I am no expert in this field. My knowledge is purely amateur, derived from years of experience and pleasure. I have no qualifications and no proof of expertise, besides a few stained coasters and the occasional shake of the hand. But it is of coffee - with all of my inconsequential wisdom - that I would like to write. For you see, a friend of mine once said: "All of your short stories have coffee in them somewhere; your subconscious is clearly obsessed with it." I agreed, although subconscious might not be doing it justice. I consciously make it, buy it, drink it, relish it, study it and judge it (when its bad.) And, during the last few days, my love for coffee has been studied more and more. My girlfriend, over dinner at the beach, asked me "when did you first drink coffee?" To which I said - with a grin upon my face - "I think I've told you this before, but I'll tell it again!" And as I re-told that tale, I realized that coffee - far from being a mindless beverage or a source of artificial stimulation - has been a key player in the story of my life.
It was a cold October, rainy and bleak. I had been to the cinema with my Dad and had traipsed home in the sleet and hail. When I returned, I needed something to warm me, something to offset the indefatigable chill that was gnawing down into my bones. (Well, maybe it wasn't quite that drastic, but you get the picture.)
I had been to my Uncle's house in Cumbria earlier that year, in the summer when it was warm and glorious, and that memory served up the solution. I recalled the rich and luxuriant smell of his morning coffee... I walked into my kitchen and cast my eyes around. They settled on a silver jar of Kenco's African coffee - instant, but of high enough quality. Intrigued, I made myself a humble cup, adding a dash of milk and hoping for the best. Young enough to need reinforcements, I plucked two biscuits from the jar and scrambled back upstairs. Then, after dipping the biscuit into the coffee, it began...
Over the course of that week, I had a cup of Kenco's African coffee every single day, and in the last five years, I've had coffee at breakfast daily. Save about thirty days for illness or disruption or abstinence, that's one thousand eight hundred and twenty five cups, not counting the lunchtime cup which inevitably followed. Since then, coffee has been - as it is for so many others - a part of my morning ritual. I make my cereal, put the bread into the toaster, and then add three scoops of coffee into the depths of my silvery french press. (One scoop if it's my smaller cafetiere.) Then, patiently, I wait as the water warms the heart of it, burning the roasted grains just one bit more, drawing out their flavour, discovering the taste of the world and of nature. Grown from the tree, picked by human hands and crushed in giant, mechanical machines, delivered by trucks and planes and boats and cars and feet, it is a product of biology, botany, industry and capitalist greed; it is a blood-soaked, time-traveled drink with both good and bad things to say. There is ecologically sustainable coffee, and there is unethical coffee. A whole story is brewing in that silver container, and as I pour it into my cup, a whole heritage and history pours out with it. You can taste it, a rich and bitter flavour, half-way between light and dark.
“Coffee makes us severe, and grave and philosophical.”
One of my favourite conjunctions is coffee-and-reading. Together, they form an almost perfect pairing, and if you wander into Cafe Nero - sometime on a Sunday afternoon - you might just catch me in the leather arm-chairs, sipping at a latte and reading. (I read, for instance, When We Were Orphans or A Farewell To Arms in a coffee shop in Cambridge.) It's good for writing, too, and in his book A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway reports on how conducive a cafe could be to his work. I concur. While analytical or critical writing needs a certain silence, a completely neutral space where you can fight hard with knotty problems, telling a tale, capturing an atmosphere, getting the rhythms of speech and the movements of people just right – all of that can be managed in a well-run coffee shop. Everything you need is there. And it's no fresh thing. Almost since the day of their conception, coffee-shops – or, in this case, Coffee Houses – have been bound up with the literary world.
It was a pleasant cafe, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt hat on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. — Ernest Hemingway
The first of London's coffee houses opened in 1652. An immigrant from Ottoman Smyrna, according to the invaluable website ineedcoffee.com, opened 'The Turk's Head' coffee shop, and by 1663 there were more than eighty-three coffee-houses in England's capital. In the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding and the rest of those Augustan wits would drink coffee and socialize, borrowing books from the window-shelf or discussing the affairs of the day. For, besides writing, a coffee-shop facilitates conversation: catching up with an old friend, chatting with a family member or taking your partner on a relaxing date – these, too, can be managed in a well-run coffee shop... The seats are comfy and the coffee is rich and warm – even the air is made of pillows... Back in the eighteen-hundreds, each Coffee-house would have its supply of newspapers, and some coffee shops still uphold that tradition today, providing the dailies en masse. Since forever, then, that ineffably wonderful beverage has been at the center of artistic and social development, sipped in lawyers' chambers, politicians' meetings, teachers' staff rooms and the coffee-shops of our most famous literati. The things we owe to coffee are almost beyond reckoning: novels, studies, films, marriages, scientific breakthroughs, useful laws, architectural developments. In some way or another, coffee – a bit like bread, oxygen and Shakespeare – has played a role in everybody's life.
And it's not just in snug little English coffee shops. Native Americans would drink it in tents or under the stars; the invading 'cowboys' would also drink it, harsh and black from stained tin-cups; the Turkish often have it sweet (tatlı); the Italians have it strong and small; I've drank it in the mountains, from a battered flask as the rain lashed against me, and for a few moments things got a little brighter; I've watched my ex-archaeologist Dad drink it, sat in a Roman dig-site on Hadrian's Wall; my cousin drank it in Afghanistan, mixed with Hot Chocolate to keep everyone's spirits up; one of my friends deliberately doesn't drink it, another is positively addicted to it; my girlfriend's Dad can drink it without any effect; my Granda would add cool water to drink it faster; some people drink it in the garden; some people drink it on the go; Starbucks charge you a fortune, and some places don't.
Now, before I leave you and put the kettle on, there is one final important narrative. A few years ago, my girlfriend-to-be sent me a text: she said “Can I buy you coffee for your birthday?” She'd heard, from my friend, that coffee is a sure-fire way to James's heart: often busy, it's a guaranteed way to distract me, to take my attention from important things and lead me to more important things. I went to have coffee that day, and we're still drinking coffee three years later.
Me and my Dad still drink coffee at breakfast. My cousin still drinks it at work. Books and coffee still work as the perfect pair. And even decaff, with it's shake-free content, dances beautifully with a well-written book.
Pictured below -- my brother's first coffee. And several of mine.
Anthony Horowitz’s novel Trigger Mortis has a terrible title. It’s so bad that it’s actually a real James Bond title - up there with Octopussy and The Spy Who Loved Me. Luckily, the book outmatched its name. Told in the clipped prose-style of Ian Fleming, with touches of dark poetry and humor shadowing the edges, its about a plan to blow up a rocket, and to cause damage to New York City. Or at least, so it seems.
Bond reaches this plot via an unlikely route: motor racing. This theme was taken directly from Ian Fleming’s work: from a fragment of existing material, Horowitz built the narrative up a bit, but the core is from the original creator. This adds more than a touch of authenticity - and not a little pressure - to Horowitz’s work, but he does an excellent job. The novel has a diabolic attempt at killing an important character, a high-speed race, a chase through a castle!, a fight to the death, some sex, fine wine and a maniacal villain. There is also, I was pleased to see, a careful attention to James Bond’s breakfast - his, and my own, favorite meal of the day. With these ingredients, the book was true to form. For, there is a definite mold for James Bond books. Having to knock them out at one a year, Fleming definitely develops a formula. And that’s not always a bad thing. Part of the charm of the Sherlock Holmes’s stories - another world Horowitz’s has worked in - is their predictable structure and gorgeous inevitability. Holmes will make a deduction, a client will arrive, the case will be solved or not solved, and Watson will conclude with a poetic finish. Bond is much the same. M will call up Bond’s secretary; after a period of living the ‘soft life’, Bond will be excited to be off, he’ll risk his life, get the girl, kill some people, and make it back alive. And we love him for it. As one of - if not the - longest running film series in history, the world isn’t tired of James Bond.
Speaking of tiredness, the chapter which tells the antagonist’s back-story is long, and Horowitz runs the risk of losing your attention. But at the same time, the context for this extended chat is so dangerous, so fraught with risk, that the dragging out of that chapter makes perfect sense. You hate him for it! Why are there so many pages! Why won’t he make it out already?! For someone who’s used to reading long old books and not really minding, it was an amazing experience to be impatient, to be in a hurry, to be desperate to know. I guess that’s the definition of a page-turner, of which Horowitz is a definite master. I remember, when reading his book Moriarty, of how frightening a particular scene was (it involves a cold room, and criminals, that’s all I’m saying) but I think he may have topped that here. There is a sequence - and if Anthony Horowitz' ever reads this review, he’ll know exactly which one I mean - that is so claustrophobic, so intense, so dark and horrible, that like the best of Fleming -- the train with Grant in From Russia With Love, the mud baths of Diamonds Are Forever, the sharks in Live and Let Die -- you won’t forget it in a hurry. It was really, truly, excellent.
But Horowitz’ isn’t only about rushing around. There are some wonderful exchanges between Bond and his racing instructor, and between Bond and Jeopardy Lane (another name that deserves an applause for loyalty to Fleming.) There are meals and drinks and moments alone with Bond, driving in the rain in his favorite car. These touches of calm, of humanity, like the moments in Fleming when Bond will lie on a hotel bed completely exhausted and overheated, or when he’ll take care over which marmalade he’ll have on his toast, keep the character just about real. He’s incredible, and impossible, but he’s just about human.
Speaking of which, I chuckled when Horowitz had Bond unable to catch a speeding train, and feeling the effects of his “cigarettes.” It was the twenty-first century letting James Bond know that those habits of his - the drinking, smoking and unprotected promiscuity - just aren’t good for your health. In From Russia With Love, we’re told he does 20 push ups, some leg raises and touches his toes ten times. And that, somehow, is enough. Horowitz reveals it isn’t, and smoking until 3am while drinking gin doesn’t cut it either. But, as I said, we love Bond for it.
Do you remember that scene in Dumbo when he gets drunk and there are pink elephants floating all around him -- just like in the ZZ top lyric when cowgirls are "floating across the ceiling?" Watching Tim Burton's new movie feels a lot like that. There is glitz and glamour, sheen and shine, music and showbiz and, of course, pink elephants, only this time they're made of well-shaped bubbles.
With the recent musical The Greatest Showman and the conclusion to Madagascar 3, audiences have gotten used to seeing the circus on screen, but Burton brings his own special twist. His weirdly shaped towers, his maniacal villains, his damaged and strange cast of characters, his spectral shadows in the mist... Into this idiomatic array comes the original plot - an elephant that can fly who is parted from his mother. The original is a classic, and like the countless other remakes which are dangerously entering cinemas, Burton was on risky ground. And not only is the original beloved, but to make a flying elephant seem awesome or impressive - when not in a cartoon format! - is pretty tough. It's comical and silly, when you imagine it inside of your head. But he pulled it off, and we're lucky to have this movie.
The internal mirrors between the one-armed soldier Colin Farrell and the strangely-featured Dumbo, the motherless kids and the forcibly orphaned Dumbo, were neat and insightful. We see through them how a broken family can be re-made; Dumbo's family is literally reconstituted, and the human family re-knits and re-grows while helping him out.
Selfishly, I wanted more of Farrell's war exploits, but the film was fairly long and aimed at children, so I can't complain about such an absence. Eva Green was incredible as always, though her screen-time was perhaps a little short. Michael Keaton's villain was great, and the scene when he loses his temper in the tower made me giggle. (And considering my inner-child is alive and well, I'm sure the kids will love it.)
With Danny Elfman back on his team, and Disney at the rear with funds, Tim Burton has directed another fantastic film. He'll never top his The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I'm sure die-hard fans of the original Dumbo will be pedantic sticklers, but as a film unto itself, 2019's Dumbo is a joyous extravaganza. And I bet you'll smile.
THE BOOK CLUB
Author - James
A twenty year old English student at Cambridge University. I fell in love with literature at an early age and have been with it ever since.