Café society, revisited

Weary waiterSoon to be replaced by a 22 year-old Italian.

We welcome back John Flamson with another thought-provoking guest blog on café society, Liverpool-style.  Enjoy.

As the weather changes and our summer holidays seem a distant memory, we think fondly of the balmy evenings, pavement cafés, a cooling Pils or a warming Cortado.  And we imagine such simple joys in our own city of Liverpool.

I repeat in full below something I wrote nearly ten years ago, as much to reflect on how times have changed or not, as to emphasise the points I wished to make then and still do now.

I was sitting on a beach in Kefalonia thinking about a talk I was to give on Rodney Street, Liverpool and soon began to reflect on the power of the street and what we call café society.  I have been an advocate for many years for café society, from the early 1980s when I was a planner with Merseyside Development Corporation.  Then, the police and the city council’s planners and highway engineers all sought to frustrate the introduction of an open air drinking area at the refurbished Pump House pub at Albert Dock.  People were not ready for this ‘Continental’ preoccupation.

The same people – or similar – mocked our advocacy of coffee shops: ‘people don’t drink coffee in Liverpool’, seeming to think they were a new invention, oblivious to the discourse and wit the coffee houses of Samuel Johnson’s era had bequeathed the nation, and the simple pleasures afforded to people in 1950s and 1960s Liverpool by the likes of Reece’s and the Kardomah. 

The same planners, housed in Wilberforce House on The Strand, railed against city centre living, as did the building societies, whilst MDC cajoled house builders to take the proposition seriously, eventually opening the first waterfront apartments at Wapping Warehouse in 1988.  Ironically, the planners within a few years were moved out of Wilberforce House to make way for its conversion to luxury city centre apartments.  It’s a pity that they did not retain the name, Wilberforce House, with its tribute to the great anti-slavery campaigner and the redemptive quality such names can bring to a city.  Naming the block after the developer seems tawdry in comparison.

In all this, I ask myself the question, ‘do we have café society in Liverpool?’ and if not ‘what would we need to do to get it?’  It’s a question that has particular force as we prepare to become European Capital of Culture in 2008.  The underline is mine, as I fear this aspect has been lost.  I admit that I am obsessed by café society and because of this was once dubbed the ‘Cappuccino Kid’.  In Wigan in the mid-1990s, where I ran an economic partnership, they even ran an ad campaign, ‘From Coal to Cappuccino’ – something must have stuck!

My answer to the question is ‘no’.  I think we have created a parody of café society – a sort of ‘lager society’ with a brutish edge; a geezer-led residential speculation boom; an enlivening but not yet a beautifying of our city centre.  So what do we need to do to address this?  I’d suggest, among other things:

  • To appreciate the importance of taking time to linger
  • To ‘make do’ and forego rapacious profits, so coffee doesn’t become the new luxury that it once was
  • To foster customer care, by ensuring all customers sit down and that there is always table service
  • To value professionalism with flair in the service sector
  • To welcome families
  • To respect others so they too can enjoy the ambience of the street
  • To care for the public realm, as ours not theirs

Maybe we need compulsory placements in other European cities for planners and urban policy makers, structured exchanges between schools and an invasion of waiters from France, Italy and Spain during the summer of 2008 to show us what we are missing.

Well, I have to admit that times have changed. It’s hard to walk further than two blocks in the city centre without coming across a coffee shop, sadly too few of which are independents.  The same small minded accountants who saw the ‘cost of everything and the value of nothing’ in the 1970s and 1980s (the sacrifice of good old fashioned cask beer for tasteless keg beer curiously springs to mind), who felt that cities like Liverpool were not ready for the sort of places only the capital could sustain have fallen over themselves to rake in the profits from over-priced coffees, some of which bear more resemblance to a knickerbocker glory than an espresso.

But we are all converts now.  Not long ago I was sitting outside Caffè Nero in Liverpool ONE, opposite my favourite bookshop.  The Macchiato was judged to perfection and the ham and egg muffin a very welcome start to the day.  A steady stream of customers issued its ‘to stay’ or ‘to go’ orders, seemingly oblivious to the creeping Americanisation of our language but thankful for the prompt service.  Some rushed to their offices or crowd-free shopping.  Others, like me, lingered, sipped and watched.  It’s amazing what pops into your head if you commit yourself fully to this café society.  On that occasion it was Twin Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper’s response to the question “how would you like your coffee?” that served as an idle refrain inside my head for the rest of the morning: “Black as midnight on a moonless night”.  I toyed with trying it inside but concluded that some things take time to change, confident of the come-back, especially if a Scouser were serving, and wary of any ‘Log Ladies’ secreted in the café’s dark corners.

The bars have improved too.  In the early days on a Saturday night some of our outdoor drinking places, despite the somnambulant Ibiza Sunset beat, resembled the OK Corral and demanded a heavy police presence.  Some got so busy you could have been forgiven that you were in the middle of a protest rally (always a possibility in Liverpool) or that the match had just let out.  Getting to the bar was a chore and, when there, a long wait.  The introduction of shisha pipes and table service seems to have had a calming effect, as have the waiters from other parts of the EU, proving the civilising effect of a more integrated Europe.

And the restaurants have not been outdone.  What were simply utilitarian pavements outside their front doors have been colonised and turned into terraces with appropriate heaters, awnings and banners.  Castle Street on a pleasant evening may not be Barcelona’s Las Ramblas but it’s better than the subterranean Berni Inns that many of us cut our culinary teeth on.

So, there’s much to be thankful for but I have a sneaking feeling we’re still not quite there yet.  Some say it’s the weather – well, yes, glorious sunshine helps but go to Brussels or Cologne or Dijon on a wet and windy day and they still seem to do café society better than us.  Some say it’s our levels of service – I’d argue that they have improved dramatically from the days when a begrudging welcome was accompanied with the venomous question ‘what d’you want?’ but I do agree that giving us an army of French, Italian and Spanish waiters for six months would set new benchmarks for attentiveness, cleanliness and sunny dispositions.  Some say it’s just that we don’t do outside well, we’re indoor creatures and don’t see anything wrong with socks with sandals – but there I disagree, I think we have changed, we’ve had a taste of the alfresco life and we want more.

I am glad I dug up my old notes.  Looking back is not always a self-indulgent or nostalgic exercise, it can actually fortify us for the future.  A professor colleague of mine once said that ‘the past teaches us that we have the capacity to change things’.  And so we have, and so we will.

John Flamson enjoyed a senior career in urban regeneration as, among other things, chief executive of Liverpool City Challenge, head of the European Objective One Programme for Merseyside and head of the Government Office North West, Merseyside.