I have no office in Kilburn to call mine. There’s an open-‘plan’ one, which feels much more like a tragic accident than the outcome of any actual intentions, but I have no room with a door and all my books in where I can meet with students or read, write and think. After a handful of abortive attempts about seven years ago to hold office hours in the shared call-centre space, I gave up even pretending I could concentrate, or that 40-odd desk jockeys staring at screens, wearing headphones, and simultaneously milling around laughing raucously with each other right behind me all day were at all conducive to (for instance) conceptualising the complexities of a heteronormative media industry with a questioning/transgender student in the throes of dissertation panic. All of our roles in that room are necessary, and they exist in a beautiful symbiotic dance – a dance that I perform by working mostly at home and in cafés.

If I have nothing scheduled till the afternoon I’ll usually stop off at Owen’s in Muswell Hill, a couple of hundred yards up the road from my daughter’s nursery and on my way back home to the flat. There are two tables at which I can plug in my laptop – in the front by the window or next to the toilet. I get to choose between workstations, as I’m generally half an hour earlier than the screaming horde of mothers and toddlers who descend at exactly 9.20. The window seat is best, as it’s just far enough from the preferred centre table of the large French lady who expends great physical energy adjusting all of the furniture and scraping it gratingly across the floorboards, repeatedly dumping hard-bottomed bags on the table then making a half-dozen Skype calls to clients, wearing earbuds and shouting into the mic she holds up millimetres from her lips. The coffee here’s good, and the cups nice and heavy like that green, Methodist Church china but handmade. The chocolate brownie is to die for – two might mean to die from – but it’s really tough not to give in, especially since the custard tarts, while conceived with the best of intentions, are overwhelmed by over-ambition, folding in far too much blueberry confit. The male staff are unusually upbeat for bearded straight men in their 30s, but the women (all younger) seem disgruntled. The exception is Mrs. G. (the only older lady), whose kids I taught music ten years ago and who shows me photos of them, grown-up, on her phone. She’s lovely and smiley and seems pleased to serve me. I have to try harder to look busy when she’s on, as otherwise she pops over again and again. The wifi here’s super-fast, and the mushrooms-and-poached-eggs-on-toast, while pricey, is utterly fantastic.

When I teach in the mornings, leaving me the afternoons to write, I have to choose between a handful of Kilburn Cafés. Caffè Milan has long been my top choice. It was opened in late 2011 by an Ethiopian man called Solomon, employing a small team of charming but disorientated Brazilian and North African waiting and sales staff who knew just a handful of words in English. Solomon is warm and kind, and was there every day for the first year of business. His son, Matty, was about to begin nursery, and would run around the place in afternoons, drawing just enough attention to himself to be cute and just little enough to remain so. The place serves cheap, strong coffee, and hot Ethiopian food to those who know how to ask for it. This tempting and presumably delectable fare is not advertised inside or outside the café, though, so I have yet to remember or to pluck up the courage to ask for any of the mysterious grub. I swear one day I’ll do it, because it always smells incredible, and every time someone orders it I feel like the stupidest, whitest man in the world. The music here is bizarre. The playlist reflects an unquenchable taste for Kenny G, and includes a near-infinite string of ambient, trancy quasi-jazz tunes occasionally interspersed with epic 80s power ballads. Combined with the near-total bewilderment of the staff every time I asked for a drink, and their diligent inability to stock up on bog roll or towels for the men’s toilet, ‘Milan’ provides the perfect ambience of an office for the nomadic teacher-scholar after lunch. The place is poorly heated too, at a temperature that keeps me alert enough to stay focused, but not so chilly that my fingers go numb.

My favourite spot to be hunker down here is a table out of sight from the street – as you walk down the length of the place the room expands to the right behind the wall where the coffee machine resides. A table against the wall, right by the double electrical socket, keeps me undisturbed by colleague and student passers-by, and means anyone meeting me here for tuition has to really commit to seeking me out. A couple of years into my tenancy at the hidden table, Solomon unashamedly papered the wall with brick-effect floor-to-ceiling paper. It was a bizarre decision that warmed up and weirded the feel of the space. The TV screen in the back is, conveniently, permanently frozen, unlike at the front where that one plays European football and CNN loudly all day as the staff let in suppliers, customers, heavy Kilburn traffic noise and a permanently chilly draft. The place remains under-frequented until the evenings when intimidatingly confident groups of ex-pat Ethiopian men sit down to shout and laugh at the telly.

Caffè Milan is next door to popular restaurant, Nona, thus oft overlooked by those who prefer the faux-Italian pretentions of Serbian hustler, “Alex”, whose local wheelings and dealings include surprise ownership of, and apparent parking privileges for, a sporty, high-end Mercedes saloon. Alex also allegedly likes to pay staff massively below the legal minimum wage and to retain a “deposit” of one third of their wages that they can receive back from him after six months of continuous service. He also owns Small and Beautiful, a café 100 yards north from Nona which is neither of the things in its name but whose coffee and waitresses broadly match these descriptors. S&B is the site of many meetings with academic colleagues when we succumb to the frequent need to meet in a less stuffy and stifling environment than in school, and to experience the thrill of risking students and the public overhearing our confidential discussions. This place advertises bottles of Champagne for up to £300 (maybe for the proprietors of the dodgy snooker club over the road, whose doors were once, and possibly still are, darkened by younger male students from my school who favour lunch with pool and Mary-Jane). It’s also one of a tiny handful of establishments in Kilburn to accept card payments. Nona’s chorizo and potato three-egg omelet is beguiling, especially when served with the house green salad. Both establishments feature as evening table decorations old wine bottles with many generations of expired candles’ wax billowing like Disney cartoon sails.

The warmest (unless some moron leaves the bloody door open) of my the cafés occupying the northern half of the High Road – excluding CoCo because the place doesn’t have wi-fi despite the excellent tea served in huge floral mugs by a man who looks like a light heavyweight boxer with the smile of a charming Mafioso – is Caffeine. It’s the only one that offers a loyalty card – I own but never ever bring one with me. The acoustics in this place are frustrating, and are the principal reason I don’t go here more. I can stay here for days on end, though, ideally at the round table by the window, which is the one with the stablest cast-iron legs, the best shielding of the breeze from the door, and the greatest distance from the excruciating coffee grinder. I swear that if I ever run a café I’ll put the grinder – and the ice-crusher too – in another fucking room to the customers; these machines only ever make people shout at each other when a spoken conversation was fine, and their unpredictability and endless capacity to grate nerves mean they can ruin any phone call, even before it has started. The place has a high turnover of staff, thanks mostly to the smooth-talking owner-manager who sips espressos at one of two tables, interviewing new staff every other week with condescension and a B5 spiral notepad. The main reasons I come back to this place are 1) unlike at Caffè Milan I have never seen a cockroach, 2) the ‘staff only’ sign on the toilet door is a hoax, 3) the carrot cake is pretty fucking amazing, 3) the latte is the best in a mile-and-a-half radius, 4) the hot-drink-and-cake-£3.50-deal is tempting to the point of mandatory, and 5) the regular white Americano, although small, is superb. Reasons to avoid Caffeine include the fact that I feel obliged nearly always to buy cake, and its position between the tube station and my college make me an open target for colleagues or students wanting a piece of me for any reason at all.

When I can be arsed to walk for ten minutes to West Hampstead, there’s the new-ish café there in St James church. Kitted out after they closed the Post Office, the Sherriff Centre café offers insane chocolate and Guinness cake, but in this cavernous space the children’s adventure soft play climbing frame makes for a disturbing writing environment at best (although the complementary water comes with cucumber). There is also Sweet Spot, down the road a little bit from Milan; they are mostly here for ice cream, though, so the coffee is only ok. Plus it’s kitted out like an American diner, which just feels inherently strange.

 

 

 

 

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