Real Time Short Stories

Coffee Spoons

Posted on: April 17, 2011

I invoke your consideration of the scene–the marble-topped tables, the range of leather-upholstered wall seats, the gay company, the ladies dressed in demi-state toilets, speaking in an exquisite visible chorus of taste, economy, opulence or art; the sedulous and largess-loving ~garcons~, the music wisely catering to all with its raids upon the composers; the ~melange~ of talk and laughter–and, if you will, the Wurzburger in the tall glass cones that bend to your lips as a ripe cherry sways on its branch to the beak of a robber jay. I was told by a sculptor from Mauch Chunk that the scene was truly Parisian.

[O.Henry, A Cosmopolite In A Cafe, online here]

I read T.S. Eliot’s The Love-Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock as a teenager and one line stuck with me. Women talking of Michelangelo and bottoms of trousers being rolled – yes, they drifted back into my consciousness from a place in the public domain, but the one phrase that I kept by me, as a personal souvenir of the poem, was “I have measured out my lives with coffee-spoons.”

It was an image so vivid, I felt it to be true about me, never mind Prufrock; it had a meaning that perhaps only intersected with the meaning it held in context. Sitting in the corner of a tea-room, café, coffee shop; nursing cup after cup; observing the comings and goings in the sure knowledge that the one mark you will – might – make on the world will come from those observations you write down with one hand, while the other hand stirs the spoon: the life of the writer.

It’s a banal truth. We know that coffee houses have long held writers and artists, and held them together. The reasons we go there to sketch, write and dream are not elusive: it’s a break from being stuck at home; home may not actually be a terribly nice place – at least here the hot water actually is hot and the toilet sometimes flushes; we do very little during the day that would be considered socially useful so these are the only places that will have us; they may not be as cheap as libraries but we might bump into someone here that we can chat to; we might even run into Gene Kelly and Georges Guétary and knock out a few choruses of ‘S’Wonderful; if we don’t write, we might just possibly cop off.

We know also that the seat in the corner is not just an office annexe for a writer but a lookout-point for the inspirations that find their way into the writing. The stories in my 2004 book, A Manner Of Speaking, featured pivotal turns from the (now non-existent, according to the website) Häagen-Dazs café in Toledo, Spain, the Tropical Island coffee shop in Gdansk, Poland, and the Cafe Storch in Cologne, Germany. It’s easy to recognise the creative chemistry that gels writers to these establishments. The setting described by O.Henry at the top of this post may have been replaced by identikit CostaBucks frothy buckets of coffee and overpriced cakes but the vantage point for stories remains in place.

The concern at Real Time Short Stories, though, is how short stories in particular are shaped – and here, we can argue that cafe society is one definite area in which short fiction is more kindred to painting and drawing, poetry and songwriting, than it is to the novel. When I used to think I could write novels, I’d sit in Liverpool coffee bean-shebeens and write great first chapters. Then I, the character and the story would have to leave the café and the enterprise would fall apart. Short stories never have to leave the café. In a genre defined by compression and containment, the mundane measurement of coffee spoons can dictate a satisfactory narrative arc. It’s the time needed to spin a tale; to absorb life in all its passing fascination; or to witness a story whose origins and resolution may well lie out of earshot of the Gaggia, but whose essence can be tasted in this public gathering house for private worlds.

I intend to return to this theme and to consider other settings for the creation, setting and reading of short stories. I suspect there are answers to be found here as to why short stories never really progress as a form – and why, conversely, they are always relevant.

10 Responses to "Coffee Spoons"

Nice to feel the weight of your philosophical presence on the WWW. Another reason a coffee shop may feel more welcoming a seat to a writer’s buttocks, is the ‘anxiety of influence’ that comes from sitting at your desk and having Chekhov and Bradbury and Asimov glowering down at you.

Hey Omer, great to hear from you – hope all is going well on the outside. The weight of my philosophical whatsit? You sure you’re not waiting on any marks from me?

Definitely agree that the writer’s desk can be stuffed with foreboding (not to mention an internet connection, which isn’t always the best companion for getting on with stuff) but I wonder whether getting out is more about finding a place where you can be seen to be a writer. If all the other customers are looking across and thinking they’re looking at a writer, that may be an incentive in itself. Call it vanity, or just validation.

When I visited Berlin in 2004, the first coffee shop east of the Brandenberg Gate was a Starbucks. But there was a lovely posh German place a little further along with good cake and schlagsahne. I might have written a postcard between mouthfuls.

DP, this might be a bit of a long-shot, but was this coffee house by any chance the Cafe Einstein (which certainly fits the ‘posh’ billing)? If so, it ties in very nicely with my ideas about the resonance coffee shops hold for story-tellers, since it was used for the first chilling encounter with Goebbels – a set-piece which could easily have stood alone as its own narrative – in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Have a bite of Monsieur Proust’s madeleine cake and see if you can remember…

Hmmm… the mention of apfelstrudel is ringing bells, and it looks the right sort of place – but I remember it as being on the other side of the road.

The resonance for me is that I was on my own in Berlin, while my then-future-wife was there at the same time with her brother. Back in Yorkshire, when I found out we’d been there at the same time, I asked if she wanted to look at photos sometime….

Being there alone with apple cake (possibly strudel ?) and coffee alone and a bit melancholy, not knowing I was crossing from single to married, is a powerful personal memory. And there is something about sitting in a coffee shop away from things, which makes it a stronger memory than being elsewhere in Berlin.

[…] about short fiction I’m using this blog to explore is the way, as I noted in the April 17 Coffee Spoons post, “short stories never really progress as a form – and [the way] conversely, they […]

[…] perhaps we can sit “in the corner of a tea-room, café, coffee shop; nursing cup after cup; observing the comings and go…” and find our story dynamic in the contrasting attitudes of the two waiters on […]

[…] but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with […]

[…] points to what makes the café such fertile ground for the short story. In my first post about cafés on this blog, I said that “I suspect there are answers to be found here as to why short […]

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