Sunday, March 14, 2010

Coffee shops I have known

I find that I tend to orientate myself in any town I visit, and above all in the one I live in, London, by the stopping-places for coffee I have found for myself. Somewhere something of my Viennese birthright remains in me, though the Austrian side of my family was forced to leave Vienna when I was very tiny, bringing with it some of the mystique which surrounds that old Viennese institution, the Kaffeehaus. It still evokes for me images of a place where writers and musicians gathered, newspapers were read and society mingled over cups of coffee laced with cream and accompanied by Sachertorte, that special Viennese chocolate cake.

Such places have now become for me places of work, in which I have written all the first drafts of my books. I write in short bursts, by hand, perhaps a page or at the most two at a time, then turn to a book I am always reading, coffee cup in hand to complete my daily ritual. What I look for is a corner where I can tuck myself away, good espresso with a touch of hot milk, and, if possible no music, although silence is increasingly difficult to find. I often only drink one small sip at a time, leaving much of it in the cup, for it is the smell that I savour, the bitter-sweet smell of sweetened coffee, an adrenal rush if ever there is one, giving a boost for my thoughts. I like the anonymity of a public place where nobody knows me, and nobody can contact me. I add steadily to my stock of cafes, exploring new ones, discarding old ones, and have become a great source of knowledge about these staging-posts for my friends.

My accountant has baulked at including the cost of these trips to the cafe in my accounts, although of all things that support my writing these tiny cups of the cheapest coffee are, in my view, by far the most legitimate expense, far outweighing such mundane things as stationery or travel. But there we are. I will continue to bear the costs without complaining, knowing as I do that the presence of each tiny cup on the table in front of me is as essential to my writing as the computer with which I transcribe the handwritten pages emerging slowly on the table next to them.

It occurs to me that it would be fitting if I dedicated each of my books to the cafe in which I spent the greatest time writing it, a different one for each book, much as the writer Russell Hoban did for the restaurants in which he wrote his books. To the coffee houses of London I therefore herewith dedicate my books.

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