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.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Pleasures of Father Brown

When the BBC showed their new series of GK Chesterton's Father Brown mysteries in January, featuring the lovably familiar mug of Mark Williams, better known in the comforting role of dear Mr Weasley, I felt that at last I would acquaint myself with Chesterton. I have come across him before in passing – either in his relation to CS Lewis, a figure who hovered over my growing up like an ancestor, or as a patron saint of the literary journal where I worked for six months – but was never familiar with his work.

But this BBC incarnation - which, to my surprise, has received a commission for a second series – is no way to get to know the clerical sleuth or his author. Even before I read a single Father Brown story, it was clear that the adaptation was dull, blunted, amplified, and misshapen. With additions and new characters to stretch out Chesterton’s jewels into forty-five minute segments, the series drafted a Keep Calm and Carry On tea-and-bunting brigade, resetting the stories in the post-war years (twenty or so years too late), adding various village caricatures to make up an ensemble cast. Much better were the radio dramatizations which were aired on BBC radio 4 simultaneously.

Nevertheless, I found my way to Father Brown – the real Father Brown – through Borges, whose own stories and paradoxes exist because of Chesterton. If Chesterton seemed dumpy at first, Borges’ sleek cosmopolitanism tempted me to reconsider. With Borges’ commendation in mind, I checked out a homely relic of the Father Brown stories published in 1929 with a gradually fracturing spine. (The English Faculty Library has decided Chesterton is just as worthy as disregarding as the popular press, as Penguin has recently reissued the complete stories and there were no other editions of the stories available). No biographies, and very few critical studies, seemed to be on the shelves. Despite Chesterton occupying a significant place between Wilde and modernism, with pockets of De Quincey, Dickens, and Poe, there is silence. When I mentioned to my tutors that I was reading him – avidly, hungrily, almost narcotically – they were all delighted but quizzical. Why Chesterton?

Despite the BBC series and its evident popularity, there has been a telling lack of critical response in the papers, a moribund silence emphasizing Chesterton as being determinately out of fashion. The kind of moral certainty found in the Father Brown stories – searing, uncompromising, profoundly Roman Catholic (and with tinges of unwelcome political analysis, if Christopher Hitchens is to be believed) – is unacceptable in a society which misreads it as offensively fundamentalist and as a vehicle for proselytising.

Instead, Chesterton’s Catholicism attracts me by its polar strangeness. For all the stories’ modernist setting – indeed, spiritualists and Freudians are often drafted in as the spooks – and his own intuition, Brown believes in reason, uncovering a criminal masquerading as a priest by saying that any priest who preached against reason could not be authentic; it would be bad theology. Brown is knowingly old-fashioned, even flamboyantly old-fashioned. Chesterton’s Catholicism – or rather, the Catholicism made vivid in Brown – is something fierce and iron-like, uncompromising. Take his announcement in ‘The Wrong Shape’ that in the crime there was a

‘twisted, ugly, complex quality that does not belong to the straight bolts either of heaven or hell. As one knows the crooked track of a snail, I know the crooked track of a man’.

His declarations display a moral strength which is heroic and entirely out of place in our world of hedging and clarifications, but is as impressive as a wrought iron construction, with its visible slivers of air around the bars. I admire it as a made, a resistant thing.

The stories are brief and crystalline. They are halls of mirrors which rebound in likenesses, duplication, sleight of hands, tricks, illusions. Reading them continually teaches one to look backwards and upside down, becoming eager to invert and rearrange. The mystery genre condenses into a conundrum, a fuse of the mystical and the logical. Brown’s world is one where blood is controlled and aesthetic and the atmosphere is lurid. Sex is largely absent, or unbelievable. Rape never happens, nor mutilation. This genre it is a celibate form, although it can be endlessly reworked, like a machine, an algorithm, an equation. (Hitchens called this ‘scheme of plot little more than a clanking trolley’, but I read them straight through. It’s comparable, perhaps, to those who complain – falsely – that Jane Austen wrote the same book six times.)

These stories are also romance: Brown does not age, has no childhood, but rather always returns to his parish in Essex or to London, his courts. But one can build up fondness for this unobtrusive, unselfconscious, shabby man – whose face is described as being ‘as round and dull as a Norfolk dumpling’ – during the sequence, and for his rangy Continental friend Flambeau.

It seemed like a pity to devour all of them in one go. I felt I should perhaps pace myself to avoid the terrible moment at which there are no more to read. And yet, I came across a volume of the complete stories for £2 at a second hand store. It had Mark Williams’ BBC-fied face – alas – on the cover. And yet, inside there were another twelve stories I hadn’t come across. For the 1929 volume had not the advantage of Chesterton's 1936 compilation, The Scandal of Father Brown. A reprieve.