The life of the sidewalk café is not for us Brits

No longer need I feel ashamed of having erotic dreams of Prescott based on Hemingway characters
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The Independent Online

Let me at long last confess to the secret erotic fantasies I have been harbouring for years about the Deputy Prime Minister. Now that he has officially unveiled his plan to regenerate our inner cities by introducing what he romantically calls "continental-style al fresco café culture" to these islands, I need no longer feel ashamed to reveal that for years I've had dreams of John Prescott based loosely on characters from Hemingway novels.

They always start with the two of us sitting at a pavement table outside the Café Flore or Les Deux Magots, me in Gertrude Stein mode, a glass of pastis in one hand, a black Russian Sobranie protruding from a cigarette holder as long as a knitting needle in the other. Mr Prescott - tanned, terse and devastatingly macho - is sitting on the other side of the red-checked cloth showing the scar he got from his last bullfight in Pamplona. He's wearing an open-necked safari shirt, the one he wore to shoot snow leopards on mount Kilimanjaro, and a navy blue beret belonging to Pablo Picasso, whom we ran into last night at a café in Montmartre.

Occasionally he breaks off his bullfighting narrative to wave to friends - Simone de Beauvoir, James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre, Alice B Toklas and that attractive young couple just arrived from New York, what are their names, Bob and Hilda? No, Scott and Zelda.

Suddenly, violently pushing back his chair and in a voice quivering with suppressed passion, John Ernest Prescott Hemingway whispers, "For God's sake, Gertrude, this is madness. You, me, us ...''

And, conscious that every eye in that continental-style al fresco pavement café is upon us, we leave and go back to his apartment where...

I am all for café culture. I am just worried about how it would work in British cities. My nearest café in London, which really is called the Picasso, has a few tables on the pavement where hardy folk who don't mind the smell of exhaust fumes, the roar of pneumatic drills and the sight of overflowing litter bins, drink cappuccinos and watch the wildlife of the King's Road pass by. Before she married and divorced Prince Andrew, Sarah Ferguson was a regular at the Picasso, but she's hardly Gertrude Stein.

London pavements don't lend themselves to al fresco socialising because, fumes, noise, litter and bad weather apart, most of them are far too narrow. Last time I had lunch al fresco at an incredibly expensive fish restaurant in Kensington, the waiter hung our bread basket on the parking meter next to me and by the time the women in the Porsche had reversed into the space, my crusty white roll and buffalo mozzarella were the colour of charcoal.

I am not in London right now, I am on an island off the Scottish coast where the nearest thing to inner-city life is Oban at the other end of the ferry. Now there's a place that could teach Mr Prescott a thing or two about café culture. That's pretty much all there is to do in Oban if you're one of the 660,000 annual visitors to the town - sit in out of the rain and drink tea.

It always seems to rain when I go to Oban, usually to buy new wellies, and you can hardly move along George Street for the coach parties of elderly tourists, mainly women from Aylesbury and Sheffield and Accrington, looking for somewhere to buy an umbrella. The only café worth going to in Oban in the Kitchen Garden, a tiny mezzanine coserie above a deli in the main drag that could certainly use a few extra tables on the pavement. Except that they would block the entrance to Woolworths and Boots, a hazard with which Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre mercifully did not have to contend.

Waiting for my toasted sandwich the other day I tried to imagine James Joyce and Scott Fitzgerald discussing negative capability with the same vehemence as the trio of elderly ladies at the table beside me were discussing the choice of sandwiches on the Kitchen Garden Café menu.

"My worry is that the filled croissant with avocado and crispy bacon is going to take a long time coming. Unless it's thin-sliced Danish, bacon can take ages to crisp up,'' said one. "Well, at least we'll be killing a bit of time waiting,'' said the last. "The coach doesn't leave until four, so we might just as well stop here as get wet outside.''

No wonder they call Oban the place where Bohemia meets La Dolce Vita. Café culture, Mr Prescott? I think we've already got it.