I find holding a dinner party — fantasy or otherwise — a bit agonising. The idea of preparing a guest list, second-guessing the dynamics and then steering a group discussion feels too much like work. It also spins me into giddy anxiety. I can’t help but think of Beverly’s complaint to her husband in the play Abigail’s Party: “We’re not here to hold conversations, we are here to enjoy ourselves.”
So instead of organised fun, my preference is for a casual gathering: messy and slightly chaotic, the opposite of the sterility of these Covid times.
While dinner is informal, I have been so starved of occasion over the past few months that I crave the ritual of getting dressed up. I want to try on multiple outfits in front of the mirror and discard them on the bed. Out are work-from-home uniforms of elasticated waists and scraped back hair. In are lipstick, lashings of mascara and perfume. This evening is definitely set post-mask. It is sultry and summery and we sit out on a huge lawn under a vast expanse of sky, an antidote to lockdown claustrophobia.
If I am vague about certain details, it is because someone else is seeing to them. I like someone who is more knowledgeable than me to choose the gastronomic delights, for example. I have zero responsibility except for being an excellent guest.
It is an evening of two parts. The first is a pre-dinner drink with my dad, Eric Jacobs, a journalist, who died 17 years ago. Even though I know he is very dead, a tiny part of me imagines him to be somewhere in the ether, keeping an eye on my life while also monitoring the news — my abiding memory of him is sitting in an armchair reading newspapers. When a big news event happens, I sometimes think it’s a shame he missed it. I would like to know what he makes of the madness of 2020. We drink a crisp champagne (I could google a sophisticated vintage but who am I kidding, I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference) and catch up.
Inevitably, the pandemic has made me think a great deal about love and grief — so I’m letting my eight-year-old son hand out peanuts and olives (my fantasy, my rules), which allows him to meet my dad. I often wonder how it’s possible that two of the people I have loved the most never overlapped — it seems inconceivable. For a while, I just sit back in the evening sun and watch the two of them bond over a shared sense of mischief.
Then the other guests start to arrive and my son is spirited away. The dynamic is probably going to be a nightmare, but by this point, I’ve had a dirty martini (courtesy of our bartender, the Savoy’s Harry Craddock, who is fixing everyone a drink) so I no longer care. On the table are garlicky dips, tapenade and olive oil with fresh crusty bread — in fact, there will be a constant supply, warm from the oven.
First is Valerie Hobson. The actress starred in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and as Estella in David Lean’s Great Expectations (1946) before marrying the Conservative MP John Profumo, who went on to become the secretary of state for war. I wonder what it was like to give up her acting life and then see her husband’s own career end with his affair with 19-year-old Christine Keeler, which sparked a national crisis. After a couple of drinks, I hope she might be tempted to talk about sticking by her husband’s side and how they coped after his spectacular fall from grace, doing charitable work in the East End of London. So many politicians and celebrities who fail publicly try to claw their way back into the public eye. I want to know whether she made peace with a quieter life. Did she think about leaving him?
There is no grand plan tonight. I want a chef from a family-run Mediterranean restaurant. I don’t care who it is — just that the food tastes of a hazy summer holiday. They will oversee the seafood, serving plates piled with grilled king prawns dripping with melted butter.
For social lubrication, I’ve decided to invite the hideously shallow advertising boss Roger Sterling from TV drama Mad Men. A good night out requires a frisson and he has some of the best lines in television. Plus he keeps everyone’s glasses full, imploring us to “have a drink. It’ll make me look younger.” He pours rosé for the table — and keeps the vodka for himself.
God knows what the British artist Stanley Spencer makes of him. But then the 20th-century painter was hardly conventional himself. I think that Spencer’s depictions of biblical scenes from everyday village life in Berkshire would qualify him to capture these times: a mix of life and death themes with the parochial.
At some point we move on from prawns to squid with garlicky olive oil, salad and yet more chunks of bread. After a long pause with even more wine, we gorge on almond tart with crème fraîche and cream.
Finally Otis Redding, my fifth guest, is persuaded to perform Otis Blue. Perhaps even with new material — his life and career were so short. As Bob Weir, member of the rock group Grateful Dead, once said of him: “I was pretty sure that I’d seen God on stage.” He is so mesmerising, I don’t even notice my dad has made an English goodbye.
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