Cafe City

Online, there’s now so much comment posing as content it’s hard not to get caught up in it all. Last week I found myself reading the comments on a Guardian column, which was itself commenting on the Daily Mail’s manufactured outrage – more comment –  over Hilary Mantel’s article in the LRB. Which was a comment on the royal family. That’s four levels of commentary, with the royals at the core.  The single quote of the Mantel piece that bears repeating is this:

“That’s what discourse about royals comes to: a compulsion to comment, a discourse empty of content.”

Quite. But it’s not just discourse on the royals. Today I find myself reading comment pieces on Seth MacFarlane’s hosting of the Oscars. Last night I stayed up to see the whole ceremony (redeemed by the divas – Streisand, Bassey, Adele). I watched Mr MacFarlane’s opening section, where he used misfiring jokes to illustrate the sort of jokes that would probably attract negative comments if he made them. Except he was still, technically, making them and putting them out there into the world at one of the biggest media events in the calendar. A cake and eat it situation. True to form, he attracted negative comments. But again – still in a cake-and-eat-it fashion – these media articles still quoted the bad taste jokes. Thus spreading them into the world, maintaining them, giving them longer life. And presumably such columnists got paid for doing so. It’s all getting a bit dishonest – getting pleasure from getting angry about something is not the same as just getting angry. I think that, unless it’s a source of income, one should just steer clear of this massive spiral of self-perpetuating tweeting and column writing and deliberate attraction of kneejerk responses that goes on every day. Myself most of all. I must write more about what I’m actually doing in my own life – away from the internet, that is. If only to, well, add more ‘original content’.


The internet catchprase ‘TL; DR’ (‘too long, didn’t read) should really be ‘TL;DR;SC’. Too long, didn’t read, still commented.


Winter lingers on in London, pleasing no one. Not least those who can’t afford to keep their homes heated for very long per day. So the city’s cafes are packed with those who are lucky enough not to have to work in an office, but not quite lucky enough to be able to keep their own rooms within room temperature.

Finding a seat at the British Library’s café in St Pancras has become impossible. There’s a row of armchairs in front of the King’s Library display, facing the entrance, which are built especially for laptop users, complete with little tables and power points in the arm rests. I’ve been coming to the BL for about ten years and have never ever seen a single one of these chairs going free. I wonder if it’s the same people who use them every day, who queue up outside as the building opens and rush to claim a seat as if they were deckchairs on a cruise liner (and the BL building does indeed resemble a redbrick ocean liner from some angles). I walk in, look around in frustration at the lack of places to sit, and walk out again.

I suppose I should be happy for all the people in this blissful situation. Now more than ever, London seems to be rammed full of students and researchers and academics and writers and, well, anyone whose job just involves bringing their laptop to a seat and a power socket. I don’t begrudge them their café-based, laptop-based lives; I just wish there were more seats in the BL to go around.

One main difference between franchise cafes and independent cafes is the music they play. Franchises have CDs imposed upon them by head offices. I’m convinced every branch of Caffe Nero has been playing exactly the same single compilation CD for the last year. I think Eat has the same CD too. Meanwhile independent cafes, such as greasy spoons, put on the radio. If a Starbucks ever put on the radio it would break their whole world– the whole point of a franchise is its lack of unpredictability.

The British Library café, like many state-funded museum cafes, refrains from music at all: perhaps another reason for its popularity. I wonder if unasked-for music, in this era of choice and no surprises and jukebox musicals and On Demand websites, is becoming much more objectionable as a result. I just hope the staff in franchise cafes don’t mind having to hear the same music all the time. It certainly bothers the hell out of me.

The blandness of franchises is meant to be welcoming – that’s how shopping malls are meant to work. But not in the case of HMV. Today I walk past their Trocadero branch in Piccadilly Circus, and see the ‘CLOSING DOWN SALE’ posters in its windows. It’s the last CD shop in Piccadilly to go. I take a browse among the racks, stickered with knockdown prices, but can’t find anything I want. Which is, I suppose, one reason they’re closing.

I did buy a brand new CD recently – the new My Bloody Valentine album (their first in 22 years). But as with so much New Stuff, I found out about it online, coupled with the information that the band were selling it directly from their own website. So I just clicked through and bought it. Hunting the CD down in a physical shop would seem redundant beyond belief. This is good for the band, in terms of their getting more of a cut of the price, not so good for record shops.

And yet, cheap non-digital entertainment still has its place. Twice last week, in the National Gallery café, and in Costa Piccadilly, I saw groups of teenage tourists not fiddling with their smartphones or laptops at all, but playing cards.

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What To Give William Blake

Lots of moaning to myself lately.

A request from the singer-songwriter Lettie. Would I like to play guitar and sing for her at a gig in a few weeks’ time? I tentatively agree. Last night: she comes to the Boogaloo, buys me drinks and lends me an acoustic guitar.

This morning I try playing the thing. It’s the first time there’s been an instrument in my home since I sold them all 18 months ago. I think it’s also the first time I’ve picked up a guitar since the last Fosca gig in Sweden, Spring 2009.

I’d like to say my fingers fall easily onto the guitar and it feels like coming home. Not a bit of it. The strings cut into my fingers and it hurts and I’m not sure I feel like a guitarist any more. But then, I’ve always found acoustic guitars so much harder to play than electrics. I decide to try again later.


This week I upload my CV onto a job-matching website. It returns just one vacancy. Street fundraiser. Also known as ‘charity mugger’ or ‘chugger’. ‘Do you want to develop your interpersonal skills?’ says the ad. By which they mean, do you want to annoy innocent passers-by and risk being punched fully in the face? I sympathise with the people who do this job, but it doesn’t change my moral opposition to it.

A couple of friends say I should just take any job going. But I can’t do what I can’t do. It’s like asking a man with vertigo to clean the windows of a skyscraper. He could do it, but he wouldn’t last and he wouldn’t be at all happy.

Not that I’m happy being on the dole. As soon as I think I’m managing, something comes along like a dental check-up bill –even at the NHS level – and I have to cancel all going out for the next fortnight.

Here’s hoping something comes along soon.

On top of this I’m angry at my shoes. New smart flaneur-ing boots, a present from my parents, who were appalled that I couldn’t afford to replace my disintegrating old pair. Although they fitted okay in the shop, they’re still pinching my feet painfully after ten days of wear. I’ve tried using a softening spray (£7, more pain) but the pinching persists.  Trouble is, I don’t think you’re allowed to exchange shoes once they’ve clearly been worn  – that’s the Catch-22 of footwear.

The temperature has dropped close to freezing and I can’t afford to heat the room all day. So this morning I wander outside, shivering and feet-hurting and guitar-resenting and penniless and feeling utterly sorry for myself. If in doubt, go for a walk.

In Highgate Village, I bump into Brian David Stevens, the photographer whom I last spoke to at the Felt book launch. He invites me to a private view this afternoon in London Bridge. It’s free and sounds interesting, but I can’t even afford the return bus fare.

Then I think, stuff it, I’ll just walk. It’s all downhill, and I have all the time in the world. So I do it. Six miles, from Highgate to Archway, down the full length of Holloway Road to Highbury Corner, through Islington to Old Street, down to Moorgate and Bank and across the river. Proper flaneur stuff. It warms me up, it’s good exercise, it might help to make the boots stop pinching, and by the end of it I think I’m a kind of New Romantic Iain Sinclair.

The exhibition in London Bridge is called Civil Unrest, featuring photos from the recent London protests. The venue is the Depot, where I’ve DJ-d in the past. A series of cavernous black warehouse spaces underneath the arches of London Bridge station. The photos are blown-up prints pasted around the dark walls in suitably gritty fashion. There’s crowd control barriers, piles of rubbish in corners and it’s all very ‘themed’. The staffer on the door is dressed in full riot squad gear, complete with shield, while the free drinks – brandy punch – are served in tin campsite mugs. I say hello to Marc Vallee, another of the photographers.

On the way back, I stop off at Bunhill Fields to look at William Blake’s grave. There’s a pile of people’s tributes on top of the stone: mostly pennies and cents, a few seashells and stones, some earrings. And more unexpectedly, an FM radio attachment for an iPod.

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