Belfast Telegraph

Coffee fiends, it's time to wake up and smell the tea

By Mike Gilson

I spotted her in the new Marks & Spencers on the Lisburn Road. They've built a new swanky store where the old Co-op used to be. Amid the rest of us late-night, ready-meal hunters, with one hand she was distractedly popping shiny goodies into a basket slung over her arm.

But in the other she was carrying, and occasionally sipping from, a pint-sized cardboard cup of coffee as she walked the aisles. The new store has a cafe, you see, which primarily sells the aforementioned hot beverage. And so, like Japanese knotweed, the forward march of coffee reaches another front in its ongoing war to caffeinate us all.

You can drink it and shop at the same time. There are now few places where it can't get us, this thermonuclear, often tasteless, always too expensive, drink.

Any clear space we thought we had to ponder, perform everyday functions, or just walk and observe, has now been filled with enticements to scald the roof of our mouths by sucking up liquid through a tiny plastic hole in an oversized container.

Watch people walk down the road oblivious to oncoming lamp-posts and holes in the pavement, straining to focus, cross-eyed, on that little slit in the cup.

See women in the hair salons using the 30 minutes in the chair to top up their caffeine quota, watch people staring vacantly out of the hundreds of coffee shops that now hold our high streets together, alternatively supping brown liquid and chewing on sawdust flapjacks and observe the social rituals that are the management of the workplace coffee run.

There was less planning for the D-Day landings than there is for many of these office rituals. Yup, we're all at it. Incidentally, what happens when our high streets are full of just coffee shops?

Will they implode in a puff of smoke when the only reason to come to town is coffee rather than coffee being a reward after a hard day's shopping?

That one's for the philosophers, or quantum physicians. It's too big a question for this column. But coffee-fuelled shopping at M&S isn't the worst of it, my friends. That has to be petrol station coffee.

You know what I'm talking about. They actually call them drinks stations, do the copywriters, who would twist our language out of all recognition. And they give these 'stations' exotic names like Happy Bean Safari to cover up the fact that we're talking about a vending machine.

In England, every motorway service station has them. And they work. In the old days, you stopped off the highway for petrol and a packet of Maynard's Wine Gums. That's all you needed.

Now the queue to pay for your fuel snakes around the shop full of people buying trays of coffee and croissants, it being at least 40 minutes since they left home and their last brew.

I heard comedian Miles Jupp talk of this the other day. What, he asked, could be more insane, short of plugging a deep fat fryer into your cigarette lighter socket, than hurtling up the dual carriageway with six cubic litres of boiling brown sludge in your drinks holder?

He's right, of course, but the truth is we are sipping, scalding and adrenaline-rushing without thinking. We should actually applaud the coffee marketers. This mass medication of the population has been cleverly done.

As with all great consumer wheezes, convincing us, the gullible masses, that we have something missing in our lives (see previous columns on smartphones) is really not as easy as it seems.

Sure, it helps that we have actually acquiesced in our own addiction to caffeine. But it takes some doing to have us drink Olympic-sized swimming pools of the stuff a month and not worry that, for the price, we could have afforded a week in the Med instead.

Me, I'm starting a fightback. At 3pm every day, I'm going to get the best bone china out and bring out the PG Tips pyramid bags (trademark protected) and dunk in a nice Rich Tea.

It'll be the first step of the rehabilitation programme.

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