The Parliament Hill Café is a drab glass box at the bottom of Hampstead Heath, near the farmers’ market and the running track. But it is something else too. It is a paradigm.
The Corporation of London announced that the D’Auria family, who have run the café for 33 years, would not get a new contract; instead, it would go to a firm called Benugo. This has been reported as a fable with universal meaning, which it is; the café is Cinderella, or the frog, or Anna Karenina. Benugo is Karenin, or consumer capitalism, or the ball.
The north London intelligentsia organised a petition and a public meeting. Giles Coren added his voice, and I hope the gourmet inside him is ashamed of the other one. They talked about social value, which here I think is the inalienable right to subsidised spaghetti vongole; Benugo withdrew its bid; the café lives.
I was going to stay out of it. I am a Hampstead socialist; their tears are mine. I have not broken with Labour, not yet, although they make my fists itch. I have sat through Jeremy Corbyn’s impersonation of a supply teacher who has lost control of a classroom, and identity politics. But the misdiagnosis of the Parliament Hill Café as a subject for activism may be the final act. I could swallow the hypocrisy. I could not swallow the schnitzel.
Last week my husband took our son to the café. The meal took an hour to come. As my child wept, my husband reports that ‘a commissariat of activists were fed the choicest sweetmeats by fawning waitresses as if this were Stalin’s Russia’. He then played the scene in Oliver! where starving orphans watch the parish worthies eating capons. I remembered an awful cup of tea I had there with my father. They left the teabag in the cup and stacked the chairs on the tables. This being Hampstead, it was a cup of tea that might be important — might be in a novel, maybe a trilogy. I said I would investigate.
I take five children, for no adults in my circle are prepared — even as they curse Benugo, and profess undying love for the Parliament Hill Café, and weep at the very suggestion that professional caterers should be allowed to run a professional café — to eat there.
We order a lot of pasta; pasta with pesto, pasta with ragù, pasta with courgette. It is close to inedible but the staff, who are friendly, do not mind us flinging it over the floor or at each other; is this the social value? The café is a crèche disguised as a cause? How bored are we?
My chicken schnitzel is burnt. I could assassinate someone with it. It could be the schnitzel that kills a million men.
I do not think that ‘the oppressed’, who exist for the north London intelligentsia as a sort of roving myth, would tolerate it, for the food in Arthur’s Café, Dalston, is far better; in fact the food in almost every café is better. The left fought for this, I think, pulling strings of chicken from my teeth. What for?
Is it an imaginary — and therefore bogus — act of solidarity with those for whom a burnt schnitzel may be a genuine disappointment? A desire to self-immolate with schnitzel, for they feel guilty about their good luck but are unwilling to share it in more meaningful ways than ‘Let’s all eat burnt schnitzel’? (I file this as a possible campaign slogan for the 2020 general election.) Or has north London become a Sicilian village, where only the mayor’s brother-in-law is allowed to own a donkey? What is this but the fragile masochism of the left on holiday to skankiness? Oh, my broken comrades! Raise tattered flag up creaking pole. This is your hollowest victory yet.
Parliament Hill Café, London NW5 1QR, tel: 020 7485 6606.