David Behrens: Hangover from long hours culture called time on the boozy lunch

A visitor buys a drink during the Great British Beer Festival in London
A visitor buys a drink during the Great British Beer Festival in London
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I DON’T remember the last time I went for a boozy business lunch, and it’s not because the alcohol has affected my memory. I am among the millions of office dwellers for whom the lunchtime ritual consists of little more than showering crumbs from a sandwich or last night’s leftovers onto an already encrusted keyboard.

How did this happen? After everything for which our forefathers campaigned, how did we collectively to surrender the right to down tools for an hour at one o’clock and pop off to the pub?

I’m mulling this over now because this month marks the 30th anniversary of the change to the licensing laws which allowed them to remain open through the afternoon.

Until then, the working day was defined for many of us by the 
opening and closing hours of our local haunt. It was a general rule of thumb that the afternoon did not begin until 3.15pm – chucking out time – and 
the that the morning ended as early as the work permitted. On a particularly busy day, it might not be until five to three.

But the 1988 Act did away with all that. No more need for a crafty lock-in by a compliant landlord while no-one was looking; now we could drink all afternoon, if the boss was paying.

Younger colleagues appear incredulous when tales of last orders in the middle of the afternoon are recounted, yet they were as much a part of daily life as ashtrays in the office, and there was an entire sub-culture of members’ clubs whose licences allowed them to serve drinks at the unearthly hour of 4pm. Arthur Daley’s Winchester Club immortalised such dens, but there was one in every city. The Lithuanian Club in Bradford – “the Lith” – had a clientele that seemed to consist almost entirely of journalists and middle-ranking detectives.

But it was a disappearing world. It was also around 1988 that the personal work ethic espoused by Margaret Thatcher began to overtake the institutionalised schedule of clocking in and clocking out. The window of opportunity to go day-drinking increased in inverse proportion to the time available to actually leave the office – an irony lost on many of us at the time.

It’s not just lunchtimes that work has eaten away in the years since. The relentless discharge of emails and texts at all hours has done for the working day what the Licensing Act did for opening times. No one is ever closed for business now.

It’s not like this in France – not because they’re always on strike but because there are measures in place to protect employees from after-work calls and messages. The Government there has introduced le droit à la déconnexion, the right to disconnect, when the office day is done. Refusing a phone call out of hours is a privilege enshrined in law.

Italy and Germany have similar regulations. Why did no one mention this two years ago when we voted not to invoke any more laws from Europe?

Our own 1988 Act, and the one which followed in 2003 under Tony Blair, was supposed to help protect the licensed trade by extending its business hours. It certainly legitimised the over-indulgent binges that spill on to the streets of every town in the hours past midnight – but the industry as a whole appears more hungover than ever.

This was a paradox illustrated the other day by the news that 18 pubs a week are shutting their doors for good. According to the Campaign for Real Ale, there have been 476 closures in the first six months of this year alone, and that can’t be ascribed solely to the death of the office lunch.

It is not as though pubs haven’t adapted with the times. I don’t think I ever stepped into one before my teens; children never did. And it was unusual to be served food, save for stale cheese baps in glass cabinets full of flies.

“It’s after two so we’ve no more sandwiches,” was the background music to many a lunchtime.

Purists may differ, but I prefer the pubs of today, with their all-day breakfasts, fish platters with a choice of peas, and menus for children. We’ve come a long way since the Lith.

The Campaign for Real Ale’s report was published on Tuesday, the first day of its Great British Beer Festival in London, which, I noticed, remained open all afternoon. I hope they were able to get enough time out of the office to enjoy it.