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

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Cones and cocaine: the ice cream van's links with organised crime

A cold war is brewing to the tinkling of "Greensleeves".

Anyone who has spent a summer in this country will be familiar with the Pavlovian thrill the first tinny notes of “Greensleeves” stir within the stolid British breast.

The arrival of the ice cream van – usually at least two decades older than any other vehicle on the road, often painted with crude approximations of long-forgotten cartoon characters and always, without fail, exhorting fellow motorists to “Mind that child!” – still feels like a simple pleasure of the most innocent kind.

The mobile ice cream trade, though, has historical links with organised crime.

Not only have the best routes been the subject of many, often violent turf wars, but more than once lollies have served as cover for goods of a more illicit nature, most notoriously during the Glasgow “Ice Cream Wars” of the early 1980s, in which vans were used as a front for fencing stolen goods and dealing drugs, culminating in an arson attack that left six people dead.

Although the task force set up to tackle the problem was jokingly nicknamed the “Serious Chimes Squad” by the press, the reality was somewhat less amusing. According to Thomas “T C” Campbell, who served almost 20 years for the 1984 murders before having his conviction overturned in 2004, “A lot of my friends were killed . . . I’ve been caught with axes, I’ve been caught with swords, open razors, every conceivable weapon . . . meat cleavers . . . and it was all for nothing, no gain, nothing to it, just absolute madness.”

Tales of vans being robbed at gunpoint and smashed up with rocks abounded in the local media of the time and continue to pop up – a search for “ice cream van” on Google News throws up the story of a Limerick man convicted last month of supplying “wholesale quantities” of cocaine along with ice cream. There are also reports of the Mob shifting more than 40,000 oxycodone pills through a Lickety Split ice cream van on Staten Island between 2009 and 2010.

Even for those pushing nothing more sinister than a Strawberry Split, the ice cream business isn’t always light-hearted. BBC Radio 4 devoted an entire programme last year to the battle for supremacy between a local man who had been selling ice creams in Newbiggin-by-the-Sea since 1969 and an immigrant couple – variously described in the tabloids as Polish and Iraqi but who turned out to be Greek – who outbid him when the council put the contract out to tender. The word “outsiders” cropped up more than once.

This being Britain, the hostilities in Northumberland centred around some rather passive-aggressive parking – unlike in Salem, Oregon, where the rivalry from 2009 between an established local business and a new arrival from Mexico ended in a highish-speed chase (for an ice cream van) and a showdown in a car park next to a children’s playground. (“There’s no room for hate in ice cream,” one of the protagonists claimed after the event.) A Hollywood production company has since picked up the rights to the story – which, aptly, will be co-produced by the man behind American Sniper.

Thanks to competition from supermarkets (which effortlessly undercut Mister Softee and friends), stricter emission laws in big cities that have hit the UK’s ageing fleet particularly hard, and tighter regulations aimed at combating childhood obesity, the trade isn’t what it used to be. With margins under pressure and a customer base in decline, could this summer mark the start of a new cold war?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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