Kirsty Gunn: Assault on local cafes by global coffee elite is a struggle of our time

Americano, macchiato, flat white and the rest, coffee has become a central part of our cultural life. Picture: Getty
Americano, macchiato, flat white and the rest, coffee has become a central part of our cultural life. Picture: Getty
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There’s no doubt that we’re all drinking a lot more coffee than we used to. And thinking about coffee, too, the different kinds, Americano, macchiato and the rest. And the way it’s come to represent a certain kind of lifestyle too – relaxed, urbane and sophisticated. The discussion about this roast or that, this blend or mix, or another kind of cafetiere, may be as much a part of our cultural lives as the books we’re reading.

There’s no doubt that we’re all drinking a lot more coffee than we used to. And thinking about coffee, too – the different kinds, Americano, macchiato and the rest. And the way it’s come to represent a certain kind of lifestyle too – relaxed, urbane, where the discussion about this roast or that, or another kind of cafetiere, may be as much a part of our cultural lives as the books we’re reading.

When did that happen? The coffee thing? I can’t remember now. I do have a vivid memory of trailing around the streets of Auckland in New Zealand, newly arrived in the Southern Hemisphere off the back of a book tour that had started with a plane journey from Inverness, thinking “all I want is a coffee with milk”, only to be told by my New Zealand friends that there was no such thing. You’ve got to choose from flat white or latte or cappucino soy or this or that, on and on the list seemed to go, ad infinitum.

Really I’d just wanted a coffee like they do it in Poppy’s cafe in Golspie up in Sutherland, where I’d had one last – black or white, with sugar or not.

Well, Poppy’s does flat whites now, and Americanos with hot milk. Cafe life, all over Scotland, has become very fancy indeed. But, as I’m always saying to Chris and Jamie and Melanie and Dave, the team who run the coffee machine at Tonic in Dundee, it’s the quality of the drinking experience that counts, the actual taste of the coffee.

I mean, its temperature, the kind of cup it’s served in, the feeling it gives you, having a chat with them in the morning. Not the sales pitch or the way it’s branded.

As far as I’m concerned, for example, for that reason, the coffee they serve in Tonic is tops. Best price. Best flavour. Best serve. I can’t think of a bar I’d rather pitch up to at 8am on my way to teach a class, or at 11am when I’m in need of a break, or later, in the afternoon, when a coffee seems like a good idea. Tonic hits the spot.

I’m writing about this now, just having been at a groovy little literary event at Tonic, because it occurs to me that we need to think more about the cafes and restaurants and shops and all the rest of our community services that are part of our day-to-day lives and social interactions.

My father, who has no mind or head for coffee whatsoever, as far as I can see, has always been quite content with a mug of warm instant and a biscuit. Nevertheless he pronounced this summer that a Costa coffee at some petrol station or other on the A9 was “undrinkable!”

What had happened? The global story – that coffee was fancy, coffee was freshly brewed, coffee was everywhere etc – had clearly hit him, producing an equally dramatic kick-back. Someone who was not even that interested in coffee decided to take a stand against what he viewed as a break-down of standards.

“The best coffee is at ‘The River Bothy,’” he proclaimed in his Caithness way. Yes that is because The River Bothy is in Berriedale in Caithness, and also, yes, because it has the most amazing coffee, and cakes, and is indeed the very opposite of a tepid global brand coffee served at dispensing machines in supermarket and petrol stations across the UK.

In addition, Colin Sutherland, one of my father’s dearest friends, helps out at the Bothy because it’s owned and run by his daughter, Fiona, and everyone in Caithness knows Col and his family and of course are going to want to drink the coffee she brews there. Col and his wife Nancy used to run the Sutherland Arms as it was, in Golspie, and before that, The Latheronwheel in Caithness, and no one ran a bar/kitchen/hotel like those two, Col and Nancy, back in the day. Other country hotels could only follow.

Our groovy little literary event at Tonic happened because it is the local cafe, as we see it, for our writing programme at Dundee University. So when we were looking for a venue for our “Writers Read” series – a kind of mini festival that we like to organise for our students and the community at large – Jamie, who owns and runs Tonic, said straightaway that we could go there.

Writers Read might “work out”, as he put it, in his laid back and mellow cafe and bar space on the Nethergate, where he also hosts music nights and jazz evenings.

And “work out” it does.

Daniel Shand, an ex-student of mine who, I am delighted to boast, has just won the prestigious Betty Trask Award and has been also shortlisted for the Saltire First Novel Prize, was there this past week, reading from his novel Fallow. It is already getting interest from TV people with talk, too, of possible movie rights. He had a Guinness and I had a coffee as we talked about his book and the countryside where it was set – over in the West. We also talked about his next novel and about how nice it was to have a reading in a cafe like Tonic in Dundee. Nowhere else would be as nice, we agreed.

Why should we want to give up our local places for global spaces? It seems to me that one of the most powerful political statements we might make right now might be to channel my father and the staff at Tonic and kick back against the “convenience” myths of the chains and conglomerates and high street superstores. Let’s return to the basics, in the local, the trusted, the known. Brexit and all the awfulness that goes with it has made it awkward for us to stand up for ideas of “local” and “grassroots”.

But being local is where the future’s at. How can we be thoroughly international, European, coffee-drinking, sophisticated and the rest, if we’re not doing things the way we think they might be done best, in the places where we live and are part of, first?