The Cadbury Cocoa House is coming soon to your high street. It will serve afternoon tea and chocolate and is an attempt by Cadbury – now part of Kraft – to take advantage of the booming, soaring, runaway success of coffee shop chains in this country.
These chains have been remarkably resistant to recession and figures just out show that the big players nearly doubled their numbers last year.
Cadbury said that the new shops would serve afternoon tea and chocolate. This strikes me as a mildly strange choice of words given that coffee is the big player in our Starbucks world – and given that the phrase "afternoon tea" conjures up a nostalgic ye olde world of tea rooms. But then the name Cadbury Cocoa House has the ring of Lyons Corner House, so perhaps there is meant to be something nostalgic going on.
I, for one, am nostalgic for Lyons Corner Houses without ever having been to one. I imagine they served lamb chops and that they were overcooked, but somehow even that seems quite appealing. Certainly Lyons Corner Houses were somewhat glamorous in their heyday. They were spread over five floors, the ground floor being devoted to the sale of sweets, chocolates, cakes, fruits and flowers, the upper floors housing various different restaurants each with its own theme and its own music, played by live musicians, of course. There were also hair salons, telephone booths and theatre booking agencies on hand. The whole thing was a bright enticing emporium and was open 24 hours a day. Lyons Corner House – are you due for reviving?
I suspect, however, that all this is a far cry from what Cadbury has in mind. But still, it's not a bad idea to give a British twist to our enduring café obsession. We tend to think of cafés as Continental European, but the ones that are now breeding like rabbits on our high streets are essentially an American invention.
Of course, this wasn't always the case. There was a day when the only proper cafés in London were one or two Bar Italia type places in Soho. They sported exotic imported Gaggia coffee machines and made the type of espresso shots that Londoners, in those days, simply didn't drink. Then it all started to change. The much more palatable cappuccino arrived in our consciousness and – at about that time – Café Rouge started to open up all over London. Café Rouge looked unashamedly French, but it wasn't French at all. It was owned by a Brit and it was an invention. It was "themed" – but its success demonstrated that there was a hunger over here for a bit of café society. Then Costa came along and did well until, rather late in the day, Starbucks arrived in 1998 and the whole thing exploded. We too wanted to sit out on the street and get froth on our upper lips.
And so this type of café experience started out as an essentially aspirational thing. It's un-British enough – even now – that we still get a kind of thrill from the exoticism. We know it isn't really in our nature, all this gathering happily in public places, all this sitting out in the street business. We know that the tables outside are essentially set dressing. We know the number of days a year it's actually possible to sit out at them is severely limited. But we like the fact that they are there – perhaps it makes us think somewhat differently about ourselves. It makes us feel less interior.
It's not a bad thing, but there's something affected about all of this. It's new to us and not really very British. The coffee stands for something, some way that we've moved on as a people. We've moved out of the pub, for one thing. Thank goodness. Pubs were dark and beery with stained carpets. They were like caves. In Men Are from Mars, John Gray famously said to let men go to their caves and the demise of the pub has been a boon for women. Women love coffee shops and tea rooms. They are not the domain of men. A woman can sit alone in a café without causing comment. You just swap the alcohol for caffeine. It's still drugs that are for sale – it's just that the environment is completely different.
In some ways this movement from dark to light, from the cavernous pub to the breezy coffee shop, also mirrors our fate as a country over the past 30 years. The 1970s were a dark decade with their power cuts and three-day weeks. Since then, we've become so much richer a country – and in our psyches too, perhaps. We've blasted the black soot off our inner cities and our souls. We've thrown out our chintz and embraced blond wood and Ikea. And now we go out and sit in the street in cafés like a sunnier kind of people. It's just a shame the weather hasn't taken the hint and done away with the need for an umbrella.
Mysteries of marriage
Sometimes the wait for a celebrity split seems interminable. Then three come at once. February saw Ashley and Cheryl Cole torn asunder. In March Sam Mendes and Kate Winslet publicly bit the dust. And now, in April, it's the turn of Dawn French and Lenny Henry, left, to make their announcement and put up with the Schadenfreude and speculation that ensue as we try to make sense of something that is essentially inscrutable – a marriage.
There's been speculation that Dawn's career outshone Lenny's (just as Cheryl's outshone Ashley's and Kate's supposedly outshone Sam's). She parlayed the success of French and Saunders into national treasure status with The Vicar of Dibley. His kind of genial comedy went out of fashion and he's not seen on our TV screens much. But then there's also been speculation that in fact it was his career that outshone hers when he won accolades for his stage version of Othello. She has always wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, apparently, and longed to tread the boards.
If you want to know "the truth behind the split", here it is. The truth is that we know nothing. Marriages are famously unknowable and the fact remains that there's been a lot more togetherness than anything else in this relationship. Does a marriage – like a political career – always have to end in failure? The average marriage lasts 10 years. These two have more than doubled that. Perhaps the headlines should read: Couple achieve 25 years of marriage!
Dress to impress, or keep women in their place?
Marks & Spencer has just reported that there's been a 200 per cent leap in sales of smart dresses that women can wear to work. Why? Some say it's due to the recession and women trying harder to impress and hang on to their jobs. I say it's an indicator of the hierarchy and the fact that women no longer age if they can possibly help it.
Remember when women used to "let themselves go"? Now the only place they go is Topshop – well into their fifties. Throw in a bit of Botox and the only way to tell the difference at a hundred paces is in different choices of look, as in are you doing the "grunge" thing or the "Fifties" thing? If the work experience girl comes in wearing cigarette pants and biker boots, then the more experienced are obliged to show off their power in a proper dress and heels.
Talking of the dark days of the 1970s – punk rock was one of the decade's angriest moments. And who was angrier than the Sex Pistols? They were the real thing when it came to punk – they really lived the whole ugly, deathly thing. Thank goodness then that their famous manager, Malcolm McLaren, has died without sinking to the low of an appearance on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!. Apparently, he flew out to Australia in 2007, but saw sense at the last moment and legged it. I hope he gobbed at a few people as he went. The close call implies that McLaren was a more an extrovert than a political ideologist, but still, punk wasn't just a publicity stunt. I'm a bit too young to have made it to a Sex Pistols concert but I vividly remember the posters all over London with the word "bollocks" crossed out. It was an era-defining moment.