I was in the queue at a chain coffee shop the other day and overheard a conversation. A man in the queue explained to the woman behind the counter that his father had died a few days ago. The two were regular customers and the father had wanted the staff to know. The man reassured them he would still be coming in.
You can spend knocking on £3 for a coffee that costs well under 50p to produce. What are we paying for? My answer:
Healing is not always recovery from something. Healing builds resilience. For most of our lives, we need that type of healing. Unstructured meeting places like coffee shops, public houses or cafes offer healing. I live a quiet life and easily pass several days without speaking to anyone. This is a life I’ve chosen and it is a life of solitude, not loneliness.
I have my routine. Desk work in the morning, walking and meetings in the afternoon, desk work or meetings in the evening. It doesn’t always pan out that way but mostly it works. I long since stopped torturing myself for being single. There’s one person responsible for my happiness. I don’t let him spoil it!
But I like to sit quietly among people. Mostly I read but I look around. I see people work in coffee shops. They sit quietly with lap tops usually; pen and paper on occasion. Others meet in small groups to do business, fall in love, argue, rest from shopping.
I like anonymity and others prefer the shop where they’re known and the barista prepares their usual without a word of instruction. These spaces matter, they’re spaces of healing. The local economy creates these spaces, they’re good for business and good for everyone.
“Ah but …” I hear you cry! “Coffee is not good for you. It’s a drug.” Misuse may be why it and alcohol are social drinks. Not in the sense their consumption creates a social atmosphere but in the sense they structure the spaces we occupy socially. These spaces constrain excess, whether it’s alcohol or coffee.
Public hospitality has always been important. The word restaurant was originally applied to soups that restored the customer. Tea and coffee were seen as medicinal in their early years and sometimes disapproved of, see JS Bach’s Coffee Cantata, for example. Café is short for cafeteria, Italian for coffee house.
The time we take to do nothing is important and we should do nothing in public, not behind closed doors.
“We’d like to be unhappy, but / We never do have the time”.
There’s so much to this story. I’ve deliberately left it much as it was in its original version. It’s hard to believe I wrote this about 18 months ago.
Maybe we’ll most regret erosion of hospitality once the lockdown is over. Hospitality is built into human societies and it’s when opportunities to give and receive are lost that societies fail.
There were always ways to receive hospitality. Before hotels, there were religious institutions, including hospitals (there’s a clue in that word), where people could stay the night. These were in rural areas and it was rare for there to be nowhere to rest within a day’s journey of any place.
In urban areas there were many places. An Inn was a place for travellers to stop, change horses and rest. The public house was found in any community. It was a room that men (usually) would visit to get out of their house. They did not at the start serve alcohol.
As the story says, there were cafes and restaurants offering solace to the traveller or someone who could not or would not self-cater.
And that’s not counting myriad ways households offer hospitality. There’s so much, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. Somehow we’ve stumbled upon, a mythical world without hospitality.
What will this mean?
I focus on public hospitality, those places open for anyone to take advantage. We could add to the obvious pubs, cafes and restaurants, some shops, cinemas and theatres – anywhere we rest and sit in company, possibly interact with others.
There’s more to it in the story. These are not only for respite or company. They’re places for inspiration. Places to unscramble your head. It’s tempting to feel slightly guilty about this but the fundamental question is: where does your inspiration come from?
This is an intensely personal question and most people are reluctant to think about it, let alone share it with others. We’ll gladly show off whatever we produce after we sat in a café for an hour gazing into space. But we don’t mention the café, possibly because we don’t see it as relevant. It looks like time wasting but without it …
Of course, there’s other ways to find inspiration, not so dependent on others. But many creatives need both peace and quiet and company to create. This applies as much to introverts as it does to extraverts.
It’s not that we get inspiration sitting in a café and then scurry home and write down our precious mew insights. It’s possible to write brilliant words in a café and find inspiration at home. But we need both so that turn and turn around we find ourselves refreshed, dipping into company and then solitude.
Hospitality and Inspiration
Somehow we work out what works. Maybe we’re not aware that’s what we’re doing and so we feel slightly ashamed of some things we do to enable our work.
Much of my inspiration is through walking. I noticed during lockdown, when I could no longer walk to a coffee shop that I was less inspired. It took me several weeks to understand it was the new distractions through social distancing that led to me losing concentration as I walked.
My challenge has been to find alternatives. Some of it is mindset but I still miss being able to sit among others.
It’s interesting to reflect on the expectations of the guest. Before mass media, the guest brought news, they would be a source of stories and maybe a song. Professional story tellers and minstrels were inspired by their audiences and developed new stories as they performed.
Hospitality is a source of creativity. My fear is creatives (all of us!) lose their moorings as these restrictions continue. It’s not only the loss of revenue as audience sizes are restricted but the loss of inspiration, in arts, sciences and politics – maybe these are consequences we’ll feel most acutely in the long-term. That is unless we find new creative solutions.
Why I do this
Stories rarely remain unchanged, the context in which they’re told matters just as much as the context referred to by the story. I wrote this sequence of 21 stories about 18 months ago. You may have read some or all of them in their earlier form. Reading them now, we perhaps see something different, especially as we consider the impact loss of hospitality will have on creative industries and wider society..
As I republish these stories, I revise and polish them. Some need little change, for others the changes are extensive. At the end of each story, I add reflections based on where my thinking has moved onto, especially in the context of Lockdown.