Sitting in a shitty little café. London abounds in them, and it is shitty little cafés and Martin Amis novels which are always the first cause for any nostalgia I may have for London when I am abroad.
I think the reason I like London cafés is their honesty. The food is shit, the floor is sticky, the patron does not wash his hands or his coffee machine and boils and reboils the same milk all day. Here is a sample conversation which I’m sure will fill social anthropologists with curiosity:
‘I’d like the avocado and bacon toastie please.’ (customer)
‘The avocado is quite hard. Will that be ok?’ (assistant)
‘Very hard’ says the patron, from over by the coffee machine, as if they are talking about some unavoidable occurrence like the weather.
‘That’s ok. I don’t mind.’ (customer)
‘No it really is very hard today.’ (assistant)
‘Extremely hard’ (patron)
‘Just the bacon then thanks (thanks?!)’ (customer)
In Paris most of the cafés are crap too, but the difference is that customers and patrons alike believe this not to be the case and will violently refute any suggestion that what they sell is not actually that good. It is also a fact that the toilets of the worst Parisien café will be a lot worse than the toilets of the worst London café. I’ve checked.
In London most customers know for a fact that what they are going to get is not going to be that good. The patron will apologise, the customer will say ‘I don’t mind’/’That’s fine’/’Obviously I don’t expect to be gastronomically satisfied when I go to one of these places but there is some other more obscure reason why I keep coming here’
I know that if I go to Prêt à Manger the coffee will not be like washing up water and burnt milk, and the almost croissant will not be a stale yellow triangle with a few almonds affixed with sugar syrup to differentiate from the plain one (in fact, the best almond croissant i’m sorry to say is to be found at Tesco’s and at only 80p it is also by far the cheapest.) but I am drawn to these cafés in a way I am not drawn to franchises with a hygiene policy selling food that is actually edible.
However, thinking more deeply, there isn’t really much difference between one shitty café and the next one. The croissant will always be yellow and stale. The coffee will always look like washing-up water. The patron will always be wearing a dirty white apron with his sleeves rolled up. There will always be a copy of The Sun on one of the tables. Although the name may be different, the ‘experience’ is the same (as with Martin Amis novels).
I think the point is that these places feel more human, even if it is only because all around me there are so many examples of gross human errors. If each time I went to these places I was presented with a perfectly formed plump croissant with its sumptuous layer of frangipane filling perhaps I would not have begun to think about the wisdom we can gain from the acknowledgement of human error. Perhaps I may not have been reminded of the massive gulf between man and God had I received a perfect-every-time smooth and velvety cappuccino with a neat chocolate star dusted on the top.
At the end of the day, I would not have been able to produce anything like this after an hour sitting in Prêt. End of story.