In my experience, there are two types of dinner party: the Manhattan salon and the London supper. At the first, while the food and drink are fine, the point is to gather important people who will declaim on topics of the day after the host taps a glass. At the second, friends arrive to eat, drink and gossip.
This dinner threatens to be more like the first, which worries me since it could be stiff. Still, nothing ventured. If we must be serious, I shall invite enough guests I know can be fun as well as thoughtful. I shall also fantasise to the full by gathering them at a restaurant that has closed but was significant once upon a time in east London — the Wapping Project.
It opened early this century in the former Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, with the New Zealand chef Cameron Emirali. My wife Rosie Dastgir and I were living in a Victorian weavers’ house in Whitechapel, watching the East End gentrify. When lime-yellow chairs were placed next to modern art and a tiled building by our daughters’ school was filled with lifting gear, something was up.
What better place, on the cusp of old and new, to talk about technology, science and art? It is before the 2008 financial crisis, though the menu is from Emirali’s current restaurant, 10 Greek Street in Soho. A second age of globalisation has followed the Victorian one, when Britain was an engineering power and American heiresses toured the old world for culture.
There is a mystery at the end of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady (1881): why does beautiful, tragic Isabel Archer return to a stifling marriage with a desiccated art collector in Italy? We may discover, since she has dropped in for dinner on her way out of the country. She is welcomed with a flute of England’s Nyetimber Classic Cuvée 2010, the kind of sparkling wine that was only made in France before climate change.
While Archer composes herself, I prompt Sir Joseph Bazalgette, the 19th-century engineer who built the monumental London sewers and saved its citizens from cholera and dysentery. Perhaps he could tell us about the disused Victorian station we stand in, originally steam-driven, which pumped water at high pressure across London?
Bazalgette has much to impart about the city’s evolution and his decision to build bigger sewers than then needed because “we’re only going to do this once and there’s always the unforeseen”. He was admirably far-sighted compared with many policymakers today. But I fret that he will get bogged down in detail.
To avoid boredom, I have invited Steven Johnson, the US science journalist and author whose book The Ghost Map (2006) told how John Snow conquered cholera after the 1854 London outbreak by showing how it spread in dirty water. Johnson is intellectually voracious and a natural raconteur, so I count on him to keep the topic of sanitation lively.
Archer’s curiosity helps to warm up Bazalgette and conversation flows by the time we sit for the starters of garlic and chilli bread with smoked Jerusalem artichoke, cod roe and aubergine. The new world is well represented among the guests so I am trusting Emirali’s native vineyards by serving glasses of Trinity Hill Gimblett Gravels Chardonnay 2017.
I want to discuss the other urban phenomenon of the early 21st century contained in the Wapping Project — contemporary art. I have asked Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, the British artist who paints compelling portraits of fictitious black figures. Having met her, I know she is also an entertaining guest with trenchant views on art and commerce.
The transition from the Victorian era of science and engineering to London’s creative economy lies at the heart of our discussion. Have we, I wonder, swapped the weighty and substantial for the superficial and ephemeral? Johnson reassures me, quoting from his book Wonderland (2016) on how “play made the modern world”.
We are on the main courses — scallops with celeriac, guanciale and salsa verde for Archer and Yiadom-Boakye, Dexter short rib for the rest of us — and drinking a 2014 Tupari Pinot Noir from New Zealand’s Awatere Valley. It is time to draw in my final guest, who has so far held back — Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who took the crucial image of DNA’s double helix in 1952.
She never got enough credit, and the Nobel Prize for the discovery went to three men, four years after her death in 1958. She is portrayed as brilliant but fierce in Brenda Maddox’s biography, a mixture that traditionally works better in professional life for men than women. Franklin weighs in eloquently on the importance of science for social advance.
When pudding comes, with a tawny glass of Chambers Rosewood Rutherglen Muscat from Australia, Bazalgette recalls his time as a railway engineer. At the far end of the table, Yiadom-Boakye and Archer are deep in conversation, and I catch a few words. Is Archer confiding how she will handle Gilbert Osmond, her creepy husband? I wish I could hear.
It is a calm evening and, since we are near the Thames, I propose a postprandial walk to see the bend of the river and beyond it Canary Wharf. London looks quite different from Victorian times but pausing in the moonlight, we can see the resemblance.
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