Dreaming of dinner parties.

Is your social life suffering? Are you looking for a solution to Covid lockdown blues? Put aside the commercial and political arguments about the rights and wrongs of the situation; forget Zoom, for a moment, and follow me.

I’ve been inspired by a BBC Radio 4 programme called My Dream Dinner Party. In each episode a host invites a selection of their long-time dead heroes to join them for dinner. The menus have been varied, and occasionally worrying.

Here’s a tip though, in case you are ever invited to feast with Jack Whitehall: stick to liquids and avoid the solids. As a barman, he sounds spot on, but the malfunctions in his kitchen included a cavalier attitude to mould on food.

All of the hosts are skilled conversation starters. This week Shappi Khorsandi invited Maya Angelou, Kenny Everett, Richard Burton, Dr Edith Summerskill and Amy Winehouse to a Persian feast.

‘I’d love to do that,’ I thought. I could create a virtual feast. The technicalities of cutting and splicing sound clips, however, is far beyond my technical abilities.

It only took a little lateral thinking to connect this series to Caryl Churchill’s 1982 play, Top Girls, where Marlene’s dinner guests are real and fictional women from history. No technology necessary.

But, there are so many fascinating historical characters I’d like to meet. Churchill had a purpose, an agenda. I needed to find mine. It didn’t take long, though narrowing that down needed a lot more thought.

I’ve sent my invitations into some fictional worlds. There really are so many characters I’d like to spend time with, but eventually I came up with a theme that helped me to narrow my list down.

Tristram Shandy’s reply arrived first.

Madam, it would be a delight to partake of the fine company and good victuals you describe.

Permit me, as a humble guest, to supplement your table with some choice delicacies that I happen to have at hand. In short, I can supply a fine keg of claret, and several prodigious pies garnished with a ponderous mass of judicious trimmings, richly baked this last sennight.

Madam’s most obedient,

and most devoted,

and most humble servant,

Tristram Shandy.

Dora Chance sent back a very old postcard of Big Ben, with an out of date stamp on it. I paid the extra postage, though she seemed to have written it in khol, and a lot of the words were smudged. In between some of the smeared hieroglyphics I thought I could just make out, ‘Got bubbly, ducky?’ I presume that means she will be appearing, but it’s possible she’s sent me the wrong reply. We’ll just keep our fingers crossed that she hasn’t received a better offer.

Nellie Dean’s reply covered two pages of fullscap, and she’d crossed it. It took me a couple of hours to decipher all of the content. A lot of it was domestic, and seemed to be concerned with Joseph’s refusal to wipe his boots before entering the back kitchen. Though there were also two sides about Cathy and Hareton. It seems they are still billing and cooing like a pair of doves. She finished, ‘You’d never think that they are about to become grandparents. But I believe they can now safely be left in charge, so I’ll be glad to repair to another region for a short time.’

Rebecca de Winter’s reply came in a thick cream-coloured envelope. Inside was a single heavy sheet of mono-graphed notepaper. Her handwriting would have brought a smile to a calligrapher’s face. It said, ‘I should be delighted to accept your kind invitation. With kind regards, R. dW.’

Piscine Molitor Patel phoned me to get directions. “Could you name me a few notable landmarks? I don’t have much faith in technology.”

I promised to meet him at the railway station.

“How will we know each other?”

I told him the station was not so very big that we could make a mistake, but he said he’d learned to take precautions when travelling. “We’ll both wear carnations, and I’ll carry a rolled up beach mat. Who else will be there?”

I told him.

He said, “You don’t expect anyone to believe this, do you?”

“I know,” I said. “Brilliant, isn’t it?”

Piscine Molitor by Getfunky Paris – Flickr: Plongée urbex, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org

Changing Stories

So, earlier this week I was trawling around on You-Tube, and yes, that was meant to be writing time.  A friend had sent me a great link to five men playing a piano, and after that I got a bit carried away, but it all worked out in the end, because I found this:

I hope you’ve played and enjoyed the clip.  I loved it so much I’ve replayed it to myself several times since, besides insisting that the family and a couple of visitors share it too.

Now I have to put my hand up here and say that Wuthering Heights may well be my all time favourite book, and Kate Bush’s homage, is one of my favourite tributes to it. However, that doesn’t mean I love every spin-off from the story.

How many have there been?  More than I could list here, even if I wanted to.  Check out Wikipedia, if you want to see a few of the art-forms that reference it, but don’t imagine you’re seeing a definitive mapping of work that was inspired by the story. Not included are the authors who’ve tried to emulate Emily Bronte’s masterpiece more directly with varying degrees of subtlety and success, perhaps the best known of those was Mary Webb, with her novels, Precious Bane, and Gone to Earth, and the wonderful Stella Gibbons, in Cold Comfort Farm.

More recently, there have been ‘mash-up’ rewrites of the novel published.  For those of you who haven’t met this phenomenon before, a ‘mash-up’ is the literary equivalent of fusion cooking (the combining of elements from different culinary traditions).  The usual combination is to take a well known classic novel and add elements of horror into it. So, alongside the other well known titles that have been hybridized, you can now buy versions of Wuthering Heights that include vampires, werewolves and zombies, as if it weren’t Gothic enough already.

At the other end of that rewrite scale is the abridgement.  Yes, someone has decided to produce a version of Wuthering Heights that is considered suitable for children.  I admit I’ve only read one page of one abridgement, but I think I said enough about my feelings on simplifying classics in my earlier discussion about Alice in Wonderland.  So I’ll cut this line of thought here and go back to where I started, with that re-worked Kate Bush song.

You’ll remember that I implied that finding it had seemed to me to justify my surfing through songs instead of writing.  I’ll admit that I was already in prevarication mode, having run out of steam with two stories I’ve got half written, and with my mind already on what I was going to blog about this week.

Well I don’t know what happened to you when the song started going, but for me it was as if a veil lifted.  Kate Bush transposed the book into music beautifully, capturing the gothic, mystical elements with her eerie, lyrical rendition, and fixing a good sized segment of the British population into her mode of music for life, it seems.  Did any of us ever imagine a cover version could do more than palely imitate her?

Isn’t this what Aristotle was getting at when he said that there were only seven plots?  Because even though the names and setting remain true, and even rely upon our knowledge of the original, here the change of tempo affects everything, tone, intention, and mood.

Wuthering Heights has been transformed into a different story, something that is modern, despite its rhythm coming from the jazz age.  This is story as it links back to the oral tradition, something that the tellers adapted to suit their audience, and as I watch and listen, I’m thinking of the story I’m trying to write at the moment, and this song infects me with a fresh surge of inspiration.

I don’t feel any less affection for Wuthering Heights, its various textual hybrids or the original song because of this new version.  If anything, my enjoyment of the originals increases, but I have now to add The Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain’s interpretation of the story to my list of great adaptations.