Every year we invite twelve guests to welcome the New Year, and after dinner this year each was asked to talk of a person, past or present, they would choose to invite. Like any host, I worried a bit about how these unknown guests might mix!
The first was portentous, none other than Socrates himself! He was introduced with a student companion so he could remind us of the Socratic Method. That was an excellent start to the evening. Our guests would have to stand up for themselves! Once Socrates and his companion had settled in, Mary Ward was introduced. While no one doubted the philosopher’s conversational powers, there was some concern that the religious reformer from York might be overwhelmed. How wrong! She knew her mind. When she was in a closed order in Belgium where meat was never served, she had the courage to ask for some. She would have quite a lot to say to her contemporary, John Donne, the metaphysical poet and in later life the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one a Catholic, the other a Protestant. They would, in our company, probably agree to disagree.
Donne lived in London when the ageing Sir Walter Raleigh was in the Tower writing the History of the World and receiving guests. They might well have met. Raleigh, after all, wrote poetry and discovered Virginia in the New World. After all, Donne was only eight years younger than Shakespeare. London was a huge city by the reign of James I in the early 1600s, but not many were both educated and had time and money. Those with the leisure money buys met in taverns and friends’ houses. John Donne could entertain us with tales of Sir Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, and their circle gossiping in the Mermaid Tavern. Inigo Jones could describe or even do a few quick sketches of those fabulous masques.
Another guest, the poet, Robert Graves, would be in deep conversation with John Donne. As Graves lived mainly in the Mediterranean, he can find much in common with another adventurer, our contemporary, Rory Stewart. He was introduced rather tentatively as he is now a Tory member of parliament! Rory Stewart walked 6000 miles in Asia and some creditable diplomacy there, so he would speak of his travels and avoid politics on this occasion. Samuel Johnson joined us with many a tale of how he completed the first dictionary of the English language, rivalled by the 20th-century architect Sir Albert Richardson who helped to rebuild London after the bombing in World War II, both with entertaining and mischievous stories. Lady Brilliana Harley intervened with an amazing account of the way she defended her castle from the Parliamentarian troops besieging it in 1643 during the English Civil War.
There was amazed silence after Lady Brilliana’s account, until the description of Marilyn Munroe’s imagined appearance at the garden gate while another contributor was relaxing with a glass or two of chilled white wine on a sultry summer’s day. It was gobsmacking indeed! As it was nearly midnight we floated back to reality on the scent of roses invented by David Austin, another guest who, I feared, would not have much to talk about except the roses he had created –would he be a professional bore? We didn’t find out as another guest, Father Christmas, proposed the toast – to 2018, in hope!
And so, in the most varied and articulate company of our collective imagination, we toasted the New Year to the chimes of the floodlit Beverley minster.
Next year, what about who NOT to invite? There’s a year to think about that choice!