Here in the UK, after 10 days of forelock-tugging, monarchical myth-making & the performative grief of our national broadcaster (luckily I have a TV with an off switch) I was able to raise my Victorian mourning veil to find that we now live in a Kingdom & have a new head of government whose pernicious economic policy has rewarded millionaires, leaving the millions struggling in an inflationary recession to their own devices. Meet the new bosses, same as the old bosses only worse, probably. Trickle down economics – you’ve got to be joking but it’s not funny. Feeling a strong disconnection with the country I live in it’s time to turn to Sir Raymond Douglas Davies who, after inventing Heavy Metal with “You Really Got Me”, has for over 50 years cast a sardonic but still empathic eye on the country of his birth. The title track of his 2007 record “Working Man’s Cafe” is a place that I recognise & like & Jah bless Ray Davies for writing a song about it.
Mitchell wasn’t a fan of the Cockney Hut, on that row of shops at the bottom of the high-rise flats on the Camberwell Road, now called Tony’s Cafe, you’ve passed it on the bus. He reckoned that the proprietor had a grubby thumb in the beans as he handed you the heart attack (& beans) on a plate but that didn’t bother me, I was hungry. The Hut was warm, steamy & not-too welcoming, you were left to enjoy your meal in peace which was fine by me. Just 50 yards from my work it was an ideal morning stop for beans on toast, egg on toast to soak up last night’s alcohol & help with the headache. I told my foreman that I may be 15 minutes late but he would get more work out of me if I had eaten breakfast than on an empty stomach & hungover & he bought it (I was good at my job). When Mitchell & I were both off work, lunch at the Hut, a saunter to the bookies, a couple of pints at the pub on Camberwell Green then a few frames at the snooker hall was like being in an episode of “Minder”, the popular 80s TV programme. A long good Thursday afternoon.
I could search for more food related musical selections to accompany these memories but let’s stick to Sir Raymond & his group, the Kinks. “God’s Children” is possibly one of the greatest songs ever recorded, certainly the best song to be featured in a movie about a penis transplant.
A few years & a few jobs later I was knocking the heck out of old warehouses then making them nice enough for office space in Shoreditch, East London. It’s Millennial Central round there now but back then, while the developers were still making plans, the area retained enough of its proletarian past & grimy charm to encourage a spot of instant cash-in-hand overtime if you wanted to spend the night in the Bricklayer’s Arms (oo-er!). The construction crew were a lively, mainly Irish gang & life was too hectic for making sandwiches for work. At breakfast time we all descended on Anna’s, a cafe run by a Greek married couple on Rivington St, a path from Old Street to our site on Charlotte Rd. The rush & push for tea & bacon rolls was eased when the bosses allowed a couple of us behind the counter to vaguely aim the big metal teapots at a row of empty mugs. At lunchtime the home-made Greek-English meals – not many beans in those – were nourishing & for those of us who had drunk our wages before payday (sometimes that was me) there was a line of credit that was happily paid back on Fridays. Anna would tell us that she was only staying around until the “yuppies” moved in, which they would & did. Maybe it was what we wanted to hear but I think she meant it. If I was in the area I always paid a visit to Anna’s.
There are other cafes that merit a mention here – I never got round to writing that guide to the “greasy spoons” of London. We lived just 50 yards from the Regency in Westminster, big, efficient, an Art-Deco classic that had featured in movies. Open until 8 p.m. the take out jam roly-poly (a suet-based comfort dessert) & custard was often irresistible. The Vietnamese place in the Borough where the carb-packed spaghetti bolognese & chips seemed, to me, to be an unlikely popular lunchtime selection. The owner made such a fuss of my girlfriend on the day she joined me – she loved it. At my final regular spot, just off the Walworth Road, the Chinese lady always worried if we were a no-show for a weekend breakfast & she left her station behind the counter to hug me on the day I told her I was leaving London. “It’s only a cafe” said my companion. He just didn’t get it.
Of course most of these places have gone now (the Regency abides), gentrification of humble neighbourhoods has always been a part of an evolving city. I can’t say that I’m, like Larry David, too comfortable in the coffee & chrome joints where avocado has replaced the beans on the toast though I’m too polite to order some “vanilla bullshit”, I stick with a latte, coffee with milk – it’s a thing! In my small town it’s still the mid-20th century & there are still cafes where the breakfast options occupy half of the menu, where, if you ask nicely, they will stick their thumb in the beans when they serve you.
OK let’s end with a song about British food in its multicultural glory written by Joe Strummer, another another perceptive observer of the somethings about England.