Friday, 25 November 2011


All my adult life coffee shops have been very important to me. I write in them. I read in them and, as regular readers of this blog will know, I have been known to form relationships in them. I cogitate, ruminate, meditate and (once or twice) mediate in them. Sometimes I even drink coffee in them. They are a basic essential of my life.

Some years ago, before the arrival of the big Coffee Chains in this country, I lived in Edinburgh. There was a great variety of places to drink coffee and watch the world go by in that great City then. Everything from the rather elegant Coffee Room at the top of Jenner's Department Store which looked out over Princes Street Gardens and which was, in turn, overlooked by a looming Edinburgh Castle perched high on its forbidding mound of rock, to the little Italian Cafes out in the "sticks".

My favourite place, though, The Laigh, was right in the centre of town. You went down some steps from street level and into a long, narrowish establishment with a varnished wooden floor and long plane tables and bench seats on either side. On shelves above head height were displayed brass pots, pans and other kitchen equipment from a bygone age, although I always had the suspicion that some of the older clientele could remember them being used.

The walls were wooden panels of a sort of honey coloured hew that glowed when the sun came out. It wasn't the most luxuriously appointed establishment that I've ever been in but it suited me just fine. It was owned by an elderly actor called Moultrie Kelsall who was a bit eccentric and had an honourable, if not scintillating career on Stage Screen and T.V. I chiefly remembered him from a guest role in a black and white series called Doctor Finlay's Casebook which was a national institution for a while.

One of the most attractive things about this place was the variety of customers that walked down those steps. You could find yourself chatting to everyone from an office worker to a business man, an actor or a prostitute! I chatted up the lady who was to be my partner over a chocolate cake one afternoon as I said all the right things about a new pair of shoes she had bought - and was extremely pleased with.

Believe me, I clocked up a good few hours in The Laigh. I like to think of that time as my "Bohemian (some say unemployed) Period" and I'd sit for hours in conversation with eccentrics, amateur philosophers, tub thumpers, nut jobs and, once in a blue moon, someone of true intellect and insight. I may have been a burden on the British Taxpayer at the time, but at least, I was learning. A lot of the ideas that are the mainstay of my world view were formed then.

Although, in most things, I favour independent businesses over national or international chains, I have to admit that Coffee Chains pretty much give someone like me everything they want. You can sit for as long as you like and think wonderful thoughts. If you happen to be in a strange town the sight of a branch of your favourite chain can be very comforting - like a little bit of home away from home. Like your own living room.

I prefer writing in coffee shops to writing at home anyway. It's a less lonely and less sterile atmosphere and if you get stuck with something you forget the laptop for a moment or, in my case, put your pen down. You watch the world go by and, usually, the magic works and your temporary block vanishes as quickly as Spring snow.

The best thing about Coffee Shops though - let me whisper it ladies - that someone wonderful will walk through the door and the only available seat will be at YOUR table. So, if you are passing by my local, come in and make yourself known. The coffees are on me - and perhaps a piece of chocolate cake. Just don't ask me to like Starbucks!!!


  1. Moultrie Kelsall is a rather strange name

  2. I don't think I could ever write in public; I'd freeze right up. Tea, however, is essential to the process.

  3. I share your love of coffee shops in which to write and read and ponder. I actually don't drink coffee as it is verboten in my religion but I adore the smell. I usually sip herbal tea and revel in the sinfully comfortable scent of fresh roasted coffee beans. :)

  4. Apart from the quality of the coffee, the other way to judge a coffee-house is on the quality of the artwork and whether you'd want to buy any of it. In general, the more you want their pictures, the more you'll like their coffee and their philosophy.

    My current favourite is in Yorkshire, the SunCatcher's Cafe in Masham. The stone building behaves like a cosy cave. Outside is a comfortable market town and a glorious church, inside it is 1967 and the owner has just come back from an ashram, man.

    The jumbling of the eastern exotic on to the picturesque square is a bubble universe carrying its own time and optimism. Paintings of fish swim round the log fire.

    Can't say I've written anything there but it's the perfect place for a spot of reading on the sofa.

  5. My hometown of Vienna (Austria) has a long tradition of coffeehouses, too. I enjoyed them and keep enjoying them from the time I went there when playing truant in my schooldays through uni up until now. I also like to observe people, make funny comments about them when with a friend or to read a paper although, I must admit, I could never write anything of worth there or do any focused reading, I simply lack the concentration for that but 'chaqun à son gôut', right?

    We also have a whole separate literary tradition of coffeehouse-writers centred around the time of the fin de siècle: Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus, Arthur Schnitzler etc.

    All the best to you, v.B.