It doesn’t Costa lot to taste this mediocre – and luckily you can find one on every British street

Will Self's "Real Meals" column.

How to describe it? How to articulate the effect provoked in me by these artfully aligned and textured surfaces? The task is worthy of Henry James or Wallace Stevens – some master of the intersection between social velleities and individual desires; but alas, there’s only me, and as usual I’m off my tit-shaped head on caffeine, and so barely equal to the task.

Still, here goes: there is herringbone-patterned woodblock, yes, and it’s on the floor, uh-huh. Then there’s some aluminium trim and after this what looks like slate tiling; the walls are whitewashed brick on two sides; on the third, the brick is bare. And the fourth wall? Well, no Brecht or Beckett could be as creative with a fourth wall, oh no. It appears to have been assembled out of at least four different kinds of wood, chopped up and assembled into a colossal Jenga-style barrier. I am awed by this fourth wall – awed. If it weren’t for the cod-Matisse images, I might altogether forget that I’m in a branch of Britain’s largest chain coffee shop.

There were 1,375 of these outlets as of 2011 – and given their viral rate of increase, it seems likely there are at least 1,500 by now. Somehow, beating Starbucks to become market leader seems to have given the Whitbread-owned chain a huge central nervous system stimulus; one you can witness spreading in neuronal sparks to its extremities as you carom down any urban artery throughout the British Isles: leapfrogging over one another to take this corner, or that intersection, are branches of Tesco Express and Costa. Yes, Costa is our subject – and it doesn’t get realer than this. So ubiquitous has Costa become that I feel enchained – my wrists manacled by its ridged paper cups, I hobble along the pavement, while anxiety over potential mocha-spillage fetters my ankles. And what do I see if I look up from this, the halting hobble of late capitalism? Why, the brown gaze of another minatory Costa, its slit-bean-for-an-eye staring at me with a steeliness that would gladden any panopticon-building Benthamite.

Actually, there’s a certain grotesque symmetry to the Costa surge: the first retail Costa was opened a mere 35 years ago in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from my house (and hard by the site of the Millbank prison, a panopticon, natch). Now it hardly matters how far I roam, I’m sure to find a Costa there waiting for me. At the university where I teach, on the outskirts of London, there’s a Costa franchise café; it’s not a Costa proper, but instead there’s a sign behind the counter that announces “Proud to Serve Costa Coffee”. A curious pride, I always think – after all, it’s not as if I couldn’t pick up a Costa coffee nearby; there’s a Costa Express vending outlet in the garage halfway between the station and the campus. And at this rate of market-penetration I’ll probably soon be encountering ambulatory Costa sellers – like water-sellers in the Sahel – who will offer to dispense a cup for me from the heated tank on their backs, and then stamp my loyalty card.

I often have lunch in the Costa clone at the university. I munch the Caesar salad with its risible “chicken”, followed by a gluten-free chocolate brownie (have I mentioned that I’m fashionably wheat-intolerant?) washed down with a triple-shot soy mocha. Are they any good, these comestibles? Does it matter? It seems to me that the Costa phenomenon is of a piece with the Googlisation of all contemporary culture: to drink a Costa coffee is to subject oneself to an algorithm of taste, rather to exercise discrimination in any meaningful way. The sponsorship of a literary prize is of a piece with this: palmed off on the chain by Daddy Whitbread, the Costa Prize jury functions in exactly the same way as a search engine: picking out the books that other prize juries have already picked out, so that the bland end up promoting the blander.

This is why the Costa branch described at the capital of this column seemed so delusory to me in its ornament; sited on Brixton High Street, it’s easily the spivviest one I’ve ever supped in. And what’s that about? Brixton is undergoing a phase of retail gentrification, with trestle tables piled high with ackee and pigs’ feet ceding ground to young lifestyle peddlers with asymmetric haircuts. You don’t need to be paranoid to see the invasion of this body-snatching coffee shop as the advance guard of a surgical strike on the area’s authentic personality – a lukewarmotomy, if you will. I make not apology for this execrable pun – after all, that’s the Costa of living nowadays.

 

Photograph: Getty Images

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 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle