Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby (Viking 2005)

. . . And then we couldn't agree on where we'd meet. I wanted to go to Starbucks, because I like frappuccinos and all that, but JJ said he wasn't into global franchises, and Martin had read in some posey magazine about a snooty little coffee bar in between Essex Road and Upper Street where they grow their own beans while you waited or something. So to keep him happy, we met up there.

Anyway, this place had just changed its name and its vibe. The snootiness hadn't worked out, so it wasn't snooty any more. It used to be called Tres Marias, which is the name of a dam in Brazil, but the guy who ran it thought the name confused people, because what did one Mary have to do with coffee, let alone three? And he didn't even have one Mary. So now it was called Captain Coffee, and everyone knew what it sold, but it didn't seem to make much difference. It was still empty. We walked in, and the guy that ran it was wearing this old army uniform, and he saluted us, and said, Captain Coffee at your service. I thought he was funny, but Martin was like, Jesus Christ, and he tried to leave, but Captain Coffee wouldn't let us, he was that desperate. He told us we could have our coffee for free on our first visit, and a cake, if we wanted. So we didn't walk out, but the next problem was that the place was tiny. There were like three tables, and each table was six inches away from the counter, which meant that Captain Coffee was leaning on the counter listening to everything we said.

And because of who we were and what had happened to us, we wanted to talk about personal things, so it was embarrassing him standing there. Martin was like, Let's drink up and go, and he stood up. But Captain Coffee went, What's the matter now? So I said, The thing is, we need to have a private conversation, and he said he understood completely, and he'd go outside until we'd finished. And I said, But really, everything we say is private, for reasons I can't go into. And he said it didn't matter, he'd still wait outside unless anyone else came. And that's what he did, and that's why we ended up going to Starbucks for our coffee meetings. It was hard to concentrate on how miserable we were, with this berk in an army uniform leaning against the window outside checking that we weren't stealing his biscuits, or biscotties as he called them. People go on about places like Starbucks being unpersonal and all that, but what if that's what you want?

I'd be lost, if JJ and people like that got their way, and there was nothing unpersonal in the world. I like to know that there are big places without windows where no one gives a shit. You need confidence to go into small places with regular customers, small bookshops and small music shops and small restaurants and cafes. I'm happiest in the Virgin Megastore and Borders and Starbucks and Pizza Express, where no one gives a shit, and no one knows who you are. My mum and dad are always going on about how soulless those places are, and I'm like, Der. That's the point. The book group thing was JJ's idea. He said people do it a lot in America, read books and talk about them; Martin reckoned it was becoming fashionable here, too, but I'd never heard of it, so it can't be that fashionable, or I'd have read about it in Dazed and Confused. The point of it was to talk about Something Else, sort of thing, and not get into rows about who was a berk and who was a prat, which was how the afternoons in Starbucks usually ended up. And what we decided was, we were going to read books by people who'd killed themselves. They were, like, our people, and so we thought we ought to find out what was going on in their heads. Martin said he thought we might learn more from people who hadn't killed themselves - we should be reading up on what was so great about staying alive, not what was so great about topping yourself. But it turned out there were like a billion writers who hadn't killed themselves, and three or four who had, so we took the easy option, and went for the smaller pile. We voted on using funds from our media appearances to buy ourselves the books.

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