Twice during the week I had occasion to grab a bite of lunch by myself in a local café. The proprietor of this establishment has had the good sense to furnish his patrons with a pile of magazines to read. Not the sort of stuff you find in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms – tattered copies of the Woman’s Weekly and Readers Digest, dated July 1995, and back-copies to 1943 of the National Geographic with articles on the long-lost Fakawi tribe of the upper Amazon. (I don’t wish to mock the National Geographic. It was the only magazine in which a frustrated Belfast adolescent could find pictures of half-naked women. Admittedly they were pigmy women, and some had plates in their lips, but Irish beggars can’t be choosers. As they said during the potato famine, ‘Be grateful for small Murphies.’)No, these were top-class magazines obtained by the café from the shop across the road – GQ, Arena, Vanity Fair, that sort of thing.
Now the real reason why these magazines are there is not that the café’s patrons are bored out of their trees and desperate for something to read. The real reason why the magazines are there is to hide the embarrassment, to cover the shame of that most tragic and guilt-laden of creatures – the solitary diner. Eating, as Desmond Morris told us on the telly some years ago, is not merely a means of keeping the body alive, it is essentially a social activity, a group activity. One may eat alone in the privacy of one’s own home, but to eat alone in a public place, is to invite suspicion of personal failure at best and deviancy at worst. The solitary diner is therefore painfully aware that the eyes of other people are upon him – people with friends, people with partners, people with children, people with business colleagues – people, in other words, who have about them the incontrovertible evidence not only of their social success but of their very normality.
The magazine or newspaper – newspapers are even better, since they provide total protection – the magazine of newspaper thus has two functions. It protects the solitary diner from the accusing gaze of the café’s other ‘normal’ diners; and it ensures that the solitary diner is not accidentally caught staring at someone else in the establishment, raising immediate suspicions of some unspeakable perversion. Now if you think I’m wrong about this, take someone with you to a restaurant or café and check out the solitary diners. You will find that, without exception, they come into one of four categories: head buried in menu or wine list; head buried in magazine or newspaper; head buried in work; head buried in food.
Some other key indicators: The solitary diner has difficulty in attracting the attention of the waiter or waitress – he is low on the restaurant’s priorities; the solitary diner eats more quickly than other patrons – he is anxious to end his shame; the solitary diner is delighted when his cell-phone rings and conducts the conversation in an abnormally loud voice – he wants everyone to know that he does indeed have a friend, relative or colleague; the solitary diner has difficulty exiting the restaurant with dignity – his muscular co-ordination is affected by the knowledge that all eyes are upon him. The characteristics of the solitary diner are personified in the tragi-comic figure of Mr Bean, trying to hide the steak tartare – which he has ordered not knowing what it is – under the tablecloth and in the sugar bowl.
But in the end, what is tragic and comic and strange about Mr Bean is that he is almost always alone. Behind the discomfort of the solitary diner may lie a wider and more deep-seated social prejudice, which the diner himself shares with those around him, against people who not merely dine alone, but are alone. As for me, I am a shameless social voyeur. Dining alone gives me the opportunity to pursue my hobby of composing the imaginary life-stories and situations of my fellow diners, without being interrupted by the irritating tittle-tattle of a companion. That offensive old coot staring at you from the corner table is me. So if you do spot me in a local hostelry with my head buried in a magazine, I want you to know that it is because I am genuinely interested in the contents of that magazine and not because I feel uncomfortable about eating alone. I do have a friend. Several friends in fact. It was just that none of them could come today. Honestly. Waiter! Waiter, could I have… Waiter! Oh never mind.