The Coffee House: A Cultural History by Markman Ellis

Living in the modern world, it’s hard to imagine a time when people didn’t start the day with coffee or that we didn’t consider meeting someone in a café or inviting them over for a cuppa one of the sweetest of leisure time activities. Yet, until travellers explored the Ottoman Empire and encountered the Coffa-Houses in Constantinople, and trade between nations flourished during the Renaissance, coffee was unknown in the western world.

1364758In his book, The Coffee House: A Cultural History, Markman Ellis, does a magnificent job of following the journey of the humble coffee bean, briefly from its growth and cultivation to its fascinating arrival as a drink that signified both civility and sociability across different cultures, but with particular emphasis on England and London during the 1600s.

Described as the “wine of Islam”, coffee drinking, and the various rituals associated with it, were soon embraced by first, traders and merchants (which encountered the bitter drink that was “black as soot” on their adventures) and then by the folk of London, curious for the new experiences and products shipping companies like the Levant and East India brought to their thriving capital.

It was through the establishment of Coffee-Houses, the first a small stall run by a Greek man named Pasqua Rosee, that proved this black, apparently medicinal drink, was a serious rival to ale, beer and wine that English men and women imbibed so freely. Coffee-Houses (of which there were over 80 by 1663) provided men (they were very much masculine “clubs”, though women might serve – and in various ways) with spaces to read the latest news, exchange information about trade and shipping and catch up on all the latest gossip. They were also places were new inventions were often discussed, auctions held, writers and musicians could demonstrate their latest compositions and, most importantly, political views could be aired.

Developing a reputation as centres of sedition, there were attempts to close them down and control the licensing of the venues. It’s indicative of the significant role these places had in Englishmen’s lives that these efforts were not only resisted, but regarded as attacks on the right to freedom of speech as well.

Contrasting with the drunken atmosphere of taverns, Coffee-Houses were renown for their sobriety and thus the kind of clientele they attracted – men of learning or those who wanted to learn (they were later referred to as “penny universities”). They also became important locations for those wanting to reinforce and make social and professional connections. Samuel Pepys, for instance, understanding the role the Coffee-House could play in furthering his own career, quickly abandoned the tavern for the coffee-house and the more useful people he might meet behind their doors.

Egalitarian in nature, Coffee-Houses didn’t stand on formality and, providing a person could pay the charge, he had to sit in the next available seat and engage with whoever he happened to be seated next to.

As time went on, Coffee-Houses became even more numerous, grander in their interiors, offered their clientele more by way of news and spaces to engage freely in debate and even did their utmost to attract particular trades and professions. It’s from the Coffee-House that Lloyd’s of London, for example, was born, along with other well-known institutions – and not only in England – Florians in Venice also started as a Coffee-House.

Filled to the brim with wonderful anecdotes and interesting facts about coffee, those who drank it, ran the coffee-houses and traded in the commodity, Ellis’s book also catapults us into the present and the changing social role of coffee, cafes and drinkers, including information on large coffee-based corporations such as Starbucks.

It was the historical and cultural aspects that I found most compelling. Ellis writes in such a readable way, and with a light touch, that only enhances his meticulous research and makes this book so insightful.

A must-read for lovers of coffee, history and those who simple enjoy learning more about how what was once a luxury commodity became not only ubiquitous but part of so many people’s daily rituals.

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Book Review: The Tournament by Matthew Reilly

When I first started reading Matthew Reilly’s, The Tournament, I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, despite the fact it ticked so many interesting fiction boxes. First, it was historicaThe Tournamentl fiction, which I adore.  Second, it was set during the reign of Henry VIII – another positive. Third, it featured a young Elizabeth and her famous tutor, Roger Ascham, so was set on the margins of a period I’ve been researching in depth for over a year now. Lastly, a great deal of the action takes place in Constantinople – modern day Istanbul, a city I loved when I was lucky enough to visit it two years ago.  All this was in the novel’s favour. What initially worked against it for me was the extraordinarily modern language of the characters (Henry VIII’s and other characters’ use of the “f” word and other familiar contemporary expletives for example), the fact that though it’s documented that Elizabeth, during her life and reign never went more than 100 miles from London, here she travels to Turkey. I also struggled with the way she was portrayed and her relationship with her father, never mind other characters in the story, which is very much at odds with the character historians and documented records portray. The historical leniency Reilly deployed, or rather, literary license he employed, in terms of clothing and places as well as modes of transport and inter-relationships, all really grated. I am not a purist by any means, but some of the scenes and characters  – their dialogue, ideas that just didn’t exist at the time or attitudes that were expressed that were so remote from the era almost had me putting the book down… except I didn’t. Not only did I really like the very original idea of this fictitious chess tournament run by a proud sultan with an axe or scimitar to grind with his foreign royal peers, and putting young Bess in its midst, but Reilly is such a great storyteller, even when I was grinding my teeth and reminding myself that this was a novel first and foremost and forget the history (which is, arguably, a work of fiction anyhow), I was turning the pages and wanting to know what happened. What a craftsman, I kept thinking, what a damn fine lexical craftsman. I forgot my peeves and peevishness and simply enjoyed.

Reilly’s fabulation – that 13-year-old Elizabeth Tudor and her sex-crazed companion (Elise?) accompany Roger Ascham and an English chess champion to Constantinople to compete in a “world” tournament, along with two prudish chaperones –  is a coming of age story for the future monarch (and in his Author’s Note, Reilly explains that a great deal of what unfolds is meant to provide psychological context to make sense of decisions Elizabeth makes when she becomes queen – eg, remaining a virgin), as well as a murder mystery.

Travelling to Constantinople poses its own dangers for the English group as they pass through villages, mountains and travel along unfamiliar roads, encountering friendship, hostility and a serious attempt to curtail their journey, but once in the city, the tension between rival religious and ethnic groups makes their trip to Constantinople seem like a walk in the bazaar. When bodies start appearing within the Topkapi Palace, Ascham is asked by the sultan to investigate and so, young Bess is exposed to a slice or slices (excuse the pun, which will become evident once you read the book) of life and a range of people that, with her privileged station, she might never have met.

Smart, assured, and usually one step ahead of the culprit, Ascham not only exposes a corrupt and decadent city and ruler, but finds himself in a race against time to find the killer before he or she claims more victims, including the one person he really cares about.

Fast-paced, able to balance action with more measured scenes and make chess fascinating even for non-players, Reilly has crafted an inventive and fun take on Tudor history. Far from putting it down, I was forever picking it up and ended up really enjoying this rollicking tale, even if it didn’t always satisfy my non-purist historical fiction desires. I give it 3.5 stars.  But sheesh, I give Reilly 4.5 for his fictive chutzpah. Wish I had it!


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