I am not a punctual person, so I leave slightly late for dinner. (There is, inevitably, a dispute between my partner Felicity Slater and me about which one of us bears responsibility: I tend to start getting ready first but do so at a very leisurely pace, while she is very efficient but only gets into gear minutes before we need to leave.) Fortunately, The Clarence Tavern, my favourite restaurant in London, is just around the corner from the flat, so we are fashionably, as opposed to embarrassingly, late.
They have prepared seasonal Bellinis for our guests and will be attending to the drinks throughout. As is often the way, those who have furthest to travel have arrived first. Eric Williams, who being both (a) the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago and (b) dead, seems not to have noticed we are 15 minutes behind schedule because he is discussing the finer points of writing history books with Jan Morris, the travel writer and intellectual, who hasn’t had quite as far to come. Although Morris has also had to rise from the grave, she has only had to travel from Wales.
The conversation turns to imperial history: Williams is torn between feeling a sense of validation that so many countries, including post-colonial ones, have started to move towards cross-national federations of the kind he advocated and sadness that progress towards them has stalled in so many places. The drink and conversation flow freely, though my partner’s tolerance for empire chat is fraying by the time Mary Wollstonecraft who, despite being based in nearby Stoke Newington, finally arrives, having been waylaid by the rather tasteless sculpture in her honour there. But the statue becomes the spur for a riveting back and forth between her and Morris about their lives as pioneering women.
We agree that, given our next guest has some way to travel and rather less to catch up on, we should bring Wollstonecraft up to speed on the consequences of the French Revolution. The evening is acquiring the pleasing running jokes a really good dinner party always does, and our laughter is interrupted by our final guest, Dmitri Shostakovich, who explains he is late because he made the mistake of taking the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow.
While The Clarence has kindly agreed to let Romain Mahi, head chef at my favourite Paris restaurant, Accents Table Bourse, work with them to prepare a tasting menu, it has drawn the line at letting Shostakovich bring an orchestra — a stroke of good fortune, it turns out, because the Leningrad Symphony is playing on the speakers.
Our entrées are a series of guilty pleasures. I can’t make out through the alcoholic haze if we start with octopus, one of the few creatures smart enough to hold a grudge, and move on to foie gras, or vice versa. Anyway, we don’t have time for guilt, because the composer is talking us through his creative process. At times it feels almost as if we have come to him, in Leningrad in 1940, rather than he to us, in Hackney in 2022. We burst out laughing when we realise none of us has explained to Wollstonecraft exactly what communism is, though it turns out none of us can quite agree on that either.
By the third course — slow-cooked veal with dauphinoise potatoes — Shostakovich has loosened up enough to settle a few historical and musical controversies about his influences and the subjects of various works. Regrettably, I have been sworn to secrecy about his answers, and the wine flows so freely that, in any case, I won’t remember.
What I can tell you is Shostakovich, a qualified referee, and Williams have an almighty disagreement about modern football. Williams, a handy player before injury put paid to his career, believes very strongly the decline in tough tackling and the arrival of video assistant refereeing (VAR) is a boon.
Shostakovich sees VAR as an unwanted intrusion on the experience for fans and mourns the decline of the hard-tackling midfielder. Things almost become heated when he refers to VAR as a “Frankenstein monster”. Wollstonecraft points out with maternal pride that Frankenstein is the doctor in her daughter’s novel, not the monster. Peace breaks out with the arrival of dessert, chocolate mousse with a hint of yuzu, and a bottle of Château Suduiraut.
Plates cleared, we head back to my flat for a couple of White Russians. This being a fantasy, we are spared the obvious joke. Shostakovich plays the piano before one by one, my guests leave, kindly signing their books on the way out. I wake up the next day with, blissfully, no hangover.
Stephen Bush is an FT associate editor; Twitter @stephenkb
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