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.

Christopher Reid: The Song of Lunch

(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
laminated card,
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?


  1. Great post. Lovely!

    And for any of your readers who live in London, Christopher Reid is down with the kids at a Reclaim the Sonnet evening tomorrow, Saturday 18th, at Lemon Monkey Cafe in Stoke Newington.

    Fourteen poets will read one or at most two sonnets each against the soundtrack of clinking glasses and beer bottles, and the sight, through the plateglass window, of the bendy buses coming round the corner from Church St – for one second they look as if they’re coming in to run down the reader!

    Read the rest of the line-up on my blog; I’m very much hoping Christopher will be one of the people who read the full two.

    6.30 for a 7pm start, admission is free. The address is 188 Stoke Newington High St.

    And you’ve sold me on CB Editions, they also look wonderful.

    1. Can’t you get the Beeb to film it for those of us who won’t be able to make it? ..or UTube it? Maybe they can capture what must be a spontaneous, informal, cosy ambiance one might expect in a cafe, as opposed to a staged or ‘studioed’ version.

      1. Sorry Avid admirer, Ms Baroque’s post was made back in July 2009, when I first posted this review, so it’s much too late to film it now! (Unless she did so at the time. Ms Baroque…?)

  2. Very well put, john; I agree entirely. I read Reid’s “Katerina Brac” only last year and loved it, so when I saw/heard about this one I ordered straight away from CB’s website (actually, I wrote and sent a cheque, but it comes to the same thing). I was not disappointed by The Song of Lunch.

    It’s fresh in form, ideas, and the style of its layout and typography. No titles: a new section per page. And the narrative is constantly engaging without ever being obvious as to where the story will end up. Yet within that slim volume the character of the unnamed editor is subtley allowed to change throughout the course(s) of the lunch.

    A different sort of book from a different sort of publisher. And yes, those soft manilla covers are so much better than the harsh yellow that is suggested on various websites.

  3. Thanks John. I also have Katerina Brac which I look forward to reading soon.

    Since reading The Song of Lunch I’ve ordered a few more titles from CB Editions so I hope to cover more of their stuff here in the future.

  4. Oh, well done the Beeb, again. Unbeatable! Well, well, well; lunch song. I even gave up Tricks to watch it (thank goodness for iPlayer. What is there to say except ‘excellent’. What an absolute treat – narrative, poetry that’s not in your face, drama, small screen, almost a homage to Love Actually – spin-off sequal even?

    LA is another work of clever art on the moving screen I also hold dear to my heart. Just like the latter, TSoL is one to watch over and over as the plot reveals how he is a total antonym to all she is – they’re worlds apart. As for the once jolly waiter now sat crumbling in the corner – well that surely is a day of reckoning giving him another almighty knock, to look ahead and see what might follow if he doesn’t get his act together.

    What lovely, accessible use of present tense and continuous verbs – in the ‘now’. The viewer travels with this man through this mini journey that he goes through, as he hears what alludes to a wake up call whilst up on the roof, wallowing in a haze of drunken self-pity.

    And now I find myself on Self’s virtual shelf site with lots of other titles that derive curiosity. A copy of TSoL poem will def land on my shelf.

    Having said that though, I’m still looking, in great vain it seems, for a read comparable to Pi by Van what’s his name. Now that was, is, an amazing page turner – so.., so intense; panoramic; vastly scenic – I’m still waiting for the screened version. Why hasn’t any one done it yet? Hollywood, and/or who ever, wake up! I was nearly sea-sick on that choppy sea and sweltered in that salty heat, stuck with that big cat on the boat! Aah Pondicherry. The place is as pretty as it sounds (or so it looks on internet picts, and I’m sure it is.) Pi took me to another part of the world and into, what could only be at times, the delirious mind of a starved soul lost at sea. A truely magical mystery tour. Now that is a book that is certainly worth a second, and a third, read. Now where did I……….

  5. just watched The Song for Lunch…. brilliant poem, brilliantly dramatised… it makes a huge change from the mundane that BBC is so guilty of providing in drama. Thank you Christopher Reid and those in the beep who had the insight to lead rather than follow the independents and their definition of entertainment.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Avid admirer and rahinaqh. This post has been viewed literally thousands of times since June when the TV adaptation was announced, and you’re the only two people to actually have commented on it!

    I watched the show and enjoyed it too.

    Avid admirer, if you’re looking for something you’ll enjoy as much as Life of Pi, I can definitely recommend you don’t turn to Yann Martel’s latest novel, Beatrice and Virgil. It’s pretty bad.

    Let me suggest a little book you might like, Avid admirer: Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice. I haven’t reviewed it here (I read it before I started this blog) but it’s unusual, moving and not as well known as it should be.

    1. Brilliant. Have just watched this on ABC Catch Up in Australia. Missed its brief appearance first time around. Truly wonderful use of words and exquisite delivery by Alan Rickman with all that he brings, timing, nuance, humour. Lovely to see he and Emma Thompson again together.

  7. Just watched “Song for Lunch”. I was transfixed by the poem and its imagery. I was mesmerised by Alan Rickman reading and acting it. Had you asked me what a dramatisation of a narrative poem was I wouldn’t have known what you were talking about. Also, I have never read a poem in my life. That’s all changed now. I am truly moved.

  8. I love Song for lunch. Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson were good in equal parts. Hope there is going to be more of these kind of dramatistion. Excellent.

  9. yes. it was grand as grand, as we say oop north.
    but it was also profoundly unsettling. rickman’s protagonist magnificently evoked the failures in ther memories of the watcher. he could not even keep himself sober. unsettling? harrowing might be a more apt description.
    but a splendid piece of television.

  10. I’ve just finished watching the movie on youtube, but I can’t find anywhere on the net the poem…please, can you send me, so I can read it? regards from Romania, Joanna 😀

  11. Sorry Joanna, you’ll have to buy it! It’s within copyright, so it can’t be distributed without the author or publisher’s permission. You can buy it here with free delivery to Romania, or of course as an ebook!

      1. Massimo: the former owner of the Italian restaurant, a one-time cheerfully proud man with his “pirate-crew” of waiters, now reduced to a “husk of life / without sap, without savour”, sat in one corner with all his memories of how things once were, his purpose there now as redundant as his name.

        I hope this is helpful. Perhaps in the TV version his relevance is easy to miss. Not so in the book, though all the words are the same.

  12. “Song of Lunch” is mesmerizing – both the poetry and Alan Rickman’s interpretation. Mesmerizing and devastating. I’ve had one of those lunches (after nearly 20 years) and although it went a little better, it was still emotionally overwhelming. Christopher Reid certainly captured the experience.

    Massimo mean ‘maximum’ or maybe ‘pinnacle’ or ‘culmination’, so what to make of Reid’s use in the poem? Was the speaker’s highest achievement in the past, the Massimo of memory? Sad moment in one’s life to recognize that the best is in the past and the Massimo of the parchment skin is a ghost of what was. As ‘she’ points out, ‘he’ didn’t even understand the meaning of his own poetry.

    I think there are people who are open to introspection and others who resist, I don’t think this is a poem/film for the resistant.

    1. Davanna,
      All the words spoken in the TV adaptation are exactly the same as those in the book. I heard somewhere the author requested that the film-makers add no new words for their version, and they chose not to remove any either. So the book can be read (in a way) as a script, with the lines apportioned to each actor fairly obvious from the poem’s layout, with Alan Rickman taking the much larrger share in any case. Hope that helps.

  13. Ok well a lot of BBC material gets to Australian TV some time after it appears in the UK so this post will seem out-of-date. Saw Song of Lunch two nights ago (25/09/2012) and I was impressed by the acting and the production in general above all it was the transformation of the poem into a visual experience that blew me away.

  14. Happened to catch Rickman/Thompson thanks to a broad TiVo net for their names. How lovely they are and how lovely your write-up of the poem. Now it is clear—I need to buy a copy.
    Thank you

  15. And, can’t quite leave it there with a last comment from 2013 – it is 2014 and the movie has just made it to New Zealand on a tiny channel that no one watches – and I’m absolutely loving it. Brings back so many memories of disastrous dalliances in back street Soho restaurants – putting the everyday experiences of a thousand failed love affairs into poetry. I will go and order a copy of the book in my local bookshop tomorrow. Perhaps two. Genius.

  16. Poignant to chance on this wonderful little film now, and then look back for reviews… Thank you.

    For anyone who may have missed it.

  17. Hi. I just watched the short film based on this book. I was blown away by the poetry/narration. Your review is right on the money, and beautifully written, as well. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s