Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Coffee And Cardinals [With A Bit Of Batman Thrown In]

Suddenly, in the midst of what looks like a very busy week, I find myself with free time.  What better, I think, than go out for a coffee. In fact, while I’m about it, why not go out for several coffees, and see what the town’s baristas have to say for themselves?  

I head down Pride Hill and across the Square to Starbucks. Usually it’s packed, but today I’m pleased to see there are a few empty seats. The girl on the till takes my name, and the girl on the coffee machine shouts it out when my black Americano is ready. I sit next to the window opposite a mother with a toddler and a colouring book. Leonard Cohen's heading down to the river with Suzanne - not that most of the people around me will have noticed, too plugged into their earphones to notice anything else. 

I love the way that Starbucks can be sculpted to the needs of its customers.  Like now, a huge island Sixth Formers has formed amid the dull grey sea of the rest of us by the pulling together of tables and chairs. There are laptops all over the tables, and girls and boys sitting two-deep on the chairs, jangling their earrings, talking into their phones, tossing back their hair.  

I love the big windows here too, where I can sit looking out on High Street or the Square, watching the world going by without it watching me back. It’s amazing how often I can sit here and see people I know going past without them seeing me. From outside, you'd almost think these windows were a brick wall.

A woman with a small brown dog on a too-long lead goes by, creating havoc amongst skate-boarders and pedestrians alike.  Then a lady with a walking-stick goes by, her expression tired, her long tweed coat almost touching the floor. I wonder if she knows how elegant she looks.  In the middle of the square, trestle tables are being packed up. When Batman comes into the Square nobody even looks up. But then not even I’m surprised, having come across him earlier on Pride Hill, where I made a donation to charity in exchange for a cake or being photographed in his arms. [And if you think you know which one I chose, then you’re wrong - because I forgot to claim either, would you believe].  

A newspaper – the i – has been left on the seat next to me, so I pick it up. On the front page is a big red cardinal looking grim, a lordly Liberal Democrat peering through his specs, and a Chancellor of the Exchequer looking Defiant Over Cuts Despite Downgrade.  It’s Tuesday 16th February and that’s today’s news.

After Starbucks, I head along the High Street to Eat Up where Radio Something-or-Other is playing, complete with advertising breaks. I order my second black Americano of the day. It’s wonderful [unlike the Starbucks version, of which the best I can say is that it was hot, tasted like coffee and was drinkable] just the way I like it, strong and with a thin layer of froth on top, and there are no stupid tear-open sugar sachets, but proper cubes in Tate & Lyle black treacle tins [not that I take sugar in my coffee, but it’s a nice touch].  

I can’t tell you what the customers are like because there are only two of them and they have their back to me.  I’ve been in here before when the place has been full. This time, however, all the tables are wiped and empty and there’s nothing to look at but the view through the windows - or the Daily Mail.

I take it off the rack and open it up.  Here, instead of being a sinister front-page figure garbed in red, Cardinal Keith O’Brien is a charasmatic figure whose greatest failing is his love of publicity.  Here too I discover that the BBC is going easy on the Lib Dems. I also find a great description - courtesy of Quentin Letts - of George Osborne turning up in the House of Commons ‘like one of the Monty Python  people playing a horseless knight.’ And, further on in the Mail, I read that Britian has lost its Triple A credit rating because the Government hasn’t cut back deeply enough.

After reading this, it feels like time to move on. It’s ten to three and still no one has come in.  You get a day like this once in every few weeks, says the man at the till.

He must be right because down at McDonalds it’s quiet as well.  I buy a burger, fries and coffee, and have change from three pounds. They’ve never heard of an Americano so I talk them through it and take the results downstairs.  

A couple of people are leaving as I arrive but, apart from that, the entire hundred-seater dining area is empty, its lowest level cordoned off, a worker in an apron putting chairs on tables and sweeping the floor.  Behind him rises the great sweep of Shrewsbury’s medieval town wall.  This is not what you expect to find in your local McDonalds. There’s even a woven tapestry hanging on the wall, thought the suit of armour that used to be down here has gone and the children’s turret is looking slightly shabby.    

Even tucked away in McDonalds, it’s great to know that our town wall is   on show. These stones aren't polystyrene. They're real. They're part of Shrewsbury's history. We're not in Disneyworld. And yet I could have walked past all this and never known it was here - especially nowadays when, painted green instead of red, McDonalds on Pride Hill is easier than it used to be to miss.   

What shall I read this time? Looking around, I find a discarded Times. Here the big question is Daniel Day-Lewis.  Is he the best actor ever? I shake out the pages for the Oscars Special which is meant to be inside with all ‘the parties, the frocks and the gossip’, but it’s not there so I’m stuck with Catholic cardinals instead, with Lord Rennard of the Lib Dems and a statement from George Osborn that the country’s current triple A downgrade ‘shows how I was right all along’ [how can this be?].  

The coffee in my polystyrene cup is terrible – an insult to black Americanos.  I fail to taste half of it and leave the rest.  Out on Pride Hill, a man is playing a guitar.  It’s an ordinary day, one of those occasions that’s not cold enough to complain about but not mild enough to enjoy. There’s nothing ordinary, however, about this music. I ask what it is.  Without missing a beat, the guitarist tells me it’s a fandango.

Finally I reach home.  Shrewsbury’s main streets have plenty more coffee establishments, and it would have been nice to visit more of them, but I’m caffeined-out and feeling slightly sick. If you want it cheap [but in medieval surroundings] go to McDonalds.  If you want to watch the youth of Shrewsbury catching up on their coursework and/or falling in love, go to Starbucks.  If you want a really good cup of coffee, go to Eat Up [but you may well have to put up with commercial radio].  And if you’d like to listen to the fandango, HERE’S the link:

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