The Various Flavours of Coffee
Historical background: Aestheticism
The Aesthetic Movement was an odd, brief flowering of a tendency which has always been present in art. Like Gothic, Minimalism or Fantasy, it’s really a sub-genre, but one which for a short period – from the 1890’s to about 1910 – somehow took over the mainstream. Although we associate it with the epigrams of Oscar Wilde and the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, its roots are in art criticism, and in particular the ‘decadent’ writings of the Oxford don Walter Pater:
Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive to us – for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to be seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life…
Aestheticism may only have reigned for a couple of decades, but somehow its influence never goes away. Young writers in particular still seem to go through a kind of artistic adolescence, in which they imagine themselves to be detached, sardonic flaneurs in red velvet smoking jackets. Most grow out of it. But it’s interesting to note that during the same historical period, large groups of young women – and to a lesser extent, young men – were becoming intensely politicised for the first time, not just about suffrage but also about education, penal reform, Poor Law (women won the right to be Poor Law Guardians two decades before they won the Vote itself) as well as poverty and prostitution. The contrast between Emily’s view of the world and Robert’s would have been a familiar one at the time.
Robert’s attitude to sex is also fairly typical of his period. It was the Victorian George Dryden who wrote “The true and only remedy for the evils arising from abstinence is a moderate indulgence in sexual intercourse.” This was a view that was enshrined in the legal system of the time – which held, for example, that adultery by a man was not grounds for divorce, while adultery by a woman most certainly was. The Victorians were far from being prudes, but they did have a sexist attitude to sex, believing with William Acton that “a modest woman seldom desires any sexual pleasure for herself.” The inevitable consequence of this was a booming sex industry.
Meanwhile, physicians were diagnosing respectable married and unmarried women alike with ‘hysteria’, a euphemism for neuroses caused by sexual frustration. As I note in my acknowledgements, my descriptions of a turn-of-the-century treatment are closely based on those described in The Technology of Orgasm by Rachel P. Maines, in some cases using verbatim extracts from her sources.
Similarly, some of the coffee advertisements proposed by Randolph Cairns, and the statements he uses to justify them, are from the period. The statement: “The time will come when businessmen realise that customers are simply bundles of mental states, and that the mind is a mechanism which we can affect with the same exactitude with which we control a machine in a factory…” for example, came from Hugo Muensternerg, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard. And those who think I might have exaggerated the tone of coffee advertising might be interested in this post-war gem for the American brand Chock full o’ Nuts:
Men! Don’t let it come to this! Win your fight for a decent cup of coffee – without losing your temper!
A man’s home is his castle! You have a right to good coffee in your home, and your wife has a duty to serve it. Don’t be the victim of womanly penny-pinching! If your wife refuses to spend the few extra pennies for Chock full o’ Nuts Coffee she is denying you that deep-down contentment that only the heavenly coffee can bring you! Men, assert yourselves! Be calm, but firm! Tonight, take home a can of Chock full o’ Nuts Coffee and tell your wife in a voice of command that this is the coffee you want in your home from now on! (Quoted in The Coffee Book, by Nina Luttinger and Gregory Dicum)
In making Emily a suffragette I needed to shift around one or two dates in the history of the movement by a couple of years, but otherwise the course of the rebellion was much as I have described it. The Liberal government that came to power in the early 1900’s was the most radical for a century, introducing reform on pensions, sick pay, national insurance and male suffrage, but it continually broke promises going back more than a decade to give the vote to women – some say, because of pressure from the King. Certainly, the decision to force feed the hunger strikers was prompted by a private note from the monarch to the then Prime Minister. Marches through central London ended up attracting up to a million protestors – men as well as women – and there were eventually around two hundred women on hunger strike. The authorities, overwhelmed, had little choice but to release them on temporary licences – the so-called ‘Cat and Mouse’ Acts. When they were well enough, most went straight out to make further protests. One such was Mary Richardson, whose attack on the Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery was described by The Times as an ‘outrage’. If you look carefully at this beautiful nude today, you can still see the scars on her back where the damage was repaired.
“Abyssinia” was a catch-all Victorian label for an area of East Africa that stretched from British-controlled Egypt in the north to the British Protectorate in the south, encompassing modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somaliland and northern Kenya. A part of this was known for a while as ‘Gallaland’ – Galla being the name given to the tribes of the interior. Today it is considered a disparaging term. My villagers incorporate some of the characteristics of the Oromo, the Shanqella, and the Guarage peoples – all of them now endangered cultures. As Samuel Pinker accurately surmises, they live in an area where coffee grows wild, and where it probably originated. Many connoisseurs still believe it to be the finest coffee in the world. Coffee for these people is a mystical, quasi-religious drink, a bit like wine is for the Christian church.
The coffee business
Comparative tasting or “cupping” probably started during the seventeenth century as a way for merchants on the quayside to assess the quality of lots they were being offered. By the 1880s American coffee men such as Clarence Bickford and the Hills brothers were developing it into a more systematic way of describing the properties of the brew. Individual firms and importers subsequently started to produce their own coffee-tasting manuals, including J. Aron, L.K Smith and Nestle. However, it wasn’t until Ted Lingle produced The Coffee Cupper’s Handbook for the Coffee Development Group in America in the that a truly systematic guide to the tastes and aromas of coffee came into being.
The Brazilian ‘valorisation’ programme which I describe lasted from the early 1900’s to the 1930’s. The basic idea was that the Brazilian government, acting in concert with the world’s biggest producers and buyers, would manage its stocks so as to inflate the world coffee price. The scheme suffered several setbacks during that time but somehow staggered on, almost the only scheme in history to have succeeded in keeping the price of a global commodity artificially high. It was the customer who paid the price, of course, lining the pockets of the middlemen and the big producers, but some of that extra profit eventually did trickle down to the ordinary peon, coolie, sepoy or farmer – thus encouraging them to put even more marginal land to coffee instead of other crops. When the scheme collapsed it was followed by vast plantation-burnings, some of which were witnessed at first hand by Heinrich Jacob, as described in his book Coffee: the Epic of a Commodity.
The inspiration behind The Various Flavours of Coffee
In The Wedding Officer I wrote about a young British officer who chooses pleasure over duty. In The Various Flavours of Coffee I wanted to follow someone on the opposite journey – who starts off in unfettered sensuality and self-indulgence but who gradually comes to see the limitations of that. And, clearly, it’s a darker book in parts than its predecessors. I think it’s still a comedy – just – but it’s a comedy of characters rather than events. I think of it as a coffee-comedy: dark, intense, with just a touch of bitterness…
Another difference is the setting. I’ve always wanted to write a story about business – not in order to portray it as something either particularly evil or particularly good, but simply because business is the dramatic backdrop to most of our lives today, and it’s an area which fiction seems to steer away from. There are films and plays set in the world of work, but rarely novels. Yet business brings together so many great themes – conflict and struggle, families, change, ethics.
It’s said that historical novels work best when they examine contemporary themes. Were you conscious of doing this?
There seems to me to be a debate, or perhaps it’s fairer to say a struggle, that comes to the fore every fifty years or so – the struggle between selfishness and selflessness, between putting the individual first and putting social responsibility first. We’ve been through a period that has been all about the rise of the individual and giving free rein to pleasure: now we’re starting to think more about social issues and the cost of that pleasure. And one place where that debate is becoming crystallised is in what we consume – so-called ethical consumerism. Coffee is both a pleasure, and an industry which exploits over a million people around the world. I wrote a story, not a lecture, but the story wouldn’t be worth writing if it didn’t have contemporary relevance.
Having said that, the reason the conflict works in dramatic terms is that there is, ultimately, no right answer – which path you choose depends on your politics and your ethics, which is ultimately an expression of your character. Robert, Emily and Pinker change in many ways during the story – ways that surprised me as much as anybody – but there was always a sense that I was writing about a sensualist, an idealist and an egotist. While I was writing I came across a quotation from Heinrich Heine which for me illuminates a key difference between my two main characters:
Plato and Aristotle! These are not merely two systems, but rather two types of human nature, that stand since time immemorial in hostile opposition. Romantic, mystical Platonic natures; practical, systematizing Aristotelians… Plato and Aristotle are always the issue, though they may appear under other names.
What would you say is the principal theme of the book?
That’s a hard question for any author to answer. Books are about people – characters – not themes or messages. Having said that, as you write a story you gradually become aware of certain ideas that are playing themselves out. I was certainly interested in the way that Emily and Robert swap positions during the course of the story – he becomes more aware of his responsibilities, and she becomes aware of her sensuality. But for a variety of reasons, some to do with character and some to do with historical context, he is able to change, whereas she becomes committed to a more extreme course.
It’s also a comedy about communication. The Guide is an attempt to communicate tastes and flavours across vast distances, but its creators can’t even communicate their emotions and desires across a room. The villagers and the white men don’t speak the same language, let alone the same ideas. Fikre seduces Robert wordlessly, through the coded medium of coffee beans – a message that means whatever he wants it to mean, and into which he pours his own fantasies. The climax of the book is an exchange of two letters, in which the two protagonists are finally honest about what they feel for each other after one of them is dead.
Another theme is freedom – everyone in the book wants to be free, but everyone defines that freedom in different ways. For Emily, it’s political; for Robert, the freedom of the artist, along with sexual freedom and freedom from responsibility; for Fikre, it’s escape; for Pinker, it’s simply the freedom of the market. We know that Robert really does love Emily when he is prepared to allow her the freedom to die: the tragedy for him is that she takes it. And everyone is trying, in their different ways, to be free of the past. The only one who appears to succeed is Pinker – but where is Castle Coffee now?