I want my coffee to be a poison, not a remedy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I know this is dangerous but I'm going to risk a national generalisation. The Finns (in my limited experience, allowing for obvious exceptions, without prejudice to future lifestyle revolutions etc etc) are a living example of the deficiencies of the additive-free life. Without alcohol they are (sprinkle another good handful of caveats here) a taciturn people, prone to melancholy introspection - Eeyore without the saving sarcasm. With alcohol, though, they are affectionate, expressive and gregarious.

I know this is dangerous but I'm going to risk a national generalisation. The Finns (in my limited experience, allowing for obvious exceptions, without prejudice to future lifestyle revolutions etc etc) are a living example of the deficiencies of the additive-free life. Without alcohol they are (sprinkle another good handful of caveats here) a taciturn people, prone to melancholy introspection - Eeyore without the saving sarcasm. With alcohol, though, they are affectionate, expressive and gregarious.

Now, it seems, they have made another contribution to the increasingly beleaguered cause of self-adulteration. A Finnish study, published in the Annals of Rheumatic Disease, suggests that people who drink more than three cups of coffee a day have twice the chance of developing the disease than those who drink less.

On the face of it, this looks like another blow to auto-poisoners everywhere; one more door to pleasure slammed shut by the white-coats. But the kicker is this - the study is vulnerable to sceptics because they simply couldn't find enough non-coffee-drinkers to establish a decent control. So many Finns find it impossible to face the day (or what passes for a day) without that aromatic jump-start that it's difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Indeed, the fact that Finns are very big consumers of coffee, but have no higher overall incidence of rheumatoid arthritis, suggests just the opposite. So this health scare comes as a banded-pack with its own tranquilliser.

And this, I think, is actually preferable to no health-scare at all - since at least part of the pleasure of a good cup of coffee is the vague thought that it's doing you no good at all. There have been attempts recently to boost the health-giving attributes of the drink, with studies linking moderate consumption to decreased rates of heart-disease. Others have made claims for its powers of cold-sore prevention and in the United States a supplier is planning to market a vitamin-enriched coffee, "a Columbian Supremo with a robust flavor and no bitter vitamin taste".

All this is part of a long commercial tradition. A 1657 advert in the London Publick Advertiser assured hesitant consumers that coffee "is good against Eye-sores, Coughs, or Colds, Rhumes, Consumption, Head-ach, Dropsie, Gout, Scurvy, King's Evil and many others", and Balzac famously championed its use as a creative accelerant in his Treatise on Modern Stimulants, the only problem being that it can't actually transform a Lada into a Balzacian Ferrari - only make it race until the cylinders seize.

But I don't want coffee to be a remedy, I want it to be a poison, particularly because I have the security of knowing that I'm never going to get even close to the fatal dose (about a third of an ounce of pure caffeine, apparently). I want coffee to be a perverse appetite, not a sensible one - a taste acquired and held in the teeth of biological instinct. When an English traveller, Sir Thomas Herbert, first encountered coffee in the Middle East he described it as "a drink imitating that in the Stygian lake, black, thick and bitter" - and only the dishonest coffee drinker would deny that account.

We have to learn to love it and part of the pleasure of the drink is that every cup represents a triumph over the crude prejudices of our childhood palates. Whatever chemical dependencies eventually turn up to reinforce the habit, coffee is above all a pleasure of the mind - and it's only in that sense that one can endorse the 19th-century French dictionary which solemnly assured its readers that "coffee is particularly indicated for men of letters, soldiers, sailors and all workers who have to stay in hot surroundings; lastly, to all inhabitants of a country where cretinism is rife".

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

Comments