I can’t work at home. There are just too many distractions. Is there an elaborate dinner I can spend hours preparing even if – especially if – I’m dining by myself? Wouldn’t those shelves look nice with the books arranged by publisher rather than author’s name? Is that the internet I have on my laptop?
Instead, my day job is writing in cafés: I hotdesk, I suppose, on a city- or sometimes worldwide scale. Cafés, that is, as in coffee shops, where the drinks are the priority, as opposed to places like London’s two branches of Caravan, or Melbourne’s splendid Hardware Société, where you really should be eating lunch rather than just sipping coffee. That’s one of a couple of balancing acts I’ve found myself needing to undertake: your favourite café wants custom, but it probably doesn’t want you to sit there for umpteen hours sipping from a single stone-cold latte as you work on your answer to Jonathan Franzen (several New York cafés have notices in the window: no laptops 12-2pm; East London’s much-missed Fred & Fran is the only London café I’ve ever known introduce this rule, and even then they only enforced it at weekends).
There’s another tricky calibration to make: the balance between the solitary nature of writing and the writer’s recognition that too much solitude engenders its own problems. And then there’s the paradox that one has to engage with the world enough to be able to write effectively about it, but not so much that you get distracted. Being surrounded by gregarious, sociable (but not too sociable) strangers seems to me a perfect way to be in the world without participating more than strictly necessary. It would seem odd to me, attempting to be in the business of writing about people, to lock myself away from them. That’s not to say that I’m forever scribbling down the conversations of strangers at the next table. Only once in a while. When they’re not looking.
I still remember the harassed young mother working her double stroller along to the far end of narrow, busy Flat White, shoving tables, chairs and customers aside, wedging the twins into a space manifestly too small to accommodate the tank they rode in
One negative experience – whether it’s coffee, ambience or clientele – can nix a place. I was in a favourite café in Glasgow one afternoon, writing notes on a story, when a tourist at the next table engaged me in conversation about the city, and though it was flattering that someone new in town seemed to connect the very fact of writing (or being able to write) with being an authority on all things local, I was sufficiently irked that I never went back – as if he might be lying in wait with more questions. Conversational gambits of the “Everyone’s got a book inside them” (painful) or “I’ve always wanted to do that myself” will put me off a place before the crema on my long black has melted away.
Sometimes it’s necessary to put on headphones and tune out too much noise (be it gangsta rap on the PA in Melbourne’s 1000 £ Bend, or East London trendoids in Esters loudly debating where the most authentic workwear dungarees are to be found). So I suppose I leave my quiet, noisefree home, go out somewhere busy, and try to deflect any noise there.
And I can’t abide the café-as-crèche: I still remember the harassed young mother working her double stroller along to the far end of narrow, busy Flat White, shoving tables, chairs and customers aside, wedging the twins into a space manifestly too small to accommodate the tank they rode in, as if, having a bad day, she wanted everyone around her to suffer too. On the other hand, even the disruption of a small child scooting back and forth through Mouse & De Lotz, bored almost literally to tears by the business meeting his mother had inexplicably decided to hold there, couldn’t put me off the place.
“They do this every Tuesday,” confided a lady on my right, unconnected with the group but whose routine seemed to involve turning up each week in the hope of seeing them flustered
Melbourne’s Journal Café, housed within the Centre for Adult Education, is a natural place for the laptop-toter to gravitate, though its setup of two large central tables and a short section of counter looking out on the CAE library mean it’s easy to be distracted from your magnum opus as your attention turns to people-watching. Places this long-established have their own codes of behaviour, seemingly set in stone long before the silicon chip was invented: I upset the Tuesday-afternoon ritual of a gaggle of 60-something ladies one visit, unwittingly sitting in a seat invisibly reserved for one of their number, and precipitating a cooing, clucking seating rearrangement in which friendships and feuderies – “Aw, but Marion and I always share”; a hoarsely whispered “You mustn’t sit me next to Aileen!” – spilled over beyond their group. “They do this every Tuesday,” confided a lady on my right, unconnected with the group but whose routine seemed to involve turning up each week in the hope of seeing them flustered.
Perhaps paradoxically, I don’t find a book-centric environment always conducive to working: London’s brilliant London Review Bookshop has a cute café attached, but it’s full of British Museum daytrippers, and publishing bods (I once looked up from my novel-in-progress to find myself staring at the editor who was patiently waiting for my long-overdue manuscript). While I’m sure there are some mourning the loss of the Jazz Café from the newly relocated Foyles on Charing Cross Road, their new café space is bigger, brighter and, crucially, free of free-jazz skronking. Reading and writing, which require a certain orderliness of mind, always seemed to me an odd match with jazz: you could imagine having a William Burroughs-or B.S. Johnson-esque epiphany (or freakout) at the old Foyles, throwing all the pages in the air to land in random order. And naturally, the café-in-bookshop formula (Costa in Waterstones, the Gloria Jeans in the similarly sadly missed Australian branches of Borders), though good for lots of things – an unthreatening environment to meet a first date, somewhere to sit at length flicking through magazines you’ve no intention of purchasing – usually prove as atmosphere-free and dully homogenous as trying to write your book in the freezer aisle of a local supermarket.
I once looked up from my novel-in-progress to find myself staring at the editor who was patiently waiting for my long-overdue manuscript
Then there’s one final balancing act: finding the place that’s lively, but not too popular. In a place in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill I took my coffee to a table, started work, then glanced up to realise that I’d unwittingly broken formation: facing me, row upon row of Mac-tappers, one per table (set for four), making me feel briefly as though I were preparing to address a classroom of utterly uninterested students. “Creative Writing 1.01: Setting is everything”. (It was my own fault: I was cheating on the Flatiron’s much more convivial Birch, the best writerly hangout in New York, where I’d started to fear I was working too regularly. They’d got to know my name – always a worry.)
On another afternoon I stopped dead outside the now closed Café Orwell in Brooklyn, staring into a gloomy galley seemingly solely illuminated by the apple-shaped logos on the dozen identical iBooks the dozen identical clients – thick-framed glasses, architectural hair – had open to write their dozen presumably identical novels, in which snarky, sensitive twenty-something narrators would ruminate in tragicomic voice on the single disastrous change of fortune that transformed their lives. Fearing I’d be castigated for possessing neither an Apple product nor a solipsistic college-graduate narrator, I hurried on to find the next best place. C