The Advent Secret

AS PUBLISHERS’ lunches go, it was one of the more productive ones. And, who knows? But it may give us some clues for surviving and thriving Advent as, once again, we open the first windows of the calendar.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde had been invited to dinner by the American publisher J. M. Stoddart, who later described Sir Arthur as “a walrus in Sunday clothes”. They all met at the Langham Hotel, in London, and had a good evening together.

Wilde, aged 35, and Doyle, aged 30, got on very well and discussed Doyle’s recent historical novel. Wilde was in fine conversational form, and Doyle was impressed and charmed.

The dinner then ended with Doyle being commissioned to write another Sherlock Holmes adventure — The Sign of Four — and Wilde being commissioned to write The Portrait of Dorian Gray.

Whatever bill was presented to Mr Stoddart, and whatever the tip he left, it might be considered money well spent and there are two things I like about the evening.

First, it was clearly a happy evening, in which a publisher brought together two young writers who enjoyed each other’s company. “It was indeed a golden evening for me,” recalled Doyle. No doubt both of them left the table encouraged and stimulated in their writing — a calling that can feel a solitary affair at times.

Second, the evening would produce two excellent stories, which in different ways would bless gen­erations to come.

So, with hindsight, the evening becomes a joyful memory; history looks back on that dinner in the summer of 1889, and remembers it in glowing terms.

But it might not have been so. Wilde and Doyle could easily have been at log­gerheads throughout the meal, in in­secure competition with each other. It happens.

And the two commissioned works might have turned out disap­point­ingly. This happens as well. Mr Stoddart knew nothing for sure at the time: we live life blind.

He was probably excited by the possibilities; but perhaps even he never expected what he got.

The challenge of Advent is some­how to keep present excite­ment, without being crucified by expecta­tion. It is difficult, for we live with the hind­sight of history, which tediously gives us the answers before we have even asked the ques­tions.

What will the 24th window reveal when opened? We sort-of know.

So the genius is to stay present, with what is, in front of me, now. It’s Day Seven. It’s a robin. I need know no more.

Once we leave the present, and talk of what will be, we blow up large balloons of fantasy which are in danger of being popped or deflated by experi­ence.

For yes, despite all the hype, (which could not be piled any higher) post-Christmas con­vers­a­tion is not usually spent reflect­ing on experi­ences of glad tidings and joy.

‘The Christmas we get we deserve,’ sang Greg Lake, which is harsh but often true. Christ­mas can offer to us only the degree of reality we offer to Christmas.

As J. M. Stoddart sat down to eat in the Langham Hotel, he knew nothing about future out­comes; and neither do I, as the first Advent windows are opened.

In truth, the future doesn’t exist which is a profound liberation.

One day, and window, at a time.