Monthly Archives: September 2012

Shall we go for a coffee?

The High Street where I live is exclusively made up of two types of establishment. Or that’s the way it seems to me. There are coffee shops and there are charity shops. It is a decidedly odd state of affairs. In one you can buy a coffee, in a bewildering range of incarnations, for two pounds. In the other, wave two pounds around and you can pick up a couple of CDs, each still with their £9.99 sticker on them from HMV. Or maybe this dichotomous retail experience summarises just where Britain is at this moment. Stuck in a no man’s land between a recession, and a willingness to pay over the odds for a cup of something that seems to imply we lead a far more sophisticated, urbane existence than we actually do.

Obviously ‘Friends’ has got a lot to do with it. ‘Friends’ was, and is, filled with young, beautiful people, leading young, beautiful lives and when they aren’t hanging out in each other’s apartments, these YBPs are hanging out at the coffee shop. ‘Frasier’ also had a big influence too. It threw a workplace into the mix, but that only created a Bermuda Triangle of cool wit that had at its vertices an apartment, a radio station and a coffee shop.

Now while we may never have been as young and as beautiful as the cast of ‘Friends’ , or live in an apartment as Bohemian as the one that was their central stage, we could hang out in a coffee shop just like they did. Or like Frasier Crane did, and just like him, affect a connoisseur-like knowledge of which particular denomination of coffee we adhered to as being the One True Faith.

So far, so aspirational. But aping the social patterns seeping out of the electronic hearth of a glowing screen will only satisfy for so long. Keep it up and after a while you begin to suspect that you’re being a bit of a twat.

All of which leads to the realisation that while we can’t be like them, we can be like us. And what better way to be like us than to hang out with other people like us? And there you have it, the real reason why coffee shops have conquered the High Street. It’s nothing to do with coffee. It’s everything to do with community.

It’s to do with self-selecting, micro-communities that converge temporarily for the length of time it takes to imbibe a skinny cappuccino and munch through an over-sized, over-priced cookie that never, ever tastes as good as it looks. Even when we sit in a coffee shop all on our own, drinking whatever we drink, we are part of a community. A community of people at ease with sitting on our own in coffee shops, reading newspapers, or books, or checking our messages, or working on our laptops, or just watching the world go by.

On the other hand, it might be that we fancied a hot drink and could do with a bit of a sit down.

That may well be what it’s all about too. In which case, all that stuff I’ve written so far is way too deep, and maybe a tad pretentious. Probably a result of sitting around in coffee shops too much trying to think profound thoughts. But then again, sitting around trying to think profound thoughts has always been a popular pastime in coffee shops.

As early as 1512 (which is almost a quarter past three) coffee houses were banned in Mecca because they were considered to be a hotbed of political activism. While by the 17th century a French traveller to Persia described a vibrant, bustling scene with mullahs sermonising, poets poeting, chess players chessing and where ‘those interested in politics criticize the government in all freedom without being fearful’.( Interestingly, no mention is made in these early accounts of the coffee house milieu of ‘babyccinnos’ so I suspect that they may be a relatively recent innovation).

The coffee house reached Europe via Venice, the city state through which the Ottoman Empire traded with the lands to the west. The first one recorded amongst the canals dates back to 1645. Seven years later Britain had two coffee shops, in Oxford, and in the City Of London at Cornhill. Twenty five years on from that there were more than 3000 similar establishments throughout the nation. And by 1676 a coffee house had opened across the Atlantic in Boston.

The coffee shop was a phenomenon that was conquering the world. And changing it too. The Cafe Procope in Paris was where the leading lights of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau got on with their enlightening. While back in England Charles the Second tried to shut down the London coffee houses as ‘places where the disaffected met, and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers.’ No wonder they were popular.

As well as becoming meeting places for those with an axe to grind, many coffee houses also became de facto club houses for various occupations. Hardly surprising then that Lloyds of London started in one run by Mr Edward Lloyd and that the London Stock Exchange developed in an establishment called Jonathan’s Coffee House where stock and commodity prices were listed.

What’s striking when you consider this history is that the coffee shop could both be a place where people could plot the overthrow of the existing establishment, but also be a place for them to establish establishments as establishment as Lloyds and the Stock Exchange.

The basic lesson to draw from all this is that things start in coffee shops.

The 1950s boom in folk music in America was nurtured in any number of places where the yoof of the day sat around, hanging off the sides of coffee cups, listening to a lone performer, perched on a stool, strumming a guitar. Bob Dylan and Joan Baez both cut their teeth performance-wise in such watering holes. Back in Britain, however, the musical scene that sprung up through coffee shops was less radically counter culture and perhaps a bit more over-the-counter culture.

The 2i’s Coffee Bar in the basement at 59 Old Compton Street in Soho is now commemorated by a plaque on the wall that states it was the ‘ Birthplace of British Rock’N’Roll and the popular music industry’. Okay so America got Dylan, Baez and any number of other poet/troubadours wielding guitars with barbed wire for strings, but we got Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Joe Brown and Brian ‘Licorice’ Locking. One-nil to us, I think.

All of which leads to the question as to whether today anything world changing is being hatched over the lattes and frappuccinos of Britain. The answer is yes. It’s just that we don’t know what it is yet. After all, wind back a few years and would anyone guess that the lone woman scribbling away at a corner table in The Elephant House cafe in Edinburgh was writing a book about a wizard going to boarding school? Probably not.

But as I walk along my High Street and note that yet another shop that has closed down is all set to re-open as a coffee shop my problem is this: judging by what’s going on round here when people sit at their tables, nurturing their coffee, the only world changing plan they seem to be coming up with is ‘wouldn’t it be great to open a coffee shop?’

Which kind of misses the point.



The Crown Slips

For the past six weeks in Britain we have lived in an ‘Isle of Wonders’. Everyone agrees. Except, of course, for that Conservative MP who slagged off ‘Sir’ Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. And the bosses of G4S who, in a recession let us not forget, couldn’t recruit enough staff to do the security at London 2012. A fact made even more laughable when you remember that seventy thousand people volunteered to help for free, and turned up on time, and smiling, despite ten hour shifts and the worst uniform seen in this country since Liverpool strode out at that Wembley cup final yonks ago dressed as ice-creams.

The words piss-up and brewery, and the difficulty of getting the two to coincide, naturally come to mind. But, for me, the whole security farrago does present an outstanding legacy opportunity for the good people of London. It comes in the form of an addition to the lexicon of Cockney Rhyming Slang. So please try and use the following whenever it is appropriate, both at work, and in your private life:

                                         G4S  –  Complete ******* Mess

As well as a few losers, the games of The-Twenty-Whatever-It-Was-Olympiad have thrown up a lot of winners. People that we, the great British public, have taken to our heart. And, given the chance, would like to take to the pub. Apart from Mo Farah who probably doesn’t drink on account of his Muslim faith. Or maybe he could have a lemonade and a packet of crisps?

Obviously Mo is high up on the list, as are Jessica, Bradley, Bradley’s sideburns, and that bloke who won the long jump. While the Paralympics gave us Ellie, Sarah, The Weirwolf and the magnificently named Jonnie Peacock. In fact, so good is Jonnie Peacock’s name that, when you sit down and think about it, you realise it’s the name David Beckham should have had. Now I’m not saying that Jonnie Peacock, in branding terms, is ever going to be as big as Beckham but David, mate, when those sponsorship deals are coming up for renewal you better start looking over your shoulder because The Peacock Has Landed, and he moves pretty damned fast.

However the big winner from London 2012 is Clare Balding. She played an absolute blinder. At this moment if she were to run for election, with Seb as her Chancellor, she would get in by a landslide and the nation would suddenly find itself able go to bed at night knowing that everything was going to be alright because Clare and Seb are in charge.

Over the course of the Olympics she turned from being that woman holding a mike on a race track while horses walked behind her, into the David Attenborough of sport. She was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about whichever sport she was considering and, most importantly of all, she was able to communicate that knowledge and enthusiasm with a lightness of touch that made it a joy to watch. Beside her Gary Lineker looked a bit like an empty crisp packet caught up in a sudden gust of wind.

However at the last moment she let it all slip. It was a fall from grace as unexpected, and as unwelcome, as Oscar Pistorious throwing his toys out of the pram when he got beaten by the young Brazilian Alan Oliveira. Oscar’s complaint, if you remember, came down to the fact that HE was The Blade Runner, but the Brazilian had cheated by being Bladier, and consequently Runnier, than he was.

Clare’s words, whilst not as whingey as Oscar’s, were something probably even worse. They were profoundey. They came at the very end of Channel Four’s coverage of the Paralympic Games Closing Ceremony. The only reason I can come up with for Clare’s moment of shame is that she had just watched a lot of songs from Coldplay. And Coldplay did play a lot of songs. A lot of Coldplay songs. My theory for the length of their set is that the band saw all the flags, and the fires, and the Mad Max vehicles representing The Spirit Of The Something Or Other, got confused and thought they were at Glastonbury.

Anyway, much as I like Coldplay, their songs can leave listeners feeling a bit profoundey. And that’s the only reason I can think why Clare Balding, the newly installed queen of British broadcasting, ended her 2012 Paralympic Closing Ceremony coverage with a brief set of words that included the phrase ‘...this isn’t the end, this is just the beginning…’

Oh Clare, why did you have to go and spoil everything?

You sounded like an X-Factor contestant who gets knocked out early, and through the tears assures the public that ‘…this isn’t the end for me, this is just the beginning, you haven’t heard the last of insert name here.

Clare, it was the end, that’s why they had the Closing Ceremony. I mean, come on Clare, just think back to all those other Olympics you’ve seen, they always have the Closing Ceremony at the end. It’s by far the best place to have it. To highlight just how ludicrous it is to maintain that the Closing Ceremony isn’t the end, just imagine how it would have sounded had you suggested all those weeks ago that the Opening Ceremony wasn’t the start, but the finish.

You’re far, far better than spouting such nonsense. But Clare, those poorly chosen words mean that broadcasting-wise you do need to redeem yourself. You need to do something that will make the public re-focus on what a marvel you are. Just like Pistorious did by smashing that last race in the Olympic Stadium before Coldplay moved in.

Luckily there is one sporting challenge that exists that few people alive today believe will ever be conquered. But I know you’re the woman to do it. And once you do you will have gained the undying gratitude of a section of the populous who you may well have thought were beyond your charms.

All you have to do is replace Hansen on Match Of The Day. Short of England actually winning the World Cup it’s probably the greatest thing that could happen for the football fans of this country.

Please say you’ll try.