Cafe culture? Wake up and smell the coffee, Australia

We might make ''best coffee in the world'' but, Lord, have we bastardised the cafe in the process.

There's a popular conceit among Australians that we make the ''best coffee in the world'', which is possible, if you ignore Italy, Vietnam, Colombia, Turkey and Morocco but, Lord, have we bastardised the cafe in the process.

Our treatment of this institution is akin to Las Vegas casino re-creations of the Great Pyramid or Rome's Forum – superficial renditions, their attempts at soulfulness, rusticity or quirk as bizarrely uniform as the patterns atop lattes served in most fashionable establishments.

I spend a lot of time in cafes and agree the  standard of our coffee is superb, the food almost always fresh and tasty, and the music at worst pretentious, yet the one thing we seemingly can't manufacture, copy or conjure is intelligent conversation.
More than three decades ago, in his BBC-produced evisceration of modern art, The Shock of the New, the late, great Australian critic Robert Hughes made the observation the term ''cafe intellectual'' had fallen to become ''a mild, obsolete insult''.

So, as long ago as 1980, the idea that cafes might produce something other than cappuccinos or pesto eggs was already in decline.

Hughes said: ''Places like the Odeon Cafe in Zurich were cultural institutions. They were, in an almost literal sense, mediums of discourse.

''People who were separated from the patterns of their society, whether by choice or not, still need a forum. They need a place where they can go to meet and drink and talk, preen themselves or simply sit alone with a book ... the cafe was the opera of the dissenters. It was also the marketplace of ideas.''

Thus, during World War I, the Odeon was where Lenin plotted the Russian Revolution, writer James Joyce no doubt imbibed something stronger than a macchiato and the Dadaist art movement was born.

The process was repeated in cafes across Europe – in Berlin, Barcelona, Vienna, Milan – where writers, artists, shit-stirrers and thinkers would gather at La Rotonde or Les Deux Magots in Paris, Prague's Cafe Montmartre or Rome's Caffe Greco.

Maybe it's our profound difference in attitudes to space – we have so much and Europe so little – but this clustering in cafes to  idle and argue about ideas blossomed only briefly in this country. Intellectual movements such as the 1950s Sydney Push and Libertarian Society congregated notoriously in pubs, such as the Royal George Hotel in Sussex Street, but also long-forgotten Kings Cross cafes the Lincoln, Arabian and the Kashmir, as well as Repin's in King Street.

The Push's less-famous and rigorous Melbourne counterpart, ''The Drift'', had its own cafes but called the former Swanston Family Hotel home, and its later adherents the Tattersalls Hotel in Russell Street.

Perhaps, as Barry Humphries once wrote, these were mere gatherings ''frequented in the main by apprentice and fully paid-up card-carrying alcoholics, journalists, academic tosspots, a few actors manque, compliant young women and the  very occasional genius'', but it makes me wonder where they gather now.
It's certainly not our cafes.

There, the waiters and baristas rarely see honour in their profession; they're just ''passing through'' on their way to a photo shoot for a skateboard magazine.

The very concept of idleness to debate ideas is at odds with the customers' 60-hour work week required to buy their third flatscreen for the dunny. Lenin would have gone to the pub and played pool with Joycie.

This article Cafe culture? Wake up and smell the coffee, Australia was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.