Fan of the cafe society

For Peter Beresford, town centre cafes are
places of peace and tranquillity and an escape from being

Recently I met someone who talked about the
“community care cases” who sit about in cafes passing the time.
Well, one of my greatest pleasures is sitting quietly in cafes,
thinking, people-watching – and sometimes working. I’m writing this
in a cafe now.

I’ve just exchanged smiles with a middle-aged
woman whom I had earlier seen taking her medication. Her legs shake
as if from the tardive dyskinesia associated with major
tranquillisers. But she looks OK with a cup of tea in front of her
and like me she’s just watching the world go by. I feel OK too. I
don’t know what it is about cafes, but for me they are places of
peace and tranquillity. Now a young woman without verbal
communication has sat down at the next table with her grandad.
They’ve waved to some friends outside and now they’re having a
laugh over their tea.

I think one of the few positive social and
cultural developments of recent years has been the mushrooming of
cafes in town centres. When I was young, the idea was to meet
people and make friends in pubs. It never worked for me. For me
(and many women I know too) they were often noisy, smoky and
aggressive places. But cafes are a different matter. I’ve had lots
of chats in cafes and I’ve made some good acquaintances too.

Maybe the pleasure is to do with the
associations with warmth and nourishment. Maybe it is being in
company with other people but without demands. There are pleasant
background cues – music, conversation, children’s laughter – not
enough to drown out your thoughts, but enough to escape the hostile
silence of being on your own. I think that’s important for me and
many others.

It’s both a reminder of and escape from those
times of being alone and lonely, stuck solitary within four walls
in some room or flat that can quickly feel no less of a prison or
institution than any formal setting. It’s somewhere to go, to be in
company, to structure your day, to look forward to. And, of course,
there are all the good things I haven’t yet mentioned – lovely cups
of hot tea, eggs and bacon, a nice cheese sandwich and maybe
sometimes even meat and two veg. I try not to be “classist” about
this. I’m as happy with a cappuccino bar as a traditional caff,
just so long as it’s warm and friendly.

In the years since I’ve been able to go out
again, cafes have been my day centres. I’m not keen personally on
“formal” day centres. I don’t really like places where one group
seems to be lumped together, separate from other people. But I know
other people who really do like them because they can be safe,
supportive, accepting and – especially important when you’re on
benefits or low income – cheap.

Last week I popped into one in Stowmarket in
Suffolk, the Old Fox, to meet another service user I am working
with, and just as she’d told me, it was cosy, relaxed and
welcoming. It’s a good feeling to have such havens when you need
them – whatever form they take. Time to stop now I think and get
another coffee.

Peter Beresford is professor of social policy,
Brunel University, and is actively involved in the psychiatric
system survivor movement.

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