Christina Patterson: A land of milk and caramel macchiatos

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The Independent Online

Schadenfreude is not attractive, but it's sometimes hard to avoid. Who, hearing that Starbucks has just come bottom of a Which? tasting test of coffee chains, could resist that little nod of satisfaction, that little flush of cosy warmth, that reminds us that sometimes, just sometimes, there is some kind of justice on this earth. Not a justice, obviously, that's reflected in the coffee giant's profits, but the kind – almost sweeter – that reminds us that they are wrong and we are right.

And how does Starbucks sin against us? Well, let me count the ways. It pays suppliers about a penny for coffee it sells at up to £3.30 a cup. Which it then sells in buckets, to a background of piped music (selected at head office) to be consumed on purple, green or brown chairs (selected at head office) with monumental muffins, created for a giant with a tape worm – or perhaps an American. Its coffee, when you can taste it, is (according to the study) "watery", and (according to me) like cat's piss – ie with that acrid, acidic aftertaste that makes you think of animal ablutions.

Most of the time, you can't taste it, of course. Because what you drink in Starbucks isn't really coffee, but coffee-flavoured milk. Strawberries and cream frappuccino, sir? Gingerbread latte? Double moccachino with a maple syrup shot? And would you like a dummy with that, sir? For this is coffee for babies, coffee for toddlers writing marketing plans on their laptops, toddlers yearning for a cuddle, a sweetie and their mother's milk.

Coffee, American neo-cons might be alarmed to discover, was the key drink of Islam, consumed and spread by Arab (yes, Arab) traders. From its birth in Constantinople in 1475, the coffee house was a centre of civilisation, "very proper to make acquaintance in", according to an early observer "as well as to refresh and entertain". Samuel Pepys, whose diary records 99 visits to coffee houses to meet Dryden and Congreve, found "much pleasure" in them. So did Joseph Addison and Samuel Johnson.

In his wonderful autobiography, My Last Breath, Luis Bunuel talks about his daily visits to the Cyrano, the café in Paris "frequented by working class, prostitutes and pimps" where he met Max Ernst, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard and Magritte. There the surrealists "debated any critical action" they "felt might be needed". The coffee they sipped, while writing their manifesto "au service de la revolution", did not taste of marshmallows. Nor did the coffee sipped by Sartre and de Beauvoir as they pondered existentialism in Les Deux Magots.

Before the advent of the Starbucks, and the Costas and the Coffee Republics, however, coffee in this country was a mug of stewed sludge in the Wimpy or the Golden Egg. A café was a place you went for egg and chips, or toasted tea-cakes with Gran. Conversation over a fine beverage? Well, that would be a laugh with the lads over a pint or 10 at The Red Lion. Most of the time, it still is. But now, thanks to the coffee colossi, grown men, in suits and ties and brandishing briefcases, will meet other grown men for caramel macchiatos. Coffee culture indeed.

Perhaps we're not cooking up major artistic movements or shaping key philosophical debates. Perhaps we're not writing great literature, or fine poetry, or even half-decent blogs. But we've got, once again, a place where we can be alone and not alone, a place where we can watch the world go by, where we can sit and read and dream. Thank you, Starbucks, for creating a vulgar, pricey model, for others to follow and improve. And thank you for teaching us what good coffee is.

Dress for a successful press

If her husband has been garnering less than universal praise of late, Sarah Brown can, at least, find some crumbs of comfort in her own press coverage over the past week. Never mind Peter Hain. Never mind the economy. Never mind Northern Cock-up. The important thing was that, in India, Sarah scrubbed up well.

Mrs Brown was lauded for adopting a pastel green kurta for a trip to the presidential palace, and a navy blue shalwar kameez for dinner. She did look jolly nice, and no doubt is jolly nice, but it's hardly headline-forging stuff. The truth is that there are two key rules for prime minister's wives. One, wear a pretty frock. Two, keep your mouth shut. Poor, mouthy Cherie consistently broke both.

* It wouldn't be entirely accurate to say that I'd walk over broken glass to watch Tommy Lee Jones in anything, but I'd certainly nip down to my local arthouse cinema. Which, a few days ago, I did. In fact, his performance as a good-hearted, but weary sheriff in the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men is matched by Josh Brolin's as the hapless Vietnam veteran who gets caught up in an orgy of drugs and death and Javier Bardem's as the psychopathic hitman hired to get him.

It's brilliant, epically chilling, spine-tingling stuff – so violent that when I stumbled out into the streets of Hackney (streets which, unlike Jacqui Smith, I walk every night) even the bright glare of the Christmas lights (yes, in late January, Christmas lights) couldn't stop my heart pounding wildly at the sight of every silhouette and the sound of every step. The film is a powerful and disturbing reminder that one of the most precious freedoms in the land of the free is the freedom to own a gun. A freedom which Hillary, for one, seems happy to preserve.