There are so many places to visit when in need of cheer but where can you go to be miserable with impunity, without some dratted soul – some clown or ballerina or jolly bingo caller or chuckling size-11-booted Santa-impersonator – going, “Tsk tsk tsk,” or “This won’t do,” and trying to turn round your mood?
Unwanted cheer is a dreadful social pollutant, second only to aggressive consolation. What a bore fun can be. When I used to work as a bereavement counsellor people used to come to me saying, “I can’t speak about any of this with friends. No one likes a misery,” and I sometimes almost told them, “Well, you have come to the right place, because I do.”
I used to go to a wonderful café in Swiss Cottage called Cosmo. The air was very heavy there. It was dimly lit, or so I recall. It was principally filled with men and women from Berlin and Vienna, and had been established in 1933, I believe, to provide a social sanctuary for the many refugees who were arriving in the area at that time. Other tables, in my day, were filled with the Hampstead anxious: assorted school refusers, semi-remorseful adulterers playing the waiting game, actors and artists unhappy with their progress, psychoanalysts gearing themselves up for (or recovering from) encounters with their patients, patients recovering from (or gearing themselves up for) encounters with their psychoanalysts. You did well to be heavy-hearted there. It was welcome. It was a kind of success, for it proved you were giving life its due respect. One could count one’s losses over an apple strudel. It was so comforting.
Standards were high at Cosmo. The room bristled with vertiginous IQs and wide reading. (Most of the people, it always seemed to me, had read most of the books.) I never had any money, so would eke out a pot of tea over an hour or two, requesting more hot water when I dared. I half-enjoyed envying the cake eaters around me. There would be time for buying cakes when I was older and richer, I thought.
Cosmo closed in the late 1990s. An Indian restaurant stands there now. This afternoon I received an invitation to the unveiling of a plaque to Cosmo on its former site, commemorating its heyday and services to the community of Jewish refugees. I think I’ll go.
Suddenly, wherever I roam, everyone is talking about Cosmo. A friend tells me she used to skip school and sit in a corner reading Georgette Heyer novels, their pale green covers hidden inside maths text books or an atlas, in case she should be judged a lightweight by the intellectual clientele.
Another friend tells me he used to go there regularly with his grandmother, as a child, when it was completely smoke-filled, totally German-speaking; everyone formally dressed, everyone with well-shined shoes. “It was a strange mixture of the exotic and the familiar,” he says. “Everyone was like my grandmother. It was the spiritual home of her folks, which made it feel cosy. She had been born in the Prussian empire at the turn of the century. But it also seemed so exotic. The Viennese sat on one side and the Berliners on another. She used to chat to the people at the other tables. I remember she could be quite critical of the Viennese. She described them as Schlagsahne – whipped cream. She thought the Viennese were fancy-pants, puffed up with florid courtesies.”
“A bit vulgar, even?”
I love whipped cream. About three times a week people tell me I have beautiful skin and ask what my secret is, and I always say I eat a lot of whipped cream. Not that it’s true.
“You must know that thing they used to say about the difference between Berlin and Vienna,” my friend continues. “They used to say that the situation in Berlin was always serious but never hopeless, and in Vienna it was always hopeless but never serious.”
With Berlin and Vienna in my background, what does that make me? Seriously hopeless? Uh-oh.
Another friend told me not only did the Viennese sit apart from the Berliners but, apparently, even the different districts of Vienna were delineated in the seating arrangements on the Viennese side of the restaurant.
Then, suddenly, I remembered the strangest thing: once an elderly gent took a shine to my mother and came over to our table and smiled and held out a business card to her that said: “Mr and Mrs Richard V Phillip,” only the “Mrs” was crossed out in blue biro and “RIP” was written in the space above. This is what passed for romance on the Finchley Road.
I do miss that place. There’s nowhere like it now.
More columns at ft.com/boyt
Letter in response to this article: