Following on from an excellent suggestion at Nik Perring’s blog and because food is still much on my mind (which would you prefer, dear reader, a recipe for purple-sprouting broccoli hash or a recipe for slow-cooked potatoes and mushrooms? These are the questions that currently torment me) I thought rather than recommend some books, I’ll recommend some writers.
If I could throw a dinner party (with somebody else doing the catering, obviously) for the writers I’d most like to meet, living or dead, I would invite:
Beverley Nichols – dear Bev was the first garden writer I ever read, and possibly the best. His life was a fascinating and complex one, including a declaration of homosexuality in the Albert Hall (on stage!) at a time when he could have been imprisoned for his sexual preferences, ghosting Nellie Melba’s autobiography and then falling out with her in ‘handbags at dawn’ fashion and a battle with alcohol that crossed generations and led him to write an appalling (and largely untrue) biography of his father. I’ve written a radio play about this demanding, frustrating and charismatic man and wish I’d met him. Beverly loved a dinner party as long as there was plenty of champagne so I think he’d make the evening fun. Merry Hall is one of his best books about gardens and gardening.
Barbara Kingsolver – one of my favourite writers about food, life and the environment (not necessarily in that order but you can see how food is dominating my thoughts), Kingsolver has become iconic for her warm but incisive characterisation of the best and worst of American life. I think she’d make a great guest and might even help with the washing up. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is a fantastic story and an example of how female writing can be domestic and yet transcend the mundane to deal with the big issues of how we live, and why.
Stephen R Donaldson – not sure this pick would be a perfect guest, but I love the Gap Series so much that I’d put up with him chain-smoking at the table and being rude about everybody. Anyway, Beverly would probably be a match for him and Barbara used to play in a band with Stephen King, so they wouldn’t be at all fazed. If you know Stephen Donaldson in the UK it may well be because of Thomas Covenant, but the bravura approach of writing a space opera (literally) based on the Ring Cycle and featuring the most terrifying aliens ever means that he gets a place at the table even if he does piss everybody else off.
Emily Bronte – would probably be quite taken aback by Mr Donaldson, or would she? She coped with Branwell after all, and the imagination that produced a Heathcliff might be more elastic and malleable than I imagine. I’m not sure what I’d expect of Emily but just sitting across the table from her and being able to stare into that pale, reserved face would be enough.
Peter Hoeg – because he’s been a consistently demanding and rewarding writer since I first read Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow and because Tales of the Night, which was his first published book, but late into English translation, does remarkable and complicated things with narrative. His writing about parties and dinners suggests he’s got a very good handle on the nuances of social life and I’d love to see him and Kingsolver debating food miles.
A.L. Kennedy – bit of a cheat, this one, because I’ve actually sat across the dining table from Alison six times, at an Arvon course but I think I could easily repeat the experience weekly for the rest of my life. Day is the novel that I would recommend as a starter, only because it’s the one that I think best demonstrates the combination of cool observation and compassion that makes A.L. Kennedy one of our best living novelists. Her short stories are brilliant too. And I know that Alison is a fantastic dinner companion, so that’s a no-brainer.
The writer I wouldn’t invite is Hilary Mantel, because if I was having dinner with Hilary I wouldn’t share her with anyone!