Tuesday, 7 May 2013

On the Mic - Surrey Life - April 2013

Harris and Hoole have been good to me. I produced a radio discussion about them on LBC. They were the subject of my first report on BBC Radio 2's Jeremy Vine Show. They made for a nice little blog post on here, which got a few hits, because for a while, if you googled Harris and Hoole, it was in the top 10 results. It also made for a column in Surrey Life's April issue, which I can now re-publish (with a few tweaks) here. Enjoy, perhaps, over coffee.

The county is under attack. Just as HG Wells’ nineteenth-century Martians scrutinised and studied decent invasion sites near Woking, twenty-first century Surrey is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than our own. 

Stimulant-mongers. Corporate drug pushers. Coffee sellers.

As a recovering breakfast show presenter, my relationship with the bean is deeper and more complex than that of a ten year old boy with his first Panini football sticker collection. I know exactly how and when to deliver the precise amount of liquified granules to my system in order to ensure optimum performance and concentration levels at unholy hours of the day. 

But I know what I’m doing. I understand the risks. I’m a professional. What worries me is the creeping colonisation of our town centres by caffeinated drug dens, indiscriminately emptying their black gold into the veins of an unthinking populace.

At first coffee houses seem benign. Warm, welcoming and comfortable. But then more appear, and soon everyone is wandering about clutching giant cardboard beakers, yabbering incessantly with wide-eyed abandon. Enough is enough. Surrey is in the grip of an addiction. It’s time to to wake up and smell… er… no… hang on...

In my town, it's completely out of control. When I moved to Walton-on-Thames seven years ago, we had Starbucks, Caffe Nero and a couple of independents. Now we’ve also got a massive Costa, a Muffin Break (?!), three more independents and pretty much every pub and restaurant flogging the stuff. The local mini-Waitrose has even started selling takeaway cappuccinos, just in case anyone can’t finish their shopping and make it to the nearest dispensary without grabbing one for the road. 

Which brings us to the Tesco-funded Harris and Hoole. With a name like that on the shop-fitter’s boards I guessed, before it opened, a new chain of ambulance-chasing high street solicitors would be alighting in Walton. 

Then - bang! - without warning, another retail space full of comfy seats, intoxicating, steamy smells and funky but unobtrusive tunes appeared.

Excitingly, it’s from within this controversial new set-up your intrepid reporter is communicating with you now. I’m in the belly of the barista!

Like its competitors, Harris and Hoole make buying your drink a challenge. I asked for a medium-sized strong-ish coffee with hot milk. I swear this is the conversation that followed, verbatim:

“No, freshly brewed.”
“Our filter is freshly brewed.”
“Well I don’t want filter. I want it made through the machine - an Americano with hot milk.”
“Ah yes! An Americano. Well, actually it’s not an Americano here, it’s a Long Black.”
“A Long Black then.”
“What size would you like?”
“Medium.” [I already said that]
“And do you want the hot milk in it or on the side?”
“I don’t care.”
“Do you have a loyalty card?”
“Yes please”
“No - do you have one?”
“Do you want one?”
“Is this a test?”

Even after paying I wasn’t allowed my coffee. I was given a black plastic slab with red lights on and told not to return until the lights started flashing, which they did as soon as I sat down.

Don’t get me wrong. I quite like Harris and Hoole. All bare brick, wooden floors, free wifi and friendly smiles. I was going to mention I don’t really rate their coffee, but having hinted as much a couple of minutes ago to the lady clearing my table she has insisted I try two other different coffees for free. As a result I’m completely off my nut, unable to coherently enunciate my own name, let alone decide whether I’m ever coming back. 

Maybe a county full of coffee shops isn’t a bad thing. It used to be estate agents, and it’s impossible to have a nice sit down in one of those without someone trying to sell you a house. 

You can’t help  wonder how we survived perfectly well before this bizarre mania got hold of us. But they said that about dishwashers, tablet computing devices and Mr Whippy ice-cream. The modern world is exhausting. But at least there are plenty of places round here for a pick me up.


March 2013 - There was NO column in March 2013...
February 2013 - on turning 40
January 2013 - why January should be about headaches, mild depression and whisky
December 2012 - on doing more stand up comedy
November 2012 - on stopping doing weekday breakfast
October 2012 - on trying to engage brain and mouth on air
September 2012 - on my BBC microphone
August 2012 - on the Olympics
July 2012 - on being on holiday with three small children
June 2012 - on joining a gym
May 2012 - on making live radio
April 2012 - on being ill

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