I have just drunk three-quarters of a bottle of red wine for lunch, all on my own. It is not something I ever do nowadays, though there was once a time when I did it quite regularly in the company of other journalists. But I did it today because, having been asked to write about the rise and fall of the liquid lunch, I was in nostalgic mood.
In London's Fleet Street, in the old days by which I mean up to about 20 years ago drinking at lunchtime was prodigious. Three-quarters of a bottle per person would not have been considered a lot. Even two bottles would have been thought unexceptional. And while journalists were probably the heaviest drinkers among London's white-collar workers, they were not alone in liking a bibulous midday meal. Bankers and businessmen, publishers and authors, politicians and civil servants all shared this weakness in varying degrees.
Now, of course, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in any profession in Britain let alone in more abstemious countries who orders more than a Diet Coke or a bottle of mineral water at lunchtime; anyone taking even a single glass of wine with his meal can expect disapproving looks. So shocking has the idea of the liquid lunch become that one wonders how it could ever have existed.
Part of the answer lies in the very different attitude people used to have toward work. Until Margaret Thatcher came along, work was widely regarded in privileged circles as a burdensome necessity to be avoided if at all possible, and the liquid lunch was a way of expressing this view. In one of his New Cautionary Tales, published in 1930, Hilaire Belloc made the point entertainingly when he satirized the plight of a young spendthrift who, having ruined his parents by extravagance, is forced to earn his living by taking a job in a firm of stockbrokers.
And even now, at twenty-five,
He has to WORK to keep alive!
Yes! All day long from 10 till 4!
For half the year or even more;
With but an hour or two to spend
At luncheon with a City friend.
The late writer Auberon Waugh had a theory that people in London drank at lunch for the express purpose of making themselves incapable of work in the afternoons. Had they been sober, he argued, they would have found it difficult to avoid exercising their brains to some extent.
People did, however, like to claim that lunches fueled by alcohol were a necessary part of their jobs. Journalists and diplomats in particular would insist that they were the key to loosening tongues and obtaining information. One legendary luncher was Winston Churchill's son-in-law, Christopher Soames, who as British ambassador in Paris and Vice President of the European Commission in Brussels was famous for his extravagant hospitality. His contemporaries in the diplomatic service still claim that this was crucial to his undoubted success in these roles. But a government review of diplomatic expenses in the 1970s reflected a new skepticism about the usefulness of lavish entertainment. Diplomats, it claimed, could pick up rather more information by reading the papers, listening to the radio, watching television and calling on people in their offices than by taking politicians or civil servants out to lunch. A new era of penny-pinching austerity had begun.
In journalism, the culture of booze-driven conviviality that had supported the lunchtime tradition was destroyed both by the belt-tightening imposed by newspaper managements and by the dispersal of newspaper offices away from Fleet Street to widely separated parts of London. As in diplomacy, the idea took root that lunches were an unnecessary luxury that damaged more livers than yielded scoops. And with the development of the Internet and e-mail, it was generally felt that there were cheaper and more efficient ways of obtaining information than getting people drunk at lunch.
As for the world of finance, it is now easy to see why the liquid lunch could not have survived. If London was to retain its leading position as a global financial center, it would need sharper operators. Meanwhile, Thatcher and Gordon ("Greed is good") Gekko had made the energetic pursuit of wealth not merely respectable but an obligation. It was no longer acceptable to look as if you found making money boring. A new generation was ready to work all hours in its open determination to get rich quick, and there was no room any longer in this cutthroat world for anything so leisurely as a long lunch. And finally, of course, there was the health factor. Medical propaganda had sapped the will of even the most determined bon viveur. Now dieting has become everybody's duty, and two-bottle lunches are not on any recommended diet.
Alexander Chancellor, former editor of the Spectator and the Independent Magazine, is a columnist for the Guardian