London Cafe Life

Man in a Palm Tree.jpg

I’ve been sitting in cafes rather a lot lately. Not good for training, obviously. Good for the novel, though. It loosens the perspective, which has been cramped and trammelled by the tiny office, and allows the creative spirit a caffeine-induced release into blue sky. Or something like that. Besides, there’s only a certain mileage in using a sack of sand and physio exercises to break out of the furrow. Two episodes recently reminded me what fun life can be.

I was in a long queue in search of a cappuccino, and therefore had my book in hand intending to snatch a couple of minutes, when I found myself standing next to a loping youth in a military-style cold-weather coat. It was so massive that he seemed a slightly lost in there, which I think might have been a general metaphor for life in his case. On his head was one of those hats with flappy, furry ears, on a not particularly cold day. Bless. Sort of.

He looked at the book, Mick Herron’s Spook Street, and asked:

“Any good?”

Fair question. Briefly I wondered if he might be a fan, or at least another writer – I assume there are thousands of us visiting cafes for inspiration, or just a release from the garret… And so began a deliciously unfocussed conversation about books and reading.

He does fantasy and sci fi – “you know, man, dystopian worlds…” Then came his leading line…

“I review books on Amazon, actually. Just a few reviews for fun. I’m Number Two Hundred and Forty-Eight…” - sounds ok, I thought, 248, if you like that sort of thing, until he continued - "...thousand… on their rank of reviewers.”

That’s no. 248,000. But he was joyously even handed about it.

“Just something to do, to see how far I get before I die.”

I didn’t really know what to say. So I told him a little about what I thought of the first 50 pages of Spook Street – “Great dialogue, generally sassy, runs the eddyline of absurdity well, though the story’s taking a while to cohere. Good modern British read”, I ventured, “if you like a surreal spy novel…” Think of it as propaganda for comic novelists, anyway.

“Great”, he said, snapping it on his cell phone, “if they have it listed, I’ll kindle it…”

It’s the first time I have heard the word kindle used as an active verb. Life moves on, in the oddest of ways.

I could just imagine the two of them in a proper cafe, say at La Biela, the coolest café in Recoleta, itself the most elegant district of Buenos Aires.

London Café life really doesn’t have the elegance it once had obviously. So many of us now have leisure enough to visit them that they have become functional dispensers of sugar, salt and stimulants: they're just companies on a margin, designed to the last iota by focus groups, and so few have any presence or character. However, I chanced upon two old gents in a Caffe Nero in South Kensington a few days later who really would have known elegant café life once upon a time. In their 70s and 80s, one was British but clearly well travelled, the second was not a native English speaker, and was perhaps from South America.

I could just imagine the two of them in a proper cafe, say at La Biela, the coolest café in Recoleta, itself the most elegant district of Buenos Aires. By the name (La Biela means a mechanical Connecting Rod) you might expect Fangio to be a regular, and the local motor-racing fraternity did meet there, but so did Borges and Casares, among other writers and politicians. Who knows what back story these two had? Perhaps one was a vintner and the other wine merchant, maybe they had been political contacts during the troubled regimes of the Seventies and Eighties.

Their conversation, right in my ear and impossible to ignore, ranged over many things. And, naturally enough, given their age, over medicine. Inhibitor that, antagonist that, here an NHS policy of seemingly unconscious non-intervention until that looks like conscious intervention in itself… zinc, vitamin B…

But it culminated in a priceless moment, which went something like this, introduced quietly by the Englishman, under his breath:

“I don’t know if you’ll know this word.., but I think if anything I find that I am even randier than I was as a teenager…”

Silence, of incomprehension. So our South Ken gent was forced to say it again, at slightly higher volume.

“It’s not the sort of thing I really want to say out loud in a place like this, but I find nowadays that I am even more randy than I was as a teenager. Do you know what that means?”

By the end he was almost shouting.

“I said that… if anything nowadays… I am even more …randy… than I was as a teenager…”

And now it wasn’t just me that was accidentally overhearing them. The millennials in the room were beginning to look extremely doubtful, possibly panicked, possibly insulted (or were they taken up by an overwhelming metaphysical angst…?) Then came an unexpected reply.

“Ah, my friend, I do believe you want another child…”

What? Hardly. And coming from an ageing Latino… (I imagine them as the world’s finest roues and lovers). But I could hardly turn to see whether he had a wicked glint in his eye, now could I?

And what, you might ask, is the connection between this journal entry and even non-training? Well, the idea came to me when I was in a café on my way back from delivering some V-bars to a mate at Baker Street. V-bars? Yes, those things you see on car roofs cradling kayaks. So, about as elliptical a reference to sport and training as it’s possible to get.