I had my first cup of coffee at around 13 years old. It was a tepid, instant coffee, which today I would find disgusting. Within a few weeks, the Holy Grail of life itself was established as a necessary preliminary to my daily routine: the morning coffee. Shortly afterward this rejuvenating elixir was joined by a more sinister – but oh so seductive – partner, the first cigarette of the day. Now the cigarette is a thing of the past. But while I live with a scratch in my lungs that only a cigarette could itch if I would only let it, at least I can fire-up by neurological hardware at will courtesy of blessed coffee.
I live among an abundance of the stuff. Not just any coffee, but – I say this literally – the best coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life. I have a number of coffee shops within a few hundred yards of my house that is easily in double figures. So I can choose between Arabica or Liberica beans, between an array of House Blends or Single Origins. I can opt for different collages of flavours and notes, deriving from as far afield as Kenya or Brazil but miraculously available to me in the once-deprived part of London where I live.
It was not always this way. If you wanted a coffee twenty years ago, there was one option – a run-down kebab shop, from where you can purchase a polystyrene cup of exactly the sort of coffee I first tried at 14. The area’s change started slowly. The opening of a little coffee shop opposite the kebab shop was one of the first signs. We locals used to laugh at the people who frequented it, and joke that they’d be gone within a few months. Then another coffee shop appeared a few doors down, this time much bigger. Then an off-licence appeared next door, specialising in organic and responsibly-sourced wine. The kebab shop eventually became what it is now: an award-winning boutique restaurant where lunch for one costs the same as the weekly food budget for our family of four.
Full disclosure, I drink the coffee and I often work in the establishments that serve it. I can now sit writing with a laptop on the table, but 20 years ago that would have meant being robbed on the way home. Nonetheless, I still think about what has been lost from the area’s accelerated change, and occasionally yearn for the old days. It’s cliched, but it’s true to say that the neighbourhood lost so many residents after rents rocketed that the old sense of community is now hard to find. There’s only a couple of us left I knew from school; the others being priced out and having to move to more run-down areas further out of the City.
The area used to be known known for its Afro-Caribbean population, associated particularly with the first arrivals of the Windrush generation in the 1960s. There were also significant minorities of Turks, Bengalis, Africans, and Chinese, all living among the remnant of 3rd or 4th generation Irish or Italian Londoners. There was none of today’s debate about ‘multiculturalism’, nor any agonising about the meaning of a national identity at a time of mass immigration. Presumably because multi-ethnic neighbourhoods were still an exception. You only had to drive a little way out of town, and the traditional scenes of the suburbs and the countryside would dominate until you reached the coast.
There had been genuine ethnic diversity, combined with a sense of belonging to a unique locale. Now the area is predominantly white Europeans, and the population a highly transient blend of 30-something young professionals, or half-present inhabitants spending months at a time in their second homes. So no, there wasn’t much in the way of good coffee back then, but visits to childhood friends’ houses meant I got to eat an array of delicious foodstuffs from across the globe – and not knowingly “exotic” foodstuffs prepared in the conceited way that might earn you Michelin stars.
I was reminded of all this after the protests which followed the death of George Floyd. The coffee shop nearest our kid’s school does a delightful Americano, and going to procure one I was nodding my head to a Bob Marley song while waiting to pay, and noticed a Black Lives Matter poster pinned to the door. Later that week I popped into that first coffee shop that opened here, opposite the boutique restaurant. Again, Bob Marley was playing, and again, black liberation insignia decorated the scene. Even the waitress serving me wore a black-panther-salute lapel badge, a badge I’ve noticed on many others in the coffee shops since.
Leaving Mass one day, when I finished a parish porch conversation between Africans, Filipinos, and Indians, I went to get a coffee on the way home. The coffee shop was at the height of the mid-Sunday morning buzz. The barista asked if I wanted to buy a lapel badge, this time a rainbow flag with the words ‘Celebrate Diversity’ on it. I declined, and then noticed nearly everyone present was wearing said lapel badge. They were all 30-something white Europeans wearing identikit clothes.
Jacob Phillips is Director of the Institute of Theology at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London.
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