Sunday, 1 November 2009

A kiss on the hand may be quite continental, but cafes are a girl's best friend....

Last weekend saw me tagging along behind Ricky on a trip to the South coast. I had a couple of free days, and he had some photographs to take. Although entreated to stand around holding a flash, or to stop passers-by from walking in front of the camera, I demurred. "You want me to take two whole days away from the Big Secret Project?" I shouted. "And get stuck in the middle of Chapter Six? I DON'T THINK SO."

The more I work at being a writer, the more it becomes clear that taking any sort of break from writing - especially in the middle of a big project like a novel - is disastrous. There was that one time when we had a holiday and I made the mistake of leaving my notebook at home. When I got back, I lost hours in staring angrily at blank pages, trying to get into a stride that had been unbreakable before we'd gone away. It's not the sort of mistake you're in a hurry to repeat.

So I shoved my laptop and a notebook into the old rucksack, along with a pair of clean knickers and a travel bottle of shampoo, and joined him in the car. Call me strange (go ahead, everybody does) but when we pulled into Brighton, it wasn't the main shopping street, or the tourist attractions, I was scanning the streets for, but a cafe.

You know the sort of cafe I'm talking about. It's the sort of cafe writers love. It's got mismatched furniture, jumble sale crockery, a clientele that plays Go quietly, and who chat at a non-concentration breaking level, and owners who don't mind customers ordering one cup of tea and staying there four hours. I found one such cafe in The Lanes, a cute place with a colourful array of retrieved furniture, and a synthetic cow-hide rug underfoot. Satisfied that I'd found my working spot for the rest of the afternoon, I plugged the computer in and got to work.

Despite my highly-strung need for absolute silence when working at home, paradoxically, when working in a public place like a cafe or a library, the quiet level of constant noise around me is comfortably stimulating. There is nothing more inspiring than watching other people eat (discreetly, of course... it's rude to stare) and listening in on their conversations for a couple of hours. Oh come on, it's not just me. You all do it.

My thanks go out to the owners of this cafe for not ostentatiously clearing up around me as I worked, in an attempt to hustle me out of the place. Their consideration allowed me to get my work done, and I don't doubt that there's a great tradition of letting writers get on with their work by cafe owners, without which the creation of many great works of literature would have been completely scuppered: "I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines give to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that.... you're taking the sugar bowl? Oh, for Christ's sake, please not the sugar bowl. Now I just look like a tramp who came in here to get warm. Thanks." ( (c) F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1926)

After a couple of hours' work, I felt bad about making one cup of tea last so long, and approached the counter again. The cafe was small enough that I could leave my laptop on the table to keep an eye on it while I ordered another cup of tea, and a slice of cake. "Greedy," the owner said to me as he reached into the Brownie jar with his tongs. I don't know how many slices of cake he thought I'd had in the two hours I'd been there. Seemed like he thought I'd been doing nothing but shoving bits of flapjack into my face continuously, rather than working tirelessly on The Big Secret Project.

Anyway, it was thanks to his consideration and generosity that I was able to get another chapter finished, and to tidy up a few other smaller bits of work that needed doing. I can't be alone in needing to thank cafe owners up and down the country for their understanding in allowing me to work in their establishments for hours at a time for the price of a hot drink.
Favourite writing cafes, anybody?

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