Hell is a dull dinner party. Having sat through a few too many evenings lacking spark and substance, my fantasy is a feisty debate among my idols and fascinations from the mid-20th century. What our supper lacks in relaxation will be made up for by its effervescence.
We are in Tynemouth on England’s north-east coast for the finest seafood. In the middle of St Edward’s Bay is Riley’s Fish Shack, constructed from two rusty shipping containers. The venue is far from formal — our table is set up on the wooden veranda — but we are here for the food and the views. The chef is Adam Riley himself.
Tonight the weather is perplexingly hot for a northern summer, the sort of warm evening I continue to promise my sceptical wife the region can deliver. The sun is beginning to set over the ruins of Tynemouth Priory; the sands are deserted but for a few ramblers. Awaiting our guests is a round of G&Ts, made with Adnams Copper House gin and a slice of orange peel.
First to arrive is the de facto hostess, elegantly descending the long steps. Katharine Graham, the celebrated publisher of The Washington Post and doyenne of DC salons, brings the glamour and charm. She has arrived straight from the capital, armed with the latest Beltway gossip and ready to use her renowned social skills to navigate the evening ahead.
Next to clamber down on to the beach is a figure with comparable hair. Michael Heseltine, in his early-1980s pomp, is well-coiffed and eager for debate and dinner. Not yet the ardent enemy of Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative minister is at his most radical and energetic: the man who brought home-ownership to millions and delivered so much for England’s regions. With minimal introduction from me, he has bonded with Graham.
Heseltine, slamming the table, shouts that radicalism is critical to preserving
An unlikely duo follow. Moving creakily, sniffily ignoring the man beside him, is Evelyn Waugh. After the long car journey from Somerset, the novelist is buoyed along only by the glimpse of the drinks trolley. He has recently completed his finest work, Brideshead Revisited, yet remains utterly irascible. Accompanying him is an artist also enjoying acclaim. Miles Davis has shocked the jazz scene with his move to intense, rock-influenced music. As they approach the shack, he attempts, in his familiar rasp, to convince Waugh of the merits of his compositions. The author will have none of it, describing all jazz as “shallow”. Even when they are plied with drinks, my early attempt to bridge relations fails.
As the Pol Roger is served, disparate discussions unite around a topic of conservation: Heseltine, slamming the table, shouts that radicalism is critical to preserving; Waugh furiously argues that the Tory party has never conserved anything. Davis, an artist renowned for smashing genres, concurs with Heseltine. Graham reminds the table of her bruising encounters with Richard Nixon, another questionable defender of traditional values.
As the opening course of fresh oysters with mignonette is served, our final guest dashes along to the beach to join us. Barbara Castle’s ministerial car was caught in traffic from London. The ardent Labour socialist is deep in parliamentary warfare, trying to pass the Equal Pay Act and take on the vested interests in her party. She enters with aplomb, and is soon lambasting the other guests for their timidity. Everyone, except perhaps Graham, is awed.
After the first round of seafood is swept away, Craster kipper wraps are delivered with bottles of dry-as-a-fishbone 2007 Haus Klosterberg Riesling. Waugh is now well into his stride, tearing into Castle for her efforts to protect lives with seatbelts and Breathalyser tests. “How is a fellow meant to get home when he is tight and the police are lurking behind the bushes?” he yells. Davis barks in agreement, but Heseltine suggests the writer might “stop being such an arse”.
Next to the table are Riley’s empanadas, his take on a Geordie pasty. The chilli fish and vegetable selections are well received. Graham makes a subtly cutting remark about Waugh’s appetite, noted only by Davis, who has the most attentive ears. The publisher and musician break away into furtive whispers about New York life, while the two politicians bicker about their parties with my helpful interjections. Both, not unreasonably, claim the other is a dangerous radical.
Soon we are on to steak, sizzled with sea kale and rosemary potatoes. As the lanterns are lit across the beach and the sun disappears, the wine is exchanged for a Shiraz from South Australia.
Dessert is salted chocolate caramels, their crispness awakening the group and launching us into another passionate debate: whether book, article, album or speech is the best form of expressing political views. It is left to Graham and me to defend the mainstream press.
With the sun rising over the North Sea, the final drops are emptied from the 20-year-old Ledaig malt and the soft notes of Davis’s horn echo around the bay. Waugh is soundly asleep and Castle has bustled back to Westminster. Heseltine, Davis, Graham and yours truly remain in intense discussion. Affirmation in each other, amid this seaside beauty, has been achieved.
Sebastian Payne is the presenter of ‘Payne’s Politics’ podcast
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