I don’t have to tell you what a mess the world is in, but recent news – from that reliable arbiter of doom, The Guardian – renders momentous world events trivial by comparison. I refer of course to an article on the demise of that treasured institution, the long lunch. Despite its breezy style and touches of humour (as if the passing of such a thing could ever be laughable) the article has haunted me.
It is not putting too finer point on it to say that myself, and a number of colleagues in similar lines of work (the softer wing of journalism), didn’t get where we are today without very, no VERY, long lunches. I hasten to add lunches not taken every day, and not heavily inebriated every day; all of us had to earn a living. The rule is that lunches ( time to eat, read, shop think, chat, switch off for an hour, every working day) are good. One or two a week with a couple of drinks are better, and an over extended lunch that morphs into the afternoon and evening, and perhaps drifts into the early hours of the next day, are not only much better, they are, by all agreed, essential to well being, creativity, productivity, and career advancement.
My own life in lunches began during my tenure as a cub reporter at my very first newspaper, The Middlesex Advertiser and Gazette, operating then from a first floor office above a shop in Uxbridge. Even on press days, Wednesdays for publication the following day, the staff were encouraged, no ordered to take lunches away from their desks; aka ‘go to the pub’. Choices for eating out then were limited; it tended to be greasy spoons, full blown restaurants, or – pubs. So pubs it was. Most lunches lasted about two to three pints. Nobody every complained. The paper always came out. And nobody was every reprimanded for inaccuracy, as fas as I can remember. Part of the value of those ‘wet lunches’ was the sheer volume of work discussed during them. It’s amazing how much talking and thinking and arguing gets done after a couple of pints.
My baptism into the true value of long, expense account lunches came during a brief tenure at Epic Records, in London’s Soho Square. In the years before email, mobile phone and voicemail public relations meant many hours on the telephone talking with journalists whom PRs hoped would write glowing articles about the musicians and singers in their portfolio. The chat was the hook, a method I learnt from the late great Rob Partridge at Island Records when I a music writer. A PR mentor, and thoroughly good chap, he was never known to replace the receiver without at least one article secured. Landing those glossy front covers or upfront articles on artists nobody had ever heard of, timed to coincide with the record release or tour, required frequent lunchtime visits to L’Escargot, nearby in Greek Street. I recall my boss at Epic, Jonathan Morrish, raising an eyebrow or two at the sheer scales of my expenses, although he couldn’t deny the volume of column inches those succulent mouthfuls of sole meuniere and bottles of Muscadet et Sevre-et-Maine Sur Lie produced. It never ceased to amaze me how effective two, sometimes three bottles of wine, were in generating column inches, especially with the heavy hitters on the Fleet Street tabloid pop columns.
I hit the apex of long lunching in the mid 90s at fabled events that could on and on and on – for hours. Heads of publishing companies attended, so too music managements gurus, style/fashion journalists including my good friend Robert Elms, as well as another friends, travel editor and now novelist, Rob Ryan, and others too distant and inebriated to recall. So heroic were these lunches, usually at The Groucho Club or Notting Hill’s 192, that Ryan (whose novels on Holmes’ Dr.Watson are essential reading) came up with a name for them; The Oates Club, dedicated to the memory of Captain Lawrence Oates the Arctic explorer, who upon acknowledging that the injury to his foot was hindering Scott’s polar expedition, famously said, “I am just going outside, and may be some time.” Never a truer word was said.
Of course we weren’t alone. Restaurants, gastro pubs, and a new generation of ‘brasseries’ opened to cater for working folk who required a decent meal and somewhere to unwind and refuel in the middle of the day. Parts of London that were deserts after dark were transformed into riots of enthusiastic ribaldry during the working day; and all the better for it.
The concept that employees shouldn’t take lunch breaks away from their desks drifted across the Atlantic, (from the US where else?) in the early part of the new century. It applied to employees in all sectors except (why is nobody surprised?) to bankers who continue to buck the trend, with our money, to this day. Social media is full of chatrooms from those times witnessing arguments to the pro’s and con’s of a good lunch. It was around the same time that employees opted for staying at work longer than their normal working hours. The perception that those on lunch or going home at clocking off time were somehow not pulling their weight; not team players. The worst aspect of working shifts on Fleet Street was using keyboards littered with bits of food left there by journalists too fearful to take lunch breaks. Amid the deafening silence that is the modern newspaper room all one could hear was the rustling of sandwich wrappers. The scent of eau de cologne usurped by the smell of soup . I had many arguments during this time with colleagues far too busy – on social media or internet shopping who can tell hunched over a keyboard – to lunch.
Numerous restaurants in London and far beyond that have scotched lunchtime opening altogether, while the growth of fast food outlets, and designer sandwich shops is exponential. A further sign of the rush-to-nowhere-times is the arrival of a prix fixed at M in the City’s Threadneedle Street, where there is a £28 two course and coffee lunch – ‘designed for your quick business lunch’ – that patrons are assured can be polished off in – yes, 28 minutes.
At this juncture it is worth remembering that in the 80s the economy, according to World Bank data, the UK economy was soaring along at up to 6% and even in the 90s, after the terrible Tory recession of 91/92, the economy was still a match for it is today at 4% by midway in the decade. Ten years after the credit crunch brought the world’s economies to its knees it doesn’t look like sandwiches at the desk are the answer.
The idea that more is achieved by working, or at least seeming to work longer, is a nonsense. Our brains have an ‘ultradian rhythm’ that lasts for between 90 and 120 minutes at a time, after which they need a break. They need a change of scene. A cup of coffee. And at the middle of the day they need lunch. All the indicators show that concentration soars after a break whereas stuck in the same chair, staring at the same screen, adding more and more crumbs to an already biodisgusting keyboard kills off the will to live.
In other words – life without lunch isn’t worth living. And if anyone’s interested – I am available from about 12.30pm most days