The bastardisation of the cafe

There's a popular conceit brewing amongst Australians that we make the "best coffee in the world". Which is possible, if you ignore Italy, Vietnam, Colombia and Morocco. But Lord, have we bastardised the cafe in the process.

Our treatment of this institution is akin to Las Vegas casino recreations 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.

"Oh, you bought all the furniture in your cafe from a deceased estate of a former staffer of B.A. Santamaria? They must be so proud to provide the seating for endless conversations about hair, Tumblr and renovation."

I spend a lot of time in cafes and agree the overall standard of our coffee is superb, the food almost always fresh and tasty, 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 cafes might produce something other than cappuccinos or pesto eggs was already in decline.

Said Hughes: "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 soon-to-explode Russian Revolution, writer James Joyce no doubt imbibed something stronger than a macchiato, and The Dadaist art movement was born.

It was a process repeated in cafes across Europe; in Berlin, Barcelona, Vienna and Milan, where writers, artists, shit-stirrers and thinkers would gather at La Rontonde or Les Deux Magots in Paris, Prague's Cafe Montmarte, Rome's Cafe 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 simply idle and argue about ideas blossomed only briefly in this country, then sputtered.

Intellectual movements like the 1950s Sydney "Push" and Libertarian Society congregated notoriously in pubs like the Royal George Hotel in Sussex Street but also long-forgotten Kings Cross cafes like the Arabian and The Kashmir, as well as Repin's in King Street and The Lincoln in Rowe St, a small car-less thoroughfare subsequently removed by Harry Seidler to make way for the MLC centre.

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, Tattersall's 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 in 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 weeks required to buy their third flat screen for the dunny.

Lenin would have gone to the pub and played pool with Joycie.

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