I know it is a tune this jukebox has played before, but the plight of the humble fryup was once more thrust onto my plate this morning. And discontent shared is discontent doubled.
It was sometime round midday. Too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, but the other Braime fellow (who, by the by, after his ticker episode and enforced abstinence from beer is looking almost as svelte and handsome as his big brother) was passing through Kings Cross St Pancras on his way to see la famille in Paris, so such was our window of opportunity for a bite to eat. A classic brunch slot, you might think. The perfect time for bacon, egg and beans and a cup of tea. Maybe black pudding and a fried slice too.
Except, can you get a fryup in the new St Pancras station? You cannot. Nowhere among the shirt shops, organic shoe stores and numerous outlets to buy commuter coffee and rabbit food, was there a single place where one could buy even a modest sausage sarnie. The closest was the Betjeman Arms, where you can purchase sausages made from pigs hand-reared by children with freckles on sustainably-produced soya milk, flamed with Calvados from the same crate that Voltaire once stubbed out a cigarillo on, and drizzled with a crab-apple, oyster liquor and saffron jus, for the modest sum of £162. Not really the thing for a Thursday early afternoon.
Now I know that St Pancras is the point at which hordes of continentals first set a toe on English soil, and as such there is a certain need to make a good impression. Probably confronting them with some bleak den of stale lager and broken spirits like the one next door in Kings Cross would not do our international reputation any favours, but I do suspect that in the planning and implementation of what is undoubtedly a magnificent station, this wish to tickle a European palate may have blinkered things a little.
Many of my quibbles with the station are unreasonable. That huge main concourse, the champagne bar, the hulking statue of the lovers (which I like, however much people of taste bad-mouth it and girls tell me that it is unrealistic because the woman would have worn a slip) and the windswept Betjeman mannequin, all please me greatly, but I would have liked it if they could have piped in swirling steam around the platforms and played Eric Coates or maybe some Chet so I could have strode through it, head down, trenchcoat and fedora, in hard-boiled, masculine acceptance of the inevitable, whatever that might be. I realise this is not really possible. Ditto for gaslights and a hall of mirrors, I suppose, but I don’t think that a proper old station caff would have been too much to ask.
Cafes are almost as close to my heart as pubs. As a tween first venturing into Leeds on a Saturday afternoon, the meeting place was always the Headrow Coffee Shop, long since demolished to make way for a shopping centre, where the bespectacled lady on the counter was comically rude, and there was always a fat man in a black shirt with a lot of jewellery sat in the corner. Later, in a period of life where I took a lot of National Express coaches to visit friends at university in the south, the only upside to the interminable connection waits in Milton Keynes Coachway (apart from the cheering prospect of imminent outrageous behaviour) was a stretch of cramped limbs, a sausage sandwich and a cuppa in the warmth of the Friar Tuck café. Thick white bread, no artistic pumpkin seed scattering and tea served in a big mug (rather than one of those oversized cups with handles too little to get your fingers through). It was a comforting experience.
And then there was Alpino on Chapel Market, a regular spot for office lunches in times gone by. There was a mouthy Eastenders-style waitress who Mike used to call Mum, (and who I once heard chattering on about her recent botox), a softly-spoken Irish lady, a younger girl with a shoulder tattoo who used to smile shyly when I passed her on Caledonian Road sometimes, and Simon, the owner, with his excellent mockney-Chinese-accented heckling of his own staff. No-one knows what happened to any of them. Christian and I went in a few days before Christmas back in 2007. I had sausage, egg and chips, Christian had a half chicken and accidentally swallowed a small bone, and we chatted to Simon about hillwalking and a traumatic trip to Harrods he’d had with his kids. When we left he wished us a happy Christmas and said he’d see us in a couple of weeks, but he never did. When we went back in the new year the caff was shut up, a pile of bread crates by the door and the sauces out on the formica tables, almost as if they’d just popped down the shop and never come back. I think it’s an Italian restaurant now.
Sometimes I have a late breakfast at the Cally Café, just a couple of minutes from my front door. I usually go on my own, and sit outside with a paper or a notebook and pen. That’s a thing about cafes, they’re good on your own. There is that pleasant feeling of being surrounded by people but having no need to interact with them, and they understand that, because many of them feel the same way. Lives on pause are all around you. The guys behind the counter have big grins and Turkish vowels. Apparently the old bloke who got knifed a few weeks back was a regular there, but I never knowingly saw him.
I can only think of a handful of such places that still exist. These days if you want quick, cheap food to fill you up on the way from A to B, you’d go to a pie stand, a fast food place, a takeaway or maybe a pub, and it’s a shame, because caff culture is worth preserving. It is not cool, urbane or cultivated, but character rarely is, and anyway, sometimes a heroic day needs a heroic start. A bowl of Special K in your dressing gown doesn’t really cut it.