It was the ultimate café. Everything I wanted from a place to write. Good tea, good cake, beautiful scenery, people to watch.
Remember the guys who used to sit on the lawn out in the front playing chess? There was that one guy with really long hair on his arms, soft wispy hair. Everywhere else he was hairless, a lovely slim body that browned well in the sun, and then this amazingly long hair on his arms, about 2 or 3cm long. And the older gentleman in the tweed jacket and the tie and the well-pressed trousers. He had this thick white beard. He didn’t smoke a pipe, but he had the look of a man who would. Most of the time he had someone to chat to, and when he didn’t, he seemed content to sit alone. And the guy who dressed like a matador, or a troubadour… what happened to him? Is he still wandering around Stoke Newington, people’s imaginings trailing after him, trying to work out the story behind why he dresses like that. Like any minute he would stop, click his heels together, flap his cape and shout whatever matadors shout when they’re dodging a raging bull. Who was that man?
I went to the cafe often in those first few years in London, the years of no money, jobs that paid as close to nothing as they were legally allowed to. But I was happy. I was happy to have a job and to be in London. I didn’t care that I was working for five pounds an hour, sometimes at ungodly hours, like the time when I worked at a club in Covent Garden, from around 8 at night till 7 in the morning. A terrible place. So far I’ve only got one story out of that, a fucked-up story about two bouncers who do fucked-up stuff. Everyone was like that there. It got published in a magazine called Out of the Gutter; they were the natural choice (no one else wanted it). When you’re mind-numbingly miserable and the soundtrack to your hours is very loud drum n bass, well, the muse is silent.
But during the day when I had time off work, everything was different, a day when I managed to get to the cafe and sit there and write, was a good day. That place was everything I’d hoped for when I escaped the Promised Land. I wanted green spaces and quiet places and docile people and the absence of violence. After more than fifteen years in England, I know how vicious the English can be, and yet it’s still better than being in a war zone, better than being caught up in all that hatred and ignorance and fear and paranoia. And all that heat and humidity!
The cafe was a refuge, and it was romantic. It was a place to take friends and family when they visited, and lovers when I had one. I can’t remember the last time I went there. It might have been about four or five years ago, with an artist friend – there was a reason we went there, a project we wanted to talk about, but I can’t remember now what it was. What I do remember is the little boy who came speeding down the hill on his little three-wheeler bike and falling off and trying so hard not to show us that he was in pain – “I’m okay. It’s not sore,” he nodded to us – and only when his mother turned up did he dare to burst into tears.
Those were years many cafés. I miss all that time I used to have to write, to observe people, taking the bus into town sit in Maison Bertaux or the café at the National Gallery for 2 or 3 hours just to write. It was also a time of profound solitude, existential loneliness, a time devoid of passion; I was celibate for about eighteen months. It just happened like that. It was a bit like living in an abyss then. Having jumped off a cliff and fallen into this new life in London, it was like I was reshaping my body and my internal landscape into something new. It took a long time.
Writing was a way of recreating myself. I wrote a lot. I wrote as if my life depended on it, and in many ways it did. I wrote as a way of soothing my anxiety, a way of creating another world to live in. I relied on truth, on what was around me. I didn’t trust fiction. I didn’t make anything up, not really.
Every now and again I remember to wonder how I can go back to sitting in cafés for a couple of hours every day.
Gym update: First day at the new gym. 5K on the cross trainer. Some weights. Some machines. Knees feeling okay. Loved it.