Why we should always make a meal of life
Daytime drinking, optional food and untold potential for mischief ... a proper long lunch is a thing of wonder, says Julie Burchill
I know it's immature - especially for someone two years short of 60 - but I've always got a kick out of doing things when I'm not supposed to do them, especially drinking. I turn my nose up at weekend boozing and scorn New Year's Eve as amateur night; this being the case, I was always going to be a sucker for lunch.
Let others wait until the working day has been virtuously completed and only then turn to Bacchus as a succour for giving of their best to the boss man; me, I've chosen to squander my best lines (both types, the tail end of the Golden Age of Expense Account Luncheon felicitously coinciding with my most extreme cocaine capers) in the smash-and-grab sunshine. There's a reason why daylight robbery sounds the most exciting.
To think there was a time when I didn't even know lunch existed. Born into an immaculately blue-collar household, I had dinner at noon and tea after school. My parents were by no means killjoys, but the idea of people, not prostitutes or criminals, going out deliberately to carouse on a weekday would have rendered them speechless with stink eye - thus I saw eating in places away from home as What Other People Did, like A-levels.
When my family went to Butlin's for the first time, I surveyed the wondrous spectacle of dozens of unrelated humans eating together in the huge canteen after being served by strangers with all the wide-eyed wonder of an urchin surveying a Versailles banquet in full swing.
When I went to work at the New Musical Express as a teenager, I could hardly contain my shock upon discovering that people from record companies were queueing up to take one out to restaurants IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY! But as a punk Roundhead, I took pleasure in denying them their cavalier requests, preferring to sulk over a soupçon of amphetamine sulphate and a snarky sandwich at my desk, sneering at my colleagues who would sell out for a sniff of The Man's scallops.
Luckily, I had no such scruples left when, after a few years of being married alive in the provinces, I was lucky enough to arrive back in London halfway through the 1980s.
These were the last days of disco for both newspapers and publishing and I found myself young, hot and courted by both; a time of "bold advances", to quote a line from the Mel & Kim song Respectable, which, along with West End Girls, played on a loop in our sumptuously sleazy playpen of choice - the revivified Soho, which was always about chancers extracting cash in return for the promise of a thrill, now translated into realms beyond the sexual.
Everywhere you went, there were people with money dangling it in front of people with none, and a lunch lasting anywhere between three and 13 hours was a good time to do it. It's hard for millennials who have grown up after the 2005 scrapping of limited drinking hours to get their soft little heads around, but us ancient ravers still remember living under the Defence of the Realm Act of 1914, one section of which restricted the hours of licensed premises from 12.00 to 14.40 and 18.30 to 21.30.
In the late-1980s, the licensing laws were relaxed and suddenly you could slake your thirst in a public place from 11 in the morning until 11 at night.
Them were the days - a bottle of Bolly, a gram of coke and a Caesar salad at the Cafe Pelican. Bouncing around from Kettner's to the Gay Hussar to the Soho Brasserie, always bumping into Jeffrey Bernard hiding from one of the publishers he owed the same book to and living off six separate advances (try that these days), it was hard for a shallow young hotshot not to recall that line from F Scott Fitz's Early Success: "Never again as during that all too short period when the fulfilled future and the wistful past were mingled in a single gorgeous moment - when life was literally a dream."
In my somewhat theoretical capacity as "political columnist" at the Mail on Sunday, I was lunched by the good (Bill Deedes), the bad (Alan Clark) and the ugly (Jeffrey Archer), often reflecting that the road to L - L'Epicure, L'Escargot and L'Equipe - was paved with good intentions.
I always preferred lunching with my mates and picking up the bill, rather than being paid for by rich men, and I always favoured a liquid lunch over the lumpy kind. The writer Suzanne Moore remembers: "We were lunching at the top of Harvey Nichols and you ordered cappuccino, Coca-Cola, champagne and vodka and then said sweetly to the surprised waitress, 'I am a water sign - I need a lot of fluid'."
Then came the dreadful day when my favourite posh publishing girl walked into the Criterion looking as if her dog had died: "She's eating a SANDWICH ... at her DESK" she wailed of Gail Rebuck, whose publishing company had recently gobbled up her own imprint. We ate a hearty lunch, but we knew the party was over. Luckily, halfway up the 1990s, I moved to Brighton, where the spree never ends, and I like to think I've done my bit to keep the spirit of the 1980s alive.
A male pal of mine once complained: "Can't you ever meet a mate for a cup of coffee without making the whole thing into a hen party?" after I suggested that a quick espresso might be improved by adding alcohol, lunch and eight additional people - and I suppose the answer is: "Not if I can help it."
My idea of heaven is a big table in a warm restaurant, the table shimmering with the laughter of friends and me picking up the tab. My favourite 1980s lunch companion, Peter York, liked to say: "The clever one talks and the rich one pays" and now I'm both - no longer the shy, impoverished little counter-jumper wondering which knife to use.
And, looking back, I can't recall the actual food at all - just the wonderful company.
That's what lunch means to me: a moveable feast of friendship, where the wine always flows and the bill never arrives.