The Death Of Lunch
Commonplace Newsletter #007
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For a brief moment in my youth, I fancied the idea of being a journalist. Not so much for the actual work of it, you understand. Not for the perpetual deadline stress or the homelife wrecking workaholism or the thrill of seeing your own name in print. No. I was intrigued mostly by the prospect of the newshound’s legendary lunches.
See, I was born in the late ‘80’s. I was raised by television, by watching old films during endless rainy bank holidays. So at some point I must have caught the tail-end of those romantic depictions of the dangling cigarette and spiral notepad era of journalism, of booze and confidential sources and camaraderie and wit. And as I say, of real grown-up (liquid) lunches.
But now, it’s sad to say, the long, languorous lunch made popular by the newshounds and the bohemians and the bon-vivants has largely faded from the popular imagination. Instead, we are now all lonely refuellers, hunched over a bland sandwich and a mediocre coffee, hurried, distracted, irritable and vaguely sad.
Like Edward Hopper paintings but with iPhones and worse clothes.
This has to end.
We must re-learn the art of the proper lunch.
Why Lunch Matters
Dostoevsky said that you can judge a society by the way it treats its prisoners. Tolstoy said you can judge a society by the way it treats its animals. Me, I say you can judge a society by the way that it treats the lunch break. Which is another way of saying by the way that it treats the average working stiff.
Every job I’ve held that I look back on fondly (or at least with relatively less contempt) took the lunch break seriously. It was inviolable. Tea breaks were sacrosanct. Smoke breaks were understood as being far more of a morale booster than any team-building exercise or paintball outing.
It all comes down to seeing people as human beings rather than Human Resources. This used to be understood.
Now I’m not going to turn this into a dry treatise on the waxing and waning of unions and labour relations and all of that. No one wants to contemplate such things on a Sunday. Alls I’m saying is that there seems to have been an uptick in the number of Quislings in the workplace in my lifetime, in the number of willing pyramid climbers and off-hours email checkers and all around petty snitches. Lunch can’t thrive in such conditions.
Lunch, then, is a synonym for freedom. For autonomy. In fact, I strongly suspect that the first thing that many people do upon ‘making it’, upon escaping the rat race, is to go for a good long multi-course lunch with dessert and cigars and champagne.
But more than being a preserve of the rich, lunch- in the sense I am using the term- is a mindset.
Crap lunch can be ended... if you want it.
At this point, I should probably explain what I mean by a proper lunch. That’s what a proper writer would do.
As well as being an incurable people-watcher, moocher, loafers and hanger-outer, I spent the majority of my 20s working in bars and kitchens in London. I’ve poured pints for politicians and served sandwiches to solicitors and everything in between. I’ve worked in boozers and gastropubs and lunch spots around Fleet Street and MI6 and The Tate and The City.
I’ve worked more lunch rushes and dead afternoons than I care to recollect. Yet, every now and again I would see a couple (the ideal lunch is usually a two player game) who went about lunch the right way. It was a valuable life lesson.
Let’s break it down.
First of all a proper lunch is unhurried. Even if you have to get back to work or to some other appointment you are not clock watching. You are present
Second, you are not stingy, whether it be in terms of calories consumed, laughs shared, stories listened to or percentages tipped. Lunch, like life, is an act of generosity.
Third, lunch is about companionship. Even if you are eating alone, you should treat yourself like someone that you actually care about. Think of a fast food place with mechanical lightning fast service, with cramped plastic seats and plastic trays and plastic food. Proper lunch should be the opposite of that.
Ultimately, it all boils down to the 3 C’s- conviviality, companionship, commensality- words that are now so conceptually foreign and outmoded that I bet you had to look that last one up in the dictionary.
At a proper lunch what you eat is largely incidental, although I would say that good manners dictate that you get stuck in if your companion wants to strap on a feed bag, and that you should keep concerns about your diet to yourself. Just fast off the excess the next day like a Mediterranean.
So the proper lunch is like the kind of thing that is practiced by worldly tourists on holiday. But it’s just a mindset really, a way of orienting yourself in the world. You can and should act like a curious, open-minded tourist in your own city. At all times.
In the same way that the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge occurs once he realises that he can live everyday as if it’s Christmas, so does the redemption of the working stiff occur when he realises that he or she can act at lunchtime the same way as they would in the Mezzogiorno. Or at least they can try to get a little closer to that ideal.
Lunch In The Time Of Corona
If you’re a regular reader you will see that the standard structure is once again emerging. First we introduce a quotidian phenomenon, then we say how it has gone to hell (we generally blame smartphones or Silicon Valley or the Protestant Work Ethic) and then we wrap up with the redemptive third act which concludes by arguing that the seismic year of 2020 may ultimately lead to the quotidian phenomenon changing for the better.
And so it goes.
Now, as the pandemic is ongoing as I write this I won’t give you my opinion on my governments response to it all. Time will tell. And besides I’m as much of an epidemiologist as I am an astronaut. What do I know?
But I will say this- I did like the spirit of the ‘eat out to help out’ policy. Half off restaurant lunches Monday to Wednesday, with the government picking up the rest of the tab. It seemed a humane gesture because lunch with its 3 C’s is a very humane thing. In fact it was at a steak house with my parents and my siblings that I first hit upon the idea for this little piece.
Biting into a piece of ribeye and taking a sip of weekday early afternoon wine (which always has the same mildly transgressive thrill as I used to get from skipping classes to go and play pool) I realised that life was good. That everything was going to be okay in the end.
That in spite of everything life goes on and you have to enjoy it while you can.
And that’s how a good lunch should make you feel.
Until next time,
Thanks as always for reading. It’s hugely appreciated. In these screen-mediated times it is easy to forget that there is a real life person at the other end of this newsletter, giving up a few minutes of their free time to read my words. I am grateful for you doing this.
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My perennial bugbear the smartphone is the ruination of being present. It always offers the possibility of temporarily transporting yourself elsewhere, even if that elsewhere is merely the Matrix