Come f ly with me
YOUR Departure Lounge is addicted to the television series Come Dine With Me, in which ( mostly) compellingly awful people host dinner parties for strangers. It’s hard enough to have people you know to dinner, let alone get involved in the roulette of entertaining those you’ve never clapped eyes on, like some sort of horrid communal blind date.
Dinner parties are not very fashionable any more, despite the phenomenon of MasterChef and myriad telly programs showing us how to dice and splice, puree and pot-roast like experts. Little Lounge used to be called in at the start of her parents’ dinner parties, just as the devils on horseback and prawn cocktails were being served, as a sort of added attraction to show off her ballet steps and recite her times tables. The Senior Lounges wrote that off as a tricky idea, though, when nosy guests once asked six-year-old Little Lounge what she’d learned that day. ‘‘In Bible class,’’ she began (a good start; encouraging smiles all round), ‘‘we were taught that Jesus healed some leopards.’’
Sniggers all round, which was unfair, as it was hardly Little Lounge’s fault that the divinity teacher at her Surrey village school had an unagreeable lisp.
Lounge has been more or less off dinner parties ever since, but the Come Dine With Me series has got her thinking who she’d invite to a travel-themed soiree; guests could be from past or present eras (and, judging by the too-mouthy diners on the telly show, lack of a pulse would be a bonus) but must have strong connections to the world of travel and tourism.
So Lounge has drawn up a guest list, starting with English travel pioneer Thomas Cook, who more or less invented mass tourism in July 1841 when he organised a group deal with a rail company to transport fellow temperance campaigners on a one-day excursion, at a shilling a head, from Leicester to Loughborough, where they attended a rally.
Three years later, the Midland Counties Railway Company agreed to a permanent arrangement for Cook’s groups so he started a business running ‘‘pleasure excursions’’ by train.
The rest, as they say, is travel business history, but goodness knows what he would make of events at the 2011 Thomas Cook annual general meeting, where shareholders mounted a ‘‘revolt’’ against executive bonuses.
Lounge would also have to invite a few of those daring lady travellers of the Victorian era, with their stout shoes and serge skirts, always off on botanical walks in the Alps and poking crocs in the eye with their umbrellas on the Zambezi. Isabella Bird would fit the bill and wouldn’t be fussy about the food, having ridden around Morocco at the age of 70 astride a black stallion given to her by a sultan and eaten who knows what in the name of tagine. In Hawaii, Bird climbed to the summits of volcanoes and camped on their craters, and she journeyed through Japan in 1887 with a custom-made India-rubber bath, folding bed and manservant known simply as Ito.
From the present era, hopefully the stellar author and ‘‘chronicler of cities’’ Jan Morris would be available, and she’d be up for a white peach bellini, having written so elegantly about drinking same at Harry’s Bar in Venice. Jan used to be James, of course, so what would be the protocols of putting her next to another must-have guest, Isabelle Eberhardt, who dressed as a man, calling herself Si Mahmoud Essadi and converting to Islam? This trousered, Arabic-speaking virago was a true loner who died, improbably, in a flash flood in the Algerian desert in 1904.
If this were being filmed for Come Dine With Me, the producers would lap it up.
Eberhardt would have rivalrous debates, I fear, with Hester Stanhope, another 19th-century English traveller — and a tall, imperious terror she was, unafraid of any perils that conspired to hinder her passage. In 1810, she set off abroad at the then on-the-shelf age of 34. She never returned to England but reinvented herself from society spinster to so-called Queen of the Bedouin, bedding young chaps, gathering influential friends ( and foes) from Constantinople to Jerusalem, and swearing to great effect in obtuse languages.
They don’t make them like that any more.
Aside from the occasionally daring Morris (who, incidentally, wrote a brilliant travelogue in 1985 titled Last Letters from Hav, about a place that doesn’t exist, which had readers from Paris to Patagonia ringing Thomas Cook agents to book instant passage there), other contemporary travel writers who Lounge would love to entertain include Pico Iyer, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple. And, please, the completely zany Tahir Shah, whose most recent narrative is The Caliph’s House, in which he buys a ruined palace in Casablanca that comes with resident jinns, ‘‘an army of invisible spirits’’ whose obscure needs must be met at the most inconvenient moments.
A lovely, gentle guest would be Adrian Zecha, who’s a true visionary; he started Amanresorts in the late 1980s and redefined the way we think about organic hotel design, especially in airy tropical climes such as Bali and Thailand. Copycat companies are a dime a dozen but Amanresorts still rules the bespoke boutique accommodation world and Zecha might have a thing or two to say to Cook about his one-size-fits-all tours, and to those doughty Englishwomen who slept in goats’ quarters and camel pens in Arabia. Oops, Lounge would have to take all her branded hotel soaps out of the guest lavatory, though, just in case Zecha recognised any of his.
Lounge had a most convivial lunch with Michael Palin in Sydney in 1999 and he was wearing someone else’s trousers. They had been returned to his Sydney hotel room from the guest dry-cleaning service and were so pressed and pleated, they’d lost all familiarity.
‘‘Such savage pleating,’’ he marvelled, inviting me to inspect the creases. ‘‘Sounds like a small town in England.’’ A chewy county accent kicked in: ‘‘Ooo, aye, we’re orf to Savage Pleating.’’
Palin is charming and funny and would keep things going, come what may; you’d have to hope he’d arrive with a dead parrot on his shoulder. He’s not the sort of chap to complain about things too much, such as lack of expert hostessing, because throughout this gathering Lounge would be in the kitchen, turning out who knows what but definitely pulping white peaches for Morris.
But unlike many a contestant on Come Dine With Me who decides to try a new recipe (‘‘Ooo, I’ve never cooked this before but it looks nice on the packet!’’) or put on the seven-hour slow-cooked lamb j ust as the doorbell rings announcing the first guest, she would not be stretching herself.
In fact, why not get the damned thing catered, which Mrs Senior Lounge used to do on special occasions, meaning she could concentrate on smoking filter tips and slinking around in her hostess pyjamas while ladies in white pinafores served toothpickskewered coloured cocktail onions and cheese cubes.
She was an avid traveller who’d talk endlessly to guests about her favourite spots, which is what Lounge would like to do all these years later, although she suspects this fascinating lot would take not a blind bit of notice of their hostess even if she were wearing leopard-print.