For National Poetry Day, BBC 2 offered a 50-minute dramatisation of Christopher Reid’s long narrative poem, The Song of Lunch, the interior monologue of a book editor in his mid-fifties who, 15 years after their break-up, meets an old lover for a nostalgic lunch at the Soho restaurant they used to frequent. The film starred Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, both of whom turned in excellent performances.
He leaves a message, a yellow sticky,
on the dead black
of his computer screen:
gone to lunch. I may be some time.
His colleagues won’t be seeing him
for the rest of the afternoon.
Rare joy of truancy, of bold escape
from the trap of work!
That heap of typescript can be left to dwell
on its thousand offences
against grammar and good sense;
his trusty blue pen
can snooze with its cap on;
nobody will notice.
He shuts the door on the sleeping dog
of his own departure,
hurries not too fast along the corridor,
taps the lift button, and waits.
To meet even one person
at this delicate juncture
would sully the whole enterprise.
But he’s in luck:
the lift yawns emptily,
he steps in, is enclosed
and carried downwards
to sunlight and London’s
approximation of fresh air.
With one bound he is free!
Zanzotti’s: unreformed Soho Italian.
Breadsticks you snap
with a sneeze of dust.
Red gingham cloths overlaid
on the diagonal
with plain green paper ones.
Finger smears at the neck
of the water carafe.
And Massimo himself
touring the tables
with his fake bonhomie.
But Soho itself has changed,
the speciality food shops
pushed out of business,
tarts chased off the streets,
and a new kind of trashiness
He stops for a scrawny lad
wheeling a big, unsteady,
rust-patched, festering bin
to park at the roadside,
and wonders what he will ﬁnd.
What he finds is that Zanzotti’s has changed – he is ‘eyebrowed’ to his table and handed a ‘twanging laminated card’ offering uninspiring wine and pizzas by the yard. He reflects with regretful melancholy on a failed writing career, a humdrum job, and the end of their affair.
Then Emma Thompson materialises before him, and it is clear that time’s wingèd chariot (he quotes Marvell) has been kinder to her than to him: ‘Her hair looks better behaved’. She is vibrant and confident, married to a writer, and has a settled family life in Paris, while he is crumpled, losing his bearings.
She dissects his modest volume of ‘36 wounded and weeping lyrics‘ on the theme of Orpheus seeking his lost lover Eurydice. Any hopes he had for the outcome of this rendezvous are very soon dashed. He broods and becomes self-pitying: ‘I’m out to lunch at my own lunch’. By the end, after two bottles and a grappa, he staggers off to the loo, falls asleep and wakes to find her gone.
In The Guardian, Lucy Mangan wrote:
They sit across the table, two people in search of a wavelength they once shared but never quite finding it. And it was wonderful. Every other line of the man’s interior monologue – his mineral water’s bubbles ‘mobbing up to greet him‘, the succour offered by another glass of wine ‘an insufficient bliss but repeatable later’, even the smell of the men’s toilets, ‘that jabbing kidney reek that calls all men brothers’ – made you marvel.
There was, remarkably for television and even compared to many novels, an exquisite pleasure to be gained from the words; as Alan Hollinghurst wrote in The Guardian reviewing the original book in 2009:
A tiny narrative disproportionately rich in exact observation, sorry comedy and controlled pathos. After reading Reid you start to wonder why fiction-writers bother with all the padding and padding about of prose.
Christopher Reid’s earlier book, A Scattering, inspired by his wife’s death from cancer, won the Costa Book Prize back in January. He has said of The Song Of Lunch:
I wrote The Song Of Lunch after I’d finished A Scattering, largely a book about the death of my wife. I loved the scene in Ulysses where Joyce picks through the minutiae of a pub, and thought I could do the same for lunch. As I wrote it, it became clear I was rewriting the Orpheus legend, that it was a poem about death, about failing to bring anyone back to life.
full of hope, despair, regret, drunkenness, verbal dexterity, but above all, humour. The humour of life, of the absurd.
But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
– Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress
- 52 Poems: a poem a week from Faber, Christopher Reid’s publisher
- Christopher Reid: a poet who was inspired by grief (Telegraph)