I don't often miss a first night for a party, but I made an exception for Paul Sidey, the retiring editor at Hutchinsons and Random House, who was given a special send off at the Polish Hearth Club in Exhibition Road.

Paul published my book about Andrew Lloyd Webber and has been a friend for even longer than that. He's an ideal editor, someone who knows something about everything, loves good writing, tries to help his charges come up to the mark and, most importantly of all, stands a very good lunch.

Lunch, in fact, figured as large in his speech as it always does in his life. He said he'd had lunch five times with Jeffrey Bernard (he of Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell fame) and that he, Bernard, had turned up for two of them.

He'd never lunched Barbara Cartland, the romantic novelist, however; in fact, he'd never even met her. The novels arrived in a chauffeur-driven Rolls tied up in pink ribbon.

Early on in their professional relationship, Paul volunteered a few comments on the Cartland copy. "I do wish editors wouldn't interfere," she barked back. He never said anything again.

His oldest friend in the business is the crime writer Ruth Rendell, who sparkled in a gallery of literary celebs: historian Lady Antonia Fraser (Harold Pinter's widow), model Marie Helvin, fashion designer Bruce Oldfield, royal biographer Hugo Vickers, actor Nigel Planer, theatre publisher Nick Hern... and comedian Arthur Smith.

"Oh no, not you again," cried Arthur as I hove into view. He'd enjoyed himself as usual at our Critics Circle awards on Tuesday, and a second chance encounter in a week with a captious critic was going to prove too much.

He seemed to disappear for an hour or so. "Where have you been?" I asked him as the wine, or in his case, the Cranberry juice, flowed (he renounced alcohol some years ago after punishing his pancreas too much). "I've been on the terrace having sex and cigarettes," he replied. "On your own?" "Think what you like, I'll deny everything."

We chatted briefly about Ned Sherrin, no longer with us and still much missed. "The thing about Ned," said Arthur, "was that if he was directing a play, the most important thing was to establish the nearest place for a good lunch."

This observation neatly echoed Sidey's comments: except that he made them before Paul even got to the microphone. I checked out the veracity of Sherrin's working method with Deke Arlen, his agent, who had flown in from Monacao, where he now lives.

"Perfectly true," said Deke, who was on hand in his capacity of representing the writer Richard Littlejohn whom Paul publishes. "When he directed Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell," he continued... unwittingly providing another uncanny pre-echo of Sidey's subject... "he phoned me up in a total panic to say that Peter O'Toole knew the entire play on the first day of rehearsals. I said, well, that's good, isn't it?"

"No," said Ned... "What am I going to do for three weeks?"

Another great friend of Sidey's, the Hodder and Stoughton editor Rowena Webb, who published my book with Robert Stephens, apologised for not having lunch with me recently.

And that's because she's concentrated her office life into three weekdays and has to devote whatever lunchtimes she can enjoy on directly related work projects.

And, for the moment, I'm not one of them, alas. It's a mark of how things have changed in publishing as much as in other walks of life. Lunch is something you most often have on your own, usually seated at a computer, munching at something from Pret a Manger.

Paul is the last of the "old school" two-bottle publishing lunchers who fixed the lunch first and arranged the work afterwards. You can't help feeling that something valuable has been lost; and I suspect that the books that are written are less fun as a direct result.

Sidey is getting down to it in retirement as a writer himself. He's already finished a first book and is starting on a second. I think it's high time someone took him out to lunch for a change.