London can be a lonely place. Never more so than on a cold morning, as you make your way to work through a haze of fog and second-hand vape smoke, passing the many chalkboards, propped up outside bars and cafés, which litter these cold, hard streets. We may lack friends to turn to for laughs and inspiration, but at least we can find joy in these hastily scrawled messages – with their crude poems, their promises that coffee will cure life's ills and their jokes about our functioning alcoholism.
But where there is potential for joy, there is also potential for offence. Step forward Brick Lane Coffee, which last week placed a sign outside its door stating: ‘Sorry No Uggs (Slag Wellies)’. Who knows what questionable methodology was used to draw this correlation between fur-lined footwear and sexual promiscuity. Leaving that aside, it’s difficult to imagine where this blend of casual misogyny and class snobbery might go down well. It certainly wasn’t Shoreditch, and an inevitable Twitterstorm followed. Things didn’t get better when Brick Lane Coffee’s sister cafe, the sensitively named Fuckoffee, began arguing with anyone who dared point out that the joke wasn't actually that funny.
This is what happens when you start to see coffee shops like people. Because, never forget, people can be dicks. There was a time when to find this kind of humour, the kind that would be rejected by Dapper Laughs, you had to head down to the Comedy Café on open mic night. Or visit the Facebook profile of an old school mate who shares posts from Britain First. But you can choose not to go to the Comedy Café. You can de-friend that old mate on Facebook (you should do that). But Brick Lane Coffee is the kind of person you can’t avoid, because they’re shouting at you in the street.
Imagine the delight of the first café manager who realised that the humble chalkboard was no mere advertising platform, but a vessel for their humorous takes on urban life. That same café manager has presumably long since crumbled under the pressure of managing a thousand social media accounts and the need to inject their daily chalkboard epigrams with just the right balance of edginess and mass appeal. The same blank slate which was at first an opportunity became a cold dark void which slowly but surely sapped his or her soul.
Why do we demand that our drinking establishments show off their personality? It’s not enough for a coffee shop to serve good drinks, they must come with a side of banter and a sprinkling of innuendo. This is the world we’ve created. We did this, with our ludicrous demands that coffee shops be more than just dispensaries of hot beverages. That everything be injected with ‘personality’. That we’re constantly reassured that we’re popular and the centre of attention. That people – even shops – want to be our mate and chat to us in the street. Now is the time to to admit we were wrong. A coffee shop is not a place to find ‘banter’. It’s just a place to buy coffee.