By now, the bubble should have burst. A couple of years ago we were told that the gourmet coffee bar was a transient phenomenon of the late 1990s economic boom and the market would soon be saturated. But all three major coffee chains in Britain – Starbucks, Costa Coffee and Caffe Nero – have reported rising profits this year. There are now 167 branches of Starbucks within a five-mile radius of Charing Cross Station, and this year the company will open 1,500 new cafes worldwide.
The corporate coffee bar has become an even more potent symbol of insidious globalisation than McDonald’s. I suspect that this has less to do with the political economy of coffee growing than our gut reaction to the pervasive, but mute, presence of the coffee shop. The coffee chains do not advertise, but arrive unannounced, overwhelm targeted areas and force independents out of business. Our feelings about them are tied up with the meaning and symbolism of the coffee bar in postwar Britain – and in particular the way the chains have bought into the edgy, alternative vibe of the Italian-style espresso bar of the 1950s.
A series of recent books, websites and valedictory guided tours has celebrated the classic Italian coffee bar, now under threat of extinction from what its Pevsnerian chronicler, Adrian Maddox, calls “a massive cultural, corporate napalming”. When English Heritage awarded Pellicci’s, a cafe in Bethnal Green, listed status in February this year, it warned: “The 1950s cafe is becoming increasingly rare and the recent proliferation of chain coffee shops is threatening their economic viability.”
But when it comes to the coffee bar, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. Long before Starbucks, guardians of taste opposed the arrival of the Lyons Corner Houses, Charles Forte’s milk bars, the Wimpy bars and Golden Eggs, all of which offered fast service of uniform products in standardised surroundings. Britain’s first espresso-bar revolution was the result of two migrations: the wave of Italian immigrants moving into central London after the war and the arrival of Achille Gaggia’s espresso machine from Milan. By 1957, there were a thousand of these bars throughout Britain, with two new ones opening in London every week.
Like the recent Starbuckisation of the high street, the 1950s espresso bar was seen as a foreign invasion, a mix of American kitsch and Continental pretension. The writer Frank Norman protested that “the decor is loud, shiny and tasteless . . . they are cheap in every sense of the word”. Another Soho inhabitant, Bernard Kops, wrote that leisurely cafes “where artists and anarchists argued all day” were being replaced by coffee bars whose object was “to get you in, make you feel uncomfortable under the harsh lighting, and then get you out as quickly as possible”.
Long before the “skinny latte” affectations of Seattle-speak, “frothy” or “fluffy” coffee was dismissed as the drink of metropolitan poseurs. In The Rebel (1960), Tony Hancock plays an office clerk with bohemian aspirations, who betrays his petit-bourgeois roots by telling an espresso-bar waitress: “I don’t want any froth, I want a cup of coffee! I don’t want to wash my clothes in it!” Cappuccinos supplied a cultural shorthand for an older generation’s confusion. “Once our beer was frothy/ But now it’s frothy coffee,” sang Max Bygraves on his 1960 hit “Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be”.
What many dislike about today’s coffee chains is the controlled eclecticism of their design, fostering a “total perception” of furnishings, aroma, lighting and mood music beneath a veneer of spontaneity. But the original espresso bars were also accused of selling an ersatz ambience of vulgar decor, shiny surfaces and exotic smells. A particular target of complaint was the jukebox. In The Uses of Literacy (1957), Richard Hoggart wrote of the “jukebox boys”, the young men who “spend their evening listening in harshly lighted milk-bars to the ‘nickelodeons'”. Compared to the pub around the corner, he complained, this is all “a peculiarly thin and pallid form of dissipation, a sort of spiritual dry-rot amid the odour of boiled milk”.
Unlike today’s coffee chains, however, the 1950s espresso bars filled a cultural void. An early chronicler of the cafe society, Tosco Fyvel, wrote about the “pall of boredom”, the “dead and shuttered look” that descended on the average English town after dark. For an emerging teenage culture starved of other entertainments, the coffee bar was convivial and classless, bringing together Teddy boys, beatniks, mods, and a growing clientele of art-college and university students.
This appeal to young, particularly working-class, lads led to anxieties. In 1958, Birmingham’s lord mayor attacked the “aimless juvenile cafe society” which could lead young people into crime. “I do not think it a proper thing,” he said, “for groups of young people to go into coffee bars and spend hour after hour listening to records, buying cups of tea and coffee and bottles of pop.” When mods and rockers arrived at seaside resorts in the early 1960s, coffee bars were blamed for attracting “scooter gangs”.
These moral panics were about the negotiation between competing models of a good society: welfare-state social democracy and Americanised consumerism. Writers such as Hoggart and Fyvel saw coffee-bar culture as a consequence of the shameful lack of state provision of youth facilities. This was the key concern of the Albemarle report of 1960, which argued that the youth service should provide its own coffee houses. Christian groups, local councils and political party branches also began to open more wholesome espresso bars at this time. The new left had its own coffee house, the Partisan, which Eric Hobsbawm later dismissed as a “lunatic enterprise” attracting “the more demoralised bums and the fringe hangers-on of Soho”.
These well-meaning efforts to get down with “the youth” now seem old-fashioned. Today no one would imagine that young people might like to listen to party-political speeches or uplifting sermons from the local vicar while they sipped their cappuccinos. But these initiatives belonged to a period in which the government and other bodies thought seriously about offering facilities for the young, instead of simply abandoning this role to the market.
The worst sorts of snobbery, which partly allowed the original espresso bars to fill a gap in the market – young women and gangs of young men being excluded from pubs, for example – no longer exist. But inequalities survive. According to the market researchers Key Note, 15- to 34-year-olds in the AB socio-economic category are by far the largest and fastest-growing market for the high prices and gourmet products of the coffee chains. As the cultural historian Markman Ellis puts it, the coffee bar has “cut its links with the vengeful, transgressive crowd . . . the mob has been excluded by the anodyne luxury of the corporate coffee shop”.
One result is that moral panics about young people now focus on other areas of the high street. It is McDonald’s that is cited as the stomping ground of the “chav”, the caricature of a youth-ful member of the peasant underclass that is the successor to Hoggart’s “jukebox boy” – although the new caricature comes minus his paternalistic concern. Last year, a Mail on Sunday journalist went in search of “chav culture” by eating for the first time in McDonald’s. “I have never seen such a packed outlet nor observed so many people linger for so long over one Big Mac,” she wrote. “But this is a chav’s ‘blazin’ (excellent) idea of a meeting place.” Like the espresso-bar layabouts of the 1950s and 1960s, chavs are criticised for “hanging around” and mindlessly consuming commercial culture.
The fast-food and coffee chains have effortlessly absorbed themselves into an older, class-conscious culture. In anti-elitist, consumerist, post-Thatcherite society, however, these class distinctions are seen as the product of a freely acquired lifestyle betraying either the vulgarity or pretentiousness of its owner – whether it is the chav’s taste for unhealthy junk food, or the middle-class professional’s preference for a coffee-flavoured milk shake with a weird name.