Tuesday 20 September 2011

The Hann Perspective: In Defence of the Business Lunch

According to Kingsley Amis, who knew a thing or two about English, the most depressing words in the language are “Shall we go straight in?” Uttered on arrival at a club or restaurant, to suggest that lunch might be commenced without one or more appetite-enhancing and conversation-stimulating alcoholic sharpeners.

Sir Kingsley Amis

Evelyn Waugh, as I recall, suffered a similar sinking feeling when asked “red or white?”, implying that the table was not to be graced with an ample sufficiency of both, doubtless followed by something sticky to accompany pudding.

We must consider it a mercy that neither of these great writers lived long enough to observe what has become of the British business lunch in 2011. So you will just have to make do with me.

I am perhaps unusual in having embarked on a City career less because I cared about money and more because I really enjoyed a first class lunch. True, I was initially dazzled by the wealth of the partners at the stockbroking firm where I started work. But I soon realised that this had nothing to do with their professional endeavours. They had simply inherited tons of the stuff, and did not have the intellectual resources to fill their days without going to an office and losing some of their cash on dodgy share tips.

Stockbrokers' annual sports day

But they certainly knew how to put on a good lunch. I have fond memories of the chief executive of one major British business falling over backwards in his chair towards the end of a well-lubricated discussion with his shareholders. Though it was not this mishap that prevented my colleagues from following my earnest (and, for once, accurate) recommendation to pile into the company’s shares.

“We couldn’t possibly, Keith. Didn’t you see? The chap’s a wrong un. He was wearing brown shoes with a grey suit.”

It was on such laughable principles that the City of London operated in the long-gone days of gentlemanly capitalism, when stockbrokers and stockjobbers were hereditary asylums for less intelligent younger sons and everything stopped for a three-hour lunch, after which it might well be prudent not to return to the office.

Then came “Big Bang” 25 years ago, the end of so many of the City’s quirky traditions and the entry of American and European investment banks. This brought a massive extension of working hours and the rapid erosion of the business lunch. By now working in financial PR, I made it my mission to try and keep the keep the flame alive.

Partly because, like many Englishmen, I start out with the handicap of being at least two units of alcohol below par. That is what it takes to kick-start my still limited abilities in the field of small talk. Similarly, I have always found sharing a bottle of wine over a decent lunch invaluable in building and sustaining good relationships between business leaders, commentators and financiers.

But along comes Gordon Gekko pronouncing that “lunch is for wimps” and soon everyone wants to spend their short midday break in the gym. Forcing the PR man to lower his aspirations to engineering a quick and inevitably dull meeting over a cup of coffee. Decaffeinated for preference, obviously.

Gordon Gekko

Now you might say “And a good thing, too,” bearing in mind the well-publicised risks to health from alcohol. Yet there is no evidence that the demise of the traditional business lunch has done anything to reduce Britain’s ever-increasing overall booze intake.

And you might consider it hypocritical to argue that chief executives should be enjoying a glass or two of wine during the working day when their HR departments would no doubt descend like the proverbial ton of bricks on any junior employee who returned to the office the worse for wear.

I, too, accept that there are sensible limits. I would not want to receive the professional attentions of a heart surgeon or taxi driver who had sunk the best part of a bottle of wine before arriving at their place of work.

But at the higher levels of business, finance, the media and politics, I remain firmly convinced that the old-fashioned extended lunch was a force for good. Would newspapers have needed to hack so many mobile phones in the days when they could gently persuade people to blurt out their secrets over a few glasses of Chassagne Montrachet and a nicely grilled Dover sole?

And what did the sober, gym-honed, working-all-hours bankers of the twenty-first century bring us? The sub-prime mortgage crisis and the near (and possibly yet to come) collapse of the entire global financial system.

Instead of being chained to their desks dreaming up ever-more bafflingly complex financial products, they would surely be much more safely employed sitting in restaurants browsing and sluicing in the humane and civilised company of entrepreneurs, executives, journalists and PR advisers.

Keith Hann is a PR consultant who feels that the old ways were often best

Originally published in nebusiness magazine, The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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