One cannot walk along a high street of any self-respecting town without coming across a branch of some or other chain of coffee houses.
They are warm, dark-furnished aromatic places where coffee of every conceivable texture and flavour are sipped over ambling conversations.
All the world is there: the businessmen with their laptops, the mums with pushchairs parked nearby, women catching up on life with friends, small-scale meetings and one-man newspaper tents. Just for a short time, we have got off the world and paused.
It seems such a thoroughly modern spectacle.
Yet it is ancient.
“Until the year 962 ,” relates Ottoman historian Ibrahim Pecevi “in the High, God-Guarded city of Constantinople, as well as in Ottoman lands generally, coffee and coffee-houses did not exist. About that year, a fellow called Hakam from Aleppo and a wag called Shams from Damascus came to the city; they each opened a large shop in the district called Tahtakale, and began to purvey coffee.”
And so it began. People met to pass along news; there were board games and storytellers took turns to tell stories or even preach sermons: sometimes as many as three in a coffee house at one time.
Europe could not resist such an institution and first Hungary and then other European countries fell into the thrall of the coffee bean.
A coffee-house arrived in Oxford in 1652; and in the same year one popped up at St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, London.
By 1675 there were 3,000 coffee houses in England.
And then different coffee houses began to attract specialised clienteles. Lloyds in Tower Street, set up in 1680, attracted merchants and ship owners. The Grecian was at Wapping Old Stairs, home respectively to the opposition Whigs in its early days and scientists from the Royal Society later. It also attracted philosophers; and it is said two customers fell out and fought a duel outside over where to place the accent on a Greek word.
The literary men headed for Covent Garden, where, around 1710, a ‘knot of wits’ was said to gather in Daniel Button’s Coffee House on a regular basis.
It must have been hard to arrive a stranger, and find a way to become part of the bustling clan.
A Dublin-born cleric, Jonathan Swift was also a pamphleteer, a poet, and author of books including Gulliver’s Travels.
And this is the story of his introduction to Button’s clientele.
It comes courtesy of one Ambrose Philips, one of the customers, who noticed that for several days in a row, a strange cleric would come into the coffee-house: one who seemed not to know a soul.
He always did the same thing. He would put his hat on a table, and then would walk backwards and forwards for about half an hour. During this time he would not speak to a single soul, and he seemed oblivious of everything that was happening there.
And then he would pay the people behind the counter, pick up his hat and leave.
There was no better way to arouse the curiosity of the coffee drinkers than this. They watched one evening as Swift made his first stilted gambit. He walked up to a gentlemen in muddy boots. and he opened a conversation about the weather.
But not in an entirely conventional way.
“Pray, sir,” he began, “do you remember any good weather in the world?”
The traveller was nonplussed at the singular figure before him. He groped for an answer. And he observed that yes: in his time, he remembered some good weather.
Swift came out with a long, beautifully crafted, incongruous reply. “That is more than I can say; I never remember any weather that was not too hot, or too cold; too wet, or too dry, but, however God Almightly contrives it, at the end of the year ’tis all very well.”
And he picked his hat up and strode out of Buttons “leaving all those who had been spectators of this odd scene staring after him, and still more confirmed in the opinion of his being mad.”
Of course he settled down there and made great friends; he worked with those he met there to found the Scriblerans Club, which included Alexander Pope and his great friend John Arbuthnot, the mathematician and pamphleteer, alongside other great names.
A cup of coffee has held an allure for millennia; and bound up with that aromatic concoction is the ability to pass ideas back and forth; to pause and reflect on the bustling life we lead; and significantly, to make ideas and plans for that other undiscovered country, The Future.
And all springing from a coffee shop run by Hakam from Aleppo and a wag called Shams.
Worth thinking about, the next time you order a latte.
Especially as Button’s is now a Starbuck’s.
Picture source here