Rupert Murdoch gave a talk recently in which he explained the game-changing effect of the digital age on his industry. For the media baron, the story of website The Drudge Report says it all. As many know, American Matt Drudge built a global readership by aggregating mainly conservative articles and links on his site, the popularity and notoriety of which skyrocketed when he broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
As Murdoch explained, Drudge accomplished all this without renting office space, hiring a large staff, investing a king’s ransom in technology or even bothering to take out an ad – all the things a budding media tycoon would have had to do a few short years ago to get such an enterprise off the ground. He did it all from his apartment and a local café in Miami Beach, Florida, with nothing more than a computer and broadband link, a nose for news and a good idea.
Far from lamenting this revolution, the tycoon sounded quite wistful about it. Imagine how much easier and cheaper it would be to build a global media empire today. Anyway, you have to ask, who wants to work at a desk when you can do it all from a café?
It won’t be long before every self-respecting coffee house has free broadband connections, thus freeing up the workers of the world in time and place. As the saying goes, nobody dies wishing they’d spent more time in the office.
And funnily enough, that’s how cafés started: as a place for imbibing this head-banging new beverage from the exotic east, and for the informal discussion of politics, business, books and other burning issues of the day. The noble institution of the café dates from the mid-1500s. It started in the old Levant, spread steadily over the next 100 years into Europe, especially central Europe, then into England and finally across the Atlantic. Hotbeds of activity, cafés were where merchants met to transact business on the sly at a safe distance from eavesdroppers at the exchanges, scholars to debate ideas, politicians to discuss policy, wild-eyed revolutionaries to talk subversion – and secret agents to spy on the whole lot.
And subversives there were. Many of the overthrows of European governments, including some of the most recent, were plotted in the backrooms of outwardly respectable establishments. A step or two ahead of the authorities, Lenin did much of the groundwork for the Russian revolution in cafés between Zurich, Vienna and Paris. Seventy years earlier, none other than Karl Marx sketched the outlines of his turgid tracts in otherwise respectable cafés in Paris. The French revolution was plotted in working-class cafés. And, turning the wheel full circle, the overthrow of the Iron Curtain’s communist regimes was debated behind closed doors in cafés from Prague to Paris.
One of the irresistible attractions of a European café – alas, nearly all the historic ones in London have been knocked down – is that you could be sitting in exactly the same spot, perhaps even the same chair, as an infamous revolutionary, revered writer or unreformed reprobate of some sort. Some of my favourite cafés are in the Montmartre district of Paris, where many of them date back 150 or more years and have rich stories to tell. For example, Jean Jaures, the great socialist politician and editor of L’Humanite, was shot one evening in July 1914 at the Café au Croissant. Located in Rue Montmartre by Metro Bourse, it’s still going strong.
Events like these, tragic and otherwise, seem to animate the great cafés and make them highly stimulating places in which to work, think, plan and, well, ruminate. Vienna’s Café Central perfectly fits the bill. A cavernous place with towering gothic pillars, it couldn’t be further from a Starbucks. The Central has been the haunt of the usual suspects – politicians, revolutionaries, writers, students, industrialists, all sitting amicably side by side – for 150 years. In that time it’s become an institution. For ‘Centralists,’ an hour or two in the establishment cared for by the attentive staff is an essential part of the daily routine; the lubricant for a day of creativity. As Alfred Polgar, café essayist and faithful habitué of the Central wrote some 90 years ago, “There are poets and other industrialists to whom profitable thoughts come only in the Café Central.”
How do you pick a great café? Biased as I am, history helps (and the quality of the coffee – hot, strong and aromatic – is assumed). It should be clean and well-maintained but a little worn, as befits an establishment with a past. A few dark corners where one can sit and observe are a bonus. Free newspapers in several languages should be available and, naturally, internet access for free. After a couple of visits, the staff should recognise you enough to nod in acknowledgement.
A café should not be ridiculously expensive, trading on its name like those of the great squares of Venice or the grand boulevards of Paris’s Left Bank – you’ll find better and cheaper ones a couple of streets back.
Unpretentiousness is important. In our village of Olvera in Andalucia, there are no fewer than 99 cafés and bars, and none of them put on airs. They’re full of old guys playing dominoes and shouting amiably at each other, and young people reading Marca, the daily sports paper.
Oddly enough, some of the best European-style cafés in the world are to be found in Melbourne, Australia, especially in the city centre. Many of them were opened in the 50s and 60s by immigrant Italians and Greeks who, shocked by the rough pubs of post-war Australia, pined for the cafés of their native countries.
There are a lot of cafés on my must-see list, all of them with turbulent pasts, and top of the list is Café del Tasso on the Piazza Vecchia in the hill town of Bergamo where they’ve been serving coffee, food and drink since 1476. I’m hoping to sit in the favourite place of Garibaldi.