The Joys Of Modern Life: 39. Greasy Spoons

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The Independent Culture
WHENEVER I am away for more than a month, an explosion of alarming expat tendencies resets my heart to Greenwich Mean Time. Yet those longings are not for some Jerusalem-drenched vision of green, but for a particular fug of grease, steam and wiped Formica. I twitch for baked beans, mahogany- hued tea and stained tabloids served in a rising babble of shouts and roadworks - in short, the sweet sorrow of the greasy spoon.

It's a particular world, so English and yet so Italian; unfriendly to a spectacular degree, with a crashing of crockery and communication in barks; or a home from home, your own lard-splattered sitting-room extension. Either way, I'm in my natural element. It's that precise, entirely predictable, nasty deliciousness, that gets me running, like a fool, to the "English" cafe Tea and Sympathy in New York if I'm away for too long, baying after the scent of comfort. It means that in London I barely move.

I'm never so relaxed as when sitting in a greasy spoon. The joy lies in the atmosphere of speckled lino, fly-spattered blinds, sunlight filtered through smeared windows to hit a cloud of steam, and an eternal war between bleach and grease. It's the language: the specials, the swarming apostrophes, the gunfire demands for a slice, a jacket, a serving of bubble. It's the smear-transparent pages of tabloids with sudden bright orange crusts from which you fear ghastly diseases but which you carry on reading.

My favourite cafe is Andrew's Restaurant, in Clerkenwell, London. There, to its murky beauty, its comforts and kindnesses, my thoughts home in from all corners of the world. With its vinyl and nicotine, its plastic menus and eternal goodwill, it's like a day-care centre for artists, window cleaners, gay activists, barristers, ITN presenters and escapers from rehabilitation centres. A dear and beloved Italian septuagenarian called Joanna owns, manages and serves. Cheeky lads call her "Mum"; care- in-the-community recipients roll up in jogging-pants and stained anoraks and treat her like a saviour. She's my namesake, duenna and dispenser of welcoming kisses and weak tea in the white-toast heaven that fuels my work.

The joy lies in the strange but distinctive juxtapositions that exist so happily in the classic greasy spoon: the misspellings, the "crispolini" and brown sauce, prawns and avocado, the industrial drill of the coffee machine, the sludge, dribble and snowy white napkins. I am so in love with my favoured local that I generally settle for the utter predictability of baked potatoes or toasted cheese-and-tomato sandwiches, and am resistant to offers of sea bass, truffle risotto or purple sprouting broccoli elsewhere. If someone wants to meet for lunch, they must come to Andrew's, where I sit with a half-written novel and an eighth cup of tea. There I remain, stubborn and despotic. I will not venture away from that roaring of buses and array of specials.

The greasy spoon is as English and comforting as an Indian takeaway before a bath, as dark and smelly as the London Underground, as entertaining as a scandal-high party. It beats any number of suspect coffee bars given to high stools, discomfort and pavement posing.