Tuesday, 5 August 2008

On Coffee Shops and Off-Centre Saucers

Having rightly given my blog over to the concerns of my friend, I had plenty of time last week to put my mind to some serious thinking. Mental cogitation and the name Dick Madeley are siblings, if not closer than siblings. They are the working prototype of a body / thought hybrid, joined at the hip and sharing the same pair of trousers. Each leg of this well articulated beast is as significant as the other. Their gait both effortless and strange.

Without a blog to write, I spent much of the week in my favourite seat in my favourite coffee shop. I’m sitting there, right now, engaged in some real ‘mobile blogging’, except that I’m not actually mobile and I’ll have to wait until I get home before I blog this post by broadband. Yet it’s only after working here for six consecutive days that I have come to realise that our coffee shops have devolved in terms of their intellectual life. Once home to great thinkers who could shift continents with the power of an idea, the coffee house has become the rationalist’s nightmare; inhabited by men and women who believe that coffee beans have emotions and that there’s no fruit that can’t be squeezed into an oddly shaped bottle and priced higher than the glandular extract of the Honey Bear.

These are not my people. They are bull-necked fathers sucking at straws almost as thick as their hyper-extended veins; business women jacked thin on espresso and tapping away at their laptops while checking account books balanced on adjacent tables and holding meetings via their bluetoothed mobiles. A table of white middle class cornrows loudly discuss the stopping power of handguns as they drink their environmentally friendly bean curd from hemp cups. There’s no fizzy drink to be had. Bad for our teeth, I’m told. Only I’m not so sure what a freshly squeezed Patagonian yam will do for my dietary tract. I’m not sure what my dietary tract will do to the juice of the Patagonian yam. I just know that my coffee shop is no longer about coffee. It is about alleviating the suffering of the poor Patagonian farmer and his mule while I suffer Tracy Chapman who is always singing about revolution while I’m trying to enjoy my beaker of green antioxidant. Tracy Chapman does not agree with my dietary tract. My dietary tract does not agree with Tracy Chapman. It’s an inconvenient truth that even Al Gore is afraid to mention.

There's nothing smooth or innocent about an Innocent Smoothie except the way they get the money out of your pocket. Yet matters are made worse because the whole charade takes place inside a book shop. Coffee and books should make for the perfect combination. There’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than sitting in the corner with a latte and a novel newly introduced to the Madeley Mastercard. Occasionally I gaze up at the large cut-out of my handsome self, itself casting a satisfied look over the shopping public buying this week’s book club selection. Yet I find it increasingly difficult not to become somewhat chagrined. In fact, it’s more than chagrin. Chagrin would be a mere skin complaint, quickly cured with a dab of ointment and a day spent wearing well ventilated cotton shorts. I’m thinking of something more than chagrin. Perhaps ‘mortification’ is a better word. I feel mortified that I’m somehow part of this great conspiracy to fool you all into believing that you’re a new Richard Steele or an improved Samuel Pepys.

I have to ask. How many of you are really a Jonathan Swift in disguise, or a poet with the wit of John Dryden? Have you ever out-MacFlecknoed his ‘MacFlecknoe’? I would bet that there’s not a single Alexander Pope amongst the lot of you, nor a man or woman who has penned a rhymed epistle or an ‘Essay on Man’. Yet, still, coffee shops try to convince us that we’re there for some greater reason other than the caffeine hit. Written on the wall of my local coffee shop is a daub of prose which runs (and I paraphrase): ‘The smell of fresh morning coffee drew me into the coffee shop. I sat down, opened my paper, and sipped my first cup of the day. I suddenly believed that life is full of great promise.’

What nonsense. What roasted dross, percolated through flam. What a deceitful way to imply that we’re all living some great inner life. What a shameful assumption that we’re merely passing through on our way to Paris or Geneva. Pseudo cosmopolitanism is almost as shocking as pseudo environmentalism that encourages us to take the old coffee grinds home to dump on our begonias. It’s almost as shocking as the greatest embarrassment to be found in a coffee shop and that arrives in the form of the off-centre saucer.

There’s a reason why centuries of culture have placed the cup in the middle of the saucer. It has to do with balance. Yet carrying a modern cup and saucer across a shop crowded with tykes and their toys is a dangerous business. A man is always likely to list heavily to one side. We’ve clearly moved into a new age of refinement where our coffee cups are pushed to the edge of the plates, marginalised in favour of the biscotti, which smells like almond biscuit but is priced about the same as gold and is so dense that is has its own atomic number. Beside the biscotti on this off-centre saucer, there usually sits a spoiled spoon which the dishwasher hasn’t washed clean of the previous customer’s scarlet lipstick. A frisson of sexual excitement passes through a man as he imagines some Monica Bellucci Italian breast previously nudging up against his handle. Perhaps a touch of Beatrice Dalle gap-toothed eroticism as she bites into his cup. The reality is more likely to be that gathering of pensioners that is just finishing their Tuesday morning adventure into the meaning of Alexander McCall Smith’s latest.

And yet the frustration isn’t this as much as it is the cup. You spend most of your time trying to overcome your natural tendency to put the damn thing in the middle of the plate. And there it sits: uneasily rocking on the edge of the off-centre indentation, another of life’s small annoyances, insignificant in itself but contributing to a greater frustration with the world that incapacitates those of us with mild forms of compulsive behaviour. It’s like knowing that the bathroom towel is hung at an angle and that at some point in the night you’ll simply have to wake your wife in order to ask her to get up to re-hang it. It’s like trying to present the nation’s favourite chat show while knowing that a sock has fallen behind the immersion heater and that no matter how much you chat with Gene Wilder the sock still needs saving.

You might say that I’m obsessive, difficult, hard to please. You might even believe that coffee shops have improved dramatically over the last ten years. But is it really too much to ask for a sensible range of drinks, some edible biscuits, and the solace of peace and quiet only punctuated by the talk of the nation’s best thinkers brought together under one roof to change the world’s economic, social, and aesthetic order? If Starbucks can’t provide me with that, I don’t think it’s right that they even call themselves a coffee shop.


Selena Dreamy said...

When the first coffee shops in London opened, John Locke, Christopher Wren, Vermeer and Spinoza were born while Rembrandt, I’ve been reliably informed, painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaas Tulp. Today the consensus of opinion probably supports your view that there are a lot of “white middle class cornrows loudly discussing the stopping power of handguns.”

Which is why no amount of philosophising can eradicate the sad truth. They are made for one another...!


Monika said...

Italy has been one of the few countries that has pushed back on Starbucks taking over every second street.
Be thankful for Starbucks. You should try ordering a decaf weak skinny latte here - they will laugh at you and serve you a double strength macchiato and don't even try to complain.

Anonymous said...

Splendid ranting. Starfucks is the worst with its pseudo-bohemian decor. At least Nero's doesn't pretend to be a Parisian garret.

Black Cat said...

I haven't been to a Starbuck's for about a squillion years and, hence, haven't experienced the off-centre saucer, but I see the clientele (except us, of course) hasn't changed...

(BTW, how do you spell "clientele"? All variations I've tried have that irritating red underlining!)

Lloyd Mintern said...

NOTHING however is more suburban, and faux intellectual, than clever prose construction, the substance of which is a mere complaint.

Dick Madeley said...

You're so right, Lloyd. I'm full of nothing but pretentious bullshit. Perhaps you could teach me how to blog sometime.

Lloyd Mintern said...

You are far busier than I, chum. I have so much time for contemplation, I frequent Starbucks, here in Rochester, New York, USA, where we bloggers are few and largely unpracticed in the medium--a medium strange and unexpected, indeed, to us serious literary types--but surely right on time (as is Starbucks, but that may too complicated for you) with the instinct, the flip style, the utterly jive ability to mock yourself, of your . . . ilk.