My fantasy dinner party: Florence Nightingale and juggling unicyclists

1st December, 2020

I don’t believe in keeping my guests waiting to eat, so it all starts with a first course to more than take the edge off the appetite: chips from Frituur No 1 in the centre of Antwerp, fried twice in beef tallow, scalding hot but cooled with mayonnaise. The fries are accompanied by a glass of Westmalle Tripel, indisputably the finest beer in the world, and brewed just a few miles from where we are enjoying it.

We eat standing, gathered around a couple of chest-high tables in a half-outside, half-inside space near the counter. The Westmalle beer is nearly as strong as champagne, so I anticipate a convivial spirit will emerge, even without the help of Claude Shannon.

Shannon was the father of the information age: in two revolutionary pieces, published either side of the second world war, he explained how electronic circuits could perform logical operations, then delivered a fully formed theory of information and how it could be transmitted and compressed. I imagine Shannon is the man to get the party started. Maybe he has brought one of his robots, a chess board for a blitz game (he was good enough to make world champion Mikhail Botvinnik sweat), some juggling balls and a unicycle. Shannon once set himself the task of juggling while unicycling, balanced on a tightrope — but only managed two out of the three. Perhaps tonight will be the night.

I am hoping that Shannon will hit it off with Florence Nightingale. She would attend dinner parties with the designer of the proto-computer Charles Babbage, so she might feel comfortable meeting another computer pioneer. Nightingale is most famous as a nurse but was also a pioneer of statistics and data visualisation. She used them as persuasive tools, achieving life-saving policy changes in the teeth of the British medical and military establishment. She was the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society. I’m an honorary fellow myself and hope the connection gives me a conversational “in” with one of the most formidable of all Victorians. But I am a little nervous.

No such concerns with Lin Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel memorial prize in economics. (“I won’t be the last,” she noted and, as so often, she was right.) Ostrom was famous for her ability to work with communities from all over the world, and with scholars from any discipline. She disarmed any opposition with home-made hamburgers, but this evening that should not be necessary.

We walk across the square in front of Antwerp’s grand cathedral. I’ve arranged for dinner to take place in a private first-floor room in one of the great merchant houses overlooking the square. For reasons that will become apparent, the meal is served on a battle-scarred ping‑pong table.

We sit and eat our appetiser: creamy burrata cheese, the insides runny enough to slurp through a straw, with rich green olive oil, salt and cracked peppercorns. It is accompanied by sparkling water at room temperature. After the Westmalle Tripel, we must pace ourselves.

Our cook is Laddawan Thurston of Oli’s Thai in Oxford. She has flown in specifically to prepare the next course: a fiery salad, bursting with citrus and chilli heat, with beef grilled rare and sliced thin. It is the perfect dish to cut through the fats and the booze; but then, it is simply the perfect dish. We sip cold Chang beer in an effort to douse the flames on our tongues.

Then, a pause to soak in the view and to talk. I’m rather shy, but feel confident that my guests will find plenty to debate. To reassure myself further, I have invited Dave Arneson, a fellow geek. He is a computer programmer who should have much to discuss with Shannon and Nightingale. But he is more famous, at least in certain circles, for co-creating Dungeons & Dragons, the pioneering role-playing game.

I love role-playing games. They are richly creative, and also so baffling to the uninitiated that it is pointless for me to try to explain them here. In some ways, what Arneson invented was as strikingly original an act of creation as Shannon’s information theory. For hundreds of years, this wonderful form of play was trapped in the adjacent possible, waiting for Arneson and his friends to imagine it in around 1970. The game took shape each week seated around a ping-pong table in Arneson’s parents’ basement. Why them? And why then? Ostrom, a keen observer of how communities come together to collaborate, might offer insight.

This evening, that ping-pong table must groan under the weight of a mighty main course: schnitzel werdenfelser, a double-decker pork schnitzel with cream, mustard and onions providing the filling in the meat sandwich. It is served with a side of kartoffelsalat and a dunkel (dark) beer.

We stroll back into the square for an espresso and dolce salato ice cream with almonds, miraculously transported from Sanelli’s Gelateria in Salsomaggiore. There are plenty of calories to burn off and I am hoping to persuade my final guest, the folk singer Maddy Prior, to perform something that will get us all moving. Shannon plays jazz clarinet; Ostrom was from a musical family. I fancy that even Florence Nightingale might be persuaded to dance into the night.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 5 November 2020.

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