Recently I went to London for dinner. Sometimes one is that hungry.
Seriously, though. Husband received an honour: the Royal Anthropological Institute invited him to give this year's Henry Myers lecture, on the theme of 'ritual', in the Clore Education Centre of the British Museum. Previous presenters include such luminaries as Claude Lévi-Strauss and Bronislaw Malinowski; for anthropologists, these are names to conjure with. So, an honour indeed. To sweeten the deal still further, the RAI included words to the effect that they wished to invite the speaker, aka husband, and his partner, aka me, to a formal dinner afterward at the Athenaeum Club, in Pall Mall. (Buckingham Palace, just for the record, is in the next street over.) So when husband asked if I wanted to join him in London for dinner, it was a no-brainer. Of course the need for brains came later, figuring out the logistics of school-aged child in the middle of term, pets, accommodation, whirlwind travel on trains, planes, and automobiles.
It was done; it was all worthwhile. Husband gave a brilliant talk ("Laterality: a sideways look at ritual," in which he played with an old anthropological concept called liminality (Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner) and, yes, cleverly turned it sideways) and I was thrilled almost to tears to be present. Along with a roomful of eminent colleagues, husband's parents, his sister and brother-in-law, and our daughter and her close friend all attended the talk. At the post-talk reception, kudos and and wine flowed. (Husband, like Two Crows*, will no doubt deny the former.)
He will, however, agree about the dinner afterward. It was a trip through time-- backward-- as well as through space (a stroll across the West End from the BM). In the august halls of the Athenaeum Club, a 'gentlemen's club' established in 1824, we dined in style, Silver Service all the way. Amongst the club's founding members were Sir Humphrey Davy, a chemist who, along with other accomplishments, invented laughing gas, and Michael Faraday, another famous name in chemistry who invented electrolysis. I learn from Wikipedia (making it easy; click here) that some of its other worthies included a couple of Charleses (Darwin and Dickens) and a brace of Arthurs (Conan Doyle and Wellesley, Duke of Wellington). Members have apparently won 52 Nobel Prizes, covering all of the categories. At some (relatively recent) point the club allowed, or was made to allow, women to join.
The main hallway features a soaring ceiling and two curving wood-banistered staircases. The air is cigar-scented. "Is smoking still allowed in here?" I wonder to our host, the director of the RAI, thinking there might be some Victorian decree in operation that overrode EU law (RIP, soon). It's not unimaginable in these surroundings.
"No, no," he assures me. "It's just that over the years the smoke has permeated the walls." I don't want to believe him, but I suppose there is no real hope of discovering a secret door to the gentlemen's smoking room. (Beneath the left staircase?)
In the dining room, I exclaim about the charm of the long oak table, the glistening place settings, the candles and centrepieces. "I'd love to take a picture," I say. The host looks as shocked as if I've just asked to do a strip-tease between the soup and the main course.
"Oh, no," he says. "Cameras and phones are not allowed." Of course they're not. I hasten to the restroom, where, hidden in a cubicle, I text the friend who is awaiting the arrival of our teenage daughters. Help, I'm locked in the last century, I feel like typing. Seated back at the table, trying to look innocent, I notice there are potted shrimps on the set menu. I peer over my shoulder for the ghost of Barbara Pym.
|The venison was superb. The Veneur sauce was indeed grand.|
Dinner is delicious, the conversation delightful. To my surprise potted shrimps are tasty. My place-card identifies me as 'Mrs. Leslie Coleman,' which is not my name ("I'm sorry," husband whispers when he sees it. We are not seated together).
The woman on my left, a lecturer at a Northern university, has already asked me about myself and my career and other interests, and I about hers, and we have a lively conversation. But, but. The One on my Right. Yes. To him, I can see, I am damned by my label; I am, merely, The Wife. While he is perfectly polite, it is clear that no contribution is expected of me to the stimulating discussion he conducts with the man on his other side. When my friend from the north must leave to catch a train, I am stranded and must work to find my way in to the men's discussion, which concerns professional politics. I listen; it is, after all, my profession too. Eventually I dare to pose a question. They pause politely and answer patiently, accepting me as a participant. I'm in, and the subsequent discussion is entertaining, for a variety of reasons, some of which I'm not allowed to put into print (a surrendered wife, me). The evening concludes with a walk up the graceful staircase to the club's drawing room, where I lie on a chaise longue and sip Lagavulin, my favourite single-malt, and we all converse cheerfully. By the end of the night I have made friends and even have an invitation to write an essay for possible publication.
Table Number 2.
A few weeks later, last Friday, I had the pleasure and honour of being invited to my friend Polly's birthday party. We were a group consisting of eight Excellent Women (Barbara Pym making her presence felt here too), some of whom knew each other and all of whom counted Polly as a dear friend. One of them, Laurie, orchestrated the event, to which we each contributed a dish and some drink. My place-card said 'Leslie' in calligraphed letters inked by hand. There was no written menu detailing the food we consumed but Polly had selected for each of us a card and a quote that she felt suited our personalities or our relationship to her, and laid them on our plates. We went round the circle and shared something about ourselves and how we knew Polly (how do I know Polly, I wondered? I was aware of her from afar, back in the days when our now-eighteen-year-olds were still in primary school, and wanted to know her more, but I don't remember how it finally occurred). Not a one of us had been born in Toronto, we learned, and only three in Canada.
I did love my visit to the Athenaeum Club. I hope to dine out on the story, so to speak, for some time to come, at least until my children start rolling their eyes and saying "Mom! Not again." But isn't it interesting, I find myself thinking, that a meal with a table full of anthropologists was akin to conducting fieldwork, while dining with women from all over the world, here in Toronto, feels like home?
*Mild anthropology witticism. Linguist Edward Sapir explored the meaning behind one member of the Omaha tribe, Two Crows, disagreeing with definitions of kinship terms and structures given by other tribe members which led to a broader discussion of the relationship between culture and individuality (Sapir on Two Crows).