No reservations about taking a long lunch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 October, 2010, 12:00am

The relentless assault on one of the most valuable institutions of working life continues unabated and has now reached the Hong Kong stock exchange, where plans are under way to reduce the lunch break to 90 minutes. As I write these words, I can already hear plaintive cries from those who regard a 90-minute break as an unimaginable luxury. And there will no doubt be readers who take pride in insisting that they are far too busy and far too important to waste more than a few minutes munching on lunch.

The proponents of the 'lunch-is-for-wimps' school are sadly misguided. They seem to think that effort and achievement are directly correlated with time spent doing something, as opposed to discovering the true value of their output. As for the notion of pleasure, well that's way out of bounds.

Coming from the 'lunch-is-good' camp, I fondly remember a time when lunch was sacrosanct. As a young and green journalist covering business matters in London, I was firmly instructed that lunchtime was the crucial period of the day. We were expected to spend it pounding the bars and restaurants of the city making contacts, picking up tips and, yes, eating and drinking with relish.

At these occasions, the production of a grubby notebook (we used to actually write stuff by hand in those dark ages) was generally considered to be a bit naff, and likely to reduce a dining or drinking partner to silence or reticence. The point of the lunchtime encounter was to build relationships and establish trust so that, when it came to anything as vulgar as writing a story, you could get on the phone and seek more concrete information which would later appear in print.

Relationships of this kind are not likely to flourish over the hurried consumption of a sandwich or instant noodles shovelled down at great speed in between copious text messaging and surreptitious glances at some hand-held electronic device pumping out far too much data. It may be considered terribly old-fashioned and downright naive to suggest this, but there is little substitute for talking in a relaxed atmosphere, preferably with some decent food and wine to hand.

Wine, I hear you shriek, does that mean drinking at lunchtime? Heaven forbid; we're all wonderfully sober these days. The lords of finance who brought down Lehman Brothers and caused financial devastation two years ago probably spent their lunchtimes sipping nothing stronger than a diet Coke. And, my oh my, how much better off we all are as a result.

The puritans have triumphed and instilled a distrust of good food and wine during the working day, but what do they have to show for their pyrrhic victory? Longer working hours, greater pressure, more misery - and for what? The answer is not at all clear.

In China, there may not have been lavish supplies of good food and alcohol to make the midday meal pass in a pleasant haze. But there was a strong tradition of the afternoon nap, which is now under the same kind of vicious assault that has proved so successful in abolishing the civilised lunch. The nap provided relaxation, time for reflection and an opportunity for physical and mental refreshment. It was not sloth, but the anti-nappers are in the ascendant and have put paid to this civilised practice.

So here we are in the new age of efficiency and 'superior' intelligence, driven by self-righteous abstinence and a puritan work ethic. Does this make us all happier? Are we really working better? Are we even more materially satisfied as a result? Spend a little while thinking about this, preferably over a relaxed lunch with a glass of the red stuff in hand. Just slowing down and gently contemplating these things is a start, try it - you may even enjoy it, if that's still allowed.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur