John Lanchester

John Lanchester

A weeklong electronic journal.
April 20 2000 9:00 PM

John Lanchester

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It's a melancholy truth that most writers lead pretty boring lives. It's this that underlies the often-desperate attempts, in profiles and interviews and blurbs, to make us sound much more interesting than we are. The most hackneyed of these tactics is the long list of summer jobs, tarted up to make some keyboard-bound, teaching-job-cosseted scribbler sound like a cross between Jack London and Mata Hari. X worked as a stevedore (i.e., in the back office of his uncle's shipping firm), bartender (i.e., once poured a drink at the students' union bar), farmhand (i.e., once picked his own strawberries at a pick-your-own-strawberry farm), etc.

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The truth, which every writer and most readers know, is that the only real interest in any writer's work lies in the words on the page, and the best part of their lives lies in sitting alone in a room putting those words down. How interesting is that? On the other hand, it might make a refreshing change to read the truth. If I were to read an interview or blurb about how someone never went anywhere and never did anything and had absolutely no non-literary claims on our attention, I for one would hurtle out to buy the book.

As for myself, my own life is so externally eventless that what to do about coffee in the morning counts as a significant choice. I usually drink one cup a day—I like to think of this as being a little like James Bond. "I only like one drink before dinner, but I like that drink to be very large and very cold and very strong and very well made."

The choice used to be simple, since there was for a brief period a very good cafe about a 15-minute walk away (in our infrequent good weather) or a five-minute drive (most of the time). The coffee shop was part of a chain started by two investment bankers who had spent time in the United States and calculated that the vogue for designer coffees would, like every other American trend, arrive in the U.K. about three years later. They went to Starbucks and proposed to start a franchise in the U.K. Starbucks turned them down, so they began their own chain, wittily called the Seattle Coffee Company. This was in every respect a slavish imitation of the U.S. original. The coffee, however, was very good, and that's where I used to go.

Anyway, Starbucks eventually wised up and bought the chain from the investment bankers for, if I remember correctly, £52 million ($82 million)—a million pounds per branch. Then they gradually abandoned the Seattle Coffee Company logo and rebadged them as Starbucks. And now the coffee sucks: weak, thin, and frighteningly variable as to the all-important milk-vs.-foam balance in a cappuccino or latte. There's always a different person at the espresso machine, usually a trainee, and you can tell it's all random because the cup literally weighs a different amount each time you go there. I have tried coming down with HMS syndrome—that's Harry Met Sally syndrome, where you come on all hyper-specific about what you want, in this case asking for a strong very dry latte that isn't quite a cappuccino—but it doesn't work. So that's that finished.

There's a rumor that there's a very good Italian-run cafe in Northcote Road, about a 10-minute drive away, in a part of town that—because so many young families move there, owing to the relative cheapness of South London—is known as Nappy Valley. I seriously contemplated checking this out yesterday, but then added up the time: 10 minutes there, possibly five minutes to find somewhere to park, 10 minutes to order and drink the coffee in situ, 10 minutes home. That makes it into a proper excursion rather than a businesslike pre-work small treat.

No, it was a school day, so I stuck to my new routine. A while ago a friend gave me one of those small home-scale cappuccino machines. Proper coffee aficionados disapprove of these, on the grounds that they don't generate enough pressure to make serious espresso, but this one seems to work fine. Or at least it did until the measuring jug broke. Now you have to guess the correct amount of water by eye—which adds a nerve-jangling note of excitement and unpredictability. Too much water and it doesn't get hot or pressurized enough. Too little and there's nothing to drink and no foam. Yesterday, and indeed this morning, I got it just right. Who da man? You da man! As a leisure activity this might be less attention-worthy than machine-gunning my initials into a shark's head—one of Hemingway's pastimes—but I'll bet it made me just as happy.