Sundays in Starbucks or: how I learned to stop worrying and love soulless corporate coffee chains

I grew up in a pre-coffee shop universe. It seems almost impossible to believe now, but just as the internet was something you could access only when you’d been able to negotiate thirty minutes unfettered use of the phone line, there was a time and a place where your only hot beverage options were ‘coffee’, ‘tea’ or  ‘hot chocolate’.  You either drank them at a greasy plastic table, or from atop a frilly tablecloth, alongside a fruit scone served by a waitress in an actual uniform. Pret a Manger felt like a revelation when it first opened an hour away in Glasgow. The exoticism of a sandwich containing avocado was truly astounding to us poor proles from the provinces. And then, finally, the coffee chains reached those outer reaches of civilisation we called home, and suddenly there was somewhere that we could go as teenagers and just sit for hours, drinking liquified sugar. 

But then came the years of staying up till 5am to meet essay deadlines, coupled with the lure of the interest-free student overdraft. My relationship with coffee intensified. I bought a cafetière. I moved to London and started working in the media, and suddenly it was deeply uncool to frequent chains of any kind. Plus by then I was consumed by the requisite liberal guilt over tax evasion, the demise of the high street, the ills of globalisation, et cetera, et cetera.  

Recently I began spending five hours every Sunday writing in coffee shops. I fondly imagined myself studiously typing away in unique little cafés boasting artisanal roasts. And yet, a few weeks in, I have found myself most comfortable in the big chains. 

Spoilt by choice the first week, I giddily flitted to three different places in turn, scrupulously buying a pastry and a hot drink in each. My wallet and my waistline couldn’t countenance this on an ongoing basis and so the following week the deliberating began. Having chosen an establishment, there’s then the etiquette of how much you must buy in each place in order to effectively rent your table there. My personal code dictates a purchase at least each hour, but still by the third hour I start to imagine the staff are shooting me cross glances. Then there’s the guilt at taking up a table with a lukewarm beverage when other people are searching for seats. And obviously amidst it all there’s the knowledge that you’re just one more pretentious twat typing away on their MacBook. 

I was nervously negotiating all of this when I discovered a new coffee shop around the corner from my flat.Nestled underground like a hobbit hole, with baked goods enticingly arrayed in its windows, it was exceedingly charming – so much so that I entirely overlooked the sign – NO LAPTOPS AT WEEKENDS. I did notice the barista’s eyes twitching nervously down to my laptop bag as I ordered, but assumed she’d been abusing the free caffeine. I got as far as sliding it onto the table and sipping my decaf before she politely apprised me of their policy. She was lovely, and yet I nevertheless felt discomfited. I drank up and left. 

Since then, it’s been chains all the way. The staff don’t care what I order and when. There’s plenty of seats and loads of other people sitting there for hours at a time. Breastfeeding means I have to limit my caffeine intake anyway, so the actual quality of the coffee doesn’t really matter to me right now. I do feel guilty about bypassing the independents, but those local to me seem so busy that by taking up a space for hours perhaps I’m doing them more harm than good. I’m sure there’s some happy medium I’ve yet to find – the small struggling café where nobody ever goes? – but it’s a relief to have a break from the angst and just focus on the writing. I’m considering trying the pub next, if I can ever get to grips with the protocol for that… 

Review: Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd

Around thirty years ago, Hairy Maclary scampered straight into my heart, where he has resided ever since. As one of my own childhood favourites, this was one of the very first books I bought for my daughter, when she was still watermelon-sized and bobbing around on the other side of my uterus. I had fond visions of us reading it together and chortling at the hilarious antics of the titular Hairy Maclary. Reader, it was not to be. Instead this book served as a salutary warning from the Parenting Gods – expect ye nothing.

For the uninitiated, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy by Lynley Dodd, first published 1983, is a children’s classic with the eponymous Hairy Maclary as protagonist. He’s a scruffy wee dog who resembles a Scottish Terrier, although Wikipedia insists he’s “of mixed pedigree.” Also from Wikipedia, “His arch-enemy is the tomcat Scarface Claw.” The solemnity of that sentence gives just a hint of the epic battle between good and evil contained within the scant few pages of this board book.

  Such was the appeal of the charming rhyming language and beautiful illustrations to both myself and my partner, that from our earliest readings we entered into it with great gusto. We began the nightly renditions of this tale just weeks into our daughter’s life, emoting each line with great vigour, smugly convinced we were excelling at parenting our precious babe. 

And yet as time went by, a creeping suspicion presented itself separately to us both. By five months, it was an incontrovertible truth: our little baby had developed a deep, all-abiding, hysterical terror of the villainous Scarface Claw. The book wisely leaves much of his apparent reign of terror to the imagination, merely hinting darkly that he is “the toughest tom in town”.  We do however get an entire page given over to a close-up of his ferociously bared teeth within a gaping maw framed by devilishly quivering whiskers, his amber eyes narrowed above.  The text here is sparse but each word, nay, each character, is significant. I quote, ‘“EEEEEOWWWFFTZ!” said Scarface Claw.’ (That Z is surely a stroke of genius.) The ways in which you can pronounce this are of course only limited by your own enthusiasm. 

Usually keen to turn the pages, our daughter would brace herself visibly when this book appeared in front of her, shrinking back against our knees. Before the dreaded cat was even mentioned in the text, she would begin to whimper plaintively in anticipation. At the first appearance of his barbarous grin, this would become a full-throttled, anguished cry. As she gained the ability to actually move under her own volition, she would clamber backwards, clawing wildly in her efforts to escape the horrifying tome. Desperately, we tried transmuting the terrifying cat’s yowl to a gentle purr. It was to no avail. The damage had been done. 

There is no happy ending to this tale of woe. A full seven months later the fear persists. We’ve given up forcing this delightful children’s story on her now, but from time to time she will actually bring it to us herself, in what I can only presume is either a sadistic fascination or a valiant endeavour to live up to the exacting expectations of her cruel parents. It still ends in the most heart-wrenching of sobs. 

It’s undeniable; we have already damaged our child. Don’t let this put you off the book though – the illustrations are lovely, as is the use of language. It’s a classic for a good reason. Just don’t use it as a release for your frustrated amateur dramatic ambitions, as we did. I’ve learned my lesson – there’s no place for rose-tinted expectations in parenting. Expect only disaster and tears, and then you’ll never be disappointed.