The Columnist
  The Oldi
  Memories are made like this
  Rhinos on Board
  Panto Nostalgia
  A Ghost Story
  Cocktails Anyone?
  Best Kept Village
  A Difference of Opinion
  A Russian Conspiracy
  My Russian Hat
  Book of the Year
  Forty Winks at St Martin's
  A Fringe Great
  Untidy? Who? Me?
  The Ubiquitous Mr Putin
  Mussel Bound
Withdrawal Symptoms
  Eddie Condon
  Signed Copies
  Sorry Wrong Number







I hadn’t intended to give up anything for Lent this year, except maybe pancakes, but a chance encounter with a Radio 4 programme about the properties of caffeine induced me to try giving up coffee.
         I drink far too much coffee. In the days when I smoked a lot, I used to line up a cup of black coffee and a Camel smouldering in an ashtray beside my typewriter before I could even start work. I have phased the Camels out, and the typewriter too, come to think of it, but the cup of black coffee still sits there. I have mastered the art of being able to drink coffee even after it has gone cold, so working, for me, has become like being on a caffeine drip-feed. Grind the beans, pour the water, leave to infuse, strain off a rich liquorice-coloured brew, get cracking on an article… delicious.
         And, according to Radio 4, very bad for me. Well, I didn’t need Radio 4 to tell me that. I knew already, just as I knew that alcohol and television and sausages and dairy products and sugar were all bad for me, but you never give up any of these things without some little trigger, like having a major stroke or listening to an admonitory radio talk. What attracted me to giving up coffee was two things. Partly the way Radio 4 made the act of renunciation sound not too horrible, and partly the chance to avoid Sainsbury’s.
         Renunciation, according to most of the people who talked on this programme, was like a cup of espresso: short and bitter. You got headaches and migraines, and aches and pains, for four or five days, and then you were free. A bit of sweating, bit of twitching. Not a lot to worry about. And in fact, when I got down to it, it wasn’t even that bad. I have now gone a week without drinking coffee (which is a pathetically short period, I know, but on the other hand it is the longest period I have gone without coffee since 1960) and I haven’t suffered at all.
         I think it would be more satisfying if I had suffered. When you come off drugs, you’re meant to have horrible withdrawal symptoms, all sweating and convulsing and seeing visions of Norman Lamont. Then you know you’re really getting somewhere. I have now been off coffee for a week and seven minutes (did I mention this before ?) and apart from the fact that I keep thinking about coffee the whole time and keep reaching out for a non-existent mug, it hasn’t affected me at all.
         And it has saved me from going to Sainsbury’s. Sainsbury’s do a very good dark coffee bean, which is probably better than other local coffees, and we keep going back there for it. Not for anything else. Other things are either better elsewhere or cheaper. It is a fallacy that supermarkets sell stuff cheaper than other places. I made a note of all the meat prices in the last Farmer’s Market I went to (at Frome, once a month, excellent) and compared them next time I went into a supermarket, and boy, was the supermarket expensive. Don’t tell me that the supermarket passes savings on to the customer, no, sirree.
         Unfortunately, my wife and I had to keep going back to Sainsbury’s for that excellent coffee. Fortunately, we are now doing without coffee and that means we are doing without Sainsbury’s as well. So, thanks to a talk on Radio 4, I am enabled to deliver a body blow to the massed power of the supermarkets who form such a terrifying monopoly when it comes to victimising the farmer and the grower and the supplier, standardising all fruit and veg, forcing English apple varieties to be eliminated because they don’t fit the supermarket vision, flying stuff in from abroad when they could be encouraging British growers…
         I’m sounding like a Green maniac, a raging health food addict, and I’m not one of those either. Really, I’m not. I go in health food shops for things like live yeast and… and… well, just live yeast, actually, and every time I visit a health food shop, two things always worry me about the place. One is that almost everything for sale is in jars or boxes, and not fresh and natural - for every bunch of organic carrots there are a thousand helpings of garlic tablets or dried kelp or soya jam. The other is that everyone in health food shops seems so unhealthy (always sniffling and coughing, always pale and wan) and that everyone in the queue in front of me seemed to take twice as long as normal people to sort out their change. Does health food slow the brain down AND make you ill as well…?
         God, I’ve just realised I’ve slagged off health food shops and big supermarkets in the same breath, and normally I’m so nice to everyone. And I’ve realised why it is. It’s coffee withdrawal. It does have an effect. It changes the character. It makes you crabby and touchy, and itchy and scratchy. It… Waiter - a large espresso !

The Oldie
 Mar 1 1999

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