The return of leftwing cafe culture

Two London cafes are reviving the art of coffee and political debate that hasn't been seen in Britain since the 18th century

On the wall of the new Firebox Cafe in Bloomsbury, north London, there's a poster that reads: "March with the Miners". Orwell stands on the bookshelf. In the corner sits the moustachioed leftwinger John Rees, and across from him there's a chap from Occupy London. Behind the counter, activist Clare Solomon serves hot drinks with names such as the Greek frappe, the Agitator, and the Molotov Mocktail. Starbucks this is not.

What Firebox may instead be (or at least what it has been called) is a return to the lefty cafe culture of postwar Paris. Apart from Soho's Partisan Coffee House in the 50s, such places haven't really thrived in Britain since the 17th and 18th centuries, when the likes of Samuels Pepys and Johnson would gather for the Georgian equivalent of a ding-dong on 4Chan. "Firebox seeks to become a place for debate and organisation," says Solomon, one of the leaders of the 2010 student movement, "at a time when the left badly needs to amplify a socialist message."

It's not alone, either. A few miles south is the Cuts Cafe, set up by UK Uncut-types to foster face-to-face debate about protest and capitalism in the runup to last Saturday's TUC demonstration. Another group wants to open a hangout on the Strand.

I visited the cafes last week, in an attempt to gauge their chat-to-caffeine ratio. The Cuts Cafe, it turns out, is more of a friendly meeting place than a coffee house. It's a derelict bank without any running water, and only recently taken over by its current occupants – and inspired by recent London squats such as the School of Ideas. "We've had people come in and ask for cappuccino," smiles Holly Rigby, a regular. "But we're not that sort of cafe." Yet the place still channels the spirit of the old-school coffee house: in the old bank manager's office, 15 teachers, teaching assistants, professors and undergraduates huddle in a circle and argue about how to radicalise secondary education. "I'm interested in trying to challenge the conservative curriculum at my school – without getting sacked," explains a teacher in a suit. "I fucking hate academies," says a student in a keffiyeh.

Next door, in a room where NatWest customers were perhaps once sold their mortgages, 30-odd lefties – some still in their suits from work, one or two in wheelchairs – discuss "Plan C": the alternative to both capitalism and its Keynesian solutions. In the corner, someone's three-year-old watches Fantastic Mr Fox on a laptop while their dad explains that austerity is the logical conclusion of neoliberalism. It's less coffee, more conversation.

Up at Firebox, which is a proper cafe, mocha is made with nutella – quite nice, actually – and the debate stems from a talk about Venezuelan food sovereignty. Other events involve the Guardian's own Seumas Milne, Tony Benn and Lindsey German from Stop the War, while every Saturday lunchtime there will be an informal chat on the matters of the moment. "It's aimed at a different audience," says the Cuts Cafe's Rigby, who is well placed to comment: she also shifts at Firebox. "We [the Cuts Cafe] haven't really got any big names. It's aimed at community involvement rather than people who are already well-known."

In fact, the two cafes – politically speaking – come from slightly different places. The Cuts Cafe is non-hierarchical and temporary. Firebox, though open to all comers, is funded by Counterfire (a group that splintered from the Socialist Workers' party) and is here for the long haul. "We don't think that 'reclaimed space' can last long in a capitalist economy so we are linking our project to an organisation so that it can be sustained both financially and politically," says Solomon, who nevertheless stresses her support for her south London counterparts.

Outside Firebox, a little sign politely ponders: "Best cappuccino in London?" The jury's out on that one. But best chat? It beats Starbucks, any day.

• This article was amended on 22 October 2012. The Firebox Cafe is in Bloomsbury, rather than Somers Town, as originally stated. Also, the phrase "18th century" was amended to "17th and 18th centuries".


Patrick Kingsley

The GuardianTramp

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