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23 July 2023

An eight-hour lunch puts the passing of time in perspective

Catching up with the cartoonist Martin Rowson provided valuable insights into friendship, satire and immortality.

By Nicholas Lezard

As promised, here is my report on my lunch with Martin Rowson. First, some context.

In April, Rowson got into a lot of trouble for drawing a cartoon in the Guardian that many people considered to be anti-Semitic. I’m sensitive to this issue and more so since discovering that I can actually call myself Jewish if I want. My authority on this is one of the features editors on the Jewish Chronicle, and that’s good enough for me. So I wrote to Martin saying: “You seem to have got yourself into a spot of bother,” going on to say that I particularly hate anti-Semitism from the left because the left should be held to higher standards etc. Rowson replied by inviting me to lunch. “On me, of course.”

[See also: My new smart meter offers more drama than anything on TV]

As it happens, we’ve known each other for over 40 years, when he was a cartoonist on the university magazine that I wrote for. Having known him for so long, I’m pretty sure I’d have spotted if he was anti-Semitic. When you get told at school that you’re “good enough for the ovens” – a phrase it is rather hard to forget – you develop antennae for this kind of thing. Also, he tells me something in confidence, which as far as I’m concerned settles the matter satisfactorily and honourably.

Anyway, lunches with Rowson are not to be taken lightly. The last time was at the Gay Hussar in Soho, central London, and after about six hours of indifferent food (“We only cooked this duck yesterday!” was a genuine boast from the kitchen back then) and lakes of slivovitz, I spotted Neil Kinnock and felt emboldened enough to put my arm round him and tell him my foolproof plan to make sure Ed Miliband won the 2015 general election. I can’t remember what the plan was now, but whatever it was Neil didn’t pass it on, with consequences we are suffering to this day.

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Since then, the Gay Hussar has gone and been replaced by an establishment called Noble Rot. The gallery of Rowson’s political caricatures that covered the downstairs wall of the restaurant is now the property of the National Portrait Gallery, but the upstairs dining room has murals painted in acrylics by him instead and is called the Martin Rowson Suite. I don’t often get the chance to dine on someone else’s dime in a room actually named after them. He talked me through the mural, a Hogarthian cavalcade of various characters in a murky but neon-lit Soho. He was very proud of the way that the blob of red-orange acrylic paint that represents the tip of Karl Marx’s cigar appears to glow when evening descends outside. “And there’s Rod Liddle,” he said. “In drag, for some reason.”

I had been a bit worried at first as Martin had told me to present myself at 12.30pm, which is practically breakfast time for me, and even worse when you factor in the travel from Brighton. And 12.30 is strongly suggestive of other places to be – “Sorry, have to dash off at two. Let’s just have the set menu. Two courses OK for you? No wine for me, I have to work in the afternoon.”

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. He hid the set menu under the real one and we started tucking in. For the last two weeks I have been living off Lee Kum Kee’s Tom Yum soup, which makes three pints of delicious soup for under two quid; more if you bulk it up with noodles. But after a point one craves a bit of variety.

Having a proper lunch involves changing one’s very perception of the passage of time. The room filled up; people had their lunches and vanished like mayflies. Blink and you miss them. This, I imagine, must be how the immortals feel: watching the flow and ebb of human life, as if the rest of the world were a speeded-up film, and pitying its ephemerality while being unable to affect it, one’s head bowed with the weight of eternal wisdom.

After a while it became clear that the evening shift was going to start so we moved on to the Coach & Horses, another establishment graced with cartoons all over the walls. At about 6.30 or so we were joined briefly by my eldest, who works around the corner. But they, too, had to leave. Reverse-engineering my journey home – I got back at ten, just as Waitrose was closing – I suppose I must have left some time around 8.30. The question here is whether the session in the pub after the lunch still counts as the lunch. If it does, then that means it lasted eight hours – one hour for each year since I had last met Rowson, or one hour for every five years we’ve known each other. Put like that, it doesn’t really seem very long at all.

[See also: I turn 60 and my children tease me – until they are reminded that they, too, are ageing]

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This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special