Judi Dench in a London Cafe, 1957 (Photo: Getty)

    A love letter to cafés

    12 November 2020

    I miss the cafés. It might not seem like a huge deprivation but to me they are, as Manet observed of Le Café Guerbois, where we “keep our wits sharpened”.

    Cafés have formed the backdrop of my adult life. As a student in Paris, I sat au terrace smoking and pretending to read while the waiters grudgingly bought me tiny coffees and even smaller thimbles of water. As a graduate student in the US, I joined the rather friendlier ranks of the “coffee house” army, slurping bottomless coffees while I graded midterm papers. As a mother to a newborn baby, the café represented an escape from the four walls of my London flat, a place to observe the workings of the adult world from which I found myself newly exiled. In our year of the plague, the café (when open) has provided a destination to herd small children away from the home office and the distant sounds of a Zoom call in an upstairs room.

    We all have our own café narratives; a thousand miniature illustrations of philosopher Jurgen Habermas’s political theory that posits the café as the locus for the liberal Enlightenment. For Habermas, the creation of social spaces outside of the direct control of the state provided the catalyst for the free exchange of ideas and the growth of civil society in new and unexpected ways. A double espresso for clan society that created legions of jittery, over-caffeinated cosmopolitans and not a few revolutions. A place of shared ideas and high-minded conversation, threshold spaces operating at the junction between art and life.

    Think of a café and you probably think of a Parisian one, as per the powerful and enduring myth of the literary café forged by figures such as Baudelaire and Courbet in the Belle Epoque and later, Hemingway and Rhys in the jangly days of high modernism. Indeed, so enchanting is the ideal of the bohemian café jammed with genius misfits drinking absinth that modern-day Paris is seemingly full of tourists not looking for a particular monument or museum, but rather an idea, gestured at all over the city but found nowhere. The literary café exists, for us questing moderns, only in paintings or the pages of novels: Café Baudequin in Zola’s The Masterpiece, Degas’ L’Absinthe at the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes, Verlaine’s Café du Gaz. As in Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight we can only catch our own reflection in the Art Deco mirrors.

    Leave the hills of Montmartre and Montparnasse behind and the café looks very different; the same iteration of a concept reproduced ad nauseam. Can you tell one Pret from another? I can’t. But it doesn’t stop me going. Pre-Covid, the streets of every city in Britain were full of laptop-toting millennials looking not to interact but rather to – irony of ironies – isolate themselves from others in their technological cocoons, the lamented decline of the café into an office. But the embers of café civilization were not entirely extinguished in chain coffee shops, if you looked carefully you could see the power of proximity to others working to produce a shared energy, albeit anonymous.

    And yet, however impoverished cafés are, in a time of lockdown we have lost the ability to hover over the public and private divide in a communal space. That precious alchemy, familiar to every café-goer of being both casually public and nonchalantly private in a shared space has gone. Instead, the geographies of our everyday lives are chained to the domestic space. The feeling, that the best cafés produced so seamlessly, of straddling home and outside is gone, for now at least. When the madness is over, and a vaccine is available, I will head straight to Café Charlot on the Rue de Bretagne in the 3ème. There, I will sit unmasked, ignored, and insulted in ecstasies of happiness. Un grand crème, Monsieur?