Fergus Butler-Gallie’s Fantastic Dinner: Nina Simone, Jonathan Swift and Czech author Jaroslav Hašek
Saint Thomas Aquinas is ill almost as soon as he arrives at Polar Adventure Soft Play and Ice Slides at Maidstone Leisure Centre. I chose it as the place for my dinner because it represents a sort of lost Xanadu of my youth, albeit scented with a powerful cleansing agent.
At dinner, you should never talk about religion or politics, they say. Balls – what else is there to talk about? I am organizing a properly theological dinner, which is why Thomas Aquinas is here. He is metaphorically sick – horrified by today’s materialistic world which, ironically, his clarity of thought has helped us navigate – and physically. As a man with a big appetite, he couldn’t resist the Blue-Raspberry Slush Puppie at the reception.
I remember all too clearly the food at Polar Adventure’s depressing, vaguely arctic cafe. Even a four-year-old can detect that particular culinary clag that denotes a cut-price chicken nugget. Therefore, recognizing that man cannot live on his own brand of Pom-Bears and soggy carrot sticks alone, I chose the chefs of the sublime Daquise, South Kensington’s Polish mainstay, as my catering team. It is in this restaurant that I intend to die, between schnitzel, potato cream and cucumber. This is what I serve to my guests, alongside Daquise’s exceptional chicken broth, cheese balls and sweet crepes a la Franz Josef, as I remember from my time in Eastern Europe. It’s my birthday and I’ll regale the dead saints with anecdotes about Prague pubs if I want.
My sommelier is Princess Marguerite, a woman of very deep faith who liked to go to theological colleges to talk about God. The Queen Mother once expressed a preference for drinks mixed by Margaret as she served “correct” (read, gargantuan) measures. I got a nice champagne, rye vodka and Czech beer to wash things down, but given the princess’s strength of will, we end up with her imposed favorite drink: glasses the size of a Famous Grouse cooling tower, each with an attached matchbox, to facilitate the lighting of cigarettes. I provide them too, served with thick, dark Nicaraguan cigars.
Tobacco is one of the many things that confuses my next guest, Julian of Norwich, writer and mystic of the fourteenth century. She spent the majority of her years as a presenter, locked away in the seclusion of a church cell – and tobacco didn’t arrive in Europe until two centuries later. She takes it, and Polar Adventure, in her stride. Both testify to the truth of his aphorism that “everything will be fine and everything will be fine and all kinds of things will be fine”. She and Aquinas argue at first, but soon settle into a scrambled agreement about the nature of the divine.
At this point in the evening, nina simone is on hand to lead group chants of appropriately theologically reflective songs, “Sinnerman” and “Mississippi Goddamn” in particular. To call it a strength of character would be an understatement and it more than holds its own in conversation with more formally canonized guests.
Jonathan Swift, the great polemicist, humorist and religious spent the evening spicing up the conversation with scatological jokes. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such childish humor from such an intelligent individual. I am even firmer than ever in my belief that he is Anglicanism’s greatest gift to the world. Naturally, he gets along like a house on fire with the Czech author Jaroslav Hasekwho so effectively ridiculed religion by The good soldier Švejk. This makes me cry with laughter and so I forgive the author for his militant atheism. He and Swift are amazed at how much they have in common despite this. Indeed, these two adorable pranksters get along so well that they light a little fire while the saints, the princess, Simone and I are distracted by some pudding. Inevitably, it is politics, not religion, that sparks the incident after the committed communist and the arch-conservative discover that their mutual hatred for authority extends to non- respecting Polar Adventure’s very reasonable stipulation that there will be no open flames on the ice slides.
We end the evening wrapped in protective tin foil on the Maidstone ring road, having resolved the problem of evil once and for all. Unfortunately, Margaret’s generosity is such that when we wake up the next morning, no one can remember the answer.
Fergus Butler Gallie is a clergyman and writer. Her next book “Touching Cloth” will be published by Penguin in 2023.
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