This is England, please don’t smile

This is England, please don’t smile

This morning I awoke with a rather fuzzy head. After rootling around a worryingly well stocked medicine cabinet and washing away my sins in a shower as hot as the depths of hell, it was time for my morning pick me up. Abandoning the usual grapefruit, I decided to stroll down to my local Starbucks on Fulham road to perk myself up.

After heaving open the heavy glass door one is overwhelmed by the smell of a never-enduring Yuletide, fresh coffee beans, and ladies perfume. Usually a wonderful triumvirate but at 9.00AM on a Monday, a tad disconcerting. The place was swamped by pompous students and buckets of back and forth prams. I wanted to turn and run. Yet the problem was that when you walk it to a Starbucks you are slowly sucked toward the counter. The ‘lazy Sunday’ music cottoned with the passive aggressive eyes that flick up from their lap tops give you a quiet deep and dark insecurity. Like the affable swan- coolness on the surface and panic underneath- I scuttled into the queue.

The queue immediately made me feel at home. That old English maxim; if in doubt form an orderly queue. However this was not like waiting to get into Wimbledon, it was far more twitchy and full of unhappy people scrolling through their mobile phones. A child at the adjourning table roared from his nascent lungs.

My outlook was looking bleak.

After what felt like a lifetime, I reached the waitress. It was the manager of the store ‘Sara’. She was all teeth, moisturiser, blue eyes, and had her hair in an impossibly tight bun. She looked directly at me, though her hands appeared to be doing twelve different things at once…rather discombobulating.

“What can I get you?” She asked, in her perky Scando-America accent.

Now, I’m not such a luddite that I’m not au fait with the current concoctions of coffee (though the difference between a flat white and a latte still baffles me). I usually have a double latte in the morning, black through the day day, and macchiato after dinner.

“A double latte” I replied and went for my wallet. Mistakenly I thought my transaction with Sara was over. She proceeded, with arms whirring around like wild dervishes, to fire more questions at me.

“Extra shot?”
“Whipped cream?”
“Chocolate topping?”
“What size?”
“What’s your name?”

I was really on the back foot. The sizes are all in Italian- I went for ‘normal’, she replied in Italian. I nodded in agreement. I politely declined her offers of extra this and extra that and was so flustered by her interrogation that I almost forgot my own name.

Finally I was allowed to pay the money and was shunted, without coffee, to another counter. At this wooden board was a gaggle of caffeine starved souls waiting for their fix. A less gifted member of staff was manning the espresso machine and punctuating the morning with perpetual screeches of steam. Giant paper cups covered in marker pen fly past me into awaiting hands.

Finally my coffee arrives, with a gleaming smile from the barista.

“Enjoy your coffee, have a nice day” she beamed at me.

I struggled past the new hoard of coffee deprived zombies and exited Starbucks. My ‘experience’ was over and I had a coffee in my hand, yet part of me felt that it was an unnecessary foray. Undoubtably the coffee is excellent, the service delightful and uber polite. The major problem with Starbucks is that, on a classical English high street, it is ultimately an unwanted incongruous presence- rather like being given a hot dog at The Ritz. There is a malevolent undertone of force to which we bend our knee easily. They have given us the mindset that the simple task of having a coffee must either be enjoyed on the hoof out of a beaker or in this coffee based Arcadia.

The difficulty is that coffee should be sat and enjoyed in the correct surroundings and pace. Italy, the spiritual home of café culture, would be appalled at these American style ‘coffee houses’ The Italians either nip in to an espresso bar for a quick shot and run or at the cafés where they lazily sip on long cappuccinos whilst putting the world to rights.

I feel that tea shops have been completely muscled out by our cousins from the other side of the Atlantic. Starbucks and other ubiquitous American chains cluttering up London are becoming allegories of the disillusion of Britain; we are slowly crumbling into a whimpering satellite of Uncle Sam, unless we make a stand. We, the Great British public, must resist the temptation to believe the lie that we are incomplete without a giant vat of milky coffee. A normal black coffee with a normal name is a lovely start the day, a mochachocofrappalatte with all the sugary trimmings is better suited to a podgy child’s birthday party.

I am not saying that we should all march down to the Dorchester for tea and crumpets, though the thought delights me. But I feel we must drink what we want, where we want, and bring an end to this slavish trail of consumerism. And I for one will revert to strong espressos from little Italian shops and begin to host my own tea parties. Tea parties with proper tea pots, perhaps a cucumber sandwich or two, and will take great relish in picking up the pot and asking my guests “shall I be Mother?”


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