This is not the first mention of coffee in my blog. There seems to me a natural connection between writing and coffee. Coffee and coffee houses originated in the Ottoman Empire, with the first coffee house appearing in the 16th century in Istanbul. Coffee and coffee house culture migrated through Europe during the 17th century and cafés of diverse kinds are now firmly established social institutions world-wide. Early cafés in the East and in Europe were places where (male) intellectuals could not only read their poetry and books, but could discuss new ideas, politics and issues of the day. Of course, they met with disapproval from the authorities of the day who sought they would encourage the spread of dissent and subversion. Cafés have developed with culture and are now firmly part of civil life all over the globe. But it took three hundred years for book marketeers to begin the lucrative association of the coffee shop with the bookshop to the extent where it is hard to disassociate the smell of a new book from the smell of a skinny latte.
It was, and probably still is, fashionable for creative writing gurus to recommend writing in a café to free up the mind. I don’t think that the writers of these books had caffeine overload on their minds, or even the profits of the owners of cafés where they’d happily rent you a table for an afternoon for the price of a mean skinny latte, or even a cappuccino. Placate the ‘monkey mind’ with some caffeine and let your subconscious free. Doesn’t quite work like that. Too much caffeine and that monkey gets ADHD and palpitations. Even without caffeine overload, I have never managed to find that creative resonance that produces pages of wild writing encouraged by the steamy gushing of the Gaggia. More and more these days in cafés I am aware of the sound of someone else’s laptop tapping out ‘Seriously I’m working, guys. I even have to work in a café. Look – I’ve got my laptop…’ Or, worse, ‘I’m the kind of cool person who has noisy business meetings in cafés and needs the world to know how busy I am’… and hacks off everyone who wants to come in and actually buy something… Nowadays, I suspect that a paper notebook and a pen meets with suspicion. Especially one that is being wildly written in by a woman sitting on her own. Writing on paper is not seen as a displacement activity, but as an engagement with a pen and conscious writing intention. It’s not web browsing, but writing. Pens are dangerous. Why am I scribbling wildly in a notebook instead of reading a magazine or playing with my mobile phone ? Even before a pen became conspicuous, scribbling wildly in a notebook is something I prefer to do in the privacy of my own home, possibly because I am writing such a load of tosh – and a writer’s tosh is between the writer and the covers of her notebook.
But drinking coffee in a café, or at home, is important to me as a writer and human being. It is not just a consumable like a can of pop. One has to respect the drink. It is potent, like an alcoholic beverage. I don’t drink cheap booze because it is bad to taste and bad for the health in its components and milieu. Not that the middle class winefest to excess is good for the health. But good wine, like good coffee, has its place in a life to be enjoyed and embraced. This is the core of it for me. To write is to embrace my humanity and sensuality. Drinking crap coffee is not something that enhances my sensibilities, nor my humanity. It is an insult to them. Bad coffee is horrible in a way that is worse than other ersatz enjoyments because the taste and sensation of coffee can be spoiled easily and dramatically by a failure at any stage of its preparation. Quality over quantity makes particular sense for coffee. ‘Less is more’ is as true for coffee as it is for writing.
OK, perhaps I’m a bit of a princess, but I would rather drink water than decaffeinated coffee. That some folk claim they cannot tell the difference beggars belief. The decaffeination processes take away subtle aspects of the taste as well as the va va voom. If you are going to have coffee, have proper coffee, I say. I’m a convert to the dark roast when it comes to my favourite morning beverage. Outwith this time, unless I am at an airport at midnight or languishing after a particularly pleasant meal, I drink tea of varying kinds. But the morning, post-breakfast, requires a large mug of fresh, black coffee. Never, ever, instant. Making instant coffee seems to me a waste of good coffee beans. My writing day begins with the taste of a single-estate bean or a good blend of beans. One large mug is (usually) enough. But I’d never trade even a single good coffee for any number of bad ones.
I post below a light-hearted poem from my cappuccino days, before milk was barred from my coffee. You’ll also notice a reference to butter. I believe in the real deal there too. You’ll find no marg in my fridge.
When you came for coffee I didn’t have decaff
I, unapologetic, brewed it good and strong.
Whilst you had your herbal tea and a slice of lemon
I crunched Amaretti and sipped through froth.
You talked of your healthy dry-toast existence
and I my taste for buttered scones.
You expounded your passion for exercise,
and I my dedication to sloth.
You said that I should take more care,
I that you should have more fun.
You invited me for a lunchtime run… But I
made myself another coffee, ate a buttered scone.