Soho’s been buzzing for hours, Trafalgar Square’s already tourist-thronged and Charing Cross Road hums with traffic as I freewheel lazily down St Martin’s Lane, lock my battered yellow bike to a post and saunter across the street to Notes, a pleasantly airy café next door to the Coliseum. Three stubbly sexagenarians in open-necked shirts sit on the bench outside, bottles of beer in hand (though it’s probably just artisanal lemonade), a sight straight from a village square in the mezzogiorno. Before I can figure it out, Daniel Hahn swings round the corner from my right and Lawrence Schimel strides down the street to greet us.
We enter together.
Notes is the ideal place for a mid-morning meeting, as this eastern spur of the West End slowly stirs from slumber, yawns widely, stretches, and contemplates the possibility of rising before noon. They’re as deadly serious about their coffee as they are about the bulging demi-baguettes and basement music/movie store. I can’t vouch for the latter, but my mozzarella and basil stuffed croissant was pleasant enough, despite the whole concept being slightly bizarre – if you’re going to stick anything inside a croissant, then really it should just be more butter.
My cortado (a short milky coffee best described as a cross between macchiato and café au lait) was quite drinkable, though a tad too foamy. Still, my friend Darren will be pleased to hear that there’s at least one place in this unfair city that makes a decent attempt at a cortado and calls it as such. Darren spent a year and a half in Barcelona and returned quite unwilling to drink his coffee any other way. It’s been a year now, and the best all-round solution he’s managed to find is to order an espresso with hot unfrothed milk on the side. He also developed a sinful taste for cured porcine products, but that’s another story, and anyway I’m partly to blame for bringing him over to the dark side (where we “bad Jews” hang) by once convincing him (and myself) that lomo de cinta was anything other than pork tenderloin, despite my wielding a Catalan/French dictionary that very clearly gave the definition as échine de porc. In our defence, we were famished, having braved a death-defying descent of Pedraforca mountain in the Sierra del Cadi range of the Catalonian Pre-Pyrenees (the ascent itself was merely exhausting).
But I digress.
Daniel and Lawrence know pretty much everyone worth knowing in the discreet yet complex milieu of literary translation. So it’s like a meeting between the heads of two mafia families, the capi di tutti capi!
Looking at their youthful faces and casual attire, you wouldn’t guess that Daniel is a former Chair of the Translators’ Association and laureate of the 2007 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his translation from the Portuguese of José Eduardo Agualusa’s novel The Book of Chameleons, and it seems almost incongruous when Madrid-based Lawrence casually lets slip that he’s authored or edited over 100 books (and counting), only switching focus to translation a few years ago.
Daniel “lives” in Brighton, but seems to be perpetually on the road, and blessed with an energy and apparent scorn for sleep that makes me wonder if he might actually be from the future. His optimism is so infectious it should carry a health warning.
Lawrence’s obsession with the acquiring and reading of books (let alone their writing and publishing) seems almost pathological, yet he’s far from the owlish introvert of stereotype. He doesn’t present as bookish, is open and engaging, with a strangely relaxed intensity.
I think he may also be from the future.
They both laugh a lot.
I like that.
Time to head back to the bar for another cortado.
Poised against the counter stands a lithe figure dressed entirely in black, her clothes a concatenation of cuts and textures, from baggy to quilted to slashed, festooned with chains and ornaments, like a mash-up of Dietrich and a Gothic Harlequino, her face that of a picture perfect painted Dresden Doll, but you know they broke her mould back at the factory of coin-operated boys and girls.
It’s Wendy Bevan, artful Polaroid-manipulating fashion photographer, bewitching singer and figurehead of the band Temper Temper.
I first met Wendy when my old friend Harry, literary editor, writer, IT whiz, gardener, craftsman, banjo strummer and intellectual pain-in-the-arse called me up out of the blue about a ukulele he’d bought over the internet from a girl he described as arrière-garde, and would I mind nipping down to Soho to complete the transaction? The ukulele was a beaut, and Wendy fitted Harry’s label perfectly.
She lives just across the way, but I can’t work out if she’s going home after the night before, or heading out for new adventures. It’s clearly the latter, as she politely apologises for her inability to converse with me until she’s had her coffee. Turning away, she takes a big gulp from her cup, then sets it down on the window counter, leaving a big bold lipstick imprint on the side, comic-book style.
I feel ever so slightly like I’ve slipped into a different world.