Coffee Houses, Now and Then

What can we learn from the Enlightenment? A question with many obvious answers, perhaps, looking back to a time ‘when Mankind grew out of its self-inflicted immaturity’, in Kant’s sweeping summary. However, perhaps one less obvious answer is coffee; or, more specifically, coffee houses. While our post-modern civilization can claim the ethical high-ground in the massive leaps made towards, for example, equal rights for marginalised or minority groups since those days, not to mention the welcome norm-adopting of fair-trade coffee in most modern chains, have our coffee houses- dominated of course by monopolizing brands- moved, in other ways, backwards? Arguably, the era of growing Western ‘Enlightenment’ during the late 17th and 18th centuries can provide an alternative model for communal coffee we could learn from.


The recent revelations of how Starbucks- that 21st Century synonym for corporate monopoly and sprawl- paid just £8.6million in UK corporation tax in the last 14 years and NONE in the last four years (until this summer, thanks UK Uncut et al), serves to underline how the modern turbo-capitalism of the major coffee chains has corrupted their wares’ historic legacy of altogether more noble pursuits. Theirs is a rich history, whose golden age in the UK began in 17th century Oxford, where a heady mix of gifted scholars and a sociable community encouraged their growth as centres of discussion, debate and knowledge. Following their spread across the country, they were dubbed ‘Penny Universities’ in verse, an acknowledgement of the cheap, alternative forum of learning they provided to the ultra-exclusive universities of the age.

Coffee houses during the Enlightenment not only hosted the era’s profound shift in zeitgeist, its world-changing discussions and fermenting of ideas, they actively encouraged these by providing an alternative to alcohol as a communal drink (water was so unsafe back then, most average Joes boozed all day to keep hydrated before the coffee insurgency developed!) This little clip from intellectual hipster Steven Johnson’s discussion on old-skool dissident Joseph Priestly highlights some key elements of Enlightenment Coffee and its sobered reason:

It is in this tradition, then, that the dominant coffee chains (whose most sublime achievements in fuelling cerebral discussions seem to be providing complementary editions of the Murdoch Press) would do well to learn from. They might take a leaf out of the many indie coffee shops that have move closer to the good old days, such as my old watering hole Coffee Revolution in the University of Sheffield’s SU, an exclusively fair-trade house, which hosted (still hosts, no doubt) informative, interesting weekly debates, open to all. Promoting this kind of coffee, Enlightenment-style, would be a way for the bloated profiteers of Starbucks and co. to rediscover a significance that transcends money, an antidote of reform from our dissenting, coffee sipping ancestors who realized another reality was possible.


CND: The Symbol on the Highstreet


It is unclear if Gerald Holtom, the conscientious objector and graphic designer who in 1958 created CND’s now iconic symbol for the first Aldermaston march, anticipated the truly global impact the simple logo would have in subsequent decades. It became arguably the most recognisable protest symbol in modern history, spanning a range of continents and causes worldwide. However, its recently renewed popularity- in high street stores as an apparently retro fashion icon- has arguably diluted the fundamental message of Nuclear Disarmament the logo embodies.

Combining the semaphore versions of the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’, while also representing an individual with palms outstretched, these intended meanings of the symbol, thanks partly to CND’s trailblazing impact at the head of the Cold War peace movement, were gradually transcended by it becoming synonymous with just ‘peace’, pure and simple. This largely occurred during the course of the sixties, as CND’s prominence receded in favour of the anti-Vietnam War movement and its own use of the ‘peace’ symbol. Consequently, Holtom’s beautifully simple design for Nuclear Disarmament found its meaning, for many who sported it on badges, painted it on campervans or adorned it on placards, altered.


Nonetheless, while its message may have become obscured as it gained global status, it still remained a symbol of popular protest and peace, and subsequently one that still reflected the morality and politics advanced by CND.

Today however, in the wake of thirty years of rampant neoliberal consumerism in the west, to what extent- to those outside peace activism- does Holtom’s symbol retain any political meaning at all? A recent turn in fashion has seen it re-appear on tee-shirts and high street mannequins across the country, though it seems unlikely that many consumers buying and wearing the logo- annexed as it has been by consumer fashion chains- are aware of its direct and original meaning.

At face value this appears to be a negative development for CND. What the iconic logo stands for seems to have shifted in consumer-society’s consciousness. It has moved from a firmly political, anti-war banner of the Cold War activists into a trendy (and therefore profitable) designer logo harbouring vague connotations of a free-spirited, anti-authoritarian past. Furthermore, the very fact of its current commercial value is one that seems counter posed to the movement as an explicitly non-profit, non-commercial organisation. Indeed, it was CND’s own noble decision of neglecting to register the symbol as a trademark, arguing that it was ‘a symbol of freedom’ and therefore ‘free to all’, that unavoidably permits the fashion industry to cash in on its new-found commercial value.

However, as unwelcome as the retailers’ appropriation of the symbol may be to peace activists, its new found prominence may also present CND with an opportunity. The situation we face is that CND’s own symbol, championing nuclear disarmament, is witnessing a renaissance in the public eye. If we can kick-start a renewed, grassroots dialogue about Holtom’s design, its Aldermaston origins and so on, we’ll move towards a situation where a trend in high street fashion and CND’s own message draw closer. Re-iterating what the symbol stands for to those who wear it could be a simple way of renewing mass awareness of and even support for the Campaign.


Peace Activists vs The Arms Fair, 08/09/13

What a difference a year makes. Where last summer London’s ExCel Arena played host to an Olympic celebration of sporting excellence under the banner of the international community during the Olympics, today it welcomes 30,000 global arms dealers and their lethal merchandise in a week-long festival of firepower under the banner ‘DSEi’ (Defence & Security Equipment International). Despite the arms fair’s presence in London all this week, however, many of the apparently unmoved participants were given food for thought when confronted at the tradesman’s East entrance by scores of peace activists on Sunday.

Though the reason for the demo was a serious one, the atmosphere generated by the protest was positive; undimmed by the often unsympathetic weather. Protest songs and chants maintained an upbeat, defiant mood, and echoed across the tarmac, into the ears of the van drivers and passengers entering or exiting the arena. It was a diverse group, uniting all sexes, ages and many ethnic backgrounds, including a vocal Bahraini contingent. Indeed, their presence was an important reminder of just how high the stakes are when arms manufacturers and their (often State) customers disregard what happens to the products of their industry: Two years after its inception, Bahrain’s own revolutionary Spring continues to be crushed under a monarchical boot, aided by the Saudi Arabian military. This same military continues to enjoy lucrative arms deals with the UK and US governments who invest so much in the wares and corporations on show at the ExCel, and who, for all their vocal championing of democracy in the Middle East, in fact seem content to reap a profit out of its suppression, when it favours their interests, the price is right and the media attention minimal or non-existent.

For a small demonstration opposed to this unethical practice, police presence seemed disproportionate: scores of vans surrounded all the key thresholds of the centre, many converging around the entrance chosen by activists to stage the protest. A solemn wall of black-uniforms and leather-bound fists juxtaposed the colourful and spirited protestors, who had every reason to feel intimidated by an encroaching, tightening police line. This sense of threat was confirmed by a contingent of the Met police officers surrounding, then forcibly removing and arresting the handful of peaceful protesters that had continued the sprawling ‘die in’ protest begun earlier in the day, up against the advanced fences of the ExCel.

Thus the arms fair itself remained behind closed doors and unwittingly oxymoronic advertisements- One Lockheed Martin banner offered a brutal image of a tank above the tagline Invest In Your Future, failing to specify the exclusive nature of this hazy, tank-filled future that presumably has no place for pro-democracy Bahranis. Advertisements like this reveal the profit motive that drives the global arms trade onwards year on year in an industry that repeatedly demonstrates scant regard for the possible situations where its produce will likely find use.

Ultimately, the Excel DSEi arms fair and its peaceful opposition highlight some of the binaries that exist in modern Western States. While a year ago it hosted the Olympic festival of sport, a model of multicultural cooperation, today London’s famous conference centre shelters over 1,300 global arms manufacturers who thrive on the sale of machinery and weaponry designed to kill other human beings. Supportive and participatory governments seek to promote their own, limited visions of democracy with the use of these arms, as current Western posturing on intervention and possible regime change via the bombing of Syria reflects. Next to this, scores of people committed to resolute defiance of this arms fair seems perhaps a more accurate representation of what democracy actually looks like. Buoyed by a successful day of vocal peace activism, the protests continue throughout this week.