Fantasy Dinner Party Part 2

Our leading journalists host a motley crew of characters from the past and present, while cartoonist Michael Heath draws the selfies

By Annabel Denham

July 20 2023

My Twitter profile reads “Francophile” (seriously). Well, how seriously would people take me if at least some of my guests were not from the land of Joan, Coco, Marie or M de Voltaire?

As it happens, none of the above make the cut. Nor do JFK, Pocahontas or a naked Marilyn Monroe – the top choices of disgraced former Home Secretary Matt Hancock, listed during his recent foray into reality television. Francois-Marie Arouet may not agree with me, but I have no doubt he would defend to the death my right to say it.

I will begin with the author whose swashbuckling, rumbustious tomes enrapture and delight in equal measure. A writer who doubtless turned in his grave as Hollywood transformed his works into unwatchable, turgid rubbish. Leonardo di Caprio couldn’t salvage The Man in the Iron Mask any more than the brilliant Guy Pearce could redeem The Count of Monte Cristo. Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot was better, although it was a French project.

And what fun Dumas would have weaving modern-day figures and events into his storylines. In the 19th century, it was Louis XVIII and the French Revolution, today it would be satires on Brexit, on Boris, Merkel, Trump, May, Macron, England and France, England and Germany!

They say Dumas was a womaniser, with 40 mistresses over his lifetime; not a heartthrob based on his photographs, but perhaps a Romantic. Would he have thanked Katharine McCormick, the US benefactor who provided almost every single dollar necessary to develop the oral contraceptive? French libertines may not give it much thought, but any woman born since McCormick’s gargantuan endeavour will be grateful that she embarked on such a controversial initiative at a time when 30 American states still had laws on the books restricting their sale and use. It was the era of the polio vaccine and other miracle drugs, and McCormick, a scientist, placed great faith in biochemistry. For her services to women she deserves to be raised from the dead for a knees-up.

Some figures you wish you could invite to dinner after their lives were cut short by plagues and pestilences we rarely see in the modern age. In post-revolutionary France, Frédéric Bastiat taught us about opportunity cost, and challenged monopolies and protectionism. He died of tuberculosis aged 49, at the most intellectually productive time of his life. In popular essays and satires he demolished regulation and demonstrated the benefits of free markets. In The Petition of the Candlemakers, a trade association of candle-makers and tallow producers petition the Chamber of Deputies to protect them against unfair competition.

The competitor they complain about? The sun. They argue regulation is needed to make people draw their blinds through the day to ensure greater candle consumption, boosting the industry and employment.

One evening won’t make much difference, but perhaps a senior Conservative figure could sit around the table and learn a lesson or two. The question is, who? I’ve already insulted Hancock and, in any case, he could hardly be described as “senior” anymore. The Prime Minister is a teetotaller, which would rather put a damper on things. No, perhaps we should settle for a politician past. Who could resist inviting Winston Churchill to dinner?
The menu would not be straightforward. Dumas would expect full haute Parisienne, nine courses or so. Churchill typically began his day with a full English, and was partial to roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. And what would they discuss? At least there wouldn’t be any awkward silences: English playwright Watts Phillips, who knew Dumas in his later life, said his tongue was like a windmill; once set in motion you never knew when he would stop, “especially if the theme was himself”. Perhaps we could play charades. It might be naff, but it’s fun. Bastiat could do Cardinal Richelieu, McCormick “freedom”, Dumas Aramis and Churchill “transgenderism”.

Annabel Denham is a journalist and commentator at the IEA