Brainwashed Britain: The queue in the cafe

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The first chain of cafes in Britain was established in 1894 by J. Lyons and Co., epitomised by the huge Lyons Corner Houses, some of which opened 24 hours a day and employed over 400 staff. In those days everyone drank tea; coffee was just a silly American affectation. Today we all drink coffee and the silliness is not the drink but the tyrant queue.

The notable feature of the Corner Houses of the first decades of the 20th Century was that when you arrived a prim waitress (they were called “Nippies”) showed you to your table. You found it suitably laid with a clean tablecloth and starched napkins and the waitress took your order, neatly writing it down with a pencil in a little notebook. She might even have taken your coat. J. Lyons required his waitresses to be unmarried and they were selected on their deportment, the condition of their hands, their ability to add up and their competence at handling crockery; as you can imagine they were hugely popular in pre-war Britain. And while you waited for the kitchen to brew the tea you rested your legs and smiled generously at the other patrons of the cafe. It was a civilised experience by all accounts and it didn’t matter how long it took because you didn’t care.

Customers enjoying afternoon tea at Lyon’s Corner House on Coventry Street, London, 1942

J. Lyons Corner Houses epitomise pre-war Englishness, but while they were serving their nice little cucumber sandwiches to the middle classes they were secretly plotting a revolution: they were amongst the first in Britain to introduce cafeteria-style service. Tea or coffee, it doesn’t really matter, does it? What we are actually paying for is the seat in a comfy chair, just like they were in the 1930s, but these days we often spend more time in the queue than sitting down to drink.

We do this because we have been brainwashed to worship monstrously over-engineered stainless steel kettles that whir, fizz, gurgle and spit out steam at an over-hyped victim of a zero-hours contract compensated by a minimum wage, who has been given a ridiculously pretentious title suggesting non-existent skills and a hint that their job is somehow better than working at McDonald’s. Then, because this multinational chain makes more money by employing fewer people, we carry our own overfilled cups of ludicrously named coffee back to a cramped table, littered with someone else’s detritus, hanging our coat on the back of a chair and so making the cafe looks less like a pleasant sitting room and more like a bus station waiting room. Then we look around at the neglected, dejected, sad and weary customers and forget why we came to this place in the first place. We hurriedly drink up and get out – which of course is exactly what Costa want us to do.

At home, I prefer coffee made in a cafetiere, which has both the advantages of speed and convenience. On the other hand, filter coffee is perfectly adequate and can be made in quite large quantities. Even instant coffee, invented in 1881 by Frenchman Alphonse Allais, has its advocates. I’d be happier with an instant instant than a slow cappuccino, any day. If you care so much about coffee then make it at home, but please don’t queue up in front of me. In John Lewis today I waited patiently in line for over ten minutes for an Americano that tasted exactly the same as one from their machine in Waitrose, which takes two minutes at most.

If I were to open a cafe the first thing I’d do would be to get rid of self-service and bring back the Nippies. And if that didn’t work I’d go for a kettle on each table with a selection of teabags and a jar of Nescafé.