Ever since Chaucer's day, when the host of the Tabard Inn in Southwark rose to welcome the Canterbury Pilgrims with a joke, the After Dinner Speech, designed, if possible, to reduce the assembled company to helpless merriment, has presented the ultimate challenge.
The best speakers are natural story-tellers - Gerard Hoffnung, reading a selection of letters from continental hoteliers: 'There is a French widow in every bedroom affording delightful prospects'; John Mortimer telling the woeful tale of a man's numerous unsuccessful attempts to murder his wife: 'At no time did Mrs Scott feel that the magic had gone out of their marriage' - and in this collection of post-prandial treasures you will find the very best of them, from Groucho Marx on how to resist a femme fatale, to Ralph Steadman surreally addressing the Lewis Carroll Centenary Dinner. 'Goodness', said a friend on greeting Mae West, 'where did you get those beautiful pearls?' 'Goodness', replied Mae, 'had nothing to do with it.' Shaggy dog stories, practical jokes, sporting anecdotes, rousing toasts, travellers' tales and risqué reminiscences rub shoulders in this essential collection with real-life revelations and moments of history.
Among the guests are Peter Ustinov, Jilly Cooper, Brian Johnstone, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Parker, Robertson Davies, Henry Grady and A.P. Herbert. There is food and drink in abundance. There is gentle reflection and endearing charm as well as defiant frivolity. Above all there are stories for every occasion - witty, absurd, momentous, philosophical, fascinating, poignant, and forever entertaining.