Thursday, July 25, 2013

Domestic vices

I have just discovered that one of my tutors contributes marvellous posts on tea to a culture blog. As befitting Sally, a curator of a moveable salon of former pupils, artists, and literary junkies, these posts are evocative of a social past. And they further evoke generously articulate comments about readers’ own tea experiences.

Directly after reading her posts, I went down to make myself a thimbleful of coffee, which I tell myself I need to do in order to avoid a headache the next morning. (For the record, A. believes I make this up.) As I washed the caffetiere and brought out from the cupboard my little ceramic eggshell blue pot with COFFEE on the outside and Taylor’s Café Brazilia inside, I began to think about the culture of coffee and the society of its drinkers.

Coffee is dark, ambitious, the drink of workers, of pioneers; and it’s the drink of poseurs, of salons, of fashionable 18th century Londoners gathering to exchange rumours, scandal, and political opinions. Here is Addison in an edition of his journal The Spectator in 1711: ‘The Coffee-house is the Place of Rendezvous to all that live near it, who are thus turned to relish calm and ordinary life’. But elsewhere Mr. Spectator talks about the ‘Round of Politicians at Will’s’ - a coffee-house which Pepys, too, frequented, when it was the centre of wit and conversation – suggesting a social space a little more rough and tumble than Addison’s ‘calm and ordinary life’.

The cementers of afternoon rendezvous, coffee may be sociable and provocative. Now it’s as sexy as cigarettes, and as necessary to the aspiring writer trying to forge an alliance with the glamorous literary communities of the past: the cafes of fin de siècle Vienna or those frequented by the Beats. But the café is now more often filled with pale and melancholy individuals, sitting at solitary tables with their Mac laptops. This is the selfish drink, the self-conscious beverage, now blatantly hawking its associated image of literariness with the spread of café culture & bookstores. When seen on the streets in its take-out cardboard-holstered form, it is one of the cheapest indications of disposable wealth.

My real introduction to coffee was late. As a child, I was given mugs of Nescafe when visiting my friend’s Western Cape farm, surrounded by her great-grandmother’s dusty Afrikaner heirlooms, the smell of ostrich feathers and spine-ruffled antelope sables. We drank the elicit brew while watching Titanic with wide caffeinated eyes. But this was rare and discouraged.

Coffee was something of a family tradition. When we went to visit my extended family in the States every two years, and stopped on the Florida coast to visit my mother’s parents, it would take a few days to adjust from jet lag. I’d wake at four in the morning and smell my grandfather’s percolating coffee from down the corridor. I’d steal out of bed and down into the living room, where he’d be sitting under the sole light, eyebrows raised, reading the newspaper in his dressing gown. It never occurred to me that I was disturbing his favourite morning hours, his dark solitude. While he’s never told me as much, I’m a lark myself, and guard my first few hours along with the first, most potent cup.

I began drinking coffee in college in the form of watery instant coffee. From there I graduated to mocha frappes and frappechinos, which I thought included coffee, the rousing effect now attributed to a combination of placebo and sugar. Then onto drip coffee with heavy doses of flavoured, powdered milk. Vanilla was the old favourite, but I dabbled in hazelnut and, in winter, the heart-cheering ‘Christmas’ blend.

When I moved from Seattle to Oxford, I decided to start taking my coffee black. It seemed like a gesture of inner strength, a renunciation of the female froth and frivolity in favour of grit and pluck. Good, tough prose begins with your coffee black. I respect the drinker of black coffee who is willing to taste coffee without the interference of milk or sugar, and learning to tell a good cup from a bad, rather than that which is merely strong. (Admittedly, mochas – which I was introduced to on a trip to Australia, where coffee is particularly and oddly good even at McDonalds – are still a weak spot.)

All people need domestic vices. Tea is not a vice but a virtue, a consolation. Coffee is the surly guest in the corner. Tea may be the purveyor of memories, but coffee electrifies the associating power, and the quality of perception.

Oxford’s High Street claims two quarrelling historical sites for coffee-lovers. On the northern side of the High is Queen’s Lane Coffee House which traces its founding to 1654, apparently the first site in which coffee was served in England. Opposite, is its more glamorous rival the Grand Café (see photo above), an ornate and mirrored space which makes deciding its dimensions difficult, and which also serves a very good Brandy Alexander. The Grand Café defends its title as England’s first coffee house by tracing its lineage to 1650 in Pepys’ diary. (Unfortunately for the Grand Cafe, the Diary was not begun until 1660).

Coffee is bombastic, a little belligerent, and it loosens the tongue. Its sociability is twitchy and erratic, but it too has its public ceremonies and its gleeful offer of seconds. While it lacks the Jamesian gentility of the tea service, it is still a small luxury, a daring departure from the onward march of the afternoon. But it is also a private ritual, a secret vice to nurse at the hours when one is alone with a pen.

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