Historic London works best in the rain. The foggy streets of Dickens and Doyle can be realised in a way in which they cannot in fine weather. On this dripping wooden door Holmes may have knocked, Fagin may have slunk. When the sun is out above this same door, old though it may be, it shall be framed above and behind by glass walls and plastic signs, glinting in twenty first century light. Only on dreich days may the past take over.
We were gathered under the door of the church of St. Michael, boasting an impressive façade, though easily missable as one walks along Cornhill just east of Bank. We were gathered here to be led on a tour of the earliest coffeehouses of London. I was not sure what to expect, but was hopeful of a few good stories, perhaps linking our city, its ancestors, and how and where they began to drink the black liquid I rarely go a morning without. I was not disappointed. It turned out to be one story, about one man, a man named Pasqua Rosée.
It began in 1652. Three hundred and sixty years ago Pasqua arrived in London thanks to Daniel Edwards, a trader of Turkish goods. Mr. Edwards had apparently acquired a taste for coffee in Turkey and brought over a coffee-making servant to satisfy this new taste. The colourful foreigner stood out in his rather drab new home. His drink stood out too. In order to give townspeople a taste of it, when he was not serving his English master he set up a ramshackle stall in the courtyard behind the church, which was where we were led as we departed on our tour.
A small plaque commemorates him at this spot. We stood around it. Mostly we were coupled, old and young, our umbrellas slung readily by our sides, like swords, in warning to the sky. Then before us appeared the real Pasqua. In a loud, singsong Mediterranean voice he invited us to drink. He wore ballooning trousers and a waistcoat, and the colours of his clothes sucked out the only hints of light we could have seen around us on grey walls.
Despite coffee’s immediate popularity, he did not have an easy time. Innkeepers certainly did not like him for detracting from their business. Women, more oddly, complained about him also, even campaigned against him. This unholy drink, they claimed, was turning their husbands away from studious work and turning them into – one must gasp — gossiping fools!
We, the touring, gossiped none. We stood sipping tastes of Pasqua’s bitter coffee, listening. Despite opposition, coffee had been given its first foothold on London’s soil, and it wasn’t about to let go. Pasqua’s stall in the churchyard turned into a four-walled coffee house on Cornhill, a place for men to gather, gossip, sip and spit. (Buckets were provided for this purpose, for those who found coffee too foul to swallow.) The news of the day was held in highest regard here; a new piece of information about the world was demanded of patrons as they arrived to drink; a seat would only be made available to them upon its production. However, fanciful rumours would probably have been received as readily as evidenced facts.
Like whichever sort of stories did spread through that first café, so did the idea of the café itself; soon there were several. By the great fire in 1666 coffeehouses were numerous, and though the blaze wiped most of them out along with so much of the city, they bounced right back. Soon there were hundreds again, buzzing with debate, discourse, and of course, caffeine.
“Accessorize” in its black and pink lettering made me recoil. Engrossed in the story and the winding alleys as I was, return to the streets and shops of today shocked me. Fortunately on Lombard Street it is possible to ignore the last three hundred years. It is one of a few streets left with hanging signs outside its shops. The logos of our familiar companies, Barclays or Sainsbury’s, can appear antiquated when presented on wood hung from an iron railing. In the 17th century, we learn, pictures of cats hanging from these bars would have been known to advertise perfumists. A nail would have identified the coffin-maker, whilst a picture of an arm would have hung outside houses of vice and debauchery.
Going backwards in space or time requires a lot more effort than going forwards. Going forwards is the de facto state of being. We are drawn forwards, into and beyond the present day without doing any more than raising our feet. The ground runs like a silent treadmill. There is a direction too: we are drawn towards things. Wide streets, billboards bus stops and engines. These things are bright and big and loud; these things are the present. Narrow lanes, small chipped plaques and grimy windows; these are the things that require most effort to be attracted to, most effort to notice at all. Overcoming the momentum of the present thus requires slow quiet patience and attention. This is something not too familiar with many Londoners, including myself. It is worth the journey.
What became of Pasqua? In short, he disappeared. Perhaps to France or Germany, to take his drink back to the continent, perhaps he met his end in the hands of a spiteful innkeeper. What remains though, what grew out of that first stone he laid, was a dynasty.
There are three hundred and sixty Starbucks coffee shops in London today. One for every year since Pasqua arrived. Little remains of the spirit of the coffeehouse though. Even in small, independent, passionate coffee shops, newcomers are not greeted with calls for news. Newcomers are not greeted at all, save perhaps by a barista. Today’s cafes are insular affairs, for better or worse.
We last saw Pasqua under the eyes of the Siren. He stood amazed at this future, in part awed by how his drink pervades modern life, in part terrified at the face of the temptress who led the movement. For all, the story of coffee is a rich one. In the end it was too much for him. We, the watchers, stood with wide eyes in the rain as Pasqua turned his back on us and walked, swaying, towards the arches of a giant glass tower. We heard his cry echo off a high wall before, into the mist, he was gone.
Pull Courage, Pasqua, fear no Harms
From the besieging Foe;
Make good your Ground, stand to your Arms,
Hold out this summer, and then tho’
He’ll storm, he’ll not prevail—your Face
Shall give the Coffee Pot the chace.