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.

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser