HONOURED GUEST HIGHLIGHTS OF THE SOCIETY OF OLD FRIENDS
The following highlights a selection of some of the Honoured Guests from 1910 to date. We hope no one has been offended by their omission and offer a full list of the 200 in total HERE. Any members who have preferential access to potential speakers should please notify the President Elect by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the very early days of its existence, members of the Society of Old Friends have been privileged to share the company of some truly illustrious guests.
The first, in 1910, was Mr Arthur Waugh, a man introduced to the Old Friends and their friends as “An author, orator, publisher, Chairman of the Publishers’ Circle”.
Mr Waugh was a gentleman of brilliant attainments, occupying a high position in the profession in which he was so distinguished an ornament. His speech was acclaimed with applause and cheers, a tough act to follow!
Follow it though, the Society surely has, and more than 100 years on, the roll call of Honoured Guests is illuminated with some of the most extraordinary individuals from every walk of life.
As a Society with its origins in the Book Publishing trades, it is no wonder that our dinners have been graced by many great writers. But how many societies can claim to have hosted such incredible and diverse writers as ours?
Possibly the greatest was Herbert George Wells who spoke at the Guest Dinner of 1918. The writer of The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Shape of Things to Come, HG Wells was nominated no less than four times for a Nobel Prize for Literature. His speech was reported as delicately worded and playfully delivered. Softly spoken, it seems some of those assembled may have struggled to hear his words, but he concluded to “thunderous applause.”
Other renowned authors to have been welcomed to Society Dinners include John Buchan, the second Baron Tweedsmuir, writer of many classic novels including The 39 Steps.
Hilaire Belloc was known as a writer, orator, poet, sailor, satirist, man of letters, soldier and political activist. He is now best known for his cautionary Tales for Children, including Matilda, who told lies and was burned to death!
Dorothy L Sayers was one of our greatest crime fiction writers, creating a series of novels featuring her creation, Lord Peter Wimsey, a heroic detective.
JB Priestley was an English novelist, playwright, scriptwriter, social commentator, and broadcaster, most famous for his play, An Inspector Calls. Priestley was also a propagandist for the British Government during the Second World War and was scheduled to speak previously but was called away on “war business.”
When he did speak at the dinner of 1941, Priestley explained, “I haven’t time to write books now. I started a book and Hitler promptly invaded Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, and I daren’t start it again or he may invade somewhere else!”
Sir Compton Mackenzie was an English born Scottish writer of fiction, biography, histories and a memoir, as well as a cultural commentator, raconteur and lifelong Scottish nationalist. The writer of The Monarch of the Glen and Whisky Galore, he was a political activist and one of the co-founders in 1928 of the Scottish National Party.
Marguerite Patten CBE, is known by many as the original celebrity chef, a name she eschewed. “I am not! To the day I die, I’ll be a home economist.” She wrote cookery books, gave demonstrations and appeared on television 8 years before Fanny Craddock.
In 1961, at a time when cookery books were essentially black and white affairs, her publisher Paul Hamlyn produced a glossy book, Cookery in Colour, that sold over one million copies by 1969. She subsequently sold 17 million copies of her cookery books.
Audrey Eyton has spent most of her professional life working in the field of diet, nutrition and health, where she has become widely recognized and admired as a serious contributor and enlightened innovator. In 1969, she co-founded and directed the world’s first magazine devoted to dieting, Slimming Magazine, and was responsible for many advances including the first low-fat slimming diet. In 1982, she published The F-Plan Diet, which became an international multi-million-copy bestseller.
Jilly Cooper OBE was famed for her erotic fiction and would surely have raised a few eyebrows amongst some of the more traditional Old Friends!
In contrast Dame Barbara Cartland, was one of our most prolific authors of romantic novels. Her 723 novels are reported to have sold more than 2 billion copies. In 1983, she published 23 novels in that single year, possibly not to the same quality as those of HG Wells or John Buchan.
Most recently, The Society welcomed Jeffrey Archer, Baron Archer of Weston Super Mare, to its centenary celebration at Stationers’ Hall. Known in equal measure as a businessman, art collector, politician, fraudster, Archer was one of the most commercially successful authors of the 20th century, selling over 330 million books worldwide.
Whilst women were not allowed to become Old Friends until 2001, there have been many excellent women speakers who have been our honoured guests.
Amongst these, the world of journalism is very well represented, with wonderful speeches from some of our greatest journalists, columnists and commentators including Eve Pollard, Jean Rook, Angela Rippon, Jennie Bond, Lynda Lee-Potter, Claire Raynor and Janet Street Porter.
CORRIDORS OF POWER
Besides Jeffrey Archer, previously mentioned, politicians from all shades of the political spectrum and others from the Corridors of Power have been pleased to accept the invitation of the President to be the Honoured Guest at the Society Dinners.
Herwald Ramsbotham, 1st Viscount Soulbury was a Conservative politician who served as a government minister between 1931 and 1941 and as Governor-General of Ceylon between the 1949 and 1954.
What a tremendous experience it must have been for Old Friends to welcome The Right Honourable Earl Mountbatten of Burma to their function. He was a British naval officer and statesman, an uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, and second cousin once removed of Elizabeth II. During the Second World War, he was Supreme Allied Commander, South East Asia Command. He was the last Viceroy of India and the first Governor-General of independent India.
Just a few years later the Rt Hon Enoch Powell MBE, Conservative and Ulster Unionist MP, famed for his Rivers of Blood speech was the Society’s guest, followed at the next meal by Baroness Phillips of Fulham, Labour MP and magistrate and the first female whip in the House of Lords.
Clearly, then as now, the Old Friends had no political agenda but were open minded enough to enjoy listening to prominent politicians irrespective of their own beliefs.
The Hon. Mark Bonham-Carter, was a politician and publisher who spoke to the Old Friends having been appointed as the first Commissioner of the Race Relations Board. That was during the 1970’s when the social and political landscape was changing significantly, but the 1980’s brought its share of conflict and diverse opinion too.
Sir Rex Hunt had been the Governor of the Falkland Islands at the time of the Argentinian invasion of the South Atlantic islands that they wished to claim as their own. At the start of the 1982 invasion of the Falkland Islands, Hunt made his official residence, Government House in Port Stanley, the operational headquarters for the Royal Marines.
He sent his family and domestic staff away to safer houses with only their most valuable possessions. His housekeeper took a picture of the Queen and a bottle of gin.
Ken Livingstone was one of London’s most recognised politicians. As the Leader of the Greater London Council he had frequently conflicted with the government of the day.
He also divided opinion within the Labour party that he represented, and was suspended from the party.
However, his determined support of the people of London had made him a popular figure with many and he went on to become the first elected Mayor of our Capital City.
David Mellor QC MP was a Conservative cabinet minister who served as Chief Secretary to the Treasury in John Major’s government. He resigned after a scandal around an affair and secured multiple engagements in the media, was the Chairman of the Football Task Force and forged a successful career as an entrepreneur and business consultant.
Sir Gerald Kaufman MP was a British Labour politician who served as an MP from 1970 until his death in 2017. He was a government minister in the 1970s and a member of the Shadow Cabinet in the 1980s. Knighted in 2004, he became Father of the House in 2015 and was the oldest sitting MP of the UK Parliament at the time of his death. He was known for his forthright views which he was happy to share with Old friends.
Whilst Old Friends enjoy the cerebral stimulation of intellectuals, writers, politicians and military leaders, they also enjoy a good laugh, a song or to hear tales from the theatre and television!
For 26 years, writer, presenter and film critic Barry Norman CBE was seen every week on BBC television as the host of its Film series.
He was welcomed by the Old Friends (and why not?) and was followed by Lew Grade.
The Lord Grade of Elstree was born Louis Winogradsky in the Ukraine, was one of the greatest theatrical impresarios of all time. He had been a dancer, performer, director, producer and theatrical agent before realising the opportunity that television offered and creating ATV.
Moira Shearer, Lady Kennedy, was an internationally renowned ballerina who charmed the Old Friends as well as enjoying an after-dinner dance with the President, who, it is reported, excelled himself despite his two left feet.
Maureen Lipman gave what described as a bravura performance in a 40-minute speech that seemed to last only half of that. In a speech that mixed keen observation with wonderful anecdotes, the leading actress drew howls of laughter from a packed audience.
Laughter was regularly the theme as the Society entered the 21st Century with guests such as Tim Brooke-Taylor, known best to TV fans as the star of The Goodies and to Radio audiences for his 40 years on I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue.
Ronnie Corbett at 5’1” was a small man with a huge reputation as one of our country’s best loved comedians. Corbett served his compulsory national service with the Royal Air Force, during which he was the shortest commissioned officer in the British Forces. As a comedian, he found fame in the 1960s alongside John Cleese, David Frost and the man he shared most of his career with, Ronnie Barker.
Recent dinners have been wowed by the musical genius of Rick Wakeman, keyboard player whose talents have resulted in sales of over 100million albums. Rick has enjoyed solo success and as a member of the seventies supergroup, Yes.
Possibly his greatest successes though have come when his compositions were hits for others, most notably with Morning Has Broken for Cat Stevens and Life on Mars for David Bowie, both of which he played to the delight the Old Friends.
Al Murray is best known for his alter ego, The Pub Landlord. Al headlined a Best of British night alongside a group of West End performers who performed a selection of songs from the Last Night of the Proms.
Al was thrilled to be a guest of the Old Friends with its literary history, as not only has he had his own books published, he is a great, great, great grandson of William Makepeace Thackeray, writer of Vanity Fair.
Sandi Toksvig is primarily known as a comedienne, but that is not a name she gives herself. She said, “When I see comedian and ‘comedienne’, of course I hate it! I think ‘Oh, really?’ because I think of myself as a writer and broadcaster!”
More than this, she is also a political activist and co-founder of the Women’s Equality Party. Suffice to say, however she may be defined, Sandi was a tremendously funny speaker who delighted the audience.
Meera Syal CBE rose to prominence as the UK’s most popular female comedian in shows such as Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at Number 42. Subsequently she excelled as a serious actress and found great success as a writer. Meera charmed the Old Friends with her journey from being “the only Asian in the village” in her home near Wolverhampton to popular recognition and success.
He is also a consummate entertainer and a close friend of previous Old Friends Honoured Speaker, Maureen Lipman) , as well as a veteran of QI, Have I Got News For You and Countdown and many other TV shows.
Most notably, he has shaken hands with many people including shaking the hand of the man that shook the hand of Oscar Wilde!
WORLD OF SPORT AND ADVENTURE
The Society of Old Friends has counted many renowned sports stars and adventurers amongst its Honoured Guests.
Emlyn Hughes OBE was a much-loved footballer, who after he finished his career as Captain of Liverpool FC and England forged a television career as a team captain on the BBC’s Question of Sport. He was a very amusing speaker who, it is reported, gave one of the best speeches heard for some time.
Over 200 members and guests were entertained by Jimmy Hill who, prior to becoming the face of Match of the Day, had held every position in football, from apprentice to player, coach, manager and Chairman. He was also a qualified linesman and referee. As a players’ union representative he had campaigned for the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers. He commissioned the first all-seater football stadium, the first electronic scoreboard and numerous other innovations in the game.
Another footballing legend to be the Guest of the Old Friends was Jack Charlton, a member of the England’s 1966 World Cup winning team and a league winner with Leeds United. After playing he became a club manager before famously managing the Republic of Ireland in the 1994 World Cup in America. Famed for his love of fishing, a social drink and an anecdote, Jack did not disappoint and stayed in the bar with the Old Friends until past midnight.
From the World of Cricket, one of the voices of Test Match Special, Christopher Martin Jenkins (CMJ to his friends) gave a very amusing speech, which he managed to deliver in such a way that it appealed to those in the audience who were not cricket fans as well as those who were.
Alec Stewart was England’s all-time leading run scorer and the most successful wicket-keeping batsman in the world, before moving into management with his beloved Surrey CCC. Alec told about his progression as a player under the guidance of his father, former England manager, Micky. When as England manager he didn’t select Alec, his mother sent his father to Coventry until he relented! A dour character on the sports field, Alec was a delight off it.
Dame Mary Peters was the known as ‘the girl who stole the nation’s heart’ at the Munich Olympic Games of 1972 where she won the pentathlon gold medal. She was the only British gold medal winner at those games and it was no surprise she won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award that year.
Dame Mary offered her advice to the assembled business leaders, telling them the 5 most important words they could use were ‘I am proud of you.’
It was reported that she was a warm and genuine Guest, modest and humorous.
Another Olympian to make a great impression upon the Old Friends was Kris Akabusi, former soldier, athlete, TV personality and business coach.
A man known for his exuberant personality, Kris had the guests on their feet as he recounted his famous Gold Medal winning 4 x 400m relay and as he performed a poem urging them all to ‘Dream Big!”
Chris Bonington was Britain’s foremost mountaineer was the son of one of the founders of the SAS. He had joined the Army, as a member of the Royal Tank Regiment before becoming an Army Mountaineering Instructor. Amongst his many expeditions to the Himalayas, he had successfully scaled Mount Everest in 1985.
Interestingly, in 1968 he had accompanied another Old Friends guest, Captain John Blashford-Snell and his British Army team in the attempt to make the first-ever descent of the Blue Nile.
The ultimate Explorer though must surely be Sir Ranulph Fiennes Bt OBE. A quiet, unassuming man, the Old Friends listened incredulously as he told stories of his incredible expeditions.
Fiennes was the first person to visit both the North and South Poles by surface means and the first to completely cross Antarctica on foot.
Described by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s greatest living explorer. Members agreed he was also a great speaker.
Nigel Owens MBE is the worlds most-capped Rugby Union referee. He has officiated at more than 150 rugby internationals, including 3 World Cup tournaments. On 28 November 2020, Owens refereed his 100th international match in the Autumn Nations Cup game between France and Italy, becoming the first referee to reach the landmark.
His ability to maintain order through a combination of strict discipline and a great sense of humour have made him one of this generation greatest sporting personalities.
Nigel is known for coming as the first openly gay referee and for his brutally honest revelations about his personal battles with his sexuality, eating disorders and mental health. His journey and his insights into these challenges are an inspiration to many.
Nigel has also received many awards, for his work on and off the pitch in rugby and in equality, inclusiveness and mental health. Most notably he was awarded the MBE for services to sport and an Honorary Fellowship from Cardiff University in 2016.
Since 1910, we truly have been privileged to have welcomed some extraordinary guests to Old Friends dinners. It is one of the factors that makes The Society of Old Friends such a wonderful institution. It is a tradition that successive committees have striven to continue.
What a challenge we face and how we look forward to meeting it!
The preceding article highlights a selection of some of the Honoured Guests from 1910 to date. We hope no one has been offended by their omission and offer a full list of the 200 in total HERE.