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Every few months I have lunch with two friends in the shadow of the journalists’ church of St Bride’s in Fleet Street, London. One gets a certain melancholy frisson walking down the former main drag of English journalism, past the splendid art deco buildings that once clanked and thrummed as printers, typesetters and journalists worked on different floors – headquarters of newspapers that have either upped sticks to more anonymous offices or disappeared altogether. Part of our purpose is to revive an almost lost tradition of the street, the somewhat open-ended and not unlubricated journalists’ lunch, remembered in the naming of one of Private Eye’s contributors as Lunchtime O’Booze.
Such lunching is now looked at askance. Even Lunch with the FT, established in 1994 with the idea of creating a convivial atmosphere, struggles to persuade chief executives and fashionistas to branch out from their low-fat yoghurt, Diet Coke and mineral water.
When I meet my friends, we have water on our table but not just water. In fact, our motto might borrow from one of Horace’s best bons mots, that nothing worth reading was ever written by drinkers of water. But, though there is wine on the table, it is not the main focus of conversation. One of the principles of these lunches is that there is no set agenda. We don’t aim to thrash out some particularly thorny problem – though there is a general sense of putting the world to rights – and we don’t know where the conversation will lead.
This open-endedness, it strikes me, is becoming increasingly rare. I’ve already commented on how the excessive use of emails, narrowing down the field of discussion in advance, can create more problems than it solves. You could see that as just one symptom of a whole world view that looks at complex realities – the universe of human relations – as sets of boxes to be ticked (or not).
In the past 10 or 12 years, two distinguished minds have had a go at analysing this worrying trend. The psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist, in his 2009 book The Master and His Emissary, spun a dark yarn of the usurping of the directly perceiving and intuiting right brain by its junior partner, the rational and representational left brain. The neurological basis of this argument, as McGilchrist himself acknowledges, may be incomplete but the narrative of a narrowed-down way of thinking, as if a rogue satnav were directing us into a techno-rational cul-de-sac, remains compelling.
Closure: A Story of Everything (2001) by Hilary Lawson, a philosopher and artist, is a bold attempt at reframing western metaphysics as the tension between openness and closure. You can quibble with details: Lawson characterises science as “driven by the search for closure” and art as “the pursuit of openness” but you could surely argue that certain kinds of art are more concerned with closure (the pursuit of formal perfection) and certain kinds of science more about openness (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle). All the same, the idea of a constant oscillation between closure and openness, neither of which can ever succeed completely, seems helpful. Lawson is not the first to use such terms; I am thinking of Rilke’s eighth Duino elegy with its extraordinary opening: “The animal gazes into openness with all its eyes. But our eyes are somehow turned around …”
In any case, I can feel the ghosts in the graveyard of St Bride’s stirring uneasily. My thoughts are moving too far into the realm of abstraction, which English journalism has always mistrusted – possibly even moving into the realm of Private Eye’s Pseud’s Corner, a graveyard of a different kind.
Lunch, especially of the open and expansive variety, has reassuring physical solidity to it – the part that is about eating good food and drinking a glass or two, as Keats says, “full of the warm South”. But, actually, lunch may have metaphysical as well as physical dimensions. One of my two friends is a distinguished journalist, of a slightly earlier vintage than mine, who was lucky enough to live and thrive through what I see (perhaps with rose-tinted spectacles) as journalism’s golden age. To give an example, he was once called in by an editor urging him to go out and have lunch more often. With the urging came an expense account of the kind contemporary hacks could only dream of.
This kind of indulgence is now routinely dismissed as belonging to a spoiled and bygone era. But what if expansive, open-ended lunching was actually more productive than the sandwich-at-the computer kind that now prevails? My friend tells me he picked up scoops from those lunches that email exchanges would never have unearthed.
And so, after exchanging our latter-day ones, I walk back down Fleet Street, refreshed in spirit as well as body.
More columns at ft.com/eyres