The Bitter Trade: Coffee and Revolution

July 14, 2014

A Guest Post by Piers Alexander

The serving-girl brought my coffee, and I lifted the dish to my nose as I had seen van Stijn do in the Moor’s Head. The smell was of dark earth, its spicy sting mixed with the soft womanly strength of soup on a cold day. It was as good as a lover’s first kiss. Its tendrils climbed under the skin of my face and smoothed out my frowns and aches.
I blew across the foamy brown surface and took a sip. My tongue burst into life. Stars sparkled in my eyes, and I could hear every throat-clearing and chair-scraping in the room.
“One shilling,” demanded the maid. A shilling for a teaspoonful of black dust?

– The Bitter Trade

While researching The Bitter Trade, my novel set in England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688, I became fascinated with the role of coffeehouses in disrupting the pattern of society, thought and commerce. I like stories about underdogs and outsiders, and London in the late seventeenth century was one of rare places when people could rise up through society if their wits were sharp and their spirits bold. The coffeehouses were central to this: unlicensed, threatening to the establishment (Charles II even briefly closed them all down), hotbeds of discussion and networking.

The Bitter Trade’s protagonist, Calumny Spinks, is a half-Huguenot redhead who is forced to make a fortune quickly to save his father’s life, and is drawn into the murky world of London coffee racketeering. He soon realises that greater forces are at work: coffeehouses in those days were used as an early postal system, and were riddled with spies and gossip. It was a particularly tense time, with the Dutch ruler, William of Orange, threatening to invade at any time and depose the unpopular Catholic King James II.

I am a coffee addict, and I happily followed the trail of coffee back through the Ottoman Empire to its roots as a mild drug used by Yemeni mystics to access the divine. I think it’s no accident that (independent!) coffeehouses are frequented by troublemakers, writers, app developers and trendsetters: coffee is a creative irritant. Brewed properly, it disturbs conventional thinking, brings strangers together, turns its back on consumerism and allows artists and revolutionaries to spend hours huddled over a little table for a tiny fee.

Not to say that all coffee is equal. I was lucky enough to go on one of Dr Matt Green’s walks around London’s lost coffeehouses. He is vehement about the difference between a mass market coffee chain and the kind of free-flowing, organic connections you can make in an independent coffeehouse. It’s a theme I love: that it’s better, like my protagonist Cal, to be poor, under threat, struggling, than to be part of the controlling cynical corporatisation of life. As I wrote the scene when he first enters a coffeehouse in defiance of his hardbitten Dissenting father, it brought back the feeling of coming to London as an eighteen-year-old: high on the stink and jostle and sensuality of it all.

Matt will take you on a whistlestop tour of coffeehouse history: fuelled, like all good stories, by sex, lies and money. If the taste grabs you, I highly recommend reading The Lost World of the London Coffeehouse or – even better – joining him on a tour of the city’s coffeehouses and chocolate houses. As eye-opening as a triple espresso.

Coffeehouses were the Internet and social media of their day: unregulated, endlessly creative, swooping from high principles to low scandal and back again.

It feels like something similar is happening today: I was blown away by the London Coffee Festival: over twenty thousand bloggers, hipsters and freethinkers crammed into a small hall in Spitalfields. Wild.

There’s something about the drug itself that feeds the imagination and frees the mind from convention. If you follow the trail of coffee back through the Ottoman Empire to its roots, you’ll find a mild drug used by Yemeni mystics to access the divine. I think it’s no accident that independent coffeehouses are frequented by troublemakers, writers, app developers and trendsetters: coffee is a creative irritant. Brewed properly, it disturbs conventional thinking, brings strangers together, turns its back on consumerism and allows artists and revolutionaries to spend hours huddled over a little table for a tiny fee. If you Google “coffee and books” as a phrase you will find 23 million results.

THE Coffe-house Trade is the best in the Town;
Young sparks that have money they thither repair:
The Affairs of the Nation they have written down,
To blow up their Noddles as light as the Air.
Stories, Stories, Lies and Stories;
There’s nothing but Stories when they begin.
Pox on your News Letters, they lye both and flatters;
They are but a Trap to wheedle Men in.

From The City Cheat discovered: OR, A New Coffe-house Song.

Perswading all civil and sober Men not to frequent the Coffe-houses so much

Of course, too much coffee is rather… ungrounding. NASA’s famous 1995 experiment on spiders shows how this highly creative beast can be distracted by caffeine:

Spiders

 

Perhaps this is why gossip and salacious scandal have always followed literary ideals round the coffeehouses of the world. The first cup awakens, the second one focuses, the third trivialises. As the song says above: you can blow up your noddle if you aren’t careful.

Piers Alexander is the author of The Bitter Trade, a novel of coffee racketeering and treason during England’s Glorious Revolution of 1688

You can buy Piers’ superb debut novel here

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: