Café culture


I don’t always ‘get’ cafés. They used to say in London that you were never more than six feet away from a rat. In my suburb, the same might apply with cups of coffee. Cafés line the main shopping street and are tucked down laneways and there are two virtually on the beach. There’s one in the library so the smell of coffee wafts among the book shelves, urging me to chuck the book from my hand and order a cappuccino instead. Even the little parade of shops around the corner from my house, which used to be handy for picking up a newspaper or milk and not much else, is now home to two cafés that are always heaving. One is boisterously full of tradies and surfers grabbing meat pies with their flat whites while the other – the one with the Range Rovers lined up outside – is Yummy Mummy Heaven, apparently the perfect place to catch up with the gals over a soy chai latte and a paleo poached chicken focaccia.

What is it that makes cafés so alluring? They’re obviously people places but they’re creative spaces, too. If anyone furthered the romanticism of writing in cafes it was J K Rowling who famously wrote the first Harry Potter while huddled at a table in an Edinburgh café. And, of course, there are the famous cultural cafés of Europe, like those in Paris that were frequented by everyone from Apollinaire and Picasso to Sartre and Hemingway. As my readers will know, Yvonne Le Corbusier loved a coffee and a fag in the Deux Magots on the way home from the market. Vienna’s café scene was just as vibrant, only with more cream, and doubtless so was Berlin’s. There were probably famous ones in Britain, too, but all I can think of is the grim station café in the 1945 film ‘Brief Encounter’ where tea is served from an urn and Celia Johnson looks so terribly, terribly anxious.

I remember a couple of cafés in the Welsh market town where I grew up. They were rather basic places and their windows steamed up in winter. As a ten year old I found them threatening because people seemed to hang out there all day, which in my pompous little mind translated to being up to no good (they were probably  up to nothing at all, which is another point of cafés). As children on holiday in Scotland, we often went to cafés, only they call them Tea Rooms, which were rather prim and proper places full of old people eating a variety of iced cakes (Scottish life has a tendency towards sugar, flour and fat).

Flickr image: Savage Cats

When I moved to Harrogate as a teenager, I became acquainted with grander cafés. The best known were Betty’s and the Imperial but there were plenty of others. When Betty’s moved into the Imperial’s premises, it became more sumptuous, with large areas of white-clothed tables and walls filled with complicated marquetry pictures that were stolen some years later. For a while, some of its staff looked as though they’d worked there since the 1930s, which was entirely possible. I would linger there for hours after school with my best friend Glyn, sharing secrets and laughing raucously, and eking out our single pot of tea with an endless supply of hot water provided by the waitress (brought from the kitchen – she didn’t have an inbuilt reservoir). Gradually Betty’s became more famous and today there are always long queues outside with people eager to nibble on a Fat Rascal (a type of scone). In my opinion, it’s lost much of its charm and feels rather fake.

There was also a Betty’s in York, which was scruffier but it still had a good selection of cream slices. Nearby there was a Terry’s tearoom, which is long gone, and which had a fabulous restaurant upstairs that was lined in sombre dark wood like an old bank. Lunch there started with orange juice out of a tin or brown soup, and they served things like Welsh Rarebit or chops. It was the sort of food that some foreigners still think Britain serves, not realising that Britain has gone gastro since the 1990s.

I like cafés, though, or at least the idea of them. For an Australian generation brought up on the cafés of ‘Neighbours’ and ‘Home & Away’ (okay, that was a diner), cafés are important social hubs, in the way pubs are in Britain. They make you feel connected, part of society, doing what other people do. Some people may be writing bestselling novels in them or flirting with the person at the next table or chatting about sport or television.

I have often felt guilty that I don’t frequent the local cafés in my suburb. When the man from the deli told me he was opening one across the road, I blurted out, rather ungraciously, that I don’t do cafés here unless I have to. What I meant was that it seems odd to me to go to a café  so close to home. And yet I love sitting in cafés in France for breakfast or a coffee, and I often met up with my partner in one on Old Compton Street in London in the days before we lived together. Here, well, I drink coffee at home.

Except something’s shifted recently and I have taken to strolling down to a café once or twice a week. I have a favourite. It used to sell nothing but coffee – no cakes, no teas, no soft drinks, this was a den for serious caffeine addicts – but now it’s splashed out on a plate of muffins under a glass dome and a few bottles of ginger pop. Ah, I think with awe as I enter, here be people.  When you live in your head as much as I do, it’s good to be reminded of the real world out there, uncurated by social media. Thirty minutes later I’m gone. Sitting there usually sparks some train of thought and I just have to get back to my desk to write it down.

So maybe I do ‘get’ it after all, it’s just that I’m a slow-learner.

Do you café?

Categories: Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

22 comments

  1. Hi Colin, great post! I like cafes, but only the quirky kind… must be different and not one of those chain store or franchises. As a writer myself, the notion that I might have sat in some romantic little cafe in, say, Budapest or somewhere similar, to write a novel, seems rather delicious. Otherwise, I’m just as happy to have a cup of tea or coffee in my library at home x

    • Oh yes, definitely the quirky sort. I’m sure the cafes of Budapest are fascinating, in the Viennese ilk, perhaps. Yes, the idea of writing in such places seems so appealing and yet, what’s better than a cuppa at home!

  2. Cafes change their meaning, and therefore, their function with age.

    As a child, they served a very basic function, as we were taken there to eat, at a relatively-low cost, by parents.

    Teenage brings the opportunity to gather with one’s pals and look for those with similar interests in a safe environment but away from parents. There is maybe an element of part-grown-up-ness available. It also allows us to seek for mates, and long-term friendships.

    The time of child-rearing is not always suitable due to restricted space, and limited selection of nutrition for a young child.

    But retirement is really when they come into their own. Relative availability of time, and money allows the seeking–out of new places and especially one’s in little villages, with home produce in cakes……heaven

    • Yes, you’re right, Harry, isn’t it interesting how they change as we change (although I confess to using pubs more than cafes when I was of age). I think the British do cafes better than many countries and when I visit Britain, it always makes me smile at just how packed they are with people of a certain age (ahem, my own!). Very partial to a National Trust caff, myself.

  3. I don’t really do cafés either, unless visiting amazing cities with café culture like Paris and London. It’s always fascinated me that writers swear by them for inspiration when I prefer to hole up in the peace and quiet of home. As for our village, we sadly don’t have a decent café and in general, French cafés don’t serve my kind of new-age coffee (latté machiatto), tending to serve either very dark espresso or a lot of milk with a splash of café.

    • I have no problem writing in French cafes but that’s probably because I don’t pick up what people around me are saying unless I really concentrate (and I’m so happy being there that I could write on a slate). And you’re definitely on to something with the coffee – what’s the point if you can get better at home?

  4. I love to sit in cafes and sip and observe. Sometimes I don’t want to be sociable and this gets me out if the house without having to interact!

    I remember the tea rooms of my youth, and the two student cafes in Preston where we hung out if we had any money and bought cheese rolls and frothy coffee.
    The Kenyons chain in and around Blackburn in Lancashire had a weird little cafe down a flight of steps in the town centre. It was called “The Buttery” and served their unsurpassed custard tarts. My mother adored it but I always found it a bit claustrophobic, like a mini nuclear bunker

    • Well, it’s certainly one of the pleasures of your country, if not mandatory. And you’re right, you can choose to be among others and not have to utter a word…I remember some very dodgy cafes in odd little spaces but they were the ‘in’ places at the time and that mattered much more than fire exits. And doesn’t safety fly out of the window where there’s a good custard tart in the offing?

  5. I’m surrounded by cafes here in Surry Hills, so of course I hardly frequent any. I prefer to talk soccer at Cafe Sport in Leichhardt (my girlhood haunt) with the old Italian fellas and wash it down with a good macchiato made by the owner and a sugary pastry. Perfect every time! Some cafes do of course serve a purpose: my Italian hometown of Trieste boasts a cafe where James Joyce (who lived there for approx 10 years) started writing Ulysses. Not bad inspiration I’d say.

    • Surry Hills is just cafes with a few dwellings squeezed in between them…Yes, maybe the Joyce cafe is a more inspiring example than the Rowling one, and I bet the coffee was better, too. I love the life (and volume) of an Italian cafe!

  6. I like cafes in France etc but prefer a proper pub in the UK. There’s more of a mix of people generally and I do hate to sit and pay audience to someone taking twenty minutes to make me a coffee, when they could pull me a pint of something refreshing in a few seconds. I do realise though that this makes me sound worse than I am …!

    • I do miss a British pub and perhaps it’s no coincidence that I went to university in Norwich where they say there is a pub for every day of the year (and a church for every week). They have pubs in Australia but typically they’re drinking dives and often rather characterless – more like the sports bars of France or the cafes near stations. Save a pint for me…

  7. What an interesting post.
    I don’t think it matters whether its a cafe or a bar (as they are in Italy), it seems that watering holes are essential to our society and fulfil a variety of needs.
    My sister worked in the local bar when my parents had a house in Tuscany and she reported that the butcher next door would come into the bar every hour on the hour for a shot of red wine.
    Cafe Society it is!

    • Oh Lord, I don’t think I’d be asking that butcher to chop anything up at the end of his day. How many fingers did he have? But I have very happy memories of sitting in that cafe playing scopa and drinking vin’santo! That was truly the heart of the village, and that’s what I love about the cafes I enjoy so much in France, too.

      • You’ve hit the nail on the head! In France and Italy they are the centre of the village – a social hub. Which is not the case in the UK, I don’t know about Australia. I suppose they are still quite new here. There have always been tea shops, but again, not the same. More for a treat than an everyday ritual. Interesting …

      • I find it interesting that Australia, which is very booze-focussed, has such a strong cafe culture (maybe it’s for the caffeine shot after the night before). I think in the UK now it’s perfectly acceptable to go to the local pub and drink coffee, at least during the day – the social hub has evolved as society has changed.

  8. I do love a cafe and I write in one at least once a week – usually a Caffe Nero just round the corner from where I live. I go stir crazy if I work at home for too many days on the trot and I can feel my mood go on the slide. Your post made me think of Withnail and I when they go into the cafe(or maybe it’s a restaurant) in the Lake District demand the finest wines available to humanity. We’ve actually got a small coffee place just next to the tube now which is tiny and says it sells Aussie coffee. I haven’t tried it yet because it’s too small to sit and work in but I’m tempted. We were in Maison Bertaux the other day in Soho now that is a cafe I absolutely love – the range of cakes … mouthwatering. Brief Encounter I love especially Joyce Carey as Myrtle Bagot who runs the cafe – she has some great lines.

    • Oh, Myrtle Bagot! Victoria Wood did a brilliant spoof of the film and the best lines are for the evil-eyed cafe owner…I used Caffe Nero a fair bit when I was staying in London because of its decent coffee and free wifi. London’s cafe scene has certainly improved although I have fond memories of a real greasy spoon in Covent Garden – Freds? – where tea came in mugs and there was a fascinating variety of customers. Surprised you didn’t mention Georgina’s in Oxford – I seem to remember that was THE place to meet (along with Browns) and I presume it’s still there. It’s wonderful, really, how many memorable places there are, the more one thinks about it… I’m off to one right now!

  9. I’m a life long cafe addict, and even I’m getting cafe’d out. It seems like every new business is a cafe, and it’s getting a little cloying. From zero cafes when I was a kid, now in the city centre every third shop is a cafe. Meanwhile, in my neighbourhood, not one single place to get a coffee. I’d like cafes to be more spread out

    • Yes, it makes you wonder if we set up cafes because we don’t know what else to do. How unusual that your neighbourhood is bereft, though. Some might take that as a sign to set one up…:)

      • Haha reminds me of some old guy who ran a linoleum factory getting frustrated on TV about modern industry “all we do in Britain now is sell each other cappuccinos on the internet” I thought that was a really short and sweet way of saying a lot. I know, it’s cos my areas poor, but poor people still like cafes. But no one like Starbucks would come here, and no local person would ever get start up funding. City councils sacrifice the suburbs in favour of city centres cos that’s what tourists see (and let’s face it, that’s where the council offices are). They don’t give a crap whether poor people hAve a place to meet and chat. Why would poor people wanna do that? The frustrating thing is, we are getting gentrified, and the cafes are slowly approching us. in five years or so when middle class people have decided actually my areas quite nice (or could be, if anyone gave a shit about us) and driven us all out, there will be a tescos metro and a Starbucks, and everything will be cleaned up, and my area will be a really nice place to live, as it always could have been if they hadn’t written us off cos we are poor and dumped all the crime and prostitution in Leeds into our backyard cos we don’t matter. I bet when we get a Starbucks, they’ll be less happy to allow prostitution in the park or drug dealing outside the corner shop. But none of us will be here to enjoy it cos we are already being squeezed even further out.

      • Awful balance, isn’t it – making run-down areas more polite, as Ian Nairn called it, and thereby ruining their character. But I look upon Starbucks’, etc refusal to set up in some areas as a good thing. In my suburb, only one of the hundred cafes is a big corporate one and not popular. The others are all individually owned and run. And isn’t that when cafes are at their best when they’re not being generic hipster dives but real places with real character. Although now I can’t help thinking of the caff in Eastenders …

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