For me the death of Sir Arnold Wesker is a double tragedy. Yes, we lose a great dramatic writer, incisive, politically reformist, with a flair for describing post-war working-class Britain. For me, however, there is something else. He is the only great literary figure with whom I have ever dined, so that his demise cuts off an important link with the artistic world.
It all happened because of Samia, a delightful middle-aged woman who in the late 1970s lived behind us in the back-to-back streets of Edwardian Highbury. Her establishment was very different to ours. We were four young men, of whom three had rowed together at University and all were keen to go trout fishing whenever our efforts to establish ourselves in the city allowed it. It was the sort of house where the murmured word "whisky", however softly enunciated, was answered by heads appearing around the living room door, the appearance of a good malt, and a couple of hours studying fishing maps of Ireland which, by the end of the evening, would be spread all over the floor. The scene could almost have been pre-war, except that, none of us being smokers, no one ever had occasion to fill a pipe.
Samia was quite a contrast. Her house was slightly larger than ours but, although it was also from the same period, her extraordinary talent for interior decoration made it flamboyant, exciting and slightly mysterious. With Middle-Eastern ancestry, she was amusing and fun and took a maternal interest in us all, occasionally passing a loaf of newly-baked bread over the wall which separated our gardens. She liked young people and had lodgers of about our age. Being Samia's lodgers, of course, they were more interesting than the normal kind. It wasn't just that they usually came from somewhere exotic overseas but more that somehow the magic of her house descended on them and, well, odd things happened.
For example, one of them, a young man from South Africa, would sit of a summer evening in Samia's garden, relaxing in a deck chair, glass of wine in hand. Often a glass would come over the wall for each of us too and, if it was our turn to open a bottle, a couple of them would cross the wall the other way. It became something of a summer evening ritual.
That year I went on holiday to Johannesburg and my hosts lived in a fashionable part of the city. One evening, as the sun went down, I took a stroll round their garden and looked over the boundary wall. To my complete amazement there, in the garden of the house behind, sat the same young man in a similar deckchair again sipping a glass of wine. We looked at each other, stunned, and then with a smile he rose from the chair, and poured a glass for me...
Well, that was the sort of thing which happened when Samia had introduced you, so you can imagine how excited we were when she said that she was going to ask us over to dinner. Actually it was to be a very grand dinner party. We were all to wear black tie and the guest of honour was to be the great Arnold Wesker. Until that evening I don't think I had really understood what the word "lionised" meant but there was certainly lionising going on when we arrived at the appointed hour. Wesker sat in the middle of a long table next to his hostess and held forth brilliantly and authoritatively on drama, politics and the other topics of the day. Those sitting around him fed him with questions and people like me, further down the table, listened to the great man's words but were not really close enough to contribute.
It was a terrific evening. Wesker was well worth listening to and I sat in my place below the salt thoroughly enjoying it all. Actually it was the salt which gave me my great moment. There was a pause in the conversation and I became conscious that Wesker was looking in my direction. He lent forward politely and was clearly going to ask me something. On what possible subject could he be about to ask my views? Some issue of politics, perhaps, which he wanted to air with the younger generation. I rather hoped not because his politics were a bit more left than mine and it was certainly not my role to put the great man out of countenance. A question on the dramatic arts perhaps? That would be worse. My experience was restricted to having once been caught mid-stage changing the scenery as the lights came up in a school play. I could hardly say anything there which would interest one of the country's leading playwrights. All I could do was to try to look intelligent and hope it was not too difficult. After a second's pause the question came:
"Would you be very kind and pass the salt?" he asked.
I replied "of course," and pushed the salt up towards him. That was our only exchange that evening and the link which it established between me and the word of theatre was necessarily a modest one. Still, when I hear the name Wesker, I think of him in the context of a glorious evening, of good food, good wine, good company and good conversation. There are worse ways to be remembered.
Republished from the Shaw Sheet