Real conversation brought to the table

Image of Harry Eyres

Everyone I know seems increasingly busy. Not only are we too busy to meet, we are most of the time too busy even to talk. Contact with some friends has become limited to text messages expressing a desire “to speak some time soon”.

The bunch who used to meet up regularly on Thursday evenings to play tennis and then eat tapas and drink albariño at Galicia restaurant in Portobello Road has fragmented. One has moved north, but even the three of us who still live in London have been unable to keep up this ritual with its agreeable balance of the physical, the convivial and, above all, the conversational.

Perhaps we are just exemplifying new trends, in which physical proximity, friendship and conversation have been replaced by their virtual equivalents. But don’t try telling me that conversation on a mobile phone is really conversation; at its best or most useful it can approximate to crisis management; at its worst it is simply inanity. I recently rang the friend who has migrated north on the landline; we both agreed that this felt both quaint, almost archaic, and far better than speaking on the mobile (an activity that is usually squeezed into time that is not really there).

Facebook has its charms – I especially like the photographs my old acquaintance Jim Parton posts charting the restoration of his manor house in Poland, complete with bats on the washing line, a broken-down Bentley, Chopin in the ballroom – but Facebook chats, which can start promisingly enough, are destined to peter out after a few sentences. The second law of thermodynamics applies much more sternly, it seems to me, to new social media than to the old kind.

The real conversations I like, possibly the greatest of all human gifts and joys, even seem to reverse entropy. The energy of the universe may be running down inexorably, the Earth heading towards its inevitable dissolution, our own lives set on their irreversible course towards the dark river; but on a good evening, with the wine flowing and the tapas sizzling, conversation can take wing and ideas buzz and ribaldry bursts its sides.

This kind of conversation is open-ended. We don’t go to Galicia with an agenda – in fact we might go there to escape agendas. The conversation may lead anywhere, to the question of who made a pass at whom a long time ago, and in what circumstances, possibly embarrassing then but comical now; or why someone took religious orders, or gave them up. Plans can be hatched, to go on holidays, write plays or found communes.

Conversation à quatre can be sparky and unpredictable, rather like tennis doubles, with unexpected interceptions and exchanges at close quarters; and sometimes the danger of two of the four getting into a protracted rally while the other two stand idly by, twiddling their racquets. I suppose conversations à deux, at their best, go deeper, when there is mutual desire and energy to explore, and ramble.

But now that all my friends are so busy and consumed by childcare, where am I to go for my open-ended conversations? Fortunately I have one solution: my favourite table at my favourite café (I am not going to tell you its name, but I can reveal that it is not all that far from the FT’s offices, in the part of London famous in Shakespeare’s time for theatres, brothels and bull-baiting). This table seems to have magic properties. It is fairly long and narrow, long enough for perhaps five people to sit on each side, and narrow enough for conversation to carry easily across. But that is not exceptional. What is truly remarkable is that this table encourages complete strangers to talk to each other – not just talk, but engage in sometimes quite interesting and intense conversations, no doubt aided and inspired by the excellent quality of the coffee.

I should mention that this table, and the chairs around it, have a slightly rough and ready feel; the table is made of pine, unvarnished, with visible knots and imperfections; the chairs are not a matched set but might have been picked up at a charity auction; there are also the basket of bread, slab of butter and carousel of homemade jams that sit in the middle and cannot be commandeered as the sole property of anyone. Perhaps we exist among so many sleek and sterile surfaces that just a hint of roughness and untidiness acts like the saving grit in the oyster.

My favourite café table has affinities with the fine Germanic institution of the Stammtisch, and the Spanish tertulia: both tables where regulars gather for conversation at a certain time every day or every week. The regularity of those institutions must be reassuring, but could, in the end, I suppose, be deadening.

The essence of my café table conversations is spontaneity. In that I believe we are reaching back towards the origins of western culture, towards the far-reaching conversations that Plato tried to capture in his dialogues, and which he identified with true philosophy.

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