The Diary: John Lanchester

I love London in the rare parts of the year when it’s quiet, and no time is more reliably quiet than the week between Christmas and New Year. In fact, large parts of the city are so empty that it’s a little mysterious: where is everybody? They can’t all have relatives in the country, or second homes abroad, or be staying in hotels in Goa, can they?

The answer, I suppose, is that anyone who’s staying at home is doing exactly that: hunkering down indoors. This used to generate an intense, nationwide atmosphere of claustrophobia – a “monstrous hiatus”, as an old colleague of mine called it – as the year draws to a close. Now, though, more things are open, so it’s a great moment to do something that would normally be off-puttingly busy, or would require so much advance planning that you feel tired just thinking about it.

Example: the “Rain Room” at the Barbican Centre. I’ve repeatedly heard that this piece is (a) amazing, and (b) subject to two-hour queues. That’s a long wait for an experience that only lasts for five minutes, so a while ago I made a cunning plan: I’d wait for the Rain Room to reopen in the dead days after Christmas, and then drag my family along. We’d get there just as it was opening and waltz straight in.

It was a good idea. Unfortunately, it was such a good idea that lots of other people had had it too. By the time we arrived at the Barbican, about 30 minutes after the 11am opening, instead of waltzing into the Rain Room, we waltzed into the end of a queue that was already three hours long. “People have been waiting since two hours before it opened,” the young woman managing the queue said cheerfully. “I’d come back another day if I were you.” This advice succeeded in putting us off but large numbers of art-lovers were still joining the line as we gave up and left.

. . .

Luckily, we had a plan B. About 10 minutes’ walk from the Barbican is Polpo Smithfield, the easternmost of Russell Norman’s small-plate Italian restaurants. These operate a no-booking policy but my calculation was that getting there just as they opened on one of the quietest days of the year would guarantee no wait. This time I was right. Lunch was a great success. I particularly liked the fact that when our 10-year-old asked for cheese on his meatballs, he was offered a choice of Parmesan or cheddar. As it happens, he loves cheddar and won’t eat Parmesan, so this small point made a big difference to lunch.

The no-booking thing is everywhere. A number of the coolest new restaurants in London won’t let you book – Norman’s restaurants, the Pitt Cue barbecue place, the Meat Liquor burger place, the great soba noodle joint Koya. In general, I’m against this, and it feels a little like a subtle form of age discrimination. Nobody over the age of, say, 40 or 45 is going to queue for more than half an hour for a restaurant table. So a no-bookings policy skews the demographic younger and, perhaps, a bit more malleable. It fits with the increasing importance to restaurants of social networking: people tweet from the queue or the bar (which in turn generates a great deal of the restaurant’s profit).

My friends in the industry all deny this and say age has nothing to do with it: from their point of view, the main issue is to do with cost. This policy lets them keep busy, which in turn lets them keep prices down.

But there’s a subtler thing it does, too, which I came across online while looking up Polpo Smithfield’s address. Norman gave an interview where he said he didn’t want Polpo to be a “destination restaurant”, partly because of what he had seen when he worked at the Ivy: people made a booking three months in advance and then, when they got there, even though they had good food and a good time, “They still think, ‘Is that it?’ ” The build-up causes expectations to rise so high that they become unfulfillable.

This subject has been on my mind this year because I’ve just done a two-year stint as a restaurant critic. (I know – it’s tough, but somebody’s got to do it.) There were a number of occasions when I sat down to write a positive review of somewhere and wondered whether I was doing them a good turn or helping to create exactly this kind of expectation crisis. One place I loved, Dabbous, had wall-to-wall raves from the critics. In November, a friend called to book a table for two at lunch, and was told their first availability was in May. It must be close to impossible to live up to the expectations created by that kind of build-up. So my dislike of no-bookings policies is intact but I can see that there’s another side to the argument.

. . .

Maybe expectations were my problem with The Hobbit. I’m a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies – I went to all three of them on the day they opened, and have seen all of them several times since. I was super-keen on the thought of the new movies and have been looking forward to them for, literally, years. But the new film was a real let-down, so much so that I came out of the theatre feeling a little depressed.

Over the holiday, I reread the book and think I’ve diagnosed what’s wrong with the movie. To make three films out of one shortish book, they have to turn it into an epic, just as Lord of the Rings is an epic. But The Hobbit isn’t an epic: its tone is intimate and personal, and although it’s full of adventures and excitement, they’re on a different scale to those of the bigger book. For instance, there’s a moment when Bilbo Baggins, the hero, comes around from a bump on the head to find himself entirely on his own, in pitch darkness, miles underground, with no idea where he is or what to do. It’s a brilliantly real moment of complete abandonment and disorientation, on a believably individual scale. This section of the movie, though, is dominated by a huge, sprawling, semi-comic battle between dwarfs and goblins. The tone couldn’t be more different.

Also, to make three movies with the Thorin and his fellow dwarfs as central characters, they have had to be made into heroes. But Tolkien explicitly says otherwise. “There it is: dwarfs are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent people like Thorin and company, as long as you don’t expect too much.”

That makes them seem very real, and not at all heroic. I wonder which industry they’d be working in, in London today?

John Lanchester’s most recent novel ‘Capital’ (Faber) is out in paperback

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