I’ve always found George Gordon (Lord Byron) to be the most proximate of those literary and historical figures whose towering eminence and temporal removal should, by rights, place them at a distance. Nowhere does he seem closer to us than in his letters; take this example, penned on 30 August 1811 to his half-sister and half-lover, Augusta Leigh:
My Dear Augusta, – I don’t know what
Scrope Davies meant by telling you I liked
children, I abominate the sight of them so
much that I have always had the greatest
respect for the character of Herod, But, as
my house here is large enough for us all,
and there is a coaching inn in the vicinity,
where, in a backroom – well appointed,
with woodblock floors and gaily painted
walls – they serve fried potatoes, beef
patties clasped in buns, and sweet
carbonated sherbert drinks, I daresay
we shall be able to abandon your whelps
sufficiently so that we might discover the
leisure in which to fashion more . . .
Naturally, this passage occurred to me as I stood on the woodblock floor of a gaily painted branch of Byron, a burger chain that is expanding with mushroom alacrity to rival other posh kiddie-nosh purveyors such as GBK (Gourmet Burger Kitchen) and Haché. It seemed to me self-evident that Byron – which now has 31 outlets, the bulk of them in London’s bourgeois ghettos, but with outliers in Cambridge, Oxford and the Bluewater shopping mall – must have been named after the scandalous peer, but when I taxed the waiter, he denied it and gave me some cockamamie tale about the name being derived from a Middle English expression meaning “from the cow shed”. As soon as I was home I reached for the OED and discovered neither an adjectival form of “byre”, nor anything in between.
True, Byron the burger joint bears little formal resemblance to either the author of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and She Walks in Beauty, or to those lapidary works themselves, being pretty much a standard example of the stripped-down functionalism school of contemporary restaurant design: the aforementioned woodblock floors, some padded vinyl, paintstriped walls in cassata colours, metal-legged stacking chairs, exposed ventilation ducts, and so on and so forth … You could dish up anything in these surroundings to early 21st-century iPeople and they’d fork it down. I’ve seen long lines snaking from the doors of Byrons all over town, and boxed my own ears with frustration at the evidence of such mass credulousness.
Because there’s nothing that great about Byron’s burgers – they’ve simply hit on another way of flogging the same old dead cow. This gastro-fast-food-mash-up isn’t new: burger joints of the tony type – such as the Great American Disaster and the original Hard Rock Café – sprung up alongside the ubiquitous Wimpy Bars in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
No, what has been well done will be well done again, and there’s nothing new under the bun. But while I may have come to Byron to scoff byronically rather than scoff, um, Byronically (if you’ll forgive this neologism), I ended up being rather charmed. Why? Well, because of the human rather than the bovine element. I’m sure that when the herd are in, the staff are just as fraught as any minimum-wage-and-tips McJobbers, but we – the whelps and I – were dining in the late afternoon, and the gaff was fairly empty. So, maximum attentiveness from the cheery young servitors: they were highly responsive to my tedious intolerances, ensuring that the garlic-tainted dressing for my lamb skinny burger came in a separate dish, and when Da Boyz’ burgers were wrongly caparisoned in bacon, they swiftly exchanged them.
It made all the difference. Despite the implicit tension of being served takeaway food at sit-down prices, I began to relax into our booth and wasn’t even riled when, as the witching hour approached, they applied the dimmer switch so that the ambience “ … mellow’d to that tender light/Which heaven to gaudy day denies”. I’ve no idea why restaurants feel it necessary to do this. I suppose for the clear-eyed and youthful it induces a cosy intimacy, but for those of us already grimly anticipating the ultimate dying of the light it seems like an unnecessary trailer. I’d probably feel differently if I was “a mind at peace with all below”, but at least I’m a generous tipper.