Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Politics and coffee


The blogger known as Snowball has given my recently-published book on EP Thompson a plug at his Adventures in Historical Materialism blog, and written a longer response for a forthcoming issue of Britain's Socialist Review.

I'm very pleased that Snowball enjoyed my tome, because he's an expert on CLR James, a man who can in many ways be considered the West Indian equivalent of EP Thompson. James and Thompson both tried to see history 'from below', rather than through the eyes of diplomats and Kings and Presidents. Just as Thompson's masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class humanised the study of the industrial revolution, so James' famous book The Black Jacobins told the story of the Haitian revolution and war of independence from the perspective of slave rather than European master. Thompson and James were also united, of course, by a ferocious love of cricket.

One of the more inconsequential passages in my book describes the rise and fall of the Partisan Coffee House, which was a creation of the 'first New Left', the unstable but highly creative movement comprised of communists who left their Stalinised party in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and students and other young people politicised by the British government's invasion of Egypt in the same year.

Billed as 'London's first anti-expresso bar', the Partisan Coffee House was established in Soho in 1958, close to offices used by New Left activists. The cafe featured very long tables that could be used for the meetings of political committees and clubs, and was spacious enough to be a venue for film screenings, art shows, and folk music gigs. It also became known as a place of refuge for London's down and outers, who could sit for hours over free cups of coffee.

The Partisan may have served a few too many free coffees, because financial problems caused it to close down in 1961. In the persistently wry autobiography he named Interesting Times, Eric Hobsbawm looked back at the demise of the Partisan and wondered how any coffee house could possibly have made a loss in the prosperous and increasingly hip London of the early '60s. Many of the ex-communists in the New Left lived in the coal and steel belts of northern England, and seldom visited London, where the movement was dominated by students and the young. Some of the old commies grumbled about the fecklessness of youth when the Partisan shut down and the New Left encountered other financial problems; EP Thompson was particularly indignant at what he saw as the lack of discipline in the south.

I was thinking about the Partisan Coffee House because I recently posted about the cafe in Riverhead where a Titoist, or perhaps a Titoist-Harawiraist, may have been lurking. I don't know of a cafe or restaurant in this part of the world run by the left, but there are a few establishments which deploy imagery associated, justly or unjustly, with the left. I blogged a few years about Auckland's Shangri La restaurant, which serves very hot Hunanese food and uses a weird mixture of Maoist and Tibetan motifs. More recently, I took photos of a couple of central Melbourne eateries with interesting names: the Engels Expresso Bar, which sits at the swanky end of Collins Street, and the Post-Mao Restaurant, which is located somewhere in Chinatown. The comrades of the first New Left wouldn't approve, but perhaps there's a certain historical authenticity in Engels, who was a very successful businessman, lending his name to an expresso bar haunted by bankers and stockbrokers. If only the suits of Melbourne would follow Engels' example, and use their profits to fund left-wing scholarship and activism.

The Post-Mao Restaurant confuses me: does its name represent support for the Dengists who currently run China, and their dictum that, contra Mao, 'to get rich is glorious', or is it supposed to suggest some sort of anti-authoritarian critique of Mao's rule, of the sort that the anti-Stalinists of the first New Left would affirm? Can anybody help me out?

[Posted by Maps - blogger is still locking me out of my own account...]

17 Comments:

Blogger Dougal said...

The Deng line gets more complicated still: there's a "Post-Deng Cafe" just a little bit further down the road. They do a fabulous duck in beer, and a nice mabo tofu too.

8:33 am  
Blogger AHD said...

Well the Chinese on the sign says '毛家菜',which means 'Mao family food', Mao being a very common family name in China.

And it's pretty common in China to hear people say '毛后' (after Mao) or '改革开放以后‘ (after the Opening Up and Reform Policy, 1978); to them those two phrases are synonymous with prosperity and opportunity. Given that restaurants always want to associate themselves with auspiciousness, it would be my guess that the name is hooking into that. Could be wrong though.

I've lost count of the amount of times I've been to a restaurant named 福利们 in China.

9:38 am  
Anonymous AK Meros said...

Question from the audience:

Sir, is it considered bourgeois to spell 'espresso' as 'expresso'?

I open this question the floor. You see, I was in Alexandra over New Years and had a terrible $4.20 'expresso' at the Dairy near House of Travel on Tarbert St (HWY 85 to Ranfurly).

To have corrected these waitstaff would have simulataneously introduced the unmissable divide between my citified accent and their Central Otago accent?

My question, I suppose, is about whether you are showing a form of class solidarity with the expresso pronouncing NZ peasantry, or, or, or/// perhaps you are actually a lesbian blogger from Damascus disguising yourself with this thin S.H. persona - have I, positioned in the gully, caught your thick outside edge?

11:21 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post dwells on TRIVIALITIES.

Afraid to say anything OF REAL CONSEQUENCE???????

1:23 pm  
Anonymous Mark said...

down here in wellington we have fidel's, and che's, both on cuba street. although maybe Che's closed or changed its name. I don't get out much!
Cuba Street has more hip than radical these days. Police informer Rob Gilchrist had a regular table at the back of Olive cafe, where he would buy coffees for lefties and collect gossip for his handlers

1:52 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wellington = Wankertown

2:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Organisation of Marxist Unity (based in Whangarei and led by Don Ross til his death) was a Dengist organisation.

2:45 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Elderly Auckland leftists have told me about the Bebel coffee bar, set up and run in the 1950s by the splendidly self-aggrandizing landscape architect Odo Strewe (for whom Frank Sargeon had a (probably) unrequited passion). He was a migrant from Germany and had been interned on Somes Island, in the middle of Wgtn Harbour, during the war, but found the enforced companionship of pro-Nazi compatriots so unendurable that he escaped by swimming ashore. An impressive feat, but one well within his capabilities. By all accounts he possessed an imposing physique, but also an unfortunate penchant for stripping to his underpants at social events that he felt were in need of living up. I know nothing about Bebel apart from the name - I'm sure other correspondents can enlighten me.
With best wishes to Skyler for a speedy convalescence,

Mark Derby

7:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I saw a ref. to Odo Strewe in a few books, one being a book about Dean Buchanan's works (I think he married Odo's daughter) but I recall a coffee bar about 1969 (in Victoria Street or Wellesley Street West I think) run by an rather eccentric German. A lot of students went there and debated many issues: one being revolution etc It may have been the Bebel (I don't mean the Purple Cow which was a different place I and many others frequented in those heady days) in Symonds street mentioned by Murray Edmond in a poem). Coffee bars in those times were quite common and I didn't drink much although I did go to the "students" Pub, the name of which has just now escaped my memory, but it was somewhere near the intersection of Symonds and Wellesley St. I think)): and I preferred coffee bars.

I like the ideas of (e.g. the one referred to above by Maps etc) a coffee bar where all kinds of down and outs and others (even "suits" or "secret agents" or the curious or just those wanting a place to meet gather); can talk and discuss etc on politics or literature or life in general (even cricket! Cricket is a great game indeed) and other matters.

In any case the German owner, or ex German fellow, who may or may not have been Strewe was very likeable and well liked as I recall him.

His alleged contribution (I heard second hand) was:

"If you are not a communist before thirty you have no soul, and if you are a communist after thirty you have no brains."

8:37 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks very much for all that fascinating and rather bizarre information, folks, and apologies to anonymous for being so shallow.
I will post something more serious and worthy tomorrow, but in the meantime anon might be interested in the rather tortured discussion about democracy and socialism and angry Greeks which I've been having with some of the folks at Kiwipolitico:

http://www.kiwipolitico.
com/2011/06/notes-on-
democratic-fundamentalism/ (the discussion is under the blog post)

9:41 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kia ora Scott.

Mark wrote:
“Elderly Auckland leftists have told me about the Bebel coffee bar, set up and run in the 1950s by the splendidly self-aggrandizing landscape architect Odo Strewe (for whom Frank Sargeon had a (probably) unrequited passion).”

Odo was far too wild a man to have named his coffee bar after the boring Social Democrat Bebel. It was Babel surely. It was there (in 1967) I heard the legendary Auckland leftists Bruce Jesson and Graeme Whimp meet for the first time. “Are you CP?” Graeme murmured out of the corner of his mouth. Bruce was not even SUP (more left republican) and, until it was spelled out, had no idea what Graeme was referring to.

“By all accounts he possessed an imposing physique,...” ...

Tall certainly but scrawny.

“With best wishes to Skyler for a speedy convalescence,”
I second that. Mangere Mountain, Te Pane o Mataoho, may not be Kachenjunga but it is not to be taken lightly!
Richard said...

"...) but I recall a coffee bar about 1969 (in Victoria Street or Wellesley Street West I think) run by an rather eccentric German.

Yes Richard that was Babel. In Victoria St. West, beside the Barry Lett Gallery.
"A lot of students went there and debated many issues: one being revolution etc It may have been the Bebel (I don't mean the Purple Cow which was a different place I and many others frequented in those heady days) in Symonds street mentioned by Murray Edmond in a poem)"

Are you thinking of The Fat Landlady in Symonds St which was rather like the Partisan in that its master and benefactor (Keir Volkerling) never begrudged the penniless a coffee and had to work in the city markets every morning to keep the place going? The Revolutionary Study Group met in the back room in 1970.

“Coffee bars in those times were quite common and I didn't drink much although I did go to the "students" Pub, the name of which has just now escaped my memory, but it was somewhere near the intersection of Symonds and Wellesley St. I think)): and I preferred coffee bars.”

The pub was the Kiwi, Richard. You are reading too much Pound, and not enough Edmond.

“His alleged contribution (I heard second hand) was: "If you are not a communist before thirty you have no soul, and if you are a communist after thirty you have no brains."
Mmm. If he said that, my estimation of him goes way down. Clemenceau had a better version many years before:
"I am sorry for anyone who has not been an anarchist at twenty" He may well have added, after he had begun his political career, “ I feel even more sorry for someone who is still an anarchist at thirty.”

Farrell

5:38 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Engel/s of course means angel. It could be that it is simply the angel espresso bar?

Malcolm

2:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

‘"Odo was far too wild a man to have named his coffee bar after the boring Social Democrat Bebel. It was Babel surely. It was there (in 1967) I heard the legendary Auckland leftists Bruce Jesson and Graeme Whimp meet for the first time. “Are you CP?”’

I remember Bruce Jesson, he put out his republican mag and I used to see him on the train on the way to the Railway workshops reading big books on Marx or whatever. He had his own agenda. He was very interested later in Marxism.

“By all accounts he possessed an imposing physique,...” ...

Tall certainly but scrawny.’

Yes. If it’s the person I recall he wasn’t very big. Just tall

Richard said...

‘"...) but I recall a coffee bar about 1969 (in Victoria Street or Wellesley Street West I think) run by an rather eccentric German.

Yes Richard that was Babel. In Victoria St. West, beside the Barry Lett Gallery.’

O.k. The Babel. Rings a distant bell. Memory not good on some things

‘"A lot of students went there and debated many issues: one being revolution etc It may have been the Babel (I don't mean the Purple Cow which was a different place I and many others frequented in those heady days) in Symonds street mentioned by Murray Edmond in a poem)"

Are you thinking of The Fat Landlady in Symonds St which was rather like the Partisan in that its master and benefactor (Keir Volkerling) never begrudged the penniless a coffee and had to work in the city markets every morning to keep the place going? The Revolutionary Study Group met in the back room in 1970.’

The Fat Landlady may have been the one. I don’t know the study group. But in the place I went to there was an artist upstairs and he was either a dwarf or he was rooming with him. I don’t remember his art, I wasn’t even into art or writing much then (a friend of mine met Baxter who wrote a poem for him but he lost it or threw it away! I never met Baxter…) …but its was all quite surreal and exciting.

‘“Coffee bars in those times were quite common and I didn't drink much although I did go to the "students" Pub, the name of which has just now escaped my memory, but it was somewhere near the intersection of Symonds and Wellesley St. I think)): and I preferred coffee bars.”

The pub was the Kiwi, Richard. You are reading too much Pound, and not enough Edmond.’

Yes, I remembered that straight after I did the post. I went there quite lot but I stopped eventually. I really didn’t like pubs. And I have to say I still really dislike them (but I used to go to them in the 90s to get “Dutch courage” to read my poems to an audience)…but The Kiwi was THE student pub in those days.

‘“His alleged contribution (I heard second hand) was: "If you are not a communist before thirty you have no soul, and if you are a communist after thirty you have no brains."
Mmm. If he said that, my estimation of him goes way down. Clemenceau had a better version many years before:
"I am sorry for anyone who has not been an anarchist at twenty" He may well have added, after he had begun his political career, “ I feel even more sorry for someone who is still an anarchist at thirty.”’

I recall Frank Lane saying something to that effect, but it was years ago. You clearly have better memory than I do. (it probably wasn’t what he said exactly …) The SUP;in those days there were the Trotskyites who we were pretty contemptuous of, the old Russian Commos and the CP etc There was Dr Steve Taylor’s Party of eccentric old blokes. I always admired his protest 'hunger strike'at Albert Park Rotunda.

Pound! As you probably guessed I have never read (The Cantos) right through. Some of the Cantos are great but I recently had a look at one part of that huge tome and soon gave up! Murray is an interesting poet. I was looking at 'Laminatons' as Ted and I talked about it in particular.

Martin and Murray are way too bright for me…
…Murray is certainly a very good poet.

3:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Farrell id you ever meet Ruffo? He was a photographer. I wonder what happened to him ...?

3:48 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scott, I relish the way you want number plates and coffee bars to have political resonances that their owners are probably blind to. In a more trivial way, I wonder if the owner of CUL465 paid good money to have such a Parisian plate; or whether CEC462 is commenting on the blindness of the masses to colonial history; or whether BBC502 is the person behind the AM World Service broadcasts in Auckland.

Richard, thanks for carrying on with the ‘elder’ sub-thread. Scott will forgive, and maybe even enjoy, the way his admirable lead items get lost in the conversation.

You said: “I remember Bruce Jesson, he put out his republican mag and I used to see him on the train on the way to the Railway workshops reading big books on Marx or whatever. He had his own agenda. He was very interested later in Marxism.”

A good man and a good thinker. Sorely missed.

“O.k. The Babel. Rings a distant bell. Memory not good on some things."

You have better things to do with your brain than scratch ancient scabs--and all power to you.

“The Fat Landlady may have been the one. I don’t know the study group. But in the place I went to there was an artist upstairs and he was either a dwarf or he was rooming with him. I don’t remember his art, I wasn’t even into art or writing much then (a friend of mine met Baxter who wrote a poem for him but he lost it or threw it away! I never met Baxter…) …but its was all quite surreal and exciting.”

Was there a Purple Cow as well? I just remember a joke about the shy young student who tried to use a purple cow in Albert Park as a pick up line. ..

:
“Yes, I remembered that [the Kiwi] straight after I did the post. I went there quite lot but I stopped eventually. I really didn’t like pubs. And I have to say I still really dislike them (but I used to go to them in the 90s to get “Dutch courage” to read my poems to an audience)…but The Kiwi was THE student pub in those days.”

It was never just a student pub though. There were WWII veterans always ready to put the students in their place (“When you’ve seen you’re best mate with his guts hanging out right beside you in the Western Desert, come back and I’ll listen to you”), Baxter, Shadbolt the Elder (ie Maurice). Someone was talking about the Henry VIII coffee bar in Queen St. Wasn’t it Henry IV?


“ I recall Frank Lane saying something to that effect, but it was years ago..”.

The Lane family arrived from Melbourne with their matriarch in a blaze of Maoist intensity.
They had their shop-front centre in Ponsonby Rd. On the wall there was a series of prints showing Lenin speaking to the workers, with the Old Bolsheviks around him disappearing one by one with each reprinting as they fell out with Stalin. That sounds more like a Trotskyist thing to do, doesn’t it?

“Pound! As you probably guessed I have never read (The Cantos) right through. “

Nor have I. Haven’t even read ‘finnegans wake’.

“Murray is certainly a very good poet.”

Yes! Nice, scarily nostalgic prose piece by Murray in a recent Landfall.

“Farrell id you ever meet Ruffo? He was a photographer. I wonder what happened to him ...?”

Remember him well. Some of his screen-printed posters are in Shadbolt’s “Bullshit and Jellybeans”. I don’t know what happened to him. Nor his real name.

Farrell

8:58 am  
Anonymous Young Dennis said...

Let's not forget the 'Permanent Revolution Cafe' (ironically) in Wellington's Tory Street, nor that most swanky of central Wellington restaurants 'The Anarcho-Syndicalist' in downtown Featherston Street.

Or did I just make these two up ?

5:07 pm  
Blogger Clare Solomon said...

Oooh, great post. As a fellow kiwi (and ex Berlin resident) I'm pleased to hear people say that Firebox, our new left-wing political project in Kings Cross London, reminds them of the cafes of NZ and Berlin...

Perhaps you could let people know about it too?:

http://fireboxlondon.net

10:56 pm  

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