perhaps more attention these days than the men. I’d be fascinated by her battles with her mother-in-law and her friendship with Amelia Earhart. I might even ask her to explain her marriage, the logic of their loyalty despite the sexually stale, romantic failure of their relationship, not to mention FDR’s long and deep love affairs.

But I suspect I would not ask the awkward, unanswered questions about her own private life. It’s not just that I’d fear her froideur. It’s more that it would be small of me – and unfair to her and her causes.

More interesting, by far, would be Eleanor Roosevelt’s views on the record of the United Nations which she helped to found, and on the Declaration of Human Rights which she helped to draft; on the relationship between the presidency and the press; on America’s surprising soft-spot for political dynasties; on inequality, on sexuality, on the half-won battles of her times and on the frontiers of injustice today.

There is something seductive about the idea of dinner with a genius, a tyrant or a legend, but something much more rewarding in meeting a real person. Even better, an inspiring one, who’s unafraid of the simplicity of idealism. And Eleanor Roosevelt was that – a person who, as was said of her when she died, “would rather light a candle than curse the darkness”.

Michael Holroyd Erica Cotterill

I would like to be very brave and sit next to Erica Cotterill. She was born in 1881, the only child of a revolutionary Victorian preparatory-school headmaster, whom she hated. For her education she turned to someone very different, her cousin Rupert Brooke, who taught her subjects beyond the school curriculum. He revealed the secret of sexual ethics and the mystery of aesthetic socialism. To complete her education he took her to Bernard Shaw’s plays.

She began writing to Shaw, signing herself “Miss Charmer”. Shaw described her first letter in 1905 as “the greatest nonsense” which she took for a Shavian compliment. Then Shaw began sending her tickets for his plays. This was good but not enough. She wanted to enter his world, be close to him, declare her need for love. She began driving up to his house on a motorbike and sleeping in the wood nearby, knocking at the door at all times of the day or night. Eventually Shaw’s wife sent her a strong letter (drafted by Shaw) forbidding her to come to the house again.

She occupied herself in various ways from teaching cricket at a girls’ school to managing a farm in north Devon. Before the second world war she changed her name to Mrs Erica M. Saye and somehow adopted two boys. She produced several self-published books and a Shavian play (while GBS borrowed her character for two of his plays). Her single novel, “Form of Diary”, contains a quote from one of Shaw’s letters prophesying she would be “one of the greatest of English women writers”. She had genuine literary talent but her prose is hypnotic.

When she died in 1950 Shaw felt a sense of relief and sadness. “Nobody who had not seen her and known her could possibly believe in her existence,” he wrote. “She was not mad but born before her time.” There will be plenty to talk about.

 

Rose Tremain Samuel Pepys

I arrive on time, for this is my lifelong disposition – not to be late, wherever I am expected. But in a London chop house, in 1667, a woman alone is always the object of intrusive glances and furtive whispers, and I hope not to have to endure these for too long.

And then he arrives. He’s a noisy man, often sneezing as he goes, from the quantity of snuff he’s taken, so the eyes lately turned on me, now turn on him, as he makes his way towards the table. And his progress is not straightforward, for there are those in the establishment who immediately recognise him and call out to him: “Mr Pepys, sir! Come and join us.” “Mr Pepys, will you take some wine?” But he has seen me in the corner, waiting, and forges a path through the clamour of the other diners to my side. His sudden proximity enfolds me in joy. Almost unique in our society, Samuel Pepys is a man whose presence in any room will warm its air and tickle it with laughter.

We devour a great quantity of mutton chops. Stoked with meat, mulched with gravy, Sam’s being brings forth a delicate garden of discourse, in which I can wander and pause and stop to admire or to question. And this is what I love so dearly about his company, that I can talk to him on any subject under the sun – from the vexations I experience as a woman trying to write poetry in a man’s world, to the terrors afforded to his sensibility by his neighbour’s overflowing cesspit. There is nothing and no one who does not interest him. Court gossip, the price of a river boat, the new actress at the Duke’s Playhouse, the sorrows of the Navy men unpaid this season, my quarrel with my father, the genius of Sir Isaac Newton, the joys and afflictions of childhood, the prodigality of the king: all these things – and more besides – make of our hour together a paradise of talk, a play both tragic and comic to slay the heart.

 

Craig Brown Tommy Cooper

When Premier League footballers and “X Factor” winners are asked this question, they invariably name Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ. Of course, one can see their point. If I arrived at a table only to spot Jesus’s name on the neighbouring place-card, I would hope to feel a twinge of shame as I found myself succumbing to the urge to switch him for someone a little more bubbly, like Geri Halliwell.

Dinner parties are nightmarish enough without the added burden of having to be on best behaviour. With the great moral icons, gossip would be out of the question: it’s hard to imagine asking Mandela what he thought of Alan Yentob, for instance, or Jesus Christ whether he had heard the latest about Peter Mandelson.

The temptation is to plump for your favourite writer, but this is to succumb to what one might call the great Literary Festival Fallacy – the idea that the artist is more interesting than the art. But if William Shakespeare had been more interesting in person than in his plays he would never have bothered to write them. Stuck in a dinner party, would he do more than ask if you could pass the gravy?

Another trouble with sitting next to one’s heroes is that you yourself are left hopelessly tongue-tied, or, worse, verbose, your desire to impress emerging in a gruesome splutter of banalities and inanities. So the trick in selecting one’s ideal dinner companion is to look for a self-propelling hero whose art can easily be adapted for the dinner table.

For me, this means Tommy Cooper. For an hour and a half, the great befezzed comedian would put the surrounding cups and plates and glasses and bottles to good use, letting them all smash into little pieces as we howled with laughter. Better still, we would be freed from the obligation to say anything wise or witty. We could relax into our better selves. He would liberate us through his art.

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