I am sitting in the Madeira café listening in on a conversation between three building workers. One is telling the other two Eastern European looking blokes, in a voice destined to be overheard, a scattered but selectively plausible version of the history of Ethiopia. Proud of his African roots, the guy insists that Ethiopia is the source of all civilisation and everything ‘the Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Buddhist and Krishnas all came from Africa, were taught by Africans’. This not necessarily inaccurate extravagance is mitigated on the one hand by the argument that all European civilisation is really a history of theft and murder, all so-called great Europeans, explorers or adventurers, were murderers. He asks ‘which hero of Europe is a hero for doing something good, not evil, not really a killer or a thief, and – curious – he mentions Australia as an example, that from the beginning Australia was discovered and run by thieves and criminals. Can’t argue with that, given the current administration. On the other hand he ends with claims that it was the Jews that engineered world war two and profited from it, coming out of it in control of the banks and Hollywood. ‘Their leaders of course, not your average Jew’. This may be to neglect that along with the 6 million Jewish dead there were how many other millions of communist, homosexual, Ukrainian and Russian dead, but its no surprise that a haphazard history gets some things wrong and others right.
They stand up to leave, the guy who was speaking so loud then self-consciously looks around the café for recognition – he was giving a kind of speech, a strange mode of party political broadcast, fully aware of an uninvited eavesdropping audience. I am part of this, but there is no need or expectation of response. Madly, the next loudest person in the café, whose voice interrupts my newspaper a few minutes later, is a South African white bloke named James, telling two black friends that if he was George Bush he would attack Iran on Christmas Eve and call the operation the Christmas Offensive. He is not joking. And he does want to provoke a reaction. He is more studiously ignored.
I come here every Saturday morning. The coffee is Ok and the eggs well scrambled. The Polish waitress tired but flirtatious, the heating on high. Warm in winter, relaxed in summer, the Madeira is a weird slice of democracy and debate. Groups of inner urban communal youth assemble for late brunches, and motorcycle riders – not bikers, more middle class racing bike types – have made it their regular, and they spend too much time arranging meetings on their mobile phones. It’s a short work from my flat near the tube station. Today was the last time for this year. I think of the coffee scene in ‘One or Two Things I Know About Her’.