I have a problem with suspended coffees

The carbon credits of the coffee business are just a fad.

Suspended coffees are a recent phenomenon, atleast etymologically. Large hearted coffee house and restaurant patrons have been leaving behind 'suspended' meals and drinks for eons. The only difference being that now a spontaneous act of charity has been hijacked by the most pernicious of all tax avoiders in the UK.

Before we term this post as super-hipster balderdash, let's consider a few sobering truths. Starbucks played so truant with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) that even Prime Minister David Cameron was forced to dish out a little cautionary word to the company. Cameron said that tax-avoiders "need to wake up and smell the coffee". How poetic.

You know you have over-stepped your tax-avoidance quota when the Tories lash out at you. Starbucks has certainly done that. It paid all of £8.6 million in corporation tax in its 14 years of trading in the UK.It sold £400 million worth of overpriced coffee, muffins and pretentious thingamajigs.

We all know the big bad wolf that devours independent coffee shops, we all know of the poorly paid baristas and the insufferable smug patrons who frequent the Starbucks of our world.

The Marketing Magazine calls Starbucks’ campaign as a way to improve its Corporate Social Responsibility credentials after last year’s tax evasion debacle. At the height of the tax scandal, Starbucks’ market share dropped significantly in the UK. Guardian reported in April this year that Starbucks’ market share had dropped by seven percent since last year. In the same period Costa Coffee's market share went up seven percent.

Suspended coffees are the planking of philanthropy. They are the carbon credits of the coffee business. They are a fad. And we have all fallen for them. We have been had.

By giving an act of kindness a name and a setting such as Starbucks cheapens the goodness. All of Tumblr, Facebook and Instagram are abuzz with posts about old weather-beaten homeless chaps in grimy jackets and week old stubbles supping on the cup of coffee. Cue boastful philanthropy.

Yes, it might do the odd down and out the good, and yes I might be seen as thrashing the very Piniata of all that is good in the world but what happened to good old altruistic do-gooding? What next; The Society for Getting Frail Old Ladies Across the Street? The I Sent a Penny to Poor Africans when I Bought a Bottle of Mineral Water Society?

It is not the act of goodness that rankles; it is reframing of it as a fad. Because fads don't last. Oh, and the very sanctimonious lot that think they are doing a world of good by leaving behind suspended coffees on the counters of Starbucks, Café Neros and of Costa Coffee are not only stuffing in money in the coffers of companies that avoid tax but are also giving them free publicity.

My problem is with how quickly we forgive and forget those that have played you and I. In its investor reports Starbucks reported massive profits and an expanding empire. Back in the UK it reported losses. Can we ever trust them?

Our dependence on coffee is clear to see. Any why not? One might as well substitute coffee for opium; De Quincey's’ Pleasures of Opium: “If taken in a proper manner it introduces the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony...communicates serenity and equipoise to all faculties, active or passive...the sort of vital warmth which is approved by the judgement.”  The humble coffee bean harvested, roasted and ground is worthy of a modern day paean of its own.

 It is by far the most perfect PR strategy ever. Nay, not a penny spent on it and you actually rake in money as the Che' crowd leave behind 'suspended' coffees.

Your coffee houses tended to be a place for the disgruntled hatching plots. They tended to be mutinous furnaces with the crackle of hot-blooded old and young. Today, they are boring monochrome monstrosities. The coffee is liquefied cardboard served in cardboard meant for a facsimile clientele.

Give me back the Italian espresso bars in Soho with their formica topped tables speckled with gum, where coffee was cheap and the caffeine content jarring, where failed actresses wore bootcut jeans with failing hems. Give me back my Pellici's and my Alfredo's. Give me back my messiness, my grubbiness, my coffee tinged darkness and dankness.

And never mind the suspended coffees.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot