Friday, April 27, 2007



When I stumbled upon the disused café, I thought it was anything but.

The building seemed full of life; the air sounded with jiving ghosts from the fifties when the place was a milk bar; the walls only needed a lick of paint to bring them back to life. My wife needed a similar lick of paint, too, but priorities were to earn a living from property development, hopefully with a TV show following our efforts at renovation work, useful as a spur to progress as well as a fateful backhander by means of a fee. My wife would only be able to afford her mud-packs, toning-up weekends and mental sessions with an expensive shrink as soon as a real income was rolling in from the new property development. She had to get stuck in, too, meanwhile. No point in manicured nails when she had to spend the day sandpapering.

It was a disused café, however. The deeds told a million stories ... of its past, its period as a middle-class restaurant during the war years when they served three-course meals quite reasonably but only for people with manners. How they kept the riffraff out remained a mystery. However, it soon went to seed, before being revived as a milk bar with a juke box, then more latterly, a café with an eye on the passing lorry trade, then a café with posher pretensions but with no fail-safe method of deterring the everpresent onset of the riffraff again, then final dereliction as an empty shopfront always being bill-posted, and that was when me and my wife stepped in. We were riffraff ourselves, of course. But we had pretensions to property-owning grandeur following a reasonable lottery win scooping us from the gutter.

I was now unsure about the TV show. There was only a single camera that followed us round. We had effectively given up hope of proper sponsorship by a major ‘peeping tom’ outfit wanting to sneak glimpses into our business trials and tribulations for eventual broadcast to the world, revealing our innermost marital quarrels over the building project and how it affected the rest of our lives; but there was, however, this little guy with a shoulder shoot who did turn up on the first day of our building work; we assumed he was starting out himself in business as a TV programme creator, surely hoping to see the finished reels ending up in the hands of a big Channel 4 producer. So we turned a blind eye to him. We just allowed him in on most things, short of personal ablutions. We got used to his presence shadowing us with his whirring lenses, a sort of visionary overview becoming such a regular feature of our lives that he almost melted into the background. Forgotten, if pervasive. A cameraman we called Sam.

My wife did at first try to hold a conversation with Sam. But he was rather taciturn and we were really too busy to pay him much attention. We could have asked him what he did for a living if that was not already obvious. The circumstances of his sole purpose obviously being to film our actions on a day-to-day basis indeed cancelled out any opportunity for small talk other than the rather stylised interviews-to-camera that he arranged. I called them ‘interviews’, but it was rather Sam simply pointing the lens at us and letting us talk, spilling all our dreams, fears, setbacks, rages (with the project itself and with each other), even eliciting from us (by his silence) several gratuitous comments on current affairs and our taste in contemporary entertainment. Perhaps we were eventually to be shown on other light TV programmes unconnected with building projects.

We started to suspect that Sam wasn’t all that he seemed when, one day, he started pointing his camera obsessively towards the top corner of what had become our main showroom.

“What are you actually renovating this place for?” he suddenly asked, as if thinking he had now spotted our first attempts at stocking the place with goods to sell.

I stopped the hammer in mid-air; my wife halted sandpapering in mid-scrape. We had automatically assumed he must have known. Even a half-hearted pre-research or a cursory glance at our video diaries would have told him at least what our business plan happened to be. And how could we have ignored such ignorance when we knew full well that we were indeed renovating the disused café to ... well, wasn’t it obvious...?

I scratched my head in my own form of mid-scrape. My wife went into one of her famous televisual rages....

A clothes shop for riffraff. That was it. Boiler suits. Shell suits. Dungarees. Cheap tracksuits. Hand-me-downs. Nearly New garments. Seconds. Run-ups. Ready-mades. They were all the rage. Rail upon rail of hangers simply waiting for their own dressed ghosts swinging to the earth’s daily spin. Doing the empty hand-jive.

Sam’s own lenses continued to spin as we returned to the job in hand. Soon be time for a coffee break from the steaming percolator. Meanwhile, just the gentle scrape-scrape of wall against wall. A café society of ghosts re-living the high days of a Lyons Corner House or posh restaurant accompanied by palm court violins in mute bowing.

I don't know when I first realised it. None of us riffraff were there, of course. It was almsot as if I were a figment of the medium in which I was being filmed. A TV portrait of a TV portrait. A fabrikation of a fabrikation. My wife and I were merely temporary stuffing in a concoction of the future that the past had prematurely programmed for any rogue historians or history-makers (watching out for the onset of a peak viewing time) to wrap around costly commercials. But these thoughts of my own non-existence as riffraff (or as a diary-reporter of riffraff masquerading as riffraff) were only premonitions of what once might have been, given the ability to film it for wider audiences than just a backstreet cinema in wartime London. Or for examination by modern shrinks who got rich from doing 'mental sessions' on TV even before TV was invented.

Meanwhile, Sam peeps on.

Another cafe story written today (13/5/07):


Saturday, April 14, 2007

A Work Of Art