Theodore Zeldin is standing on a stage in the Spiegeltent on Blackheath as part of Lewisham’s Olympic celebrations. He’s bathed in red light from the glass gems studded around the edge of the dome ceiling and he’s holding a microphone, explaining simply and sonorously what this conversation dinner is all about.
It is, he says, about honesty and human interaction. It’s not about gossip or chit chat. It’s just a structured way to talk to a stranger in a way that’s otherwise hard to do.
It is also, he says, important work. The West has an ageing population and the rest of the world is bubbling with youngsters: we’ll need to find a billion new jobs to deal with the shortfall. What might happen, he wonders, if we used our own experiences and knowledge to offer solutions?
And that was it, before he reminded us that half the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day, and the the simple meal we’d be served cost less than this. A reminder, he said, that a simple meal can be as satisfying as a complicated one.
The key thing about the conversation dinners is that Zeldin offers a structured way – a permission, almost – for strangers to talk to each other. The conversation menu is organised into courses. Starters, fish, meat, dessert all have a selection of questions to choose from. One person in the pair selects a question, answers it (“so that you are not interrogating your partner,”) and then hands over the conversational baton. It really works.
I was sitting with a lovely lady, let’s call her Jay. She was quite nervous and reticent to talk about herself and I learned very little about the practicalities of her life. I did however, get a strong sense of what kind of person she was in a way that I would never have done in any other circumstance. She had a lovely idea about how to improve relations between countries in the gap between Olympics – that we should extend the torch relay to the whole world, making it a cultural passing-on that allowed participants to share food, music and dance to people who otherwise wouldn’t experience it.
My favourite part of the conversation came at the end when we selected a question about paradise: what would it be like if we could build it? I described somewhere warm and friendly, where people knew each other and liked each other (basically, I was describing Blackheath in an Olympic glow) and she cut in with the spot-on point that paradise needs to be challenging: otherwise, the fulfilment of all your desires starts to look a lot like hell.
I went and said thank you to Zeldin afterwards, and he looked me in the eye and said (you must imagine now a white-haired, precise and compassionate nearly-80 year old): “Good. Did you remember that you have half a brain, that you are not a robot? Good.”
As I walked back down towards home I saw the perfect visual post-script for this evening, which fell on the anniversary of the riots (which at the moment seem like they came from another planet): two policewomen in uniform, sitting down with a group of lads, who were having a laugh and passing round their radios. They were talking to each other, not as authoritarians Vs potential criminals but two sets of people demarcated simply by uniform.
There should be more of this!