The Teams That Meet In Caffs
Sadly I didnít get to see the recent short films Saint Etienne did on cafť culture. I would however wholeheartedly commend their collection of songs for marioís cafť, released on the Discotheque imprint.

For anyone who knows the Etienneís story cafes are a recurring theme. The themeís remained, but the angleís changed. Now there is a genuine concern that a central part of the Etienneís mythology is disappearing, particularly from central London. Itís another recurring theme: brave individualism and family tradition disappearing in the flood of familiar franchises and an expensive, confusing coffee hegemony. Letís hear it for the small guy who refuses to kowtow.

I have to confess to sharing the Etienne obsession with the London cafť. It is I guess the bohemian spirit that Bob Stanley self-deprecatingly refers to in his sleevenotes. The sense that by sitting there you are part of some wonderful literary or artistic tradition. A tradition that touches upon everything from the boho Soho demimonde of the modern jazz and the birth of British rockíníroll through the mod uprising and Absolute Beginners via all those Godard movies where beautiful girls smoke endless cigarettes and Sartreís Nausea through to Dexys and all those Liverpool groups sitting around in cafes.

And I still love cafes. I can still get enthusiastic and incredibly loyal about Londonís cafes. Me and the love of my life have a particular favourite called Wot The Dickens down Woburn Walk, near Euston, where the tuna and spring onion focaccia is particularly addictive and the staff very sweet. Just opposite is the Aquarium Gallery where they are just about to start a Jamie Reid exhibition, and copies of the highly recommended Nude magazine are in the window.

Nude contains an excellent piece on the kitchen sink fiction of the Ď50s and Ď60s. Itís something I was so close to at one stage. ďRemember Arthur Seaton said he wonít be beatenĒ, and all that. I have to confess I had become more interested in the London literary lineage Iain Sinclair has diligently promoted as an alternative to the Angry Young Men. The litany weíve been learning: Alexander Baron, Gerald Kersh, Derek Raymond. Why heís never mentioned Shena Mackay Iíll never know.

Sinclair is rather like Saint Etienne in the way he ferociously sticks by his obsessions. Reading his new novel is really a disorientating experience. It is almost a trick with mirrors. Sinclair seems to play with us, rehashing themes from previous texts, from White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings through to Lights Out for the Territory and Liquid City and on to London Orbital. Itís all very odd. It gets to the stage where the book almost becomes a list of reference points.

I have to confess I got to the stage where I was flicking the pages of Dining On Stones picking out the signposts and clues. Itís hardly what youíre meant to do with a novel is it? Maybe Sinclair is stuck in a locked groove. Maybe Sinclair is absolutely obsessed with the London writers, the hidden stories there, the London litany, and will not resist the opportunity to promote these.

Maybe itís me. Maybe Iíve lost the will to concentrate. Itís the culture of the remote control. Pick it up, fast forward through. Itís all too easy. And so I reduce a novel as large as Dining On Stones to a long list. But I like lists. I still havenít worked my way through Paul Morleyís Words and Music, but Iíve repeatedly thumbed through the lists and footnotes at the end. Theyíre fun, and theyíre clever. Yet I do worry.

I worry unnecessarily. If the book is good enough I will read every word, and savour them. One I did read recently was Julian Maclaren-Rossí Of Love and Hunger. A tawdry tale of time wasted. And a tale written by one of the genuine London literary bohemians. The real thing, what we wanted to be part of, and still fondly feel so protective of in these strange times.

In the meantime, back to that Saint Etienne compilation. Itís wonderful stuff, and something that should be playing in the background of every cafť. There are some songs here like Donovanís 'Sunny Goodge Street', Tammy St Johnís gorgeous 'Dark Shadows and Empty Hallways', and Ruth Copelandís 'The Music Box' which I do associate with the Etienne and cafť culture. Elsewhere there is the sweetest of soul sounds from the Ď60s and Ď70s, some reggae, beat and oddities. It all fits together and is eerily reminiscent of the sort of tapes we would once put together for friends and shyly pass across the table to loved ones while over in the corner of a cafť a bit part actor from Grange Hill would sit under a signed photo of himself.

The collection is culled from the Sanctuary archives (letís not underestimate the great salvage work people like John Reed there have been doing), but thatís entirely appropriate as cafes should be sanctuaries. Sorry!

© 2004 John Carney