Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Breakfasted he is, and yet he's breakfastless

After the demise of my favourite record shop Cheapo a few years back (see here), another blow: I learnt this morning that the cafe in my local supermarket is to close at the end of this month. As I told the assistant, now I'll have to start making my own breakfast.

Alright, in some ways this will be no bad thing - and I have made my own breakfast in the past, I hasten to add. (Yes, really.) But the cafe was more than just a place to eat a meal prepared by other hands. It was a kind of refuge, providing an uncluttered table top when my own desk was messy (yes, yes, maybe I ought to address that too sometime), and over the last three years I have written or planned a substantial amount of my forthcoming book there.

Why? Well, unlike other local cafes - whose competition has, I'm told, finally proven too much to bear - once you sat down with the contents of your tray you were left alone: no passive-aggressive enquiries about whether you were finished; no whisking away of cups and plates, necessitating a mumbled "thank you" or an awkward and guilty silence - either way, something which you had to deal with, drawing you back to the workaday world.

And that certainty of not being interfered with has been a very pleasing, relaxing and freeing thing on the many mornings when I sat in that cafe over the last three years. I could spread out my index cards or leaf through my scrapbook of transcribed interviews and enjoy the process of willing the right order for all this material into being, alone with my thoughts; the cards or some other item of stationery might have been freshly bought in the supermarket so the whole thing seemed new.

The downside of that delicious sense of liberating isolation within a large and busy establishment was that other people had an irritating habit of taking advantage it too for their own selfish purposes. I have often found myself resenting noisy conversations between groups of women or men (rarely mixed) justified by no purchase bigger than a single cup of coffee each; I felt that I had the greater moral entitlement, having paid for a full meal. And besides, my brand of enjoyment wasn't encroaching on others.

Not, of course, that I was ever brave enough to point this out. Besides, such diners - if they can, indeed, be graced by such a term - tended to come later in the day: my golden time was from around 8am to 9.30am. And I learnt that a certain table at the far end, facing a wall, also helped in the privacy/quiet stakes.

Three years ... it's quite a few breakfasts. I should point out that a fair number of them were after an invigorating swim in the nearby council-run pool,  though that doesn't undo the fact that they were not terribly healthy options. And if you're wondering about my reluctance to use the library, which was similarly close by, it's partly because it didn't open till half nine but mostly because there was always a chance of being forced to hear children chanting nursery rhymes in the adjoining junior branch (no, no, no, not cute - and certainly not soundproofed) along with the hazard of mobile phones.

Ah, and maybe that is the key attraction of my soon-to-vanish cafe: as far as I know - I didn't test it myself - you couldn't get a phone signal in that specific area.

Soon, in the brave new world which looms, I must either learn to tidy up and eat at home or find somewhere else. There is, in fact, a new supermarket which has opened, offering a higher quality of grub in its far larger cafe. But 70s American music is constantly played at a lowish level, and there is no secluded corner. I have already used it for more boring parts of the writing process, like proofreading, but it's a short bus ride away and can't be dropped into like my previous haven.

But look, I don't want you to worry. I will get through this somehow, will learn to adjust. After all, things change: mango dessert emporia, to take one instance at random, are not made of stone.

There is also something fitting, perhaps, in the cafe closing just as my book is about to be published: it draws a line under the process. I recall asking a literary manager if playwriting got easier with each play; he replied that no, it didn't: each play was a new world you had to understand. If my book is any kind of success it may mean more writing of that sort: I've certainly found it a hell of a lot easier than playwriting. But now that the cafe which brought the book into being is gone it feels like there are new skills I will have to learn, new places I will have to discover so that creativity may flow freely.

It's all probably some kind of metaphor.


I began revising the above then realised I was in danger of losing the overall shape, so here's what I took out:

The promise of new stationery rarely delivers, in my experience, but continuing to buy it is an act of hope. Which reminds me of a Clive James interview with Jonathan Miller and Robbie Coltrane, viewable here, in which the good doctor goes off on a two minute riff about things and Robbie Coltrane eagerly joins in. What isn't mentioned, and may be relevant, is Coltrane's background as an art student: there is a shop in the basement of Glasgow Art School, and another - at least there was - a few blocks away; I still remember the joy, aged about fourteen, of my first Rapidograph: such perfect things I'd be drawing from then on ...

That didn't quite work out, as alluded to in an earlier post here. And substituting the interior of my local supermarket for the basement of Glasgow Art School is a bit of a leap: I think back to a moment of skipping down those narrow steps for more supplies, flush with the success of a life drawing I'd just finished. But working on the book has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and I have taken a great deal of pride in making it as pleasurable, easy and musical a read as possible. Which is something. You can read about it here if you want.

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