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Lunch With the FT—52 Classic Interviews, Edited by Lionel Barber, Penguin/Portfolio, 338 pages, Rs 799
Lunch With the FT—52 Classic Interviews, Edited by Lionel Barber, Penguin/Portfolio, 338 pages, Rs 799

Book Review | Lunch With the FT

A selection of the finest of the most global lunches of our times

Eat, pay, write

There’s no such thing as a free lunch—especially when a journalist insists on picking up the tab.

In 1994, the Financial Times newspaper started its now-famous “Lunch with the FT" series, ostensibly fuelled by a desire “to rediscover the art of conversation in a convivial setting", as Lionel Barber, the editor of the paper, put it.

The idea was to have a journalist, who could also be a freelance writer not on FT’s payroll, spend an hour or two chatting with a celebrity, over a good meal and a few glasses of alcohol, in an ambience conducive to “insights and the occasional indiscretion" (in Barber’s words), all expenses paid by the FT. The challenge was to strike a balance between a work lunch and mildly inebriated chatter, to create a social intercourse that would be polite without precluding any prickly questions.

But the inaugural lunch, with chef-cum-restaurateur Marco Pierre White—described by his interviewer as “the wild man of English cooking"—ended on an unexpected note, with the guest rejecting the FT’s offer to pay for the meal at one of his own restaurants, a venue that had been chosen by him. Apart from such rare exceptions, the FT’s “editorial independence" has remained sacrosanct for the past 19 years, for over more than 800 lunches, “featuring presidents, playwrights, tycoons, film-stars, monks and more than the occasional oddball" from across the globe.

Lunch With the FT: 52 Classic Interviews brings together a selection of the finest of these encounters with people from various walks of life. Apart from the who’s who from the worlds of art, business, politics and sports, there are curiosities grouped under “Poachers and Gamekeepers"—Martin McGuinness, the Irish Sinn Féin politician; General Rosso José Serrano, former head chief general of the Colombian police; and the gorgeous Ksenia Sobchak, “who has transformed herself from Russia’s Kim Kardashian to an activist".

There is eccentricity galore, endless fuss over the selection of food and drinks, and a few rather odd surprises.

After a particularly jolly lunch with poet Gavin Ewart, during which the alcohol had flowed a little too freely, the interviewer, Nigel Spivey, received a call from Mrs Ewart the next day. The first thing she wanted to say to Spivey was that her husband had returned home from the lunch happier than she had seen him in a long time. “The second (thing)—and you are not to feel bad about this —is that he died this morning."

Although such an outcome is more of an exception than the norm, the FT lunches generally tend to be epic. To begin with, some priceless one-liners roll off the tongues of the galaxy of hugely entertaining guests, especially after adequate quantities of alcohol have been consumed. “The menu is very pig-oriented," novelist Martin Amis says gravely after inspecting the spread at Odette’s, a posh restaurant in London’s Primrose Hill.

Lunch with “the world’s first supermodel", Twiggy Lawson, begins with Mara, the proprietor of San Lorenzo’s, announcing gleefully that she had first met her celebrated guest when the latter was just a girl of 16, sitting “at that table over there" and “wearing fox". To which her famous client quips, “No, I think it was a raccoon."

But it’s not all idle chatter. There are profound exchanges with statesmen, economists, policymakers. Speaking of the greatness of true art, painter David Hockney says of a Rembrandt: “It doesn’t shout ‘art’ immediately. It shouts humanity first."

Anatoly Chubais, the man “who privatised Russia, ran Kremlin for Boris Yeltsin and is commonly ranked among the dozen most influential men in the country", betrays a reckless candour. “If the country had not paid this small blood in 1993, it would have paid huge blood in the next two or five or ten years," he says, defending Yeltsin’s decision to shoot at the Russian parliament with tanks when it challenged his authority.

Pearls of worldly wisdom are dispensed now and then. Henri de Castries, CEO of the global investment and insurance group AXA, explains: “When two people are supposedly on bad terms and want to show the world they are speaking to each other, they come here (to Laurent, a restaurant in Paris)—half an hour later it is in the press."

And of course, there is no dearth of hubris. Speaking on the eve of the 2004 US presidential elections, Sean “P. Diddy" Combs, the rapper, claims to have the power to influence voters. “If I endorse a candidate right now…the race would probably be over," he tells James Harding, his lunch companion, in a semi-serious tone.

It’s not just the glittering array of characters, of various ethnicities, political affiliations and ideologies, or the intimate details of the food and setting that make the FT lunches so memorable. Rather, these brief encounters are like little islands of attention in a world dominated increasingly by gadgets and social media, of dwindling attention span and relentless distraction from things that make the business of life so satisfying—such as a hearty meal with an interesting fellow human being.

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