The days of leisurely French déjeuners are under threat, says Tom Hodgkinson
The ultimate Stoic song must be “Moonshadow” by the great Cat Stevens. In this lovely tune, Cat takes positive thinking to the point of absurdity. If he ever loses his eyes, he says cheerfully, the good thing is that he won’t have to cry no more. If he loses his legs, it means he won’t have to walk no more. And if he loses his mouth, well, he won’t have to undergo that wearisome business of talking no more.
But the first example he uses is losing his land and his plough and his hands. The upside of this disaster, he says, is that he won’t have to work no more, and I’ve thought about these lines each time I’ve had to cancel something over the last year, or had something cancelled on me. Yes, there is initial disappointment, but then perhaps a tiny sense of relief. I won’t have to go to Glastonbury no more. I won’t have to drive down the M4 to see friends no more. I won’t have to go through the effort of putting on a series of events at a festival no more. In short: cancelling means less work. Don’t get me wrong – I love Glastonbury and I love putting on events and seeing friends – but it’s nice to rest at home as well. After all, pre-lockdown we used to complain about having to do too much. So it would be properly Stoic now not to moan and grumble about not having to do anything.
I do find it hard, however, to see a positive side to the news that the French have officially declared lunch to be dead. They’re planning to scrap their laudable “no eating lunch at your desk” rule. Till fairly recently a two-hour lunch was the norm, and it was done in company. The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote many years ago that there was no sadder sight in Paris than to see someone eating lunch alone. And I remember in the Nineties, during a short career as an absinthe importer, having lunch with some provincial French businessmen who were going to be manufacturing our absinthe. We arrived at their office at noon and were immediately taken for lunch, which began with wine and ended with brandy. On and on it went. When it got to four o’clock we asked whether we might perhaps go back to the office and conclude our business. The French businessmen looked at us and laughed. “Travailler moins, produire plus!” they shouted. The less you work, the more you produce.
Well lately President Macron has attacked this laid-back Gallic Taoism and is urgently trying to put in its place a dismal utilitarian work ethic. In 2017 he declared: “Je ne céderai rien, ni aux fainéants, ni aux cyniques, ni aux extrêmes,” which I would roughly translate as: “I will yield nothing to the idlers or the Cynics, or the extremists.”
We can see the murder of lunch – brought in under cover of Covid – as the latest victory in Macron’s war against the old France. This battle reminds me a little of Lenin’s ferocious hatred of what he called “Oblomovism” – the fatalistic attitude of old Russia which was summed up in Ivan Goncharov’s lovely 1859 novel about a man, the eponymous Oblomov, who can’t really see the point in doing anything.
But we sense that the nonchalance of the French will never disappear, despite Macron’s attacks.
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You’ve reminded me suddenly of this, by the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire:
My room’s shaped like a cage
Puts his arm right through the window
But I, who wish to smoke and dream
use it to light my cigarette
I don’t want to work, I want to smoke
[Ed writes: Fine lines, and reused to great effect in “Sympathique” by Pink Martinis]
When it comes back, will it be a repast?
Lengthy lunches involving wine and cheese are just in their blood, Tom. So I’m sure regardless of what Monsieur Macron says the French will come out of lockdown with their lunches still intact. C’est la vie!
“Moonshadow” is one of my favourite songs. I used to perform it at get-togethers while at University, including a semester in Paris, along with “Wild World”. Cat Stevens inspired me to grow my first beard. This has brought on happy memories of many good times, and many great lunches.
Watch our interview with French philosopher Ollivier Pourriol, author of The French Art of Not Trying Too Hard, here