If Only They’d Met: The Book of Imaginary Meetings by David Cohen

In If Only They’d Met, David Cohen uses a healthy dollop of artistic license (time travel, a lack of language barriers) to imagine the conversations that might have taken place if certain famous characters of yore had had the chance to meet.

There are some inspired pairings – Coco Chanel trying to get Queen Victoria to ditch the mourning wear for a Chanel dress, Leon Trotsky and Margaret Thatcher battling it out in a retirement home – and a great part of the fun is guessing who these meetings are actually between, as Cohen doesn’t give the game away beforehand. For an 80s kid such as myself, it was all very reminiscent of Henry Kelly’s ‘Who Am I?’  puzzlers on Going For Gold, which is something that can only bring back happy memories…

On the one hand these imaginary encounters are a clever way to present short biographies of interesting individuals – details about their illustrious lives are weaved into the entertaining dialogue. Their main impact, though, is in their psychological analysis of what made these famous people tick.  While these conversations are at turns hilarious and sad,  collectively they make quite a profound point about human nature, when you consider how various idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, borne from the best or worst parts of their lives, are shared by characters across the centuries, lands and professions. In particular, the capacity of difficult parents and childhood abandonment to fxck you up whether you are a 1950s movie star or a 18th century legendary lover made me think of the excellent if depressing Philip Larkin poem below and wonder: how much does humankind really change?

This Be The Verse
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
    They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

He’s a cheerful bugger, that Larkin. I mean, you take just one look at him and you just know he is a cheerful bugger:

Philip Larkin in the world’s greatest advert for teetotalism (credit The Telegraph)

I digress (and PS I actually love Larkin – poetry-wise at least – but that’s a story for another day). So which historical character would you like to meet? As much as I dreamed of meeting Elizabeth I when I was 9 , these days I’d treasure a face to face with ancestors who are otherwise just mysterious names on a family tree or blurred faces in a black and white photo. I’d especially like to sit down to tea (or something stronger) with my Great Uncle Jack, my Nan’s book-loving elder brother who died in his 20s, to discuss our completely reasonable shared dislike of lending books and our very sensible obsession with labelling our book purchases with our names and addresses. See, I told you that our peculiarities extend across the generations…


9 Comments Add yours

  1. sohnich says:

    this is a very interesting post!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d forgotten all about that Going for Gold round!

    Your Great Uncle Jack sounds eminently sensible to me, I hate lending books too.

    I’d like to meet George Eliot, and also my great-grandfather, a blacksmith, to tell him that filing his own teeth is really not a good idea….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow! Filing his own teeth! Ouch!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. PS Going For Gold reminds me of those rare occasions when I would be allowed to bunk school. Happy days!!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bookheathen says:

    As a student of family history I discovered there were so many of my ancestors I would have liked to have known.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s wonderful thought, isn’t it? Even just to have one conversation!


  4. I’m thinking I should stop following you, because every time I read a post my so-little-time “Books To Read” list gets longer! 🙂 I have to add that I really hate that particular Larkin poem – or would if I didn’t read it ironically. ( Please tell me he meant it ironically!!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! That’s the only problem with blogging and following other book blogs – it does feed the list for me too!! Larkin is such a peculiar character. I know people think he is a misery guts (‘life is slow dying’ being another memorable line) but I sometimes convince myself that you can find some joy in his exploration of the mundane. I mean, at least you are exposed to the worse case scenario, and it can only go upwards from there, right?!!

      Liked by 1 person

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