We come to coffee when we need to.
In this respect, it is different from alcohol, which finds us whether we want it to or not. As Stanley Kowalski says of that latter intoxicant in A Streetcar Named Desire “Some people rarely touch it, but it touches them often”. Alcohol is easy, and dangerously so, especially if you are British; especially if you are British and grew up in a booze-induced fuddle of alcopops and burgeoning sexual desire. Alcohol you can mix, can cut with lesser substances. As a teenager I was part of a culture that gleefully mixed liquor, which we couldn’t stand the taste of, with sugary sodas more pleasant to the adolescent palate. That is, until some bright spark at Interbrew or some other faceless corporate peddler of identitaste, mass-produced intoxicants came up with the idea of selling alcopops pre-mixed. I remember a drink called Mule (basically, vodka and cola) that was so sweet it burned your gums, and in which the taste and the soporific effect of the vodka were a sideshow to the atomic sugar rush it delivered.
The taste of coffee is harder to mask. Even in those sugary confections that come in tall paper cups and take the grandiose names of traditional Italian variations (to which they bear not even passing resemblances) you can still taste the grind, you can still make out the bitterness of an overheating industrial coffee machine. And the taste of coffee in our collective psyche is more singular, more firmly identified. It is quite easy to find a British person who will tell you that she doesn’t like the taste of coffee. But such is the British love affair with booze that to tell a British person that you don’t like the taste of alcohol is to suggest implicitly some failing in your own perceptions of flavour. “But alcohol has so many tastes. What do you mean exactly? Is it the taste of wine that you dislike, or the taste of beer? Vodka tastes nothing like whisky. Vodka tastes nothing like gin, even if they are, at heart the same. And anyway, if you don’t like it, you know what you should do? Mix it with something sweet.”
Coffee is difficult. It is difficult to make well without specific equipment. It is a difficult taste to love, especially as a young person. It is no accident that coffee and cigarette smoke make such good bed-fellows. Both burn. Both singe and corrode and stain all the way down. But, unlike smoking, coffee offers nothing to the adolescent seeking to stamp his mark on the world in his own inimitable way. Coffee is not central to the desire to conform that lies at the heart of so many teenage rebellions. Unlike smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee is not in the slightest bit rebellious.
In fact if you’re a rebellious teen, drinking coffee is probably a bit fuddy-duddy. Holden Caulfield prefers malts with his Swiss cheese sandwiches. Only Charles Highway in Amis’ The Rachel Papers stands out in my mind as a caffeinated young person in fiction. And we all know that when Highway talks of “making coffee” as he often does in that novel, what he really means is pouring boiling water over instant granules.
Indeed, while the British relationship with coffee might have started in the eighteenth century, with tarry black liquor in steamy parlours on London backstreets – I see Grubb Street hacks poring over Pope’s latest scathing pamphlet, steaming mugs gripped in ink-stained fingers, searching vainly among the heroic couplets for thinly veiled references to themselves – for most of the twentieth century, instant was where it was at. I grew up in the era of the instant coffee advertisement soap opera. And I remember that other ad where the man does a passable impression of a percolator to hide the fact that his dinner party guests are supping instant while guffawing over After Eights, like everyone did in the 80s. My parents drank instant, despite my father’s preference for “proper coffee”. In fact, he hated the freeze dried granulated variety with such a passion that he refused to acknowledge its status as coffee at all, calling it in all idiosyncratic seriousness, a “caffeinated, coffee-flavoured beverage”. But real coffee made in a French press was strictly a weekend drink, when there was time to luxuriate over the ritual and the process as well as over the drinking itself. During the week he put up with instant, like everyone else. It seems quaint now to think of a time before the high street coffee chain or the affordable home espresso machine, and I feel a pang of sympathy for my father the frustrated proper coffee drinker. But recently I was surprised to learn that the British still, overwhelmingly, buy instant coffee over any other iteration. There is something reassuringly British in this; our propensity to continue to consume a product in vast quantities, despite knowing full well that it is crap. It isn’t really British to drink coffee. Yes, traditionally we prefer tea. But the French drink more tea and more coffee than we do. The difference is that, being French, they drink both these beverages properly.
Americans understand coffee. The stuff is engrained (get it?) in their culture. It seems no accident to me that the country’s greatest coffee export is named after a character in one of its greatest novels. The black stuff runs deep with them. I didn’t travel to America until I was eighteen, but like everyone else my preconceptions of the country were based on the verisimilitudes created by the cinema. By eighteen I had come to the conclusion that American celluloid, especially that concerning New York City, is steeped in coffee. Don DeLillo writes in the novel Underworld that the true sound of New York is that of millions of people talking with their mouths full. If that’s the case, then surely it must also be the sound of millions of people sipping steaming cups of Joe between mouthfuls, a tar-black balm against the pitiless Eastern winter. Would Taxi Driver be the same movie without those shots of Travis Bickle in sleazy all night coffee shops, surrounded by other drivers who don’t understand the black rage boiling inside him? I’ll admit that there may be one or two more memorable lines in that movie, but one of the moments that always stays with me is DeNiro’s voiceover of Travis and Betsy’s first date in the coffee shop. Betsy orders coffee and a fruit salad, but as Travis says “she could have had anything she wanted”. For Travis, coffee (black, of course) and a piece of apple pie topped with a slice of melted yellow cheese, which to Travis’ mind was “a good selection”. As a landlocked British teen it was always a selection that intrigued me. Cheese and apple pie? The coffee seemed to be the only normal thing about it.
One of the weirdest movies about Hollywood must be David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. And one of that movie’s weirdest scenes is that in which an aged mafioso spews an unacceptable espresso onto a pristine white napkin, much to the distress of the obsequious execs trying desperately to please him, who have imported the beans especially for his delectation. And of course, coffee and coffee shops loom large in Tarantino’s films. The Reservoir Dogs argue over the tip in the hours before the doomed heist. In Pulp Fiction Tim Roth sits in a coffee shop and muses on why no-one ever robs restaurants. We know that Clarence Worley likes his coffee sweet – he isn’t happy “until the spoon stands up” – and that Winston Wolfe takes his with “lots of cream and lots of sugar”. Tarantino’s best coffee scene must be that in which Jules Winnfield and Vince Vega, having just accidentally wasted the poor young man they were transporting back to Marsellus Wallace, pull into Jimmie’s place for coffee and an emergency back-seat upholstery shampoo. Their spiky dialogue about coffee and Afro-American corpses is so quintessentially American that it could not have happened in a British film. If it had, it might go something like this:
BRITISH VERSION OF VINCE VEGA: This coffee tastes nice.
BRITISH VERSION OF JIMMIE: It’s Gold Blend.
BRITISH VERSION OF VINCE VEGA: Oh. Right.
Appropriately enough, having never really drunk coffee as a teen, I started to understand its power in the spiritual home of American barista-ship, Seattle. The youth hostel on Union Street used to offer free coffee (and bagels for a dollar) to its paying guests. It was there too that I first experienced chain-shop coffee and the homogenised allure of a standardised product. Later on the same trip, in Hawaii, I remember going to a Starbucks on the beach. What an odd experience. I ordered an iced tea; I’m British and it was too hot for coffee anyway.
But like I said, you come to coffee when you need it, and back then I didn’t really need it. As a student I slept lots and drank too much; my days were leisurely and bookish. So I only started drinking coffee in earnest when I finished university and started working. Looking back on my twenties, the decade tells a story of spiralling addiction. When some friends bought my wife and me a little Gaggia as a wedding present, our fates were sealed. That machine stayed with us until its recent lime-scaled demise. We replaced it instantly with a slightly higher spec model. By this time, we had two children aged one and three, and so the coffee machine had gone from being a lifestyle accessory to being an essential home appliance. I have maintained since the birth of our second child that an entry level espresso machine should be made available to all new parents on the NHS.
But as well as being my friend in dark hours for the last decade or so, coffee has accompanied some of my more pleasurable experiences. As temporary residents in Vancouver, my wife and I were regulars at a coffee shop on Broadway with a characteristically punning name, Higher Grounds. We have drunk cafe solos in little bars on the Costa Brava. And, proof positive that taste must be largely contextual, we found that a plastic cup of scalding Nescafe Red hit the spot on an early morning ferry out of Piraeus on our honeymoon.
Now, more than anything, coffee is a crutch that we lean on. Amid the chaos created by a toddler and a preschooler, the five minutes it takes to make and drink an espresso represents a little nugget of blissful quietude. And now that we have mouths to feed and mortgages to pay, we are becoming more constrained in our habits. The abstemiousness of parenthood takes its toll on your alcohol consumption, solely because looking after a two-year-old while hungover is a hell like no other. But when you are only sleeping three hours a night, coffee is always your friend. My brother in law, Paul, a father and a baker, says that he barely drinks anymore. We have all talked about cutting down on our coffee intake, for fear that our guts must look like tannin-stained sacks of blubber. But Paul summed up succinctly the need for coffee in our ever more spartan lives when he said recently, “If I don’t drink coffee, what else have I got?”