Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The cultural life of London's cafes

A 1668 illustration showing a contemporary London coffee house Photo: Lordprice Collection / Alamy

The Starbucks on Russell Street near Covent Garden piazza is one of London’s many, cloned coffee shops. Can you imagine walking in, sitting next to a stranger and asking for the latest news? Or slamming a recent novel down next to someone’s coffee and asking for their opinion before delivering yours? It’s not the done thing.
But 300 years ago, precisely this kind of behaviour was encouraged in thousands of coffeehouses all over London. In 1712, the Starbucks site was occupied by Button’s coffeehouse. Inside, poets, playwrights, journalists and members of the public gathered around long wooden tables drinking, thinking, writing and discussing literature into the night. Nailed to the wall, near where the Starbucks community notice board now stands, was the white marble head of a lion with wide-open jaws. The public was invited to feed it with letters, limericks and stories; the best of the lion’s digest were published in a weekly edition of Joseph Addison’s Guardian newspaper, entitled ‘the roarings of the lion’.(...)
Every time you sip a cup of coffee in London, you are participating in a ritual that stretches back 360 years to a muddy churchyard in the heart of the City. London’s first coffeehouse (or rather, coffee stall) was opened by an eccentric Greek named Pasqua Roseé in 1652. While a servant for a British Levant merchant in Smyrna, Turkey, Roseé developed a taste for the exotic Turkish drink and decided to import it to London. People from all walks of life swarmed to his business to meet, greet, drink, think, write, gossip and jest, all fuelled by coffee.(...)

An 18th-century coffee house customer makes his point. Image: North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy

By 1663 there were 82 coffeehouses within the old Roman walls of the City. They arose from the ashes of the Great Fire and went on to survive Charles II’s attempt to crush them in 1675. It concerned the king that for a measly one-penny entrance fee anyone could discuss politics freely. The term ‘coffee-house politician‘ referred to someone who spent all day cultivating pious opinions about matters of high state and sharing them with anyone who’d listen. Although some coffeehouses had female staff, no respectable woman would wish to be seen inside these premises and the Women’s Petition Against Coffee (1674) bemoaned how the "newfangled, abominable, heathenish liquor called coffee" had transformed their industrious, virile men into effeminate babbling layabouts who idled away their time in coffeehouses.The men took no notice and London became a city of coffee addicts. By the dawn of the eighteenth century, contemporaries counted over 3,000 coffeehouses in London although 21st-century historians place the figure closer to 550.(...)
Despite these diversifications, coffeehouses all followed the same formula, maximising the interaction between customers and forging a creative, convivial environment. On entering, patrons would be engulfed in smoke, steam, and sweat and assailed by cries of “What news have you?” or, more formally, “Your servant, sir, what news from Tripoli?” Rows of well-dressed men in periwigs would sit around rectangular wooden tables strewn with every type of media imaginable - newspapers, pamphlets, prints, manuscript newsletters, ballads, even party-political playing cards. Unless it was a West End or Exchange Alley coffeehouse, the room would be cosy but spartan - shaved wooden floors, no cushions, wainscoted walls, candles, the odd spittoon. In the distance, a little Cupid-like boy in a flowing periwig would bring a dish of coffee. It would cost a penny and come with unlimited refills. Once a drink was provided, it was time to engage with the coffeehouse’s other visitors. Conversation was the lifeblood of coffeehouses. From coffeehouses all over London, Samuel Pepys recorded fantastical tales and metaphysical discussions - of voyages "across the high hills in Asia above the clouds" and the futility of distinguishing between a waking and a dreaming state. Listening and talking to strangers - sometimes for hours on end - was a founding principle of coffeehouses yet one that seems most alien to us today.

Excerpt from the article by Dr. Matthew Green.
Read the article in full:

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