Friday, April 27, 2012

The Lost Art of Lunch

I've just finished reading Dinner with Churchill, Cita Stelzer's entertaining account of how the old warmonger used his fondness for food and drink to schmooze and disarm those with whom he had to deal. I'm no Churchill devotee, but he was on to something with his theory that there were few quarrels or disagreements that could not be sorted out over a good meal and a few decent bottles of wine. 'If I could only dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all,' he is reported to have said.

The book also sets out to dispel the myth that Churchill was an alcoholic, or at least a functioning alcoholic. There are those that claim that Churchill's fondess for a glass, starting with a weak whiskey and soda each morning, was the reason he made such a great and bellicose war leader. Think of those tanked up blokes who can't wait to put their fists up and fight after a few too many shandies, and add in some civility, a grand education, being bred to lead and you have Churchill. But Stelzer claims Churchill, while hardly abstemious, played up his drinking to enhance his clubbability, and that, like his fondness for cigars, his drinking became a symbol of his normality and enhanced his appeal with those many who liked a drink and a smoke. Just like George W. Bush choking on a pretzel became a symbol of his stupidity and cemented his appeal with other idiots who couldn't handle crunchy snacks.

But the lasting impression I got from the book was of a passed time, when diplomacy and business and all manner of things were conducted over a long lunch. One of the attractions of journalism for my callow self was that it remained one of the few trades where lunch was still a factor. True, those lunches were often entirely liquid, but that just enhanced the appeal. I read Keith Waterhouse's memoirs of life on 1950s Fleet Street, Streets Ahead, and marvelled at the extravagant tales of excess.

Of course, that was when newspapers were generously staffed. Waterhouse didn't write a word during his first month at the Daily Mirror. No one seemed to know who he was, which is just as well as he spent most of the time half-pissed. By the time I reached Fleet Street, newspapers were understaffed and far more sober places. That said, at the The Daily Telegraph, there was still fairly relaxed approach to newsgathering. Reporters spent the morning idly flicking through newspapers before a party headed off to the pub around midday, and, depending on what was or wasn't happening, sauntered back a couple of hours later well-refreshed. Sometimes they were more than well-refreshed. I remember one senior reporter going missing. The news desk hunted high and low for him. It turned out he had fallen asleep on the toilet on his return. Another reporter had a gargantuan appetite for drink, and an equally voracious appetite for the young women who worked in the library. I never saw him sober in two years. He's now a respected columnist on a newspaper universally known for its moral crusading and lectures people weekly (and weakly) on how the world has gone to the dogs.

Of course, as an ambitious young reporter eager to make his mark, I stayed at my desk. For a few days on my first day shifts (my regular beat was the night news desk) I politely turned down any invitations to go to the pub, hoping instead to hoover up all the good stories while the rest of the office drank. Nothing came my way. Eventually I gave up and joined the pub party. We were there for three hours. I came back seeing double. I was immediately given a story. It ended up being a page three lead and was followed up by every other news and television outlet in the land. I still have the clipping. And I still have no recollection writing it. I learned a lesson, even I was damned if I knew what it was. Needless to say, when I did some work at the BBC website, and was forced to work 10 hour shifts without a break - lunch was eaten in front of a computer screen - I didn't fare so well.

Then I started writing books, and soon I realised there was still an industry where people liked a lunch or two. I remember several lost afternoons (and several lost ideas - it was after losing one that I started texting myself any good ideas I had. It was how I came up with the plot of The Blood Detective. Which is why you won't hear me bemoaning the ubiquity of mobile phones) with various editors. This was before the Fall, of course. I met up recently with one of those editors whose largesse I had so enjoyed. We went to a greasy spoon around the corner from his office where we had two eggs, two bacon, two sausage, fried mushrooms and a cup of splosh. How the mighty fall.

It's only natural that in times of hardship sacrifices have to be made. It's also true that most authors would rather their publishers blow their cash on promoting and marketing their book - or paying them a decent advance - than spending it on long lunches. But a few weeks ago I was treated to a launch lunch for Unsinkable by my present publishers, and it was very enjoyable just to spend some chewing the fat with them. There are many unhappy authors out there, and some very stressed-out publishers. I haven't experienced it myself, but you don't have to be Philip Marlowe to detect a growing divide between the two. Even if it's only a over a Full English and a greasy tea, maybe it's time for publishers and authors to break a bit more (fried) bread.


Dan - Friday


  1. I love long lunches! It is such a wonderful symbol of decadence. But it certainly difficult to find companions these days. Great post, Dan.

  2. My favorite business lunches were those where no one could remember who paid.

  3. Jeff, Stan - you're both very high on the list of people with whom I'd like to share a long lunch.

  4. ...and Stan, given what me, you and Michael laid waste to at dinner that time, it would be a looooong one.