by Stephen Navin
On the last night of the creative writing course, the Moydart Maidens* organised a very special dinner. I am not sure how they managed it but the guest list was quite extraordinary and even now I cannot believe it but dear readers I was there and you will have to trust me. The food was excellent albeit we were constricted by the continuing power cut. In the flickering candlelight the faces of the guests often made them look like ghosts, fading in and out of the light.
The guests were ferried across the sound in two parties arriving before dusk. I was intrigued to see that the more ancient or older guests travelled together. In the case of Julius Caesar and the playwright Aeschylus I am not surprised they wanted to get the journey over as quickly as possible as they were so ill clad for the Scottish Highlands in Winter. Caesar had a toga top on top of his military skirt, actually quite similar to a Scottish kilt. Aeschylus, having just come from the first night of his latest play, Agamemnon in Halicarnassus, was dressed in the traditional loose cloth gown of the patrician Greek. Their companions were, believe me, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (that is what it said on the guest list but we know him as Lenin). They were much better prepared for the Winter. Hitler was in his great coat, having just arrived from his bunker in East Prussia and Lenin was wearing a fur lined coat which had been presented to him in 1917 by the young socialists of Helsinki just before he set off for his fateful journey to St Petersburg in 1917.
I was no less surprised by the passengers on the second boat – there was the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, looking remarkably chic, his black hair gleaming (with hair gel) I assume, but he was also not accustomed to the cold weather. He was chatting to, imagine, George Orwell or Eric as I now call him. Eric was probably explaining to Federico his close connection to the Inner Hebrides and that he had just finished writing 1984 on Jura. Sitting at the back of the boat, staring fixedly ahead with a pained expression, no doubt because the salty sea spray was misting up his glasses, was the great Irish writer, James Joyce. Well, given that he was now living in Switzerland, he must be accustomed to vicissitudes of winter, but he was undoubtedly looking frail. One person who was not looking frail was the energetic man, gyrating at the bow of the boat and playing air guitar and singing at the top of his voice into the rain and the wind – ladies and gentlemen let me introduce to you to Mr Bruce Springsteen. How come Bruce had made the cut, I wondered; his fans may call him the boss but was he a literary giant like Joyce. After all, he had only really just published his autobiography, and as we know, memoirs don’t sell.
Well anyway there we all were in the drawing room in the big house. We handed round the canapés and the prosecco. Hitler refused everything. He did seem very interested in Caesar (as he insisted on being called) and I overheard them discussing or rather whispering about loyalty and treachery in high places, or at least I thought I did as my school boy Latin was about as good as Hitler’s. I was surprised that Caesar was prepared to talk to a German given the pasting that the 9th legion had been given in AD9 . I noticed that Lorca was giving Hitler a wide berth but Bruce was a revelation. He had a nice easy manner and was very eloquent as indeed he had shown during his recent one man show in New York. Aeschylus had obviously heard that Joyce had just published Ulysses and was keen to know whether the book covered events in Argos following Agamemnon’s return from Troy at about the same time as Ulysses/Odysseus must have left. Again I am surmising as they were both talking Greek and ancient Greek at that and unfortunately, as the saying goes, that was all Greek to me!
Eric was on the sofa looking at his notes talking to the Moydart Maidens
I heard Vanessa, one of the Maidens say to Eric” Good idea, Eric, let’s plan on doing that before Yoga” at which point she stood up and proposed a toast to the guests and thanked them for coming to what she called a Writer’s symposium (I thought I saw Aeschylus’ hand go up at the mention of the word symposium as of course that was Plato’s party piece. )
She then introduced Eric and he proposed that the format of the symposium should be structured around what he perceived as being the four motives for writing which he elucidated as follows:
1 Sheer egoism
2 Aesthetic enthusiasm
3 Historical impulse
4 Political purpose
Well you can imagine some of these went down like a lead balloon, but no question as far as I was concerned that, as they all started arguing about point 1 and its inapplicability to them, I was convinced that Eric was absolutely spot on. Hitler was suddenly screaming at the top of his voice that only he and only he, in Mein Kampf, could portray the suffering and betrayal of the German people at the end of the First World War. Eric said to him (quoting David Cameron I suppose) “Calm down dear” at which point Hitler turned on his heels and left the room, slamming the door behind him.
Eric shrugged and carried on:
“Well I am sure we can all agree that we are all inspired by aesthetic enthusiasm”
Lorca nodded enthusiastically and stood up and in front of everybody and prepared to dance a paso doble, explaining in halting English that the spirit of Flamenco, the Duende of the gypsy people as it is called in Andalucia, suffused his latest book of poetry – the Romancero Gitano. Bruce, meanwhile, had grabbed his guitar and was furiously working on some flamenco chord structures and started singing in his gravelly baritone (more New Jersey than Jerez) : (sing) Born In Andalucia.
Lenin, who had being listening and watching but was clearly getting agitated suddenly banged the drinks trolley and shouted that aestheticism was a construct of bourgeois imperialism which would be banished from Soviet Russia He was also about to storm out when Eric reached out to calm him and suggested that surely he must concur with the last two motives, that of historical impulse and political purpose – and indeed he was right because Lenin (or Vlad as Vanessa insisted on calling him) pulled out some copies of his April 1917 Theses and explained partly in German and partly in Russian that all his writings were politically driven and historical dialectical materialism is his guiding philosophy – history. Caesar explained that he had a strong sense of historical destiny as he invited us to admire not only his monograph on the conquest of Gaul but also that he had led the campaign – and he was particularly pleased with his alliterative triptych of Latin verbs – Veni, vidi, vici, saying that this clever use of language gave him special aesthetic joy and hoped that generations of young Latin scholars would learn and rejoice in this grammatical artifice. Aeschylus was fuming at all this posturing narcissism and eventually interrupted to say that such hubris could only end in calamity (and let’s face it Aeschylus’ tragic heroes never live happily after) and that a Roman acquaintance of Aeschylus had specifically said that Caesar should beware the Ides of March. During all this time , I could not help but notice that James Joyce had been mumbling to himself non stop, without pause or punctuation, pausing only to draw breath and recite a hail Mary and an our father.
Vanessa, the skilful hostess, perceiving that the Symposium was running out of steam thanked Eric for his propositions which had been, she opined, so fruitfully explored and wondered if the party might like to relax and do a bit of Yoga. Hitler, who had crept back in to the room, exploded again and said he would only do a Downward Dog if the biggest dog in the room (“that Bolshevik bastard Lenin”) were beneath him and he could piss on him. This furious outburst extinguished any further interest in Yoga from the rest of the party except strangely for James Joyce, who said that he was prepared to do his party piece which is to stand on one leg in the tree position, whilst drinking a glass of Guinness and singing Galway Bay between slurps. JJ as we now call him put on a great show and even did an encore (although he was a bit tired).
What a great symposium and so unexpected. I can hardly believe it.