Not talking of Michelangelo

February 19, 2012

Last summer, I was sitting by the pool of a modest three-star hotel in northern Italy when a clubmate mentioned riding to Florence. A few dozen of us were going to participate in the Nove Colli, a 124-mile bicycle ride through the late Marco Pantani’s hilly backyard in Cesenatico, and Florence was another 90 miles away. Would I really want to sacrifice vital pool-lounging time to ride an extra 180 miles? A silly question: of course I would. We’re talking about Florence, the city of angels and gods, a place where centuries-old representations of divinity are scattered around cathedrals, churches, public squares, everywhere. It is a place of gawping and wonderment, even if you never get to see the poised, uber-human form of Michelangelo’s David in the Accademia – and clomping around a gallery in cleats is an impractical idea anyway, even if we did find somewhere safe to leave our bikes. But we’d be tired after such a long ride, and we wouldn’t have much time to spare, so I asked what in particular my cyclechums planned to see.

The answer? Nothing. The idea was just to ride there, have a coffee, and ride back again. Experiencing Florence for what it is – the world’s most abundant repository of beauty – was simply not on the agenda. But coffee was.

So if, by some miracle, this colourful fragment of the blogosphere’s fresco is being scrutinised after the apocalypse, I would like to suggest to the scholarly descendants of the few who survived that the collapse of civilization did not begin with the groan and judder of the global economy, but with the notion that we didn’t need to bother with the heart-stopping awesomeness of art; we could make do with crushed beans, boiling water and hot, frothy cow juice instead.

I realise that some of the flat white fraternity may lob the ugly accusation of anti-coffeeism at me, so let me just say for the record that some of my best friends are black-liquidistas. And, as a modern cycleperson, I have been known to happily participate in the simple post-ride pleasure of a coffee and a chinwag. But I find it baffling how drinking coffee has been stealthily elevated from banal ritual to cultural display. Plugging his new e-book in The Times last week, Will Self noted that art, film, literature and theatre once constituted culture, but thanks to an emergent interest in dining out, “all you needed to be cultured in the late 1990s was a small bowl of extra-virgin olive oil and some warm Italian bread to dab in it”. Now, it seems, the notion of culture has devolved even further: I have friends and acquaintances who talk and tweet about bean water with the same passion and enthusiasm that was once reserved for books, movies and music. In fact, I can’t recall any of them being as excited about, say, a new album or novel as they have been about a newly-discovered coffee outlet or a half-decent barista. The brewed awakening of the early ’90s, which began when American coffee shops appeared on British streets, gave us beverages that tasted better; perhaps it also inadvertently eroded some people’s willingness, in the cultural sense, to cultivate taste.

But hey, you don’t need art when just sitting in a coffee shop can make you feel all arty and creative. Chris Ward, a man who I have spent many a mile pedalling alongside on London Dynamo rides, has written a book about working from coffee shops, in which he notes that “writers, actors, artists etc don’t work in an office – so why are you?” Perhaps one response to this conundrum is that many Starbucks-bound writers would love an empty office to work in, and you can’t rehearse a soliloquy or create a sculpture in the middle of Caffè Nero. But if you want to feel really clever, why not visit Prufrock? The name comes from a T. S. Eliot poem – you know, the one that goes: “In the room the women come and go, Talking of Michelangelo.” I just hope that the eponymous narrator – a sexually frustrated social inadequate who measures out his life “with coffee spoons” – doesn’t reflect how the company views its target customer. Or maybe they’re banking on their punters not knowing too much about poetry.

As for that bike ride to Florence… well, we never went in the end. I guess the appeal of coffee, even to its most ardent fans, has its limits after all.

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