How Coffee, Art and Politics can change the world

coffee1668_2171668bMy second blog from my Port Eliot notes focuses on some things which have changed – or could change – the world. The first is Matthew Green’s research on coffee houses, and how they inspired brilliant ideas and (at least potentially) changed the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Dr Green is a historian, who focuses on popular history, bringing his work to a wide range of audiences through talks like this one at the Idler Academy and also through tours and audio (see here for more detail). When the first coffee house opened in London in the seventeenth century, the coffee was ‘black as hell, strong as death, sweet as love’, and tasted disgusting. Yet coffee houses became somewhere to meet, to discuss the latest news, politics and poetry, as well as to get the gossip. The sociable atmosphere is a far cry from your local coffee chain where probably everyone is huddled over a laptop, but Green attributes the startling social changes effected by the coffee house to…caffeine. Not only is it a stimulant, but in the days when drinking water was unsafe, it stopped people drinking small beer or ale all day, so for the first time many people became sober and enjoyed a fresh clarity of thought. Pepys was delighted by the diversity of company and discourse, and they flourished across London and changed aspects of society for good.

Women, however, hated them; only prostitutes would go into them, and it took men away from their homes to a new centre of interest, turning men into ‘babbling layabouts’. Yet the coffee house continued – Hogarth’s father opened a Latin coffee house where all conversation was in Latin (it lasted 8 months). There was a brothel coffee house, a coffee house on ice, a floating coffee house on the Thames, and so on – all had their own flavour and interests, and it was possible to find somewhere to meet like-minded people.

This contrasts strongly with what Green calls the ‘empty hell’ of modern coffee houses, where interaction is often at a minimum. Politeness, and the polishing of urbane social manners grew out of the coffee house culture in which interaction with others enabled one to perfect wit, style and manners. Social structures were upheld or demolished according to the talk of the coffee houses. Their demise was caused by gambling, tea and new technology (such as the telegraph, to spread news), but we saw something similar in the rise of the espresso bars in the 1950s when again drinking coffee in a social public place became a marker of urban sophistication. The 50s bars saw the birth of rock and roll and an emphasis on the individuality of the coffee bars – a far cry from coffee chains. However, this idea seems to be returning.

From coffee to art: another speaker we heard was Young British Artist Gavin Turk, in conversation with Rachel Newsome about the gavin-turk-abook This is Not a Book about Gavin Turk. The book, written about rather than by Turk, explores some of the ideas of his work, and the discussion commenced with the idea of the artist as outsider, and Turk’s use of personas in his art. He is interested in ‘getting to the edge of where something is not art’, he says, defining the centre by being on the edge. He added that it is only the frame that separates the art from the wall – we decide where the limits are, so those boundaries are flexible. The conversation went on to cover the idea of modern cultural identity and how the artist might appropriate it, and how concepts of branding are tied up with a sense of self. I was interested in the idea of art in the marketplace (is it still art if no one sees it – or buys it?) Again this is about framing and how we position things.

Turk suggests that in order to create Gavin Turk the Artist he had to kill himself – his old identity – and rebrand himself, to the extent that he sometimes wonders who he is. It’s clear that he has positioned himself as an intellectual artist, but he does rather come across as a student who has just discovered theory and wants to use all the words at once to show how clever he is. Although there were some interesting ideas, none of them were new.

And for something completely different: Shami Chakrabati, the Director of Liberty, the human rights organisation which is 80 this year, in discussion with Rosie Boycott. Though Chakrabati’s work may be controversial, it seems impossible not to like her – she comes across as disarmingly frank, passionate and even fun. She talked about the complacency that Britain has been able to feel for so Shami-Chakrabartilong when it comes to human rights issues, but suggested that perhaps  after a period of abuses of power including the Iraq war, the banking crisis, loss of faith in the police, the behaviour of some journalists etc, we are becoming less so, and the public thus needs the tools to hold those in power to account. Currently, the concerns about privacy and the use of our data are a hot topic, and Chakrabati spoke convincingly about the issues with this. As she says, we are social creatures and so privacy is not an absolute right, but it is also necessary for intimacy and for political freedom, among other things.

For Liberty’s 80th year she is writing a book, looking at how rights and freedoms have been eroded and telling the story of her time at Liberty through true stories. At the end, someone asked her how she feels about having to ‘defend the indefensible’, and she replied that ‘Abu Qatada stalks me like an ugly ex-boyfriend’ and that, while the public must be protected and wrongdoers deserve to face justice, who can choovagenda_zero21se who deserves a fair trial and who doesn’t?

More women on top are Hollie and Rhiannon of the Vagenda blog (sub-title: ‘Like King Lear, but for Girls’). They were there to talk about their book, which I bought as their main issue is the representation of gender in the media, something that my students are often interested in. I didn’t get to hear all of their talk, but they discussed the controversial, contradictory and guilt-inducing ways of women’s magazines, which ostensibly promote independence whilst encouraging women to maintain impossible standards of beauty, criticise celebrities for their appearances and generally undermine the concept of sisterhood. The impetus behind their blog was to encourage women to be more supportive of each other, and to establish a new, modern feminism which doesn’t require particular feminist credentials or divide women up as ‘radical feminists’, ‘black feminists’ or even ‘not a proper feminist’ – Vagenda is holding out against the ‘feminist checklist’. I’ve noticed the tendency for feminist women to criticise other feminist women (and other women generally) and it’s disappointing, as well as rather antithetical to the original spirit of women’s liberation, so this is all to the good as far as I’m concerned.


  1. I hope Chakrabati was a bit stronger than you noted in answering the question about defending the “indefensible”. Liberty, the organisation, exists to defend those on the edge (to join your second and third notes together). Abu Qatada committed no crime in Britain (or he would have been prosecuted). A succession of Home Secretaries, never defenders of liberty, the concept, attempted disgracefully to deport him. We cannot leave human rights in their hands!

  2. Hi Ian, yes, I was summarising; she made exactly that point, whilst understanding that many people didn’t see it that way. I thought she was very clear and explained her point of view well (unlike me, perhaps!)

  3. One of my very favourite topics, thanks you 🙂

    Because coffee houses became somewhere to meet, to discuss the latest news, gossip, politics and ? poetry, Pepys was reflecting a trend found not just in London. I love the idea of Viennese middle class gents sitting around large round tables, reading the news of the world from the newspaper that was left each day by the coffee shop proprietor. Diversity of company to be sure, but the coffee shops changed aspects of society for good because the monarch could no longer control the news available to middle class citizens.

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