Psychogeography of the Cafe

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Central Cafe (RIP): Smithfield



S&M Restaurant (Alfredo's): restored Thonet chairs & Vitrolite tables Courtesy Phil Nicholls

Psychogeography is the hidden landscape of atmospheres, histories, actions and characters which charge environments.

The term originally harks back to Thomas De Quincey's dreamy, druggy treks of the nineteenth century and Walter Benjamin's excursions around the Paris streets of the 1920s, fusing Jewish messianism, Kabbalism, Marxism and visionary Surrealism.

But after Internationale Situationiste #1 1957, the term evolves again, indicating the study of the effects of geographical settings on mood and behaviour.

Today, the expression is possibly most readily associated with Iain Sinclair's synoptic urban drifts; the divining of the unconscious cultural contours of places: "By the time I was using [the word], it was more like 'psychotic geographer' more of a raging bull journey against the energies of the city of creating a walk that would allow you to enter into a fiction."

Sinclair's work is a dense, fused poeticized prose often inspired by walks and free-associated treks around the underside of London, most especially the expansice wilds of the East End and its Essex deltas. Cafes often figure in his novels, and the Alpino in Islington's Chapel Market N1 has long been one of his stop-offs on regular walks up the Regent Canal.

Those new to Sinclair's work should start with his collection of essays Lights Out For The Territory. Then move on to his co-written account of the mystery of Whitechapel legend David Rodinsky - Rodinsky's Room - and his vanishing from a hidden East End Synagogue. On no account miss Sinclair's early novel Whitechappel Scarlet Tracings or his exorcizing of modern City meltdown, Downriver.


Cafes are vitally about atmosphere and kindled memories; their dowager bearing apparently drably familiar, yet full of secrets. Developing from the early twentieth century Welsh and Scottish Italian immigrant coffee houses and their binding family function in continental street life, today's remaining classic cafes show Britain looking beyond itself - combining cultural bloodlines that played a part in making modern British life a little less constricting, yearning for the more open social lifestyles of Europe.

The Italian caff families that ended up in London mostly hailed from the Welsh valleys of Taro and Ceno in the 1880s. As news of the boom in the Welsh coal fields of the time (particularly the Taf, Cynon, Rhymni and Rhondda valleys) filtered back to Italy from these first settlers, hundreds more Italians came over to set up cafes and ice cream parlours. These businesses thrived in the Welsh mining communities. (Each year, a coach party from South Wales still travels to Bardi in Italy's Chino valley full of the relatives of the Welsh-Italian families who set up these original cafes.)

Scots-Italians can trace their history back to the mass migrations from the Italy of the late 1800s. Many remained in the port cities of Glasgow, Greenock and Edinburgh, opening shops and serving dairy ice cream direct from barrows, with shouts of 'Gelati, ecco un poco' (consequently becoming known as the 'Hokey Pokey' boys). Italian cafes subsequently sprang up all over Scotland.

Italy Calling

Start with a montage blitz of cafe signs, logos and fascia: swathes of laminates and linoleum; dented mosaics; mottled blinds and curtains; clanging cash machines; fuming tea-urns; huffing proprietors; clusters of Pyrex dishes, cups and plates ­ a world of mid-century 50s austerity unfurling into the vibrancy of the 60s...

Switch to the Dickensian tenement back-streets of Mount Pleasant and Little Italy where the nineteenth century influx of Italian families and refugee subversives carved out a unique cafe style...

The visual focus is the mix of traders ­ underground record biz whizz-kids and sombre Orthodox Jewish jewelers. You begin at Andrew's on Grays Inn Road and then submerge into the teeming jewel trader cafes of Hatton Garden: the green marbelised Formica cavern of Farina's; the Woolworth's deco of the St Cross St cafe (RIP) with its large lime 30s signage.

The cafes here are cross-fertilization zones for ideas and movements - a thousand stories in a semi-naked city - packed with spooks doing business off the books and under the Formica! All the while the cosy familial Italian cafe owners oversee their flock.

Andrew's acts as an unofficial clearing house for players from the nearby cheapo multi-occupation office block Panther House - a pox maze warren with hundreds of people running fly-by-night record companies, 'artiste' agencies and innumerable waxing and waning businesses. An atol of entrepreneurial cargo-cults.

Further up Roseberry Avenue, Luigi's (a laminated corridor with a basement attached), Alfie's (smaller still, little more than a period lean-to) and The Golden Fry (a dark rosewood gem filled with museum-class furniture) form a triangulated caff zone catering to the drifts of postal workers who wash around the Mount Pleasant sorting office.

These family lines then take us over to Islington...

The KIng of N1
Here the proud Deco Alfredo's (S&M Restaurant) sits on Essex Road overlooking the Green, now slickly restored and saved for the nation as a designer brasserie. At the other end of St Peters St, the trusty yellow Formica Rheidol Rooms ticks over - an anachronism among the rows of mute four-wheeler, four-storey millionaire family houses and kvetching gastro-pubs.

Before his current Walworth Road sojourns, 'Mad' Frank Fraser was an Alfredo's regular (Frank was tight with the guy who set up Alfredo's 90 years ago; the caff Cosa Nostra.) Always dressed in full Long Firm funeral clobber, Fraser sits quietly, alone in a back corner, his immaculate black Gangster No. 1 tonsure (sculpted at an old 50s throwback barbers cold-shouldered behind Sadlers Wells) clashes with Alfredo's breezy ivory-and-blue tile interior.

Frank: "contract strong-arm, club owner, club minder, company director, Broadmoor inmate, firebomber, prison rioter... thief. 26 convictions. 42 years inside... Frank was quaffing beers with Charlie Kray while the twins were still in primary school."

Frank: the fabled non-medicinal 'dentist', the Richardson's panjandrum of pain ('Frank joining the Richardsons was like China getting the atom bomb'), the torture gardener, the legend who took a full barrel in the temple outside Farringdon's Turnmills ... and lived (an insider police job, insists FF).

FranK: the King of N1, man, the king of N1 "I speak with a great deal of experience when I say that life is sometimes very hard."

Meanwhile, at the grease kayfs up East...

Pellicci's in Bethnal Green: a stepdown Vitrolite gangland oasis teeming with beefy heavies from the old Kray-of-sunshine-days, all overcoats and knee-capped nostalgia amongst the lacquer panel walls and warm steam fug.

Pellicci's is also a haunt of cafe enthusiast and noted virtual villain Steven Berkoff. Vallance Road (Kray Street) - mecca of English method-'heavy' - is just round the corner. The lock, the stock and the full smoking barrel.

Which filmic lie-dream points us to the old Soho teams...


After all the gem dealer rubber-necking and mobster nostalgia head West - the bohemia of Dan Farson's pleasure. The 'Soho In The 50s' heritage trial, where the ghosts of Terence Stamp, Michael Caine, Francis Bacon and Colin Wilson can still be glimpsed. Roll up, roll up for the New Piccadilly, Bar Bruno, 101 Snack Bar; not forgetting those still-standing Italianate treasures, the red-boothed Pollo, the espresso-brown Centrale, the cabin-shack Cappuccetto... A London Left Bank pop culture once flourished here. Today though, the old caffs curl up and pass on. Lost causes. A London nobody wants to know. Inexorably, the peripheriques of Soho become boutique hotel zones, loft-fodder where prefab, lifestyle coffee bars replicate to order. Soho no mo'. Little Tyneside. Clonetown.

But now a new generation is paying belated respects...

Alfred (RIP) in New Oxford St: fitted out completely in the sensurround-Formica style of a working men's cafe... Stanley's in Little Portland St (by Alfred designer, Quentin Reynolds): a massive scarlet banquette pile-up of Brit motorway cafe meets LA lounge...

And, most notably, the S&M Restaurant (formerly Alfredo's): founded and run by the DeRitus family at the turn of the century (with Deco styling dating from 1920), the S&M restoration is a real indigenous attempt to face-off the US chains.

Kevin Finch, head of S&M restaurants, says: "With the new caffs I'm doing, the building, the fabric is as vital as the food. Proper tables, authentic light fittings. I want to replicate what Alfredo's was, what it meant."

A restoration. Resurgam. A rekindling of 'proper' cafe culture that is actually distinct from demographics, Third Space branding and lifestyle force-feeding. A valediction in Formica.


- Secret City: Phil Baker

- What.Is.Psychogeography

- Psychogeography.Org.UK

- Psychogeography.Net


Iain Sinclair: photo-montage Alfredo's N1 2000

Iain Sinclair: Fortean Times June 2001

Psychogeography is now an idea that many more people will be familiar with than they were even five years ago. How do you feel about your involvement with it?

In its classic sense I don't think I had anything to do with it. But the whole term has been dusted down and reinvented and re-used by people like Stewart Home and The London Psychogeographical Association. There was a kind of strategy to this rebranding, I was quite happy to run with it as a franchise, as a way of talking about doing the things I'd always done and providing a useful description that could be discussed in public. It became a bit of a monster on the back of that.

Do you remember when the word itself began to creep into your work?
I don't know, certainly by Lights Out For the Territory, I think it may have started coming in earlier, then out again.

Were you ever interested in the Situationists or Lettrists?
In passing, certainly, and I read about them as it was going on in the '60s. But it never particularly obsessed me. I was more interested in Louis Aragon, the Surrealist dérive and all of that. I liked the notion of it, but it wasn't exactly what I was doing. I liked their notion of finding strange parks at the edge of the city, of creating a walk that would allow you to enter into a fiction, which again sounds like Arthur Machen to me. By the time I was using the term it was more like a psychotic geographer! It was much less philosophically subtle than some of the previous attempts, more of a raging bull journey against the energies of the city.

How influenced were you by the Earth Mysteries school, popularised particularly by John Michell in the '60s?
Ley lines and all of that was much more part of the project for me all the time. My book Ludd Heat was totally ley line orientated. Although I was reading John Michell, it was more to do with EO (Elizabeth) Gordon's Prehistoric London. I found that book around that time and saw that, although it was written by a nutty Christian, it gave you a series of metaphors you could use about the linking of sites in the London landscape. Once you saw it in that way, you could see how all the Hawksmoor churches linked up to give you all those paths and energies. From that everything else derived.

John Michell's ideas are theoretically based in sacred geometry and Platonism, whereas the other side of it is more do to with quite random and extraordinary things like walking shapes or words or symbols into the map. Bill Drummond walked his own name across London and found himself finishing up outside a gallery where there was this image that he goes in and buys, of somewhere in Iceland. But these impulses are nothing to do with eternal verities or sacred notions of place and space.

Stewart Home says that the LPA deliberately mystified and irrationalised their psychogeograhical ideas in order to prevent them from being academicised in the future. But they inevitably will be because Stewart himself is a sort of rogue academic, so it's self-contradictory in some ways. By doing it, it becomes part of this machinery in talks and interviews. The franchise rolls on for future generations.

The density of information to be gathered from these lines in a city must be far greater than in the countryside.
In the city you are nominating song lines as a way of simplifying the story. If you only keep to one path, you've got a certain amount of material, but if you just go anywhere, you're completely swamped, lost. It's a good way of imposing a structure on the chaos. I do feel that as you walk, certain ways do link and put you into certain narratives. Funnily enough, the site where Llandor's Tower starts is where Alfred Watkins had his original vision, though I wasn't aware of this at the time. I'd picked it for other reasons to do with Kilvert and a particular quoit up there. It was only going back to Watkins that I realised where it was.

How do you think ideas of sacred space apply to cities today?
Well it's certainly applied to any city I've known - it has to. Over periods of time, by repetition or by design. Things that work survive, and things that don't won't.

You must have seen a lot of change having lived in this same spot for so long, almost 30 years.
There are definite advantages to staying in the same spot for long periods of time. Partly you accrue information in a very slow, natural way, and partly you can see how the city breathes and changes. There's no way of being disturbed just by novelty. There's a Steiner notion where kids are read the same stories every day, and I know people who take exactly the same walk every day of their lives. That does work, there's a real flash that comes off that. I think that's what I've done by accident here.

However, I've been less comfortable of late here than ever before. Things are boiling up quite fiercely from this random patchwork of gentrification. As one part gets nicer, so the surrounding bits will become more ferocious. Now those contradictions are starting to bite in a serious way. The latest fright sheet that came through from the council says that car crime involves cars being loaded onto lorries and taken away. There were people being arrested on our square doing crack deals, there've been stabbings -if you'd read all this a few years back you'd think they were describing New York. Superficially it's quite calm, but there have been maybe ten or twelve killings here just lately, and they hardly register.

There's ordinary, everyday things too, like the post hardly operates any more, it's completely random whether you get it or not - everything is quietly breaking down. Movement around the city through public transport is impossible. That's one of the reasons I began walking everywhere, because it was quicker!

Is this because, with the increasing gentrification of the area inherent systems have been disturbed?
The systems seem to have survived in their own way for a long time. It all went very slowly; as one lot of people moved out, others would move in and it worked. But now it's speeding up and the system can't cope with the level of despair and anguish of people who are placed here and don't know where they are. The battles between the various groups are becoming fiercer also. I think there's going to be an eruption - we're due one, any day now.

There aren't many people still here from when we moved in. This strip was originally all indigenous, white cockney East End families, who'd been here a long time. This house had grand parents living upstairs, other family members downstairs, all tiny rooms. There was a tin bath and a lavatory outside, and there was a good bath house down the road which has just closed down.

As these people died off, mainly middle class newcomers moved in. they'd then move out, often when they had children, like Tony Blair, who lived across the road here then moved to Islington because he didn't want to put his kids into Hackney schools. So there's this constant migration. There's only one family here from when we first moved in. There was a gradual shift to places like Cheshunt, Cab driver territory, people who wanted to escape from black faces.

Wasn't there quite a big migration in the '70s out to Hay on Wye?
That was part of the original impulse of Llandor's Tower. When I first lived here there was a commune of fairly impoverished bohemian hippies living right here because the houses were so cheap. Several of them would live in each house. But they all left in the '70s to go to various places in the country. I couldn't see how it would be possible to live out there - maybe for a week or two. Some of them went and stayed and it proved to be incredibly difficult. You can't live there. It's not viable.

Most of the people I've known and worked with around here have gone, for various reasons. But I think I'll stick here to the death, but who knows. Suddenly it seems that these house are worth huge amounts of money - theoretically, if I couldn't get published I could sell up and get a cottage somewhere. In Wales!


Classic Cafes | Britannia Moribundia

Classic Cafes | Iain Sinclair interview

Classic Cafes | Quentin Reynolds interview

Classic Cafes | Mr Burkeman interview

Classic Cafes | Pellicci interview [ES magazine]

Classic Cafes | Lorenzo Marioni interview

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