Real meals: Costa Coffee

How to describe it? How to articulate the effect provoked in me by these artfully aligned and textured surfaces? The task is worthy of Henry James or Wallace Stevens – some master of the intersection between social velleities and individual desires; but alas, there’s only me, and as usual I’m off my tit-shaped head on caffeine, and so barely equal to the task.

Still, here goes: there is herringbone-patterned woodblock, yes, and it’s on the floor, uh-huh. Then there’s some aluminium trim and after this what looks like slate tiling; the walls are whitewashed brick on two sides; on the third, the brick is bare. And the fourth wall? Well, no Brecht or Beckett could be as creative with a fourth wall, oh no. It appears to have been assembled out of at least four kinds of wood, chopped up and assembled into a colossal Jenga-style barrier. I am awed by this fourth wall – awed. If it weren’t for the cod-Matisse images, I might altogether forget that I’m in a branch of Britain’s largest chain coffee shop.

There were 1,375 of these outlets as of 2011 – and given their viral rate of increase, it seems likely there are at least 1,500 by now. Somehow, beating Starbucks to become market leader seems to have given the Whitbread-owned chain a huge central nervous system stimulus; one you can witness spreading in neuronal sparks to its extremities as you carom down any urban artery throughout the British Isles: leapfrogging over one another to take this corner, or that intersection, are branches of Tesco Express and Costa. Yes, Costa is our subject – and it doesn’t get realer than this. So ubiquitous has Costa become that I feel enchained – my wrists manacled by its ridged paper cups, I hobble along the pavement, while anxiety over potential mocha-spillage fetters my ankles. And what do I see if I look up from this, the halting hobble of late capitalism? Why, the brown gaze of another minatory Costa, its slit-bean-for-an-eye staring at me with a steeliness that would gladden any panopticon-building Benthamite.

Actually, there’s a certain grotesque symmetry to the Costa surge: the first retail Costa was opened a mere 35 years ago in Vauxhall Bridge Road, not far from my house (and hard by the site of the Millbank prison; a panopticon, natch). Now it hardly matters how far I roam, I’m sure to find a Costa there waiting for me. At the university where I teach, on the outskirts of London, there’s a Costa franchise café; it’s not a Costa proper, but instead there’s a sign behind the counter that announces “Proud to Serve Costa Coffee”. A curious pride, I always think – after all, it’s not as if I couldn’t pick up a Costa coffee nearby; there’s a Costa Express vending outlet in the garage halfway between the station and the campus. And at this rate of market-penetration I’ll probably soon be encountering ambulatory Costa sellers – like water-sellers in the Sahel – who will offer to dispense a cup for me from the heated tank on their backs, and then stamp my loyalty card.

I often have lunch in the Costa clone at the university. I munch the Caesar salad with its risible “chicken”, followed by a gluten-free chocolate brownie (have I mentioned that I’m fashionably wheat-intolerant?) washed down with a triple-shot soy mocha. Are they any good, these comestibles? Does it matter? It seems to me that the Costa phenomenon is of a piece with the Googlisation of all modern culture: to drink a Costa coffee is to subject oneself to an algorithm of taste, rather to exercise discrimination in any meaningful way. The sponsorship of a literary prize is of a piece with this: palmed off on the chain by Daddy Whitbread, the Costa prize jury functions in exactly the same way as a search engine: picking out the books that other prize juries have already picked out, so that the bland end up promoting the blander.

This is why the Costa branch described at the capital of this column seemed so delusory to me in its ornament; sited on Brixton High Street, it’s easily the spivviest one I’ve ever supped in. And what’s that about? Brixton is undergoing a phase of retail gentrification, with trestle tables piled high with ackee and pigs’ feet ceding ground to young lifestyle peddlers with asymmetric haircuts. You don’t need to be paranoid to see the invasion of this body-snatching coffee shop as the advance guard of a surgical strike on the area’s authentic personality – a lukewarmotomy, if you will. I make no apology for this execrable pun – after all, that’s the Costa of living nowadays.