At the moment, when I’m not working on a freelance job, I’m outlining and/or writing and/or procrastinating in a variety of locations across Cambridge. I try to keep my destinations random, not turning up at the same places on the same days each week. It’s harder than it seems: habits are easy to form, sneaking up on you when you’re not paying attention. The main advantage for me of a busy coffee shop or café over my desk at home is a feeling, however inaccurate, of sociability. The same four walls day in and day out, the same Doctor Who calendar travelling through time beside me — and no office chatter to break up the day — can sap the soul. Coffee shops at least provide an illusion of a social experience — sufficient to trick the relevant neurons.
These locations can also act as fertile marshlands of inspiration through their unpredictability. Someone walking past the window triggers an idea for a character trait. A snatch of music brings to mind a useful metaphor. Those habits our brains crave not only keep us in physical routines, they also lead us down well-worn mental paths, our thoughts cascading along the shortest route and blocking originality. And all it takes is a stray overheard word to send us stumbling somewhere new and exciting — like Dagenham, only new and exciting.
That’s the ideal: a state of mental flow, fingers rattling the keyboard or thumping the gorilla glass while the white noise of bustling conversation injects turbulence into the process. And it works well, until you find yourself in a near-empty room.
Silence isn’t so bad. What I can do without is a single, clear, unavoidable soundtrack. Something like a piece of music I know well — or worse, much worse, someone else’s interesting conversation. These bring all productivity to a steaming halt as I shudder out of the flow state into reality and the details of someone’s neighbours or bunions or drunken escapades, or an unlikely attempt by a young gentleman to woo a tattooed maiden by showing her his BCG scar (true story). Or I find I’m humming along to something cheery by Radiohead.
It’s not that I try to listen. I don’t. It’s that I can’t not listen. I simply cannot blot it out. (I can’t listen to music and write, so earphones are no use unless I play white noise through them — and I prefer human to artificial randomness.)
When someone booms every detail of a hospital stay across an otherwise mumbling café it is humanly impossible to fade them down and hike back to the zone. You hear everything, from diagnosis to discharge via discharge. With any luck it sparks an idea, but this is rare. My tactic is to endure it until the place becomes busy again, or the voices cutting through the general babble reduce volume a notch, or I outstay my welcome and move on.
You certainly hear plenty of secrets. People can be saucer-rattlingly indiscreet in a public place, as if their Americanos come with a free cone of silence. In Cambridge during term you hear a great deal of student angst and college politics: dating, committee gossip, excitement at the big two-oh, and the often coincident “I’m going to fail my exams” and “I have no idea what I want to do after graduation”. Sometimes people bounce between multiple languages, and my brain picks out tantalising half-sentences in English. Then there’s the ones in burgundy chinos humble-bragging about their family’s new villa in Umbria and how they’re going to spend the summer by the pool with a variety of local meats. With those I enjoy watching the others in the group carving out the social graph by the power of a glance.
Often in a coffee shop you find almost everyone else is doing the same as you. They’re all nursing pots of tea or quintuple espressos and glaring at the person closest to the power outlet, their faces lit by the devil-glow of Word or Excel or Facebook. You begin to recognise them. The Santiago Cabrera lookalike. The one with the nose. The one who only ever plays Solitaire on his PC, who’s on first-name terms with the staff despite their best efforts. We’re like a secret society: so secret none of us knows who else is a member, and we sit judging each other in mute fury. So terribly, terribly British. Then you look at your screen and the world fades away, and before you know it everyone around you has regenerated and it’s dark outside.
Or, as happened to me last year at the Cambridge Union Society coffee shop, everyone leaves — including the staff — and you’re locked in. This, I can confirm, is a tremendously productive period. But it’s not so great when your brain puts zero and zero together and you finally realise what’s happened.
And then you can’t raise any of the society staff by any of the published phone numbers.
And then you call the non-emergency 101 police phone number, explain your predicament to the poor man charged with answering the phones within thirty seconds for statistical purposes, and listen to him laugh as he forwards you to another number that just rings and rings since nobody is measuring those statistics. In my case, as I listened to the ringing and contemplated a cheeky freebie pint, I spotted someone through a window leaving a different part of the building. He saw me too — and alarm bells rang. Last out, so he thought, he’d armed the system. There was a deer-in-the-headlights moment, then he scurried back inside to press the buttons in reverse order.
He had to call one of the staff out from home to free me. This had never, apparently, happened before.
Locked in a coffee shop: that’s seriously in the zone.