IT'S ALWAYS NICE to be taken out to lunch, though I'm a little ill at ease when, as last Sunday, my hosts are total strangers. The awkward bit is the early small talk, for almost nobody these days seems to think it's bad taste to ask people what they do. But apart from my irritation at the naffward shift in modern social behaviour, the question always throws me, because even after all these years I still haven't worked out a crisp, succinct formula with which to answer.
It's not that I'm ashamed of my calling. It's just that I'm far too sensitive to the prejudices held against the hack community by those who do not make their living by the pen; the connotations that hang, in the public mind, around the various labels under which we work. Whatever word I use to describe myself, I can see the translation cogs whirring behind their eyes.
Writer: lives in a hut in the forest, never washes, gets through a bottle of scotch before lunch.
Journalist: divides his time between making up lies about soap stars and brutally doorstepping weeping relatives. Gets through a bottle of scotch instead of lunch. Freelance: hasn't got a job. Drinks other people's scotch. Critic: destructive parasite who lives off free buffets at openings. Media correspondent of The Catholic Herald: eh? What's a media correspondent? What's it got to do with Catholicism? Cannot compute. Request further details.
Nothing wrong with the last one, of course, except that explaining to people unfamiliar with this paper exactly what it does, where it stands in relation to the Catholic press and Fleet Street generally, and what my role is in its pages, takes up rather more of their time over the bread and olives than is strictly courteous. Still, I try to rattle through it as economically as possible. The only down side is that I sometimes catch them wondering inwardly whether they really ought to he drinking in the presence of someone professionally connected, in some sense they haven't quite grasped, with religion. If only they knew.
Last Sunday was different though, for my host, seizing on the two subjects so far established, put them together and enquired whether I had ever written about restaurants. Poor man, he wasn't to know that he was intruding on a secret sorrow. I would love to be a restaurant critic. On the face of it I'm highly qualified for the job, having done start-ups and management before I started writing full time. I used to drop hints at editors to this effect, until one of them, instead of nodding politely and putting me off, told me the truth.
"It's no use, Nick," she said. "Nobody believes you eat."
So that's it. I'm a victim of thinism. Just because I have a 28in waist and never quite made it to lOst, I am robbed of my vocation. It's so unfair. The man I most enjoy reading is Jonathan Meades in The Times Saturday Magazine, for we seem to have identical tastes, not only in food, but in surroundings, company and manners as expressed in contemporary catering. I've never met him, but I know we'd get along splendidly over lunch, and that furthermore, I could match his consumption of the comestibles, ounce for ounce. But Meades is the one with the dimensions of a rugby ball, while I look like something you'd use to train a climbing plant, so he's the one who gets to guzzle for a living.
Not that it would help me with the small talk if I did have his job, for the translation process wouldn't be the same.
I'm a restaurant critic (JM): Glamorous life! Fascinating bloke! Can't wait to tell everyone we've met him.
I'm a restaurant critic (NT): Him,? Pull the other one.