As publishers’ lunches go, it was one of the more productive ones.
Arthur Conan Doyle and Oscar Wilde had been invited to dinner by the American publisher J. M. Stoddart.
He later described Sir Arthur as ‘a walrus in Sunday clothes’ – but no matter, for they all met at the Langham Hotel, in London, and had a very good evening together.
Perhaps surprisingly, Wilde, aged 35, and Doyle, aged 30, got on very well. They discussed Doyle’s recent historical novel (he longed to diversify) and Wilde was in fine conversational form.
Doyle was impressed and charmed; and the dinner 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 the bill, and whatever the tip he left, it was money well spent by Stoddart.
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. And no doubt both of them left the table encouraged and stimulated in their writing — a calling that can feel a solitary affair at times.
And second, the evening would produce two excellent stories, which in different ways, would bless generations to come.
So, with hindsight, the evening becomes a rather merry memory; history looks back on that dinner at the Langham in the summer of 1889, and remembers it in glowing terms.
But it might not have been that way. Wilde and Doyle could easily have been at loggerheads throughout the meal, in insecure competition with each other.
And the two commissioned works might have turned out disappointingly. Mr Stoddart knew nothing for sure at the time.
As the two writers left the Langham, no doubt Stoddart was excited by the possibilities; but he was in control of nothing, and this all makes me think of Advent.
Some believe it a lost season, hopelessly swallowed up in the commercial Christmas, which began in Harrods in August – and has been signed, sealed and delivered in school nativities and carol services by mid-December.
‘We just need to let go of it,’ some say. ‘Advent, as a season, is finished.’
But when I said that to someone recently, they were not impressed.
‘It’s my most important season of the year,’ they declared. And maybe it is yours; maybe you are not ready to bow down to Harrods et al in their pursuit of the seasonal penny.
Maybe Advent is far from over for you. So how will you travel?
The genius of Advent is to stay present to the journey, without being crucified by expectation or meaning.
This is difficult – with the hindsight of history, the elephant in the room. Preachers can insist on giving us the Christmas answer before we have even lived the questions.
So we don’t listen to them. We enjoy the lights along the way; but we ignore hindsight’s insistent shaping of events. We allow this to be our first Christmas ever; a secret Christmas, lived with others, but known only to ourselves..
This Advent, we give up control of the narrative and stay present to both pain and possibility.
And we keep clueless as to the outcomes; for once we leave the present, and talk of what our Christmas will be or should be, we blow up large balloons of fantasy, and this never ends well.
Such balloons can be most savagely popped and leave us some way from joy.
So we throw control to the winds; we throw knowing to the winds… and live the fragile possibility, a one-day-at -a-time journey towards a distant light.
As J. M. Stoddart sat down to eat with Wilde and Doyle, he knew nothing about future outcomes; and neither will I, as I open the first window on my advent calendar.
Good intentions are not foreknowledge; so who knows what we will find along the way?
The genius of Advent, as shepherds and wise men will testify, is in not knowing…until you get there.
2019: This is our first Christmas.