Christina Patterson: Tales of the City

'How can a whole area be allergic to gluten? And pretty much everything else that makes food, well, food?'
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The Independent Online

For some people, it's schools. For others, it's a garden. For me, it was a cappuccino. After seven years in the wilderness, it finally struck me. I had to live somewhere I could get a cappuccino. Not a thin slice of reconstituted gristle in a stale bun, or a box of so-bad-it's-not-even-branded fried chicken, but a nice cappuccino and a piece of carrot cake. Or banana cake. Or anything really, just as long as I could sit with my paper on something that wasn't moulded in hard plastic and bolted down to the floor.

So I defected. I abandoned my lively, but unlovely, sliver of sarf London, crossed the river and headed north. Stoke Newington High Street was, I soon discovered, the biggest urinal in Europe, a land of Poundstretchers, roadworks, third-world litter levels and yellow signs seeking witnesses for the latest "serious incident" outside my front door. A world almost identical, in fact, to the one I had left behind. But off this highway to hell (or at least insomnia) is a little slice of paradise: a road apparently predicated on the need for the weary journalist, or poet, or graphic designer, to wrest themselves from their dark, satanic computers, and nip out for a large latte and a tasty pastry.

* In Stoke Newington Church Street you can find a café for your every mood. Nestling between the second-hand bookshops, the bijou bars and boutiques, there are cafés with mosaic tables and dim lighting, or with leather sofas and fairy lights, or with zinc furniture and funky lampshades, or even just with a wooden shelf and stools. You can get coffee with or without caffeine, with or without froth, with or without the services of a cow. You can get Polish pastries, Portuguese tarts, scones fresh from the oven and chocolate brownies so rich that when you bite them they ooze. Yes, it's heaven. The only problem is the people.

When I first moved there, the "Stokeyites", as they like to be called, were dressed like an army. They all wore combats and sleeveless puffa jackets and fleeces, as if they were about to be dragged at any moment from their espressos and marched to Clissold Park to launch a missile attack on Hizbollah. Which they would, like, try to swap for negotiation, yeah? Seven years on, the key look is still tending towards the military: trousers and skirts and long, flappy shorts, all covered with weird pockets and straps and worn with strange, sporty shoes, like a cross between a child's plastic sandal for the paddling pool and some kind of space-age trainer. These clothes are not designed to flatter the human body. They are designed to give a message. "I'm a cool, successful, understated kind of guy or girl," they drawl. "I have no need to flaunt my - rather lovely - body. And my friends are all like me."

Like all effective military machines, they have a long-term strategy for survival. They are breeding like rabbits. You can't read a paragraph of your paper without a perfectly enunciated little voice demanding a "babycino" (hot frothed milk, apparently) or an organic flapjack. Or an adult voice telling little Emily or Sam or Tallulah that if they eat up their lentil lasagne they'll get a lovely mango lassi. A soya one, of course. For these are the fussiest children on the planet, born to the fussiest parents.

How can a whole area be allergic to gluten? And dairy products and additives and sugar and chocolate and pretty much everything that makes food, well, food? Just because they're all writing novels in the Blue Legume (though God knows how, with all that screaming), does that mean that their digestive systems also have to win prizes for exceptional sensitivity? At the farmers' market on Saturday, I even heard one woman asking for a soya cappuccino without any coffee in it. "Just hot water and frothed soya milk," she giggled. Coffee without coffee? A new nadir, clearly, in the discreet non-charm of the bourgeoisie. Reader, that woman was me.

Last year, after months of serious health problems, and visits to every kind of health practitioner, both mainstream and alternative, and batteries of blood tests and panoplies of painkillers, I finally submitted to a test for food intolerances, and came back with a list of forbidden substances as long as my (still painful) arm. According to this poisonous piece of paper, I, too, could not eat gluten. I could not eat sugar. I could not eat dairy. Worst of all, I could not drink. According to something called a "gut fermentation" test, the alcohol levels in my system were five times the average. Oh, the shame! And oh, the agony of parties without alcohol.

So I have joined this tribe of whingers and party-poopers, people who won't take a bite of anything without scanning the list of ingredients, people who nibble rice cakes and snack on seed mixes like squirrels. And, with acupuncture, too, I have got better. When I lapse, as I often do, spectacularly, the pains come back. When I'm "good", I'm miserable, but well. It's deeply irritating, but hard to argue with - much though I'm tempted to try.

According to a report by the Royal College of Physicians, only about 1 per cent of people claiming to have a food allergy will exhibit it in a blind trial. So are these food fads psychological? Are they the new hysteria? Or some kind of complex metaphor, perhaps, for our inability to cope with modern life? Heaven knows. Maybe I'm just tapping into the collective Stokey unconscious. I already spend half my salary at Fresh & Wild. It can't be long before I'm wearing funny shorts.