July 17, 2009
Christopher Reid: The Song of Lunch
[Note: the review below refers to the CB Editions publication of this book. It has now been reissued by Faber to tie in with the TV adaptation starring Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson]
Last year I wrote about Gert Hofmann’s extraordinary last book, Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl. It’s published in the UK by CB Editions, and since then I’ve been keeping an eye on their site for other titles I might like. Then recently I saw a poem by Christopher Reid on Faber’s excellent 52 weeks 52 poems widget (Reid was poetry editor of Faber from 1999 until 2007), and found that his latest book was published by CB Editions. Serendipity in action.
(I am pleased to report, too, that CB’s books are much more handsome in person than they appear on their website. This volume is a slim, narrow paperback, with stiff covers in smooth buff card and yellow endpapers.)
The Song of Lunch is a nostalgic narrative poem, telling the story of a publishing editor who has lunch with an old flame in a Soho restaurant. It will be seen by some as too cosy and insular, speaking of a world well described in literature and known to few outside that world; but I found it seductive, amusing and even touching.
Reid is a fellow of the Martian school of poetry, headed up by his old tutor Craig Raine (Raine’s magazine Areté is the publisher of Reid’s other recent book, A Scattering, which explores his grief on the death of his wife). So he has no shortage of ‘poetic’ imagery (“his trusty blue pen / can snooze with its cap on” … “the lift yawns emptily”) but initially it’s his portraits of people which impress most. Our unnamed editor steps out of the office into the Soho streets (with their “acres of cottage architecture”) and imagines its “literary ghosts”:
And there goes T.S. Eliot,
bound for his first martini of the day.
With his gig-lamps and his immaculate sheen,
he eases past you like a limousine:
a powerful American model.
This sets off thoughts alternately wistful and angry about the death of the culture he knows (“the speciality food shops / pushed out of business, / tarts chased off the streets, / and a new kind of trashiness / moving in: / cultureless, fly-by-night”). And while this is nothing more than an ageing man resenting being pushed out of the way by the next generation, it’s hard not to sympathise – particularly if you have sufficient affection for that past to want to read the book in the first place. “Seriously, though, / what will they say when they look back / at our demythologised age? // Postmodern Times: / garrulous, garish classic / starring // some idiot off the box.”
This fogeyism becomes more affecting when he enters his old Italian haunt, Zanzotti’s, and finds it under new management, and changed, without even the red, white and green tablecloths on the tables:
The very table linen
has lost its patriotism.
Plain white: we surrender.
And this menu, this twanging
big as a riot policeman’s shield?
Once he meets his old ‘friend’, the unsatisfying disparity between past and present becomes all the more pronounced. The Song of Lunch is a lament, expressing regret for what has been and can no longer be, as well as what should never really have been in the first place, such as our hero’s belief in his own long-dead poetry collection. And it’s not difficult to presume Reid’s own experiences are reflected to some extent in this vigorous rant on the current state of the publishing industry, inspired by an innocent question by his companion about how work is…
It’s an ordinary day
in a publishing house
of ill repute.
Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy
and writing-course prose.
Abracadabra, kick it up the arse -
and out it goes
to be Book of the Week
or some other bollocks.
What a fraud. What a farce.
And tomorrow: who knows
which of our geniuses
will escape from the zoo
and head straight for us
with a new masterpiece
lifeless in his jaws.
That’s about the size of it.
What about you?
Still, if the parlous state of mainstream publishing means that small presses like CB Editions can arrive and thrive, giving us delights like this, then really, what’s to complain about?